The 1998 New York Yankees were a take-no-prisoners juggernaut, a team not to be trifled with. Perched high above in their pinstriped ivory tower, those Yanks achieved a 125-win season (including playoffs) that culminated in outstanding style – a World Series title.
What made the Yankees so dynamic? No question the ’98 lot was talented, buoyed by the right mix of youth and experience, power and speed along with right-handed and left-handed pitching. From “Core Four” linchpins Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada to colorful characters Paul O’Neill and David Wells to calming influences David Cone, Bernie Williams and Scott Brosius, the New Yorkers had the bases covered.
Perhaps the greatest trait the Yankees displayed during that otherworldly season was their killer instinct. They were good and made sure everyone else know who the best was. The ability to dispatch opponents in a variety of ways made them seem almost infallible, whether it was scoring the most runs in the majors (965) or allowing the fewest runs in the American League (656). By June 1, they stood 7 ½ games ahead of second-place Boston in the A.L. East. By Aug. 1, the gap was 15 games. By season’s end, the Yankees needed sonar to find the Red Sox, who finished 22 games off the pace.
We revisit the ’98 Yanks because it appears the 2011 Red Sox have taken a page out of N.Y.’s dominance. The 2-10 start? Faded to black, replaced by a torrid stretch since May 1 (32-15). At 44-30 Boston went into Friday’s game against Pittsburgh sporting the second-best record in baseball – a status behooving of the high expectations bestowed upon this club during the preseason.
Time will tell if the Red Sox equal the heights the ’98 Yankees soared to, hence why we’ll stop right here and turn things over to Chili Davis. The first-year Pawtucket Red Sox hitting coach was a part-time designated hitter on that high-octane Yankees club, a broken bone in his right ankle limiting him to 35 games. Still, Davis saw enough in spring training to get a sense that something special was brewing for the ’98 Yankees.
“I felt that team went to spring training and prepared to win. They didn’t prepare to just go play the season, and it showed,” Davis recounted recently. “From Opening Day on that team was at full throttle. When we walked into a town, I was glad to be on the Yankees and not the opposing team.
“If we were behind in the game, we just kept coming at you. If we were ahead, we just kept adding on, ” Davis delved further. “We weren’t out to beat you. We were out to embarrass you.”
Conversely the ’11 Red Sox stumbled of the gate. Davis spent quite a bit of time around Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Co. during spring training. While he gathered a sense that the Sox had enough pieces to make a legit run, something was missing.
“You listen to (Dustin) Pedroia in spring training and it was always about kicking somebody’s butt,” Davis recalls. “This may be an excuse, but you never had the whole lineup together all spring. You never saw the potency. It was either the infield that went on a road trip and the outfielders staying back [in Fort Myers]. A lot of the guys (on the PawSox) played a lot.”
Davis then broke from the Red Sox-Yankees comparison to mix in another one of the championship teams he played on – the 1991 Minnesota Twins. Like the ’11 Red Sox, the ’91 Twins spent the early stages of the season searching for an identity, sitting at 23-25 heading into June. That gave way to a 15-game winning streak that catapulted the streaking Twins from also-rans to legit contenders, one that captured the World Series in seven games against Atlanta.
“Everything jelled for us,” said Davis, who enjoyed one of the finest seasons in his career in ’91, slugging 29 home runs while driving in 93 runs. “I look at (the ’11 Red Sox) that if the pitching holds up and barring injuries, I don’t see that team not being in the playoffs this year.”
At the moment injuries are a concern for this current crop of Red Sox. With Crawford, Jed Lowrie and Clay Buchholz on the disabled list, Boston is testing the limits of its organizational depth. Drew Sutton, Josh Reddick and Andrew Miller are being asked to fill some heavy-duty industrial-sized boots, but the burden is not strictly relegated to them – not with Gonzalez, Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis in the mix.
The ’98 Yankees also felt the pinch of playing without key regulars. Darryl Strawberry was unavailable for the playoffs after being diagnosed with colon cancer. A sprained right knee shelved Bernie Williams for just over six weeks.
“If you have a well-rounded offense, you can afford to lose one or two guys and kind of fill in,” Davis explained. “The rest of the guys, being the professionals they are, they’ll pick up the slack. The Red Sox have done that.
“With the Yankees we had such a strong lineup that we had Tim Raines, Shane Spencer, Ricky Ledee on the bench,” Davis said. “It was like a moving train; it wasn’t going to slow down for you to jump on. You had to run alongside that train to catch up and I think that’s what happened with that club.”
The final here-and-now has to do with midseason boosts to the pitching staff. Cuban refugee Orlando Hernandez made his Yankees debut that June – yet another example of the rich getting richer. The right-hander with the high leg kick went 12-4 with a 3.13 ERA in 21 regular-season starts, yet some note that he may have saved his best work for the postseason.
New York trailed two games to one to Cleveland in the ALCS – perhaps the lone time the Yankees encountered adversity in ’98 – when Hernandez took the mound in a must-have Game 4. All “El Duque” did was toss seven shutout innings in a 4-0 win that tilted the series back in New York’s favor. Hernandez was just as efficient in Game 2 of the World Series, holding National League champ San Diego to a single run over seven innings in a 9-3 win.
The Red Sox hope that Andrew Miller, summoned earlier this week after a successful stint in Pawtucket, can provide the same sort of buffer behind Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Buchholz that Hernandez did behind Cone, Pettitte and Wells.
To the ’98 Yanks, Hernandez was found money, the kind that can put a smile on one’s face when checking pockets before putting a wash in. New York wasn’t asking Hernandez to win them a world championship. The same can be said about Miller, which could allow him to flourish unlike previous stops in Detroit and Florida.
“I hope that Andrew pitches with the same kind of confidence he did while he was (in Pawtucket),” Chili Davis said in closing. “El Duque walked in and there was no nervousness, no trying to do too much. He just went out there as El Duque and pitched his game. He was crafty and fit right in. If Andrew Miller can pitch the way Andrew Miller can, he can do that also.”