'98 season makes mark Baseball: Mark McGwire's 62nd homer was the signature moment of a season that was truly one for the record books.

September 27, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Every great season has its signature moment. Bobby Thomson hit the "Shot Heard Round the World" in 1951. Roger Maris eclipsed Babe Ruth in the final regular-season game of 1961. Cal Ripken took an emotional victory lap in 1995.

Mark McGwire provided the magic moment of 1998 when he hit %% his 62nd home run on Sept. 8 to break Maris' 37-year-old single-season record, but the true magnitude of the regular season that ends today is reflected in the number of subplots that played out in the shadow of the unprecedented home run duel between McGwire and fellow record-chaser Sammy Sosa:

The New York Yankees recovered from a faltering start to become the winningest team in American League history.

Ripken brought an end to the longest consecutive-games streak in baseball history, finally sitting down last Sunday after playing in 2,632 games in a row.

Rookie Kerry Wood turned in perhaps the greatest single pitching performance in baseball history, throwing a one-hit shutout and striking out a record-tying 20 Houston Astros in his fifth major-league start.

Left-hander David Wells pitched the first regular-season perfect

game in Yankees history.

Rickey Henderson proved that life in the fast lane doesn't end at 39, becoming the oldest player in history to lead the league in stolen bases.

Barry Bonds created the 400-400 club: the first player to reach 400 home runs and 400 steals in a career.

It was, to say the least, an unusually eventful year, and the postseason still holds the prospect for tremendous drama and excitement.

"I'm something of a baseball history buff," said baseball commissioner Bud Selig. "As a kid growing up, I remember the magnificence of the summer of '49 when the Yankees and Red Sox went down to the last day and the 1951 season with Bobby Thomson. I think 1998 will be a year that people will remember for generations to come."

And why not? McGwire shattered the single-season homer mark with nearly three weeks remaining in the season and then continued the tit-for-tat home run derby with Sosa that may not be decided until the final out of the regular-season finale of each club today.

To find the last time two players put together performances of similar historic magnitude in the same season, you have to go all the way back to 1941, when Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games and Ted Williams became the last major-leaguer to finish the season batting above .400.

There will be room for some rationalization, of course. The home run mark fell in the wake of Major League Baseball's second two-team expansion in six years -- at a time when the pool of big-league pitching talent is particularly shallow. But the season has also featured a couple of the most outstanding pitching performances in history.

Wood's early start in the major leagues may bear some loose connection to expansion, but he certainly did not look like a symbol of the game's pitching decline when he delivered his remarkable performance against the Astros. Roger Clemens had struck out 20 batters in a game twice previously, but in neither case limited the opposing club to one hit.

It was astonishing, and it was no fluke. Wood, who neither started nor finished the season in the major-league rotation, went on to win 13 games and rank third in the National League with 233 strikeouts.

Wells became the toast of New York when he pitched a perfect game on May 17, the first perfect game by a Yankee since Don Larsen pitched one in the 1956 World Series. Wells and Larsen, as luck would have it, both went to the same San Diego high school (Point Loma). What are the odds?

Clemens didn't get lost in the superstar shuffle. He got off to a slow start, but has a 15-game winning streak and an excellent chance to join Greg Maddux as the only pitchers ever to win five Cy Young Awards.

Maybe expansion did accentuate the talents of baseball's biggest stars, because so many of them had career years.

Texas Rangers outfielder Juan Gonzalez hit triple figures in RBIs before the All-Star break and stayed on pace to challenge Hack Wilson's single-season record (190) well into the second half.

Seattle Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez became only the third player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season.

San Diego Padres pitcher Trevor Hoffman emerged as baseball's best closer, entering the final weekend with a major-league-leading 52 saves and a chance to show up on some MVP ballots.

Still, the focus remained largely on the dramatic, multi-player run at the home run record. McGwire led the way and was the first to eclipse Maris' record, but Sosa caught up with him at 65 on Wednesday and both hit their 66th on Friday. Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey -- who had dueled with McGwire in 1997 -- dropped back, but still joined the dynamic duo to give baseball three 50-homer guys in the same season for the first time.

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