A Look Back – 1997

Longtime reader/poster Bells had what I thought was a phenomenal suggestion idea for a post here, in which we could pick a season and dive in. I decided to pick what was probably the first season I would really say I was a “baseball fan.” So let’s look back at 1997, and PLEASE feel free to add as much commentary and as many memories as you can!

1997 At-A-Glance:
World Series – Florida Marlins over Cleveland Indians (4-3)
Awards:
AL MVP – Ken Griffey, Jr.
NL MVP – Larry Walker
AL Cy Young – Roger Clemens
NL Cy Young – Pedro Martinez

A little personal history. I turned 10 in 1996. But it was as a 9-year-old boy that I truly discovered my love of watching sports. Sure, I had been to baseball games before (a Brewers-A’s game in 1992 comes to mind as my first, among a few others). But my love of sports fully blossomed watching the first complete sporting event I ever saw on television: the Green Bay Packers getting beat by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1995 NFC Championship Game. There was so much buzz about the Packers before that game that I couldn’t help but want to watch. After that game, I was completely hooked.

This is significant because I spent that next football offseason absolutely devouring books about football. Then came the 1996 football season. Green Bay fielded one of the greatest teams in the history of professional football (seriously – the Simple Rating System on pro-football-reference.com rates them at a 15.3, tied as the 8th-best team of the Super Bowl era, and 3rd-best among Super Bowl winners, behind only Washington in ’91 and Chicago in ’85; and those Packers certainly had worse injury luck than any of the teams ranked above them; at one point, they lost both opening-day starting wideouts, and their top tight end and still led the league in scoring offense, scoring defense, defensive yardage, and special teams scoring – 4 touchdowns for and 0 against). When that season came to an end, I no longer had to learn absolutely everything about football; I’d done that already. So it was on to something new.

And thus it came to pass that I really invested in baseball for the first time. I daresay, I may have been the most perfect possible age to have grown up a baseball fan and discover it as a ten-year-old. Within my first couple years of following the sport, I got to see arguably the greatest crop of individual pitchers in history – Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling (and dare I say Kevin Brown?!) – at the height of their powers. I got to see the greatest home run chase of all-time, the coolest baseball player in history, and the sport’s greatest player. And all of that was taking place in the greatest (or second-greatest) era of offense of all-time. It was a great time to grow up in the sport. But I want to start with the highlights of 1997.

I want to spotlight the weirdness of 1997, which I hope can inspire some discussion. I’ll begin with the biggest story of baseball in 1997. If it doesn’t immediately jump to mind what it is, then you and I remember that season differently. Because the biggest story of the year happened before a single game had even been played. In the biggest rule-change since the advent of the DH in 1973, prior to the season, it was announced that interleague play would exist in the regular season, for the first time ever! Now we’re at nearly a quarter-century of interleague play (fun fact: if/when an interleague game is played this year, there will be the same number of seasons in which there was a DH rule with no interleague games, as seasons of the DH rule with interleague play; in other words, the DH has been around a long time – and, at this point, so has interleague play). It seemed like there would never come a time when interleague was “normal” – yet now, it’s hard to picture MLB without it – not least of which because there is an odd number of teams in each league.

The emblematic player of the great interleague experiment was a player more synonymous with the subsequent year. Mark McGwire actually led the majors in homers with 58 – and became the first (and to date only) player in history to lead MLB in home runs without leading either league. McGwire also played in what could be considered a “full season” for the first time since 1991. It was in ’92 that he started hitting homers more than once per 10 AB, so it was apparent that the HR record was going to fall. In the second half, as a Cardinal, McGwire homered at a 77-HR pace… after leading the AL at the time of the trade.

But on to the junior circuit. This was my beloved Brewers’ final season in the AL, perhaps a less important thing for wider baseball fans, but it was an awfully big deal in Milwaukee. As I recall, the Royals had first dibs on whether to be the ones to switch leagues, but they declined, and it fell to Milwaukee, becoming the first team to ever do so (obviously now followed by the Astros).

The American League had some good stories. Baltimore never trailed in the division race against the defending-champ Yankees (who did end up the Wild Card). Although they only won the division race by two games, Baltimore’s 180 consecutive days in first place was (still is?) the all-time record, and one of the very, very few wire-to-wire division championships in the history of MLB. Cleveland and Seattle were the other division winners. This also stands out at the one and only season in which the Yankees were not AL Champs in the six-year period of 1996-2001.

In individual awards, there are two interesting things happen. For one, sandwiched between two MVP wins by Juan Gonzalez came the signature season of Ken Griffey, Jr. This was the second in a 9-year run of MVPs for the AL West, a particularly bizarre feature of a division which, for most of that period, had fewer teams than every other division! Anyway, Griffey’s 56 HR came at a torrid rate at the beginning of the season. Through 52 games, for example, Griffey had 24 HR – a 75 homer pace! He was still on pace for 61 through the end of June, previewing the home run mania that was to come in ’98. The batting title went to Frank Thomas. Thomas in his 20s was as good a hitter as baseball has ever seen. Look at his numbers, 1991-1997 sometime, if you’ve never really pored over them before – he was basically Ted Williams. Thomas posted a few good seasons as an older player, but ’97 was his last hurrah.

The Cy Young went to Roger Clemens. By Baseball-Reference WAR, Roger Clemens’ 1997 season was the third-best season since the start of World War ONE (Doc Gooden ’85 and Steve Carlton ’72 are the only better ones); Fangraphs rates him fourth in that time (Carlton ’72, Bob Gibson ’68, and, surprisingly, Bert Blyleven ’73). For what it’s worth, my own WAR system ranks him third behind Carlton and Gibson. However you slice it, Clemens’ 222 ERA+ (15th since 1900) and league-leading innings total were a remarkable season, the first of back-to-back AL pitching Triple Crowns.

Over in the NL, the Braves were the league’s best team… not that being the best ever got them anything. The Wild Card Marlins became the fastest expansion team in baseball to win a title (in their fifth season – soon to be surpassed by the ’01 Diamondbacks). They were led by Gary Sheffield (having one of his worst seasons from 1992-2007), Moises Alou, and Bobby Bonilla on offense and one of the great all-time defensive centerfielders Devon White on defense… and a pretty strong pitching staff that included Kevin Brown, Alex Fernandez, Al Leiter, Rick Helling, Rob Nen, and – memorably, if you remember this particular World Series (and the umpiring therein – a very young Livan Hernandez. Other than Livan, of course, you don’t think of any of these guys as Marlins… probably because of all those aforementioned players, literally ZERO of them were on the final-day roster of the 1998 Marlins (Fernandez was injured all ’98, Sheff and Bonilla were midseason trades, and none of the rest were even on the roster on Opening Day of ’98). The team was rounded out pretty well, too: Mr. Marlin Jeff Conine, Charles Johnson, Luis Castillo, and postseason hero Edgar Renteria. That’s eight current, former, or future All-Stars in the starting lineup, plus other useful players and All-Stars like Craig Counsell, Cliff Floyd, Jim Eisenreich, Darren Daulton, and Gregg Zaun on the bench. Honestly, this was looked at (at the time) as a flukey title, but we shouldn’t be surprised this team won it all; it’s an excellent roster. The issue is that many of these players had yet to break out, so it seemed more random at the time than it looks on the other side of things, I think. From this side of things, you can’t help but think of what could’ve been, had they kept the band together.

Anyway, among individuals, Pedro arrived as one of the best pitchers in the game, winning his first Cy Young with a miniscule 1.90 ERA and a WHIP below 1.000 for the Expos. You remembered that Pedro was an Expo, right? And the MVP was HHS favorite Larry Walker – who, I will remind you, was so good in 1997 that while he hit .384/.460/.709 at home in Colorado, he hit an even better .346/.443/.733 on the road. In other individual news, Barry Bonds went 40/40 in ’96, and nearly repeated in ’97, but came up three SB short. 1997 was the first season in the 1990s in which Bonds did not lead the NL in WAR. He had a “pitiful” 8.2 WAR. He would, however, go on to top the league in 1998, a year in which a couple other mashers stole all the headlines. Please remember: 1990s Barry Bonds was actually better than you remember, if that seems possible, and was also probably ALREADY the greatest player of all-time.

Sorry this post is so long – I just can’t help myself. I literally left out dozens of things I thought of, but hopefully we can have some good baseball discussion in these days of COVID-19. Thanks for reading, everyone, and I look forward to anyone who has any 1997 memories (or insights) to share! (Also, I’m happy to write more such posts, if someone wants to give me an idea… just know that there will be fewer personal anecdotes if you pick a season prior to ’97. But then again, maybe that’s a reason to pick an earlier season.)

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Paul E
Paul E
5 months ago

Larry Who?

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
5 months ago

The 1984 Tigers were in first place for 181 consecutive days. For the first 3 days they were tied for first.

Doug
Editor
5 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

According to this article by Will Leitch, the ’84 Tigers are one of 5 teams to be in first place every day of the season (meaning, evidently, in 1st alone or tied for 1st). The others are: – 1927 Yankees – tied on 4 days, last Apr 30 (game 15) – 1955 Dodgers – B-R has the Dodgers behind by half a game after each of their first two games. But, they won both of those games, so think you have to give them a virtual tie (as Leitch has done). They were also tied after game 3, but were… Read more »

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
5 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Aha, right you are about consecutive days in first for the 2019 Twins. But total days, I think they’re still tops.

As for the Leitch article, it’s not that he “missed” the ’97 O’s. He was only including wire-to-wire winners who actually also won the World Series – so truly ALWAYS in first, even to the end of the postseason!

Another obvious wire-to-wire winner: the 2001 Mariners, with 190 consecutive days in first. That must ACTUALLY be the most, including the final 186 days alone in first.

Paul E
Paul E
5 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Doom,
“He was only including wire-to-wire winners who actually also won the World Series – so truly ALWAYS in first, even to the end of the postseason!”

Actually, the 1955 World Series saw the NYY take a 2-0 lead over the Dodgers…the other three teams swept their opponents in the WS but the Pirates took the first game of the NLCS in 1990 and the Angels won Game 1 of the ALCS in 2005. So, technically, the 1927 Yankees were the only time that was never behind

Doug
Editor
5 months ago

The ’97 Orioles went wire-to-wire with a team averaging 31.8 years old. Among position players, they had a grand total of 38 PA from players aged 25 or younger, and fewer than 200 IP from pitchers that young. Excepting strike-shortened seasons, only the 1952 Indians (finished 2nd), 2002 Red Sox (2nd) and 2004 Yankees (1st) had lower totals in both of those splits. One of the Orioles’ greybeards was 35 year-old Eric Davis, who posted his first .300 season, albeit in only 176 PA. But, the next season, he posted a qualified .327 BA, the oldest player to post a… Read more »

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
5 months ago

1923 Giants led the league from start to finish, April 17 to October 7 (all regular season games). They were tied for first on opening day only)

Doug
Doug
5 months ago

Walker won the MVP for a team with lots of offense but very mediocre pitching which, of course, translated into a mediocre finish. Over at Baseball Musings, they have an RBI Percentage calculator going back to the 1974 season. A few of those ’97 Rockies make the top 25 for the best career RBI percentage (% of runners on base driven in, min. 2000 ROB) over that period: Dante Bichette (1st), Larry Walker (11th) and Andres Galarraga (25th). Active players include Nolan Arenado (2nd), Jose Abreu (4th), Miguel Cabrera (7th) and Ryan Braun (16th).

Doug
Doug
5 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

As you point out in your post, Walker actually had higher OPS away from home in ’97. But, not in ’99, when he was a ridiculous 1.410 at home, and “only” .894 on the road. It was one of only six seasons in the 1990s with 30 HR and fewer than 60 whiffs. There have been only 14 such seasons since, 8 of them by Bonds and Pujols, and none since 2014 (there were 112 such seasons before 1990).

Paul E
Paul E
5 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Doom, Doug, RE: Larry Walker For the 1999 season, 27 other qualified batters equaled or exceeded Larry’s road slash of .286/.375/.519 For the 1999 season, the Colorado Rf’er created 22.157 runs/game at the high elevation corn field and a more pedestrian 6.86 RC/game on the road. I believe the math is correct – even using the simplified formula of RC = OBA x Total Bases. Actually, probably even greater disparity since he stole 9 bases in 11 attempts at home and wasn’t nearly as succesful (nor aggressive) on the road (2/4). For just a little perspective, George Herman “Babe” Ruth… Read more »

Kazzy
Kazzy
5 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

You said Colorado has been home to 5 “slash’ Triple Crowns but I only see 2: Walker in 1999 and Helton in 2000. What am I missing?

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
5 months ago
Reply to  Kazzy

I wrote “Colorado” twice; the first time is supposed to be “Boston.”

Kazzy
Kazzy
5 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Got it! Thanks.

Ted Williams was routinely robbed of the MVP. He led the league in WAR 6 times and has “only” two MVPs to show for it. He accounts for three of the seasons on the list.

Doug
Doug
5 months ago

What I remember from the ’97 season is Ken Griffey chasing Roger Maris’s HR record. It was a big deal in Seattle, my closest team. And I remember the World Series, with the Marlins winning three games that they trailed after 5 innings.

Tom Ra
Tom Ra
5 months ago

What I remember about 1997 was feeling that Piazza was robbed. A catcher hitting .362/40/124, or .362/.431/.638. In LA, where the park factor was 93, as opposed to 122 in Denver. Down the stretch, when the Dodgers were fighting for the division, he raked — .406/8/27. A mid-September 5-game losing streak in 1997 changed the course of Dodger history, plunging the team into a decade+ Dark Age. Had LA not been swept in back-to-back mid-September series by SF and Colorado, maybe enough of the 22 voters who voted Walker first/Piazza second would have switched their votes. LA wouldn’t have fared… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
5 months ago
Reply to  Tom Ra

Tom Ra,
Thanks for the history lesson. Yes, it’s amazing to think about not just the catalyst but the disaster that follows. What’s even crazier is the fact that probably just about every franchise (across every pro sport) has had a similar type of pivot at some point in their history and some sort of descent into mediocrity that soon followed.
I’m from the Philadelphia area. In my lifetime, the following have been traded away by management:
Wilt Chamberlain, Chet Walker,
Bob Brown (HoF OT), Sonny Jurgensen,
Ferguson Jenkins, Dick Allen, Eric Lindros……

Doug
Doug
5 months ago
Reply to  Tom Ra

Good points, Tom.

Piazza led the majors in ’97 with his 185 OPS+ (Walker was next at 178), and his 201 hits as a catcher are second only to Joe Torre’s 203 in 1970 (Torre, though, played every game by splitting his time about 55/45 between catcher and third base; Piazza had 16 off days plus 7 inter-league games as DH).

Doug
Doug
5 months ago

Some other thoughts on the ’97 season, from a pitching perspective. – The Blue Jays, with Roger Clemens and Pat Hengten, were the last team with a pair of pitchers logging 9 CG and 3 SHO. Or if you prefer, the Expos, with Pedro and Carlos Perez, were the last team with a pair logging 8 CG and 4 SO. – As a team, the Expos were the last to log 25 CG, as they and the Braves both reached 20 CG and 10 SHO. The Braves would do 20/10 again in ’98, but no team has done it since.… Read more »

Doug
Doug
5 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

It was actually Mark Gubicza and Bret Saberhagen in 1988 who were the last teammates with 260 IP before Clemens/Hentgen. The last threesome was Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez and Jim Palmer on the 1978 Orioles, while a foursome hasn’t been seen since Donovan, Killian, Mullin and Siever on the 1907 Tigers. The next season, in 1998, Schilling became the last pitcher with 15 CG, and the last qualified pitcher with as many CG as both wins and losses. The latter accomplishment was the first in 10 years (Bobby Witt in 1988), but one which had been fairly common not long… Read more »

Bells
Bells
5 months ago

Hey Doom, late to the party of this thread (and I’m doing my annual 10 weeks of remote work off-grid so I’m generally not around much), but just wanted to say that’s awesome to see that you were excited by that suggestion and took it up! Was great to read, hopefully there are more of these threads sometime, especially when I’m in more internet contact this summer.

Kazzy
Kazzy
5 months ago

I was 14 in 1997. I remember watching Game 7 of the World Series and getting sleepy. Cleveland held the lead late in the game. I remember going to bed thinking, “Good for Cleveland. They deserve a World Series win.” They’d been very good for a few years at that point and Florida was just some podunk expansion team, as far as I was concerned.

Wooo boy, was I surprised the next morning.