Saturday, December 19, 2009
Battle of the Decades: 1990s vs. 2000s
By Rob Neyer
We've just lived through an era of incredible performances. The best relief pitcher in history? Check. A shortstop who routinely hit 50 home runs per season? Check. Starting pitchers with sub-2.00 ERAs? Check. Power hitters who blew past Roger Maris' record? Once again, check.
Granted, all of these performances were products of their times. We won't argue that Alex Rodriguez is more talented than Willie Mays
except yeah, we will. Just as today's football players and basketball players are more talented than their historical counterparts, we may assume that today's baseball players are the most talented that anyone has ever seen.
And with all the talk about this almost-past decade, we must wonder how the most talented players of the 1990s might fare against the most talented players of the 2000s (or the "0's," as I call these years). What makes it more interesting is that some of the greatest players of the '90s are also among the greatest players of the 0's. Which meant that when Jim Caple picked a 1990s All-Star team and I picked a 2000s All-Star team, we necessarily chose some of the same players.
And then, with the great help of Imagine Sports and Rob Neyer Baseball, we put them through their paces. More specifically, we matched the teams against one another in 1,000 best-of-seven series. To see how they did, you'll have to wait a few moments (or skip to the bottom of this page). In the meantime, we've chosen a single representative series, which is full of dramatic moments (but no more so than most of these affairs).
The opener featured two all-time Red Sox starters, Roger Clemens for the '90s and Pedro Martinez for the 0's. And while neither pitched particularly well, it was Pedro and his 0's coming out on top.
With the score 3-2 heading into the bottom of the fifth inning, the 0's knocked out the Rocket with a six-run fifth, the rally climaxed by Jeff Kent's home run off reliever John Smoltz, deep into Citizens Bank Park's left-field stands. Smoltz and Trevor Hoffman shut out the 0's after that, while the '90s mounted a comeback with four runs in the eighth.
And they almost completed their comeback in the ninth. With two outs and Roberto Alomar on second base, Barry Bonds grounded a single into right field and Alomar steamed toward the plate. But Ichiro Suzuki charged the ball, came up firing, and his throw to Joe Mauer was just in time to nab Alomar for the game-ending out.
The '90s Greg Maddux got hit hard early, but the 0's Randy Johnson got hit harder, and after six innings the '90s were up 8-4. Maddux finally got lifted with two outs in the ninth, and moments later Dennis Eckersley retired Joe Mauer to seal the 1990s' 9-5 victory and even the series.
After a day off, the series shifted to Oriole Park in Camden Yards, the first (and perhaps still the best) of the so-called "retro" ballparks that embody the modern architectural paradigm. And while the elder Pedro Martinez had earned the victory for the 0's in Game 1, in Game 3 it was the younger Pedro doing the honors for the 1990s.
Martinez pitched into the seventh inning, giving up just one run and easily out-dueling Johan Santana, who struck out eight but gave up nine hits and five runs in six innings. Six homers accounted for seven of the game's eight runs.
Finally, a pitchers' duel! In the top of the third, the 0's got on the board against Johnson when Ichiro's grounder scored Chipper Jones, who had walked, stolen second and been balked to third by Johnson. Meanwhile, Roy Oswalt was dealing for the 0's
until the rains hit after the bottom of the sixth.
With play suspended for more than an hour, Oswalt couldn't return in the seventh inning, and was replaced by Trevor Hoffman. The '90s took advantage, touching Hoffman for a couple of runs, with pinch-hitter Tony Gwynn and Ivan Rodriguez both chipping in with RBI singles. Two runs were all the '90s would need, as Eckersley worked around Carlos Beltran's leadoff double in the ninth for the save.
Facing elimination, the 0's mounted the series' most rousing comeback. In a Game 1 rematch, Pedro Martinez faced Roger Clemens, and this time Clemens pitched a shutout for five innings.
But in the top of the sixth, Barry Bonds drove home Ichiro with a double, and Alex Rodriguez followed with a game-tying, three-run homer down the left-field line, just fair. The '90s battled right back, going back ahead with a run in the bottom of the sixth and two more runs both the seventh and eighth innings.
Trailing 8-5 in the ninth, the 0's rallied for three runs. The first two runs came on Todd Helton's double off Tom Glavine; moments later, Helton scored on Hoffman's wild pitch. Hoffman did escape without further damage.
Joe Nathan pitched a scoreless ninth for the 0's, sending Game 5 into extra innings. And in the top of the 10th, with Hoffman still pitching for the '90s, Scott Rolen put the 0's ahead with a 420-foot homer to left field. Then in the bottom of the 10th, Mariano Rivera closed the game by retiring Bonds on a grounder to shortstop.
It was an all-time pitching matchup -- Greg Maddux versus Randy Johnson -- made for Game 7, so maybe it's fitting that Game 6 closed out the series. Both starters pitched effectively (if imperfectly), and the score was deadlocked at two runs apiece after seven innings. Then the bullpens took over, and things got really interesting really fast. In the top of the eighth, the '90s raked Hoffman for four runs, with Ken Griffey's two-run homer capping the rally. The 0's didn't escape until Javier Vazquez came in and retired Cal Ripken.
With a 6-2 lead, the 1990s were only six outs away from clinching
but those six outs wouldn't come easily. His confidence apparently unshaken by seeing his older self struggle, the young Trevor Hoffman took over in the bottom of the eighth and struck out Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer. But Chipper Jones doubled, and Eckersley trotted in from the bullpen to face Jeff Kent, who drove Eckersley's second pitch up the middle for a single, with Chipper moving to third. Things got worse for Eck. His first pitch to Ichiro was a hanging slider, and Ichiro drove it just over the fence in the right-field corner for a three-run homer.
In the top of the ninth, Vazquez set down the 1990s in order. In the bottom of the ninth, Eckersley came back out for the non-save. He needed only six pitches to retire Bonds and pinch hitter Manny Ramirez. But he got a fight from David Ortiz, who fouled off a couple of pitches and ran the count full. Finally, Ortiz lifted the eighth pitch he saw to left field, where young Barry Bonds stylishly snatched the fly to end the series.
Rob Neyer is a senior writer for ESPN.com and regularly updates his blog. You can reach him via firstname.lastname@example.org.