Small-market miracles, slugging records were overshadowed by threat of strike

Baseball season marked by conflict, records

Posted: Tuesday, October 01, 2002

NEW YORK -- It was a baseball season full of angst and drama, collapses and comebacks.

Barry Bonds and Randy Johnson defied age, the Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics defied their meager budgets, and the powerhouse New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves defied the law of averages, rolling on as usual.

When the playoffs begin Tuesday night, Bonds will be looking past all his records, trying to win one of the few things he's missing -- a World Series ring.

These playoffs will be a showcase for the small-market Twins and A's, who have proved that money isn't everything in building a champion, and the Anaheim Angels, who are going up against the Yankees.

Johnson and teammate Curt Schilling will be trying to help Arizona repeat as World Series champs, but first they'll have to get past the inspired and surprising St. Louis Cardinals.

It's been a strange season. The biggest baseball story -- a strike -- never happened. The second biggest story -- steroids -- quieted down when owners and players signed off on a drug-testing plan that does no more than call for a survey next year.

Bonds didn't break the home-run record again. Instead, the San Francisco Giants' slugger hit .370 at age 38, became the oldest player to win the National League batting title, and put a virtual lock on his fifth MVP award. Scared pitchers walked him a record 198 times, most of those accompanied by boos from fans -- home or away. They came to watch Bonds hit, not stroll more than 3 miles.

When Bonds smacked four home runs in the season's first two games, fans started thinking he'd break the record of 73 he set last year.

But it's hard to hit homers when pitchers are throwing the ball 3 feet outside the strike zone. He wound up with 46 homers, second to Sammy Sosa's 49, and far behind Alex Rodriguez's 57 in the American League.

The only challenge left for Bonds is to get hits and homers in the playoffs and help his team win a championship.

''It's a great position to be in, but these are little series,'' Bonds said. ''We've seen it before. I can have a five-game slump, I can have a seven-game slump, I can have a two-week slump. Anything can happen.''

Johnson, still fast and nasty at 39, won the pitching triple crown, going 24-5 with a 2.37 ERA and 334 strikeouts. Johnson, who starts for the Diamondbacks against St. Louis in their playoff opener Tuesday night, is all but certain to win his fourth straight Cy Young Award.

This was a season when the Cardinals had to overcome the death of pitcher Darryl Kile from a heart attack at age 33 in June.

The grief ran deep, but so did the Cardinals' character and talent. They went on to win 97 games -- their most since 1985 -- and take the National League Central Division title.

The Twins won the American League Central Division just 10 months after major league baseball announced it would try to fold the team.

''This group has been through a lot together,'' first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. ''If it works out, it works out. If it doesn't, we know we'll be back again next year to try it again.''

Under the new labor contract, no teams can be eliminated through the 2006 season.

Oakland, which lost 14 of 17 games in May, won an AL record 20 straight in a late-season run to the West Division title. The A's started the year with the third-smallest payroll in the league -- at just under $40 million it was less than one-third of the Yankees' $126 million -- and they wound up tied with New York for the most victories -- 103.

The last time the Angels made the playoffs 16 years ago, they were beaten in Game 7 by the Boston Red Sox.

The man on the mound then was Roger Clemens. When the Angels start the playoffs against the Yankees on Tuesday night, the man on the mound will again be Clemens.

The 40-year-old pitcher has won 253 games, a record six Cy Young Awards and two World Series titles since that playoff game against the Angels.

''I don't know if I'm much different,'' Clemens said Monday. ''I'm still basically a power pitcher. Obviously, I have quite a bit more experience.''

So do all the Yankees, who are making their eighth straight playoff appearance.

They're trying to win their fifth straight AL pennant and fourth World Series title under manager Joe Torre.

With all the surprises this season, all the issues that came and went, some things never seem to change.

''There's definitely an aura here,'' said Yankees slugger Jason Giambi, who lost to New York in the opening round the past two seasons with Oakland. ''You see it year after year.''

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