A collection of San Diego All-Stars and legends contended for the world title nearly two decades ago
By Barry M. Bloom
The 1998 Padres reached the zenith of franchise history, setting a record by winning 98 regular-season games. The club then defeated Randy Johnson and the Houston Astros in a four-game NLDS and beat the dominant Braves in a six-game NLCS before falling to one of the best teams in modern history, the 125-win Yankees (114-48 in regular season), in the World Series.
It was a club managed by Bruce Bochy, who won four division titles in his 12 years in San Diego. But perhaps most significantly, it was the season during which two of the top players in franchise history -- right-fielder Tony Gwynn and closer Trevor Hoffman -- both shined brightly. Hoffman saved 53 games in 54 opportunities, the best single-season mark of his career, while Gwynn batted .321. Mr. Padre also homered in Game 1 of the World Series, a hit he ultimately deemed his favorite of his entire 20-year career.
"It was incredible," said Andy Ashby, a starting pitcher for the Padres from 1993-99. "Even though Tony was an older player on that team, I think we made him feel younger because he knew what we could do. We all got along. To see Hoffy have the year he had and Tony play the way he did, to look back on it, I see Tony smiling in the dugout. He was having fun."
As the baseball world prepares to converge upon San Diego for the MLB All-Star Game, we caught up with the four key cogs from that '98 team -- Ashby, Steve Finley, Sterling Hitchcock and Greg Vaughn -- about their favorite memories from that season and where life has taken them in the nearly two decades since that NL pennant-winning campaign.
Making Up for Lost Time
Right-hander Andy Ashby spent seven consecutive seasons with the Padres, and his 17 wins and 151 K's in '98, his sixth of those seven, proved to be the best marks of his 14-year career. The Kansas City native went on to pitch in Game 2 of that year's World Series against the Yankees and, despite taking the loss, remembers the outing more for the experience than the results.
"I pitched from behind in the count that day. I remember letting up a couple of singles in the second inning," Ashby said. "I threw a fastball to Bernie [Williams], and he hit a two-run homer. We were down, 4-0, [before that home run] and that was pretty much it.
"[But] what a thrill it was pitching in a World Series game at Yankee Stadium."
Back then, Ashby was a young father. Now, his life revolves around his four daughters, two of whom are in college. He splits his time between San Diego and Scranton, Penn., where his youngest girls attend high school. "I basically just travel with the kids, watching them play," said Ashby.
"Two play basketball in college and one plays four sports in high school. The other runs track. I'm attending some [sporting event] almost every day during the school year. I feel like I missed so much when I was playing. It's great to be a big part of their lives."
This spring, he served as a guest instructor for two weeks in Padres camp. It was his first return to Major League life since 2004, and he enjoyed working with the organization's young talent. "I'd like to get back into the game at some point, coaching," he said, "but I'm not ready now."
Many of the players he coached this spring are probably too young to remember the 1998 team, which Ashby so fondly recalls.
"You go to Spring Training every year with the mentality that you can make the playoffs," he said. "With Bochy in San Diego, that was the attitude. You could see it building in 1996, '97. When '98 rolled around, we said, 'You know what? We want to go to the playoffs, we want to win the pennant, and we want to win the World Series.' Looking around that room that spring, you said, 'We've got the players we can do it with.' It just felt different."
Over a storied 19-year career, Steve Finley played not only for the Padres but for all five teams in the NL West, including the 2001 World Series-winning D-backs. Three seasons after the Padres came up just short of the Yankees in the 1998 Fall Classic, Finley exacted his revenge by beating New York in a seven-game World Series for the ages. But before there was any revenge to seek, he was a core member of the '98 Padres, playing 159 games and ranking as one of MLB's top defensive center fielders.
The Padres acquired Finley from the Astros in 1994 during an offseason swap that also netted 1996 MVP Ken Caminiti, and from the start he realized that the squad was something special.
"It was just such a well constructed team: offensively, the starting pitching staff, the bullpen and the defense," Finley recalls. "And it was a bunch of great guys. We all got along. We all went out together. So when you put all those ingredients together and you have a great clubhouse, that's how you wind up in the World Series."
Finley left the Padres for Arizona as a free agent after the 1998 season, but his heart remained in San Diego, where he lives and works today. An on-field coach during Spring Training, he also does some commentary during Padres broadcasts for Fox Sports San Diego when he's not working as one of 80 advisors for Morgan Stanley's global sports and entertainment division. In that capacity, Finley advises athletes about how to invest their money to ensure a stable life when they're done playing professional sports.
"The goal of our division is to change the narrative for so many athletes that lose their money," Finley said. "Part of this is education. We have a group that goes around and talks at universities, and is also going to do up to 15 professional teams this year. My role is business development: to talk to athletes and hopefully get them in the door."
He also roves the Minor Leagues during the season for the Padres, imparting his wisdom to the next generation of players. As if that isn't a full enough life, he works for MLB internationally and has signed on to be the hitting coach for Team Brazil under Manager Barry Larkin in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.
"I have a full plate, that's for sure," Finley said.
Sterling Hitchcock was named series MVP when the Padres defeated the Braves in the 1998 NLCS. The southpaw won Games 3 and 6, and in the latter, he combined with four other pitchers, including Hoffman, for a two-hit shutout.
"I'd say that's the best three weeks I've ever pitched in my life," said Hitchcock, who came up with the Yankees and pitched for the Mariners before joining the Padres for four full seasons in 1997. "Some of my buddies who didn't know me when I was playing, they've dragged out video of that postseason to watch.
"You sit back and watch it, and they could've given the MVP to so many people in that series. It was really just a collective effort. I was completely shocked when they brought me up on stage to give me the award. To that point, all I was trying to do was my job."
Today Hitchcock is back home in his native Florida, trying to give back to kids in his Naples community via his Southwest Florida Baseball and Softball Player Development Center. His career wound down after he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2000 and suffered an ankle injury in '04, forcing him to retire. Thus, he preaches good health, rest and patience to his pupils, who span from youth through college-aged.
"Everything we do in the program is geared around trying to prevent injuries," Hitchcock said. "We shut our kids down a few times throughout the year and put them on shoulder and elbow programs. We have a kid in the facility who had Tommy John surgery at 13 years old. It's scary. You scratch your head. I've had situations with kids having sore elbows. I err on the side of caution every time. I've spent a number of days on the disabled list. The game is no fun when you're hurt."
His fondest memory of 1998, when he appeared in a career-high 39 games? "Just the chemistry," he said. "I never played on a closer team before or after that."
Pay It Forward
Powerhouse outfielder Greg Vaughn played with the Padres from 1996-98, when they won two NL West titles and went to the World Series. He had the best season of his 15-year Major League career in his final year as a Friar, hitting .272 with career highs in home runs (50) and RBI (119). He still holds the club single-season record in longballs and is the only Padres player ever to reach the 50-homer mark in an individual campaign.
According to Vaughn, it's no coincidence that his best years offensively came in San Diego -- and 1998, in particular -- where Gwynn was not just a teammate, but a mentor and instructor.
"I got there and my outlook on hitting changed," Vaughn said. "Tony made it easy. I felt like a rookie again after being in the league eight years. We just started on the tee and it simplified everything.
"Tony was just like, 'Let's do the same thing every time. Just get your bat on the ball, keep your foot down and everything else will take care of itself.' We used to argue, though, because what was simple for him was not simple for me."
Vaughn is now an assistant baseball coach at Bradshaw Christian High School, just outside the capital of Sacramento, Calif., his hometown. The Pride play their home games at Greg Vaughn Field, named in honor of its biggest donor.
Vaughn said he's now intent on passing along the principles Gwynn taught him to his high school players. Gwynn went on to run the baseball program at San Diego State and was the head coach there until his death in 2014, and Vaughn's son, Cory, played there under Gwynn.
"I carry all of it into my work now," Vaughn said. "You play for the name on the front [of the jersey], not for the name on the back. We're living in the world of results and you're trying to provide for your family. But if you play for the name on the front, the back will take care of itself."
To that point, he echoes a seemingly recurring theme about the 1998 team: "[What I remember most was] how close we were," Vaughn said. "It didn't matter who the hero was. We just knew every night somebody was going to get it done. But once 'Hells Bells' came on and Trevor came out of the bullpen, kiss the baby; it was over."
This article appears in the MLB Official All-Star Game Program. Click here to purchase a copy, and read more features on allstargame.com.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. He's covered the Padres since 1976, including the first two All-Star Games in San Diego. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.