Chicago Cubs: Going back two decades to the historic 1998 season

Mandatory Credit: Vincent Laforet /Allsport
Mandatory Credit: Vincent Laforet /Allsport /

The 1998 Chicago Cubs marked the high point in a decade of mediocre baseball on the North Side. Let’s take a trip back to that historic summer.

First and foremost, 1998 marked the Summer of Sammy. The Chicago Cubs outfielder battled Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. in a dramatic home run chase in pursuit of baseball’s all-time single-season home run record.

All summer, Sosa and McGwire were locked in a battle to beat Roger Maris‘ single-season mark. I  was in law school and I and a classmate, who is a huge Orioles fan, marveled that not one but two players were vying for the title.  We pondered the possibilities – 37 years after Maris and no one had gotten close and now two were on track to do it.

Our conclusion was more lively baseballs.  After all, 1998 was a prodigious year for home run hitters.  Sluggers tagged pitchers that year for a record 5,064 long balls.  Little did we know that it wasn’t the baseballs that were juiced..

An underrated piece of the team

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In his tenth year as a Cub, Mark Grace was one of the few holdovers from the 1989 season.  He was having yet another standout season. The first baseman finished with a .301/.401/.471 slash line. He hit a career-high 17 homers in 1998. Looking back, that seems merely human by today’s standards.

Kid K makes a strong first impression

Rookie of the Year. The May 6 20-strikeout game. It was a summer of highlights for Texas-born right-hander Kerry Wood. The young fireballer put up a 13-6 record with a 3.40 ERA, 1.212 WHIP and 3.16 FIP.

The top of the Chicago rotation appeared set for the foreseeable future.

But the powers that be dealt Wood a different hand than most were hoping for. He turned in career seasons in both 2001 and 2003. But injuries, attributed to overuse early in his career, cost him dearly.

The story ended far too soon.  But to this day, Cubs fans appreciate his grit and dedication to the team, if not his rumored destruction of a certain teammate’s boom box.

A very different front office

Andy McPhail served as President of Baseball Operations.  Ed Lynch handled the general manager duties and little known Jim Hendy served as the scouting director.  McPhail is now in the same role with the Phillies. Lynch scouts for the Toronto Blue Jays. Of course, Hendry headed to New York as a special assistant for GM Brian Cashman.

Looking back fondly

This team rose from the depths of four years of dismal seasons that followed their last winning season and nine years after their last playoff appearance.  The Cubs clinched the wild card spot after a one-game playoff against the Giants, but that’s as far as it went.

The Braves swept the Cubs three games to none in a series that saw Chicago bats stymied.  It would be another five years of mostly mediocre baseball before a return to the postseason in 2003.

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Twenty years later, the Cubs are under new ownership with a front office with a plan for building sustained success. We no longer experience a phoenix-like rise, burn, rise again pattern that dominated Cubs efforts going back to 1984. Instead, we’re in the midst of three consecutive NLCS appearance and one World Series win.

Three playoff appearances in three years. Now, that’s a feat that at one time took from 1984 to 1998 to accomplish. Oh, how the times have changed.