Manager's Note: You guys know the drill by now. We've been slowly adding to our staff over the last few months, and we will be adding a couple more in the near future. Brian Stramaglia is the newest of those writers to join our little group. Please give him a warm welcome. - Tanya
Do most people have a favorite team? I mean that in more than the general sense of “The Yankees.” I specifically mean in a particular year’s edition of that team. For some people, it might be the first year you followed them every day, or learned to read the box scores and standings in the newspaper (or maybe on baseball-reference). It might be a historically great team like the 1998 Yankees, or the first championship team you remember, like the 1996 or 2009 Yankees. It might be the year you had a great season ticket package, or the year that was one of the most memorable of your life for non-baseball reasons, with the Yankees as background noise all summer.
For me, it was a team that did not win the World Series, the pennant, or the division. In fact, they didn’t spend a single day alone in first place; although they set a record of sorts by spending 21 days tied for first without ever gaining sole possession. Those 1993 Yankees are the team I still consider to be my “favorite.”
Considering a non-World Series winner to be my favorite might seem like a very odd choice to someone too young to remember the 1980s Yankees. Unfortunately, I do remember the 1980s. I vaguely remember the 1984 edition, but 1985 was the first season that I really remember, when they won 97 games and finished one game out of first. It was all downhill from there – 90 wins and another second place finish in 1986, 89 wins and a fourth place finish in 1987, and so on, until they bottomed out with 67 wins and last place in 1990. They only improved by four wins in 1991 and five more in 1992. By the start of the 1993 season, I was 16 years old, and half of the seasons I could remember were losing endeavors. The Yankees hadn’t won a pennant in 12 years, or a World Series in 15. There was even a Sports Illustrated cover in 1991, featuring a smiling Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, along with the question “Whatever happened to the Yankees?” When compared to the Yankee fan experience of my dad, his brother, my grandfathers, and just about every adult I knew, it was TOTALLY unfair.
Finally, in 1993, it changed. After a 6-7 start that included a brutal 5-4 loss to the Royals (a two-out, bases-loaded, circus catch by Brian McRae to end the bottom of the eighth, followed by five Kansas City runs in the top of the ninth), they went on a 49-33 run, peaking at 19 games over .500 on August 26 (74-55). For most of June, they were anywhere from three to five games behind, before pulling back to within two games on June 30. From then until September 15, they were within two games of first place for all but a handful of days. Every single game mattered, for virtually the entire season, for the first time that I could really remember. After a Blue Jays loss and a Yankee off-day on September 9, they were tied for first. They fell a game behind the next day, the first game of a 5-4 stretch that left them three games back on September 18. They then lost five in a row, including the first two games of a three game set in Toronto that dropped them 7.5 games out. From there, it was essentially over, barring a historic collapse by Toronto. The Yankees won five of their last seven, but the Jays won five of eight. The Yankees finished 88-74, in second place, seven games behind the eventual repeat World Series winners.
Although the last two weeks of the season were disappointing, they didn’t spoil the overall season for me, and the first real pennant race that I got to experience. Their 88 wins were the most since 1987, and the second place finish was their best since 1986. The previous four seasons, the Yankees dropped 10 games out, never to get any closer on July 6, August 4, June 7 and August 23, in the process of finishing 20, 20, 21, and 14.5 games out of first. They last had a winning record during the previous four seasons on June 8, July 20 (the only, single day they had a winning record all year) and April 19 (I stared at those last two sentences for a full two minutes; times have certainly changed). The 1993 team wasn’t just memorable because of the winning record or the pennant race. It was also the players – who they were, how they got there, and how they exceeded expectations.
Generic, unremarkable veterans played like All-Stars. Mike Stanley came out of nowhere to become one of the best hitting catchers in baseball, after previously being notable for hitting exactly .249 in each of the previous three seasons. Paul O’Neill, acquired for Roberto Kelly during the off-season, went from being considered a platoon guy who couldn’t hit lefties to a perennial all-star. Dion James, with his sweet left-handed swing but .a 282/.362/.385 career line to that point, hit .332 while setting career highs in batting average, OBP and slugging percentage.
Part-time players were great in their part-time roles, giving the team a mix-and-match, do-what-we-have-to flavor. Jim Leyritz hit .309/.410/.525 in 95 games at first base, third base, left field, right field, and catcher. Randy Velarde hit .301/.360/.469 while playing third base, shortstop, left field and center field, after several years of trying to figure out where he fit in. Mike Gallego had the highest b-WAR of his career while playing second base, shortstop and third base.
Kids like Pat Kelly and Bernie Williams continued to develop offensively, while twenty-somethings Jim Abbott, Melido Perez, Scott Kamieniecki, and Bob Wickman gave us pitchers to feel hopeful about besides Jimmy Key (watching him every fifth day made this team likeable in and of itself).
Another aspect for me was that the players were very likeable, and just seemed easy to root for. Paul O’Neill hated losing, and took every out personally. Jim Abbott was impossible to root against. For most of the summer, Don Mattingly looked like Don Mattingly (from May 1 to Aug 29, he hit .319/.389/.515, in what was probably the best season of his post-back injury career). Mel Hall was gone.
The 1993 Yankees were also notable for me because of what they were not – a collection of expensive free agents. Jimmy Key was a consolation prize after Greg Maddux signed with Atlanta. Wade Boggs was a huge question mark after hitting .259 for Boston as a 34-year-old the year before. Mike Stanley was a nobody when the Yankees signed him prior to the 1992 season. Dion James did not play a single game of organized baseball in 1991 before signing for the 1992 season. Mike Gallego was just a role player from the Bash Brothers A’s. Paul O’Neill, Jim Abbott and Melido Perez came over in trades. Pat Kelly, Bernie Williams, Jim Leyritz, Randy Velarde, Scott Kamieniecki and Bob Wickman were farm system products. The only real exception was Danny Tartabull, who was the biggest fish in the free agent pond prior to the 1992 season.
Don’t get me wrong, the 1996 team that won the first championship I could remember was great. So was the 1998 team, which deserves to be considered among the best ever. The 2009 Yankees had the new stadium and first-championship-in-nine-years dynamic. And the 1993 Yankees weren’t exactly the complete underdogs I perceived them to be at the time. Although they were generally picked to finish third (behind the Blue Jays and Orioles), their team payroll of $41 million was also the third highest in baseball that year (they never dropped any lower than eighth, even during the bad years). But 1993 was the first pennant race I really got to experience as an adult (or close enough to one), and the first team to really give me a reason to watch the game every night.