Highlights and Events:
The 1996 looked promising as the first full season for MLB since 1993. The season started off, however, with tragedy as home plate umpire John McSherry collapsed and died in the first game of the year at Cincinnati. Marge Schott famously offended the Umpire’s union (and just about everyone else) by complaining that the game got cancelled. After running away with the division the year before, Schott had fired manager Davey Johnson. Call it karma, but the Reds – who seemingly had an even better team than the year before – finished .500 on the year.
One of the game’s favorite stars also didn’t start the season off where he expected. Kirby Puckett was wrapping up an excellent spring training and appeared ready for a stellar 13th season when he woke up unable to see out of right eye. He was diagnosed with glaucoma, and, sadly, was forced to retire early from the game in July.
Another future Hall-of-Famer also had his career end due to health reasons. Tommy LaSorda had a mild heart attack in June that forced him to retire from the game just short of 1,600 wins. One of LaSorda’s player came back from a health scare – Brett Butler missed 4 months out of the season for surgery from throat cancer, but returned on September 6th.
Ownership in St. Louis changed hands, as Anheuser-Busch sold the Cardinals to a group led by investor Bill De Witt, Jr.
Back to the field, a couple of neat things happened in the middle of May against the Mariners. First, Dwight Gooden, suspended for the entire 1995 season for continued cocaine use, bounced back to no-hit the M’s at Yankee Stadium on May 14th. 3 days later, Chris Hoiles did something that’s never been done before or since in MLB history. Down 3 runs with 2 out in the bottom of the 9th and the bases loaded in Baltimore, Hoiles worked a 3-2 count before hitting a walk-off home run – this is the only time this has ever happened in MLB history.
Al Leiter (3 days before Gooden) and Hideo Nomo also threw no-hitters in 1996. Nomo’s was in Coors Field of all places!
Baseball also had some first-time venues in 1996. The Oakland A’s actually opened the season in Las Vegas – construction to support the Raiders move back to Oakland went over and Oakland played their first 6 games at Cashman Field (they went 2-4). A planned neutral site affair occurred in August, when the Padres hosted the Mets for a 3-game series at Estadio Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico. Fernando Valenzuela was, fittingly, the winning pitcher in the first game ever outside of the U.S. or Canada.
The Olympics brought the annual amateur diversion from the game – and the United States team had more potential than any previous Olympic year. Unfortunately, the U.S. couldn’t get past Japan in the semifinals – despite clobbering them in the round robin play. Thus they didn’t get the chance to face off against Cuba, who beat Japan 13-9 in the finals behind 3 home runs from Cuban great Omar Linares. The U.S. did beat Nicaragua, 10-3, in the bronze medal game.
There were a bunch of milestones reached in 1996.
- Eddie Murray became the 15th (wow, how times have changed) player to hit 500 home runs. He hit the milestone home run at home at Camden Yards off Tiger pitcher Felipe Lira. Murray was the 3rd player to join both the 3,000 Hit and 500 HR clubs.
- After returning to his hometown Minnesota Twins, Paul Molitor joined Murray in the 3,000 Hit club. He is the only player whose 3,000th hit was a triple. He is also the only player to lead the league in hits the year he got his 3,000th hit – though Pete Rose led the National League in a season after collecting his entry to club 3,000.
- On a magical night on September 18th, Roger Clemens, nearing the end of his tenure with the Red Sox, tied his own record of 20 strikeouts in a 9-inning game. Clemens gave up 5 hits and never let a runner past 2nd base in the 4-0 shutout of Detroit at Tiger Stadium. The Rocket actually struck out 19 batters through 8 innings, and looked to have a shot at breaking the record, but he “gave up” 2 fly ball outs and a single to start the 9th. He then got Travis Fryman to strike out to end the game and tie the record.
- Barry Bonds stole his 40th base at the end of the season to join Jose Canseco as the second player with 40 homers and 40 steals in a season. A-Rod and Alfonso Soriano have since joined them.
- Brady Anderson hit his 50th home run of the year, becoming the first player with (separate) seasons of 50 homers and 50 stolen bases. Bonds has since joined him.
- Mark McGwire also passed the 50 home run barrier – in only 130 games. He led the majors with 52.
The season saw a continuation of the offensive explosion that had been building for a couple of years. American League runs per game peaked at 5.39 (up from 5.06 the year before and 4.29 as recently as 1989) – this was the 3rd most in league history and the most since the 1930’s. The National League had a similar, if not quite as exaggerated, increase. Fifteen players had 3-homer games – which at the time tied the all-time record for a season.
Ken Griffey Jr. was one of those players – he hit 49 home runs and knocked in 140 runners on the year. One of his more common RBI’s was a young Alex Rodriguez – in A-Rod’s first full year, he led the league with 141 runs scored, 54 doubles and a .358 batting average. Jay Buhner pounded 44 HR and 138 RBI, while Edgar Martinez added 26 homers and a .327 average. The Mariners had the best offense in baseball – scoring over 6 runs a game, or just under 1,000 on the season (993).
This wasn’t enough, though – staff ace Randy Johnson missed most of the season to a back injury and the Mariners were beat out by the Texas Rangers for the division title. Juan Gonzalez beat out Griffey for the MVP award by slugging 47 homers and 144 RBI. Texas had a lineup that was nearly as good as Seattle – but had a better starting staff, boasting 5 starters with double digit wins.
The Indians followed up their AL title with the best record in baseball for the 2nd straight year. Albert Belle followed up the only 50-homer, 50-double season in history with one nearly as good. He had 48 homers and 148 RBI. Jim Thome (38/116) and Manny Ramirez (33/112) solidified themselves as stars, and Kenny Lofton (210 H, 75 SB) was again a force at the leadoff position.
The Yankees made the postseason again, as well – this time, though, they won the division. George Steinbrenner fired manager Buck Showalter after he led the Yankees to their first playoff appearance in 14 years in 1995 – but suffered a disappointing walk-off playoff exit in the Division Series. Steinbrenner hired Joe Torre, who’d won the 1971 NL MVP and had been fired from 3 managerial jobs – the same 3 teams he’d suited up for as a player (Mets, Braves and Cardinals). Torre had seen some success as a manager; he’d taken the Braves to a Division title in 1983 and posted winning seasons in his 3 full seasons in St. Louis until being fired in the middle of 1995 for a poor record. But he was somewhat of a controversial hire and certainly didn’t have the name that he does now.
The Yankees had a balanced team that they’d augmented through free agent pickups and players built from the farm system. Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter – who won the Rookie of the Year award – were budding young stars. Paul O’Neill was again the team leader, and Wade Boggs had his last All-Star season. Tino Martinez, Joe Girardi and Mariano Duncan were all starters that were signed in the ’95/’96 offseason. Ruben Sierra, Darryl Strawberry, Tim Raines and Cecil Fielder were all recent veteran acquisitions who gave the lineup a fearsome look against righties and lefties. Any Pettitte nearly took home the Cy Young, leading a staff that featured Kenny Rogers, Jimmy Key, Gooden and David Cone. After signing Roberto Alomar and getting the benefit of Anderson’s “strange” 50-homer output, Baltimore finished 3 games behind the Bronx Bombers and captured the Wild Card.
Like the Indians in the AL, the Braves successfully defended the best record in the National League. This year, it was the third member of the Braves starting rotation who had the standout season. John Smoltz went 24-8 and wrestled away the NL Cy Young from 4-time defending winner Greg Maddux. As Tom Glavine had won it in 1991 – this trio of teammates had won the award in 6 straight seasons! In reality, Glavine and Maddux were just as good as Smoltz – all three had an ERA under 3, but Maddux and Glavine had a bunch of no-decisions in quality starts.
The Padres won the West behind Tony Gwynn’s 7th batting title and an MVP season from Ken Caminiti – though in my mind, Barry Bonds or Mike Piazza clearly deserved the award. The Dodgers were one game behind them after stellar seasons from their army of Rookie of the Year winners. When Todd Hollandsworth took home the award, it gave the Dodgers the last 5 winners of the Jackie Robinson award – 1996 stats below.
- 1996 ROY – Hollandsworth (.291/12/59)
- 1995 ROY – Hideo Nomo (16-11/3.19)
- 1994 ROY – Raul Mondesi (.297/24/88)
- 1993 ROY – Mike Piazza (.336/36/105)
- 1992 ROY Eric Karros (.260/34/111)
The Pads and Dodgers beat out the Rockies in the team’s 2nd year in Coors Field. But balls were still flying out in Denver! Colorado scored a run more per game than any other NL team (5.93). Unfortunately – they didn’t have a pitcher with an ERA under 4.90; games at Coors averaged 15 runs between both teams! The Rockies did post some impressive individual totals, though. After leading the league in batting a few years earlier, Andres Galarraga finished off the career triple crown by leading in homers (47) and RBI (150). With Ellis Burks and Vinny Castilla hitting 40 homers as well, the Rockies became the 2nd team with 3 players with 40+ home runs (Atlanta, 1973) – a feat they’d match the next season.
The final playoff spot came from the Cardinals, who snagged Ron Gant (30 HR) from my Reds in the offseason. Andy Benes was one of the better pitchers outside of Atlanta, winning 18 games to help them to 88 wins.
Best player in baseball was still an easy pick. Barry Bonds wasn’t the NL MVP, and while Caminiti was deserving, Bonds and Jeff Bagwell were certainly was in the argument. Bonds was still far ahead of any other player at this point. Griffey, Bagwell, Biggio, and Frank Thomas all were in the discussion behind him.
Like Bonds, Greg Maddux didn’t take home the hardware, but even though he didn’t defend his 4th straight Cy Young award, he had a season worthy of consideration for the award. He was still so far ahead of the pack as the best pitcher in baseball that it’s not even worth discussing someone else.
Read tomorrow for the postseason recap…