“28 years! The Philadelphia Phillies are the World Champions of baseball!”-Jon Alba
What, you honestly expected me to quote Joe Buck? With all due respect Mr. Buck, a dying mule may have been able to make a better call than you did. Enough of my rant though, I’m sure you’ve heard enough already.
July 10, 2008. A young aspiring sportswriter named Jon Alba (myself) told the world that this baseball season was history in the making. A former adviser to this site even told me I was crazy. Yet ultimately was I crazy? You decide.
I begin this article with the World Series champions, the Philadelphia Phillies. Up until this year, fans around the world had the opportunity to say, “Remember 1983?” Yet with the power of a renewed leader in Charlie Manuel, the Phillies were able to get the job done. Most of the success of the Phillies can be related to now the former GM Pat Gillick. Let us begin with his highest acquisition, that of closer Brad Lidge. Lidge was a perfect 48 for 48 in save opportunities this season (including playoffs), displaying the composure necessary to deliver a World Series Championship to a mediocre team. Gillick also managed to reel in Pedro Feliz, who despite an average season in Philly, delivered the World Series clinching single. Add in the signing of OF Geoff Jenkins (who himself had a key hit in the resumption of Game 5 of the World Series) and trading midseason for Joe Blanton, and this team was set for a title. Kudos to you Mr. Gillick, and enjoy retirement.
The Phillies displayed what little teams had this year: Faith and determination. Yet perhaps the single team who held more of these traits than them could have been their World Series opponents, the Tampa Bay Rays.
I remember just prior to Spring Training, I was searching through a sports forum on Sports Freaks United. On these forums, there was a question posted asking when the Rays would get to the World Series (of course, it was asked rather sarcastically). While others were drastically downplaying the Rays, yours truly gave his honest answer.
“I don’t see it that far away, possibly within the next 5 years. Maybe even this year. They have the young talent, it will just be a question of ambition.”
May I say, these Rays proved everybody wrong. The Rays began their playoff push with an offseason trade, delivering the highly-touted Delvin Young alongside others to the Twins for P Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduaro Morlan. To say that Garza came through is an understatement. In Game 7 of the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox, Garza pitched flawlessly, wrapping up 2008 ALCS MVP honors in the process with a 1.38 ERA. Bartlett, while not the greatest offensive presence, provided excellent defense at Shortstop. CF B.J. Upton emerged as one of the league’s stars, hitting 7 home runs throughout the Rays playoff run. His superb play in the field displayed his overall talent as a ballplayer in Major League Baseball. Evan Longoria emerged as the Rookie of the Year shoe-in, hitting 27 home runs with 85 RBI’s. He, like Upton, played stellar in the field, and he wrapped up his first All-Star Game appearance (in which he had a key RBI double to tie the game). Throw in fellow All-Stars Scott Kazmir, Dioner Navarro, and star James Shields, and this team was complete. Alongside them, manager Joe Maddon also proved his genius, as he wrapped up a sure Manager of the Year type season. Have you grown your Rayhawk yet?
This past September, America saw the closing of two of the oldest ballparks in baseball. Not only that, but they both homes to New York teams. Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium. Each piece of grass had its own story to tell, and that it did all season. Both ballparks held events commemorating their final season, with dramatics following along every step of the way.
Shea saw the New York Mets attempting to redeem a season lost. After collapsing during the previous season’s final days of September, the Mets set out to finish the job they started. The team boasted an improved rotation with former AL Cy Young Johan Santana, and seemed to be clear National League East favorites. Following a disappointing start however, manager Willie Randolph was fired in a highly controversial decision on a West Coast road trip. Bench Coach Jerry Manuel took over, and the Mets flew towards the lead in the division. Previously dormant 1B Carlos Delgado exploded in the second half, putting up MVP-like numbers. Even the 102 year-old Fernando Tatis was a key contributor to the offensive success. Unfortunately, the kiss of death came with the bullpen. With closer Billy Wagner undergoing Tommy John surgery in the late weeks of the season, the Mets were left stranded, and they failed to make the playoffs on the last day of the season. This too was the last game that Shea would ever see, yet it went out in style with future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza and Tom Seaver waving goodbye to the Shea faithful. Shea goodbye Mets fans!
As classy as Shea went out however, it could not be outdone by the “Ballpark in the Bronx”. Opened in 1923, Babe Ruth hit the first home run in the ballpark in a 4-1 win over the Red Sox. When asked about what his thoughts were, Ruth responded, “I was glad to have hit the first home run in this park. God only knows who will hit the last.” The answer: José Molina.
On Sunday, September 21, 2008, the Yankees closed the historic ballpark versus division rival, the Baltimore Orioles. The evening began with the emotional return (via recording) of Yankees PA Announcer of over 50 years Bob Sheppard. Sheppard had been unable to announce a single game all season, as he is over what is believed to be 97 years old. Nevertheless, the stars still filed out, and Yankee greats came out onto the field to honor their beloved ballpark one last time. Come the fourth inning, Molina fulfilled his unpredicted prophecy, smacking a two-run shot into left field, coincidentally right above Monument Park. The last pitch was thrown by none-other than future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, and the Yankees won the game 7-3. Derek Jeter then made an unplanned speech to the fans, reminding them of the importance of the stadium. After that, the field that witnessed 26 World Series titles would never be played on again.
The closing of Yankee Stadium was fitting in every way possible. Yet perhaps it was the 2008 All-Star Game which fueled what some consider the greatest game held within the stadium’s gates.
The All-Star weekend began with the first Fanfest held in New York City history, in which I was lucky enough to attend. There were numerous displays of baseball history, capped off with Roger Maris’ 60th Home Run ball being auctioned off alongside numerous historical items. Later on, none other than Yankee great Tino Martinez managed the World Team ahead of the U.S. Team in the annual Future’s Game. Celebrities took the field as always for the Celebrity All-Star Game, all in anticipation of everyone’s favorite contest, the Home Run Derby. While the ultimate winner of the Derby ended up being Minnesota’s Justin Morneau, another name made his dent in the scoreboard (almost literally). Josh Hamilton.
Let’s face the fact. Everybody knew who Josh Hamilton was going into this season. He was “that guy” who was in rehab for drug use and was trying to overcome his issues and play baseball. Josh had a sweet little comeback with the Reds, until he was traded to the Texas Rangers for another superstar P Edinson Volquez (who will be mentioned more later). To say that Josh Hamilton exploded is an understatement. At midseason, Hamilton had 19 home runs and 89 RBI’s, leading the AL and the majors respectively. He was elected to participate in the 2008 State Farm Home Run Derby, in which he was highly favored due to the short left field porch. To make matters more interesting, rather than going with the usual custom and choosing a pitching coach, Hamilton chose one of his childhood coaches, 71 year old Clay Council. The rest was a literal Cinderella story, as he hit 28 home runs in the first round, seemingly shattering the 24 hit by Bobby Abreu in 2005. More interestingly, Josh hit 13 straight, including a 518 foot monster shot off the right field billboards. Eventually, Josh Hamilton finished the season with a .304 AVG, 32 HR, and 130 RBI’s.
With all the dramatics from the Derby in place, how could it be topped by the actual All-Star Game itself? Believe it or not, it was.
The 2008 annual game was a 4 hour and 51 minute shootout, lasting from 8:47 PM to 1:38 AM EST. By far the longest All-Star Game (in terms of time) in the history of sports. The ceremonies began with every living member in the Baseball Hall of Fame being invited on field, something never done before. Ben Sheets and Cliff Lee both kicked off the game for the National League and American League respectively. As the game progressed, it was clear that it would go down to the wire. When Matt Holliday sent the National League ahead 1-0 with a solo shot in the fifth, it appeared the American League was down and out. The NL eventually stretched the lead to 2-0, yet the AL was still relentless. J.D. Drew of the Red Sox came out in the seventh and hit a game-tying line drive home run to make the score 2-2. When the NL took the lead at 3-2, Rays 3B Evan Longoria then knotted the game up once again with a rather dramatic ground-rule double in the eighth inning. Since the contest could not be decided within regulation, the game carried on to extras. Not ten innings. Not eleven. Not even twelve. Fifteen. The “Summer Showdown” ended with the Rangers Michael Young hitting a sacrifice fly to right field, narrowly scoring the hustling Justin Morneau. The American League emerged victorious, and one of the most historic nights in baseball history had been written.
Despite the scheduled dramatics, Major League Baseball still experienced the part of the script that was more of what may call “Ad-lib.” All of the baseball fans across the nation, whether a fan of him or not, will recall Jon Lester’s majestic no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals. A man who had been cancer-stricken makes one of the remarkable returns in sports history, and manages to baffle any critics who said he had nothing left in him. That wasn’t enough for you? Perhaps Big Z, Carlos Zambrano, out pitching the Houston Astros during a September 14th no-no did it in. Or possibly it was the epic 20 win pitching performance by the now-retired Mike Mussina, the first and only of his 18-year career. Regardless of the situation, Major League Baseball provided us with nothing short of spectacular accomplishments.
Unfortunately however, not all was perfect in baseball this season. In July, Yankees broadcaster and former major league player (who was nominated for the Hall of Fame’s Frick Award just this past year) passed away from a long fight with brain cancer. Murcer left a gigantic legacy on baseball, displaying that a media/player relationship can still exist in today’s society of rather “maniacal” players. The Atlanta Braves lost their franchise voice in Skip Caray, who had spent over 30 years in the broadcast booth. In total, the sport lost 73 figures in 2008.
On the historical side however, many events occurred that delighted all fans with joy. In May, future Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza retired, leaving behind the all-time home run record for a catcher. In June, Mets 1B Carlos Delgado drove in a franchise record nine RBI’s against the New York Yankees in the first game of a cross-town doubleheader. This game was considered the turning point in his season, bring some light into the Mets clubhouse. Shortly before this however, then-Reds OF Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 600th career home run, joining an exclusive club of only 6. Alongside this, Albert Pujols became one of the fastest players in Major League history to 300 home runs, hitting his 300th against the Cubs. Oh, and of course don’t forget Angels closer Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez breaking the single season saves record, that was pretty important too. However above all may stand the beginning of Instant Replay, as baseball became the last major sport to institute it. The first occurrence was on an Alex Rodriguez home run against the Rays, thus giving the Yankees a victory in that respective game. Throw in the retirement of future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, and nothing could beat this season’s monumental occurrences.
What 2008 experienced however above all was perhaps the most important trade deadline to ever occur. As mentioned at the deadline, baseball history had been made. CC Sabathia was traded to a wild card contending Brewers team, and the guy proved relentless. Week after week going on three day’s rest netted him an enormous deal in the offseason with the New York Yankees. Alongside CC, Manny Ramirez’s end in Boston came to a tragic end, and he was shipped of to Los Angeles for practically nothing. Manny stepped into crazytown and dominated, taking a Los Angeles team who was staggering around .500 the day they acquired him to an NLCS berth. Also changing addresses this season included Jason Bay as part of that Manny deal, Rich Harden to Chicago, the aforementioned Ken Griffey Jr., Mark Teixeira, Casey Blake, and several others. Notice how each of those players turned their new respective teams into contenders?
Yet now, the baseball season is long past us. The signing period began with a splash, with a trade above all others. The Rockies traded OF Matt Holliday, a potential MVP candidate, to the Oakland Athletics who seem to be making a push in the weak AL West. Tons of free agents proved on the move, almost all to the same city one may say. The first major signing of the offseason was that of Francisco Rodriguez, jumping from West Coast to East joining the New York Mets in an effort to cure the ailing bullpen. The Mets would later add J.J. Putz from the Mariners, solidifying themselves as a powerhouse in the division that houses the defending World Champions. CC Sabathia, arguably the most covetted free agent, went against his beliefs of pitching for strictly the love of the game, signing a record contract for a pitcher with the New York Yankees. This sparked the interest of A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira, who would soon join him.
All in all off of those three players alone, the Yankees spent nearly half of $1 Billion dollars. Outrage poured in from all around the Majors, thus setting up a potential league vote for a salary cap. If the owner were to decide on a cap limit, this would certainly cause outrage in players, who would very likely strike in after the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2011. With our nation in one of the worst economic situations it has been since the Great Depression, a strike would very likely be the needle that would ultimately euthanize Major League Baseball.
The bottom line of this article is that, well, you all saw history and this bad boy told you so! The best part is, we are not even sure of what lies ahead of us! The World Baseball Classic will be held this upcoming March, the second one overall. The league will depend greatly on its revenue to spark some interest back into the game locally and globally. Baseball has taken the step from the purest sport to maybe perhaps the most corrupt, and this can all be pointed back at this past season. But at the same time, there is some hope and optimism in the fans eyes. We have seen the end of some legacies, yet the beginning of some others. 2008 went into the record books in every way possible, and now 2009 must step up to the challenge and wow us even more. Of course though, in what has now become a stable of all my articles and writings, only time will tell.