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Wild finish ends wilder season in baseball

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / September 30, 1998

Before Minnesota’s Paul Molitor stepped up to the plate for perhaps the final time of his career Sunday, the Twins honored him by showing clips of his career on the video screens and playing the Green Day song, “I Hope You Had the Time of Your Life.”That song could be the anthem for the whole 1998 baseball season. Forbaseball fans, it truly was a special season. And as fittingly as Molitorsingling in that final at-bat, the season ended with a day that will not soon be forgotten. The producers at ESPN must have had a field day, havingto bounce back and forth between games as one magical moment after another occurred.

The day started with Atlanta playing the New York Mets. But beforeAtlanta’s victory eliminated the Mets from the playoff race, there was Mark McGwire going deep in St. Louis against Montreal for his 69th homerun of the season.

Then it was on to Houston to watch the Astros play the Chicago Cubs. Butfirst, there was a side trip to Toronto to watch Roy Halladay, in just his second start in the major leagues, take a no-hitter into the ninth against Detroit. Bobby Higginson, in a pinch-hitting role, would end the bid with ahome run with two outs.

Back to Houston where the Astros rallied from a 3-1 deficit to send the game into extra innings. Carl Everett tripled in the 11th and RichardHidalgo brought him home with a sacrifice fly to give the Astros the victory. The Cubs, who had entered the day tied with San Francisco for theNational League wild card spot, now needed a win by Colorado to keep their season alive.

The Cubs’ hopes looked bleak early on as the Giants took a 7-0 lead. Butthe Rockies rallied, taking an 8-7 lead on a Vinny Castilla home run before the Giants tied it on a Jeff Kent homer.

And just moments after Everett crossed the plate in Houston and the Cubs were walking dejectedly back to the club house, there was Neifi Perez launching a shot over the right field wall in Coors Field off Rob Nen to send the Cubs into a one-game playoff against the Giants. In this crazyseason, the most important home run for Chicago would not be any of Sammy Sosa’s 66, but one by a light-hitting Colorado shortstop.

While those events were transpiring in Houston and Colorado, McGwire was providing another thrill in St. Louis, line-driving a shot over the wallfor his 70th home run of the season. It was often thought that 61 might bebeaten. But 70? Impossible. The 1998 season was so wild it would go an additional day. And whereelse to play a one-game playoff but in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field with Harry Caray looking down from the heavens? The Cubs would jump out to a 5-0 lead behind a two-run home run by Gary Gaetti and held off a ninth inning rally by the Giants to advance to the playoffs for the first time since 1989.

Now its on to the postseason. But how are the playoffs supposed to top aseason that saw both McGwire and Sosa top Roger Maris’ home run record? Or one that saw Cal Ripken end his consecutive playing streak after 2,600 games? There was Ken Griffey Jr. hitting 56 home runs, Alex Rodriguez hitting 40homers and stealing 40 bases, Barry Bonds passing 400 home runs and 400 stolen bases for his career. Sosa and Juan Gonzalez chasing Hack Wilson’sseason RBI record.

There were also memorable moments on the mound. David Well’s perfectgame against the Twins. Kerry Woods’ 20-strikeout game. Roger Clemensrolling off 15 straight wins.

How about the New York Yankees winning an American League record 114 games? Atlanta and Houston both topping the 100-win mark. San Franciscorallying from four games down with seven to go to force the playoff.

How can the postseason top that? How about the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, two teams that have not won a World Series in over 80 years, playing in the Fall Classic? Sammy Sosa hitting a two-out, game winning grand slam in the bottom of the ninth in Game Seven? Nah, that could not happen, could it? That would be as likely as someone hitting 70 home runs in a season.

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