When The Padres Were King (of the National League)

Tonight, the San Diego Padres will play host to the NL West division leading Arizona Diamondbacks with the chance to make seriously progress in making up their 5 game deficit. The Padres will also be honoring the 1998 National League Championship team.  Players from that 1998 team will be present at the game signing autographs and NLCS MVP Sterling Hitchcock will throw out the first pitch. The Padres will be wearing the now retro 1998 uniforms and I imagine quite a few highlights will be shown between innings. So, for today’s post I thought we’d reminisce a bit about the 1998 club in preparation for tonight’s festivities.

First things first. 1998 is considered retro now? I’m not sure I’m ready to live in a world where that’s true but the facts are tough to disputed. Somehow it’s been 15 years since that 1998 season though for some reason I still consider the early ’90s to be 10 years ago. 1998 saw “Shakespeare in Love” somehow beat out “Saving Private Ryan” for Best Picture, saw “My Heart Will Go On” and “The Boy Is Mine” rule the airwaves and “Seinfeld” and “ER” be the highest rated television shows on the air.

1998 was also the greatest season in Padres history for me as a fan. I was born in 1980 so while I’m aware of the ’84 World Series team I have no memory of it and no emotional attachment to that team. The 1998 team is different. I remember that season. But it occurs to me that there may be many fans who, like me with the ’84 team, are only aware of the Padres National League pennant in 1998 but don’t actually remember it. So, allow me to be your tour guide through the 1998 season.

It’s worth pointing out that there was little to predict the Padres 1998 season prior to the season starting. Two years prior the Padres had won the NL West but lost in the LDS. The following year, however, the Padres finished a disappointing 4th and went 76-86.

That off-season the Padres traded rookie Derrek Lee (yes, that Derreck Lee) to Florida for Kevin Brown. Brown was a bonafide ace. In 1996 Kevin Brown came in 2nd to John Smoltz for the NL Cy Young (an award he lost, it would appear, solely due to W/L record). In 1997 Kevin Brown was nearly as good, with an ERA of 2.69 and an ERA+ of 150. He was everything the Padres didn’t have in 1997 where not one of San Diego’s starters had an ERA under 4.00 and not one with an ERA+ over 100. And, at the time, Derreck Lee was expendable with Wally Joyner firmly entrenched at first base. So the Padres pulled the trigger and suddenly had a legitimate ace.

The trade paid immediate dividends. Naturally, Kevin Brown was the Padres Opening Day starter vs the Cincinnati Reds. The Padres beat their old manage Jack McKeon and ruined the Reds home opener in a 10-2 thrashing. Kevin Brown went 6.1 IP, SO 7 and gave up 1 run. Tony Gwynn hit a 3-run HR (I have a memory of reading an article in which Tony Gwynn said he would try to pull the ball a bit more for more power at the urging of Ted Williams. However, for the life of me I cannot find that article and I am now left wondering if I simply imagined the whole thing. Either way, he hit a homerun on Opening Day in 1998.)

For the month of April (and March 31), the Padres went 19-7 and already had a 5 game lead on the NL West by the end of the month. The Padres never ended a month outside of 1st place. In fact, after June 2nd when they beat Cincinnati 5-1 the Padres never relinquished 1st place. They ended up winning the division by 9.5 games. If you heard Tony Gwynn during this past Braves series tell though, they should have won the division by far more. And he’s right. The Padres were 15 games up at the end of August but then went 9-1 in September.

The Padres regular season by the numbers:

Greg Vaughn: 50 HRs

Tony Gwynn: .321 BA, 16 HRs (2nd highest season total for his career)

Ken Caminiti: 19 HRs

Kevin Brown: 2.38 ERA, 164 ERA+

Trevor Hoffman: 53 saves

The Padres defeated the Houston Astros in the LDS 3-1 to advance to the NLCS to face the Atlanta Braves. Two years prior I made the trip from Tucson out to San Diego to see the Padres ultimately lose in the LDS. This year, I waited to make sure they got through the LDS (sidenote: I had a pretty long run of attending 1st round playoff games to watch my teams lose. Padres vs Cardinals about a million times, Chargers vs Jets, Chargers vs Patriots etc. So now, I don’t attend 1st round playoff games. Since then, the Chagers have beaten the Titans and Colts in the 1st round. So, science.)

I made my way out to San Diego for Game 3 of the NLCS vs the Braves. Sterling Hitchcock, the eventual NLCS MVP, started for San Diego. The Padres were looking pretty good, having just won 2 games in Atlanta before coming home. He held the Braves bats silent for 5 innings and the Padres were able to scrap some runs against Greg Maddux to set-up the 9th inning. The familiar Hell’s Bells began echoing throughout Jack Murphy Stadium. More than 62,000 fans rose to their feet, screaming, shouting, waving white towels. I have never since or before been at a sporting event like this moment. I had seen moments like this on television of course (the Metrodome comes to mind), but to be there, to wave that towel and listen to 62,000 people trying to urge the Padres onto a 3-0 series lead was something I will never forget. Hoffman, for his part, answered the fans wishes emphatically, striking out the side.

The Padres went on to win the NLCS. Game 3 was the only game in which the home team won. And I was there.

As everyone knows, the Padres went on to lose the World Series to arguably the 2nd greatest Yankee team in their history. And yes, we all know that was strike three. Except it wasn’t and so it goes. But I remember the 1998 season for Game 3 of the NLCS. And 62,000 fans going nuts. That moment has stayed with me forever. I’m sure in part because I was 17 and impressionable and this was the first time I had really experienced something like this (I was at the 1996 elimination game which was an entirely different experience).

So tonight, the Padres honor the 1998 season. And I tip my cap from my home. Because to me, there was no greater season as a Padre fan than 1998.



Join me on memory lane in the comments or on Twitter @LeftCoastBias. As always, you can find all levels of rambling right here every Friday. 

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