Not just for the game itself, but that game and night was the culmination of an entire season of thrills. For now, set aside any thoughts you have about the Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire home run race and consider this: It had become clear by mid-August that the Cubs had a shot at the 1998 postseason, but weren’t going to win the N.L. Central. Earlier that month they’d lost seven of nine and dropped five games in the standings behind the division-leading Astros.
But the wild card was still definitely within reach. And for the last 45 days of the 1998 season, no more than one game separated the top two teams in the wild-card race. For much of that time, that race was between the Cubs and Mets. When the Cubs lost 3-2 to the Reds on Sunday, September 20 — were swept by the Reds at Wrigley that weekend, in fact — they trailed the Mets by one game, with the Giants three games further back. The Cubs and Mets both had five games remaining in their seasons; San Francisco had seven.
The Cubs would play the rest of 1998 on the road — two at Milwaukee, three at Houston. The Mets had two home games vs. the Expos, then three at Atlanta. The Giants had four home games against the Pirates, then traveled to Coors Field for three vs. the Rockies.
The Mets lost all five of their games and were eliminated. The Cubs won two, lost two — including the excruciating Brant Brown Game in Milwaukee — and then dropped the final game of the regular season in Houston in 11 innings.
Meanwhile, the Giants won six in a row going into the season’s final day to overtake the Mets. Not 30 seconds after the Cubs lost in Houston, future Cub Neifi Perez homered in Denver to give the Rockies a win over the Giants and force the tiebreaker.
I was watching those games with some friends at a bar near Wrigley Field. I walked out the door after the games ended to the sight of literally hundreds of people running down Clark Street to get in line to buy tickets for the tiebreaker game, which was to happen the next night at Wrigley Field. Too bad that was before smartphone cameras existed; I’d have loved to have photos or video of that crazy scene. (And it could never happen today; games like this are now sold exclusively online or by phone.)
And so the Cubs and Giants would play one game to decide who went to the division series against the 106-win Braves. There hadn’t been a winner-take-all game at Wrigley Field in 53 years, not since Game 7 of the 1945 World Series.
The Cubs put some runners on base in the first four innings, but could not score. Just about that time, a weird balloon apparition of Harry Caray appeared over the right-field bleachers. The Giants also put some runners on in the early innings, but had no hits through five off Steve Trachsel.
Cubs fans were beginning to get nervous. Entering the wild-card game they had lost six of their previous eight games and the offense had sputtered, scoring just eight runs in the three-game series in Houston.
Henry Rodriguez led off the bottom of the fifth inning with a single.
That brought up Gary Gaetti, who’d been a Cub for only five weeks. Giants starter Mark Gardner got Gaetti down 0-2, and then Gary hit a baseball deep into the September night [VIDEO].
Again, context is important here. That energized the crowd and the ballclub. Gaetti, who was 39 at the time and not hitting well when the Cardinals released him in August, was rejuvenated when the Cubs brought him on board August 19. He hit .320/.397/.594 (41-for-128) with 11 doubles and eight home runs in just 37 games, none of those eight homers bigger than that one.
The Cubs loaded the bases in the sixth and Matt Mieske made it 4-0 with a pinch-hit, two-run single. The Giants broke up Trachsel’s no-hit bid with one out in the seventh with a single by Brent Mayne. But relievers Matt Karchner, Felix Heredia and Kevin Tapani held the Giants scoreless through eight, while the Cubs increased the lead to 5-0 on a wild pitch in the bottom of the eighth.
Tapani had thrown a scoreless eighth on only eight pitches, so Jim Riggleman left him in to start the ninth. What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, of course. Two singles off Tapani brought in Terry Mulholland, who allowed another hit to make it 5-1. A walk loaded the bases and a sacrifice fly made it 5-2. Closer Rod Beck came in and got the second out on a ground ball, but another run scored, so now the tying run’s at the plate in the person of former Cub Joe Carter.
Mark Grace’s reaction after he caught Carter’s popup to complete the 5-3 win reflected, I think, what all Cubs fans were feeling at the time: The release of the pressure of 45 days’ worth of one of the tensest postseason races you’ll ever see. And the tiebreaker game victory got jumpstarted on Gary Gaetti’s homer. Gaetti’s great five weeks as a Cub pushed the team to sign him to stick around in 1999, which wound up a mistake — at 40, Gaetti was pretty much done and hit just .204/.260/.339 in 117 games.
I remember saying to a friend of mine in the bleachers after the Cubs won that game, “If they don’t win another game” — meaning in the postseason to come — “it was all worth it.” Well, they didn’t win a game in that year’s postseason, they were swept by the Braves. But it was absolutely worth it. Gaetti’s homer was an exclamation mark on a memorable year.
Other footnotes: That was Joe Carter’s final MLB at-bat, as he retired after the 1998 season. And rest in peace, Rod Beck. The Shooter passed away in 2007, far too young, aged just 38.