2004 MLB season in review

13 12 2015

There were some big offseason move before the 2004 season.  The AL East continued an arms race.  In November, the Diamondbacks sent pitcher Curt Schilling to Boston in an effort to go younger.  Boston also went hard after Alex Rodriguez, offering to send Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez and Jon Lester (then a prospect) in a 3-way deal that would net them A-Rod, Magglio Ordonez and Brandon McCarthy.  It looked like A-Rod and Jeter would increase a positional rivalry from within the biggest organizational rivalry in baseball.  They actually came to terms on the trade, with Rodriguez willing to take a significant paycut.  But the MLBPA nixed the deal and the trade was dead.

2004 Topps Kings of NY

Naturally, in stepped the Yankees.  ALCS hero Aaron Boone blew out his knee in January, and the Yankees were in immediate need of a third baseman.  Rodriguez was willing to move over to third base, and by mid-February, the Rangers had traded him to the Bronx for Alfonso Soriano.  Instead of a rivalry, A-Rod and Jeter were now playing on the same side of the same infield.  It would certainly make for an interesting AL East race, and, ultimately, a really interesting ALCS.  In slightly less publicized news, the Yankees also added Gary Sheffield to the mix to create a roster of some of the era’s best players.

The other big free agency news involved the NL Central.  After 9 seasons and 149 wins, Andy Pettitte left the Yankees to be closer to where he grew up.  Soon after that, his friend Roger Clemens was talked out of retirement, joining him in Houston when he signed a one-year deal in January.  This meant the 2 best pitchers of our time moved to pitch against my Reds – as Greg Maddux also joined the division.  He left the Braves after 11 years to sign back with his original team, the Chicago Cubs.

There were two new ballparks in 2003.  A month after Veterans Stadium had been demolished, the Phillies opened up Citizens Bank Park.  Again, my Cincinnati Reds were the opening opponent (counting their own stadium, they played in 4 openers in the early 2000’s – Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Cincy and Philly).  Randy Wolf threw the first pitch to D’Angelo Jimenez, who got the park’s first hit, a double, in that at bat.  Jimenez came around to score on a wild pitch, but Bobby Abreu came back in the bottom of the inning to tie the score with the park’s first home run.  The Reds won the game, 4-1, behind starter Paul Wilson.  The Phillies themselves were a promising young team – they won 86 games behind stellar seasons from Jim Thome (42 homers), Abreu (105 RBI), and Pat Burrell.  And though they didn’t make the playoffs, they also had a trio of youngsters in Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard who played in the majors for the first time.

Citizens Bank Park outside

The other park was Petco Park, which opened in the Gaslamp District of downtown San Diego.  The first baseball game there was actually played on March 11th, when Tony Gwynn’s San Diego State team beat Houston in the largest attended game in collegiate history.  The first MLB game was April 8th.  David Wells threw the first pitch, and got Ray Durham to fly out to center.  Brian Giles got the first hit, a single in the bottom of the first inning, and Kahlil Green scored the first run in the bottom of the 3rd.  The Padres ended up winning the game, 4-3 in 10 innings.  Like the Phillies, the Padres opened their new park with a promising season, but didn’t make the playoffs.  They won 87 games behind solid pitching in the new cavernous home park.

Entrance Petco 72904

The Olympics were back in 2004, though there was some controversy as the United States didn’t qualify.  They were the defending gold medalists, but lost a qualifier to Mexico that kept them out of the 8-team field.  Greece got an automatic bid as the host nation, meaning there were 3 European teams (including Italy and the Netherlands) compared to just 2 American teams (Cuba & Canada).  Cuba defeated Australia in the Gold Medal final.  Future MLB players of note who participated included

  • Wei-Yin Chen (Chinese Taipei)
  • Nick Markakis (Greece)
  • Kosuke Fukudome (Japan)
  • Hiroki Kuroda (Japan)
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka (Japan)
  • Koji Uehara (Japan)

2004 Olympics Greece

The St. Louis Cardinals were the class of the National League.  They lost their first 2 games, then lost only 55 more games en route to a Major League best 105 wins.  Albert Pujols showed himself as the best player in baseball not named Barry Bonds.  He followed up his 2003 batting title with a .331 batting average, 43 homers, 133 runs and 123 RBI.  Jim Edmonds (42 HR, 111 RBI), Scott Rolen (34, 124).  The pitching staff had 4 15-game winners, including a pleasant surprise from Chris Carpenter.  Carpenter came back from a career-threatening torn labrum to go 15-5.

Finishing just ahead of Pujols in the MVP voting was Adrian Beltre, who jumped onto the scene .  After being a solid hitter, but one who was known more for his defense at third base, Beltre knocked in 121 RBI and hit an NL-best 48 homers.  The deep team, still anchored by a stellar Eric Gagne closing games, won 93 games and the NL West title.

Bonds HR 684

Bonds HR 684

Speaking of MVP voting, Barry Bonds won his 4th straight MVP (7th overall), again posting historic numbers.  I saw him hit his 26th homer of the season at a game in Petco, and was actually taking a picture from the upper deck when he hit it.

He won his second batting title, hitting .362.  He was already the only player other than Babe Ruth with an 800+ slugging percentage, and he posted his second such season (.812).  But where he reached true new heights was in getting on base.  He already held every major record in this area, but in 2004 he set new marks in walks, intentional walks, OBP, and OPS.  Unfortunately, a bad start doomed the Giants’ chances.  They were 8 games under .500 at 16-24 on May 19th.  They were the best team in baseball from that point on, and tied the Astros for the Wild Card lead at 90-70 on October 1st.

The Giants lost their 2nd to last game, which was all Houston needed.  The Astros won their last 2 to go 92-70.  Though Pettitte was shut down with only 15 starts in his first season in Texas, Clemens would go 18-4 and extend his own record with his 7th Cy Young Award.  And just before the All-Star game, the team added Carlos Beltran to their trio killer B’s, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman.  Beltran was the catalyst they needed – he stole 28 bases and hit 23 homers in the 90 games he played for the Astros.

You could still write 2 playoff contenders in stone – the Braves and Yankees were going to win their division.  As late as June 25th, the Braves were actually 6 games under .500 and it looked like that streak was in jeopardy.  But they won 47 of their next 62 games to ice their 13th straight division title.  John Smoltz was the last of the Big 3 left in Atlanta; he saved 44 games was in his 3rd, and final, full season as the team’s converted closer.

With A-Rod joining the mix, the Yankees won their 8th straight division.  Sheffield and Rodriguez were the team’s best players, hitting 36 home runs apiece.  A-Rod didn’t miss a beat defensively in switching to third base.  Hideki Matsui followed up his stellar rookie campaign with a 31 homer season.  Derek Jeter was again one of the best shortstops in baseball, hitting 23 homers.  They won 101 games and held off Boston for the AL East title.

2004 Topps Update Francona Cabrera

Boston actually had the better team if you looked deeper.  They had a new manager, but the team was still excellent.  They won 98 games, scoring 947 runs behind Manny Ramirez (43 HR, 130 RBI) and David Ortiz (41 HR, 139 RBI) to lead all of baseball.  Schilling and Pedro Martinez were dominant, and they actually gave up the 2nd fewest earned runs in the the American League.  Defense was their achilles heel – they gave up the most unearned runs for any contending teams.  Their run differential was actually 90 runs better than the Yankees, despite winning 3 games less.  They couldn’t overcome a hot start by New York.

Theo Epstein shook up the roster a bit at the trade deadline, trading fan favorite shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs.  He got Orlando Cabrera, who was the inferior offensive shortstop.  But he was better defensively and they also got Doug Mientkiewicz as a defensive upgrade at first base.  Along with another trade for speedster Dave Roberts, this shift in philosophy would prove very important in the 2004 playoffs.

The Twins won their 3rd straight AL Central division title.  They were again led by the best defensive outifeld in baseball (Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Lew Ford), and an overall deep team.  Their trade of Mientkiewicz allowed them to give time at first base to young hitter Justin Morneau.  And, of course, they had the AL Cy Young winner, Johan Santana, who went 20-6 and led the league in ERA and strikeouts.

The Angels bounced back after missing the 2003 playoffs to take the AL West.  They were led by their own free agent acquisition, Vladimir Guerrero.  Vlad hit 39 homers, led the AL with 124 runs, and took the MVP home.

Outside of the playoff teams and Barry Bonds, Ichiro Suzuki had the most notable season.  In my opinion, he actually deserved the MVP award.  He had a paltry April, ending the month with an average of .255.  From that point on, he hit .392 and racked up 236 hits in the final 138 games.  He finished with 262 hits, breaking the 84-year old record of George Sisler.  That was a record I thought would never be broken!  He won the AL batting title, which was amazingly the last batting championship of his career.

Sammy Sosa was closer toward the end of his career.  After the Cubs finished a disappointing year by missing the playoffs, Sosa left the clubhouse before the finish of the game on the last day of the season.  He would never play for the Cubs again, and the franchise and its fans and their franchise home run leader have not been on good terms since.

There was another bitter parting at the end of the 2004 season.  On September 29th, MLB announced an expected decision to move the Expos from Montreal to Washington, D.C.  That day, the last MLB regular season game was played at Stade Olympique.

Montreal Stade Olympique

Here are milestones and achievements from 2004:

  • Of course the final MVP season of Barry Bonds’ career was where you can find the most records and achievements.  Bonds walked 232 times, shattering the previous record he held; this is the only time a player has walked over 200 times.  More incredible were his 120 intentional passes – this nearly doubled his previous record of 68.
  • All of this led to the only season where a player has had an OBP over .600; Bonds’ .609 clip passed his own record by 37 points.  His OPS as 1.422 – that’s the only season over 1.400.
  • In April, Bonds passed his Willie Mays for 3rd on the all-time HR list with his 661st blast.  In September, he became the 3rd player with 700 homers when he connected off the Padres’ Jake Peavy.
  • Bonds not only set the single season walks record in 2004.  On July 4th, he passed Rickey Henderson for the career record when he drew walk #2,191 off Oakland’s Chad Bradford.
  • Griffey 500Just 8 days earlier, Bonds had passed another milestone with his 2,000th run scored.  Naturally, he got on base via a walk – in the 5th inning in a game against Oakland.  He moved to second on a wild pitch and scored on an Edgardo Alfonzo single.
  • Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 500th home run at Busch Stadium on father’s day.  Senior was in attendance.  Unfortunately, injury limited him to only one more homer that season.
  • Sammy Sosa made his way up the home run charts as well, passing Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew to end the season 7th on the all-time list.
  • Rafael Palmeiro also moved up the list, passing Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle and Schmidt to finish the season at 10th on the career list.
  • 2004 Topps Update Greg MadduxOn the pitching side, Greg Maddux became the 22nd pitcher to win 300 games defeating the Giants, 8-4, on August 7th.
  • Roger Clemens kept pace ahead of Maddux on the all-time victory list.  He passed Tom Seaver, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan and Eddie Plank to finish the season with 328 wins.  That was good for 10th on the list.
  • Clemens also passed Steve Carlton on the all-time strikeout list, with only Nolan Ryan ahead of him at that point.
  • Randy Johnson was just behind Carlton by the end of the season.  He led the league in strikeouts for the final time in his career, punching out 290 batters.  That included his 4,000th K, striking out Jeff Cirillo to join Ryan, Clemens and Carlton on that prestigious milestone.
  • Earlier in the year, on May 18th, the Big Unit hurled the 17th perfect game in baseball history, blanking the Braves 2-0.  At nearly 41, he is still the oldest player to throw a perfect game.
  • On consecutive days April, Yankee pitchers Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown won their 200th game.
  • Eric Gagne finally blew a save on July 5th, ending his record streak of 84 straight converted saves.
  • As mentioned, Ichiro’s 262 hits broke George Sisler’s record of 257 from 1920.  He posted his 4th straight 200-hit season to start his career, breaking the record of 3 he shared with Lloyd Waner and Johnny Pesky.
  • Albert Pujols set a similar mark, becoming the first player in history to start his career with 4 seasons of 30+ home runs.
  • Adam Dunn struck out 195 times, breaking Bobby Bonds long-standing record of 189.  Dunn’s record would not last nearly as long as Bonds – Ryan Howard would eclipse it 3 years later.
  • Dunn had a more positive notable achievement that year.  On August 10th he hit the longest ball in the history of Great American Ballpark (and probably in all of Cincinnati baseball history).  Dunn’s shot left the stadium in center field and rolled into the Ohio River.  Since that’s part of Kentucky, it’s unofficially the only ball in baseball history to land in a different state.

This was again, for one last time, a 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 A-Rod and Albert Pujols would (again) have been great choices in any other time frame.  Bonds’ 2004 season was the final of his 4 straight MVPs.

Pitcher was, again, a little bit tougher.  After being the easy choice for a few years, Randy Johnson was hurt for a large part of 2003.  I still gave him the nod at that point, and he bounced back to have one last great season.  Roger Clemens won the NL Cy Young, but the Big Unit actually deserved it.  Only Johan Santana had a better season, and not by much.  So I have to keep Johnson as the best pitcher as of the end of 2004, as well.  Curt Schilling was a close second, with Pedro Martinez and Tim Hudson also in the mix.

Read my next post for the postseason recap…

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