If you ask most Yankees fans, any discussion of the greatest team in baseball history can only involve one of two teams: the legendary “Murderers’ Row” 1927 club of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and the 1998 juggernaut that steamrolled its competition en route to 125 combined victories. There might be some who make the case for 1961, but for the most part, it’s a difficult choice to pick between 1927 and 1998. In fact, even neutral observers who aren’t Yankees fans might rank them No. 1 and No. 2 all-time as well.
In my book though, the 1998 club gets the narrow edge. The margin is so slim that it’s like deciding whether I want ice cream with rainbow sprinkles or chocolate sprinkles. I’m getting a delicious treat regardless, so I’m not complaining.
Consider the incredible achievements of the 1998 Yankees, though. This was a merciless offense of patient hitters who cracked line drives all around the ballpark and could just as easily take any pitcher in the game yard. Nine of the 10 players who appeared in at least 100 games finished with numbers easily better than league average. Look at these menaces:
1998 Yankees offense
A good number of teams ride superstars to success. It’s an excellent formula! It’s been replicated many times in the past, including by the Yankees themselves — the 1927 club didn’t exactly reach iconic status through the 235 games of Mark Koenig and Joe Dugan, that’s for sure.
This 1998 team had big names, but also simply had no holes in the lineup. No breaks. No breathers. It was just a relentless barrage of tough at-bats. Bernie Williams won the batting title. Derek Jeter had the first superstar season of his Hall of Fame career. Paul O’Neill was named to his fifth All-Star team, and though Tino Martinez led the team with a 28-homer total that paled in comparison to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, he was joined by three other Yankees who belted at least 24 bombs — Williams, O’Neill, and the resurgent Darryl Strawberry (who hit two pinch-hit grand slams).
That August 4th game clipped above was an excellent example of what a pain in the ass these ‘98 Yankees could be. They were already running away with a 15-game lead in the AL East on a Wild-Card winning Red Sox club that was far from a pushover. They were losing 5-1 in the ninth on the road in the second game of a doubleheader in which they’d already won the matinee. If they lost that game, no one would think twice about it.
Instead, Strawberry slammed to tie it up, and the Yankees ended up winning handily anyway, 10-5. Just another day in paradise.
“Straw” was far from the only one to benefit from that hated Yankee magic in the lineup, too. Scott Brosius had no business having the dream season that he did, as he went from offseason “player to be named later” in a salary dump deal with Oakland for Kenny Rogers to perhaps the best No. 9 hitter this team has ever seen. He was an All-Star, flashed excellent defense at third, belted 53 extra-base hits, and won World Series MVP with a pair of clutch bombs against the hapless Padres.
The perfect storm of unlikely stories didn’t stop there. Bench player Homer Bush hit .380 in 45 games. Rookie Ricky Ledee batted .600 in the World Series. Then, there was the ballad of Shane Spencer.
Spencer was a 26-year-old career minor leaguer who found his way into some playing time while the Yankees were coasting in September. Out of nowhere, he became the first rookie to ever hit three grand slams in one season — let alone one month. It was downright comical. After all that, it should surprise no one that the Yankees had the best offense in baseball in 1998.
As for the pitching? The best in the American League, and the only staff clearly better in the game was Atlanta, led by three Hall of Fame starters. So fine, tip of the hat to the Braves, who still got bounced by the Padres in the playoffs anyway.
Meanwhile in New York, David Wells went from manager Joe Torre’s doghouse to pitching a perfect game a week later en route to an All-Star season and a third-place finish in AL Cy Young Award voting, thanks in no small part to the lefty’s big curve and impeccable control. Fellow veteran and pal David Cone gobbled up 207.2 innings, striking out 209 batters while notching a 78 ERA- and 76 FIP-. Andy Pettitte was somewhat unfairly maligned for a down year from his 1996-97 highs and still managed to throw 216.1 innings of 93 ERA- ball anyway — and that’s not including 7.1 shutout frames in the World Series clincher.
The rotation had its own surprise, too, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been as much of a true shock. Orlando Hernandez had been an international star for the Cuban national team for years before he even considered coming to the Yankees. He defected on Christmas Day 1997, signed with New York in February, and after a few months in the minors, the club gave him a shot. “El Duque” debuted at age 32, finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting with a 69 ERA- and 78 FIP- in 21 starts, and then saved the Yankees’ bacon in Game 4 of the ALCS by dazzling Cleveland to prevent them from taking a decisive 3-1 series lead.
Locking down ballgames was the incomparable Mariano Rivera, who was as dominant as ever in 1998 and had plenty of help in the ‘pen, too. Jeff Nelson’s slider gave batters fits. Southpaw Graeme Lloyd ground lefty hitters into mush. Ramiro Mendoza was versatile enough to make 14 starts in 41 games while recording both a shutout and a save. “El Brujo” and his nasty sinker could tackle any role Torre wanted him to fill.
Add that dynamite pitching staff to an explosive offense and it’s not hard to see how the 1998 Yankees reached 114 regular-season wins and 11 playoff triumphs. It’s challenging to compare eras, but I would take this club by a hair over the 1927 Yankees. They were slightly more rounded, rolled over their opponents just as easily, and did it all while actually facing integrated competition. Furthermore, for all that the legend says about how the 1927 Pirates “lost in batting practice,” they were outscored by the Yankees in the World Series at exactly the same margin as the also-swept 1998 Padres: 13 runs.
There was simply something special in the air in 1998. The Yankees were kings of the baseball world, about to win three championships in a row, and were utterly unstoppable. They are the greatest team in baseball history, bar none.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do the “El Duque.”