Readers of this site will know that I’m (more or less) taking the year off from rooting for my beloved San Diego Padres because of a recent team decision to cut ties with a Hall-of-Fame player for no good reason and generally try to suck as much as possible. It’s basically like the first 20 minutes of Major League in San Diego these days, only they’re not going to get any better…ever. Phillips is doing it too, but his “year off” is still more attentive than the average fan. He’s just detailed like that. He’s even worse about USC football **cough** front-runner **cough**. Love ya, buddy.
Anyway, as much as I love following baseball in general, I’m missing the joy that is following one team for an entire season. There hasn’t been a whole lot to be happy about as a Padres fan even before this last debacle of an offseason, and I miss that blind, insane love/violence that my favorite team in the entire world can inspire. So I’m going back and re-visiting the highest point the Padres have reached in my adult life (they made the Series in 1984 too, but I was four years old): the 1998 National League Champion San Diego Padres.
What I found was that this team had very little business in the World Series, though the teams they beat (Randy Johnson and the Astros in the Divisional Round, Braves in the NLCS) weren’t any more deserving. The Astros did win 102 games to win the NL Central and the Braves won 106 to win the East, making the Padres the low division winner, but their rosters aren’t any more impressive. On a side note, the defending champion Marlins finished 52 games out of first place, since they had just had the fire sale to end all fire sales.This was definitely a Padres team only a fan of theirs could love, flaws and all. And there were huge flaws. There were really only a couple of guys putting up amazing numbers and everyone else was pretty damn mediocre.
Thing is, they’re also a relic of the last days of pre-PED testing baseball. There were definitely guys on steroids on this team, as there were on pretty much every team at the time. That wasn’t the only reason statistics were inflated, however. Coors Field was still Coors Field back then, so Larry Walker, Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla were the murderer’s row of National League hitting. Hell, Bichette had 219 hits in 1998. Dante fucking Bichette had 219 hits. And yet this Padres team did it with pitching, defense, and timely hitting in the height of the steroids/rocket ball era.
Then again, that could easily have been because Bruce Bochy hates hitting and wants all of his players to fail at the plate. Seriously, the guy doesn’t know a damn thing about offense and every team of his sucks accordingly. The 1997 Padres set all kinds of team offensive records, and if you take the time to check out the position players’ yearly stats, you’ll see that team didn’t make the playoffs even though practically everyone had a career year. Naturally, Bruce Bochy couldn’t win with a team that could hit. He needed all pitching and mediocre offense to truly bring a team to life. Follow the teams he’s managed some time. The guy literally hates offense. Probably because he himself couldn’t hit.
You’ll also notice a bunch of the regular guys played a ton of games, but didn’t get all that many at-bats because Bochy just LOVES to jerk the lineup around, taking guys out, pinch hitting, starting random fucking bench guys for no reason, changing the hitting order. The guy is a menace.
So here are the key players of the 1998 Padres, if nothing else for the sake of nostalgia…and also utter shock that they won 98 games with that level of production from the lineup. But seriously, only two regulars were at or near .300, and there was only one guy who had over 100 RBI (a couple touched 80 and a couple more were in the 60’s). This truly was a team that got contributions from everyone on different days, even Jim Leyritz. It was a perfect team that doesn’t look all that perfect on paper.
So without further ado, the major contributors to the 98-64 San Diego Padres. (After the jump)
C – Carlos Hernandez
1998 stats: .262 AVG/9 HR/52 RBI/.305 OBP/34 R/.674 OPS/54 K/16 BB/15 2B
These statistics are so insanely above Hernandez’s career averages, I can’t believe he lasted ten seasons in the bigs. This is one player who absolutely contributed more off the field and defensively than he ever could have even hoped at the plate. You’ll see this as a trend with this team. Naturally, Bochy loved him.
1B – Wally Joyner
1998 stats: .298 AVG/12 HR/80 RBI/.370 OBP/58 R/.823 OPS/44 K/51 BB/30 2B
I loved everything about Wally Joyner as a player and person except that you knew he wasn’t going to hit a home run even though he was usually hitting behind Greg Vaughn or Ken Caminiti. That said, the guy was a hell of a hitter and that OPS (which didn’t exist at the time) and doubles output is something I’d take all the time if the Padres didn’t have Adrian Gonzalez. But damn, Wally, take a pitch and walk once in a while.
2B – Quilvio Veras
1998 stats: .267 AVG/6 HR/45 RBI/.373 OBP/79 R/.729 OPS/78 K/84 BB/24 2B
And this was the leadoff guy! Veras was the essence of mediocrity for his entire career, and yet he was undoubtedly the cog that made this machine go. He should have scored a hell of a lot more than 79 runs, though.
3B – Ken Caminiti
1998 stats: .252 AVG/29 HR/82 RBI/.353 OBP/87 R/.862 OPS/108 K/71 BB/29 2B
Caminiti was the (Snickers steroid-assisted) MVP of the 1996 season in which he put up monster numbers. You know, the kind of season Albert Pujols has EVERY YEAR **cough**. But in 1998, he wasn’t exactly at his MVP best. He was often injured that season, and obviously praised for his guttiness and overall manliness. In hindsight, he was on a shitload of steroids and was carrying way too much muscle for his frame which is what caused all the injuries, but at the time, Cammy was one of the most feared hitters in the game. Then again, the huge drop in production in 1998 from the previous two years is a pretty good indicator this wasn’t his best season.
SS – Chris Gomez
1998 stats: .267 AVG/4 HR/39 RBI/.346 OBP/55 R/.725 OPS/87 K/51 BB/32 2B
I can tell you my favorite Chris Gomez story for the second time ever on this site. Like to hear it? Here it goes: It’s June 1, 1998. Phillips, his friends Bobby and Mike and I were at “the Q” to watch the Padres take on the goddamn fucking Cardinals who always eliminated us from the playoffs in the last game of a four-gamer.
McGwire had his his 26th and 27th home runs in games one and two of the series, but didn’t go yard in game three, so we figured he was due. I’d see Sammy Sosa hit number 63 later that September too, but we wanted one from McGwire. Ironically, Gary Gaetti was playing for this Cardinals team and that Cubs team I’d see later in the season too. That’s right, Gary Gaetti.
Anyway, Gomez (always hitting seventh or eighth) comes up in the second inning. As he’s getting into the batter’s box, Bobby, loudly so the entire section can hear him, says “Gomez? Guy’s a bum.” Gomez promptly homers to tie the game at one and we all die laughing at Bobby and cheer wildly for the light-hitting Gomez. As Gomez rounds the bases Bobby still maintains that sucks and that he’s only playing because he has (what would turn out to be) the highest fielding percentage in the history of baseball.
It’s now 2-1 St. Louis in the bottom of the fourth…and here comes Gomez again, getting a solid cheer from the fans, who feel like proud parents of the kid in Little League who clearly sucks, but inadvertently wins a game for his team. We still need a win and/or a McGwire homer. Preferably both. Naturally, everyone is reminding Bobby of his “talent evaluation” of Gomez only two innings earlier. And he, in return, reminds us that Gomez is, indeed, still a bum.
BOOM. Gomez takes Todd Stottlemyre deep for the second time in as many at-bats and the place goes apeshit. No one can believe what they’d just seen. Shit, Gomez only hit four homers the entire year. Thirty-two doubles is nice and everything, but dude had no power. It was the greatest thing anyone had seen to that point. It was the kind of joy that comes with knowing your team is good and that something good will always happen even when they’re losing. You can’t replicate that kind of faith anywhere else but in that moment. It’s perfection.
As the crowd is cheering and the stadium is shaking, Bobby leans over to Phillips and I and says (though it seemed like he was just mouthing the words because it was so loud) “He’s still a bum.”
LF – Greg Vaughn
1998 stats: .272 AVG/50 HR/119 RBI/.363 OBP/112 R/.960 OPS/121 K/79 BB/28 2B
An All-Star, Silver Slugger award winner, and your 1998 Comeback Player of the Year, Vaughn was money all season for the Padres. I still can’t believe the guy was only 6’0″ 190. He seemed way bigger than that. Anyone who walks to the plate to “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” has to be, right? Dude was a monster, though he’s easily the forgotten National League power hitter from that year, for obvious reasons. Sucks to hit 50 and be third in the league, at best. But seriously, dude was scary good that year, which was especially nice because he fucking sucked in 1997 and would suck for other teams after. On a side note, Booter ended up getting grouped with him at a golf course near Milwaukee a couple of years ago. Heck of a nice guy, from what I hear.
CF – Steve Finley
1998 stats: .249 AVG/14 HR/67 RBI/.301 OBP/92 R/.702OPS/103 K/45 BB/40 2B
This is the quintessential Bruce Bochy season for a hitter. The model which all who came after (Khalil Greene, I’m looking in your direction) followed. He was good enough to be an every day player and major contributor, but his statistics don’t impress at all when just looking at them on paper. Guys like this always make it so Phillips has to make a case for them; they can’t just produce enough for their numbers to stand on their own. I will say 40 doubles is very nice, as is 92 runs, but this was a down season for “Fins.” He hit like mad for the Diamondbacks (69 HR, 199 RBI) in 1999 and 2000, before having yet another down season (.275, 14, 73) in 2001 for Arizona in the year they won the World Series. The guy is just cursed in championship years for some reason.
RF – Tony Gwynn
1998 stats: .321 AVG/16 HR/69 RBI/.364 OBP/65 R/.865 OPS/18 K/35 BB/35 2B
Though he was an All-Star starter, the highlight of the season was definitely Gwynn’s home run in game one of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, which was also his first game in the house that Ruth built. THAT was a moment of euphoria before it all went to hell. He fucking crushed that ball off David Wells.
Usually, a team is gonna need more production from it’s number three hitter, but that’s what makes this team so great and what makes Tony Gwynn a Hall of Famer. He didn’t always hit third, though he usually did, since Bochy is an obsessive lineup tinkerer. Dude just can’t leave that shit alone. But he did mostly, and, as usual, San Diego fans got to see another quality season from the best hitter since Ted Williams. Having your leading hitter be at .321 is pretty nice, but since he was the only regular over .300, maybe it was a little nicer to see how good Gwynn truly was. Plus, this was a down year for his average too. Gwynn had been in the .350’s or above since 1993. But that .865 OPS for a guy with already deteriorating knees who doesn’t hit home runs very often is pretty damn impressive. Hell, he retired three years after this and could barely run.
You’re the man, Anthony Keith Gwynn.
All three of these guys were great off the bench. I say “off the bench” but what that really means is spot-starting and pinch-hitting in almost every game because Bochy just can’t leave his lineup alone. One of these guys or Andy Sheets was playing pretty much every day, or that’s what it seemed like, at least.
Vander Wal was a mid-season acquisition and only got into 20 games, though he’d play a shitload the next season after the fire sale. This was really the year of Jim Leyritz and Mark Sweeney. Sweeney is now a very respected pinch-hitter who is still somewhere in the league. He had 45 hits coming off the bench, and was Bochy’s go-to guy as a pinch hitter. Still is, I think.
But Jim Leyritz is the story of this Padres’ bench. He was the backup catcher/first baseman, and only got into 62 games in the regular season and only managed 38 hits and 18 RBI while striking out 40 times in 143 at-bats. But fuck all that. Leyritz hit the second-biggest (after Steve Garvey’s 1984 NLCS homer) in franchise history off of Randy Johnson in the Divisonal Series. He hit .400 in that series, driving in 5 and hitting three home runs, which were also three of his four hits. That’s a slugging percentage of 1.300, for you scoring at home. He only hit .167 in the LCS, but drove in another four runs in the six game series win against the Braves. It’s probably the most unexpected and inexplicable run of post-season success in the last decade. Leyritz actually did win a ring with the Yankees in 1996 and in 1999, but I don’t want to talk about that.
SP – Kevin Brown
1998 stats: 35 GS/7 CG/0 SHO/18 W/7 L/2.38 ERA/257.0 IP/49 BB/257 K/1.07 WHIP
This is the season that earned baseball’s first $100 million contract from the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Padres were ready to pony up around $75 million, but they (and everyone else) got blown out of the water by the Dodgers. Brown was nasty in 1998, the pre-Peavy, if you will. Either he or Hoffman should have won the Cy Young that year, but they gave it to Tom Glavine for no good reason instead. Fucking voters.
Anyway, this was the only season this mercenary, fresh off a title with the Marlins, spent in San Diego. He was an All-Star and was great all year. But, frankly, my favorite memory of him is from 1999, when he came back to San Diego with the Dodgers, and Reggie Sanders hit a huge home run off him. I tore my shirt in half, Hulk Hogan-style in celebration. True story.
SP – Andy Ashby
1998 stats: 33 GS/5 CG/1 SHO/17 W/9 L/3.34 ERA/226.2 IP/58 BB/151 K/1.24 WHIP
I was at one of his complete games (a 70-something pitch gem against the Braves), and the best thing I can say about Andy Ashby is he didn’t suck in 1998 because he sure wasn’t any good to us after this season. I don’t mean to say bad things about Bruce Bochy, but the guy can do two things: strangle the life out of offense, and burn out pitchers. God I fucking hate him. But Ashby was a horse in ’98, and pretty much the only reason we weren’t utterly top-heavy in the rotation. You’ll see what I mean with the rest of the staff.
SP – Joey Hamilton
1998 stats: 34 GS/0 CG/0 SHO/13 W/13 L/4.27 ERA/217.1 IP/106 BB/147 K/1.50 WHIP
He really wasn’t any good, but Hamilton always had a special place in Padres fans’ hearts. He is the third sinkerballing righthander on this staff who threw somewhere in the low to mid-90’s. Brown threw harder, but Hamilton, Ashby and he were pretty much the same pitcher at different velocities and ability levels.
SP – Sterling Hitchcock
1998 stats: 27 GS/2 CG/1 SHO/9 W/7 L/3.93 ERA/176.1 IP/48 BB/158 K/1.23 WHIP
Appeared in 39 games and even notched a save in 1998. He was decent in the regular season, but was the NLCS MVP after winning games 3 and 6 while only giving up one earned run in total. He’s also another victim of Bochy’s misuse of pitchers. Throughout his Padres career, he routinely threw 110-130 pitches, and even went over a few times, for Bochy until his arm pretty much exploded and he was rarely heard from again.
SP – Mark Langston
1998 stats: 16 GS/0 CG/0 SHO/4 W/6 L/5.86 ERA/81.1 IP/41 BB/56 K/1.82 WHIP
Langston’s biggest contribution was giving up a series-changing grand slam to Tino Martinez in the World Series after getting squeezed out of a strike by Rich Garcia on the pitch before. Everyone knew it was a strike and the replays were fucking plain as day. I hate baseball sometimes. Frankly, the fifth starter position was something of a black hole for this team. We certainly didn’t have Dennis Martinez like the Braves did.
Not exactly a bullpen that inspires fear, eh? Randy Myers barely pitched until the post-season, and pretty much sucked the whole time. But Miceli and Boehringer were studs and somehow we threw something together from game to game to keep the lead for our starters. I don’t know how, but we did. I have a baseball signed by Scott Sanders somewhere in my house too. My parents almost sold him a house, and while he was there, my dad shamelessly asked him to sign a ball.
Closer – Trevor Hoffman
53 SV/86 K/21 BB/1.48 ERA/73 IP/0.877 WHIP
Hoffman’s finest season as a closer came when the team needed it most. He led the league in saves, was also an all-star and deserved the Cy Young more than anyone else, even though there was debate as to whether to give the award to a closer. Naturally, Eric Gagne won it a few years later even though he was so ‘roided out, it made Ken Caminiti laugh. Man, MLB award voters are asshats.
In later years, Hoffman would be inexplicably released by the Padres, prompting me to stop following the team for a year out of protest. Fucking Padres.
But that’s that. This really was a great team in the true sense of the word. They ran into a hell of a buzzsaw against the Yankees in the World Series, but that shit always seems to happen to San Diego teams in championship games/series.
I love this team so much. Sure, they had talent and a couple of Hall of Famers, but the sheer amazement that this team was the class of the National League for an entire season is still an amazing feeling. Obviously, there have been tons of things to ruin the memory of that season since then. There was the fire sale directly after the 1998 season, prompted by the loss of Brown to the Dodgers. Once that happened, the team phoned the offseason in: Finley went to Arizona, Caminiti to Houston, and Vaughn went to the Reds (where he hit another 45 homers in 1999, and that was pretty much it for their chances in 1999. I love that 1999 team for completely separate reasons, but that’s another story.
There is also the obvious specter of steroids hanging over the entire season. McGwire and Sosa are blackballed from the Hall of Fame, despite being high on the all-time home run list. Vaughn dealt with quite a bit of speculation in the subsequent years, but wasn’t caught (I don’t think). The 50 home runs he hit in 1998 is also his career high, but he was a pretty consistent power hitter through the years. Caminiti, of course, was definitely juicing and had a major drop in production after 1998. That year was also his last full season of at-bats in the majors. Of course he later died of a drug overdose. Thought I’d mention that. You know, to end on a happy note.
In conclusion, these current Padres are no longer the fan-friendly Padres who had amazing chemistry and talent. The ’98 team is perfectly symbolic of the last days of innocence in baseball. In the fall of 1998, we thought the game was saved and that the Padres would be great for a long time to come. It was a fleeting moment of true sports happiness, but the best ones always are.