The 1998 Yankees Were a Juggernaut and Inspiration

They set records for the highest win total and run differential of the post-1960 expansion era, and featured future Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera in full flower among what would become known as the homegrown “Core Four,” as well as a memorably diverse lineup and bench sprinkled with some sage veterans. Despite a brief scare in the AL Championship Series, they steamrolled their way to the 24th championship in franchise history and the first of three straight. The 1998 Yankees — who went 114-48, outscored the opposition by 309 runs, and won 11 out of 13 postseason games, culminating in a sweep of the Padres in the World Series — were the best team upon which I’ve ever laid eyes, and they’ll probably remain the yardstick by which I measure all others, just as the 1927 Yankees were for my grandfather’s generation. If not for the time I spent watching and attending their games, it’s quite likely I’d never have taken the career detour that led to full-time writing about baseball.

As the Yankees celebrate the 20th anniversary of that team this Saturday in the Bronx, I’ll be there for personal reasons as much as professional ones.

I’ll spare you the long version of the personal journey, as I’ve previously documented my experience growing up as a third-generation Dodgers fan and then gradually taking to the Yankees after moving to New York City. The short version is that my arrival in NYC in February 1995, at the tender age of 25, more or less coincided with the Yankees’ return to prominence after having failed to crack the postseason since 1982. I had never before lived in a city that had its own major-league team (let alone two), and my passion for baseball was only beginning to awaken from its college-era dormancy. It was fueled primarily by reading the New York Times sports page and watching ESPN and network broadcasts.

I had rooted for the Mariners in their thrilling 1995 Division Series with the Yankees, but somewhere in the next year, between my first trip to the House That Ruth Built (August 18, 1996), David Cone‘s seven no-hit innings in his return from an arm aneurysm (September 2), and Jim Leyritz’s homer off Mark Wohlers in the epic Game Four of the World Series (October 23) — all of it blanketed by the preternatural placidity of manager Joe Torre, whose ability to withstand the bluster of owner George Steinbrenner and the noise of the New York media I found nothing short of miraculous — I found myself pulling for the Yankees.

The condition was moderately amplified the following season. My friends’ own latent enthusiasm for baseball had emerged even while the Yankees, despite their 96-win regular season, fell short of their previous pinnacle, taking a first-round exit against the Indians. The day after their elimination, walking down Avenue A in the East Village, something inside of me stirred as I passed a chalkboard that read, “Only 116 days until Pitchers and Catchers — Go Yankees!!!” That winter, with a bit of research, I devised a plan involving my brother and three close friends: we would become partial season-ticket holders, splitting pairs of tickets to 15 games at Yankee Stadium among our quintet. It was the first time any of us had ever invested in a team at this level. Miraculously, our reward was a team for the ages.

The 1998 Yankees outscored opponents by 309 runs, nearly two per game. Their 965 runs scored (5.96 per game) was the second-highest total of any team in the expansion era to that point, trailing only the 1996 Mariners’ 993. In a year where Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battled to topple Roger Maris’s single-season home-run record, Tino Martinez led the Yankees with just 28, but 10 Yankees hit at least 10 homers, a record the team shared with that year’s Orioles. Their 116 wRC+ and .364 on-base percentage — the last a point of emphasis by super-exec Gene Michael during his stewardship of the franchise during owner George Steinbrenner’s early 1990s suspension — both led the majors, while their .288 batting average ranked third and their .460 slugging percentage fifth. Three regulars — shortstop Derek Jeter (6.2, eighth in the AL), right fielder Paul O’Neill (5.4, 13th), and third baseman Scott Brosius (5.0, 15th) — totaled at least 5.0 WAR, while center fielder Bernie Williams just missed (4.9) due to a right knee sprain that cost him 31 games. Regulars at every position except DH topped 2.0 WAR, and all but left fielder Chad Curtis topped 100 wRC+.

On the pitching side, in a league that scored 5.01 runs per game, the Yankees’ 4.05 allowed per game led the circuit by 0.45 runs. Four of their five starters were worth at least 3.0 WAR, namely David Cone (5.1, fifth in the AL, that while going 20-7 with a 3.55 ERA and 3.45 FIP), David Wells (4.4 while going 18-4, 3.49 ERA, 3.80 FIP), Orlando Hernandez (3.4) and Andy Pettitte (3.2). Swingman Ramiro Mendoza accumulated 2.0 WAR. Closer Mariano Rivera, fresh off of having allowed a series-turning homer to the Indians’ Sandy Alomar Jr. the previous fall, saved 36 games with a 1.91 ERA and 1.2 WAR. Righty setup man Jeff Nelson and lefty Mike Stanton weren’t as effective as they would be in later years, but they had their moments.

The Yankees’ season began inauspiciously enough. They opened on the West Coast, losing two games in Anaheim and one in Oakland before chalking up their first win on April 5, a 10-inning 9-7 day-game victory over the A’s. After visiting Seattle as well, they finished their road swing 3-4. In their home opener, on April 10, they pounded the A’s in a four-hour marathon that ended with a football score, 17-13, but even as they built what turned out to be a seven-game winning streak, they were thrown a serious curveball. On April 13, about four hours before game time, one of Yankee Stadium’s 500-pound concrete and steel beams collapsed into the thankfully empty seats below it, forcing the closure of the 75-year-old ballpark. The Yankees were forced to postpone the game and switch the venues of two upcoming series against the Tigers. They played their April 15 game against the Angels at the Mets’ Shea Stadium, and didn’t return to the Bronx until April 24, by which time they were in the midst of a six-game winning streak that lifted their record to 15-5.

With a 10-inning victory over the Mariners on April 30, the Yankees finished the month of April 17-6. That victory, which I attended with my brother, marked both the extension of what had become an annual tradition for the two of us as well as my first trip to the ballpark for the year. The game, which had included two homers by Ken Griffey Jr. and one by Alex Rodriguez, all at the expense of Wells, featured something I’d never seen before, and still a rarity today: two teams combining to score in every inning. Left fielder Tim Raines had clubbed a game-tying homer off Bobby Ayala in the ninth inning, and the Yankees had manufactured a run in a manner that typified the ’98 team: second baseman Chuck Knoblauch — who had been acquired from the Twins by Brian Cashman three days after the boy-wonder 30-year-old general manager took over for the ousted Bob Watson — getting hit by a pitch, taking second on a throwing error on Jeter’s sacrifice bunt, advancing to third, and then scoring the winning run on back-to-back singles by O’Neill and Martinez. Coupled with a loss by the Red Sox, the Yankees took possession of first place in the AL East. They never relinquished it.

The Yankees won their first six games of May, thus banking their second eight-game winning streak of the young season. By this point they had won 22 out of 25 and were 23-6 overall. The signature highlight of their 20-7 run in May, of course, was Wells’ perfect game against the Twins on May 17, the 15th perfecto in major-league history. Wells, we learned afterwards, was an alumnus of Point Loma High, the same San Diego school that the only other pitcher in franchise history to throw a perfect game, 1956 World Series hero Don Larsen, had attended (in that most Yankee way, Larsen wound up throwing out the first pitch for Cone’s perfect game on July 18, 1999).

Two days after Wells’ gem came another season highlight — or lowlight, depending upon your point of view. After Williams smoked a go-ahead three-run homer off Orioles reliever Armando Benitez, the heat-throwing behemoth buried a fastball between the numbers on Martinez’s back, setting off a terrible, terrible brawl that you should be ashamed of enjoying, particularly as reliever Graeme Lloyd and reserve slugger Darryl Strawberry went berserk and while a youthful Jeter and Joe Girardi showed off their now-bygone heads of hair:

The Yankees finished May 37-13. At that point, they were scoring a whopping 6.54 runs per game, with a lineup that was getting an OBP of .368 or better from regulars at every position besides catcher (where Girardi shared time with rookie Jorge Posada). The keep-the-line-moving approach, which emphasized patience as much as power, helped to offset a rotation that was taking its lumps; at that point, Hideki Irabu’s 1.48 ERA not only represented the staff low, but he was the only one of their starters below 4.32.

The unit soon got an upgrade the form of Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez. On Christmas Day 1997, two months after his half-brother Livan had won World Series MVP honors for the Marlins, “El Duque,” who had been banned from competition on the suspicion that he might try to leave, departed Cuba on a small sailboat. In March, after setting up residency in Costa Rica, he signed a four-year, $6.6 million deal with the Yankees. Having not pitched competitively in a year and a half, he needed nine minor-league starts to shake the rust off, and joined the Yankees on June 3, after Cone was scratched from a start because his mother’s dog had bitten his index finger. His seven innings of seven-strikeout, one-run ball led the Yankees to conclude that he was ready; Mendoza, the fifth starter, was sent to bolster the bullpen.

The team continued to steamroll opponents in June (19-7) and July (20-7), putting together a season-high 10-game winning streak from June 30 to July 12. They were 61-20 at the All-Star break, matching the 1902 Pirates and 1907 Cubs for the best record through 81 games (excluding ties) of any team since 1901. Wells (11-2, 3.75 ERA) was tabbed by AL manager Mike Hargrove to start the All-Star Game, while Jeter (.316/.372/.488, 10 HR, 15 SB), O’Neill (.323/.376/.505, 11 HR, 11 SB), third baseman Scott Brosius (.309/.380/.462), and the injured Williams (.353/.455/.603, 10 HR, 12 SB) made the team as reserves.

July 25 brought a moment of personal resonance: the appearance of Jim Bouton at Old-Timers’ Day. A star pitcher on the Yankees’ 1963 champions and ’64 pennant winners, Bouton gained greater notoriety, of course, as the author of Ball Four, a diary of the 1969 season that demystified the lives of baseball players and was of great interest to nine-year-old Jay circa 1979, when my grandfather sent me a dog-eared copy. Bouton’s revelations about Mickey Mantle’s drinking and skirt-chasing had led to his blacklisting by the Yankees, but a New York Times-published open letter to the team, by son Michael in the wake of the 1997 death of his sister Laurie (“The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” in the book) led to his invitation to return to the fold. I was hardly alone among the fans who teared up at the ovation Bouton received that afternoon.

On August 1, the Yankees beat the Mariners to push their record to 77-27, 50 games above .500. Two nights later, they began a four-game series in Oakland. The Yankees scored 34 runs over the first three nights, reaching double digits each time. In the last of those, the nightcap of an August 4 doubleheader, the team overcame a five-run first inning by the A’s via a nine-run ninth, keyed by Strawberry’s pinch-grand slam off Billy Taylor, his second such hit of the year:

Back in the Bronx, from August 7 to 14, the Yanks won another nine straight, outscoring the Royals, Twins, and Rangers by a combined score of 74-18; in their August 13 win over the Rangers, a game I attended with three other friends — you could just walk up and get good tickets on game day — El Duque struck out 13. Their August 14 win pushed them to 89-29, 60 games above .500 for the first time all season. Though they lost their next game, their August 16 win over the Rangers, courtesy of a walk-off homer by Williams, made them 90-30, the quickest team ever to 90 wins.

Due in part to a season-high four-game losing streak from August 23-26, the Yankees’ 22-10 record meant their first monthly double-digit loss total all year. Nonetheless, their 222 runs that month (6.94 per game) were the most by any team in any month since 1950. On August 29, after they beat the Mariners 11-6, reporters determined that they had actually clinched a playoff berth, the earliest date for a team ever to do so (thank you, Wild Card). Their 11-6 win over the White Sox on September 4 was their 100th, but that late August hiccup made their 138 games to reach the mark merely the best since 1909.

By this point, the post-1960 expansion-era record of 109 wins, shared by the 1961 Yankees and 1969 Orioles, appeared easily within reach, but a 4-8 skid from September 5 to 16 ended any hopes they could surpass some of the highest winning percentages of the pre-expansion, 154-game era. Still, on September 9, powered by a pair of homers by Jeter, they beat the Red Sox in Fenway Park to run their record to 102-41, clinching the AL East title. They celebrated with champagne.

A combined two-hit shutout by Irabu and Stanton against the Devil Rays snapped the Yankees out of their funk on September 17. They won 10 of their final 12 games, including the last seven; the third of those wins was their 110th, surpassing the aforementioned 1961 and 1969 teams. That late stretch was highlighted by reserve outfielder Shane Spencer bopping seven homers over the team’s final 11 games; in just 73 plate appearances, he became the 10th Yankee to reach double digits.

Ultimately, the Yankees finished with the highest win total of any AL team to that point and, at .704, the highest winning percentage of any team in 44 years:

The .700 Club, 1901-1998
Team Year W-L W-L% RS RA Dif
Cubs 1906 116-36 .763 704 381 323
Pirates 1902 103-36 .741 775 439 336
Pirates 1909 110-42 .724 701 448 253
Indians 1954 111-43 .721 746 504 242
Yankees 1927 110-44 .714 975 599 376
Yankees 1998 114-48 .704 965 656 309
A’s 1931 107-45 .704 858 626 232
Cubs 1907 107-45 .704 574 390 184
Yankees 1939 106-45 .702 967 556 411
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Of course, the Yankees still had bigger fish to fry. They made short work of the 88-74 Rangers in the Division Series, allowing just one run across three games. Their final victory came in the wake of the shocking news that doctors had discovered a walnut-sized cancerous tumor in Strawberry’s colon. Though galvanized by the news, the team fell behind the Indians in the ALCS, two games to one, in part due to a Game Two gaffe that featured Knoblauch arguing for interference at first base on a 12th-inning sacrifice bunt while the ball was still in play. Enrique Wilson scored all the way from first base in what became a three-run rally; the tabloids had a field day, with headlines of “Brainlauch” (New York Post) and “Blauch Head” (New York Daily News). But after 25-year-old fireballer Bartolo Colon four-hit hit the Yankees in Game Three in Cleveland, Hernandez turned the tables via a combined four-hit shutout opposite ex-Yankee Dwight Gooden. Chili Davis‘ three RBI and Wells’ 11 strikeouts helped the Yankees gain the upper hand in Game Five, and back in the Bronx, Cone survived a Jim Thome upper-deck grand slam — served up with a six-run lead, thankfully — in a 9-5 series-clinching victory.

It was on to the World Series against the 98-win Padres. Powered by a trio of homers off Wells, two by Greg Vaughn and one by Tony Gwynn, San Diego took a 5-2 lead, but the Yankees erupted for seven runs in the sixth, with Knoblauch clubbing a three-run homer off Donnie Wall and Martinez a grand slam off Mark Langston. That brought Game Two, my first-ever trip to a World Series game. Our $125 tickets put us practically in the rafters, but it was a thrill I’d waited 20 years of baseball fandom to experience, Martinez and Brosius each collected three hits, while Williams and Posada both homered, and Hernandez yielded just one run while striking out seven in seven innings. Out in San Diego, five late-inning runs, four via a pair of Brosius homers off Sterling Hitchcock and Trevor Hoffman, helped give the Yankees a three-games-to-none lead, and then Pettite, Nelson, and Rivera combined to shut out the dispirited Padres and complete the sweep.

Brosius, who collected a team-high eight hits and six RBI, was named the Series MVP, completing the storybook comeback from a .203/.259/.317 season in Oakland.

Anchored by their homegrown talent — Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, Rivera, and Williams — as well as the Brosius-Martinez-O’Neill supporting cast, the Yankees would go on to win the World Series in 1999 and 2000, and to nearly do so in 2001 as well, but the February 1999 trade of Wells, Lloyd, and reserve infielder Homer Bush to the Blue Jays for Roger Clemens gave those ensuing teams their own identities. Today, Torre and Raines are in the Hall of Fame, and Rivera and Jeter are certain to be elected in the next two cycles. In 2001, the Mariners surpassed the Yankees by winning 116 regular-season games, but their swift elimination at the hands of that year’s edition of the Bronx Bombers in a five-game ALCS consigned their accomplishment to a separate category.

My friends and I renewed our ticket package for 1999 (we still have it to this day), and I made baseball one of the focuses of a continuing-education classes I took at The New School in the winter of 1998-99, where I began processing my own decades of fandom. In 2001, fascinated by the parade of utility infielders the Yankees had used to combat Knoblauch’s case of the yips, in need of a place to put my random yammerings about baseball, and eager for a chance to test my web-design skills away from my day job as a print-focused graphic designer, I started my Futility Infielder site. I’ll always be grateful to that 1998 team for providing the spark.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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4 years ago

Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for the house in blackjack.

But to each their own, I guess.

4 years ago
Reply to  Sleepy

This was my gut reaction as well. There’s no denying that the ’98 Yankees were an amazing team, but they enjoyed financial advantages that most other teams couldn’t match. They only ranked 2nd in in MLB payroll that year, behind the Orioles, but then had the top payroll every year from 1999-2013.

CC AFCmember
4 years ago
Reply to  BPBerkeley

God forbid the players get paid market value for their services. Screw those teams who pay their players! I for one, definitely prefer to root for billionaire owners to keep their profit margins higher.

I would argue that rooting for said billionaire owners to win titles on the basis of underpriced labor is much more like rooting for the house.

4 years ago
Reply to  CC AFC

I agree with this sentiment, but the Yankees can run huge payrolls AND have huge operating margins.

Other owners would have to run at a loss, and that isn’t how you become a billionaire.

I don’t know that there’s any solution short of extreme revenue sharing combined with salary hard caps and floors.

Tanned Tom
4 years ago
Reply to  Sleepy

go back to sleep