With apologies to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, whom most collectors would agree deserve a special place among the winners of 1998, the year will be more known as the year of the dominating "teams" in professional sports.
And the trend is likely to continue into 1999.
McGwire and Sosa caught the attention of fan and collector alike with their assault on Roger Maris' home run record, but neither of the teams they played for wound up with a championship. The St. Louis Cardinals were barely a .500 team while the Cubs, making the playoffs for the first time in nine years, were swept away in the first round by the Atlanta Braves.
It was truly a magical season for the duo, but the year in sports in 1998 clearly belonged to the professional teams both in how they ruled the regular season but more importantly how they were so dominant in the post-season.
The New York Yankees increased their major league leading total of world championships by storming to the World Series and in the process won 125 regular and post-season games. They destroyed the San Diego Padres in four straight games in the World Series that were hardly even competitive.
It wasn't just limited to the Yankees. The Chicago Bulls captured their sixth NBA crown of the 1990s by beating the Utah Jazz in six games -- back when the NBA was playing its games on the court rather than in the bargaining rooms of the league offices in New York. The Detroit Red Wings won their second straight Stanley Cup title in an impressive fashion, sweeping the Washington Capitals.
Denver finally got the monkey off of its back by beating the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl last January and strung together 13 straight regular season victories in 1998 before being upset by the New York Giants.
What made the Yankees so exceptional is they did it without a legitimate dominating superstar. Collectors will tell you it's nice to have a David Cone card or a Bernie Williams autograph, but the real individual prizes were on other teams. The Yankees were so strong because they had few weaknesses. Sweeping San Diego, the Yankees were the best of the best in a season when there were other strong teams such as the Padres, Braves and Astros all of whom won 100 regular season games, and the Cleveland Indians.
The Yankees are the team to beat again in 1999 because they lost no significant players off the 1998 roster. They re-signed Bernie Williams and David Cone and resisted moves to deal off other established players. Standing pay ensures the Yankees to be the odds-on favorite to win another World Series in 1999. Other teams spent a lot of money in the off-season trying to get on the Yankees' playing level -- notably the crosstown rival New York Mets -- but only a string of unanticipated injuries to their pitching staff is likely to stop the Bronx Bombers from a return trip to the World Series next fall.
Amid rancor and off-the-field distractions (see Dennis Rodman) the Chicago Bulls won another championship led by Michael Jordan. They did struggle more than they had in the past, forced to a tough seventh game in the Eastern Conference playoffs by the Indiana Pacers. But in the end Jordan's game winner in game six clinched another title. Even with the departure of Phil Jackson and the hiring of former Iowa State coach (and GM Jerry Krause fishing buddy Tim Floyd), the Bulls figured to be the team to beat again if Jordan returned. But the lockout cast a shadow over Chicago's quest for a seventh NBA crown; if the lockout ends and Jordan returns, they will still be the favorites for a "four-peat." As long as Jordan suits up, his club is the team others must beat in order to get to the NBA finals.
Detroit didn't win the regular season division title in the NHL -- like that matters -- but the Red Wings' veteran team was a bright spot in yet another dismal NHL season that saw a disappointing turn in the Winter Olympics. Playing for Vladimir Konstantinov who was injured in an auto accident after their 1997 Stanley Cup title, the Red Wings were the dominant Stanley Cup team again. It didn't hurt Sergie Fedorov's pocket book who earned an additional $12 million for his team winning the Cup, but the Red Wings have shown the beginnings of a dynasty in the NHL.
Anyone that thought Denver's win over Green Bay in the Super Bowl was a fluke quickly learned in the 1998 regular season that it wasn't. The Broncos survived an injury to John Elway to run roughshod over the competition in the NFL this season. Only a last minute loss to the Giants deprived them of a shot at tying Miami's perfect season in the early 1970s, but more importantly, Denver has homefield advantage throughout the entire AFC playoffs. That should translate into a return trip to the Super bowl Jan. 31,1999. With a weakened NFC -- Minnesota was dominant but lacks the kind of defense that can stop Elway and Terrell Davis -- Denver is in excellent shape to follow the leads of other teams in other professional sports and repeat as champions.
One footnote: if you really want to name the dominant team of 1998, how about Jeff Gordon's racing team in NASCAR. Gordon won more events and more money in recent memory and while the driver does get the lion's share of the credit, his team -- and car -- deserve a place alongside the Yanks, Broncos, Wings and Bulls.