Season in review

Bonds' on-base crusade, Ichiro's hit parade, Expos' exodus: the 2004 season had plenty of highs and lows.

Originally Published: October 3, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It was a great year to be a hit-'em-where-they-ain't hit machine from Kasugai. And it was a great year to end a six-week retirement to go pitch in your hometown.

It was a great year to go three months between haircuts in stylish New England. And it was a great year to be a 700-homer man watching your fan club float around in kayaks out beyond the right-field seats.

On the other hand, it was a lousy year to play baseball in an Arizona desert. It was a lousy year to be a lame-duck orange mascot in a city north of the border. And it was a really, really lousy year to dream those elusive October dreams in Philadelphia, Oakland, Kansas City and the truly accursed North Side of Chicago.

It was a great year to say, "I told you so," in Atlanta and Chavez Ravine. And it was a lousy year to be a contender in Florida with a hurricane on the way. But when you add up all those thrills and spills, they sure did make for another memorable and sensational baseball season.

So let's take a look at the historic and hilarious highlights before it gets too tough to see them in our rear-view mirrors. This was baseball's Year That Was:

Senior Citizen Slugger of the Year
When most hitters turn 40, they're normally found hitting fungoes in the Northwest League or hitting golf balls down the 14th fairway. But Barry Bonds has always been a little different.

Barry Bonds
APReaching base is Barry Bonds' specialty in 2004.

So in the season in which Barry turned 40, all he did was:

  • Draw more walks (232) in one year than Manny Sanguillen once drew in a 13-year, 5,000-at-bat career (223).

  • Draw so many intentional walks (120) that only one player in either league (Jim Thome) was within 100 of him. Yeah, a hundred.

  • Become the first player in history to have a .600 on-base percentage -- breaking the modern NL record for all players not named Barry Bonds by an absurd 102 points.

  • Become the first player in 114 years to hit .360 or better (min.: 500 trips) in the season in which he turned 40. (Only other guy to do it: Jim O'Rourke, in 1890).

  • Become the third player in history to drive in 100 runs in a season in which he got fewer than 400 at-bats (joining only Rudy York, in 1937, and Frank Thomas, in the 1994 strike year).

  • Draw so many walks that even if he'd gotten no hits all season, he still would have had a higher on-base percentage (.391), counting just his walks and hit-by-pitches, than the guy who led the National League, Juan Pierre (.374).

  • And become the first player in half a century (and fourth in history) to hit 45 homers or more -- yet still have more homers than strikeouts. (The others: Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Kluszewski.)

    In other words, folks, this man can hit.

    "Barry's so good," said Brewers coach-witticist Rich Donnelly, "he could hit with a garden hose on Christmas morning."

    But all those hits and all those walks also meant Barry joined Babe Ruth as the only men to reach base more than 370 times in one season. And that's one feat Bonds himself thought might have been overrated -- because it meant he spent more time standing around this year than everybody but the umpires.

    There might not seem to be any practical solution to that problem. But always-innovative Phillies outfield-quotesmith Doug Glanville proposed: "Since he pretty much is always on base, he should be exempt from actually running the bases. Too much energy. They should grant him a scooter -- or just put in a people-mover from home to first base."

    Japanese Import of the Year
    It wasn't easy turning George Sisler -- a man who has been retired for 70 years, and no longer living for 30 -- into a major national figure again. But the ever-resourceful Ichiro Suzuki found a way to do that.

    Ichiro Suzuki
    Ichiro Suzuki was amazingly single-minded this season.

    By breaking Sisler's 84-year-old record for most hits in a season. With 262.

    And that, ladies and gentlemen, sure is a lot of hits. It's nearly twice as many, for example, as the NL batting champ, Bonds, (who got 135). And it's 100 more than the career high of Jim Thome, Javy Lopez or Rondell White.

    It's also kind of hard to believe that Ichiro had more five-hit games after July 1 (four) than Bonds had five-at-bat games (two). Or that he had more singles (223) than anyone else had hits. Or that he had almost as many infield singles (57) as Bonds had singles (60). But all it proves is that there is no hitter in baseball quite like him.

    Most players, Seattle hitting coach Paul Molitor told the Tacoma News Tribune's Larry LaRue, look out there from home plate and "see the fielders. But Ichiro doesn't. He sees the holes."

    "We don't have enough defenders for him," Rangers manager Buck Showalter told the Fort Worth Star Telegram's T.R. Sullivan. "You get the feeling that if you have 15 defenders, he'd hit the ball in the seats."

    So is there any way to stop a man who has gotten more hits just in four American seasons (924) than former teammate Pat Borders has in a 16-season career?

    "Sure," Rich Donnelly said. "Take first base and move it out to the outfield grass. That would help. It would cost him about 97 hits a year."

    Diamond-Back-Back-Backs of the Year
    They didn't quite catch the '62 Mets. Or the 2003 Tigers. But that doesn't mean the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks didn't carve their own place in history.

    Randy Johnson
    The Big Unit was the lone bright spot this season for Arizona.

    They lost 111 freaking baseball games. That's more than any other National League team in the division-play era. In fact, among NL franchise that had been in existence for more than four years, it's more than any team since the 1952 Pirates.

    Which is a staggering development, for several reasons:

  • 1) This team actually had a winning record last year (84-78). So it became the second team ever to have a winning season and then lose 110 games or more the next. (The other: Pinky Whitney's 1934-35 Braves.)

  • 2) This team employed the most dominating pitcher in its league -- a fellow named Randy Johnson. Which will make it the first team ever to lose 110 games despite sending a pitcher out there who won 16 games, led his league in strikeouts and allowed the lowest opponent batting average in the league.

  • 3) This team managed to make it through the entire season without sweeping any series of two games or more. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Diamondbacks' streak of 67 consecutive series without a sweep (dating back to Aug. 7, 2003) is the longest by any team since the 1996-97 Phillies went sweepless for 79 in a row.

  • 4) This team actually got off to a decent start. A month into the season, it was still within two games of .500 (12-14). After which it proceeded to go 39-97 -- making it the only team besides the '62 Mets, to finish any of the last 50 seasons by losing at least 97 of its final 136 games.

    When a team gets rolling on a streak like that, of course, no one knows quite how to stop it. And nobody expressed that feeling better than since-gonged manager Bob Brenly.

    "Road trip, home game -- it makes no difference," Brenly said. "When you play this horse (manure), it doesn't matter what the venue is. ... We're caught in a vortex of horse(manure) right now, and it's just sucking us right down. I can't figure out how to make it stop."

    That, by the way, is the first time the term, "vortex of horse(manure)," has ever been used by a major-league manager, according to the Society for American Baseball Research Committee Studying the Use of Words like Vortex.

    Au Revoir of the Year
    So long. Farewell. Au revoir.

    We all know the Montreal Expos needed to be put out of their misery. Nobody disputes that -- except for maybe their remaining 57 season-ticket holders. But that doesn't mean we can't have our memories:

    Youppi!
    Youppi! is unemployed.

    THE RAIN DELAY -- After sitting in a warehouse in France for 16 years, the Expos finally installed their (ahem) "retractable" roof atop Stade Olympique in April, 1987. And it sure did work great -- for one day. Unfortunately, on the second day, it got stuck in the upright and locked position, resulting in a 1-hour, 57-minute rain delay inside a domed stadium. Which inspired the great Richard Griffin, then the Expos' resident public-relations comic genius, to list starting pitcher Bryn Smith's five favorite rain songs on the next day's press notes. OK, here they are: "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," "Singin' in the Rain," "Purple Rain," "Rainy Day People" and "McArthur Park."

    THE SEAL DELAY -- But that stuck-roof delay might not even have been the most inventive reason for a delay in Stade Olympique history. An even better one, according to Griffin, occurred in 1985, when a bunch of slithering seals in a pregame circus show were having so much fun sliding around on the wet tarp, it caused a 20-minute seal delay before they could be rounded up.

    THE HIDDEN TEAM TRICK -- One little-known fact about Stade Olympique is that it ran a mere 1 billion dollars over budget (costing $1.1 billion Canadian instead of $120 million). So the least it could have done for that $1.1 billion was stay in one piece. Uh, nope. In 1991, a 55-ton slab of concrete escaped its seemingly secure cell on the side of the trusty Stade -- causing the closing of the stadium and launching the Expos on a fun little 28-days, 26-game, 14-city, 6,526-mile road trip. Mysteriously, the Expos ignored Griffin's suggestion for the perfect Stade Olympique promotion: Miner's Hat Day.

    THE HIDDEN FLY-BALL TRICK -- It was in July, 1998 that veteran pitcher Mark Portugal slammed a long fly ball to left field that suddenly, well, disappeared. At least temporarily. Then everyone noticed the ball had creatively smacked into the fence -- and simply stuck there, like a wad of bubble gum. Turned out it had wedged into a seam in the padding, for an only-in-Stade-Olympique ground-rule double. "He's a man of many talents," teammate Mark Parent said of Portugal. "He's a very sticky guy."

    THE EXPLODING HEAT PACK -- Back in the pre-roof era, there was no colder place south of the Arctic Circle than Stade Olympique. It was so cold, longtime reliever Kent Tekulve once told us, that "I used to go back in the clubhouse and jump in the sauna -- in full uniform, with my jacket on -- between innings." Normally, though, Tekulve just used to stash one of those chemical heat packs in his back pocket. But one night, something unfathomable happened: Tekulve had to bat -- and, miraculously, reached base. Whereupon he had to slide into second. And his heat pack exploded, all over him. So he pitched the ninth, entombed in heat-pack juice. "It wasn't that I left the pack in there because I forgot," Tekulve said. "'I just didn't expect to get on base."

    THE BLIZZARD -- On April 20, 1981, the Hit King, Pete Rose -- unaware he would one day be the subject of a major ESPN motion picture -- walked to the plate in Montreal during a real, live snow storm. He then slushed a single up the middle, turned to umpire Bruce Froemming and asked for the ball. When Froemming looked at him funny, Rose replied: "Bruce, I've got almost 3,600 hits in my career. But I ain't ever got one in the snow. So I'd like to keep the ball."

    THE CHICKENS (PART ONE) -- There was no greater scoreboard feature in any ballpark ever constructed than the Stade Olympique chicken show. Any time an Expo reached first base and the opposing pitcher made a pickoff throw to first, they slapped an animated chicken on the video board. Two throws meant two chickens. Three meant three chickens. And, well, you get the idea. So one night, during a Pirates-Expos game, Pirates pitcher Bob Walk fired a surprise throw to first -- even though no pickoff attempt had been signaled by micromanager Jim Leyland. Up went a chicken. Walk then made another throw. And another. And another. At that point, a fuming Leyland sent pitching coach Ray Miller out to ask what the heck Walk was doing. A moment later, Miller burst into laughter on the mound, then returned to the dugout and reported to Leyland: "He said the record for chickens is six. He's just trying to get seven."

    THE CHICKENS (PART TWO) -- But alas, a couple of years later, Walk's chicken record was blown away -- by the all-time pickoff-attempt king, Astros pitcher Jim Deshaies. Deshaies put so many chickens on that board, he couldn't count them all. So all he knows now is that his record was "at least 11." It took some major persistence to accumulate that much poultry. But "once they started hanging chickens," he reminisced, "I said, 'If you want to hang chickens, then by golly, we're going to hang some chickens.' " And now, thanks to the demise of both that scoreboard and the Expos, we know that no one will ever break that chicken record, including Colonel Sanders.

    THE METRICS -- Another enjoyable aspect of Stade Olympique's cosmopolitan flair was that the distances listed on the outfield fences weren't measured in feet. This was Canada. So feet were out, and the always-confusing metric system was in. This, obviously, was a linear and lingual disaster waiting to happen. And the perfect guy to get entangled in that metric mess was -- who else? -- longtime Mets malapropper Ralph Kiner. Who told his listeners one fateful evening in 1996: "Down the left-field and right-field lines, it's 99 liters." Yeah, give or take a few quarts.

    THE YOUPPSTER -- Maybe to some people, Vladimir Guerrero or Gary Carter were the face of baseball in Montreal. But to those who really understood its essence, there was only one symbol of the Expos' unique ambiance. That, of course, was their beloved mascot, Youppi! We once said that watching Youppi! motor across the dugout roof and slide into his own home plate was like watching Olivier perform Shakespeare. And we're sticking with that appraisal of his mascot artistry to this day.

    But knowing that this moment, the end of the Youppi! era, was approaching, we spent the last few years asking some of our favorite humorists to sum up their own feelings about Youppi!

  • "When he used to bring his big 50-gallon barrel out and pretend he was playing the drums," Deshaies reminisced, "I mean, I could see that 100 times and still double over. ... See, I always took kind of the car-wreck mentality toward Youppi. It was like, 'It was so bad, it was great.' Know what I mean? So everyone else would be saying, 'Here comes that bleeping guy.' And I was, 'Great. Here comes Youppi!' "

  • "I still don't know what he is," Rich Donnelly said. "Most mascots, you know they're a bobcat or a bear or a bird. But you can't go to a zoo and say, 'Show me your Youppi!' I just don't know who drew him up. You know those paintings where you take an elephant and give him some paint and he splashes it all over a canvas with his tusk? To me, that's Youppi!"

  • What, exactly, is a Youppi!? "Let's see," Doug Glanville said. "You-pee. It's like U of P. I think it's a Penn thing. He had a quiet wisdom, so you think of the University of Pennsylvania. I think he might have been on some sort of spy mission in Canada. His grant probably ran out. They had to call him back. I wish him well."

    And now, all of us wish him well. We don't know what it is to cover baseball in a world without Youppi! So we hope he can latch on with some independent team somewhere. Because without him, the baseball universe will never be quite the same.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

    Jayson Stark | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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