The 1996 baseball season opened with tragedy and ended in shame. On Opening Day, umpire John McSherry became only the second on-field fatality in major-league history when he succumbed to a heart attack at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. During the last week of the campaign, a clash between Baltimore’s Roberto Alomar and umpire John Hirschbeck culminated in a near postseason suspension for the second baseman after he spit in Hirschbeck's face.
In between those events, fans saw more runs scored than in any other season. In the American League alone, Seattle, Cleveland, Baltimore, Texas, and Boston all scored more than 900 runs, a feat not achieved by any team since 1953. Six men hit 47 or more home runs, with Oakland's Mark McGwire clubbing 52 round-trippers in just 423 official trips to the plate.
Along the way, the Cleveland Indians compiled baseball’s best record for the second year in a row, the Texas Rangers captured their first A.L. West title, and the New York Yankees claimed their first division championship in 15 years.
The Yankees posted a regular-season record of 92-70 that left them four games ahead of the second-place Baltimore Orioles in the final A.L. East standings. The Orioles also advanced to the playoffs as the circuit’s wild-card entry. The Boston Red Sox finished third in the division, seven games off the pace.
The Red Sox actually had the division’s top offensive performer in Mo Vaughn. The slugging first baseman followed up his 1995 MVP campaign by placing among the league leaders with 44 home runs, 143 runs batted in, 118 runs scored, and a .326 batting average. Unfortunately for Vaughn and his Red Sox teammates, Boston’s pitching staff surrendered just under five earned runs a game to the opposition, negating the fact that the club tallied a total of 928 runs over the course of the season.
Baltimore fielded an equally impressive lineup that placed third in the league rankings with 949 runs scored and established a new major-league record by blasting 257 home runs during the regular season. Roberto Alomar hit 22 homers, drove in 94 runs, scored 132 others, and batted .328. Bobby Bonilla hit 28 home runs, knocked in 116 runs, scored another 107, and batted .287. Rafael Palmeiro placed among the league leaders with 39 homers, 142 runs batted in, and 110 runs scored. Brady Anderson had a career year, hitting 50 home runs, driving in 110 runs, scoring 117 others, and batting .297.
Playing in tiny Camden Yards certainly helped boost the offensive numbers compiled by the members of Baltimore’s power-laden lineup. However, the size of the ballpark also contributed greatly to the inordinately high earned run averages posted by the members of the team’s pitching staff. Even staff ace Mike Mussina, who concluded the campaign with a record of 19-11, finished the year with an unseemly 4.81 ERA.
Although the Yankees lacked the offensive firepower of either the Red Sox or the Orioles, they won the division title on the basis of their superior team balance. The Yankees finished just ninth in the league with 871 runs scored, and they also finished just 12th with 162 home runs. However, they placed second in the junior circuit with a team batting average of .288, and their pitching staff compiled a team ERA of 4.65 that placed them fifth in the league rankings.
Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, and A.L. Rookie of the Year Derek Jeter paced New York on offense. Martinez hit 25 homers, drove in 117 runs, and batted .292. O’Neill went deep 19 times, knocked in 91 runs, and batted .302. Williams batted .305, drove in 102 runs, and led the club with 29 home runs and 108 runs scored. Jeter batted .314 and crossed the plate 104 times. Meanwhile, Andy Pettitte anchored New York’s starting rotation, earning a close second-place finish in the Cy Young balloting by leading all A.L. hurlers with 21 victories.
The Yankees’ greatest strength lay in their exceptional bullpen duo of Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland, which allowed them to essentially turn games into six-inning affairs. With Rivera serving as setup man for closer Wetteland, opposing teams knew they had little chance of winning if they trailed New York after six innings. Rivera finished 8-3, with a 2.09 ERA, five saves, and 130 strikeouts in 108 innings of work. Wetteland led the league with 43 saves.
While the Yankees separated themselves from the runner-up Orioles by a slim four-game margin in the East, the Cleveland Indians waltzed to their second straight Central Division title by compiling a major-league best 99-62 record. The Chicago White Sox finished a distant second, 14 ½ games off the pace.
Although the White Sox finished well out of contention, their lineup featured arguably the league’s most imposing figure at the plate. Frank Thomas had another huge year for Chicago, scoring 110 runs and placing among the league leaders with 40 home runs, 134 runs batted in, a .349 batting average, a .459 on-base percentage, and a .626 slugging average.
However, the Indians again proved to be the American League’s strongest team over the course of the regular season. Cleveland finished fifth in the circuit with 218 home runs, placed second with 952 runs scored, 160 stolen bases, and a .475 slugging average, and led the league with a .293 team batting average, a .369 team on-base percentage, and a 4.34 team ERA. Charles Nagy led a quartet of starters that posted double-digit win-totals. Nagy finished 17-5, with a 3.41 ERA. Orel Hershiser, Jack McDowell, and Chad Ogea won 15, 13, and 10 games, respectively.
Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel served as the table-setters for the middle of Cleveland’s powerful lineup. Lofton batted .317, scored 132 runs, collected 210 hits, and topped the circuit with 75 stolen bases. Vizquel batted .297, scored 98 runs, and stole 35 bases. Julio Franco, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Albert Belle comprised the middle of Cleveland’s batting order. Franco finished near the top of the league rankings with a .322 batting average. Thome had his breakout season, hitting 38 home runs, driving in 116 runs, scoring 122 others, batting .311, walking 123 times, and compiling a .450 on-base percentage. Ramirez hit 33 homers, knocked in 112 runs, and batted .309. Belle earned a third-place finish in the MVP voting by batting .311, placing among the league leaders with 48 home runs and 124 runs scored, and topping the circuit with 148 runs batted in.
The Texas Rangers joined New York and Cleveland as the league’s third division champion, winning their first A.L. West crown by finishing the regular season with a record of 90-72, 4 ½ games ahead of the second-place Seattle Mariners. Although the Rangers lacked a true staff ace, they managed to tie the Yankees for fifth place in the league with a team ERA of 4.65. Ken Hill finished 16-10 and, with an ERA of 3.63, was the only member of the Rangers’ starting rotation who compiled a mark below 4.50.
The Rangers relied heavily on their potent offense to claim their first division title. Texas finished fourth in the league rankings with 928 runs scored, 221 home runs, and a .469 team slugging average. Ivan Rodriguez hit 19 homers, drove in 86 runs, scored 116 others, and batted .300. Dean Palmer hit 38 home runs, knocked in 107 runs, and scored 98 others. Rusty Greer batted .332, drove in 100 runs, and scored another 96. Juan Gonzalez earned A.L. MVP honors by hitting 47 home runs, knocking in 144 runs, and batting .314.
Yet, Gonzalez wasn’t the Western Division’s best player, nor was he its top slugger. Oakland’s Mark McGwire claimed the latter title by driving in 113 runs, scoring 104 others, batting a career-high .312, and leading the league with 52 home runs, even though he appeared in only 130 games and collected a total of just 423 official at-bats. Meanwhile, both Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez had exceptional all-around years for the runner-up Mariners. Junior hit 49 homers, drove in 140 runs, scored 125 others, and batted .303. Rodriguez earned a close second-place finish in the MVP balloting by hitting 36 home runs, knocking in 123 runs, collecting 215 hits, and leading the league with a .358 batting average, 141 runs scored, 54 doubles, and 379 total bases.
Gonzalez did his best to justify his MVP selection by posting tremendous numbers against New York in the first round of the playoffs. He clobbered Yankee pitching for five home runs, nine runs batted in, and a .438 batting average. However, the rest of the Rangers didn’t perform nearly as well, enabling the Yankees to close out the series in four games. Bernie Williams excelled at the plate for New York, batting .467, hitting three homers, driving in five runs, and scoring five others. Meanwhile, wild-card Baltimore surprised Cleveland in the other first-round matchup, eliminating the defending A.L. champions in four games.
The American League Championship Series between New York and Baltimore experienced its fair share of controversy, particularly in Game One. The Yankees ended up winning the contest on a walk-off homer by Bernie Williams in the bottom of the 11th inning, after they earlier capitalized on a generous ruling by the umpiring crew, which awarded Derek Jeter a game-tying home run in the eighth inning on a clear case of fan-interference. The Yankees needed no such help the rest of the way, taking three of the next four contests to defeat the Orioles in five games.
Facing the heavily-favored Atlanta Braves in the World Series, the Yankees appeared dead-in-the-water after they dropped the first two contests at home by a combined score of 16-1. However, they somehow managed to pull themselves together, sweeping the next three games in Atlanta, before returning to Yankee Stadium to close out the Series with a 3-2 victory in Game Six. The turning point of the Fall Classic occurred in the fourth contest, when New York overcame an early 6-0 deficit to defeat the Braves 8-6 in extra innings. Jim Leyritz provided the big blow for New York, tying the game with a three-run homer in the top of the eighth inning. John Wetteland earned Series MVP honors by saving all four of New York’s victories. The win gave the Yankees their first world championship in 18 years.
Other notable events from around the league and players who distinguished themselves over the course of the season included:
• July 12 - After the failure of two operations to repair the glaucoma-induced damage that blinded him in his right eye, Minnesota’s Kirby Puckett announced his retirement effective immediately.
• September 6 – Baltimore’s Eddie Murray became the 15th player in major league history to hit 500 home runs. By doing so, he joined Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as the only players to collect 500 home runs and 3,000 hits.
• September 18 - Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox tied his own major league record for a nine inning game by striking out 20 Detroit Tigers during a 4-0 win.
• September 29 - Against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Skydome, Baltimore’s Brady Anderson hit his 50th home run of the season, making him the first player to hit 50 home runs in one season and steal 50 bases in another (he stole 52 bases in 1992).
• November 26 - Less than three weeks after major league owners voted 18-12 against ratification of baseball's new collective bargaining agreement, they voted again and this time approved it by a vote of 26-4. The landmark agreement brought interleague play to the regular season for the first time, as well as revenue sharing among owners and a payroll tax on players.
• Toronto’s Pat Hentgen earned A.L. Cy Young honors by going 20-10, with a 3.22 ERA and a league-leading 266 innings pitched and 10 complete games.
• Twelve-year-old Jeffrey Maier helped the Yankees win Game One of the ALCS when he interfered with a long fly ball hit to right field by Yankee Derek Jeter.
• The Hall of Fame inducted Earl Weaver, Ned Hanlon, Jim Bunning, and Bill Foster.
• Mark McGwire became the first player in major league history to compile 50 home runs in a season before collecting his 400th at-bat.
• Baltimore (257), Seattle (245), and Oakland (243) all broke the 1961 New York Yankees’ previous single-season home run mark of 240.
• Roberto Alomar was almost suspended for the postseason after he spit in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck near the end of the regular season.
• Major league umpires threatened not to work postseason games when American League president Gene Budig delayed acting against Alomar after the spitting incident.
• Seattle’s 993 runs scored represented the highest total compiled by any team since 1950.
• Boston's Roger Clemens led the American League with 257 strikeouts.
• Seattle’s Edgar Martinez batted .327, hit 26 homers, drove in 103 runs, and scored 121 others.
• Minnesota’s Paul Molitor batted .341, knocked in 113 runs, scored 99 others, collected 41 doubles, and led the league with 225 hits.
- Bernie Williams won the ALCS MVP
- Cecil Fielder won the Babe Ruth Award
- Pat Hentgen won the Cy Young
- Johnny Oates won the Mgr of the year
- Joe Torre won the Mgr of the year
- Juan Gonzalez won the MVP
- John Wetteland won the Rolaids Relief
- Derek Jeter won the Rookie of the Year
- Pat Hentgen won the TSN Pitcher of the Year
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