If the 1997 Cubs are remembered for anything, it’s that they began the season with a historic 14-game losing streak. Changes needed to be made to improve on their 1997 68-94 mark, so general manager Ed Lynch was busy going into 1998. He signed free agents SS Jeff Blauser from the Braves and closer Rod Beck from the Giants. He added Mickey Morandini in a trade for Doug Glanville with the Phillies to replace the recently retired Ryne Sandberg. Lynch was able to take advantage of Montreal's continual cost-cutting measures by trading pitcher Miguel Bautista for left fielder Henry Rodriguez who became the Cubs 12th different Opening Day left fielder in as many years. Rodriguez was immediately slotted 5th in the lineup as protection for Mark Grace and Sammy Sosa. They had high hopes for youngster Kevin Orie coming off an impressive rookie season in which he finished 11th in Rookie of the Year voting, batting .275/.350/.431 in 114 games.
One of the biggest losses for the organization was not on the field but in the broadcast booth. Harry Caray, longtime broadcaster of the Cardinals, White Sox, and then the Cubs from 1982-1997, died on February 18, 1998. His grandson Chip Caray would take over play-by-play duties for the Cubs on WGN.
The Cubs started the 1998 season in the same place as 1997, in Florida, against the newly crowned World Champion Marlins. However, the Marlins were going in the opposite direction as the Cubs, divesting most of their roster over the winter in an extreme cost-cutting move by owner Wayne Huizenga. Those not dealt away in the offseason soon would be in the coming months.
Opening day got off to a roaring start in the very first inning had Cubs broadcasters Chip Caray and Steve Stone giddy. After a single and a walk that put runners on first and third, Henry Rodriguez blasted a three-run homer into the right-field bleachers of Pro Player Stadium. It was short-lived as Marlins World Series holdovers Gary Sheffield and Charles Johnson homered off of Cubs starter Kevin Tapani, who allowed nine runs in just two innings. The Marlins won easily, with a five-run margin, 11-6. It didn’t take long for writers, if not fans, to think the new look Cubs were a reprise of the year before. “13 to go–Cubs waste early surge,” The Chicago Tribune penned the next day.
The Cubs would quickly prove 1997 was in the past as they came back to win the next two to take the series from the Marlins. After the first win, catcher Scott Servais said, “There’s probably no other team in history that needed to win the second game of the season as bad as we did.” The longest-tenured Cub, Mark Grace, playing on a broken toe from his last spring training at-bat, helped secure the series win as the Cubs came back from down 6-0 to score the winning run in the 9th. Later in the inning, Rod Beck notched his first save as a Cub and 200th of his career.
The Cubs felt good going into their home opener despite some mechanical issues with their flight that turned a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Miami to Chicago into six hours. They matched up against the winless Montreal Expos at frigid Wrigley Field. While the players battled the elements (Rodriguez and the Expos' Vladimir Guerrero had likely homers taken away by the early April wind), the Wrigley crowd had a memorial service for Harry Caray. Dutchie Caray, his widow, became the first of many guests to sing the 7th inning stretch in Harry's absence. The Cubs pecked away at Montreal, securing a 6-2 win—Cubs pitchers, including Steve Trachsel, combined for three hits and 3 RBI. In what would become a theme for the 1998 season, the Cubs bullpen had to be bailed out by Rod Beck, who nailed down his 2nd save. It was hard not to feel good about the Cubs as they finished a four-game sweep of Montreal over the next three days. Sammy Sosa, off to a slow start offensively and defensively, hit his first homer of the year in the series, an opposite-field shot in the 2nd game.
The 6-1 first week of 1998 was quite a contrast to 1997 for Cubs fans who looked past the fact that they had just beat up on a couple of teams who, to that point, had one combined win on the season and had some thinking World Series. Cubs media information coordinator Chuck Wasserstrom dismissed the ticket inquiries by noting, “I’ve got the Sox-Cubs series [coming up in June 1998] to worry about.”
Around the league:
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks play their first games as expansion franchises. Predictably, both lose convincingly (11-6 and 9-2 respectively). Future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs hits the first homer for the Devil Rays, while rookie sensation Travis Lee goes deep for the first time for the D-Backs.
Mark McGwire starts his assault on Roger Maris’ record of 61 single-season home runs with homers in each of the first four games, including an Opening Day grand slam against the Dodgers’ Ramon Martinez and a walk-off 3-run homer in the 12th inning of their second game.
The New York Yankees, expected by owner George Steinbrenner to go 162-0 in 1998, lose 4 of their first 5. Seattle’s 8-0 shutout victory on April 6. It would prove to be the nadir of the season for New York.
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