'We're going to win today': '98 Yanks had it all
History reveres the 1998 Yankees as one of baseball’s most dominant teams, steamrolling opponents to set a since-surpassed American League record of 114 victories in the regular season before stomping out 11 more wins in the postseason, securing the franchise’s 24th championship trophy with a World Series sweep of the Padres.
Yet that happy ending was not evident in early April. The talented squad was in turmoil, losing four of its first five games. With principal owner George M. Steinbrenner fuming back in New York and manager Joe Torre already reported to be on the hot seat, a pivotal meeting was called before a Tuesday evening contest at the old Seattle Kingdome.
"To me, winning is a byproduct of doing everything right," Torre recalled two decades later. "We just weren't playing well. I've always preached, 'Don't lose this game. Make somebody beat you.' We were losing games because we weren't playing up to our ability. I was upset with it. I was very upset in that meeting."
Torre expressed his disgust with lackadaisical play, then opened the floor to the veterans, with David Cone among those who accepted the invitation. Cone stoked the players’ emotional fire, noting how Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez had swung fearlessly at a 3-0 pitch in the previous night’s blowout with no retribution from Yankees hurlers.
"Joe let us talk,” said Jorge Posada. “He said, 'Does anybody want to talk?' Then [Paul] O'Neill talked, Cone talked, most of the veterans talked. We kind of got on each other, kind of pointing fingers. … We remembered what kind of team we had. And that was it."
The meeting helped the Yankees correct their course. Chuck Knoblauch hit the first pitch of that night’s game over the wall as part of a six-run first inning and the Yanks won 22 of their next 24, including a wild, 17-13 victory over the Athletics in the home opener.
Talk of replacing Torre with someone like Davey Johnson dissipated as the Bombers claimed first place on April 30 and never let go, seemingly elevating a different hero every night.
The ’98 Yanks were blessed with a complete lineup, a deep bench, stellar starting pitching and a lockdown bullpen. In a season when the rest of baseball was fascinated by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa taking aim at Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, Tino Martinez paced the Yanks with 28 long balls, yet the Yankees led the Majors with 965 runs scored. Their run differential was +309, the highest by any club since the ’39 Yanks (411).
"Literally every day we'd come to the ballpark and be like, 'We're going to win today,'" Andy Pettitte said. "You don't always have that. It was like, no matter what happened, it seemed we were going to overcome that. We were going to win. It was just a great team."
A season with seven walk-off wins and 16 shutouts was highlighted by David Wells' May 17 perfect game against the Twins. There was an epic fracas involving Armando Benitez and the Orioles, and the Yankees only once lost more than three straight games, compiling five winning streaks of eight games or more. More than a third of their victories were by five runs or more. The 92-win Red Sox were left in the dust, finishing 22 games behind New York in the AL East.
"No one cared who the hero was. No one cared who got the headlines," Derek Jeter said. "We just wanted to win, and that's what made it special. I'm a little bit biased, but in my mind, it's not only one of the greatest teams in history but one of the greatest sports teams of all time."
After a September boost from big-swinging call-up Shane Spencer, the Yankees swept the Rangers in the ALDS, then rode a pivotal Game 4 start from Orlando Hernandez to avenge their ’97 playoff exit and advance past Cleveland in the AL Championship Series.
"The things that I remember: David Wells being carried off the field after a perfect game," Scott Brosius said. "Bernie Williams winning a batting title (.339) and coming out and taking a curtain call in his flip-flops and a T-shirt. I think about El Duque bursting onto the scene and coming up huge in Cleveland. Shane Spencer going all Babe Ruth on us in September. Great memories."
The Padres won 98 regular-season games and claimed the National League West by 9 1/2 games, but the Bombers outclassed them in the World Series. Martinez electrified the Bronx with a go-ahead grand slam off Mark Langston in Game 1 -- one pitch after receiving the benefit of the doubt on a 2-2 offering that appeared to be a strike -- and Hernandez pitched well in Game 2, sending the Series to Southern California.
"We didn't think about it," Mariano Rivera said. "We just wanted to play the game that we love and we know how to play. And the result was, after that, hopefully we were having it our way. And that's exactly what happened."
The Yankees rallied late in Game 3, with Brosius slugging a three-run homer off Trevor Hoffman. Pitching behind a roster that had already been brought closer together by Darryl Strawberry's late-season colon cancer diagnosis, Pettitte fired a gem in the clincher, spinning 7 1/3 scoreless innings.
"The World Series was kind of a blur for me," Pettitte said. "My dad had open-heart surgery that year. I wasn't here for a couple of the games during the World Series; I flew into San Diego and met the team and pitched the game and almost immediately left. That was a weird World Series for me. Obviously it was great, but at that time I was wondering if my dad was going to make it through an open-heart surgery."
Rivera induced the final out, a ground ball to Brosius at third base. Brosius leaped into the air, hands high above his head, and raced to the mound to participate in a dog pile that he called "truly a dream come true." That set off a celebration so wild that it spilled across the United States’ southern border.
"I remember we won in San Diego, and some guys went to Mexico and Tijuana," Posada said. "And we were like, 'Hopefully they get back.' I was scared for that. Most of us stayed in San Diego. It was fun. I think that parade was probably the most loudest and the most people I saw, in all five of them."
The Yankees’ regular-season wins record stood until 2001, when the Mariners eclipsed the mark with 116 victories. Yet the Yanks dispatched that stacked Seattle club in the ALCS, and so the ’98 Yankees still stand tall as a group that finished the job.
"I don't look at 114. I look at 125," Posada said. "Because at the end of the day, if you don't win, it doesn't mean anything. To be able to finish those 11 games that matter the most, that's what you really remember."