by Paul West
The 2016 Major League Baseball season will be remembered as the year the Chicago Cubs finally broke their century-old curse, but it was memorable for many other reasons. 2016 was a year in which both records and hearts were broken all over the baseball world. Here are the most compelling stories of the 2016 baseball season.
8. Max Scherzer strikes out 20
So we knew Max Scherzer was good–in fact, we knew he was one of the best. But on May 11th, he accomplished something only four other pitchers have done in the history of the major leagues: struck out 20 batters in a single game. He did this against his former team, the Detroit Tigers, and he didn’t walk a single batter. The only other pitchers to strike out 20 in a nine-inning game are Randy Johnson, Kerry Wood, and Roger Clemens, who did it twice. Tom Cheney of the Washington Senators struck out 21 Baltimore Orioles in 1962, but it took him 16 innings to do so (which, one might argue, is even more incredible). The Tigers weren’t sporting a light-hitting lineup that day, either: Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera were among four batters to strike out three times that day.
7. Believeland almost goes back-to-back
Cleveland was once known in the sports world as the “mistake by the lake,” home to some of the greatest teams never to make it all the way to the top. With an incredible Game Seven victory over the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers turned their town into Believeland, bringing joy to a fan base that had become known for burning their former stars’ jerseys and wearing paper bags to home games. Just months later, Terry Francona and the Cleveland Indians battled through a laundry list of injuries to make it all the way to the World Series, in which they would play one of the greatest Game Sevens in baseball history (see below). Had they won, it would have made Cleveland home to two major sports championships–and it would surely have been baseball’s biggest story of the year. Believeland’s second playoff run of 2016 makes this list regardless, as Cleveland is now home to the NBA championship and the American League pennant. This might seem slight solace to heartbroken Indians fans, but their recent signing of slugger Edwin Encarnacion–along with the return to health of their hugely talented starting rotation–makes them one of the American League’s best teams going into 2017.
6. Vin Scully says goodbye
Born in the Bronx, Vincent Edward “Vin” Scully began announcing Brooklyn Dodgers games in 1950. When the Dodgers moved out west, Scully moved with them; he remained the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers for generations, and went on to become one of the iconic voices of professional sports. He called national telecasts in numerous professional sports, and announced such moments as Dwight Clark‘s famous touchdown catch and the New York Mets‘ walkoff win in the ’86 World Series. Scully brought a congenial, knowledgeable, and anecdote-driven voice to the world of baseball; when he announced the end of his legendary career during the 2016 season, his impending absence was mourned by much of the sports world. And in the Scully’s final home game as the Dodgers’ announcer, the Dodgers won on a walkoff home run by Charlie Culberson.
5. The tragic passing of Jose Fernandez (and Dee Gordon’s tribute)
Last in the season, Major League Baseball lost one of its most popular and promising young players. In the wee hours of the morning, Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, along with two others died in a boating accident. Effusive, charismatic and absurdly talented, Fernandez was expected to be one of baseball’s most dominant aces for years to come; the Cuban émigré was popular among fans and teammates alike, and his passing was mourned well beyond the world of baseball. The Marlins canceled their game on the day of his passing; and in their next game, they joined their opponents the New York Mets in honoring his memory before the first pitch. And then, to lead off the bottom of the first inning, veteran Dee Gordon hit a ball into the upper deck–his first of the year and only the ninth of his career–and cried as he rounded the bases. Gordon’s emotions took full control as he crossed home plate; sobbing, he fell into the arms of his equally tearful teammates. The Marlins were able to briefly rejoice, and they rode the subsequent wave of emotion as they beat the playoff-bound Mets 7-3. This was one the Mets didn’t seem to mind losing, given the nature of the moment; catcher Travis d’Arnaud later said “I was crying, too,” of Gordon’s emotional upper-decker. Gordon later said, “I want to say ‘thank you’ to the Mets…coming in and showing their gratitude to us, being there for us in a time of need. That was just amazing.” He also said he’d “never hit a ball that far, even in BP…I told the boys, ‘if you don’t believe in God, you better start.’ The Marlins have since retired Fernandez’ number 16.
4. Game Seven
It’s often been said that Game Seven is the best phrase in the sports lexicon. When the World Series, or any championship series, goes to a seventh and deciding game, it’s a rare and exciting treat for fans of that sport. Well, the 2016 World Series went to a deciding seventh game, and it was a thrilling, improbable end to a thrilling, improbable postseason. The Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, two teams with over a century and a half of collective World Series drought between them, battled their way to a Game Seven that was filled with twists, turns, and memorable performances. It was a seesaw battle between two teams who felt their time had finally come, and its end was delayed–and its outcome possibly altered–by a rain delay in the game’s final innings. There were too many incredible moments to count in short order, but the final score was 8-7 in 10 innings, and that doesn’t even begin to do it justice.
3. Ichiro reaches 3,000
Ichiro Suzuki joined the Seattle Mariners in 2001, after spending most of his twenties as one of the biggest names in Japanese baseball. His arrival was heralded by many, but viewed with skepticism by many others; at barely six feet tall and under 180 pounds, people wondered aloud about his athleticism and durability. His speed, athleticism and ridiculous throwing arm soon made headlines, and in just a few years, ‘Ichiro’ was a household name among fans of Major League Baseball. He became known as both ageless wonder and perennial hit machine; he became known for prodigious batting practice displays in which he showed off impressive raw power, launching home runs and leaving onlookers wondering how many he’d hit in a year if he ever decided to be an in-game power hitter. As of his late 30s, he finally began to show signs of aging; but he was still often one of the fastest players on the field, and he just kept racking up hits. And on August 7th, 2016, at age 42, he became only the 30th player to rack up 3,000 hits in Major League Baseball. He did it with a triple–of course–and given that he hit .291 in 143 games last season, how many hits he’ll end up with is anyone’s guess. Oh yeah: in April, he became only the 38th player to steal 500 bases in a Major League Baseball career. Remember, this guy didn’t play his first MLB game until his late twenties.
2. Big Papi’s incredible final season
David Ortiz is one of the most beloved and impactful sluggers of his generation; and near the end of 2015, the year in which he hit his 500th home run, he announced that 2016 would be his final season in Major League Baseball. He then proceeded to have one of his best seasons ever; in arguably the greatest walkoff year in baseball history, Big Papi hit .315 with 38 home runs, 48 doubles, 127 RBIs, and a lone, improbable triple. He hit his 600th career double, only the 15th player to do so. He helped lead the Boston Red Sox to the top of a highly competitive Al East division, and despite an extensive array of orchestrated sendoffs, much of the baseball world wondered aloud: why is he retiring, again? Papi seemed to answer this trending query later in the season, when he spoke of how hard it had become to prepare his body to perform at such a high level over the course of a long season. It seems as if this was, indeed, Papi’s final season…and what a season it was.
1. The Cubs win the World Series
You already knew this, but the biggest storyline of the 2016 baseball season was the Chicago Cubs‘ thrilling World Series victory. In the aforementioned Game Seven epic, the Cubs won a seesaw battle against Believeland’s baseball team to win their first World Series title since 1908. To put that in perspective, you know what else happened in 1908? “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” was copyrighted, the New Year’s Eve ball dropped in Times Square for the first time, and the Model T Ford was introduced. The curse is a thing of the past, if it was ever a thing in the first place; and the unfairly beleaguered Bartman is now being offered clemency by the fans of Wrigley Field. Meanwhile, the Cubs are considered a perennial powerhouse, and are on most observers’ short lists to contend for the World Series in 2017.