By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Just weeks after wrapping up The Last Dance, Michael Jordan’s tribute to Michael Jordan, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series took the DeLorean back to the late 90’s last night with Long Gone Summer, a recounting of MLB’s historic summer of 1998.
The home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was the number one story in the number one sport (more on that later) that year. It deserved its own documentary. But perhaps the greatest summer in baseball history had plenty of other reasons why. And some of them happened right here in Boston.
When the guitar and percussion of Jeff Tweedy’s documentary score fell silent, I went down to the basement. From a milk crate full of clippings only a hoarder or sports fanatic (or both) would retain for decades, I unfurled the yellowed Boston Globe sports section dated Monday, September 28, 1998. A blocky McGwire takes up most of the front page, grimacing as he blasts Number 70 to the moon.
To the left is a column headed with all caps: “A SEASON TO REMEMBER.”
Kerry Wood struck out 20 and looked like the next Roger Clemens. A hungover David Wells threw a perfect game. Cal Ripken’s consecutive game streak came to an end. Oh, and Clemens, now toiling in Toronto, won the pitching triple crown for the second year in a row. Nobody had done that since Sandy Koufax.
Did I mention it’s Week 4 of the NFL season? “Football Monday” starts on D10.
The interceding pages fill the reader in on everything that was going on. That was another great thing about ’98: everyone was watching McGwire and Sosa, but so many cities had their own subplots.
In the NL, Sosa and Wood’s Cubs were set to play a one-game playoff against San Francisco. The Mets, chasing a playoff spot for the first time in a decade, lost their fifth in a row to miss out on the fun. St. Louis had the McGwire drama. Atlanta won for the 106th time.
In the AL, the Yankees beat the Devil Rays to put a bow on one of the greatest regular seasons of all-time before cutting a lawnmower path to the World Series title. Bernie Williams got two hits to win the batting crown with a .339 mark.
And in Boston, Mo Vaughn clubbed his 40th homer but finished just behind Williams at .337.
The 1998 Red Sox had no business in Long Gone Summer. The doc that proclaimed the Cardinals and Cubs as the greatest rivalry in baseball spoke not a word of Boston nor their 114-win tormentors from New York.
Baseball-Reference shows the ’98 Sox were a Wild Card team that got thumped by Cleveland in four games of the LDS.
But it was a pivotal season in franchise history. And it was fun.
Most of that is owed to Pedro Martinez. Despite the hitting exploits of Vaughn (.315, 35 home runs) and rookie sensation Nomar Garciaparra (.306, 30 dingers), the ’97 Sox had finished fourth in the AL East, 20 games behind the Orioles. With Clemens north of the border following an infamous game of contractual chicken, GM Dan Duquette relinquished his top pitching prospects to pry the wiry right-hander from the Expos, immediately signing the 26-year old to a then-lavish six-year, $75 million contract.
On April 20, 1998, a current Red Sox player appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated for just the third time that decade (the others were Vaughn, winner of the 1995 AL MVP award, and Clemens). It was Pedro, eyes laser-focused beneath the shadow of his navy cap with its bright red “B,” his scowl the last thing the camera and opposing hitter saw before the bottom fell out of that all-world changeup.
Pedro won 19 games in his Boston debut, each one of his 15 Fenway starts a veritable rock concert. Tom Gordon set a club record with 46 saves. Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe, pilfered from the Mariners the summer before, made their first significant contributions to the franchise for which they would eventually win a World Series. Garciaparra finished second in the MVP voting. A rejuvenated Bret Saberhagen won 15 games. Tim Wakefield won 17.
Through it all, there was Vaughn, a pending free agent, just absolutely mashing. Amid a protracted contract standoff with management, Vaughn capped a scintillating ninth inning comeback in the Fenway opener with a walk-off grand slam. On this unseasonably warm autumn afternoon, the last of the regular season, he received multiple ovations from the home crowd.
As Nick Cafardo’s game story relates, when Vaughn swatted a Mike Mussina fastball into the right field seats, the gap between he and Williams was imperceptible to four places beyond the decimal point.
Then Joe Torre sat Bernie, 2-for-2 on the day, in the sixth inning in the Bronx to preserve his lead.
I was a high school sophomore volunteering at an event with my headphones on and wanted to chuck my AM/FM cassette player into Cape Cod Bay.
The most recognizable Red Sox player of the decade left Boston that November.
Page D7 includes two blocks of text, one in English and one in Spanish, profiling local Dominican business owners and their reactions to Sosa’s exploits. To the right is a small advertisement: “Mark McGuire (sic) Rookie Card and Sammy Sosa Rookies,” with a phone number.
As we learned in Jack of All Trades – another baseball documentary, this one focused on trading cards – there can be too much of a good thing. Baseball has a lot of problems today, not the least of which is apathy. The obliteration of the record books got old; years of speculation and interrogation over performance enhancing drugs left us exhausted. Through it all, owners and players continued to serve themselves at the expense of fans.
Those McGwire and Sosa rookie cards aren’t worth anywhere near what they were selling for in ’98.
People have moved on. From McGwire and Sosa. From baseball cards. The Red Sox and Vaughn moved on.
The franchise won four World Series titles in 15 years, and that life-and-death commitment to the team moved on.
Long Gone Summer may not have blinked an eye at Pedro, Mo, and the ‘98 Red Sox. But I’ve got a place in my heart for those trading cards; a place in my basement for that old newspaper. It was a hell of a summer.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can find him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.