2003 MLB season in review

2 10 2015

One of the most notable 2003 offseason moves involved a front office executive instead of a player.  The Red Sox made headlines with their General Manager search.  After Billy Beane turned down their offer, they hired 28-year old Theo Epstein as the youngest GM in MLB history.  After signing Steve Woodard and claiming Ryan Rupe off waivers, Epstein signed a player older than he was when he resigned Willie Banks (who they eventually cut).  The rest, as they say, has become history.  This still blows my mind today.  When I was 28, I got promoted to manager in a Big 4 accounting firm.  About 25% of people who start in public accounting make it that far, and I stayed on for quite a bit longer.  So it’s something I was very proud of at the time (and now) – but to be the GM of one of the most storied franchises in all of sports would not have been in most of our wildest dreams.  He’s certainly made the most of it, after 2 World Series in Boston, Theo has moved on to break the next (and I’d argue more challenging) baseball curse.

Theo Epstein 2002

The most impactful signing of Theo’s entire tenure came in January of 2003.  He signed David Ortiz away from the Twins for a moderate $1.25 million.  It didn’t seem like a big move at the time, but Ortiz became an instant star with the Red Sox.  Aramis Ramirez (Cubs) and Chris Carpenter (Cardinals) were other signings that didn’t seem as big at the time, but turned out to be great additions for their respective teams.  The moves that made more headlines in the 2003 offseason were when:

  • the Marlins signed Pudge Rodriguez to a one-year deal that paved the way for the team’s 2nd world title,
  • the Phillies signed slugger Jim Thome away from Cleveland
  • Houston signed Jeff Kent away from the Giants to join their already potent lineup.
  • the Yankees signed Hideki Matsui from Japan.

2003 Topps Traded Thome Kent Aramis

2003 Topps Traded Ortiz Pudge Carpenter

There was one new ballpark in 2003.  My hometown Reds opened up Great American Ballpark in hopes that Ken Griffey Jr. would bounce back from injury-plagued 2001 and 2002 seasons.  Griffey did notch the first hit at GABP, doubling to right field.  This robbed Sean Casey of the chance to have 3 “ballpark first hits” after doing so in both Milwaukee and Pittsburgh two years earlier.  Griffey’s double was about the only good news for the Reds that day, as the Reds lost, 10-1.  By the end of the year, Griffey was hurt again and the Reds had failed to win 70 games.

Tall Stacks GABP 63004

That was the only new ballpark, but the Montreal Expos did have a new home park for some of their games.  They played 22 of their home games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The team averaged 14,000 fans at those games – an increase over the 12,000 in Montreal.  Montreal had a good team with youngsters Jose Vidro, Javy Vazquez and Wil Cordero hailing from Puerto Rico.

Hiram-Bithorn-stadium Expos

2 ballparks closed down at the conclusion of the 2003 season.  The Padres played their last game at Qualcomm Stadium, though it is still in use by the NFL’s Chargers (for at least one more year, anyway).  Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia didn’t have as much time left; it was demolished in March 2004.  The final athletic event at the Vet was a Phillies 5-2 loss, fittingly to the Atlanta Braves.

The two dominant teams from the 1990’s were still hanging on at the end of their reign in 2003.  The Braves and Yankees tied for the best record in baseball, winning 101 games each.  For the Yankees, this was their 7th division title in 8 years; for Atlanta, it was their 12th straight.

Toward the end of that run, the Braves were actually carried by their hitting.  Chipper and Andruw Jones had their typical seasons of around 30 homers and 100+ RBI, but Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez really thrived in contract seasons in 2003.  In his 2nd season with the Braves, Sheffield smashed 39 homers with 132 RBI, while Lopez had the best season of his career with 43 homers and 109 RBI.  Both were top 5 in the league MVP voting.  Tom Glavine had left for the Mets in 2003, but the Braves still had Greg Maddux anchoring their rotation.  Russ Ortiz won 21 games and Mike Hampton was solid with 14 wins.  John Smoltz was still in the closer role, and posted a dominant 1.12 ERA in his best season in the bullpen.

The Yankees continued to dominate with a balanced hitting attack and a balance of top-5 hitting and pitching.  Jason Giambi (41 homers and an AL-best 129 walks), Alfonso Soriano (2nd straight 30-30 season) and Derek Jeter led the offensive production.  Catcher Jorge Posada had his best season, with 30 homers, 101 RBI and a solid job catching the Yankees staff.  Mike Mussina, David Wells, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte all won between 15-21 games, and Mariano Rivera was as dominant as ever.

Barry Bonds led the Giants to wrestling away the NL West title from the Diamondbacks.  They finished with 100 wins, and the same 61 losses as the Yankees and Braves.  Bonds had his most pedestrian season of his 2001-2004 MVP stretch, but he still posted a whopping .529 OBP to go with a .749 Gagne 2003slugging percentage.  Jason Schmidt went 17-5 for the Giants to earn second place in the Cy Young voting behind NL West rival Eric Gagne.  Gagne couldn’t lead the Dodgers to the postseason, but did turn in one of the greatest seasons ever by a closer.  He converted all 55 of his save opportunities, posting a 1.20 ERA and a WHIP under 0.70.

Sosa corked batThe Cubs outlasted the Astros and Cardinals in a close NL Central race.  Nearing the end of his productivity, Sammy Sosa cracked the 40-homer barrier for the 7th (and final) time in 8 years.  His 2003 season will be remembered, however, for getting nailed with a corked bat.  Free agent acquisitions Moises Alou, Mark Grudzielanek and Kenny Lofton also helped keep the team’s offense at a respectable level.  But the pitching was the backbone of the Cubs.  Mark Prior went 18-6 to finish 3rd in the Cy Young voting.  Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement all pitched over 200 innings for the Cubbies, and they looked poised to succeed the Braves of the 1990’s as baseball’s dominant staff.

The Marlins took the Wild Card rounded out the NL postseason qualifiers behind a young rotation of their own.  “Pudge” Rodriguez was the team MVP, bringing maturity to starters Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and Carl Pavano.  Florida got solid offensive contribution from Derrek Lee, Mike Lowell, Juan Pierre and June call-up Miguel Cabrera.

The Red Sox were the Wild Card in the American League, with Pedro Martinez leading the AL in ERA for the 4th time in 5 years.  Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez put together their typical gaudy offensive numbers, but the Sox’ offensive was the real story with a MLB best 932 runs.  All 9 starting hitters had at least 50 extra base hits, which I’d be willing to bet is a record of some sort.  Big Papi came in as the spark plug to the team, knocking 31 homers and 101 RBI in the DH spot.

The Twins and the A’s repeated to round out the other AL division championships.  Moneyball was alive and well behind Oakland’s formidable top 3 in Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder.  Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez led a solid and affordable, offense.  Minnesota also spent its limited budget well, with a balanced team.  The Twins actually had a losing record at the end of July, but they converted Johan Santana to a full-time starter for the final 2+ months of the season.  Santana didn’t lose a game in August or September, and the Twins finished 39-18 to take the division.

The 2003 season featured a new twist to the All-Star game.  For the 70th anniversary of the game, MLB went back to the White Sox park.  To combat complaints of the previous season’s 7-7 tie, baseball awarded home field advantage for the World Series to the winner of the game.  The game was close, and the AL touched up Dodger reliever Eric Gagne for the loss.  He gave up a 2-run lead in the 8th inning, blowing a save in the midsummer classic during the year he converted all of his regular season chances.

The last thing for this post is to go over a few milestones and achievements:

  • Kevin Millwood (April 27 vs the Giants).  He walked 3 batters, but amazingly got Barry Bonds out all 3 times he came up.  Bonds was sitting on deck for the last out of the 1-0 game.
  • The Astros threw a combined no-hitter on June 11th against the Yankees.  The 6 pitchers used is a record for a no-no.  Injury forced Roy Oswalt to leave the game after one inning.  Then Pete Munro, Kirk Saarloos, Brad Lidge and Octavio Dotel handed it off to Billy Wagner to complete the job.
  • Two days after his team was no-hit, Roger Clemens became the 21st pitcher to win 300 games.
  • Sammy Sosa became the 18th member of the 500 home run club when he went deep off of Reds reliever Scott Sullivan on April 4th.  Slammin’ Sammy passed 8 Hall of Famers on the all-time list in 2003 (Eddie Murray, Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks, Ted Williams, Willie McCovey, Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Mantle).
  • Rafael Palmeiro joined Sosa with his 500th home run on May 11th.  Palmeiro settled just behind Foxx at the end of the 2003 campaign.
  • Already the only member of the 400-400 club, Barry Bonds put himself in further rarefied air on June 23rd.  He stole the 500th base of his career to create the 500-500 club.  At this point, the only members of the 300-300 club were Bonds, his father Bobby, his godfather Willie Mays, and Andre Dawson.  Steve Finley, Reggie Sanders, A-Rod and Carlos Beltran have since joined, but the list should stay at 8 for the foreseeable future.
  • Bonds earned his 2,000th walk in 2003, joining Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Rickey Henderson in that exclusive group.
  • In one of the few seasons his team didn’t make the playoffs, Tony LaRussa notched his 2,000th victory as a manager on September 10th.
  • The Tigers had the unfortunate distinction of breaking the AL record with 119 losses.  They won 5 of their last 6 and their last 2 games to avoid setting the MLB record held by the 1962 Mets.
  • As mentioned, Eric Gagne saved 55 games without blowing a single save.  The 55 saves tied Smoltz’s NL record from the year before, and it’s the most saves without a blemish in a single season.  He also became the first pitcher with multiple 50-save seasons.  Gagne is one of only 7 pitchers with 50+ innings to post a WHIP under 0.7 (at the time he and Dennis Eckersley were the only pitchers to have done so).  He did, however, blow an exhibition save that season.  And they say the All-Star game counts!
  • Gagne’s 2003 season was in the middle of a record 84 straight conversions.  He broke Tom Gordon’s record with his 55th straight save (47th of 2003) on September 2nd in a win over Houston.
  • Javy Lopez hit 42 of his 43 homers as a catcher, which broke Todd Hundley’s MLB record of 41 set in 1996.
  • Alex Rodriguez became the 2nd player to win the MVP for a last place team, joining Andre Dawson of the 1987 Cubs with that distinction.
  • The Braves became the 2nd team to lead a game off with 3 homers on May 28, joining the 1987 Padres when Rafael Furcal, Mark DeRosa and Gary Sheffield went deep in Great American Smallpark.
  • On June 27th the Red Sox had an even more incredible first inning a month later.  They scored 10 runs before the first out of the game was recorded, an MLB record.  Johnny Damon tied another record with 3 hits in an inning.  Amazingly, it came against the eventual World Champion Marlins and their #2 starter, Carl Pavano.
  • A month after that, eventual batting champ Bill Mueller hit 2 grand slams from opposite sides of the plate, becoming the first player to do that in the same game.
  • Carlos Delgado became the 15th player to hit 4 homers in one game on September 25th against the Devil Rays.

This was another really easy season to pick the best player in the game.  Of course, Barry Bonds was tops by a large margin as the best player, though Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols would have been great choices in any other time frame.  Bonds’ 2003 season was probably the worst of his 4 straight MVPs, but he was so far ahead of everyone else.  His 3-year win share total from 2001-2003 is the second highest total in history.

Pitcher becomes a little bit tougher.  Randy Johnson won his 4th straight Cy Young award in 2002, but was then hurt for a large part of 2003.  He was also not very good in the 18 starts he did have that year.  The thing is, he was very far ahead of the field at the end of 2002.  Pedro Martinez was a clear second at the end of 2002, and he had an excellent 2003 campaign, but it wasn’t like his previous dominance of 1997-2000 when he also logged a ton of innings.  Curt Schilling was also a little behind Pedro, but he was hurt in 2003 as well.  So I think I’d still leave the Big Unit number 1, with Pedro, Schilling and Tim Hudson still a bit behind him.

Read my next post for the postseason recap…




2 responses

3 10 2015

Great recap! I really enjoy the time and effort you put into these. Thank you!

3 10 2015


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