Chili Davis never could have imagined that the best was ahead of him. He thought his playing career was over, yet, while contemplating retirement, the veteran piqued the Yankees' interest and ultimately inked a multiyear contract with the team prior to the 1998 season.
Before the 38-year-old could get going, he suffered an ankle injury that required surgery and sidelined him from early April until mid-August. But when he returned to the lineup, the DH made meaningful contributions, batting .293 with three home runs in 33 regular-season games.
That October, the Jamaica native helped the Yankees cap off a historic season, collecting seven hits and five walks in 10 postseason games, none of which was bigger than his two-run single and solo home run in the team's Game 5 victory over Cleveland in the American League Championship Series.
Davis completed his 19-year career in 1999, playing in 146 regular-season games for the Yankees and going out as a World Series champion that fall. When it was all said and done, he had amassed 2,380 hits and won three World Series titles.
Earlier this season, Davis, now the Cubs' hitting coach, sat down with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III at Chicago's Wrigley Field.
When you got to Spring Training in 1998, what did you envision your role with that team would be?
Prior to signing with the Yankees, I already had 17 years in the game. I had been playing for Kansas City, and I was thinking that I was going to retire. But when the Yankees called, it was an opportunity for me to play for a team where I didn't really feel like I had to be the guy anymore because there were so many great hitters in place already. For me, I felt that as a switch-hitter, I could fit anywhere in the lineup and be an anchor between a righty and a lefty. I was used to hitting third or fourth, but I was happy to bat sixth in that lineup.
When did you realize that the 1998 Yankees had a chance to be special?
Honestly, right when I got to Spring Training. It was nice to look around and see the caliber of players we had. When I saw Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada taking batting practice, I could tell that the team was going to do something special. When I started to think about our pitching staff, which included David Wells, David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Hideki Irabu and Ramiro Mendoza, I knew that we were going to be pretty freaking good. It was a dynasty in the making. And, we also had a pretty good closer. What was his name? Oh yeah, Mariano Rivera!
Yeah, I've heard of him. Besides all of that talent, how would you describe the chemistry on that team?
It was great. Joe Torre was the perfect manager for that club. He commanded the respect of the older veterans and the young players. Without him ever having to say it, we knew that we had to show up and work hard every day. Starting in Spring Training, we all came in early, got our work done and acted like professionals. There was never the need for him to come into that clubhouse and police us. The veterans were already doing that.
How disappointing was it for you when you sustained the injury that knocked you out of the lineup from April until August?
It was certainly disappointing because I had worked really hard in Spring Training, and I was just starting to swing the bat well. It was just a freak injury. I had torn the peroneus longus ligament, and it didn't even hurt when it happened. I thought it was just a stinger or something like that. I tried to run the bases, but I couldn't make the turns, and that led to me having to have surgery on it. I wasn't as upset as I was determined to come back. I was told that I might not get back in time to play any part of the season, and in my mind, that wasn't the case. I was coming back, no matter what. I worked really hard in Tampa to get healthy. I remember when I got the cast taken off of my foot, the doctor told me to gingerly step off of the table, but I was so excited that I hopped off. And during all of the rehab assignments I did in the Minors, I was testing it hard. If it was going to blow out again, it was going to happen in the Minors. I didn't want to worry about it when I rejoined the big club in August.
What was that first game back with the Yankees like for you?
Well, having watched so many games from Tampa, it just seemed like they won every single night. When I first got back, I just didn't want to mess up the karma. I met the team in Kansas City, and I got a few hits right away. That really felt great. I was back, and nothing they were doing had changed.
How much fun were you having as the next few weeks rolled along?
I loved it. It was exciting to finally be part of it. When we got back to New York, Joe Torre brought Darryl Strawberry and me into his office, and he told Straw, "I have to get Chili some at-bats because I need him to be ready for the playoffs. I hope you don't mind, but you might not play quite as much as you have been." Straw just looked at him with a smile and said, "I don't care. I just want to win." That epitomized the type of team we had. Everything was easy. There were no selfish players on that team. We played to win, and we did whatever it took to do so. I had a blast every day from the time I got back until the World Series parade. New York City loved us, and we loved New York City.
You collected 14 hits in your first 14 games after returning. What do you feel contributed to that consistent run?
By that time in my career, putting the bat on the ball wasn't hard. I knew that I couldn't come back and try to hit home runs right away, and with that in mind, I didn't push it at all. I didn't swing at pitches that were out of the strike zone, and I didn't try to do too much. My timing wasn't great, but I was able to put the barrel of the bat on the ball. By the time we got to the playoffs, my timing had improved, and I was able to swing the bat a little more aggressively.
How would you describe George Steinbrenner's influence on that team during the season?
I remember a game in Tampa against the Devil Rays after we had already clinched everything. We ended up losing the game, and George always got mad when we would lose to Tampa. He came into the clubhouse after the game and walked into Joe's office. They met for a few minutes, and then Joe came out and announced that we were going to have a meeting. All he said was, "Boys, we need to step it up a notch." That was the whole meeting. We ended up shutting them out the next day, and then we swept them a few weeks later. We were all really motivated to win those games, even though they didn't really matter. George didn't want us to lose to a lesser team, and we got the message.
How did the atmosphere around the '98 Yankees compare to that of the first World Series championship team you played on, the 1991 Minnesota Twins?
With the Twins in 1991, no one expected us to win. We had a great team and a lot of talented players who were very professional as far as how they prepared. But with the '98 Yankees, when you looked around that locker room, every single player was a true pro. Everyone knew what their role was and what they had to do, and they all played those roles to the best of their abilities. The beauty of that team was that it didn't include any superstars, no one who was hitting 50 home runs or anything like that. There was a bunch of guys who hit about 20 home runs and drove in 80, but we knew how to win games.
The 1998 Yankees included quite a few guys who are now in the Hall of Fame or who will soon be inducted. Starting with Derek Jeter, what were the intangibles that set those guys apart?
Derek was a special person to me. He was classy then, and he still is. For a young player who garnered so much attention, Derek always did things the right way. You would never catch him doing something he shouldn't be doing. He was the prince of the city. He was also great in the locker room. I will forever love him.
Joe was one of my favorite managers. He treated his players as men. He wasn't loud or in your face, but he was respected by everyone on that ballclub.
<b?tim raines.="">Rock was a great player, and he was also a great guy in the locker room. He kept that locker room going. I think he kept Derek Jeter under his wing and helped mold him into the captain of the team a few years later.</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">Mariano Rivera.</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">Having Mariano come out of that bullpen for the ninth inning gave us an advantage over every team. He was truly the difference-maker.</b?tim><b?tim raines.=""></b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">Were there any unsung heroes on that team?</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">I don't think we had any unsung heroes, but adding El Duque to that pitching staff was huge. He could pitch before he got here, and the league couldn't figure him out, at least during the two seasons I was on the Yankees with him. I don't think a lot of people knew how good he was going to be for us.</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">Your solo home run off Indians right-hander Jaret Wright in Game 5 of the ALCS helped the Yankees to a 5-3 win and a 3-games-to-2 lead in the series. What are your memories of that homer?</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">I had faced Jaret Wright before, and I knew that he was aggressive. As I got older, I became a smarter hitter, and in the situation that we were in, I felt like I knew what he was going to throw. You're never trying to hit a home run, but I was able to get the ball out of the ballpark. After I hit the home run, I remember some of my teammates saying, "We lost to these guys last year. This is why we got you; to hit home runs in big games like this." It was nice to know that I did what they wanted me to do. I also wanted to make The Boss feel good about having signed me. George Steinbrenner had brought me to New York to add some power to the lineup, and that's what I did in that game.</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">Compared to other World Series teams that you played on before and after, how confident were you and your teammates going into the 1998 World Series?</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">Thinking back on the 1991 Twins, that team didn't have the type of confidence that the 1998 Yankees had. We went into the '98 World Series feeling like we weren't only going to win, but that we were going to sweep those guys. We actually felt the same way in the 1999 World Series, and we swept both of those Series. We had no doubts in our mind.</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">What are your memories of playing in the World Series at the old Yankee Stadium?</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">When we got to the World Series, for me, the flashback was to Spring Training, where it all started. You start thinking about the journey of eight months, and that's pretty special. This is why we worked hard every day, from the time Spring Training began. This is why I worked so hard to get back. To be on the field in the World Series with the teammates I had on that team was incredible.</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">Where does winning a championship with that storied team rank among the things you accomplished in the game?</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">Right near the top. The only reason that 1999 may rank higher for me is because I had a bigger role on that team. But 1998 was special. I had won a World Series before, but winning it all with the Yankees is bigger than winning a championship anywhere else.</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">What did you enjoy most about the World Series parade that year?</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">New York at its very best.</b?tim>
<b?tim raines.="">This interview is part of a season- long series of Q&A's with the 1998 Yankees and has been edited for clarity and length.</b?tim>