Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Magic of 1998 (and '99)

No Yankees fan over the age of 15 is unfamiliar with the ’98 season. There aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to adequately describe that season. It was the year they finally got it right, assembled a team ready and able to win the World Series. And they were rewarded with 114 regular season wins and a relatively resistance-free postseason.

This is where the formula proved it’s weight in rings. They got some premium performances by their core: Jeter (.324/.384/.481), Bernie (.339/.422/.575), O’Neill (.317/.372/.510), Tino (.281/.355/.505), and Jorge (in his first full season, .268/.350/.475). Chuck Knoblauch, who came with high expectations, did an adequate job in his lead-off position, hitting .265/.361/.405 and only striking out 70 times, compared to 76 walks, the only Yankee to walk more than he struck out.

I already mentioned Jorge in the rookie category (even though he played enough in ’97 to not qualify in ’98, he still was a rookie that year to me). As for the underdogs, well, there was Shane Spencer, who came up in September to knock 10 out of the park in 67 AB. And although he went 3 for 6 in the ALDS, he was pretty much a non-factor for the rest of the run. Underdog yes, but not within the scope of what I’m talking about.

It may be way too late at this point to consider Tim Raines an underdog, considering I’ve mentioned him as a large contributor in both the ’96 and ’97 seasons. But seriously, folks, Tim Raines was 38 years old in 1998, and many couldn’t fathom why he was still on the team, now that Chad Curtis was in town. But when you juxtapose Curtis’s numbers (.243/.355/.360) with Raines’s, (.290/.395/.383), it seems apparent that Rock still had a bit if juice left, despite being 135 ABs behind Curtis.

But THE hero of the 1998 season, in undoubted fashion, was Scott Brosius. In fact, I probably didn’t even need to type his name, because everyone remembers. Everyone remembers (finally!) sending Kenny Rogers to Oakland, and receiving one of those mysterious “players to be named later.” Those always scare me – case and point, the Leiter situation this year. When I saw the news about the Yankees acquiring Al Leiter from the Marlins, it said for a player to be named later. And of course, this turned out to be no one, or at least no one I particularly cared for. And since the Marlins ended up with Paul Quantrill at the end of the season, I’ll just pretend that we traded Quantrill for Leiter.

When the player to be named later was announced as Scott Brosius, I was admittedly a bit excited, mainly because I recognized his name from baseball cards. See, I would have been the perfect executive for the Washington Redskins in ’98 (I was a junior in high school), in that I had a fascination with players whose names I could recognize. Why was Dan Snyder paying Vinny Cerrato lumps of dough to evaluate talent when he could have paid me a quarter of his salary to do the same thing, possibly more effectively?

Stats weren’t as readily accessible then as they are now, or at least I didn’t know anywhere to get them other than baseball cards. I had the Internet, but knew nothing about sites like Baseball-Reference and RetroSheet, which may or may not have existed in 1998. I checked my Brosius baseball cards, but they did nothing but make me more excited. No, not because of the greatness of the stats on them, but for the mere single line of stats – i.e. I had a Scott Brosius rookie card. Yippee, I thought.

Alas, this left me without the knowledge of Brosius’s struggled past, which included his .248 lifetime batting average and a ’97 season that went a lil something like this: 203/.259/.317. Had I seen those numbers, the .203 would have had me fuming. I only had a pedestrian concept of OBP at the time, and actually didn’t have a clue as to what Slugging Percentage meant, except that it was apparently a weighty stat. Oh, and Dave Winfield led the league in it a few times (which I also learned from a baseball card).

So when Brosius proceeded to tear it up in ’98, it wasn’t surprising to me at all. I did, however, wonder why it took so long for the newspaper (the Newark Star Ledger specifically, since that’s the only paper I had access to at the time) to warm up to Brosius. At the time, I guessed it was because he was replacing Wade Boggs, but that was stupid in retrospect. I don’t think the Yankees fans had a problem with Boggs leaving, considering he played for the hated Red Sox for so long. And the fact that he was over 40 at the time of his departure.

Turns out that everyone at the newspapers wasn’t warming up to Brosius because they had access to the information that I was ignorant to. When he started off hot, they just figured it was a fluke, a natural response to the adrenaline rush that comes with New York. Well, I guess Brosius had some damn magic adrenaline, as it lasted through the season and all the way to the end of October, when he hit a three-run homer off Trevor Hoffman in the top of the eighth of Game Three to put the Yanks up 5-3. Or his insurance RBI in the top of the eighth in the decisive Game Four.

I don’t know what was the real cause of Brosius going from 203/.259/.317 in ’97 to .300/.371/.472 in ’98. Maybe it was one of those right guy, right place, right time situations. Or maybe he was just that he was stuck on Oakland, who hadn’t had a winning season since ’92, Brosius’s second year, and he was ready for a winner. I like that theory, and it’s actually going to play a part in my assessment for this coming off-season. But I’m getting ahead of myself; we’re supposed to be talking about ’98.

The hitting was in place, with a core of more than solid players surrounded by role players and underdogs. The pitching staff was still solid as ever, with Pettitte, Cone, and Wells manning the upper part of the rotation, and Mo still phenomenally closing games. There were two names, though, that helped the Yanks overcome the shortcomings in the pitching staff: namely Hideki Irabu and Mike Stanton (having a waaaaay off year).

Orlando Hernandez and Ramiro Mendoza. If it weren’t for those two guys, well, I guess the Yanks probably still would have won the division. And considering how they romped through the playoffs, they more than likely still would have won the World Series. But I can’t prove that, and since Hernandez and Mendoza played their parts so well, I’m going to go ahead and say that they were underdog difference makers in 1998.

El Duque, the Cuban defector, started 21 games after coming over from his homeland, posting a 12-4 record and a 3.13 ERA. Mendoza was a swing-man for the Yanks, making 14 starts and appearing in relief 27 times, combining for a 10-2 record to go along with a tidy 3.25 ERA and a tidier 1.05 WHIP. Also gaining honorable mention in this category (mainly because he wasn’t an underdog, just an improved player) is David Wells. After going 16-10 with a 4.21 ERA in ’97, added two wins, subtracted six losses, and shaved 0.72 points off his ERA.

Yes, the 1998 Yankees got it right. And what furthers that notion is that they didn’t make any serious roster moves for the 1999 season, save for the exchange of David Wells for Roger Clemens. Chili Davis slid into the full time DH role, Ricky Ledee took some PT from Curtis in left, and Posada took more time from Girardi. That’s about the entire difference between ’98 and ’99 in a nutshell. Coincidence that both teams won it all?

Before I end for today, I just wanted to dub “Clock Strikes Ten” by Cheap Trick as the official song for the 1998 Yankees. Why? Because when the clock struck ten every night, it was more than likely that the Yankees had secured a victory.

Back tomorrow with a summation of ‘00-’04, if I get that far.