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The Yankees’ Nearly Teams: Part 3

A controversial firing and two strike years highlight part three of our look at Yankees’ teams that came up just short of championships.

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Yogi Berra Holds Newspaper

For the past couple weeks, we here at Pinstripe Alley have been running our Champions Series, profiling the 27 World Series winning teams in Yankees’ history.

Those 27 teams are far from the only notable ones in franchise history, so as companion pieces, I’ve been looking at some of the teams that came brutally close to adding to that total. (Here is part one and part two.) As we continue to go through the championship winners, here is a look at four more teams that nearly got there too.

1964

After getting swept in the World Series the year before, the Yankees moved manager Ralph Houk into the front office and hired legendary player Yogi Berra to replace him.

Berra’s first season as manager was rough at times, included the famed “Harmonica Incident,” but he seemed to get the hang of things by the end of the season. They went 24-9 from September on, turning a three-game deficit into an eventual AL pennant.

They then fought hard in the World Series, going the distance against the Cardinals. In Game 7, they managed to put up five runs against the legendary Bob Gibson, but they came after the Cardinals had opened up a 6-0 lead. It ended up being too little, too late as the Cardinals won the championship.

That ended up being the only season for Berra in this particular stint. To make matters worse, the manager that took over would be Johnny Keane. who had just managed the Cardinals in the World Series. Thankfully, that would be the only controversial time Berra was fired as Yankees’ manager.

1981

The rest of the ‘60s and early ‘70s were arguably the darkest days in franchise history, as they plummeted to depths that hadn’t been seen since pre-Babe Ruth times. The team sagged on the field, fired Keane, brought back Houk as skipper and continued to underwhelm. Things began to change as the ‘70s began, and they returned to the World Series under Billy Martin in 1976. The next year, they won the Fall Classic, following it up with a second in ‘78.

The end of that good period would come with a loss in the 1981 World Series.

The Yankees had retooled a bit since the ‘78 team, famously signing outfielder Dave Winfield, reacquiring Bobby Murcer, among other moves. That helped the Yankees return to the World Series, albeit in a weird year.

The 1981 season was a strike year, leading to an interesting format. The season would be split into two halves, with the team in first in each division in each half gaining a spot in the playoffs. That meant that the Yankees’ 34-22 record in the first half was enough to get in, even though in totality, they had the had the third-best winning percentage in the AL East that year. It was also strange because in classic George Steinbrenner fashion, he made a midseason coaching change, and the man who piloted New York to its successful first half (Gene Michael) did not skipper them in the playoffs. Instead, it was Bob Lemon, back for a second stint.

In the first ever year of three-round playoffs, the Yankees beat the Brewers and Athletics to get to the World Series. and a meeting with the Dodgers for the third time in five years. It seemed like this one might go similarly to the first two, as the Yankees won Games 1 and 2. However, the Dodgers replied with four straight triumphs to take the series, giving Tommy Lasorda revenge for the Yankees’ World Series victories over them in ‘77 and ‘78. It would be a while after this before the Yankees’returned to the World Series stage.

1994

This is the only year on this list in which the Yankees weren’t clearly beaten on the field. (Unless you want to talk about trash cans and the like, which we’ll cover in part four.) Jon and Kevin both recently covered this excellent club, but here’s the short version.

Through August 11th, the Yankees had racked up a 70-43 record, which was good for a 6.5-game lead in the AL East, and the best mark in the American League. The next day, a strike began. About a month later, with negotiations stalling out, Bud Selig cancelled the remainder of the season and the World Series.

While the Yankees would’ve had a decent chance at a World Series appearances or title, we at least got the chance to see them win one not long after ‘94. The same cannot be said for the poor Montreal Expos, who had the best record in baseball at the time the season was cancelled, and then didn’t exist about a decade later.

1995

There have been several others seasons on this list that have been included despite the Yankees not even making the World Series. However, ‘95 might be the one where the Yankees were the furthest away.

Many of the same elements of the superb ‘94 team were still around in ‘95, and there were plenty of ties to the championship teams that followed. Nonetheless, the Yankees had to scramble midseason just to make it to October, and they had to go an AL-best 25-6 from August 29th onward to simply earn a Wild Card spot.

The Yankees then infamously went up 2-0 in the Division Series against Seattle, thanks in part to Jim Leyritz’s Game 2 walk-off in the rain. A win away from a sweep, they instead endured a couple of tough losses at the Kingdome to force Game 5, but to their credit, they took a 10th-inning lead against Randy Johnson and were three outs from the ALCS. The Yankees might have given Cleveland or Atlanta a run for their money that year, but in the bottom of the 10th, Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez broke their hearts.

This year was included in this roll call mainly for what it represented. When Griffey slid home in Game 5 to end the Yankees’ season, New York lost out on its best chance to get captain Don Mattingly a World Series ring. It was a hugely sad moment for Yankee fans of that era.