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!
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.)