Just when he thought his career was over, Luis Sojo was rescued by the New York Yankees in the middle of the 1996 season. At age 31, Sojo went from being waived by the Seattle Mariners to quickly becoming a valuable asset to Yankees manager Joe Torre off the bench. Sojo helped the Yankees win the World Series in 1996, then batted a career-high .307 the following season, all while flashing the leather at every infield position on the diamond.
After signing All-Star second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, third baseman Scott Brosius, veteran DH Chili Davis and Cuban sensation Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, the Yankees showed up for Spring Training in 1998 as the favorites to win it all. But from the beginning of that storied season, Torre knew that Sojo's experience and leadership would be key.
During the team's 114-win regular season, Sojo appeared in 54 games, spelling star players at every infield position while making only three errors. The utilityman also served as a sounding board for the young players who helped lead the Yankees to an unprecedented 125-win season and a sweep of the San Diego Padres in the World Series.
Sojo, who currently serves as the Yankees' Dominican Republic/United States transition and infield coach, reminisced with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III about the '98 season at the team's player development complex in Tampa, Florida, this spring.
When you arrived in Tampa in the spring of 1998, did Joe Torre discuss with you what your role would be?
Yes, we had a conversation that I will never forget. He really got my attention. I was supposed to start at second base, until they acquired Chuck Knoblauch. At first, I was disappointed, but for me at that particular time, I was most concerned with winning. Joe came to me and said, "You are on the team, but you need to really work on staying in shape and be ready to play when you are called on. Derek is going to play 161 games, Knoblauch is going to play 150, and we're going to find out what Scott Brosius can do in Spring Training." From day one, I knew that I wasn't going to get as many at-bats as I did before but that when I played, I had to do well. I was OK with that, especially because we had such a great chance to win that season. Things worked out really well for those guys and for me. I was ready to play every time Joe put me in a game.
How were you able to prepare yourself for each at-bat that season?
I was different from a lot of the other guys in that I didn't have to do that much to be ready. If I was taking ground balls and taking batting practice, I'd be ready to go into the game. In 1997, I wasn't really working that hard, and (bench coach) Don Zimmer gave me some important advice. He told me that if I changed my attitude, I could spend a lot of years with the Yankees. He reminded me that Joe Torre liked me, and that I could be great at the utilityman job. From that day, I was a different guy. Zim would hit ground balls to me at first, second and third base. That really helped me out late in my career.
After losing to the Indians in Game 5 of the 1997 American League Division Series, how confident were you and your teammates that you could get back to the World Series as the regular season began?
Guys like Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill and Derek Jeter expected to win every day, and that feeling was contagious. Even though we lost to Cleveland in 1997, we felt like we were much improved at the start of 1998. We had El Duque, David Cone, David Wells and Andy Pettitte on the mound. That was our foundation, and we never thought those guys were going to lose.
How would you compare the makeup of the 1996 Yankees to the group of players on the '98 team?
It felt the same because Joe Torre was the manager of both teams. Before we took one at-bat or threw one pitch in 1998, Joe was already talking about the World Series. That was our mindset every year, but he didn't put pressure on us. He made us feel like if we prepared for the season, we would get to the postseason and hopefully to the World Series. In both of those seasons, we had a lot of veterans who had been around for a long time. That made a big difference for us. In 1998, the young guys -- Jeter, Mariano [Rivera], Pettitte and Jorge [Posada] -- were two years older, and they kept getting better every year.
Once that team got going, it seemed like you guys won almost every game. What was it like coming to the ballpark each afternoon that season?
We really believed we could win every game, but that was scary. I remember thinking that we could win all of those regular season games and then lose in a playoff series. But fortunately, we stayed focused. We knew that we had a good team, and we just wanted to continue to do what we were supposed to do every day. We had such a great coaching staff, and they kept us loose and fresh. They kept us motivated to win games. But more than anything else, staying focused was the key to our success.
That Yankees team didn't have an Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds putting up monster numbers. What did that team have that made up for the lack of any one superstar?
We didn't have a superstar, but that was not a challenge for us. We didn't worry about superstars; we worried about winning games and doing our work day in and day out. We were a really tight-knit group. When we would go out for dinner on the road, there would be as many as 15 guys at the table, talking about what we were doing well and what we needed to do better. That made our team better than a team filled with superstars. David Cone was a big part of that. He would always put together those dinners. I remember one time in particular when we were flying to Boston after having lost a few games, and he got all of us to go out together. We talked a lot about how we were playing, and no one pointed fingers. After that, we all felt rejuvenated, and we couldn't wait to get back onto the field the next night. We knew that we had the best team on the field and that we could compete with anybody. We had the best leaders in the game, and that was more important than any superstars.
Besides having so many great leaders, that team also included quite a few characters. Would you share any funny stories that unfolded that season?
Well, there are some funny stories that I can't share. But one thing that I used to do -- although it's not something other players should do -- is stay in the lounge to watch the game on TV at the old Stadium for the first three or four innings. Sometimes, I would lie down on the couch because I knew that I wasn't going to get into the game until much later. One night, Don Zimmer came to the lounge and told me that I had to be in the dugout watching the game. I told him that I'd be down there in a few minutes, but I fell asleep. The next thing I knew, I heard "eh-hem," and when I opened my eyes, I saw Zim, George Steinbrenner and Joe Torre looking over me. The first thing that came out of my mouth was, "I'm fired, right?" Zimmer started laughing, but it was still a scary moment for me.
What did The Boss say?
Nothing. He just laughed. He knew what was going on. It was good that he didn't get mad and release me from the team, but I knew I couldn't do that again.
How much confidence did you have in El Duque going into that pivotal Game 4 of the 1998 American League Championship Series with your team trailing the Indians, two games to one?
We knew that we were in a tough situation, especially because we were on the road. But when you have guys like El Duque, Andy Pettitte, David Cone and David Wells, you always feel good about your chances. It didn't matter which of those four guys was getting the ball that night. I knew that any of them would win that game, as long as we did a good job in the field and with situational hitting. It seemed like El Duque won every big game he ever pitched. He took those games personally, and he refused to get beat. He pitched a really great game, and once we tied up that series, we never looked back.
In addition to yourself, there were several other veteran role players on that team, all of whom already had great careers. What was it like to be part of that group along with guys such as Chili Davis, Darryl Strawberry and Tim Raines?
First of all, it was the funniest bench ever. Chili was a mentor to us. He was always ready for every game and every pitcher. Even though the rest of us had a lot of experience in the league, he would still talk to us about staying ready and watching the game. Tim Raines was always joking around and keeping everyone loose. He's the only guy who could make Paul O'Neill laugh, even after Paul had kicked over a water cooler following a strikeout. We were the extra coaches for that team, and we took pride in that. I spent a lot of time with Jeter, Posada and Bernie, trying to keep them loose. Guys like me, Chili, Darryl and Raines knew that we had to help those young guys as much as we could because in order to win, we needed them to perform.
How did the news that Strawberry had been diagnosed with cancer affect your team, and how much of a rallying cry did he provide to win the World Series after he left the club in late September?
Well, he was having a great year, especially for a player who was nearing the end of his career. It was exciting to watch him come up to the plate, especially when we were losing late in games. He was as clutch for us as any other player on that team. Personally, we had a good relationship. We quickly became good friends. He's one of the nicest guys I've ever met in baseball. Unfortunately, he went through tough times in his life, and that can happen to anybody. He was one of the most well-liked players on the team, and when we found out that he had cancer, that was a really sad moment. It was a really difficult night for all of us on that team. But after we dealt with the initial shock, we knew that we were not going to back down. Instead, we took the attitude that we've got to do it for Straw. We really missed him those last few months, both on and off the field. But when he joined us at the World Series parade, it was a wonderful experience. We all told him that we won it for him. He was a great leader, and he led us when he was with us and when he was away from us that season.
Being on that team was the best thing that happened to me in all of the years I've been in baseball. After playing for the Blue Jays in 1993, I was really close to retiring. I told my wife that I had enough. I had a lot of injuries, and I was frustrated. Then I went to Seattle where I had my best year as a player in 1995. I got put on waivers in 1996, and that was disappointing. I didn't know what I needed to do to stay in the Big Leagues. When I got to the Yankees, I not only got an opportunity to stay in the Big Leagues for a while, but I was also winning. That was very special and the best thing that could have happened to me. I still can't believe that we won 125 games that season and that I ended up playing on two more championship teams after that. It was a great run.</b?looking>
<b?looking back="">This interview is part of a season-long series of Q&A's remembering the 1998 Yankees and has been edited for clarity and length.</b?looking>