Yanks evoking memories of legendary '98 team

June 23rd, 2018

The modern Yankees team against which you measure all others is the one from 1998 -- which won 114 games plus 11 more in the playoffs -- during a time when the Yankees won four World Series in five seasons. They nearly made it five out of six before a series of unfortunate events occurred one night in Phoenix in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 in 2001.

That Yankees team didn't win five Series in a row, the way the old Yankees did from 1949-53. I believe Joe Torre's Yankees were better than those vintage teams because it was harder for Torre's clubs to win it all -- since they needed to win what Reggie Jackson calls, "those 11 in October."

But the best of them, the best the Yankees have had in 90 years, were those 1998 Bombers. The old Yanks of legend -- the ones of Ruth and Gehrig in '27 -- had a winning percentage of .714 over 154 games, which was kind of perfect, because that's how many career home runs "The Babe" had. The '98 Yankees, in a different world, posted a .704 mark over 162 contests.

Now comes this current Yankees team, moving up on the halfway point of the season, which it will effectively reach next weekend at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox. It is on pace to win 111. And, as they say, that's not nothing.

We love to do that in baseball, of course, talk about players and teams being on a pace to do this or that. It's part of the magic of the sport, one more connected to the past than any of our other team sports. But even if these Yankees -- who have been largely blessed with good health and good fortune, especially since a 9-9 start -- don't get to 114, they could come close. I think as good as they've been so far, they can get better and play better. And if you don't think Brian Cashman, their general manager, will get reinforcements at the Trade Deadline, well, think again.

Could these young Yankees, who seem to be just imagining their own possibilities, produce a regular season like the '98 Yankees did? They might. So I asked one of the stars of that team, and one of the most popular Yankees of all time, to compare his team to this one.

I framed the question by telling Paul O'Neill that I thought the starting pitching was way better in 1998; that as deep and talented as the bullpen was, this Yankee bullpen might turn out to have better arms; and that this Yankee batting order is even more dangerous than the one that produced those 114 wins.

O'Neill began this way: "We won the World Series."

They sure did. And when they were in the only real trouble they would face, down to the Indians, 2-1, in the American League Championship Series, they not only came back, they never lost another game. When they were 0-3 that season, I asked Yogi Berra if he had any advice for Torre.

"Yeah," Yogi said, "tell him to win some games."

From that point until they swept the Padres in the World Series, their record was a fast 125-47 (.727). After 73 games that season, they were 54-19 (.740). The current Yankees are 50-23 (.685), four games behind.

"So let's wait and see the end result," O'Neill said. "But these guys are really talented!"

Then: "Bullpen, I would say even. Hitting, theirs [is better]. But our starters were really good."

And better than that. If there is any decided edge -- even with the way these current Yankees can mash, it is with the starters. David Cone was 20-7 that season, David Wells was 18-4 and Andy Pettitte was 16-11. Hideki Irabu won 13 games, while Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez was 12-4. Of the current Yankee starters, gets to play with those cool kids. Once El Duque was with them, the 1998 team could put its Top 4 guys against anybody else's.

They had Tino Martinez at first, Chuck Knoblauch at second, Derek Jeter at short, Scott Brosius at third, O'Neill, Bernie Williams and Tim Raines in the outfield, and Jorge Posada and Joe Girardi behind the plate. The bullpen, with the great Mariano Rivera as its star, also included Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, Graeme Lloyd and Ramiro Mendoza. It was, from start to finish, a wonderful team to watch play baseball -- one made for Yankees history and all of baseball history.

Now come the new guys, seven of whom already have 10 or more home runs. "All Rise" Judge. . and , the kids at the bottom of the order. Neither Judge nor Stanton have been the home run stars of the season, and they still had 37 homers between them entering Saturday. Do I honestly believe -- and this is before Cashman gets them another starter -- that they could win 110 or more? I do. Since that 9-9 start, they have been playing over -- wait for it -- .700 ball for nearly 60 games.

There is a lot more left for this Yankee team to do -- much to prove, maybe make history of its own. But one thing is verifiable at this point: Yankees fans have waited since Torre's team for another group with which to fall in love. Now, they have it.

Final word from Mr. O'Neill, Yankee right fielder in 1998, comparing these Yankees to his:

"[The 2018 Yankees] have a much better right fielder!"