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The Narrative Of The 1997 MLB Season

The Florida Marlins had just come into existence in 1993. The Cleveland Indians were one of baseball’s oldest franchises. These two teams, with such disparate histories, each made the playoffs and upended the big favorites in their respective leagues when they got there. And the World Series went overtime—into extra innings of Game 7—before the 1997 MLB season finally ended with the Marlins winning a championship.

Florida had a proven winner in the dugout. Jim Leyland made three straight NLCS appearances with the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier in this decade, and was now managing the Marlins. Florida’s pitching rotation was led up by Kevin Brown, while outfielder Moises Alou led the everyday lineup. The Marlins immediately got into contention in the NL East and led the race for what was then a single wild-card berth very early in the season.

Atlanta was the gold standard in the NL East, winners of four NL pennants and a World Series championship as recently as 1995. The Braves were loaded again in 1997. Their famed pitching rotation was led by Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. And Denny Neagle also got into the act, enjoying the best season of his career and placing third in the Cy Young voting. Atlanta had the best staff ERA in the National League, and a balanced lineup finished third in runs scored.

The Braves opened up a 6 ½ game lead on the Marlins by the All-Star break. By Labor Day, that margin was still 4 ½, but Florida was six games clear of the field in the wild-card race. The NL East was a division that would produce the Cy Young Award winner, with future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez winning the award for the first time in Montreal. But Atlanta and Florida were never challenged, either in the NL East or outside of it. The Braves took the division, the Marlins grabbed the wild-card and both rolled into the postseason.  

The American League had a similar dynamic, with two heavyweights from the East breaking away from a division that included the Cy Young Award winner, and running well ahead of the rest of the league to easily make the postseason.

Baltimore set the pace during the regular season. The Orioles relied on a balanced starting rotation, with Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, and Jimmy Key all having good years. The Birds offense was led by Rafael Palmeiro, who hit 38 homers and drove in 110 runs. And of course, reliable shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. was taking the field without fail, every single game.

What really set Baltimore out though, was the season enjoyed by closer Randy Myers. With 45 saves and a dazzling 1.51 ERA, Myers finished fourth in the MVP voting—ahead of the Cy Young winner, Toronto’s Roger Clemens.

New York was the defending World Series champion, and the Yankees were led by Tino Martinez. The first baseman hit 44 homers, drove in 141 runs and was the runner-up in the MVP vote. Martinez was joined by Bernie Williams in keying the everyday lineup. Andy Pettitte and David Cone anchored the rotation. The bullpen was going through some change. New York had to replace departed closer John Wetteland, a World Series hero the previous October. Manager Joe Torre gave the job to Mariano Rivera. It worked out okay.

The Orioles jumped out to a six-game led by Memorial Day and their ultimate position in the playoffs was never in real doubt. The Yankees took control of the wild-card race by the All-Star break. Baltimore maintained a comfortable lead in the AL East race, before a late surge by New York extended the more cosmetic fight for the division title to the final weekend. On the final Saturday of the season, the Birds clinched their first AL East crown since the championship year of 1983. Both teams looked on a collision course for an ALCS rematch.

The fact that both Eastern Divisions swallowed up the wild-card berths with plenty of room to spare meant that the other four divisions knew fairly early on that they were in old-school, winner-take-all battles for first place. And no race was hotter–or more old-school in its rivalry—than the battle between the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.

Barry Bonds was leading the way in San Francisco, hitting 40 homers, driving in 101 runs, stealing 37 bases and placing fifth in the MVP results. Jeff Kent played second base and drove in 121 runs. Shawn Estes led the pitching staff with a 19-win season.

Mike Piazza was the signature star in Los Angeles, with dazzling numbers of a .362 batting average, 40 home runs and 124 ribbies. Piazza finished second in an MVP race that was ultimately won by another NL West player, Colorado outfielder Larry Walker.

San Francisco jumped out to the early lead and led by six games at the All-Star break. Los Angeles owned the late summer and took a 2 ½ game edge by Labor Day. Down the stretch they came. The Giants nudged out to a two-game lead with two weeks to play. That was how the race stood going into the final weekend. Both teams won on Friday night. San Francisco finally put it to bed with a win on Saturday.

When it came to raw star power, no one was going to match up with the elite players on the Seattle Mariners. Ken Griffey Jr. won the MVP award with a spectacular season that included 56 home runs, 147 RBIs, and highlight-reel defense in centerfield. The 23-year-old Alex Rodriguez was at shortstop and batted .300, while clearing 20 homers and 20 steals. Jay Buhner hit 40 bombs. Paul Sorrento at first base hit 31 more. And staff ace Randy Johnson went 20-4 and finished second to Clemens in the Cy Young race.

What the Mariners didn’t have was depth behind their stars, most notably in the pitching staff. So, the race stayed close. The Anaheim Angels, led by right fielder Tim Salmon, were within a game of first place on Labor Day. In the early part of September, Seattle got the burst they needed to create a five-game margin and held off the Halos the rest of the way.

Cleveland came into the season having been the American League’s best team over the previous two seasons. The Indians won the pennant in 1995 and posted the best regular season record in 1996. The Tribe spent most of the season looking ready to take a big step back. They had lost star leftfielder Albert Belle via free agency—to a division rival in Chicago no less. The Indians still got big years from Jim Thome, Matt Williams and Dave Justice. But they didn’t have pitching. And they struggled to put away a weak division.

The White Sox and the Milwaukee Brewers, playing their final season as an American League team, were mediocre, but they got in the race. Chicago now had Belle, and they had Hall of Fame first baseman Frank Thomas. What the White Sox did not have was commitment from ownership. In late July, within three games of the lead, Chicago pulled a fire sale. Milwaukee didn’t go that far, but the Brewers didn’t have much beyond third baseman Jeff Cirillo and outfielder Jeromy Burnitz. In September, Cleveland finally put its foot down and pulled away from the weak field.

Mediocrity ran rampant across Middle America, as the NL Central had a similar dynamic. Houston had the great individual players, with Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Pittsburgh was the challenger. Bagwell hit 43 homers and drove in 135 runs, finishing second in the MVP voting. The Pirates had nowhere near that kind of star power. With the Astros unable to get much over .500, Pittsburgh hung in the race to mid-September before Houston finally put the challenger down.

In the divisional playoffs, the powers in the East held serve in the National League. Atlanta swept Houston, while Florida won a pair of one-run games and swept San Francisco. In the American League, Baltimore’s bats unloaded for 18 runs in the first two games against Seattle to get control of a series they ultimately closed out in four games.

New York won two of the first three over Cleveland and took a lead into the eighth inning of Game 4. Then Indians catcher Sandy Alomar stunned Rivera and the Yankees with a game-tying home run. Cleveland got the winning run in the ninth. The following night’s Game 5 was no less dramatic. The Tribe grabbed an early 4-0 lead. The Yanks chipped that lead down to 4-3 and had the tying run on second base with two outs in the ninth. Bernie Williams flied out. Cleveland was advancing.

Baltimore and Atlanta were the solid favorites to meet in the World Series, but the LCS round offered surprises. In the American League, the first four games were all one-run affairs. And Cleveland won three of those games. The Orioles got a must-win on the road in Game 5 and could look forward to coming home to Camden Yards. A tense, tight series ended with another tense, tight game. A scoreless tie stretched into extra innings. In the top of the 11th, Cleveland’s Tony Fernandez homered. The Indians closed out their second straight upset of the AL East powers.

Florida and Atlanta split their first four games, and then had a big pitcher’s duel of their own down in Miami for Game 5. The Marlins’ Livan Hernandez went toe-toe with Maddux. In a 1-1 tie in the seventh, Florida scraped out a run. Hernandez closed out a complete-game three-hitter and sent his team on to Atlanta with a series lead. The Marlins had played this entire series from ahead, also winning Games 1 & 3. This time, they didn’t let the Braves off the mat. Florida hit Glavine for four runs in the first inning of Game 6, won 7-4 and closed out the upset.

So, we had our World Series of upstarts. The Marlins were team that had been better over the course of the season, but with virtually no history. Meanwhile, the Indians were chasing their first championship since 1948 and, whatever this season’s shortcomings, a lineup that had been one of baseball’s best for the past few years.

The series was high-scoring. Over five games, the Indians scored 38 runs and the Marlins plated 33. But Florida got more of the runs that counted, notably a wild 14-11 extra inning win in Game 3 on the road and an 8-7 win in Game 5. The Marlins won three of those first five and went back to South Beach in position to clinch.

But Cleveland found its pitching. They got a 4-1 win in Game 6. And in the decisive seventh game, it was the Tribe that took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth. But the Marlins got the tying run and the game went to extra innings. In a cruel twist of fate, Tony Fernandez, a hero in the ALCS, made a crucial error in the bottom of the 11th. Florida shortstop Edgar Renteria, at the tender age of 20, entered a World Series lore with an RBI single that won it. The Florida Marlins might have been the young bucks of baseball, but they were also its champions.