20 Years Later: The Imperfect Game

The game between the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees that took place on May 19, 1998, should have been an ordinary weekday night game. The 29-9 Yankees, they were coming off the high of David Wells’ perfect game which happened two days prior. Monday was an off day for them and Tuesday was the start of a new series against the Os. As for the 20-24 Orioles, they were hoping to eek out a win against a red-hot Yankees team that was on a roll.

And for seven innings, it looked like the Orioles could pull it off. They scored five runs off Yankees’ starter David Cone in six innings, and Orioles’ starter Doug Johns held the Yankees to a run in five innings.

By the time the bottom of the eighth inning started, the Orioles were holding on to a 5-3 lead. Orioles reliever Sidney Ponson, who replaced Johns in the sixth and who gave up two runs in the bottom of the seventh, got Scott Brosius to fly out to right on a 2-1 pitch for the first out. He then walked Jorge Posada who was pinch-hitting for Joe Girardi and Chuck Knoblauch to put runners on first and second. Orioles manager Ray Miller summoned right-hander Alan Mills from the bullpen to replace Ponson and pitch to Derek Jeter. Mills got Jeter to fly out to shallow right on the first pitch. With two on and two out, Miller once again strode out to the pitcher’s mound to take the ball from Mills, and lefty Norm Charlton came into the game to face Paul O’Neill. O’Neill hit a 1-0 pitch into the hole between shortstop and third base which scored Posada to make the score 5-4. Knoblauch advanced to third. Miller, who would have been in deep trouble if the mound visit limit was in effect in 1998, called upon righty Armando Benitez to end the inning. Instead, Benitez surrendered a three-run home run to Bernie Williams which gave the Yankees a 7-5 lead.

While the stadium was still rocking and the fans were still celebrating, Tino Martinez stepped into the box to face Benitez and was immediately greeted with a fastball to the back, right between the 2 and the 4. Benitez had a history with the Yankees already. More specifically, he had plunked Martinez once before, so when it happened again, the Yankees were not going to brush it off. Home plate umpire Drew Coble threw Benitez out of the game and then Benitez did the tough guy thing, he motioned for the Yankees to come and get him, and well, they did, and all hell broke loose.

Some highlights from the video include: (0:34) the Yankees bullpen; specifically, Graeme Lloyd goes after Benitez, (1:56) Jeff Nelson tries to get at Benitez and at (2:03) Darryl Strawberry disappears from the shot, but you see him as he’s about to nail Benitez (The replay is at 6:01). At (3:05) Joe Torre is trying to calm down Strawberry. Strawberry ended up being punched by Alan Mills.

It was ugly all around, and it didn’t have to happen. Benitez didn’t need to hit Martinez in the back. It wasn’t Tino Martinez’s fault that your team used up its bullpen in a single inning and lost the lead. But the umpires were also at fault because they didn’t warn the benches after Benitez’s obvious message to the Yankees.

After the umps restored order, nearly 10 minutes later, reliever Bobby Munoz was on the mound for the Os and Tim Raines was at the plate for the Yankees. Munoz threw his first pitch and Raines deposited it into the right-field seats to give the Yankees a 9-5 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.

Two days later, American League President Gene Budig handed out suspensions to five players; three Yankees and two Orioles. Darryl Strawberry (3 games), Graeme Lloyd (3 games), and Alan Mills (3 games) and Jeff Nelson (2 games). Armando Benitez received the largest suspension: eight games.

Gene Budig released a statement explaining his decision and said this about Benitez hitting Martinez: “The severity of the discipline reflects the gravity of the offenses. Mr. Benitez not only intentionally threw at Martinez, but the location of the pitch was extremely dangerous and could have seriously injured the player.”

He added: “This was a highly unfortunate and highly dangerous on-field situation. The events demand swift and stern action. A player’s safety is of utmost importance.”

Martinez didn’t break anything; he just had a large welt in the middle of his back for a while. As for the Yankees and Orioles, you know how 1998 ended up; the Yankees barely lost any games and won their 24th championship while the Orioles finished fourth in the American League East division with a 79-83 record.

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