Bruce Chen's Fascinating and Very 1990s First Career Start

The date is September 7, 1998. In many ways, it is a shockingly familiar world. Three days before, Google has filed for incorporation in California, and coincidentally on that same date Alan Greenspan delivered a speech at Berkeley entitled, "Is There a New Economy?" That August, Bill Clinton admitted that he had an improper relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Through the summer and fall, there has been trouble with Iraq and Al Queda, the latter having bombed American Embassies on August 7th, the former appearing not to have disarmed.

The biggest singles of the year are Celine Dion's song from the Titanic soundrack, Aerosmith's song from the Armageddon soundtrack, offerings from Cher ("Believe"), Boy Band ballads, the Faith Hill/Shania Twain branch of country pop, and post-grunge rock songs like "Iris" and "Closing Time." Early 1990s shows like Murphy Brown and Family Matters finish out their lifetimes, as does, most famously, Seinfeld.

In baseball, the Yankees are in the midst of one of the greatest seasons of all time. On September 7th their record is an astounding 100-41. Boston has the second most wins in the AL, and they are 18.5 games back of New York. The Indians still own the Central and the AL West is a battle between Anaheim and Texas. In the National League, the Braves are cruising to another NL East title, while the Astros and Padres similarly enjoy huge leads. And, of course, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire are both chasing Roger Maris. Tomorrow, on September 8, Mark McGwire will hit home run number 62.

But for today, the seventh, one of the bigger stories of the day is the Major League debut of highly touted Braves pitcher Bruce Chen.

Chen's Atlanta team is instantly recognizable as a latter era Atlanta squad. Glavine, Maddux, and Smoltz are all there, and all receiving Cy Young votes. A young Kevin Millwood and an older Denny Neagle provide the rotation with average production, producing a very strong group. The lineup is a mix of homegrown stars and free agent veterans. Andruw Jones, at the age of 21, has his first great season in 1998, hitting .271/.321/.515 with great defense in CF. Javy Lopez (27) and Chipper Jones (26) each hit 34 home runs. A 37 year-old Andres Galarraga turns in an absolutely absurd season for the Braves in 1998, hitting .305/.397/.595 with 44 home runs at the age of 37. Walt Weiss, 34, and Ozzie Guillen, also 34, get the bulk of starts for the Braves at shortstop. Guillen wasn't bad for the Braves that year, posting a .337 OBP, which was a career high for him. Michael Tucker, for whatever reason, gets the majority of starts in right field. He doesn't hit much.

Chen's first career start is against the New York Mets. It doesn't fully look like it yet, but the Mets and Braves are beginning to have a rivalry. The Mets win 88 games in 1997 and 1998. In the next two years, they take the next step, winning 97 and 94 games, though they still finish second to the Braves each year.

But none of that has happened on this September night at Shea. Facing Chen that night is an interesting Mets lineup. Leading off for the team is Tony Phillips. Phillips is 39 and can still walk, but there's nothing else left of his game. Hitting 3-4 for the Mets are Olerud and Piazza, each having one of the better years of their career. Randomly, Brian McRae is hitting fifth for the Mets. King Rey Ordonez plays shortstop. The starting pitcher is 33 year old Japanese rookie, Masato Yoshii. You can certainly bet that some downtime during this game was spent discussing the growing international flavor of baseball.

In our game, the Braves lineup is "led" by Tucker and 2B Matt Malloy. Sure, they've got something like five HOF level seasons taking place in their lineup, but they want these guys setting everything up. Braves! Thanks to Tucker and Malloy, Chen sits through a quick top of the first.

Chen's career begins beautifully. Chen strikes out Phillips and number 2 hitter Edgardo Alfonzo to begin the game. Both swinging. After Olerud and Piazza go walk-single, Chen escapes the inning by retiring McRae. I imagine this happened often for the 1998 Mets.

In the second inning, Chen runs into trouble. Two obscure Mets touch up Chen. Journeyman RF Jermaine Allensworth singles, followed by a home run by journeyman 2B Luis Lopez. Light the Apple at Shea, it's 2-0 Mets. Chen then retires Rey Ordonez and strikes out the pitcher to get to two outs. Tony Phillips however, homers as well. Light the Apple again, it's 3-0 Mets. Chen has allowed homers, at Shea, to two guys slugging .338 and .330 for the season. Quite the inning. Nevertheless, Chen strikes out Alfonzo again to end the inning. Chen has four strikeouts

In the top of the next inning, Chen records his first Major League plate appearance, bunting Ozzie Guillen over to second base. However the Braves do not score. In the bottom of the third Chen is battered by Olerud and Piazza again, as Olerud doubles and Piazza is intentionally walked. Brian McRae then singles in Olerud. Chen bears down however, striking out Allensworth (K number 5) and inducing an inning ending double play from Lopez. 4-0 Mets after three.

And that was it for Bruce Chen in his Major League debut. Chen was only at 66 pitches, but Bobby Cox had seen enough. There's nothing quite as silly as second guessing a move like this 13 years later... but with the bottom of the Mets lineup coming up the next inning, I like to think Chen should have gotten another inning in a meaningless September game. Then again, the Braves had scored two runs in the top of the fourth, so maybe Cox wanted to go for the win.

Instead, in a fascinating turn, Cox gave the ball to Dennis Martinez. Yes, Dennis Martinez was still pitching in 1998. At age 43, in what would be his last season, Martinez pitched in 91 innings for the Braves, turning in a respectable 94 ERA+. He managed even to strikeout 6.1 batters per nine. Chen was a teammate of Martinez, who was teammate of mid-70s Orioles players like Reggie Jackson, Jim Palmer, Henry Cuellar, Brooks Robinson, etc. Crazy.

Martinez gave the Braves two innings, but gave back two runs of his own in the 5th. The Braves actually took a 7-6 lead eventually,a lead that was held in the 7th inning by rookie Odalis Perez. Perez appeared in 10 games for the 1998 Braves, laying the foundation for eventual status as a Dayton Moore Royal.

However, the dream of a Braves victory was dashed in the bottom of the 8th. John Rocker, pitching as a rookie, surrendered the lead. Yes, in his first career start, Chen was eventually relieved by both Dennis Martinez and the notorious John Rocker. At Shea! Of course, that didn't mean anything yet, because we were still two years away from Rocker's comments about New York and Mets fans being published in Sports Illustrated.

Chen made three more starts for the Braves that September and he pitched well. He allowed just two runs in his next fourteen innings to the Marlins and Diamondbacks, then turned in a decent start against the Mets in game 160 of the 1998 season.

The Braves went on to sweep Sammy Sosa's Cubs in the divisional round, before falling to the Padres in six games in the NLCS. Chen may have felt like his career was beginning and he would be a Brave for the next six years, but between 2000-02, he would be traded four times. And now, so many years later, he is a Royal.

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