Years from now, when the San Diego Padres have been long
forgotten, the New York Yankees will be remembered as having
played the 1998 World Series against ghosts and legends, against
teams so good that their nicknames had nicknames, against men
from the days of Teddy Roosevelt's presidency who were deader
than the baseballs they had hit.
This wasn't a World Series. It was a seance.
No wonder the television ratings for this Series wound up as the
worst ever. Too many people were trying to find the games on The
History Channel, what with the Yankees being compared to the
1906 Chicago Cubs, the 1927 Murderers' Row Yankees, the 1975 and
'76 Big Red Machine from Cincinnati, and other great teams of
yore. Are the '98 Yankees the greatest team ever? The question
had been raised before the season was half over. In late summer
a reporter asked 67-year-old Yankees coach Don Zimmer how his
team compared with the aught-six Cubbies. "Hell, do I really
look that old?" Zimmer blurted.
New York's place in baseball history would finally be resolved
at precisely 8:24 PST on Oct. 21, when nearly unhittable closer
Mariano Rivera dropped to his knees and threw both arms aloft
after the last of 125 victories. With their four-game sweep of
San Diego the '98 Yankees proved to be the most dominant team in
baseball since the game was integrated, and they are surely
among the four top teams of this century. Among the Yankees'
monumental accomplishments are these:
November 2, 1998
--They won more than 70% of their games.
--They scored more runs than any other team in the majors.
--They allowed fewer runs than any other team in their league.
--They won the World Series.
Only two other teams were equally thorough in their domination:
the '27 Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig, and the '39 Yankees of
DiMaggio and Dickey. Both of those teams also won their
championships in a sweep. (The 1902 Pirates predated the first
modern World Series by one year, but they played .741 baseball
and led their league in hitting and pitching.)
Great teams that were slightly flawed include the '06 Cubs, who
lost the World Series to the worst-hitting team in the American
League, the White Sox; the '61 Yankees, who didn't lead the
American League in runs scored or allowed; and the '75 and '76
Reds, whose pitching staffs ranked only third and fifth in the
National League, respectively. The '98 Yankees, as San Diego
discovered in a Cliffs Notes edition of New York's season,
lacked for nothing. The Yankees won Game 1 with a seven-run
seventh-inning comeback, won Game 2 in a blowout, won Game 3
with an eighth-inning comeback against the most reliable closer
in baseball and won Game 4 by scratching out runs in a 3-0
"I don't think they have a weakness," says San Diego general
manager Kevin Towers. "They have experience and youth, they play
good defense, they have speed, they take the extra base, they
have power, they have good at bats, they have terrific pitching,
they have a manager who's had success, and they have money. I
don't know what else there is."
Well, they do get along like a Cub Scout pack, too. Infielder
Dale Sveum liked this team so much that after he was released on
Aug. 3, he chose to hang on as a bullpen catcher rather than go
home to his wife and two kids--even though he had a guaranteed
contract. In the first moments after their Series-clinching win
the players honored Darryl Strawberry, their teammate recovering
at home from colon-cancer surgery, by chanting, "Straw-man!
Straw-man!" This was a team only a heat-seeking headline writer
couldn't love, a Reader's Digest team in a tabloid town.
"It's a team that doesn't spike the ball," manager Joe Torre
says. "They have an inner conceit. They know they're good, but
they don't have the need to flaunt it."
The Yankees' role as ghostbusters actually began in spring
training when owner George Steinbrenner asked Torre, "Has anyone
ever gone 162-0?"
"He was kidding," Torre says. "I think. I didn't realize how
close we would come."
How close? At 125-50, the Yankees played 75 games over .500
during the year that marked the 75th anniversary of the
franchise's first world championship as well as the opening of
Yankee Stadium. Their winning percentage--.714--was as monumental
as Babe Ruth's career home run total. Of the 50 games New York
did lose, all but 18 were decided by one, two or three runs. "I
can't see anybody dominating the league the way we did,"
shortstop Derek Jeter says. "I mean, 125-50? That's ridiculous."
These Yankees may appear to be mere pickpockets to the Murderers'
Row team of '27. In this Year of the Dinger, no Yankee had as
many as 30 home runs. Nor was there a certain Hall of Famer on
the roster, though Jeter and 20-game winner David Cone are
putting up eye-catching resumes.
Make no mistake, the Yankees did have top-shelf talent. On most
days they started an All-Star at every position but catcher.
"People say they don't have superstars," says Paul Molitor, the
Minnesota Twins DH, who attended Game 4. "But they have a handful
of guys who, if you put them on another club, would be
The Yankees didn't play music in the clubhouse after games this
season--they were too familiar with victory to celebrate
it--though outfielder Bernie Williams could be found before most
games bare-chested, facing into his corner locker, caressing
soft jazz out of the strings of his Fender Stratocaster. A
perfect Yankees moment, this being a team of brilliant studio
musicians without a marquee solo act.
Picking a telling Yankees statistic is as easy as pointing out
stars on a clear night--and the best numbers had nothing to do
with individual achievement. For instance, the Yankees tied a
major league record by going 24 straight series without losing
one--and 11 days after that streak ended they began one during
which they held a lead in 48 consecutive games. As late as June
22 they had more postponements at home (six) than losses (five).
The best gauge may be what October wrought: New York buzzed
through the postseason 11-2, despite having the top five spots
in its batting order hit a combined .219. Even that didn't hurt
the Yankees because their relentless lineup turned opposing
pitchers into Sisyphus, as it had all year long. In the playoffs
they drew nearly twice as many walks as their opponents (62-32),
and their bottom four hitters combined to bat .305--including
rookie Ricky Ledee, who wasn't on the Division Series roster but
who joined Billy Hatcher (Reds, 1990) and Babe Ruth (1928) as
the only players to bat .600 or better while playing in every
game of a World Series.
The bottom of the order also included third baseman Scott
Brosius, who won the World Series MVP award with eight hits in
17 at bats. The same guy who hit .203 for the Oakland A's in
1997 became only the eighth player to hit World Series home runs
in back-to-back innings when he connected in the seventh and
eighth of Game 3. He joined Ruth (1928) as the only players to
hit them after the fifth inning. San Diego was five outs from a
3-2 win when Brosius blasted a three-run home run off Trevor
Hoffman. Until that 5-4 defeat, the Padres had been 58-0 this
year when Hoffman pitched in save situations.
"When I think of this team, you know what's going to come to
mind?" Torre says. "Scotty Brosius. I saw a picture of him in
the paper after that home run and he had his mouth open, roaring
like the MGM lion. His personality was a big part of this club."
Brosius's RBI production (98) and clutch hitting (a team-high
.372 with runners in scoring position) during the regular season
from the seventh, eighth or ninth spots in the batting order
typified not only the team's depth but also its uncommon success
in evaluating players. Despite Brosius's poor batting average
last year, the Yankees believed he was hurt by injuries and by
having to play several positions. "No other team wanted to trade
for him," says Yankees scout Gene Michael. "We saw that his
defense never went into a slump. We liked the fact that he was
athletic and a hard worker." New York dumped disgruntled
lefthander Kenny Rogers to get Brosius.
The Yankees also scored big with the signing of righthander
Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, the Cuban refugee whom many clubs
dismissed as an average pitcher--at best--after watching him
work out in February. The team on the field for the last out of
the World Series included four players developed in the New York
farm system, five acquired in shrewd trades and none added
through free agency. "The ability to evaluate talent is the
bottom line," says Mark Newman, the Yankees' vice president of
player development, who is Steinbrenner's foremost adviser.
The Yankees built an attack that could dispatch opponents with a
cutlass or a rapier. In Game 4, for instance, they played small
ball, pounding choppers and bouncers into the hard Qualcomm
Stadium playing surface, much to the annoyance of combustible
Padres ace Kevin Brown. San Diego, which had reached the Series
by eliminating the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves--teams
that won 208 games combined--had not been swept in 67 straight
series before running into the Yankees.
"New York's not a team that blows you away," Padres hitting
coach Merv Rettenmund says. "They just play baseball and beat
you any way they have to. It's like facing [Greg] Maddux. You
look back on it and you feel pretty comfortable, but you just
don't do much against them."
New York's pitching staff was just as deep as Atlanta's.
Lefthander Andy Pettitte, the Opening Day starter and a 16-game
winner, was held until Game 4--and he closed out the series with
7 1/3 shutout innings. "They have four starters who give you
different looks," says Tony Gwynn, San Diego's hitting savant.
"[David] Wells is a power pitcher, El Duque is crafty but can
pitch like a power pitcher, Cone has all those arm angles, and
Pettitte can make the ball sink, run and cut. All of those guys
use both sides of the plate. With the Braves' starters, you know
they're pretty much going to stay on the outer half of the
plate. With the Yankees, you can't look one place or the other.
I saw them on TV a couple of times this year, but to play
against them...well, it's a different story. They're as complete
as any team I've ever seen."
Pettitte was moved back in the rotation largely because of the
emergence of Hernandez, which also allowed the Yankees to use
sinkerballer Ramiro Mendoza to fortify the bullpen. Hernandez
finished the season throwing his fastball upward of 93 mph--a
gain of 5 mph since he came up to the Yankees in May, thanks to
regular work after not having pitched for 18 months following
his banishment from Cuban baseball. Likewise Rivera, never taxed
during the Yankees' runaway season, threw as well in the
postseason as he had all year. Batters got only four hits in 38
at bats against him in 12 scoreless playoff innings.
Says Hoffman, "I don't think you can point your finger to any one
thing to explain that team. The one thing that keeps coming up is
that they're a team."
Now comes the hard part. This perfectly constructed team may
need to be reconstructed because it has six potential free
agents--Williams, Brosius, Cone, Strawberry, Joe Girardi and Tim
Williams is the lead domino. He wants a seven-year contract for
more than the $77 million he requested last winter. "That was
last year," says his agent, Scott Boras, about the price tag.
Privately Williams seethes that the Yankees offered him half
that much last year while explaining to Boras that he wasn't an
elite player. Williams then batted cleanup, played centerfield,
won a batting title and a Gold Glove in his walk year--but
slogged through such an uninspired postseason that Boras said
"several players" asked the agent what was bothering him. Club
sources say only that Williams was dealing with "personal
issues." Now the Yankees sound as if Williams is gone. "I'm
going to miss Bernie," Torre said after Game 4.
Williams said before Game 4 that he is interested in returning
but refused to identify the Yankees as his first choice. "I'm
going to take two weeks, and then I'll have a clearer idea," he
Brosius's fate is directly linked to what happens with Williams.
"We're just going to have to wait on Bernie," says Tony
Attanasio, Brosius's agent. "If Bernie comes out and says he
wants $75 million and the Yankees give it to him, well, they'll
probably go with a third baseman who makes $200,000 instead of
Scotty. For a guy who was devastated last year when I told him
he had been traded to New York, he's found a comfort zone in New
York and would absolutely love to come back."
The Yankees must decide whether to re-sign Brosius at about $5
million a year or give the third base job to Mike Lowell, 24, a
power-hitting prospect who in his first full season in Triple A
this year had 26 home runs, 99 RBIs and a .304 average. "That's
going to be Newman's call," says an American League executive.
"He's so good, he'll make the right one. If he thinks Lowell is
ready, Lowell will play."
The Yankees must also bump up the salary of Cone, who can elect
free agency, and reckon with the first year of arbitration
leverage for Jeter, who one baseball source says has already
rejected a five-year, $25 million deal. The emergence of rookie
outfielders Ledee and Shane Spencer most likely will push out
Raines. "It becomes much more difficult to keep a team together,
the more you win," Newman says, "because that means players are
having a lot of success and they will be paid more."
Says Jeter of the serendipity of 125 wins, "Who knows? It may
never happen again."
Before Game 4 Molitor, one of the game's aficionados, was
sitting near some Fox executives who were bemoaning the
possibility of a sweep and lamenting the shortfall of drama, ad
revenue and, no doubt, opportunities to shamelessly plug the
network's B-list actors. "I was saying, 'I totally disagree,'"
Molitor says. "Rather than having a tight World Series, it's
perfect to have it end with this great Yankee team sweeping.
What better exclamation point could you have to this season?"
The lasting beauty of the Yankees is the perfect
tongue-and-groove fit of their parts, as subtle as a wine's
bouquet. This was a team whose greatness will not be obvious in
Cooperstown. It was a team you had to see to believe.
This year the Yankees led the majors in wins, runs, RBIs and
on-base percentage. They also finished among the top five in
batting average, hits, steals, walks, slugging percentage,
fewest errors, complete games, shutouts and saves.
The Yankees won 125 games (including postseason), the most of
any team in history, surpassing the 1906 Cubs, who won 118.
The Yankees had 10 players who hit 10 or more home runs, a major
league mark matched by this year's Orioles.
The Yankees became the first team since the 1909 Pirates to win
their 100th game while having less than 40 losses.
The Yankees hit 207 home runs, the most ever for a team on which
no player hit at least 30.
The Yankees held a lead in 48 straight games, breaking the
record of 40, set by the 1932 Yankees.
The Yankees became the first team this century to have a winning
percentage over .700 for each of four straight months.
The Yankees went 24 consecutive series without losing one, tying
the 1912 Red Sox and the 1970 Reds.
The Yankees had six players who were in double figures in both
home runs and stolen bases, tying the record set by the 1991 Reds.
The Yankees became the third team ever to accomplish all of the
following: win more than 70% of their games, win the World
Series and lead their league in runs and fewest runs allowed.