Yankees Magazine: Winning Mentality

Derek Jeter recalls the championship mindset that guided the '98 Yankees to greatness

July 19th, 2018
Rich Pilling/MLB Photos August 26 1998New York Yankees

When the 1998 New York Yankees took the field for the first time in Spring Training, Derek Jeter had already established himself as the toast of the town. After winning the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year Award and helping lead that team to the Yankees' first World Series championship in 18 years, the young shortstop had secured a spot among the pantheon of New York sports legends. But he was hungry for much more.
During the 1998 Yankees' 114-win regular season, Jeter batted a then-career-high .324, an improvement of 33 points from the previous season. He led the AL in runs scored with 127, while also reaching then-career bests in home runs (19) and RBI (84).
Jeter was selected to his first of 14 All-Star Games in '98. And a few months after representing the Yankees in the Midsummer Classic at Colorado's Coors Field, he eclipsed the 200-hit plateau for the first of eight times in his storied career. That October, Jeter batted .353 in the Yankees' World Series sweep of the San Diego Padres, and eventually finished third in the AL MVP voting.

Earlier this season, Jeter, who is now the Miami Marlins' chief executive officer, sat down with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III in his office at Marlins Park in Florida.
Going into the 1998 season, what was life like as the 24-year-old shortstop of the New York Yankees?
My life in general was great, but from a baseball standpoint, it was rough. We had just lost to the Indians in 1997. We had a team that year that we thought could win another championship, but in our minds, Cleveland upset us. That whole offseason, leading up to the '98 season, all I thought about was getting another opportunity to play in the World Series. I think that was the mindset of just about everyone on that team. Once you've won a championship, anything short of that is disappointing.
What did you learn from the defeat to Cleveland that helped you in 1998 and in the seasons after that?
That every single pitch, every single at-bat and every single moment in the course of a game matters. Obviously, we learned that in 1996, but it seems like when you win, everything goes your way. When you lose, you point to the different turning points in the game. I realized how difficult it is to win a championship in 1997. You have to have a great team, but you also have to be playing well at all of the important moments.
What were your thoughts on the potential of the 1998 team when you got to Spring Training?
The great thing about Spring Training is that there's a lot of optimism for every team. But for us, our expectations were extremely high. Our mindset was to win a championship. We knew it was going to be a long process, but it was win or bust for us that year. We didn't want to put too much pressure on ourselves, but the expectation level was as high as it could have been.
Then, you started the season 1-4.
Yeah, it was the end of the world. The season was over, according to a lot of people, even though we had 157 games left.
Well, after that, your team won 25 out of the next 28 games.
Did we really? I didn't realize that we were that hot early in the season, but it makes sense. We felt like we should have won every single day we were on the field. That's what separated us from any other team I ever played for or against. We never sat back and thought, "We've had a good streak, and it's OK if it ends here." That's the only way we were able to maintain an entire season of success the way we did.
How exciting was it to come to the Stadium that summer?
Winning is fun. It's a lot more fun than losing. Just knowing that I was coming to the field every day with a group of guys who only cared about winning was special. We didn't care who the hero was or who got the big hit or pitched a great game as long as we won. When you have a group like that, it's pretty special, and it makes going to work fun. The importance of culture and how well players on a team get along is talked about often. Well, winning makes it hard to not get along with each other.
Along those lines, how would you describe the chemistry on the '98 Yanks?
There was a mutual respect that we all had for each other. We weren't all going out to dinner together, but we respected each other. There was a great deal of accountability. No one on that team was pointing at himself or looking for the attention. There have been years where we had players who were more talented, but as far as the true definition of a team, that was by far the best team I was ever on.
From your vantage point at shortstop on May 17 -- the day that David Wells tossed a perfect game -- when did you start to believe that he could retire all 27 batters?
I realized that David had a no-hitter every time I turned around and looked at the scoreboard, but I didn't start paying attention to the fact that he had a perfect game until the seventh inning. That's when the crowd really started to get into it. The fans were standing up for every pitch. But throughout the game, David had great stuff. I know that there were a few good plays made in the field, but really, not many hitters even came close to getting a hit. He was dominating from the first batter to the last. No-hitters are one thing, but perfect games are hard to come by. They're rare for a reason.
What are the thoughts that a shortstop has when a pitcher gets within a few outs of pitching a perfect game?
"Don't screw this up."
Did you want the ball to be hit to you?
As it got later in the game, I wanted routine balls to be hit to me. But I didn't want to have to make any tough plays. When a guy is throwing a no-hitter, you can make an error, and it's no big deal. The no-hitter is still intact. But in a perfect game, you make an error, and you'll forever be known for screwing it up. Anyone who tells you that they wanted every single ball hit to them is lying because we were all just as nervous as David was.
You were selected to your first All-Star team in '98. What was the experience of playing in that game like?
It was a surreal moment. Being on the field with players I grew up idolizing and had looked up to my whole life was truly memorable. I'd like to think that I was interacting with them but I probably didn't say anything to those players, just because I was in awe. As a player, at least for me, I always hoped and wished for the opportunity to play in an All-Star Game, and when I was actually there, I couldn't believe it. I was in high school a few years earlier, and now I was on the field with some of the all-time greats in baseball history. The first time you do anything, it's special. Playing in my first All-Star Game is something I'll never forget.
You put together your best season to date in '98, and it ended up being one of the best statistical seasons of your career. How much did the experience of being in the big leagues for two full seasons before that contribute to your consistency in '98?
Baseball is a game of adjustments, and the first year you play in the league, you have to adjust. Pitchers are making adjustments to the way they approach you. Then, you have the sophomore jinx. People don't think you can come back and do it for a second year. But the more success you have, the more confident you become. You start to realize that you can play and that you can be successful. Having already played in two postseasons and won a World Series, I had gotten a taste of everything already. That helped with my whole mentality.
Although the '98 team didn't face much on-field adversity, you and your teammates were dealt some devastating news when Darryl Strawberry was diagnosed with cancer late in the season. How did that affect you?
It put everything into perspective. You're out there playing baseball every day, and you start to think that winning and losing is life or death. But the bottom line is that when someone who is close to you, who you've developed a relationship with and who is like a family member to you, goes through a real life-or-death situation, it is eye-opening. I first teamed with Darryl in the Minors, and when I came up, he went out of his way to talk to me about the pitfalls of New York, the temptations that exist in New York and the mistakes that he made. I learned a lot from him. Seeing him go through everything after he was diagnosed that year made me realize that there were things that were a lot bigger than the game of baseball.
When your team trailed the Indians in the 1998 American League Championship Series, 2 games to 1, how did Joe Torre keep everyone focused and calm, and ultimately get things back on track?
Mr. T is, in my mind, the best communicator that I've ever been around in my life. He was a calming influence. We never saw him panic. I could tell if he was upset by the way he wore his hat, but he basically had the same facial expressions all the time. Any time your manager is calm, it rubs off on the players. Our philosophy at that point was to go out and win one game. And we had won a game before -- or, should I say, a lot of games. So we just simplified it, as opposed to looking at it like, "We're down, 2 games to 1."

Starting with Jorge Posada, would you share your thoughts on a few of the guys you were closest with on that team?
Jorge's like a brother to me. We were together every day for 17 years. He's my closest friend in the game.
Tino Martinez.
Tino was intense. He expected a lot of himself, and he was a gamer. I'm still close with him today.
Andy Pettitte.
We were teammates for the first time when I was 18 years old, and we came up together. If I had to choose one guy to pitch a big game, he would always be at the top of my list.
Tim Raines.
He made baseball fun. He taught me that regardless of how many games you play or how you're playing, you have to enjoy yourself. No one had more fun than Tim Raines.
Mariano Rivera.
The best. Mo's another guy I was teammates with when I was 18 years old. When you talk about someone who dominated a position, he's the first guy you think of. He's the best to ever do what he did.
And, lastly, Bernie Williams.
Oh, Bernie. What can I say? I'm trying to think of the best way to put this into words. He was as carefree as a player could possibly be. He certainly cared, but it seemed as if he was never aware of the magnitude of a game. He was just out there playing baseball.
Do you feel that the '98 team's win total of 114 games plus 11 more in the postseason -- against just 50 losses -- adds to the lore of what the club accomplished that season?
We did something that no team had ever done, winning 125 games. And, quite frankly, I don't think another team will ever do that. We were 75 games over .500. To win that many games, and to also dominate the postseason the way we did, is pretty difficult to do. I can't imagine that it will ever happen again.
Among all of the things you accomplished in the game, where does having a major role on that team rank?
I'm most proud of being on championship teams. That's why you play the game. Any time you win a championship, it's special. When I'm asked to rank the championship teams I played on, it's like being asked to pick your favorite child when you have kids. But as far as the championships we won, the first one in 1996 was special simply because it was the first one. The 1998 team was the best team I have ever been on.
The 1998 team is often compared to some of the other greatest teams in professional sports history. How would you rank what the '98 Yankees accomplished against what teams like the 1927 Murderers' Row Yankees, the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that compiled a 72-10 record did?
It's difficult to debate teams from different sports and different eras. The 1972 Miami Dolphins are the measuring stick for all great football teams. That Chicago Bulls team dominated like no other basketball team ever has. And the 1927 Yankees probably had the best lineup of all time. We had to go through three rounds of playoffs, and that was really tough. Just look at the Seattle Mariners, who won 116 regular season games in 2001, but didn't even get to the World Series. You asked me, so I will say that we had the best team. Of course, I'm a little biased. Either way, just to be included in that conversation is good enough.
You're much more gracious when answering that question than some of your former teammates on the '98 team.
Well, I know how difficult it is to play baseball every day and to win as many games as we did, but I don't know how hard it is to play in the NFL or the NBA. If you ask guys who played on that Dolphins team or on that Bulls team the same question, I'm sure they would tell you that it was more difficult to accomplish what they did, and I understand that.
When your infant daughter, Bella, is older, and the conversation about the 1998 team comes up, what is the most important thing you'll share with her?
That we came to work every single day, and that every person on that team held each other accountable. We were a group that never made excuses. We had a mindset that every team and every business wants to have. People talk about the importance of everyone on a team being on the same page, but in reality, that is really hard to do. If everyone on that team wasn't on the same page, we were as close to that as could be.
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.