Baseball 2020 and “Summer of ’98”

WrigleyFieldToday, at long last, we will have a baseball post here. With the delay of the 2020 Major League Baseball (MLB) season because of the coronavirus pandemic, my interest in baseball was waning quickly. Summer life just wasn’t the same (due to many other things pandemic related too, of course) and I didn’t want to find an annual book on baseball to read either. Golf was on my weekly schedule (usually with my 87-year old dad, who still plays well!), and I was grateful to have that interest and involvement at least.

But then the MLB commissioner, owners, and players saved the season, a 60-game schedule was adopted, and at the end of July baseball sprang to life – a little late and a little short and with fan-less ball parks – but at least it was here again. And my beloved Chicago Cubs roared out of the gate – with great starting pitching (we won’t talk about the bullpen just yet) and timely hitting from their batting order of stars, they have climbed to 13-3 – their best start since 1907! Yay! Go Cubbies! Could we have a repeat of 2016 and have another world champion team?!

Summer-of-98-LupicaAnd with that revived baseball season and renewed interest, I also found my 2020 summer baseball read (once again, in a local thrift store) – Summer of ’98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America by Mike Lupica (Contemporary Books, 1999). This is a great retelling of the season of 1998, when monster home-run hitters Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Ken Griffey, Jr. all chased Roger Maris’ 1961 record of 61 homers in a season (Babe Ruth had held the record of 60, hit in 1927, until Maris came along and hit one more than that).

I remember the season well, in part because I had just spent 8 years in the Chicago area, where I fell in love with the Cubbies, and also because two Cubs players would figure prominently in that season – the above-mentioned Sammy Sosa, and 20-year old rookie Kerry Wood (who would strike out 20 batters in a single game in his first MLB season – his fifth game, no less!).

So now I have the summer-of-2020 pleasure of watching and listening to ball games again, and reading my new book, a portion of which I share with you here. By, the way, this book is also a great story of how fathers and sons come to love and share the game, another gift my father gave to me (thanks, Dad, for letting me play Little League baseball in Georgetown back in the 60s and for all those late-night Tiger games in old Tiger stadium – what great memories we have!).

Because no matter how old you are or how much you have seen, sports is still about memory and imagination. Never more than during the baseball summer of ’98, when baseball made everyone feel like a kid again, when it felt important again.

…For one magic season, everybody’s eyes would be full of the sky.

I never thought I would have a better baseball season than the one I had in ’61, not just because of the home runs, but because of what I thought was the best Yankee team I would ever see in my life [The author is also re-living his own experience of watching the 1961 season and Maris breaking Ruth’s record.]. Now I saw more home runs, and a better Yankee team.

It was McGwire and Sosa and Ken Griffey, Jr., at least until McGwire and Sosa pulled away from him the way Maris had pulled away from Mantle once. It was a strikeout pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, a twenty-year-old named Kerry Wood who would strike out 20 batters in a game.

David Wells of the Yankees would pitch a perfect game for the Yankees in May, the first perfect game in Yankee Stadium since Don Larsen in the World Series of 1956.

…You couldn’t make up a season like this.

Sosa would join the home-run chase in June, when he hit 20 home runs in the month, another record in the home-run summer. Now this wasn’t just about an American-born home-run hero like McGwire, but one from the Dominican Republic, too.

…McGwire and Sosa hit. Kerry Wood threw. Cal Ripkin, Jr., finally took a day off, after sixteen years. He was thirty-eight the night he did it. Tony Gwynn was also thirty-eight in the baseball season of ’98, and would have sat down himself because of aching knees and a ruined Achilles tendon, but Gywnn was limping toward one more World Series, his first since he was a baseball kid in 1984.

…You always hope this will be your year [Cubs’ fans know that very well!]. You always hope this year will be better than last year. That has always made old men young in baseball (pp.10-11).

Indeed, what a season that was. But now there’s the summer of ’20. Did I mention the Cubs are 13-3? 🙂

Published in: on August 14, 2020 at 6:35 AM  Leave a Comment