Baseball bargains deliver the bang; In homer-happy season of big-money busts, A's and Reds provide spice


The 1999 baseball season had two strikes against it from the start. How do you follow up the most exciting home run chase in history? Or the winningest major-league team ever to set foot on a diamond?

You don't, of course.

Lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place, and the '99 season certainly hasn't reached the same level of excitement that engulfed the sport a year ago. But, by any objective measure, it has been a pretty entertaining year.

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa gave it a run, both surpassing Roger Maris' old single-season home run standard for the second year in a row. The New York Yankees are right back at the doorstep, hoping to firmly establish themselves as the team of the decade. And the wild-card race again kept baseball fans in suspense right up to the final day of the regular season.

OK, so there were some major disappointments, none greater than the hapless performance of the Orioles, who needed a super September just to get within wishing distance of .500. But even the collapse of some of baseball's big-money machines produced an added measure of intrigue to a season that once seemed doomed to be a colossal letdown.

Money still talks, but the disasters that befell the free-spending Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers should provide a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks that success is only for sale to the highest bidder.

If 1999 proved anything, there still is something to be said for solid management and team chemistry. The Oakland Athletics nearly crashed the postseason party with a small-market blend of young talent that was as likable as it was competitive. The Cincinnati Reds showed that a few key moves and an upbeat clubhouse can turn a middle-market also-ran into an exciting, popular playoff team.

No, it never had the magical quality that made 1998 a season for the ages, but it wasn't a bad year at all -- outside Baltimore. Here's a capsulized look back at some of the highs and lows.

Homer overload

The big question going into the season was whether McGwire and Sosa could provide a suitable encore after their amazing home run race in 1998.

The answer was yes and no.

Sosa and McGwire delivered. Who would have imagined that they could both exceed Maris' long unreachable total of 61 homers in two consecutive years? But the 1999 home run chase did not generate nearly the excitement that accompanied the record run a year earlier.

Maybe that's understandable, because the record already had been shattered and neither hitter approached McGwire's new standard (70), but the fact that the two of them hit a total of 264 home runs during the past two years borders on the incredible.

Of course, some might think it also speaks volumes about the state of major-league pitching at the end of the millennium, but nobody else even reached the 50s.

The race came down to the final head-to-head series in St. Louis, and McGwire punctuated another amazing year with his 65th homer of the season yesterday.

Poor little rich teams

New Los Angeles general manager Kevin Malone arrived at baseball's winter meetings last year and quickly served notice that the Dodgers would spare no expense to re-establish themselves as one of the elite teams in the National League.

"There's a new sheriff in town," Malone proclaimed after signing free agent Kevin Brown to a record $105 million contract.

The Orioles also felt confident that they could buy their way back to prominence, signing controversial outfielder Albert Belle to a five-year deal worth $13 million a year and adding several other veteran players.

It didn't work, of course. The Dodgers and Orioles vied instead for a dubious distinction: baseball's most disappointing team.

Dead heat. The two clubs finished with almost identical records and head into another winter with their checkbooks showing.

Bargain ballclubs

Meanwhile, the A's and Reds proved that you don't have to have an $80 million payroll to give your fans their money's worth.

The youthful A's remained in the wild-card hunt long enough to put a good scare into the better-heeled Boston Red Sox, and the Reds turned Mets manager Bobby Valentine's hair another shade of gray with their strong finish in National League wild-card race.

The Mets beat the Pirates, 2-1, yesterday to clinch a tie for the NL wild card with the Reds, who beat the Brewers last night, 7-1, and forced a one-game playoff today in Cincinnati.

No easy road

The Yankees were expected to return to the playoffs this year, especially after pulling off the deal of the spring with the acquisition of future Hall of Fame pitcher Roger Clemens, but the 1999 season was no cakewalk.

Outfielder Darryl Strawberry was suspended for most of the season after being arrested on drug and solicitation charges. Manager Joe Torre missed the early weeks recovering from prostate surgery. And Clemens didn't exactly live up to the billing after the club dealt David Wells, Graeme Lloyd and Homer Bush to the Toronto Blue Jays to get him.

The Yankees faced an unexpected challenge from the rival Red Sox late in the season, but held on to win their third American League East title in the past four years. If they can go the distance in October, the Yankees will clearly establish themselves as the greatest team of their generation.

Strong arm tactics

Though overall pitching depth appears to be in steady decline, the top pitchers in the game put on a terrific show in 1999 -- from a single afternoon of perfection by Yankees right-hander David Cone to the dominating, season-long performances of presumptive American League Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez and NL candidate Randy Johnson.

Martinez clearly was the best pitcher in baseball this year, overpowering the AL on the way to a 23-4 record and 2.03 ERA. He also struck out more than 300 batters for the second time in his career.

Johnson suffered through a stretch of hard luck that diluted his won-lost record, but he came within 19 strikeouts of Nolan Ryan's all-time single-season record (383) and led the fledgling Arizona Diamondbacks into the postseason in only their second season.

The Big Unit may win the NL Cy Young Award, but there were enough great performances in the National League to leave the issue very much in doubt. Mike Hampton (22-4, 2.90) delivered a breakthrough performance in Houston, and Brown (18-9, 3.00) had an outstanding season in Los Angeles.

Ex-O's on the march

While the Orioles struggled through a disappointing season, a couple of recently displaced Orioles were putting up career numbers in their new locales.

Texas Rangers first baseman Rafael Palmeiro shook off a pair of knee operations to register career highs in batting average, home runs and RBIs, which was no easy task after five outstanding years in Baltimore. Cleveland Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar proved again that he can be one of the best all-around players in the game when he feels like it.

Alomar and Palmeiro entered the postseason as legitimate candidates for the AL Most Valuable Player Award.

Pub Date: 10/04/99

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