'Home-run dispenser' of '98 lives in Yanks' lore

September 24th, 2018

NEW YORK -- The magic of Shane Spencer's 1998 surge created an indelible mark upon the Yankees' fan base, so any unexpected exploits are reflexively compared to that performance. and are among those who have seen their numbers measured against a man whom announcer John Sterling memorably christened "the home run dispenser."

Spencer chuckles knowingly at the numbers that many can rattle off by heart -- 10 home runs in 54 plate appearances, including three grand slams, plus two more homers in the American League Division Series.

Yet Spencer insists that his most memorable moment of 1998 did not take place with a bat in his hands.

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"For me, being from San Diego, it was just playing against the Padres in the World Series," Spencer said recently. "My idol, who was Tony Gwynn. I caught a ball in the first inning [of Game 3] -- a line drive to me. And seriously, that one catch was the highlight of my whole career."

Spencer recounted how he found himself in a golf foursome that offseason with Gwynn, Brad Ausmus and a friend. Spencer introduced himself, and without missing a beat, Gwynn quipped, "Oh, hey man, thanks for taking presents away from my kids.'"

Spencer laughed, and the telephone connection crackled. The Yankees were in the second inning of their game against the Red Sox, but it was early morning in Hwaseong, South Korea, where Spencer is in his third season as a field coordinator and Minor League manager for the Nexen Heroes of the KBO League.

While Spencer loves teaching, there is a barrier between him and the players. He can identify a few phrases, but the former outfielder frequently requires a translator to communicate. The universal language is baseball, and reminders of Spencer's 1998 prowess are never far from reach.

"It's flattering. You reflect on it and you're like, 'Man, I wish I would have kept it going,'" Spencer said. "If I'm in Seoul or in a big city, I'll have fans there, and the reporters do their research. My players were really young, so they don't know, but they'll show me a video or something. The funny thing is, they'll rag on me about how tight our pants were. I'm like, 'Well, that's the way it was!'"

Spencer boasted modest credentials before he donned those polyester double-knits. A 28th-round pick in the 1990 Draft, he toiled in the Minor League system while players like Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte zoomed past on their way to Monument Park.

When Spencer was summoned from Triple-A Columbus in August, manager Joe Torre explained the 26-year-old's role as being an extra part who would help take the load off the veterans.

Spencer believes that he had moved onto the team's radar not by slugging homers, but by raising his batting average. His 1997 season at Triple-A featured 34 doubles, four triples and 30 homers, but just 40 singles. The resulting .241 average prompted Spencer to focus on using the whole field more in winter ball and in the spring of '98.

"It was the best year I ever had, but I couldn't get a single," Spencer said. "It was a joke. When they didn't call me up, I went to play winter ball, and said I was going to be a Punch-and-Judy, soft-hitting guy, and I'd hit .300. It actually was one of the best things I ever did, because I wasn't trying to drive the ball as much."

Spencer recalls that "the ball was looking very juicy," and it showed. He had a pair of multihomer games (Aug. 7 vs. Royals, Sept. 22 vs. Indians) and belted his first grand slam on Sept. 18 off the Orioles' Jesse Orosco. Another slam came on Sept. 24 off the Devil Rays' Wilson Alvarez, and Spencer's final regular-season homer was a grand slam, on Sept. 27 off Tampa Bay's Albie Lopez.

Spencer had batted .440 (22-for-50) with 25 RBIs and a 1.621 OPS from Aug. 27 through the end of the regular season, finishing the year with a .373 mark, improbably earning comparisons to Roy Hobbs of "The Natural." He also became an overnight New York celebrity.

"It was crazy," Spencer said. "My wife [Heidi] was just my girlfriend at the time. It was exciting, but then it was stressful, too, the next couple of years. The women in New York, they find out you're not married, they're crazy. It puts a lot of stress on your relationship. We liked to go out and have fun, and you have to find a way to control it. You look at a guy like Jeter, Mariano -- you see how they handled it. It's very impressive how they do that, because obviously I didn't."

Spencer reunited with his teammates in August for the 20-year celebration of the championship. He remains in contact with many, counting David Wells, Graeme Lloyd, Bernie Williams, Orlando Hernandez and Jeff Nelson among his good friends from that club.

As the 2018 squad prepares for their postseason run, Spencer finds himself an interested observer from overseas, even having reviewed video to compare his swings against Voit's.

"I did a little research," Spencer said. "It was kind of fun, just to see the similarities. It happens all the time, but doing it in New York is a little bit different. It gets blown out of proportion a little more, but if you're going to do it, you might as well do it there. They'll never forget about it."