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Skill made '98 Yankees great but chemistry made them historic

The greatest team in the history of integrated baseball started out closer to disaster than eminence. The 1998 Yankees lost four of their first five games, stirring the tabloids into full bloodthirst with reports that Davey Johnson was in line to replace Joe Torre as manager. Before the sixth game, in Seattle, Torre held a meeting in which he told his players he was disgusted with their play.

And then he asked if any of his veterans wanted to speak. Pitcher David Cone stepped forward.

"Guys, we've got to get going," Cone said. "We've got to get it together as a team. And we've got to do it now or this whole thing could be dismantled because the owner will react."

Then Cone riled the room by explaining how the Mariners had insulted them when Edgar Martinez swung from his heels on a 3-and-0 pitch in a one-sided game the previous night -- with no retaliation from the New York pitchers.

"We've got to get the emotion going here," Cone said. "We've got to look across the way and find something in our opponent we don't like. That team took us out in the '95 playoffs. I hate this place, the Kingdome. I left half my arm on that mound. I left a vein out on that mound in '95, and it pisses me off to see these guys walk all over us and us have no pride being the Yankees."

With that, the greatness commenced. Eight batters into the game that night, New York led 6-0, on its way to a 13-7 win, the start of a 64-16 run -- the greatest 80-game stretch in Yankees history.

SI VAULT:The Yankees have it all (05.18.98), by Tom Verducci

They didn't stop there. The Yankees won a record 125 games in all, postseason included. They joined the '27 and '39 Yankees as the only world champions to play .700 baseball while scoring the most runs in the majors while allowing the fewest in their league. They outscored their opponents by 309 runs.

Here is what makes that team so special, and so historic: the power of the players' teamwork. Pulling together in a team meeting, on the brink of chaos, is the exact right place to start when you tell their story.

Sports fairy tales about winning chemistry usually involve overachieving teams, such as 1985 Villanova basketball and the 1988 Dodgers. The 1998 Yankees dominated with team chemistry.

In a year when a steroid-enhanced sport exploded with offense, no player on the team hit more than 28 home runs. (Their leading home run hitter, Tino Martinez, was tied for 38th in baseball in homers.) Their bench was filled with former stars who brought wisdom and a willingness to accept a limited role -- guys like Chili Davis, Tim Raines, Darryl Strawberry, Joe Girardi and Luis Sojo. (The bench was so good that the reserves posted a better on-base percentage than the starters.) The bullpen was 28-9. The Yankees didn't even have the highest payroll in baseball that season, the last time that could be said.

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Homegrown stars such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada were just entering their prime years. And added to the mix were cold-blooded veterans such as Cone, David Wells, Mike Stanton, Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Brosius, Paul O'Neill and Chad Curtis -- all brought in from other organizations because of not just their talent but also their will to win.

The last piece was Orlando Hernandez, a veteran pitcher from Cuba who, upon leaving the island and his family on some sort of barely seaworthy craft in the middle of a night, laughed at pressure. It was Hernandez who took the ball in the biggest game of the year: down two games to one on the road in Cleveland in the ALCS, with New York's 114 regular season wins about to go spinning down a drain.

That morning in the hotel coffee shop, Hernandez volunteered to wait on tables with a smile on his face. Torre saw his starting pitcher pouring coffee and hauling trays and knew he would be fine. And he was. Hernandez threw seven shutout innings, and the Yankees would win seven straight games to win the title.

Earlier that season, when I met up with Hernandez to chronicle his coming to America, he had one quick reply for me -- in perfect English -- when I invited him out to lunch. "Hooters!" He was made for Broadway and the spotlights.

The 1998 Yankees were full of extroverts who knew how to win baseball games and trusted one another. Nobody was a better big-game pitcher than Cone. Wells needed maintenance, but only to bring out his best. He virtually quit on the mound one night in Texas, leading to a blowout argument with his manager before his next start -- in which he gutted out 136 pitches and then merely followed that with a perfect game. He went 19-3 after the Texas meltdown.

Oakland GM Billy Beane liked to say that the Yankees were such a complete team that played such smart baseball that "it's almost as if they beat you wearing tuxedoes."

"It's a team that doesn't spike the ball," was how Torre put it. "They have an inner conceit. They know they're good, but they don't have the need to flaunt it."

The '98 Yankees had such great chemistry that when Dale Sveum was released in August, he volunteered to stick around as a bullpen catcher rather than go home to his wife and kids.

Back in those late '90s years, I used to think of a Yankees game, especially the big ones at Yankee Stadium under the lights in October, as being as episodic as Gilligan's Island. No matter what happened in the first few minutes of a Gilligan's Island episode -- a Coast Guard cutter could show up just off shore -- you knew it was ending with Gilligan still on the island. Similarly, you knew, no matter what false bravado or early leads teams such as Texas, Seattle or Cleveland could muster, that the Yankees were going to find some way to win the darn game.

Thing is, the Yankees knew this themselves to the very core. They played with supreme confidence, and they trusted one another like a military special operations unit. They lost only 10 one-run games all year while winning 21 of them.

SI VAULT:The Yankees secure their place in history (11.02.98), by Tom Verducci

The 1998 Yankees always will be associated with those 125 wins, but the tongue-and-groove quality of how the pieces of this team fit together is their most impressive legacy. You could stand in the middle of the clubhouse blindfolded, be spun around three times, walk in a random direction and still you would be guaranteed to bump into a player with a tremendously high baseball IQ. In the context of the modern game -- given integration, the draft and free agency -- there has never been a better team, in every sense of the word.