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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Before Gary Sanchez-mania, the Yankees had Shane Spencer’s gift

Shane Spencer hits one of his two solo

Shane Spencer hits one of his two solo home runs during the first game of a doubleheader against Cleveland on Sept. 22, 1998, at Yankee Stadium. It was part of Spencer's 10-homer hot streak in August and September 1998. Photo Credit: AP / MARK LENNIHAN

Hwaseong, South Korea, is roughly 7,000 miles from Yankee Stadium, and precisely 13 hours ahead, so Shane Spencer was preparing a Saturday morning workout for the minor-league club of the Nexen Heroes as Gary Sanchez was stepping to the plate Friday night in the Bronx. That’s when Spencer’s cell phone rang.

“Yeah, yeah, Sanchez,” Spencer said, laughing. “I kind of figured that was coming.”

Of the very few people who know what it feels like to do what Sanchez is doing right now for the Yankees, Spencer is a member of that exclusive club. One of the founders, actually, based on his own meteoric streak during the magical 1998 season. Long before the Bronx got its current, baseball-thumping “Sanchize,” there was “Shane Spencer — the Home Run dispenser!” as the team’s hyberbolic broadcaster, John Sterling, affectionately referred to him after another stunning blast.

Aside from a dazzling power debut, the two Yankees have little in common. Sanchez, a 23-year-old catcher from the Dominican Republic, is a highly touted prospect who already is surpassing the lofty team’s projections, with 11 home runs and 21 RBIs through his first 21 big-league games this season, hitting .400 (32-for-80) with a 1.367 OPS.

No one could have imagined such a start for Sanchez, but what Spencer did — based on his more modest credentials — may have been even more surprising.

Spencer was older, 26, when he made his Yankees debut, a 28th-round draft pick who didn’t earn a minor-league starting job until four years into his pro career. And just cracking the lineup of the ’98 Yankees — a team that won 125 games (114 in the regular season) en route to the World Series title — was no easy feat in itself.

This year, Sanchez got his shot, in part, because the front office made a commitment to a midseason rebuild featuring the franchise’s top prospects. For Spencer, he was the beneficiary of the Yankees’ historic success, enabling Joe Torre to give some of his veterans, such as Darryl Strawberry, a breather down the stretch.

First, Spencer had to get on the big team’s radar by hitting .322 with a .967 OPS at Triple-A Columbus, and he insists it was raising his average — not the home-run totals — that finally earned him a shot. The previous year, Spencer slugged 30 homers in 125 games for Columbus, but batted just .241.

When the Yankees did call him up, however, Spencer recalled that his confidence was sky high, and that led to a ridiculous start in pinstripes.

During his white-hot stretch, an 18-game span from Aug. 7 to Sept. 27, Spencer batted .440 (22-for-50) with 10 home runs, 25 RBIs and a 1.621 OPS. That included three grand slams.

“I was coming off the best Triple-A year I could possibly have,” Spencer said Friday during a telephone interview. “Everything was working. The last time they called me up, I was in a groove, and they had such a big lead, I actually got to play. So I really never missed a beat. And the ball was coming in like a beach ball. it didn’t matter what they threw really.”

Spencer was the guy with the bat in his hands. But he credited many of those teammates, and especially Chili Davis and Paul O’Neill, for passing along their priceless experience. Spencer said that Davis was brilliant at studying pitchers, and coming up with any helpful clues, like when they might be tipping pitches. From O’Neill, Spencer learned the importance of video, also to break down pitcher’s tendencies. In fact, the off-field homework was crucial for Spencer to anticipate those “beach-ball” deliveries, with most coming on breaking pitches. Spencer always wanted to memorize what a pitcher used to get ahead in the count, in certain situations, so that could be half the battle.

One of those instances, Spencer recalled Friday, came when he drilled his third grand slam, off the Rays’ Albie Lopez, on the last day of the regular season at Yankee Stadium. Spencer was worried about Lopez’s two-seam fastball, so with the bases loaded, he was hoping for some sort of off-speed pitch, up in the strike zone, that maybe he could drive to the outfield for a sacrifice fly. Nothing spectacular. Just to get the job done.

“Well, I got a hanging curveball, and I hit it, and I’m like, Oh my god, that might go,” Spencer said. “When I’m rounding first and heading to second, I just happened to look at the scoreboard and realize there was two outs. So I was trying to hit a sac fly with two outs.

“And I’m going around the bases, and I just start giggling a little bit. Everybody always asks me, ‘Were you laughing because you couldn’t believe you did it again?’ And the real story was, I was laughing at myself for being an idiot.”

Such is life when you can do no wrong at the plate. But Spencer knows that snapshot in time, which he never came close to duplicating, was the product of a few stars aligning -- most of them in the Yankees’ lineup. The day he hit that grand slam in the Bronx, Spencer was comfortably nestled in the No. 7 spot in the order, between Strawberry ahead of him and Jorge Posada below.

By comparison, Sanchez had made eight starts in the No. 3 spot through Saturday, another seven at No. 7, with a few others sprinkled through the order for a team that is six games over .500 (67-61) and chasing the second wild card. While Sanchez has become a back-page darling, and prompted teammates to include him in sentences that also contain Babe Ruth, his amazing August still can’t really touch the celebrity status Spencer attained during a very different period in Yankees history.

Think about it. Those Yankees were in the middle of their dynastic run, at the height of the Core Four’s powers, and here was Spencer, out of nowhere, stealing the spotlight. People told him his money was no good at Manhattan restaurants. His popularity began approaching that of Derek Jeter’s, with his blocky build and close-cropped blond hair reminding some of the beloved Mickey Mantle.

Yet, as explosively as Spencer burst onto the scene, the comet-like career arc faded gradually over time. He never hit more than 12 home runs in a season, doing it just once, in 119 games split between the Indians and Rangers in 2003. Spencer belted four in 74 games for the Mets in 2004, his last year in the majors. Did the pressure of that ’98 power barrage ultimately become too much to live up to?

“I didn’t ever feel that,” Spencer said. “I always felt like I had a chip on my shoulder. As a 28th-rounder, I wasn’t supposed to be a big-league player. It was just one of those things.”

Spencer’s playing career may have been cut short, partly by injuries, as well as a few alcohol-related, off-field incidents. But he did leave with three World Series rings, and his enthusiasm for the game seems greater than ever now that he’s entered the managing ranks. After playing in Japan for the Hanshin Tigers, he spent three years as the hitting coach for the Padres’ Class A affiliate, then served the same role for the independent Atlantic League’s Somerset (N.J.) Patriots before getting a phone call last November from the Nexen Heroes, the South Korean team that produced the Pirates’ Jung Ho Kang and the Twins’ Byung Ho Park. Spencer took the job as the minor-league field coordinator, but also became the farm team’s manager when the previous one left for a KBO coaching job.

That doesn’t leave Spencer much time to examine what’s going on back in the States, other than the highlights, and he’s seen a few of Sanchez’s homers. He also remembered talking to Tommy Wilson, a friend and currently the hitting coach for Triple-A Scranton, who raved about Sanchez to him before the promotion.

“He had told me he was raw, but he’s got a cannon for an arm and he’s got stupid power,” Spencer said. “He’s got a lot more power than I ever did, I can tell you that.”

Maybe they’ll have a chance to meet some day, swap home run stories, talk about owning the city for a few weeks or months. Spencer was unable to return to the Bronx for the Old-Timers’ Day he was invited to but he’s hoping his schedule allows him to make it back at some point. Until then, Spencer will watch Sanchez from afar, another Roy Hobbs-like folk hero for this next generation.

“I hope the kid keeps hitting ’em,” Spencer said.

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