1999 The Umpires Strike Out

Years of rising tensions result in a power play put forward to management by the game's arbiters, under the combustible leadership of Richie Phillips; it proves to be their undoing.

The New York Yankees’ Jorge Posada jaws away at umpire Greg Kosc, on the verge of heat exhaustion, in a sequence that only grew worse when Posada later publicly criticized the men in blue for not being in shape.

When the 20th Century began, major league baseball umpires were the punching bags of the game, knocked around by intimidating players and managers, tormented by rowdy fans and ignored by neglecting owners. American League czar Ban Johnson put a stop to it, giving the arbiters much-needed backbone while restoring civility and credibility to the game.

A hundred years later, baseball’s modern-day umpires were beginning to wonder if Johnson’s men in blue had it better.

Grumbling among the umpires had grown louder over recent years as they began to feel their leverage on the field slipping away. They still had the ultimate say with their calls, as opposed to other sports—which increasingly relied on video replays. But it was the growing trend of players who vehemently argued the calls to a level of viciousness—and got away with it, their suspensions and fines watered down to almost nothing by the 800-pound gorilla known as the players’ union—that had umpires increasingly rankled. The Roberto Alomar-John Hirschbeck incident at the end of 1996, in which the all-star second baseman received a transparent slap on the wrist for spitting in umpire Hirschbeck’s face—and his heartless comments afterward—sparked the umpires’ present foul mood.

In late June, the boiling point was reached when another player-umpire altercation resulted in the unprecedented suspension of the umpire, Tom HallionHallion allegedly bumped Colorado Rockies catcher Jeff Reed and pitching coach Milt May during an argument on June 26.. Upon hearing the news, the Major League Umpires Association exploded.

To some, the umpire union’s fiery leader, Richie Phillips, was a bully prone to temper tantrums, so his reaction was hardly anything new. Phillips had taken over as head of the union in 1978 and instantly began an acrimonious relationship with baseball management that was on a combative par with the more publicized labor wars between the owners and players. Under Phillips, the umpires engaged in various (and mostly short-lived) work stoppages during 1978, 1979, 1984 and 1995. With a blue-blood, blue-collar attitude, Phillips’ manner of speech was less legalese, more blunt—as evidenced when he publicly labeled New York Yankee catcher Jorge Posada a “jerk” for criticizing the physical condition of 325-pound umpire Greg KoscKosc left a game with Posada behind the plate because he was exhausted; Posada, after hearing that Kosc was a diabetic, apologized for his criticism..

The umpires had enough of player leniency, owner evaluation and a perceived failure to have their decisions backed. Phillips demanded that unless baseball did something about it, 57 of his 66 unionized umpires would quit on September 2.

Baseball yawned. Major League Baseball Executive Vice President Sandy Alderson, who was as sharp as they came, made baseball’s position on the matter firm and savagely sardonic when he said of Phillips’ edict: “It’s a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted.”

Oops.

Alderson was no fool; nobody paid their good money to enter a ballpark to watch umpires. He was also quite aware that many of the umpires’ strike zones had defiantly deviated from the rulebook’s definition; perhaps a fresh dose of umpires from the minors could do better. If Phillips’ umpires wanted to quit, thought Alderson, let them.

Panic erupted at Phillips’ headquarters. Umpires desperately tried to rescind their resignations. Tough luck, said baseball; we’ve ordered up the replacements—and this time, they’re not temps. Phillips took his matter to court to win the umpires’ jobs back, but in a rare instance, the judge sided with management—stating that since the umpires quit, they were no longer provided job protection.

In the end, 35 of the 57 umpires would be allowed back, because they were smart enough to do it early and not follow Phillips any further on his reckless path to self-destruction. But the 22 other umpires—some of them among the best in the game—stuck with Phillips and weren’t as lucky.

In ensuing negotiations with the umpires, management was open to bringing the 22 accidental retirees back in; their ultimate goal was to oust Phillips. That was taken care of by the growing anti-Phillips faction within the umpires’ ranks. After the season, they voted to decertify the union and start anew, leaving Phillips out in the cold.

As the new union, called the World Umpires Association, settled in and brought upon a new labor agreement in September 2000, Phillips and his 22 men out struggled to slide back through baseball’s door via a series of negotiations and lawsuits. By and large, the padlock remained secure, as those on the inside went about their business of calling balls and strikes.

The umpire sideshow hardly detracted from baseball on the field, with the two best teams of the 1990s—the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves—ultimately hooking up to determine the majors’ last champion of the century.

The paths toward World Series glory for both the Yankees and Braves were nearly identical, displaying mirror-imaged characteristics throughout the season.

The Yankees dealt with adversity. They traded 1998 fan favorite David Wells to Toronto, angering Yankee loyalists even as the trade brought over one Roger Clemens. Manager Joe Torre was diagnosed with prostate cancerTorre would undergo successful treatment and return 36 games into the season, after bench coach Don Zimmer started the Yankees off at 21-15. in spring training, while Darryl Strawberry, himself recovering from colon cancer, relapsed to the dark side when he was charged with drug possession and solicitation. Three Yankee players—Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius and Luis Sojo—lost their fathers during the year, all-star second baseman Chuck Knoblauch suddenly couldn’t make a routine throw to first, and George Steinbrenner returned to sounding off, publicly knocking overweight, underwhelming Japanese import Hideki Irabu as a “fat pussy toad.”

The Braves dealt with adversity. Veteran slugger Andres Galarraga, coming off a prodigious three-year burst of hitting, was also stricken with cancer—in his lower back. Catcher Javy Lopez missed 100 games due to injury. One closer (Mark Wohlers) was lost when he suddenly couldn’t find the strike zone, a second (Kerry Lightenberg) was lost for the year with a season-ending elbow injury, and a third (John Rocker) pitched just fine so long as he kept his outspoken opinions to himself.

Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams both hit over .340 with at least 20 home runs, 100 runs, 100 RBIs and 100 walks in 1999. Only one other pair of teammates has paired up to achieve similar marks: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who did it numerous times.

The Yankees overcame adversity with star talent that was budding or in full bloom. Second baseman Derek Jeter (.349) and center fielder Bernie Williams (.342) both set career highs in batting average, each adding 100 walks, 100 runs scored and 100 knocked in. On the mound, Clemens’ first, mediocre year in New York (14-10, but with a career-worst 4.60 earned run average) was offset by Orlando Hernandez (17-9, 4.12), who possessed an electric, high leg-kick motion and, like his brother Livan, had escaped his native Cuba for a chance to go major league. In the bullpen, Mariano Rivera remained the AL’s most ferocious closer, saving a league-high 45 games while not allowing an earned run after July 21.

The Braves overcame adversity with star talent that was budding or in full bloom. Switch-hitting third baseman Chipper Jones had a spectacular year that netted him the National League’s Most Valuable Player award—accruing 45 home runs, 110 RBIs, 116 runs scored, 126 walks and 25 steals (in 28 attempts) to go with a .319 batting average. Right-handed starter Kevin Millwood, at age 24, practically pitched as the ace of the esteemed Brave rotation, producing a team-best 2.68 ERA to go with an 18-7 record. And the aforementioned Rocker saved 38 games with a 2.49 ERA.

Both the Yankees and Braves entered the postseason with the best records in each of their leagues, and had little trouble advancingFor the second straight year, the Yankees totally frustrated the potent Texas Rangers—allowing, as in 1998, a single run in a three-game sweep over the AL West champions. through the first round to the League Championship Series—where they awaited wild card entries from their own divisions.

The Yankees matched up with longtime nemesis Boston, runner-up to New York in the AL East—but also the team that gave the Yankees the most fits during the regular season, winning eight of 12 head-on. The Red Sox were coming in on a high, having disposed of the high-powered AL Central-winning Cleveland Indians in a five-game series that featured an obesity of offenseThe five-game Red Sox-Indian ALDS featured 79 runs and 17 home runs; Boston won Game Four, 23-7..

The ALCS might had been closer had the umpires, already beaten up in the press for Richie Phillips’ ill-fated strategies, not made a series of badly blown calls that would kill the Red Sox.

The two most egregious umpiring errors involved the beleaguered Chuck Knoblauch. In Game One, he appeared to drop a ball at second base on a force play of the Red Sox’ Jose Offerman—but umpire Rick Reed ruled he had control and was merely exchanging the ball to his throwing hand for a possible relay to first. In Game Four, Knoblauch took a grounder and attempted to tag out (again) Offerman—and missed by a wide margin before throwing on to first. Yet umpire Tom Tschida imagined and ruled Knoblauch had made the tag.

With television replays nakedly proving the umpires wrong, the two blown calls ended significant Red Sox rallies in the late innings of tight games; left rising star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra on deck with a chance to take advantage of Knoblauch’s should-have-been errors; and spirited the Yankees to immediately follow with game-winning rallies. The Red Sox were deflated after the first miscue, angry after the second; an inning after the latter incident, Garciaparra was called out on another questionable call—and the Sox and their Fenway Park faithful boiled over, littering the field with debris and holding up the game for ten minutes.

In losing the ALCS to the Yankees, four games to one, the Red Sox had themselves just as much to blame as the umpires—committing ten errors in just five games.

The Braves’ NLCS experience lacked controversy but was no less intense. Their challengers: The New York Mets, who after a weak start nearly caught the Braves before settling for the NL wild card spot. From Atlanta’s perspective, this was an eerie scenario: Two years earlier, it was the Florida Marlins, second in the NL East, who had toppled the Braves in the NLCS as a wild card. The Braves were determined to avoid another embarrassment at the hands of the division’s second best.

In a long Hall-of-Fame career for the Braves, Chipper Jones had no better year than in 1999—winning the NL MVP and setting career highs in home runs, walks, steals and slugging percentage.

It started as a breeze, albeit a tight one, for the Braves—winning the first three games over the Mets by a total of four runs. But New York scratched and clawed back with everything they had, winning the next two in narrow fashion—including an exhaustive, 15-inning Game Five classic that lasted nearly six hours. The Braves again had their hands full back in Atlanta for Game Six, fighting off one New York comeback after another, finally overcoming the Mets in the bottom of the 11th when Andruw Jones drew a bases-loaded walkWhile the Mets stood on the edge of the dugout as Game Six drew to its climax, malcontented and over-the-hill stars Bobby Bonilla and Rickey Henderson nonchalantly played cards in the Mets’ clubhouse. that gave the Braves a 10-9 victory—and their fifth NL pennant of the 1990s.

As baseball’s two pre-eminent powers, the Yankees and Braves were hyped up as a clash of baseball titans guaranteed to excite America with a World Series classic to end the 20th Century.

It instead became a classic mismatch.

In Game One at Atlanta, Orlando Hernandez—by now better known by his nickname, “El Duque”—allowed just one hit through seven innings and struck out ten Braves. David Cone mimicked Hernandez for Game Two and allowed just a hit through seven innings himself. The Yankees kicked aside Greg Maddux and Millwood by respective scores of 4-1 and 7-2.

Atlanta bats awoke for Game Three at Yankee Stadium, tearing out to a 5-1 lead—but they couldn’t hold it. The Yankees peppered starter Tom Glavine with enough small rallies to even the score by the eighth inning, and reserve Yankee outfielder Chad Curtis led off the tenth with his second homerAfter stepping on home plate, Curtis snubbed NBC sideline reporter Jim Gray, who created a firestorm for grilling Pete Rose with questions about his alleged gambling just after Rose had been honored as part of baseball’s All-Century Team before Game Two. of the night to grant New York a 6-5 overtime victory.

If, from August through October (postseason included), you were trying to mount a comeback against the Yankees with Mariano Rivera on the mound, forget it. The fifth-year closer did not allow a single earned run from August 1 on.

Roger Clemens and closer Mariano Rivera wrapped up the sweep in Game Four with a 4-1 shutdown of Atlanta, crowning the Yankees with their 25th championship. Rivera, who saved two games and won another, was named the Series’ MVP—finishing the postseason with 12.1 innings of shutout ball to go with the 30.2 he pitched to finish out the regular season.

For the Braves, it was a disappointing end to a bittersweet decade in which they won eight straight divisional titles (the canceled 1994 season discounted), yet had only one World Series title to show for it. Maybe the 21st Century would be theirs; they had the organization strong and sound enough to suggest it.

But for now, this year—and the entire 20th Century—belonged to the Yankees, as their latest display of baseball dynasty would attest.


2000 baseball historyForward to 2000: New York, New York The first Subway Series in 44 years is spiced with antagonism thanks to an ongoing feud between Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza.


1998 baseball historyBack to 1998: The Maris Sweepstakes Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa embark on a historic record-breaking pursuit of Roger Maris' long-standing season home run mark.


1990s baseball historyThe 1990s Page: To Hell and Back Relations between players and owners continue to deteriorate, bottoming out with a devastating mid-decade strike—souring relations with fans who, in some cases, turn their backs on the game for good. Recovery is made possible thanks to a series of popular record-breaking achievements by "class act" stars.


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1999 Standings

National League East
Atlanta Braves
103
59
.636
---
New York Mets (w)
97
66
.595
6.5
Philadelphia Phillies
77
85
.475
26
Montreal Expos
68
94
.420
35
Florida Marlins
64
98
.395
39
National League Central
Houston Astros
97
65
.599
---
Cincinnati Reds
96
67
.589
1.5
Pittsburgh Pirates
78
83
.484
18.5
St. Louis Cardinals
75
86
.466
21.5
Milwaukee Brewers
74
87
.460
22.5
Chicago Cubs
67
95
.414
30
National League West
Arizona Diamondbacks
100
62
.617
---
San Francisco Giants
86
76
.531
14
Los Angeles Dodgers
77
85
.475
23
San Diego Padres
74
88
.457
26
Colorado Rockies
72
90
.444
28
American League East
New York Yankees
98
64
.605
---
Boston Red Sox (w)
94
68
.580
4
Toronto Blue Jays
84
78
.519
14
Baltimore Orioles
78
84
.481
20
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
69
93
.426
29
American League Central
Cleveland Indians
97
65
.599
---
Chicago White Sox
75
86
.466
21.5
Detroit Tigers
69
92
.429
27.5
Kansas City Royals
64
97
.398
32.5
Minnesota Twins
63
97
.394
33
American League West
Texas Rangers
95
67
.586
---
Oakland A's
87
75
.537
8
Seattle Mariners
79
83
.488
16
Anaheim Angels
70
92
.432
25

1999 Postseason Results
NLDS New York defeated Arizona, 3-1.
NLDS Atlanta defeated Houston, 3-1.
ALDS Boston defeated Cleveland, 3-2.
ALDS New York defeated Texas, 3-0.
NLCS Atlanta defeated New York, 4-2.
ALCS New York defeated Boston, 4-1.
World Series New York (AL) defeated Atlanta (NL), 4-0.


It Happened in 1999

Rose-Colored Lenses vs. Shades of Gray: What’s Your View?
Before Game Two of the World Series at Atlanta’s Turner Field, Major League Baseball announces its All-Century Team, made up of the 20th Century’s best baseball players—as determined by the fans. Most of those selected are there to attend, including Ted Williams, Warren Spahn, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax.

The whole event is overshadowed by the appearance of Pete Rose, voted in despite not being on the initial ballot; it’s the first time Rose is allowed at a baseball-sanctioned event since his 1989 ban from the game. As Rose heads off the field, he engages in a testy interview with NBC sideline reporter Jim Gray, with Rose toeing his defiant line that he never bet on the game. Gray will receive a firestorm of criticism, mostly from fans, but will be vindicated in 2004 when Rose admits that, oh, yes, he did bet on baseball.

At Play in the Fields of Fidel
For the first time in 40 years, a major league team travels to Cuba as the Baltimore Orioles (payroll: $78 million) play an exhibition against the Cuban National Team (payroll: $2,250). The Orioles win 3-2 in 11 innings over a Cuban team featuring starting pitcher (and future Yankee) Jose Contreras before a handpicked, sellout crowd. A return engagement in Baltimore takes place on May 3, with the Cubans gaining revenge with a 12-6 pouncing. There is one Cuban defection on the road trip to Baltimore: Pitching coach Rigoberto Herrera asks for asylum.

McGwire vs. Sosa, Round Two
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the two super-sized sluggers who captivated America in 1998 with their record-smashing pursuit of the season home run record, nearly do it again in 1999—but both fall just short, with McGwire finishing at 65, Sosa at 63. Nevertheless, the record book is hardly unaffected. They both become the first players to hit 60 homers multiple times (in consecutive years, no less); McGwire is the first to hit at least 50 in four straight years, while becoming the first everyday player to collect more RBIs (147) than hits (145).

Off the field lies the most eye-popping number related to McGwire; the ball he hit for his 70th home run in 1998 sells for $2.7 million—twenty times the previous record for a baseball. The buyer is later revealed to be Todd McFarlane, creator of the Spawn comic strip.

Tatis Tattoos Two Taters
Fernando Tatis becomes the first major leaguer to hit two grand slams in the same inning, April 23 at Los Angeles. The St. Louis third baseman connects twice in the third inning, both times off of Dodger starter Chan Ho Park. The Cardinals breeze to a 12-5 victory; for Tatis, this is the highlight of a career year in which he’ll hit 34 homers with 107 runs batted in.

Joltin’ Joe (and Catfish) Has Left and Gone Away
Two greats of New York Yankee past, Joe DiMaggio and Catfish Hunter, both pass away. DiMaggio succumbs to a long and highly publicized illness in Florida on March 8, at the age of 84. The 53-year-old Hunter had been stricken with ALS—also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, named after another former Yankee legend—and dies on September 9.

Even Mr. Larsen is Impressed
On July 18 at New York, the ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium is thrown by Don Larsen, the man best remembered for pitching a perfect game for the Yankees during the 1956 World Series. Larsen departs and out comes Yankee starter David Cone—who proceeds to mimic Larsen and retire all 27 Montreal Expos he faces. It’s the third perfect game in Yankee history, after Larsen and David Wells, who threw one just a year earlier. Cone strikes out 10 Expos and throws just 88 pitches in the Yankees’ 6-0 win, staying sharp even as the game is stalled by a 33-minute rain delay.

Our Names Are Jose Jimenez and Eric Milton
Cone’s perfect game aside, baseball’s other two no-hitters of the year come from unlikely sources. Despite a 6.68 ERA, the Cardinals give a starting assignment on June 25 to Jose Jimenez—that’s his name—and he proceeds to outduel Randy Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks at Phoenix with a 1-0 no-hit win. In his next start—paired once more against Johnson, in St. Louis—Jimenez tosses a two-hit, 2-0 shutout. Those two gems are diamonds in an otherwise rough year for Jimenez, who eventually is demoted to the minors and finishes his major league season at 7-14.

Meanwhile, sophomore southpaw Eric Milton of the Minnesota Twins enters a September 11 game against Anaheim with a 6-11 record and 4.88 ERA—and no-hits the Angels, 7-0, striking out 13.

An Historic Threesome
Significant individual achievements occur over three consecutive days in early August. Mark McGwire, who just the year before had hit his 400th career home run, reaches 500 with two dingers against San Diego on August 5. A day later, the Padres’ Tony Gwynn collects his 3,000th hit against the Expos. And finally, on the next day, Wade Boggs—playing in his final season at age 41 for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays—becomes the 23rd player to reach the 3,000-hit plateau during a 15-10 loss to Cleveland.

Score Without Defeat
Roger Clemens, in his first season wearing Yankee pinstripes, sets the all-time American League record by winning 20 straight decisions. The streak began on June 3, 1998, while Clemens was with the Toronto Blue Jays; one year, three days, 30 starts, 20 wins and no losses later, he’ll finally lose an interleague matchup against the New York Mets. Clemens’ earned run average during the streak is 2.64.

Red Hot
The Cincinnati Reds’ offense takes part in a couple record-setting displays during the season. On May 19, they engage in a wild scoring affair with the Colorado Rockies at Denver that’s ridiculous even by Coors Field standards. In winning 24-12, the Reds belt out 28 hits, including nine doubles and six homers (three by Jeffrey Hammonds); the 81 total bases between both teams set a major league mark. Later, on September 9, the Reds tie a National League record when they slam nine home runs in a 22-3 rout of the Philadelphia Phillies. They’ll hammer five more the next day to enter the record book for most homers (14) over two games.

Future Schlock
Having had tremendous success selling major league uniforms of yesteryear, baseball goes the other direction and stages a series of “Turn Ahead the Clock” promotions in which teams dress up in futuristic garb. As a marketing gesture, it’s about as ill conceived as New Coke. Looking like rejected costume concepts from Rollerball, the uniforms are given unanimous thumbs down by the press and fans, and it becomes obvious that there will be no rush on sportswear shops to buy them as souvenirs. Seven teams, including traditional stalwarts in the Dodgers, Yankees and Chicago Cubs, refuse to participate.

Who’s Minding the Scoreboard?
The Expos have just gotten the third out of the seventh inning on the Padres at San Diego—but up steps Phil Nevin, and they keep playing. Incredibly, no one on the field—the players, the coaches, even the umpires—realize that the inning should be over until home plate umpire Jerry Layne stops after Nevin takes three pitches and says, “Wait a minute.” The Padres win, 10-3, on September 9.

Better Late Than Never
Jim Morris, a 35-year-old science teacher and ex-baseball prospect who never made it to the big leagues, suddenly sees his fastball come alive to the tune of nearly 100 miles per hour—and gets a shot late in the year pitching for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Despite his astonishing velocity, Morris will not become a real-life Roy Hobbs; he will pitch 21 games through the 2000 season for the Rays with no decisions and a so-so 4.80 ERA. His comeback story will serve as the inspiration for a well-received 2002 movie, The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid as Morris.

Jesse’s Got Game—1,072 of Them, In Fact
Jesse Orosco, 42, breaks the all-time record for appearances by a pitcher at 1,072, breaking the mark set just the year before by the retired Dennis Eckersley. The perfect left-handed spot reliever, Orosco will play on through 2003 before stepping down with 1,252 appearances.

New Ballparks

Safeco Field, Seattle The new ballpark for the Seattle Mariners, with its moist, cool Pacific air and spacious field dimensions, instantly became the best friend of beleaguered Mariner pitchers, who for years had to put up with the bandbox madness of the Kingdome.

Okayed under controversial circumstances—the Washington State Legislature, stricken with pennant fever as the Mariners stormed into their first postseason, overruled a public vote and approved the facility in 1995—Safeco Field has become a stunning success. It features a retractable roof that stretches out beyond the east end of the ballpark and over a series of railroad tracks—where passing trains often blare their horns to get the attention of those inside—and a series of artistic displays, most notably a spiral chandelier of 1,000 translucent bats that hang over the ballpark’s semi-circular main entrance, itself derived from Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.

The facility’s more pitching-friendly character scared away the Mariners’ two slugging megastars, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez—and curiously, the team only got better. (When the team hit the skids and attendance fell for the long term in the 2010s, the Mariners brought the fences in.) The ballpark’s architect is Los Angeles-based NBBJ Sport & Entertainment, which also designed Milwaukee’s Miller Park.


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