The Yankees, overshadowed? Why the 'best team ever' never got its due

BySam Borden ESPN logo
Monday, June 15, 2020

A FEW WEEKS AGO, Joe Torre was on the phone with a friend. They were discussing whether Major League Baseball could stage a season this year in spite of the global pandemic and worrying about the damage missing so many games might do to the sport.

"It could be like before, when the game was sinking a little bit," the friend said. He was talking about the 1990s, when a labor stoppage sent the game's popularity reeling. "And then McGwire and Sosa saved it."

Torre hesitated.

"You know, '98? The home runs?" The friend rambled on.

Torre bristled, just a little. "Now hang on," he said. "What about our team? The Yankees ... who won 114 games ... and set a record?"

There was a long pause. Torre's friend hemmed and hawed. Then, finally, he mumbled, "Oh ... yeah," and Torre sighed the sigh of a man who has had this conversation before.

"Oh yeah," Torre said.

SO EVERYBODY FORGETS about those '98 New York Yankees. It makes sense, in some ways: History remembers faces. When it comes to individuals, there are no loyalty issues about cheating on the team you love, no hesitations about what that well-struck moonshot means on the scoreboard. We can just watch the magic of the moment and ogle.

That is what happened in 1998. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit home runs all summer long, reinvigorating a group of baseball fans understandably disenchanted by the players' strike from a few years earlier. Despite the pharmaceutical component of their achievements (that only became clear later on), there was no complex science behind why we were all captivated; Big Mac and Slammin' Sammy took long pieces of lumber and smacked balls unfathomable distances day after day after day. What's not fun about that?

Yet lost in the cacophony of that traveling circus was just about everything else. And so, for better or worse, the 1998 baseball season is always seen as the McGwire and Sosa year. Books were written and 30 for 30 documentaries were made, all of which serve to embed those home runs in our consciousness even more.

But as thrilling as their chase of Roger Maris' single-season record might have been, the '98 season was also something special for the Yankees. When someone says "Summer of '98," that team should be the first thing that comes to mind, not the second or third. Because all the '98 Yankees did was put together the greatest single season by a team in modern baseball history.

And as Torre, who appreciates the history of baseball as much as anyone, says, "That team really was something special."

He is underselling it. Those Yankees were spectacular. The numbers they put up were, frankly, staggering. They won 114 games during the regular season (an American League record at the time) and 125 games total (a record that still stands). Their run differential was plus-309, and more than a third of their wins were by five runs or more. They had a 10-game winning streak, two different nine-game winning streaks, two eight-game winning streaks and a seven-game winning streak. They took over first place in the AL East for good on April 30, leaving the Red Sox -- who won 92 games! -- 22 games back by the end of September. Even Secretariat would have been in awe.

The Yankees were 11 games over .500 after April and 41 games over by the All-Star break. They were 10-0 against the Royals and 11-1 against the then-Devil Rays. They were 13-3 in interleague play. "It's the only team I've been around where you showed up at the ballpark every day and were genuinely surprised if they lost," says Michael Kay, then the radio voice of the Yankees and now calling games on the YES Network. "You were literally shocked if they didn't win."

It's true. They won on Memorial Day. They won on Mother's Day. They won on Independence Day. They even won on Torre's birthday, July 18, which had always been a bugaboo for Torre going back to his playing days.

"I just never had a lot of luck on my birthday," Torre said on a recent video call. "I'd go hitless or we'd lose or whatever. But in '98, I remember saying to one of my coaches, 'Hey, we even won on my birthday,' and he looked at me and said, 'Joe, we won on everybody's birthday.'"

IT SHOULD BE SAID: The '98 Yankees very nearly didn't happen. A few days before the first game, the players were on a bus going from Tijuana Airport, where they had just landed, to San Diego, where they were supposed to play a couple of exhibitions before beginning the season in Anaheim.

It was dark out. The players zoned out in their seats. But then, suddenly, there was a loud bang and the bus careened up onto a median. The driver had not seen the highway narrowing until it was too late. With the wheels on one side of the bus up on the concrete median and the wheels on the other side still on the ground, the vehicle listed violently and seemed certain to tip over.

The players started shouting and scrambling to figure out how to shift their collective weight to keep the bus from toppling further. "We were just screaming at each other to get over to the high side," David Cone says now. "It was terrifying." After a few tense moments, the bus finally settled enough for the players to (very carefully) tiptoe to the door. Somehow, no one was seriously hurt.

In the days after, though, the traffic mishap felt like an omen. Mariano Rivera injured his groin and ended up on the disabled list. The Yankees lost their first three games and four of their first five. Owner George Steinbrenner angrily called GM Brian Cashman home from the West Coast to answer for the slow start. Speculation bubbled that Torre, who was in his third year with the team, would be fired and replaced by Davey Johnson.

After another ugly loss to the Mariners, Torre went out for dinner by himself late at night in Seattle. Sitting in a booth at Metropolitan Grill, he pondered the possibility of losing his job but mostly tried to focus on what to say at a team meeting he planned to call.

He knew he would have to show anger, and that's what he did when he stood in front of the players the next afternoon, snapping at them to stop beating themselves. To trust their abilities. To play freely and with abandon. Then Cone, the veteran pitcher, took the floor.

"I remember getting a little amped up and telling everyone that we needed to have a sense of urgency -- because our owner definitely had a sense of urgency and might make changes," Cone says. "I felt like we had a great team, and I don't think any of us wanted to see it wrecked before we got started." His words struck a chord: That night, the Yankees scored six runs in the first inning and went on to win 22 of their next 24 games.

On May 17, one day after McGwire hit his 16th home run and began a memorable stretch of 10 homers in 10 days, David Wells threw a perfect game against the Twins at Yankee Stadium. Two days after that, the Yankees rallied to score six runs in the eighth against the Orioles for a comeback victory that also featured an epic (and violent) brawl that erupted after Bernie Williams homered and Armando Benitez responded by drilling Tino Martinez squarely in the back.

Martinez thinks that because the Yankees were so good, other teams "were always trying to agitate us," and Benitez certainly was the aggressor. After hitting Martinez, the Orioles pitcher gestured at the Yankees dugout, shouting, "If you want me, come and get me."

The Yankees, it turned out, did want him, and everyone poured out of the dugout. Reliever Graeme Lloyd came charging in from the bullpen, and right fielder Darryl Strawberry pursued Benitez with a ferocious determination that kept refueling the chaos. The bedlam continued for nearly 10 minutes.

"I actually wound up sitting in the Baltimore dugout at the end because I was chasing after Strawberry," Torre says, and he wasn't the only one. The fighting spilled all over the field, and it took Torre, Cal Ripken Jr. and Baltimore coach Eddie Murray to physically restrain Strawberry enough for things to settle down.

Painful as it was to be beaned, even Martinez admits that the fight brought the Yankees closer. And while chemistry is often overrated as an attribute of successful teams, there was certainly a feeling among the Yankees that everyone shared the load. While McGwire and Sosa were having their individual moments, the Yankees were undeniably a collective: No Yankee hit even 30 home runs in 1998, but eight hit at least 17 (Martinez led with 28). Williams won the AL batting title with a .339 average, but six Yankees had an OPS+ of 120 or more. Scott Brosius, who was the No. 9 hitter, hit .300 and drove in 98 runs.

It was the same with the pitching. Six hurlers had 10 or more wins (Cone finished with 20), and three starters threw more than 200 innings. The bullpen was dominant, led by Rivera, who saved 36 games and had an ERA of 1.91. Even the reserves made significant contributions. Homer Bush scored 17 runs primarily as a pinch-runner, and Shane Spencer hit 10 homers after being called up from the minors late in the season.

"We were just relentless," Martinez says. "We'd win Friday night and Saturday, but instead of letting down on Sunday, we'd say to each other, 'Let's ruin their flight home too.' That was our thing -- we always wanted to win on Sunday so the other team would leave with a bad taste."

The mix was perfect. Veterans like Cone and Martinez and Paul O'Neill brought the seasoning. Budding stars like Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada combined with Andy Pettitte and Rivera to form the core. Wells was the eccentric in the room, quirky but also so intense he once head-butted Torre in the dugout after the manager made a defensive substitution late in a game in which Wells had a perfect game going. (Wells subsequently gave up a hit.)

"I guess he didn't like that, superstition-wise," Torre says.

On other teams, an episode like that might have become an issue, but this team just kept rolling. Smaller complications, like the bus accident or the inconvenience of having to play a home game at Shea Stadium (and postpone two others) after a fallen beam at Yankee Stadium required emergency repairs, didn't faze the Yankees. And bigger disruptions, like the midseason arrival of Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez (which brought both a new player and an increased media focus), turned out additive instead of upheaving.

Even more serious challenges, like Strawberry's colon cancer diagnosis in October or Scott Brosius' worries about his ailing father, Marty, who was battling the same disease, seemed to bond the players even more.

"We cared so much about each other," Martinez says, "but it was also like we all knew: During those three hours every day, the only thing that mattered was winning."

THE YANKEES KEPT UP with all the homers in the Midwest. They had to. The games were always on the clubhouse televisions, especially because Sosa played for the Cubs, who prefer to schedule matinees at Wrigley Field.

But the focus remained internal. The Yankees won their 100th game on Sept. 4, the same day that Sosa smashed his 57th home run. Torre called another meeting to ward off any second-semester senioritis after a 7-0 loss in Tampa -- New York's fifth in six games -- and the Yankees responded by finishing the season with 10 wins in their last 12 games. To this day, Kay, the broadcaster, believes that September wilt is the only thing that kept the Yankees from putting up a regular-season win total that would be "Cy Young untouchable."

"They should have won at least 120," Kay says.

In the moment, though, Torre was just determined to see his players finish the job. The players knew all their work wouldn't be validated without a championship, and that meant the anxiety in the clubhouse was sky-high once the postseason began.

After sweeping the Rangers in the division series, the Yankees lost Game 2 of the ALCS against the Indians and headed to Cleveland with the series tied 1-1. The Indians had eliminated the Yankees from the previous year's playoffs, so the mood was tight. Torre tried to relax his charges by announcing that there would be no workout the next day, telling them on the flight to Cleveland, "Just go to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and take it easy."

After the plane landed, though, Paul O'Neill's wife, Nevalee, approached Torre. "Paul needs to practice tomorrow," Nevalee said of her famously intense husband. "Listen, Joe: Paul needs to take batting practice and you said no workout, so ..." She trailed off, looking at Torre pleadingly.

"OK," Torre said, and then he called out to the team that there would be an optional workout the next day. Every single player showed.

The Yankees did lose Game 3, but on the day of Game 4, Hernandez -- who hadn't pitched in two weeks because he wasn't needed in the division series-- decided to spend his morning helping the hotel restaurant's waitstaff bus tables at the team's breakfast. Hernandez then pitched seven shutout innings that evening to tip the series back toward the Yankees, and they won the next two to reach the World Series, where they faced thePadres.Destiny was closing in; San Diego, their destination on the day of that scary bus trip back in the spring, would serve as the season's bookends.

The Yankees scored nine runs in each of the first two games to sprint to a 2-0 series lead. When Brosius hit a three-run home run in the eighth inning of Game 3, he threw up his arms as he rounded first base, and Torre turned to his bench coach, Don Zimmer, and said, "That's the cover of Sports Illustrated right there." (It was.)

Later that night, Torre and his wife, Ali, went out for dinner, and Ali caught Torre staring off into space. She tapped his hand and asked, "What are you thinking about?" And Torre, on the precipice of glory in a season that began with him thinking he might not make it out of April, could only shrug.

"I'm just wondering," he said, "why are all these good things happening to me?"

The Yankees finished the sweep in Game 4. The next morning -- after a party that was as much about relief as celebration -- Torre's 2-year-old daughter, Andrea, helped him carry the World Series trophy off the plane as the Yankees arrived back in New York.

Those memories -- the dinner with Ali, the moment with Zimmer, the trophy with Andrea -- come to Torre's lips so easily now, more than two decades later.

The Yankees are proud of flying as high as they did, and the "125" on the side of their World Series ring from that year very nearly says it all. The team remains the winningest MLB champion of the modern era.

But Torre and just about everyone else associated with the 1998 team remembers it for more than that. The connections within that group, the depth of belief they had in each other, the experiences they shared from spring to fall, were like nothing any of them had ever lived through.

In early August, Cashman needed a roster spot to call up Spencer, a 26-year-old outfielder who was hitting well in Triple-A, so he decided to release Dale Sveum, a journeyman backup infielder. Sveum had another year to go on his contract. He could have signed with another team or gone home and collected his money.

Instead, Sveum asked to stay. For the next three months, he threw batting practice, hit fungoes and caught bullpen sessions for the Yankees.

It was, at once, bizarre and charming. "I don't think I'd ever seen anything like that," Martinez says.

Even Sveum admits he's never heard of anyone doing so before or since, but: "I'd never been to the playoffs in my career and I knew how good that team was and ..."

His voice trails off.

"It just felt like I didn't want to be anywhere else."

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