Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Home Runs Kept Chicago Baseball Relevant From 1998 To 2003


The 1998 home run chase was revisited this past Sunday with the 30 for 30 documentary “Long Gone Summer” detailing the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The race captivated America and brought fans back to Major league Baseball following the 1994 Strike. Following the magic of the 1998 season, Sosa and several White Sox player would keep baseball interesting for Chicago, despite a lack of success in the win column.

What made Sosa’s MVP season so special was the Cubs dramatically winning the National League Wild-Card defeating the San Francisco Giants, in a one-game playoff. Chicago would be eliminated in the Divisional Round getting swept by the Atlanta Braves in three straight games. Following the special season, Chicago would win less than 70 games in three of their next four seasons. Although the Cubs were one of the worst teams during this time, they would still play in front of sold-out crowds and their games were constantly televised nationally. The sole reason why they were so in demand was because of Sosa’s ability to hit the long-ball.

From 1999 to 2002, the Cubs captain would hit 226 home runs and drive in 547 RBIs. Sosa was one of baseball’s biggest attractions during the four-year span and was one of MLB’s most marketable players. Despite the Cubs’ futile play, Chicago’s northside team was constantly featured on Fox’s Saturday Game of the Week and ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. Regardless of likely outcome, fans would flock to Wrigley and would tune in across the country to wait and see Sosa drive one and do his famous hop.

Sosa’s brute power made him the star attraction during All-Star week especially for the Home Run Derby. From 2000 to 2002, the Cubs’ All-Star right fielder would stun fans and other players by hitting titanic blasts during the derby. Whether at Turner Field in 2000 or Miller Park in 2002, Sosa would hit home runs to parts of the ballpark that many though were untouchable, even during batting practice.

When the Cubs became a playoff-contender again in 2003, Sosa wasn’t seen as the main attraction, but one of many key players that helped the team to their success. In 2003, the fans’ attention shifted from the right fielder’s ability to hit mammoth home runs and to the young pitching staff that featured Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Carlos Zambrano. Sosa would be traded following the 2004 season, but fans and the media still remember how important he was in keeping the Cubs relevant from 1999 to 2003.

Across town, the White Sox were in a similar situation as they would have just one playoff season from 1998 to 2003. Although they were not as bad from a record standpoint, they were stuck in mediocrity as the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins constantly won the division, except for the 2000 season. While Chicago and the nation was glued to what Sosa and the Cubs did in 1998, many did not notice the historic year outfielder Albert Belle had with the White Sox. Belle would set the franchise record for most home runs and RBIs in a season with 49 and 152.

After the 1998 season, the White Sox would lose some of their star power as both Belle and third baseman Robin Ventura would depart via free agency, while the team’s main star in Frank Thomas, would see his numbers regress in 1999. The team would have young talent develop in 1999 which included Magglio Ordonez, Carlos lee, and Paul Konerko. Although Thomas and the team would bounce back as a whole in 2000 to win the division, Chicago’s main claim to fame was their ability to hit home runs.

From 1999 to 2003, the White Sox would consistently lead the league in home runs as Thomas, Konerko, Lee, Ordonez, and Jose Valentin would help lead a team that lead the league in home runs. The Sox would have four or more players hit 20 home runs or more each year during the four-year span. The White Sox as a team would hit over 200 home runs in five consecutive season including the 2004 season. Thomas, Lee, and Ordonez would hit over 30 home runs in several of those seasons.

Although Thomas was past his prime in popularity, the White Sox were constantly featured on Fox Saturday Game of the Week because of their ability to hit home runs and in bunches. Since they constantly hovered around .500, the south side team was a fun team to watch as they would win a lot of high scoring games. Ordonez would hit a home run at the 2001 MLB All-Star game in Seattle while Konerko would participate and have respectable showing at the 2002 MLB Home Run Derby in Milwaukee.

From 1998 to 2002, both Chicago teams would only make the playoffs just once with no playoff wins to show for it. What made baseball so much fun for the city during that time was the demand for seeing home runs. Whether be Sosa or the group of White Sox players, fans saw home runs aplenty every game which overshadowed the lackluster performance by both teams during that time.

Steve Pusch
Eastern Illinois University graduate, Steve earned a Bachelor’s in Journalism with a concentration in sports. While at EIU, Steve co-hosted a weekly radio sports talk show focused on Chicago.

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