If you’re naming the greatest ever Yankees’ teams, it won’t take you very long to get to 1998. Hell, if you’re naming the greatest ever baseball teams period, it won’t take you long to get to the ‘98 Yankees.
Between the regular season and three rounds of the playoffs, they won 125 games, which no team has matched. Other than a brief period in the ALCS, they were never even pushed particularly hard. They were simply dominant.
Regular Season Record: 114-48
Manager: Joe Torre
Top Hitter by WAR: Derek Jeter (7.5)
Top Pitcher by WAR: David Wells (4.8)
After returning to the mountaintop in 1996, the 1997 season came to a brutal end for the Yankees. They lost the ALDS to Cleveland in five games, losing a late lead with a chance to clinch in Game 4, and then leaving 10 runners on base in a one-run loss in Game 5.
In response to the ‘97 exit, the Yankees and new general manager Brian Cashman made several moves to try and bolster the team. On the pitching front, they signed a pitcher from Cuba named Orlando Hernández after he defected. Looking to upgrade at second base, they acquired Chuck Knoblauch from the Twins, trading a group of prospects including a former first round pick, high-rated pitcher Eric Milton. Meanwhile, in a slightly under the radar move, they picked up third baseman Scott Brosius from the A’s, after he was the player to be named later in a deal that sent Kenny Rogers to Oakland. It would also be the year that catcher Jorge Posada truly took over the role as starter behind the plate.
The 1998 season actually started inauspiciously. With the Yankees on the west coast, they lost their first three games, and fell to 1-4 after taking an 8-0 loss to the Mariners. The next day, they rebounded and began a eight-game win streak. Over the rest of April, they went on a run that included a separate five-game win streak. An extra-innings win on April 30th took the Yankees into the lead in the AL East for the first time all season. They would never relinquish that position again all year.
A 20-7 May saw the Yankees average more than seven runs per game, and get into a famous brawl against the Orioles. Big lefty David Wells etched his place in Yankees history on May 17th, when he fired a perfect game against the Twins, marking the team’s first perfecto since Don Larsen in 1956:
As summer got into full swing, the wins kept piling up. From June 30th to July 12th, the Yankees went on a season-high 10-game win streak. It would be one of eight separate times during the year that the team won at least five in a row. By the All-Star break, the Yankees’ lead in the AL East was 11 games. That would be only half of what the final margin was. The “worst” winning percentage the Yankees put up in a month that year was .593 in a 16-11 September — and even that is a 96-win pace over a full season. A September 9th win over the Red Sox saw the Yankees clinch the AL East with still 19 games to go. It was the earliest any Yankee team had clinched since 1941, and that was prior to the advent of divisional play and wild cards.
While there were certainly plenty of standout performance on the team — Jeter, batting champion Bernie Williams on the offense and Wells, David Cone, Hernández on the mound — the Yankees’ main strength was depth. Among players who took at least 300 plate appearances, only one had an OPS+ under 100. All five of the most used starters and all but two of the relievers with at least 30 innings pitched had an ERA+ under 100.
There just weren’t any weak spots. Brosius, who as mentioned was just a PTBNL in a trade, had a career-best season and put up a five WAR season. Shane Spencer came up in September and had his famously crazy run down the stretch, recording an absurd 1.581 OPS in the final month — a stretch that included three grand slams.
Everything they touched seemed to turn to gold. It was that kind of year.
The Yankees mostly cruised through the ALDS, never trailing and allowing just one run in a sweep of the Rangers, though they learned that they would be facing personal adversity toward the end of the series victory, as DH Darryl Strawberry was diagnosed with colon cancer. (His season was over, but he underwent treatment and luckily survived.)
The ALCS briefly became iffy after they lost Games 2 and 3 in embarrassing fashion to fall behind Cleveland 2-1 in the series. However, they evened the series thanks to seven shutout innings from “El Duque” in Game 4. The offense carried them over the line in Games 5 and 6, clinching a second World Series appearance in two years.
In the World Series, the Yankees were set to face off against the upstart Padres, who had defeated the perennial powerhouse Braves in the NLCS. San Diego had improved by 22 wins in 1998, going from fourth in the NL West in ‘97 to 98 wins and a division title. In addition to manager Bruce Bochy and Padres legends and future Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman, the ‘98 team featured great seasons from Kevin Brown, Greg Vaughn, and others.
In Game 1, the Padres showed they were game. After the Yankees had taken an early lead, San Diego struck back, and then opened a three-run lead in the fifth, thanks to back-to-back home runs from Gwynn and Vaughn.
The Yankees were still trailing when the game went to the bottom of the seventh. After a single and a walk early in the inning, Brown was finally knocked out of the game after he had mostly held the Yankees in check. Knoblauch came up next and tied the game with a three-run home run, but the inning was far from over.
A single and a couple of walks then loaded the bases for Tino Martinez. The Yankees might’ve won the World Series two seasons prior, but Martinez notably didn’t have the best series against Atlanta, hitting .091. After a, uh, generous ball call with the count 2-2, Martinez worked the count full and ensured that he wouldn’t be repeating ‘96.
The Yankees hung on for that win and dominated the following day to go up, 2-0. The series then shifted out to San Diego, where Brosius would take center stage.
In Game 3, the Yankees again trailed going into the late innings. In the seventh, Brosius led off with a home run with the Yankees trailing 3-0. They picked up another run later in the inning to get the deficit down to one.
After Paul O’Neill led off the eighth with a walk, the Padres decided to bring in their closer Hoffman. The future Hall of Famer obviously had a great career in general, but 1998 was arguably the peak of it. He put up a 1.48 ERA, a league-leading 53 saves, and 4.1 WAR in a year where he finished second in Cy Young voting.
Hoffman came in and quickly got an out, before issuing another walk. That brought Brosius to the plate, where the third baseman would etch his name into Yankees lore.
His second home run of the day gave the Yankees a lead they would never lose. The next day, Andy Pettitte threw 7.1 shutout innings before Mariano Rivera and the bullpen finished off a 3-0 win and a series sweep. For his Game 3 heroics and generally good series (1.294 OPS, 2 HR, 6 RBI), Brosius was named the MVP of the Fall Classic.
As the cherry on top, Brosius even got to record the final out:
By basically any measure, the 1998 New York Yankees are one of the greatest baseball teams of all time. While it was by far the best season in this era of the Yankees, it wasn’t close to the end of their run.