The 1998 Yankees and the quiet legacy of 125-50: Twenty Years Later

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Has it really been 20 years since the summer of 1998?

That was a great summer: I had just graduated from high school, had a full 3 months of summer working at the local swimming pool before moving into a dorm to start my freshman year of college. It was a magical summer, not just magical for me but for Major League Baseball.

This was the summer of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and their chase for Roger Maris and his immortal 60 home runs. At that time, it was truly a home run chase for the ages. Whatever your opinion of it now, the McGwire/Sosa chase for breaking the Roger Maris record of 60 home runs in 1998 was the biggest story the entire summer.

It was also the summer of the New York Yankees, and as close to perfection that a baseball team can achieve.

The 1998 Yankees dominated an entire baseball season from start to finish in a way that had never been done before, and probably won’t be again. They played 175 total games (postseason included), and won 125 of them. Their record when it was all said and done was 125-50.

125-50!! 

Just think about that for a moment.

That means they were seventy-five games over .500.

Hell, they were 61-20 at the All Star Break. It is a ridiculous number of victories, and was a team that nearly had no weakness at any position.

They had Tino Martinez at first, who came to the Bronx from Seattle in 1996 with the giant task replacing the Iconic Don Mattingly who retired at the end of the 1995 season. Tino responded by being a key piece in a 1996 World Series Championship. He then ended up driving in 144 runs, hitting 44 bombs, and batting .296 in 1997. Yankee fans were suddenly feeling like Tino was a huge upgrade to an aging Mattingly. I don’t think there were many Yankee fans out there who loved Donnie more than me, but Tino’s monster years helped ease the transition. Driving in 144 runs eases just about any transition.

Derek Jeter started at SS, and by 1998 was already the Crown Prince of the city following his 1996 Rookie of The Year campaign and helping end the World Series drought. In 1998 Jeter was already an exceptional leader by age 24, and many veterans had turned to in any large moment. This was before Jeter became “DJ3K” and all that stuff. He was a dynamic and explosive ballplayer that season, with incredible bat speed and lengthy range at short. The biggest thing I remember about ’98 Jeter is that he had a lightning quick bat, and made contact all the time. Heading into year three he was primed to take another step towards reaching peak potential.

Paul O’Neill returned to the Yankees in ’98 as the veteran right fielder who was as pissed off as anyone when things didn’t go well. In Yankee manager Joe Torre’s exceptional memoir  “The Yankee Years” he described his right fielder: ‘Paul O’Neill had a desperation to win’. It was that characteristic that set the tone for this team. No one cared about who got the credit, but nobody wanted to be the guy to make the final out, and not do his job to help the team. O’Neill personified that for this ball club.

Center fielder Bernie Williams would go on to hit .339 and win a batting title in 1998. He won a Gold Glove with his long legs and tremendous outfield range. Yet his batting title was really the lone significant league leader they had on that team. A major narrative with Bernie throughout the season, and especially following the World Series, is that ’98 would be his last season with the Yankees. He was set to be a free agent, and all signs pointed to him testing the market and likely landing in Boston.

Fortunately, he didn’t end up in Boston. Or 2004 may have happened for the Red Sox earlier than 2004.

Chad Curtis started 100 games in left field with Hall of Famer Tim Raines also seeing starts there, as did rookie Ricky Ledee when he was called up later in the season. You can Google search Chad Curtis if you are interested to see the details of why he is currently serving a prison sentence. Unfortunately his name can’t be erased from the roster. You won’t read any of his accolades here.

Chuck Knoblauch, a guy my dad referred to as a “pest” while with the Minnesota Twins, was the 2nd baseman. Knoblauch was really, really good and was a huge piece for the ’91 champion Twins. He had tremendous speed, and throughout his entire career was a really tough out. Unfortunately that year he was plagued by what was called the “yips” at 2nd base. Basically when a player struggles to do something routine, like field an easy grounder at second and throw to first base. This turned difficult for Chuck, and Yankee fans held their collective breath every time a ball was hit to him.

Even more unfortunate is when the Minnesota Twins cancelled their planned induction of Knoblauch into the Twins Hall Of Fame in 2014. Let’s just say Knoblauch and Curtis won’t be invited to Old Timers Day any time soon. Or probably ever.

Jorge Posada and Joe Girardi were the catchers, with the up-and-coming Jorge being the primary battery mate with the pitching staff. Both were tremendous competitors and complemented each other and each pitcher they worked with.

Before Girardi was the Yankees manager, and a damn fine one at that, he was a key contributor to the ’96 championship. His triple early in the clinching game 6 of the ’96 World Series made him a Bronx hero and vaulted the Yankees to the win at home.

Mariano Rivera was entering his second season as closer in 1998. He would go on to have the role for the Yankees for 17 consecutive seasons, an absolutely absurd number of seasons in the position. Rivera was a key piece of the ’96 Championship as he had the 8th inning role setting up then-closer John Wetteland.

He ended up notching 36 saves in ’98, and 6 saves in the postseason. Rivera finished with 0.00 ERA in the ’98 postseason.

Rivera would finish his career with a postseason ERA of 0.70 in 141.0 innings. Against the best of the best hitters. That is not a typo.

They had budding young superstars approaching peak potential (Jeter, Rivera, Posada, Andy Pettitte, Williams), aging stars still performing at a high level (Darryl Strawberry, Tim Raines, Chili Davis, David Cone, Paul O’Neill), flash in the pan one-hit wonders that delivered in big moments down the stretch (Ricky Ledee, Shane Spencer), New York party animals delivering historic outings (David Wells), and a Cuban defector with a great nickname (El Duque) pitching the biggest games of the season just months after arriving on a makeshift raft out of Cuba.

Nearly every button Joe Torre pushed that summer worked. Everything fell into place at the perfect time for this perfect team. That’s how you win 125 games.

They went 24 consecutive series in the regular season without losing a series.  They clinched a playoff birth in August. The Red Sox won 92 games, and finished 22 games behind the Yankees in the AL East at seasons end. Twenty-two. Just think, 92 wins is a damn nice season.

They didn’t have a 30 HR hitter, but they led all of baseball in runs scored. They also had ten different players hit 10 or more that season. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Their starting rotation was so good that Andy Pettitte was designated the 4th starter in the World Series. And Orlando ‘El Duque’ Hernandez was so good so fast that Joe Torre trusted him in the postseason rotation to win arguably the most important game that season: game 4 of the ALCS vs. Cleveland. The Yankees had dropped 2 straight in that series after winning the opener. This was an Indian lineup that featured the lethal power combination of Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez.  For my money, Thome/Manny were the scariest combination I can remember for a Yankee opponent in any year. El Duque then pitched his best outing of the season in game 4 and the Yankees tied the series. Everything they did worked. Every move. Every damn thing.

Tom Verducci, SI Sr. Writer, Nov. 2nd 1998:

“This year the Yankees led the majors in wins, runs, RBI’s, 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. They scored more runs than any other team in the majors. They allowed fewer runs than any other team in the majors.” 

They scored the most runs, and gave up the fewest runs. 

The purpose of this piece is to truly break down and dig into why and how they were able to do this. They dominated the regular season, and the season was validated by the fact that they won the World Series. It was even more validated when they won the World Series in 1999 and 2000 as well. But the point of this isn’t to get into those years. This is all about 1998, and as we are in the middle of the 20th anniversary of that special summer it’s the perfect time to dig into it.

Let’s start from the beginning, which for the 1998 Yankees starts at the end of ’97, with Paul O’Neill getting thrown out at 2nd base to end the ALDS vs. Cleveland. The clincher for the Indians ended on a sour note when O’Neill was thrown out trying to extend a single to a double. This sour note lasted the entire offseason, and was especially sour after the high of the dramatic 1996 triumph over the Atlanta Braves in the World Series after dropping the first two games at home.

Also at the end of ’97 came the acquisition of an average player. Perhaps in 1997, a very dismal player might’ve been a better description of Scott Brosius.

*The acquisition of Scott Brosius*

In 1997 Scott Brosius hit .203 in 129 games for Oakland. So why was he so appealing to Yankees GM Bryan Cashman? Well for starters, they needed a third baseman. Wade Boggs and Charlie Hayes were the everyday third baseman in ’97, and neither would be returning for the ’98 campaign. They needed to fill a position, and Brosius was also thought to be a viable utility option if nothing else.

So the team acted and pitcher Kenny Rogers was traded from the Yankees to the A’s for Brosius. As a safety net they also signed free agent 3rd baseman Dale Sveum from Pittsburgh, who would be valuable as it was unlikely that Brosius would provide big production at 3rd base.  The organization also thought very highly of Mike Lowell, who was a prospect in their farm system. Yes, that Mike Lowell of Boston lore.

Brosius arrived and made an immediate impact in spring training, and won the starting job at 3rd by opening day. In an October 22, 1998 New York times story by then-Yankees beat writer Buster Olney, Joe Torre stated in spring training that year that “Brosius was the best I had ever seen at charging in and barehanding grounders and throwing to first.”

The Yankees at that point already had big-name players that were already well established and many owned a championship ring from ’96. They obviously needed those big names to be successful in 1998. But you also need a veteran like Scott Brosius to come in and have an impact. Which is exactly what he did as he had a scorching start to 1998, catapulted by a 5 RBI/3 hit outing vs. Toronto’s Roger Clemens in an early April game. This game served as a prelude to him hitting big-time throwers that season, and in seasons to come.

Brosius then went on to hit nearly .400 (.396) in the month of May, not bad for the number nine hitter in the lineup. Now let’s apply that and think about how a team can win 125 games, and start 61-20 by the break. It happens when your #9 hitter put together months where he hits .396.

What is most unique (and also very hard) about winning baseball games is that you need so many pieces to be successful. You can’t just sign the Lebron James in baseball or one player and expect that to mean automatic success. Think about it. Would Tampa Bay suddenly be a contender in the American League if they signed Mike Trout today? Sure it would help their lineup, but it’s unlikely they would win the Pennant. You need so many more positions to be set, and you need team chemistry.

What the hell is team chemistry? Well, a great strength of the 1998 Yankees was chemistry. Guys didn’t care who got the credit, they just didn’t want to be the one to make the out. They used that chemistry to relentlessly wreck pitching staffs. They wore out pitchers, and famously became known for having at-bats where they routinely fouled off pitches to wear out pitchers. They walked. A lot.

In the great Tom Verducci’s August 17th 1998 SI piece said  about the Yankees “A methodical, unspectacular offensive team whose signature weapon is the base on balls.”

Walks will kill a pitcher. Remember, this was also the year of the Home Run. The Yankees home run leader that year was Tino with 28. Thirteen players in baseball hit 40 or more home runs that year, and four hit 50.

Even though no Yankee hit 30, they had ten different players hit double-digit home runs in ’98:

Tino Martinez 28, Bernie Williams 26, Paul O’Neill 24, Darryl Strawberry 24,  Jeter 19, Brosius 19, Jorge Posada 17, Chuck Knoblauch 17, Chad Curtis 10, and Shane Spencer 10.

When you look at it that way, that’s a lot of home runs from a lot of different players.

Strawberry especially stands out that season, as it seemed to me the majority of his 24 home runs came with him as a pinch hitter. Again, this team won 125 games. How? Have Darryl Strawberry hit 24 home runs in 101 games.

*May 17, 1998*

I know that I have gotten older based on how grainy the footage of the famous David Wells game looks. Jimmy Fallon recently confirmed on Late Night With Seth Myers that he was out with David Wells the Saturday before at a Saturday Night Live after party until after 5am the previous night. Turns out that wasn’t exactly the case. In Rob Neyer’s May 17th 2017 Complex Magazine piece, SNL producer Marci Kline claims it couldn’t have been after the show. According to her, season 23 had wrapped up May 9th, so there wasn’t an after party the night/morning before Wells took the mound on the 17th. But in any event he was out with cast members the night before, and got home at 5:30 am.

In Joe Torre’s book “The Yankee Years”, he described David ‘Boomer’ Wells that he “had an arm like Sandy Koufax”, unbelievably high praise for a guy that spent time that year on Joe Torre’s shit list. Not hard to understand why I guess, he did go out all night the night before a Sunday afternoon game where he was slated as the starter.

So when May 17th, 1998 happened I spent the first part of the afternoon receiving my high school diploma as I graduated that day from Emery High School in Emery, South Dakota.

When I arrived home from the ceremony and was changing out of my cap and gown, I heard my Dad yell to me:

“JOE! DAVID WELLS THREW A PERFECT GAME!!!”

Wells went 27 up and 27 down on an afternoon game, and at that time became the first Yankee since Don Larson’s 1956 World Series game to be perfect. There was also a beanie baby giveaway at Yankee Stadium that day. Remember those?

In any event, the fact that Wells threw a perfect game on the day I graduated high school has always been really special to me. It was a historic baseball outing and at that time was only the 15th perfect game in MLB history. It occurred on a day that was up to that point: the most significant day in my young life. There isn’t a May 17th that comes by that it’s not the first thing I think of.

From a baseball standpoint in 1998, what the perfect game seemed to do for David Wells is gave him supreme confidence for the remainder of the season. After the perfect game, he cruised to a 17-4 record for the remainder of the year. Boomer was even better in the postseason as he went 4-0 combined vs. the Rangers, Indians, and Padres en route to the ’98 Title.

How do you win 125 games? You have an out of shape dude with an arm like Sandy Koufax go out until 5:30 am on a Saturday before a start, then throw a perfect game a few hours later.

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*El Duque*

Probably the most significant example of every single thing falling into place for the New York Yankees in 1998 was how great El Duque pitched from the first time he stepped on the rubber at Yankee Stadium.

The story of Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez is a story that is beyond baseball.

Let’s start with the fact that El Duque was banned for life from playing baseball in Cuba. El Duque had been a baseball superstar for the Industriales in the Cuban professional league. His ban came to him after his brother Livan defected in 1995 to Miami, and the Cuban government feared Orlando would be next to leave. Livan went on to be spectacular for the Florida Marlins, becoming the MVP of the 1997 World Series. So El Duque essentially paid for his brother leaving Cuba, as they feared that El Duque would be next to leave.

They were right.

In the fantastic ESPN Film “Brothers In Exile” it states that on the morning of December 26th in 1997, El Duque and 8 others defected Cuba in a small fishing boat. According to the film their first destination was the Anguilla Cay, and uninhabited area in the Bahamas and from there they would be picked up by another boat and taken into Costa Rica. But no one came by boat to pick them up when they arrived. 4 days then passed. They were stranded, without food on a tiny island for 4 days. Finally, the US Coast Guard discovered them and took them to safety in the Bahamas. Only, the Bahamas weren’t the safest place for them either as it was operated by Cuba at the time. Fortunately after several days, they were granted visas and were able to fly to Costa Rica.

The film goes on to say that in February of 1998 El Duque held a workout in front of Major League scouts. His workout, according to some scouts, was subpar. His fastball was only reaching upper 80’s. But Yankees scout Gordon Blakely had scouted El Duque for years and believed he was capable of big things. He convinced Brian Cashman, and a deal was done. El Duque was a Yankee just a few short months removed from literally being stranded on a deserted island.

On June 3, 1998 El Duque made his pitching debut in Yankee Stadium. He won his first start, going 8 innings in a 7-1 victory. The win pushed the Yankees record to 40-13.

Hold on, it gets better.

El Duque finished the regular season 12-4, and made his postseason debut at the one and only critical time of the ’98 playoff run that the team was in serious trouble.

Buster Olney: “They had lost the first three games of the regular season, and after that, they were never really vulnerable again until one 48-hour period in the American League Championship Series, until Orlando Hernandez struck out Jim Thome on a 3-2 changeup with the bases loaded — a pitch El Duque had learned only weeks before — to end a sixth-inning rally in Game 4.”

The Yankees were down 2-1 in the series to Cleveland. El Duque took the ball for game 4 at Cleveland and threw brilliantly: 7 innings, 0 runs, 6 strikeouts. The Yankees won 4-0 to tie the series. They would go on to win every game for the rest of the postseason.

Remember, this team finished the year at 125-50. How do you go 125-50? You have a guy flee his country and risk his life, make his Major League debut just a few months later and throw lights-out in the biggest moments the game of baseball has to offer. That’s exactly what El Duque Hernandez did in 1998.

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*Jeter or Nomar?*

It’s difficult to remember Derek Jeter as not an iconic player. But in 1998, he was still the budding crown prince of New York. He was an elastic and explosive shortstop, and led the league with 127 runs scored that season. 1998 also brought his first 200 hit season, and he hit a then career high of .324 while finishing third in the MVP voting behind Juan Gonzalez and Nomar Garciapara.

Or as the Red Sox faithful referred to him then: “Nomah!!”

1998 is when the Jeter vs. Nomar rivalry got rolling, as to who was better. It’s nice how that heavily played out in Jeter’s favor by the end of their careers.

“But that year, the Yankees didn’t really care about just making the playoffs, or reaching the World Series. The players had felt like they had blown a great chance in the ’97 playoffs against the Indians, and the Yankees went into 1998 on a mission to win the championship. Or bust.” -Buster Olney, New York Times, 1998

The early season success of this current 2018 Yankee team has drawn comparisons to 1998.  Hold. On. A Damn Minute Now!! It’s nearly impossible to duplicate when you consider:

Everything clicked! Everything! Pinch hitters, bench guys, bullpen: hell they had two starters not even make the starting rotation in the postseason that were outstanding the majority of their starts during the season. Hideki Arabu went 13-9 in 1998, and Ramiro Mendoza went 10-1. Neither made a postseason start in 1998. There were probably some teams that year where either one would’ve been the #1 or #2 starter in their rotation.

I understand it’s a no brainer to have the postseason rotation Wells, Cone, El Duque, and Pettitte but the point is that Mendoza and Arabu had dynamite starting outings in 1998.

One narrative that occurred throughout the season, and started in about early June, was that if the Yankees did not win the World Series the season would be a failure. This is an incredibly difficult scenario to play baseball in on a daily basis. Just look at other respective leagues when teams chase historic records. More on that in a moment.

The way the game is now, rarely does the team that finishes with the best regular-season record celebrate on their infield with a trophy at the end of the season.

Here’s proof: in the last ten seasons only two teams: the 2016 Cubs and the 2009 Yankees held the sole best record in baseball at seasons end and won the World Series. That’s only 2 of the last 10 championship teams. The 2013 Red Sox tied for the best record with St. Louis and won the World Series. So it doesn’t happen as often as you’d think.

But in 1998, this was the daily discussion: World Series or bust for the Yankees. It is so difficult to play under that pressure. But they not only succeeded with that pressure, they flourished.

When the regular season was all said and done, the team finished with a record of 114-48. At that time 114 wins became the regular season record for wins in the history of baseball. Three years later the 2001 Seattle Mariners broke this record and finished 116-46. They faced relatively the same core of the ’98 Yankees in the ALCS in 2001 and were dispatched in 5 games.

The ’98 Yankees was truly the apex of their 4 title run, and even in 2001 were still playing a high level of baseball.

In the ’98 American League Division Series, the Yankees swept the Texas Rangers and MVP Juan Gonzalez. Wells won game 1, Pettitte won game 2, and David Cone won game 3. Yankee pitching gave up just one total run in the three games.

After downing Cleveland 4 games to 2 in the ALCS, they faced the San Diego Padres in the World Series. The creme de la creme victory of the series was the Yankees coming to bat in the 8th inning of game 3 with the Padres leading the game 3-2. Trevor Hoffman was pitching. The Padres were 58-0 that season with Hoffman pitching with a lead.

They would finish 58-1.

Scott Brosius, remember a .203 hitter in 1997, hit a three-run homer off of Hoffman in the 8th to help the Yankees escape with a 5-4 victory in a critical game 3.

By the time the Yankees completed the 4 game sweep, it was at that time the lowest rated World Series in TV viewing history.

Tom Verducci, SI, November 2nd 1998:

“Before Game 4 Paul Molitor, one of the game’s aficionados, was
sitting near some Fox TV 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?”

Amen.

It’s been funny that the legacy of this Yankee team hasn’t been spoken of too much so far this summer. I did hear early season comparisons of this years 2018 Yankees club with its 1998 predecessor and it’s not even fair to do that. As I type this on June 20th 2018 the current Yankees are 48-22, which is certainly a remarkable record 70 games in. The ’98 Yankees were 51-19, so they are 3 only three games behind.

I guess if they would’ve been 61-20 at the break I’d be ready to entertain comparisons, so let’s hold off on saying this years club is like the ’98 team.

Because it’s not fair to think they can stay on this pace, and ultimately with how loaded the AL currently is (Houston and Boston especially) it seems unlikely that this season would finish with any team eclipsing 125 total wins.

Maybe I’ll turn out wrong. Maybe not this season but somewhere in the future a team will surpass 125. But it really seems impossible when you consider everything that happened that season to the Yankees. It felt like everything went their way for an entire season, and it did.

What makes the ’98 season even more remarkable is when you consider other leagues and teams that have broken the best all-time records but fell short of the prize at the end.

The 2007 New England Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season but lost the Super Bowl. The 2016 Golden State Warriors went 73-9 but lost in the NBA Finals in seven games. I mentioned the 2001 Mariners above, breaking the ’98 Yanks 114 regular season win mark but failing to win the World Series. Chasing the best record all-time obviously does something to a team in the long run.

But the 1998 Yankees finished 125-50 and included in that was a sweep on the biggest stage in a season that was looked at as a failure if they would not win a championship.

It’s incredibly difficult to win under those circumstances, and it’s truly remarkable to look back 20 years later.

If nothing else, there’s 125 reasons why the 1998 Yankees have been the greatest team in the history of baseball since the final out on an October night in San Diego.

Cue John Sterling 125 times.

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Author: Joe Janssen

Born in South Dakota in the late 1900's

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