'98 thrills unmatchable, but '99 not without promise

On Baseball

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

In the final hours of one of the most exciting regular seasons in history -- as the adrenalin rush from the heart-stopping home run chase begins to subside -- one question arises.

What does baseball do for an encore in 1999?

There is little chance that anyone will replicate the excitement that has been generated during the past couple of months by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. And little likelihood that the New York Yankees or any other team will run up more than 111 victories again soon.

This year will be one tough act to follow, but there are a few things to look forward to in 1999.

Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken may not have a consecutive-games streak to maintain, but he is well within range of his 3,000th career hit, which will set off another in a series of feel-good Ripken celebrations at Camden Yards.

Fellow future Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn also are expected to reach the 3,000-hit plateau next summer, creating another temporal oasis of baseball history.

Ripken needs 122 hits to add another important page to his impressive resume, and because he has never had fewer than 152 hits in a 162-game season, he figures to arrive at 3,000 in time for his 39th birthday in late August.

Gwynn and Boggs figure to arrive a little sooner. Gwynn needs 75 more hits and Boggs 78 to join the elite group of 21 players who have reached that milestone.

OK, so the steady drive of three of baseball's greatest living players isn't going to be as exciting as the unprecedented home run chase of 1998. That's a given. But 1999 will be another important year in baseball history one worth waiting for.

Inflated expectations

No one in his or her right mind could expect McGwire or Sosa to hit more than 60 home runs again, next year or any year. Heck, Babe Ruth only did it once.

But both will have to prepare themselves for the reaction that fans will have when they return to mortal numbers next season.

McGwire is a solid bet to hit 50 or more homers for the fourth consecutive year, but anything less is going to be considered a disappointing year.

Sosa figures to be a 40-homer, 120-RBI guy -- which would normally be considered a fantastic season -- but it will be a comedown from his once-in-a-lifetime performance in 1998.

It's important for the fans to keep all that in perspective, and important for both players to anticipate the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately nature of the sport, so that they don't become embittered by it.

Speaking of which

The guy who may find himself weighed down most by the expectations of the fans is Cubs phenom Kerry Wood, who struck out 233 batters in just 166 2/3 innings and will return in 1999 for what he hopes will be his first full major-league season.

Wood's rookie year was limited to 26 starts by a tired arm, but he still went 13-6 and ranked third in the league in strikeouts. He's a lock for National League Rookie of the Year and will go into next season as a solid Cy Young candidate.

In other words, he's being set up for a major fall. The arm problem apparently is not serious, but the durability of baseball's most promising pitcher remains in question.

Tempered expectations

The expansion Arizona Diamondbacks seemed genuinely proud of their 63rd victory on Tuesday night, a wild, 8-6 win over the Colorado Rockies that featured nine home runs.

Why? Because it guaranteed that they will not lose 100 games in their inaugural season.

"A few years from now, it won't be that big a deal to a lot of people, but it is now," manager Buck Showalter said.

"It's huge," added Travis Lee. "It's a big sigh of relief. It would stink to go 62-100."

Damaging endorsement

If Davey Johnson really likes Jim Bowden and thinks he is the best man for the Orioles' GM job, then you'd think he'd be smart enough to keep his mouth shut.

Johnson -- whose opinion probably doesn't carry a great deal of weight in the team's front office -- endorsed Bowden during a scouting visit to Riverfront Stadium, but warned that he might have trouble working for owner Peter Angelos.

It's more likely that Bowden will have trouble getting hired in Baltimore now that Angelos has reason to think he's allied with Johnson.

Rare pitching surplus

They've got them lined up on the runway in Atlanta, where the September performance of rookie starter Bruce Chen has created a pitching surplus that could leave them open to a deal for fifth starter Kevin Millwood.

Chen pitched a shutout last Sunday (albeit against the %o immensely blankable Diamondbacks) and went 2-0 in three late-season starts, prompting comparisons to veteran teammate Tom Glavine.

"He just locates," said Diamondbacks infielder Andy Fox. "He's almost, on a smaller scale, just like Glavine. Nothing overpowering, but you look up and you've got two hits off the guy.'

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