Kick Start Dismantling opponents with fearsome efficiency, the Yankees have run up baseball's best early season record in 14 years

May 17, 1998

Baseball's speed-up police hate the New York Yankees. Three times
this season American League president and traffic cop Gene Budig
has telephoned Yankees general manager Brian Cashman to complain
about the dawdling pace of New York's games. Three times Cashman
has all but pleaded, I swear, officer. We're trying.

Budig would be better served if he rang up some pitchers on
other American League teams to find out why a typical Yankees
game lasts three hours, 13 minutes, or 17 minutes longer than
the league average. He would find that pitching to a lineup
that's as deep as Nietzsche and hits like Nitschke is as arduous
as an IRS audit. The Yankees draw more walks, put more runners
on base, steal more bases, force more pitching changes and
provoke more beads of cold sweat from men on the mound than any
other club in the league. Mix in 34 home runs in 31 games and
the league's third-best slugging percentage, and the New York
lineup is to offense what the Swiss army knife is to cutlery.

On top of that offensive diversity, add a pitching staff that
has allowed fewer runs than any other American League team, and
it makes you wonder what Cashman is doing working the phones for
possible trades when he's not fending off Budig. What do you get
the team that really does have everything? "If I can't improve
the 25-man roster, I'll look for spots where I can improve the
40-man roster," Cashman says.

Says Minnesota Twins designated hitter Paul Molitor, a 20-year
veteran, "It's early, but this may be the best Yankee team since
I've been playing. On top of pitching, defense and the ability
to run the bases, they have a very professional group of people.
The thing that I think sets them apart is that they have great
clutch hitters who are patient enough to wait for their pitch.
If they walk, fine. The next guy can get it done. There's never
a sense of urgency to be the guy."

This is owner George Steinbrenner's uberteam, the best his local
TV money can buy. (The New York payroll is $63.2 million, the
second highest in baseball, after Baltimore's.) The Yankees were
24-7 after Ramiro Mendoza shut out the Minnesota Twins on five
hits in New York's 7-0 win on Sunday. The Yankees hadn't started
that well since Casey Stengel was managing, 40 years ago. And
the 22-2 run that Twins righthander Mike Morgan interrupted with
an 8-1 victory last Saturday had not been accomplished in 51
Yankees seasons, since Joe DiMaggio was running down flies for
Bucky Harris. Not bad for a team that at week's end had played
the fewest home games of any team in the majors (10), whose
highest-paid player (centerfielder Bernie Williams) had
contributed zero home runs in 119 at bats, whose leading home
run hitter (DH-leftfielder Darryl Strawberry) has hit more home
runs in the minors than in the majors since he turned 30 six
years ago, and whose best hitter (first baseman Tino Martinez)
has such a low star quotient that he spent last Saturday
strolling through a downtown Minneapolis mall without being
recognized. Indeed, one of the more remarkable attributes of the
club is its lunch-bucket personality. The clubhouse is decidedly
lacking in large heads, the team-leading 7 5/8-sized dome of
pitcher Hideki Irabu notwithstanding.

Through an interpreter, Irabu says of his club's run, "No, I've
never seen it anywhere. I feel very lucky just to be able to
play on this team right now."

Says third baseman Scott Brosius, "I was on a pretty good team
in Little League, but we only played 18 games. I've never seen
anything like this."

In this century only 15 teams had a better record after 30 games
than the Yankees'--and 12 of them finished atop their league or
division. The Yankees have made a first impression that recalls
the 1990 Athletics, the only American League team this decade to
exceed 100 wins; the '75 Reds and the '86 Mets, whose 108 wins
are the most in baseball in the past quarter century; the '84
Tigers, the last team to start out hotter than this (26-4); and,
in a recent stretch of 43 innings in which the Yankees never
trailed, the '72-73 Harlem Globetrotters. Says Molitor, "You
can't really find one area where they're short."

So decorated are the Yankees that the team's valuables safe
would have made Liberace blush. The 26 Yankees (including
injured DH Chili Davis) own a combined 22 world championship
rings. They also have accumulated 316 games of postseason
experience and 35 All-Star appearances.

Cashman, the rookie general manager, has more ammunition on the
way. Davis, who had only four at bats before an ankle injury
landed him on the disabled list, is expected to begin his
rehabilitation program on Friday and be back in the lineup in
July. Cuban refugee righthander Orlando Hernandez is toying with
minor leaguers (30 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings) until the
Yankees decide to put him in the rotation in place of
righthander Mendoza, who will fortify an already deep bullpen.

"This is like scoring five runs in the first inning," Cashman
says. "There are still eight innings left, but it sure gives you
a good feeling."

The Yankees can be such a devastating team that by the third
inning of the second game in a two-game series against West
Division-leading Texas last week, Rangers manager Johnny Oates
was dialing his general manager from the dugout in The Ballpark
in Arlington for reinforcements. "We're going to need a pitcher
for tomorrow," Oates said to Doug Melvin, who was sitting
upstairs. Oates changed pitchers 10 times while losing the two
games, 7-2 and 15-13.

"They're solid everywhere," Oates says. "I thought picking up
Brosius was a key move for them. He plays as good a third base
as anyone in the league."

New York went on to defeat Minnesota 5-1 last Friday (its eighth
straight win) in typically resourceful fashion. The Yankees were
tied 1-1 with two outs and nobody on base in the seventh when
nettlesome leadoff man Chuck Knoblauch singled against
righthander Brad Radke. When Knoblauch took off for second on
the next pitch, Derek Jeter dutifully did not swing, allowing
the stolen base. "The only way I'm going to swing if I see him
go is if the pitch is grooved," said Jeter, who two pitches
later slapped a single into leftfield to drive home Knoblauch
with the run that put New York ahead for good.

"They make you work every single pitch," Radke said. "They
didn't swing at one ball in the dirt all night. They know what
pitch they want to get, and they'll wait until they see it. When
they do get it, they knock the [stuffing] out of it."

The Yankees are drawing walks at a rate that threatens to break
the club's 66-year-old record (766), and they're swiping bases
often enough to make them a virtual lock to become the first
Yankees team since 1914 with 200 steals. Manager Joe Torre
encouraged such behavior in spring training when he gave every
player the green light to steal. "I wanted people to go out
there and try it when it didn't cost anything," Torre says. Last
Friday his lineup included six players still free to run at will
(Jeter, Knoblauch, Strawberry, Williams, Chad Curtis and Paul
O'Neill), not to mention seven .300 hitters.

O'Neill, who had 18 steals in his five previous years in New
York, helped win a game in Kansas City on May 1 with
enterprising baserunning. With his team down 1-0, he took off
from first base on his own with one out in the sixth. He wound
up at second on what most likely would otherwise have been a
double-play grounder by Martinez, then scored the tying run on a
two-out hit by Williams. The Yankees went on to win 2-1.

In that game, as well as the one last Friday, Irabu pitched
splendidly into the eighth inning for a victory. Buoyed by his
first spring training with New York, a better curveball and a
two-seam sinking fastball to complement what used to be a
too-straight four-seamer, Irabu (2-0, 1.42 ERA) is a changed
pitcher. Opponents have hit .159 against him, down from .311
last year. The man his teammates call Boo Boo but who's built
like Yogi Bear is throwing gas instead of tantrums, another
improvement over '97.

"He's been sensational," pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says.
"From the first day of spring training I could tell. He had a
bounce in his step and just looked much more comfortable."

Irabu and his fellow starters have been supported by a bullpen
so good that closer Mariano Rivera, who has allowed three hits,
no walks and no runs while facing 29 batters this year, spent 18
days on the DL last month (with a groin injury) without being
missed. Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton have converted six of eight
save chances between them. The Yankees have lost only two games
in which they had a lead. Give them at least four runs to work
with and the New York pitchers are unbeatable: 20-0 through
Sunday.

If you look hard enough, however, there's room to quibble. For
one thing, the nearly-as-scorching Boston Red Sox (two games
back at week's end) have refused to allow New York a plump
cushion in the East. Righthander David Cone, 57-23 (.713) in his
past 100 starts, slightly twisted his knee in Texas. Though not
serious, the injury added to the 35-year-old Cone's already
lengthy medical chart. Lefthander David Wells couldn't last long
enough to get the win against the Rangers despite taking a 9-0
lead into the third inning, prompting Torre to barbecue the
plump lefthander for being overweight and, at times, careless on
the mound. Wells later met with Torre and Stottlemyre to try to
persuade them that he's a team player--all the while laying out
his personal needs, such as being allowed to pitch deep into
games and to keep the weight on in order to feel strong. "He's
the Boomer," Torre says. "Let's put it this way: He's on the
same page with us. If we didn't have Boomer, my job might be
dull."

Actually, when Davis comes back Torre must divide two spots
(leftfield and DH) among four veterans (Curtis, Davis, TimRaines
and Strawberry), a test even for the worry-proof Yankees manager
who, Stottlemyre says, "has more mini one-on-one meetings with
players than anyone I've been around. He refuses to allow issues
to become problems."

Says Torre, "Managing's not that complicated. It's like leaving
a room. There are only two ways to go out: the door or the
window."

It helps that Torre has a low-maintenance unit personified by
the industrious Martinez, who blends into the crowd in any mall
outside of New York despite his 405 RBIs over the last
three-plus seasons (more than anyone in the league other than
Albert Belle, who has 415). "I get recognized only if I walk
around with Jeter," he says happily.

Consider the events at the Metrodome last Friday, a typical day
for Martinez and the Yankees. Torre held an optional workout
4 1/2 hours before the game. "Damn near every starting player
showed up," Torre says. After the game the Yankees munched on
steak and lobster without any of the music or frivolity found in
almost every other winning clubhouse. In between the Yankees
forced four Twins pitchers to throw 163 pitches in a game that
consumed three hours, 11 minutes. That's how New York rolls on.
The best team in baseball is going as fast as it can.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LANKER COVER [NATIONAL] Speed Power Heat THE YANKEES HAVE IT ALL DEREK JETER, TINO MARTINEZ, MARIANO RIVERA COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN LANKER By dismantling opponents with fearsome efficiency, the Yankees, led by the likes of Darryl Strawberry, have run up the best early-season record in the majors in 14 years [Darryl Strawberry in uniform--T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER ELECTRIC SLIDER Unlike most of the other Yankees, the flashy Jeter (safe behind a cloud of dust at third) finds anonymity hard to come by. [Derek Jeter sliding into base in game] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Go-go guy Knoblauch is one of a handful of Yanks with a green light to steal anytime the spirit moves them to move on the base paths. [Chuck Knoblauch batting in game] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Irabu (below), who's known as Boo Boo but is built like Yogi, is throwing gas instead of tantrums. [Hideki Irabu pitching in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER ON A TEAR Martinez (tangling up Twins shortstop Pat Meares on a force-out) plays heads-up ball even when he's down and dirty. [Tino Martinez and Pat Meares in game]

THE FINER POINTS

The '98 Yankees will never be mistaken for the legendary Bronx
Bombers. As these stats show, New York is winning partly because
it ranks first or second in the major leagues in many of the
"little things."

CATEGORY RANK AVG

Plate appearances per game 1st 41.58
Pitches per plate appearance 2nd 3.92
Walks per game 2nd 4.71
Stolen bases per game 1st 1.48
On-base percentage 1st .380
Sacrifice flies per game 1st 0.61
Relief pitchers faced per game 1st 3.13

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)