The Yankees of 1998 did more than become champions again and become record-holders in doing so. What they really did that season was become the Yankees again.
Everything turned upward for them that year, and in terms of prestige and popularity, things never really have turned back. By winning an unprecedented and unmatched 125 games between Opening Day and the last game of the World Series, they proved that their unexpected championship in 1996 was no fluke. They also put themselves on track to win two more titles and three more pennants in a row.
It was in 1998 that they put a shine on the most famous brand in sports. In some of the anniversary clips shown on DiamondVision Saturday afternoon, there were acres of empty seats in rightfield at Yankee Stadium back then. You never see that anymore, mostly because of the trajectory that began 20 years ago.
It is hard to fathom now, but heading into the 1998 season, Derek Jeter never had been an All-Star and still was not the captain, Mariano Rivera’s only postseason experience had been a flop, Brian Cashman never had been a general manager and Joe Torre was not a Hall of Fame-bound legendary manager. In fact, there was even money that he would not be the Yankees’ manager past mid-April.
“We started 1-4 and Mr. Torre’s job was on the line,” Jeter recalled via an appearance on DiamondVision (he cited his daughter’s first birthday as the reason he couldn’t join his former teammates on the Yankee Stadium field). The ending was vastly different — 114 regular-season victories and 11 more wins in the postseason.
“I’m a little bit biased,” Jeter said, “but in my mind, it was not only one of the greatest baseball teams in history but one of the greatest sports teams of all time.”
Torre’s life, and perhaps the careers of various Yankee people, changed forever after the meeting the manager called in Seattle after the season-opening fourth loss in five games. George Steinbrenner may not have been in his “a bit erratic” (to quote a Seinfeld script) prime, but he still had an itchy finger when it came to firing managers. The team had won only one title in the previous 19 seasons and was coming off a disappointing first-round playoff loss to the Indians in 1997, having squandered a two-games-to-one lead with first-year closer Rivera blowing the save in Game 4.
“I wished we could have continued to play the next season right away,” Rivera said before the ceremony Saturday. “I had that bitter taste for the next year.”
The taste grew worse and the atmosphere grew testy with four losses in the first five games of 1998. The manager who hated to call meetings called a meeting. “Joe let us talk,” Jorge Posada recalled. “He said something, then [Paul] O’Neill talked, [David] Cone talked. Most of the veterans talked. We kind of got on each other. It was kind of pointing fingers without pointing fingers.”
Either it was the most productive meeting of all time or — most likely — the extraordinary pitching, hitting and fielding talents hit their stride. The Yankees won their next eight and 14 of their next 15.
They kept rolling with relentlessness and with the kind of style that resonates for decades. David Wells pitched a perfect game. Bernie Williams won the American League batting title. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez was a pitching revelation. Tino Martinez hit a grand slam in Game 1 that all but decided the World Series against the Padres.
This reporter’s memory covers other moments: Interviewing Shane Spencer’s mother when he went on a home run tear. Calling Scott Brosius’ high school coach when he was on his way to becoming the World Series MVP. Visiting Wells’ San Diego high school. Witnessing a video of cancer-stricken Darryl Strawberry telling his teammates, “Go get ’em.” Seeing a tribute to George Costanza on the Stadium screen on the night that most of America was watching the Seinfeld finale.
Aaron Boone, whose job it is to improve on a stretch of 17 years with only one title, was in awe of the guys who played in the Bronx the year he was a Reds rookie. “For as long as this game has been played,” the current manager said, “this is one of the teams that’s talked about as one of the all-time great clubs.”
Everything about the Yankees now is bigger than it was in 1997, because of 1998.