Yankees Magazine: Whoa, Nellie!

As the bridge to Mariano Rivera, Jeff Nelson locked down the late innings for the 1998 Yankees

September 18th, 2018

Jeff Nelson had a very specific role on the 1998 Yankees: Protect the lead until Mariano Rivera entered the game. A 6-foot-8 right-hander with a wipeout slider, the Maryland native was more than up for the job, and along with Mike Stanton, he formed a dynamic late-inning bridge to the greatest closer of all time for perhaps the greatest team of all time.
But the 1998 season was also a frustrating one for the reliever nicknamed Nellie. After initially pitching through a back injury, Nelson went on the disabled list from late June until early September. The Yankees had clinched a playoff berth by the time Nelson returned, but he did his part in September with nine consecutive scoreless appearances. For the season, he went 5-3 with a 3.79 ERA in 45 games.
Nellie then played an integral role during the Yankees' World Series run, appearing in eight of the team's 13 postseason contests. The most critical moment came in Game 4 of the Fall Classic against San Diego. With the Yankees staked to a 3-0 lead, Nelson struck out the dangerous Greg Vaughn with two on and one out in the bottom of the eighth inning. He then handed the ball to Rivera. Four outs later, the Yankees were champions once again.

Nelson would go on to star for another prolific team, the 2001 Seattle Mariners. But while they won 116 regular season games, breaking the '98 Yankees' AL record, the Mariners lost the American League Championship Series in five games to the Yankees.
Last month, Nelson -- now an analyst for Marlins baseball on Fox Sports Florida -- spoke with Yankees Magazine associate editor Thomas Golianopoulos about the 1998 team.
Aside from the team's dominance, what other storylines from the 1998 season have stuck with you?
How we started the season. We went to the West Coast and started 1-4. I know Mr. Steinbrenner wasn't very happy with that, especially after getting knocked out the year before in the Division Series. Then all of a sudden you look back, and you won 114 games; it's pretty incredible.
How would you characterize the team's style of play?
As far as how we won, I don't think there was a way we didn't win. We weren't one-dimensional. We scored in multiple ways, whether it was stealing a base or hitting a home run. Then you had the starters, who would typically go deep in the game, and our shutdown bullpen. I think it was the most complete team I ever played on.
How about off the field? Was it a tight-knit group?
It was. Guys would go off in their own groups; like three or four guys would go out to dinner. But at the end of the night, 15 guys would all meet up.
Who was in your crew?
David Wells and David Cone. We had our bullpen catcher and bullpen guys like Graeme Lloyd. We would hang out, and then next thing you would have Tim Raines and Darryl Strawberry.
What was the dynamic like in the bullpen during the games?
For the first five innings, we would talk, do practical jokes, kept everything real light. Then after the fifth inning it was like, "OK." We would start looking at the scoreboard. But we did all kinds of crazy things, kept it as light as possible. I was one of the biggest practical jokers. We were so far away from anyone, it was almost like we were isolated. We had to make it fun. The game is so serious.
Let's discuss some of your teammates. Hideki Irabu seemed to have a rock-star aura about him. How did he fit into the clubhouse?
He was built up to be a rock star, the next Nolan Ryan. He was really quiet because he really didn't speak the language. It seemed like we were closer with his interpreter than we were with him. He was a quiet guy. He went about his business. When you don't succeed in New York it kind of gets to you, and maybe it got to him a little bit. There were teams he really dominated, though. He had a nasty splitter.
Then El Duque (Orlando Hernandez) joined the team in June.
Where he came from, nothing intimidated him. Once he got to New York, it was nothing. When you are coming from Cuba and how he got over here, you knew there wasn't a time, place or situation that he would be afraid of. He was fun to watch. He was so incredibly dominant out there, always wanted the ball and never wanted to come out of the game. His wind-up was so deceiving to hitters, it seemed like he was also making up pitches out there. We had great starters, but it seemed like when we had a big game and he was on the mound, he managed to come through. He was an incredible addition.
Who was an unsung hero on the '98 Yankees?
Chili Davis was one of the best teammates you could have. He was so smart. He was almost an extra hitting coach. In a lot of ways, he was like an extra pitching coach, too, because he had so much wisdom of the game.
While the Yankees were on this record pace, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire's home run chase garnered so much national attention. Did the team benefit from that?
I don't know. When you play in New York and you play for Mr. Steinbrenner, there is always pressure. It's not like, "Oh, hey, there is a distraction here." There was none of that. There was really only the distraction of winning. Winning the World Series was all that mattered in New York. We knew what we had to do. The pressure was still there.
You missed two months with a back injury. What was it like watching the team's historic run from the sidelines?
I hated it. I injured my back in that brawl with Baltimore. I threw it out and tried pitching through it. I went to Tampa, and Mr. Steinbrenner had me see the chiropractor. I had epidurals, you name it, to try to fix it. I could never get better. I tried pitching through it, but I couldn't bend over to tie my shoe. I started seeing this chiropractor and got better, and then I broke my toe walking in the damn hotel, and that put me behind a little bit. You hate it. You hate the idea that you're on the DL and had to watch. You watch the success, and you want to be a part of it.
The team had clinched a playoff berth by the time you returned on Sept. 4, but the Yankees went 16-11 that month, their worst stretch of the season. How did you feel about yourself and the team going into the postseason?
In New York and playing for Mr. Steinbrenner, you could never be complacent or satisfied with what you've done. As for me, I was back and ready for the playoff push. I wanted to win another World Series.
Moving on to the postseason, let's discuss Game 2 of the ALDS against the Rangers. Eighth inning. You're pitching with a 3-1 lead. You get two outs, but allow a single. Mark McLemore is up next -- good hitter, but not Pudge Rodriguez or Juan Gonzalez -- and Joe Torre goes to Rivera. Was that a quick hook? Were you annoyed?
You're handing it over to a Hall of Famer. You never want to come out of the game, but he's a guy who could get four outs. Stanton and I and Graeme Lloyd tried to eliminate as much as we could as far as him getting those four outs, but when you win 114 games, the expectations are you have to go to the World Series. Obviously, Torre is going to do everything he can to win. And he had done it in the past, so it wasn't anything we were surprised about.
It's this weird paradox. Mo was the ultimate safety net for the team, but did his presence put pressure on the set-up guys? You knew Torre would remove you if you allowed a baserunner.
You use it as motivation. We tried our best to eliminate as many outs for him, but Torre would often go to him for four outs. That's just the way it was. It wasn't something you would get mad at.
What did it feel like going into the ALCS against the Indians, who had eliminated the Yanks in '97?
A little redemption obviously. They were such a good team; look at that lineup! Weren't they ahead against us?
Yeah, up 2-games-to-1 until El Duque evened the series in Game 4.
When they had us down, a sense of urgency started to creep through the clubhouse, but Joe Torre was a guy who never panicked. It was like, "If our manager isn't showing panic, then why should we feel it?" Once we tied it up, we knew we were going to win, and I think the Indians thought the same thing.
You were on the mound for one of the strangest moments in Yankees postseason history -- when Chuck Knoblauch stopped playing to argue with an umpire and allowed the go-ahead run to score. What do you remember about the 12th inning of ALCS Game 2?
It was really bizarre. The ball is sitting there. I think I can remember Tino yelling at him, "Get the ball!" Knoblauch is sitting there yelling at the umpire while the ball is rolling. It's still a live ball, and those guys are running around [the bases]. It was just one of those things that you have to get over.
Did anyone confront Knoblauch about it afterward?
Maybe Torre might have said something to him like, "Hey, we can't worry about the umpire." None of the players ever said anything. It's one of those things. Players make mistakes all the time, and it's not one of those things like, "Oh, you lost the game."
On to the World Series against San Diego. You were warming up in the bullpen when Tino Martinez hit a grand slam off Mark Langston on a 3-2 pitch, giving the Yankees a 9-5 lead in the seventh inning of Game 1. The 2-2 pitch, of course, looked like a strike. What did you see in the bullpen?
We didn't have a video board, so we didn't know until afterward. It's funny because I still see Langston every once in a while. He still talks about that pitch. Everyone in the world knew it was a strike, but it wasn't called, and Tino hits the next pitch into the upper deck. It always seems like something good happens in Yankee Stadium. It's almost like the monuments came alive and helped us out. It was one of those calls that kind of changed everything.

What else stands out about that series? The Vaughn at-bat in Game 4?
I always wanted to pitch in every tight situation. I never wanted to be a spectator. I had really good numbers against right-handed hitters, and Torre used me all the time. I always wanted to pitch. We went out to San Diego, and even though interleague play started in '97, we knew nothing about them. There wasn't that much video back then. You just relied on your scouts. We went out to San Diego up 2-games-to-none and felt pretty confident that we were going to beat these guys.
How different was it clinching the Series 2,500 miles away as opposed to clinching it at home in '96?
It was a little disappointing because everything shut down at 1 in the morning. We win the World Series, then we go back to the hotel because Torre had something for everyone there, and that lasted till 12:45. Everyone wanted to continue celebrating, so we go out on the town. David Wells is from there, and we are getting all over him like, "Hey, what kind of town is this?" It wasn't like New York where everything is open until 5. Well, we made up for it once we got back. It was still special.
You played for the 2001 Mariners team that won 116 games but lost to the Yankees in the ALCS. What were some similarities and differences between those two teams?
Similarities were, once we walked onto the field, we knew we were going to win. We had Lou Piniella as our manager and the expectations were through the roof, and you wanted to run through a wall for him. The chemistry on both teams was through the roof. In 2001, we had a lot of guys who had career years. You could probably name every starting pitcher on the '98 team. 2001 Mariners? If I hadn't played on the team, I probably couldn't do it. In 2001, just like '98, we won in every different way, and all 25 guys contributed. Differences? We didn't win the World Series. We barely got by Cleveland in the Division Series. I think we were a No. 1 or No. 2 starter away from beating the Yankees.
What about the mentality of the team? After the Yankees won the first two games at Safeco Field, did that Mariners team believe it could win the series?
When you are with New York, you always felt you could win. It never felt like we were out of any series. With the Mariners we were down 2-games-to-none, which was a shock. Lou took it really hard. Down 2-0 we felt like our backs were against the wall, but then we won Game 3. Game 4 was 0-0, and I pitched the seventh inning. Next thing you know, [Bret] Boone hits a home run in the top of the eighth and we're winning 1-0. Then [Arthur] Rhodes gives up a home run to Bernie Williams and [Kazuhiro] Sasaki gives up a home run in the ninth, and we lose the game, 3-1, and are down 3-games-to-1 [in the series]. From being on the other side, I knew it was only going one more game. I stayed out till the sun came up.
I walked around that city, maybe hit up a couple of establishments, and at about 6 in the morning I finally made it back to the hotel. We had a great year, but I had been on the other side, and when the Yankees had a chance to close out a series, they were closing it out. I sat in the bullpen the next night, propped my feet up on the cement wall, and I watched Aaron Sele and us lose. I knew it was going to happen.
The '98 Yankees are mentioned as one of the greatest teams ever. What's it like knowing you were an integral part of such a special team?
It's pretty special because you always have bragging rights, whether it's the Oakland A's who won three in a row or the Big Red Machine. If anyone says they were the best team, it's like, "No, no, no, no, no. We won 125 games that year and had to go through an extra playoff series."
So, best team ever?
Oh yeah, absolutely!
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.