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Upon 2014 World Series Game 1 tonight, a look back at the dynasty Yankees' unforgettable openers

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The 1998-2000 Yankees made Fall Classic classics out of World Series opener. Miss those guys.

Grand slam. Tino Martinez. Madness.
Grand slam. Tino Martinez. Madness.
J. Meric

After almost a week of waiting, the 2014 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants kicks off tonight in Kansas City. Kauffman Stadium is sure to be rocking for its first World Series game in 29 years, but it will take some volume for it match the sheer noise made at Yankee Stadium during the dynasty years.

Those seasons were unbelievable for Yankees fans, and the 1998-2000 "three-peat" squads made awesome World Series openers an annual affair. As if it wasn't thrilling enough to just make it to the Fall Classic, these teams gave the audience a thrill right off the bat. (Pun absolutely intended.) Long before those years, the Yankees often had excellent openers, going back to their very first World Series game in 1921, when spitballing submariner Carl Mays dazzled John McGraw's New York Giants in a five-hit shutout, and 1949, when "Ol' Reliable" Tommy Henrich ended a scoreless tie in the bottom of the ninth with the first walk-off home run in playoff history. The three games the 1998-2000 Yankees offered were iconic for a new generation of fans, and they will never be forgotten.

1998

The 1998 Yankees were the greatest team in baseball history. Arguments could be made for other awesome teams like the '27 "Murderers' Row" squad or any number of other teams' favorites. In the end though, the '98 Yankees won 114 regular season games in an era of integrated baseball, West Coast travel, and three rounds of playoffs. They could have bowed out before even reaching the World Series like 116-win 2001 Mariners, but they didn't. They won the American League pennant and faced the San Diego Padres in the World Series. The Padres were underdogs, but no slouches; they had taken out two extremely good 100-win Astros and Braves teams on the way to the Fall Classic.

The Yankees took an early 2-0 lead on a surprising two-run double by rookie Ricky Ledee against the still-menacing Kevin Brown. San Diego struck back immediately with their most powerful bat, as 50-homer hitter Greg Vaughn crushed a two-run homer to right field off David Wells, knotting it up at 2-2. Two innings later, it was "Mr. Padre," Tony Gwynn, who brought silence to Yankee Stadium. The future Hall of Famer was, as Paul O'Neill would say "not a home run hitter," but nevertheless, he demolished a Wells pitch off the facing of the upper deck in right field for another two-run blast, putting San Diego on top, 4-2.

On the next pitch, Vaughn followed with his second homer of the night, and the Yankees were officially in trouble. Brown was mowing down the formidable Yankees lineup. By the seventh, he had the Padres eight outs away from taking an early lead in the World Series. Then Jorge Posada beat out a very slow grounder to second and Brown walked the #9 hitter Ledee on four pitches. That brought an end to Brown's night, as skipper Bruce Bochy (now of course managing the Giants) hooked him to bring in Donne Wall for Chuck Knoblauch.

The Yankees' second baseman had been acquired in a big trade with the Twins before the season for moments like these, but just a couple weeks ago, he suffered humiliation in front of these same fans. In extra innings of Game 2 of the ALCS against the Indians, he wasted time arguing with the first base umpire and pointing at the ball while the go-ahead run came around to score. The Yankees lost the game, and Knoblauch was excoriated by the fans and media. He had a shot at redemption. He seized it:

Just like that, the game was tied. A single and a couple Mark Langston walks later, another Yankee had a shot to make up for postseason letdowns: Tino Martinez. A .188/.301/.292 hitter to that point in 29 playoff games with the Yankees, Tino drew the ire of some fans for not coming up with a big hit. A 2-2 pitch from Langston just barely missed the strike zone according to home plate umpire Rich Garcia. It might have been a gift, but if so, it was not wasted:

Yankee Stadium might never have been louder than it was after Tino's grand slam. Would it really be surprising if that was the case? The seven-run seventh gave the reliable Yankees bullpen all the support they would need, and a couple innings later, the 9-6 comeback victory was clinched with Mariano Rivera's first career World Series save. The Yankees never lost a game in that World Series, sweeping the Padres away 16 years ago today.

1999

Let us take a moment to remember the 1999 Yankees, who never get their due when recalling the Yankees' greatest teams. Completely overshadowed by the '98 steamroller, they still won a league-high 98 games, all while going through painfully difficult personal adversity.

The franchise losing icon Joe DiMaggio in March was small compared to the scariness of beloved manager Joe Torre leaving the team for a couple months to undergo treatment for prostate cancer. Teammate Darryl Strawberry battled drug problems while recovering from his own colon cancer diagnosed during the previous year's playoffs. Star '70s pitcher Catfish Hunter lost his fight with ALS in September, and third baseman Scott Brosius's father was slowly losing his life as well. Brosius left the team a few times to tend to his dad before he finally passed in September. Infielder Luis Sojo's father died just prior to the World Series, and the Yankees played the first two games with a 24-man roster as Sojo flew back to Venezuela to attend to his family. Finally, Paul O'Neill's father passed away from heart failure the day of World Series Game 4. He played anyway, the Yankees won the title that night, and O'Neill tried to celebrate through the tears. It was an absolutely brutal emotional year for the club, and yet they persevered. That can't be overlooked.

The 1999 World Series brought forth another Yankees/Braves matchup in what was billed as a fight to determine the "Team of the '90s." Atlanta had made the playoffs eight straight years, won five National League pennants, and the '95 Fall Classic. However, they had lost the '96 series to the Yankees, who were in the playoffs for the fifth year in a row and could now win their third title of the decade. The opener at Turner Field pitted future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux against playoff menace Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez.

Both pitchers were on their games, even though Maddux wasn't even supposed to start. (Tom Glavine became sick with the flu on gameday, so Maddux covered for him.) Maddux was vintage Maddux with seven brilliant innings of three-hit shutout ball. El Duque pitched seven innings himself and allowed just one hit. Unfortunately for him, that one hit left the yard, as a mistake to '99 NL MVP Chipper Jones was launched down the left field line for a solo homer. That was the difference.

The Yankees were six outs from falling behind in the series with Maddux still on the mound in the eighth. Brosius led it off with a single to left, and with the pitcher's spot due up, Torre elected to pinch-hit Strawberry (just activated in September) rather than having El Duque bunt. It paid off, as Maddux pitched him too cautiously and issued a rare walk. Knoblauch came up, and he dragged a perfect bunt between the pitcher's mound and first base that was mishandled. Up stepped Derek Jeter, who had a monster '99 season and showed the Braves why:

That was it for Maddux, as manager Bobby Cox went with lefty closer John Rocker, the nemesis of New York for his racist and homophobic comments about the city subway. O'Neill wasn't at his healthiest and Rocker destroyed lefties, but that did not stop the veteran right fielder from defying the odds:

The Yankees were back on top with another Game 1 rally. They tacked on a third run via a Jim Leyritz bases-loaded walk against Rocker, and the bullpen shut Atlanta down over the last two innings. The Yankees swept the series, repeated as champions, and ended the '99 playoffs with an 11-1 record, a mark even better than the '98 squad and matched just once since MLB went to a three-round format in '95. Now that's worth remembering.

2000

The 2000 Yankees were not nearly as good a team as the '98 and '99 groups. They went through struggles at various points of the season, needed a boost from trade acquisition David Justice to push them over the hump into playoff contention, and they shockingly lost 15 of their last 18 games entering the playoffs. Fortunately, the AL East was a weak division that year, so the Yankees won it despite only notching 87 victories, three fewer than the playoff-absent Cleveland Indians.

They proved that one only had to be in it to win it though, as they fought off a couple of dangerous Athletics and Mariners teams to win the AL pennant for the third straight year. In their quest to become the first team since the 1972-74 A's to "three-peat," they would have to take down the cross-town rival Mets. New York City was abuzz with the first Subway Series in 44 years and the Mets' first pennant since 1986.

Game 1 at Yankee Stadium (14 years ago today) pitted veteran lefties Andy Pettitte and Al Leiter against each other, and both pitchers were strong. It was scoreless through five when the Mets almost broke through in the sixth inning. Timo Perez was on first with a single and with two outs, Todd Zeile sent a fly ball deep to left field that caused chaos:

Zeile's poor luck, Perez's baserunning error, and Jeter's terrific relay throw cut down the game's first run. Still, the Mets jumped on top by a score of 3-2 by virtue of a seventh inning rally against Pettitte after Justice had given him the lead with a two-run double. The Mets carried the lead into the ninth as closer Armando Benitez took the mound. Posada flew out to lead it off, and the Yankees were two outs from seeing their 12-game World Series winning streak snapped. Then, magic happened in the form of O'Neill's patient 10-pitch walk:

2000_ws_walk_medium

Luis Polonia followed with a pinch-hit single, and second baseman Jose Vizcaino slashed an opposite-field hit to left. The bases were loaded for Knoblauch, who to tie the game just had to avoid striking out or hitting into a double play. A sacrifice fly to left tied the game, though Benitez fanned Jeter to force extra innings.

The Yankees almost won the game twice twice. They had the bases loaded in the 10th with one out, but O'Neill bounced into a double play to end the threat. They loaded the bases again in the 11th with two outs. This time, a Glenallen Hill fly ball helped the Mets escape. There was no such luck for the Mets in the 12th. With one out, Tino singled and Posada doubled to center, moving Tino to third. Although Sojo struck out, Vizcaino was the next hitter. Another trade acquisition, the light-hitting infielder was an unlikely hero, but sometimes crazy things happen in October:

The Yankees won the game and later the series in five games. We may never see a team as dominant as the 1999-2000 clubs again, and we'll almost certainly never see three straight Yankees World Series openers as captivating as these.

***

We can only hope that the Royals and Giants play a similarly exciting Game 1 tonight. Those 1998-2000 Yankees spoiled us with high expectations through all-time highlights like the Tino slam, and I can't wait until the Yankees make it back to make more memories.