Reasons 2016 the Most Significant Year in Baseball in 20 Years
I have been a die-hard baseball fan for two decades now, and 2016 is the most significant year of baseball I’ve had the privilege of following. Trevor Story, a 23-year-old rookie, set a record by hitting nine home runs in the first month of his Major League career. Eventual Cy Young winner Max Scherzer became the fourth pitcher to strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning game. Bartolo “Big Sexy” Colon became the oldest player in MLB history to register his first career home run at the ripe old age of 42.
The season had a lot of fun and impressive moments, and these milestones aren’t even among the ones 2016 will be remembered for. It will go down in history because it contained moments and events that transcend the ever-growing tendency in baseball to break everything down into WAR, home-vs.-road splits, BABIP, and FIP. Certain moments we experienced in 2016 can’t be quantified, compared to output in previous seasons, or analyzed by experts. They were quite simply some of the most significant moments in 20 years, and, in many cases, baseball history as a whole. The implication of these performances affects baseball past (especially for those who have waited 108 years for a world title), as well as baseball future. 2016 was an amazing season filled with unfathomable heartbreak and joy that will last a lifetime. These were the moments that made 2016 the most significant season of the past 20 years:
- ”Make Baseball Fun Again”
As the crop of baseball superstars we knew and loved from the ‘90s and 2000s turns over and gives way to the new crop of exciting, charismatic, mega-athletic superstars of the current generation, the rules of baseball are beginning to be re-written. Jose Bautista’s bat flip in the 2015 American League Division Series was one of the most exciting, passionate moments in recent memory; however, his celebration rubbed many of the old-timers the wrong way. Many players felt Bautista’s reaction was excessive and defied baseball etiquette. He was criticized all across the country for “showing up” Rangers pitcher Sam Dyson. But superstar and baseball ambassador Bryce Harper, one of the most recognizable players in the game today, came to Bautista’s rescue. Harper, known for playing with passion and occasionally rubbing old-timers the wrong way, began a baseball revolution of sorts by wearing a hat that read, “Make Baseball Fun Again,” an adaption of Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. Harper had a campaign of sorts as well to appeal to the next generation of baseball fans. He realized that baseball’s pace and style of play is viewed as boring to many casual fans and, thus, the sport was beginning to get overshadowed by the faster, more exciting NFL and NBA styles of play. Harper’s MBFA campaign encourages fans and players alike to accept the new baseball, full of passion and athleticism, that’s being played by many young superstars. The movement picked up quite a bit of support as the season went on, which bodes well for the game for the foreseeable future. Harper and his cohort of young, supremely talented peers are bringing baseball back to the center stage, and fans couldn’t be happier.
- Farewell Turner Field
Built in 1996 to serve as the centerpiece of the Summer Olympics, Turner Field became the home of the Atlanta Braves the following year. Now, Turner Field is closing its doors to Major League Baseball fans in favor of a new stadium in Fulton County, Georgia. From 1997 until its close, Turner Field was home to one of the most dominant teams in baseball history. The Braves, under legendary manager Bobby Cox, won 11 straight NL East Division titles, and nine of those came while the Braves called Turner Field home. It hosted the NLDS 11 times, the NLCS four times, one controversial NL Wild Card game (the first in baseball history), one World Series game in 1999, and the All-Star game in 2000. Until 2014, the Braves at Turner Field never finished any lower than 10th in average attendance. Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Chipper Jones spent their prime years there. Turner Field will be remembered as the home of one of the most dominant teams in baseball history, and will be sorely missed.
- Ichiro’s 3,000th hit
Ichiro Suzuki made his Major League debut in 2001 during the height of baseball’s steroid era. His style of play contrasted sharply with the hit-it-as-far-as-you-can style of the time as he thrilled fans with his blazing speed, instincts in the field, cannon arm, and contact hitting ability. On August 7th, he became the 30th player in MLB history to collect his 3,000th hit at the age of 42. What’s more remarkable is that Ichiro played nine seasons in Japan before coming to the Majors, amassing 1,278 hits during that time. Ichiro paved the way for players from Asian countries to come to MLB and has been one of the most popular players in the world since his debut. A sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer, Ichiro will forever be remembered as one of the greatest pure hitters in baseball history. His 3,000th hit just further cements what we already knew.
- David Ortiz’ Swan Song
One of the faces of the game since the Red Sox signed him in 2003, “Big Papi” David Ortiz announced his retirement before the 2016 season. Ortiz has long been a fan favorite because of his huge, loveable personality and his spectacular consistency. Responsible for some of the most memorable and clutch postseason moments in baseball history, Ortiz played an integral role in bringing a championship back to one of professional sports’ most historically deprived franchises—and then brought another two after that. As if it wasn’t painful enough for Red Sox fans (and baseball fans in general) to know one of the generation’s greats would be hanging up his spikes at the end of the 2016 season, Ortiz went out and had the greatest final season statistically in baseball history, playing with the same charm and love for the game as he did when he first debuted. While playing for one of baseball’s most historic and fabled franchises did quite a bit to cement Ortiz’ superstar status, his remarkable hitting ability and uncanny knack for coming up big when it mattered cannot be denied. Ortiz should certainly be enshrined in Cooperstown, and will go down as an icon in one of America’s best sports towns.
Tragedy struck the entire sports world on the morning of September 25th when Marlins star pitcher Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating accident in Miami Beach. One of the brightest, most fun-loving personalities and generational talents in the game, Fernandez’ death ripped out the hearts of sports fans across the country, especially, in Cuba, his home country. Fernandez risked his life on several occasions to come pitch in the majors so he could make a better life for himself and his family. He had one of the brightest smiles in the game and was adored by fans and players alike because of the love and passion with which he played the game. But make no mistake about it—when Fernandez stepped on the mound he was one of the game’s best. With an electric fastball and a Bugs Bunny breaking ball, he was, by all accounts, one of baseball’s true aces. A two-time All Star and the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year, Fernandez constantly did what was seemingly impossible—fill up Marlins Park on a consistent basis. Because of the huge Cuban population in Miami, he was one of the most popular players in Marlins history and was a great ambassador for the game. In his final game on September 20th, he pitched eight shutout innings striking out 12 and walking none. After the game, he called it the greatest game he ever pitched. Following his death, in an emotional tribute to the late superstar, the Marlins retired his number 16. In the bottom half of the first game following his death, light hitting shortstop and best friend, Dee Gordon, hit a monster blast over Fernandez’ number 16 displayed on a scoreboard on the right field wall. He rounded the bases with tears in his eyes. You can’t make this stuff up. It’s easy to think about what could’ve been with Fernandez, but it’s much easier to remember what an amazing player and human being he was. RIP JoFer.
- The voice of baseball calls it quits
After 67 seasons with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, legendary broadcaster Vin Scully called his last game in 2016. For decades, Scully was considered the voice of baseball. His broadcasts soothed and entertained fans with his descriptive, poetic voice, humorous quips, and the stories of baseball’s greatest heroes and most memorable moments collected over all his years as a broadcaster. Scully called three perfect games, 12 All-Star games, and 25 World Series for both the Dodgers and for the rest of the majors. In addition, he called NFL games and PGA tour events from the mid-70s to early-80s. He has won almost every award there is to in broadcasting including a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. He was named the Most Memorable Personality in Dodger history in 1976—40 years before his retirement. “It’s time for Dodger baseball! Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be.” Not having the best sportscaster of all-time in the booth calling baseball games in Southern California is going to create a vacuum. You will be greatly missed, Vin. Thanks for everything.
- The Curse is broken
For 108 years, the North-siders in Chicago were the loveable losers, the non-threatening franchise that had nonetheless become one of the most adored and legendary clubs in all of baseball. Banks, Williams, Santo, Jenkins, Sandberg, Sosa, Sutcliffe, and Wood played their best baseball with the Cubs, yet none of them won a coveted World Series title. When Theo Epstein took over as president of baseball operations in 2011, he promised that he would bring a World Series title to the Cubs just as he did with the Red Sox in 2004, thereby breaking another legendary World Series drought for another of baseball’s keystone franchises. Cubs fans played their part while Epstein and crew groomed prospects like Rizzo, Bryant, and Baez, acquired key players like Zobrist, Heyward, Russell, Arrieta, Lester, and Lackey, and signed extreme players-first manager Joe Maddon. After an NLCS appearance in 2015, the Cubs entered the 2016 season as heavy favorites to win their ever-elusive World Series title. From Opening Day to the last game of the regular season, they were the best team in baseball. They experienced adversity on the way through San Francisco and Los Angeles, but returned to the World Series for the first time since 1945. The team they faced, the Cleveland Indians, were in the midst of a 68-year title drought of their own. Between the two of them, that was 176 years without a World Series title, the most combined years between a professional sports championship in the history of any sport. Rather shockingly, the Cubs went down 3-1 against the Indians, led by two-time champion manager Terry Francona and an electric pitching staff. All of a sudden, the familiar sense of dread and let down swept the city of Chicago. “Oh, boy, here we go again,” thought Cubs fans. But the team of destiny would not go down without a fight, winning a game in Cleveland and one at home at Wrigley Field to tie the series 3-3 and send the game back to Cleveland.
Game 7 of the 2016 World Series is the best game I’ve ever watched. Some say it’s the greatest game ever played. It went back-and-forth, up-and-down, left-and-right; this game had everything! Both a 23-year-old youngster and a 39-year-old grandpa hit a homer. A closer whose fastball averaged triple digits gave up a game-tying home run to a speedy center fielder who hadn’t homered since August. The game even went into a 17-minute rain delay with the score tied. In the end, the Cubs won 8-7 in the 10th inning. The best team all season had won their title after 108 years of struggle and heartbreak. Chicago went wild, and rightfully so. Some Cubs fan had lived their entire lives without ever seeing the Cubs win.
In my opinion, this game did more for the popularity of the sport than anything else in the past 20 years. Even the most casual of fans was aware of the Cubs’ championship drought and wanted to tune in to see history made. It was only appropriate that the Series was stretched to seven games—of course they had to make it as difficult and tenuous as possible—but in the end the Cubs, America’s team, ended the Curse of the Billy Goat. No matter what team you’re a fan of, what this World Series did for baseball is undeniable. This series, particularly Game 7, is the spark the sport needed, the beginning of the reinvigoration of America’s pastime. The Cubs are all aboard on the Make Baseball Fun Again movement.