At the conclusion of the 1998 season, most discussion surrounding the Yankees was whether or not the 1998 team was the best of all time. After a 114-win regular season followed by an 11-2 postseason that culminated in a World Series sweep, the team was certainly on the shortlist of best teams of all time if not completely alone at the top.
Then, in February of 1999, the team acquired Roger Clemens from Toronto in exchange for David Wells, Graeme Lloyd, and Homer Bush. At that point, Clemens had not only produced 100 WAR and five Cy Young Awards in his career, but he was coming off the best two-season stretch of his career. One of the best teams of all time getting one of the best pitchers of all time at the top of his game was an embarrassment of riches (not that anyone around the Yankees was embarrassed in the literal sense). This confluence of circumstances set incredibly high expectations for the team heading into 1999, and although it wouldn’t come without obstacles, they would close out the season in a manner as dominant as the 1998 team closed out theirs.
Regular-season record: 98-64
Manager(s): Joe Torre (Don Zimmer acting manager through May 18th)
Top hitter by WAR: Derek Jeter (8.0)
Top pitcher by WAR: David Cone (5.1)
World Series result: Yankees sweep Atlanta Braves, 4-0
Despite the sky-high expectations, it didn’t take long for the collective spirits of the team to be dampened. In spring training, with Darryl Strawberry still recovering from his cancer diagnosis from the previous season, we learned Yankees’ manager Joe Torre was diagnosed with prostate cancer and would be away from the dugout for approximately two months. Shortly after that, Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio passed away, and Strawberry had a few departures from what would be considered normative behavior off the field, earning himself a lengthy suspension. Scott Brosius, Luis Sojo and Paul O’Neill all lost their fathers throughout the season as well, exacting a personal toll on each player.
Under interim manager Don Zimmer, the Yankees started the season 21-15, which may be good for most teams, but it certainly was not the start the organization expected. More importantly, with the benefit of hindsight, we know it wasn’t a pace that would have won the AL East outright, which may have changed the postseason landscape for the worse. Whether it was due to Torre’s return after a successful recovery or a very talented team simply playing to expectations (or a combination thereof) the Yankees certainly straightened themselves out, playing to a .611 winning percentage the rest of the way, and winning the AL East by four games over Boston.
Not unlike the ’98 team, the ’99 team separated itself from the competition with a lineup filled with OBP machines (Tino Martinez and Jorge Posada both posted .341 OBPs on the season, which tied them for seventh best among regulars) and an incredibly deep pitching staff. The rotation boasted five starting pitchers (Clemens, David Cone, Orlando Hernandez, Andy Pettitte, and Hideki Irabu) who each made 27 or more starts and posted a better than league average ERA and FIP. Out of the pen, the Yankees received 247.2 innings from Ramiro Mendoza, Jason Grimsley, Mike Stanton, and Jeff Nelson and they combined for 4.06 ERA in a league in which a 4.86 ERA was average. They were backed by a closer who wasn’t too shabby either.
Although it was certainly a deep roster, it wasn’t without standout individual performances. Derek Jeter had what was likely the best season of his career, posting 8.0 WAR and a 153 OPS+, finishing third in AL MVP voting and honestly posting better numbers than the winner, Rangers catcher Iván Rodríguez. Meanwhile, Mariano Rivera recorded 45 saves and 1.83 ERA — all while holding his opposition to a 24 OPS+ in 69 innings. (Yes, I double-checked that because I didn’t think that could possibly be right either.)
Yet for one game, no one shined more than David Cone did on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in July. In a contest that included a rain delay, Cone threw nine innings, striking out ten while issuing no walks and allowing no hits. A total of 41,930 fans in attendance witnessed the third perfect game in Yankees’ history, and the second in as many seasons.
When October rolled around, the Yankees started their postseason by facing the Texas Rangers — they of a formidable lineup but not so formidable pitching — in the ALDS. Yet even the strong Rangers lineup that averaged 5.83 runs per game during the regular season was completely overmatched. Over three games, Texas managed only one run, as Pettitte, Clemens, and Hernandez threw a combined 22.1 innings of dominance. Predictably, that led to a sweep of the series, with the Yankees outscoring Texas 14-1 over the three games.
The Yankees would be facing their old rivals, the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS for the first time, and the BoSox presented the opposite challenge. The Red Sox were below league average in runs scored, but they led the AL in fewest runs allowed and virtually every major pitching category. The Yankees ran into some luck, however, as Boston needed to use their ace and future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez for six innings of relief in the final game of the ALDS in Cleveland, and he wouldn’t be available until Game 3 of the ALCS.
It was clear during the first two games that Boston was going to be more game than Texas had been. In Game 1, the Yanks needed a seventh-inning game-tying hit from Jeter, then some heroics from Bernie in the 10th, who walked it off with a home run off Boston’s Rod Beck for a 4-3 win. They followed that up with a come-from-behind 3-2 win in Game 2 to send the Series to Fenway with the Yankees leading, 2-0.
In Game 3, Clemens had his only bad start of the postseason, but it likely wouldn’t have mattered anyway as Pedro made his series debut by striking out 12 Yankees over seven innings, with no Yankee making it as far second base.
After the Game 3 loss, the Yankees dispensed with subtle tactics. In Game 4 they took a 3-2 lead into the ninth when they scratched two runs together before Ricky Ledee iced it by adding a grand slam. In Game 5, a two-run first inning home run from Jeter would be all they’d need, but they’d tack on four more anyway on their way to a 6-1 ALCS-clinching win. Over the final two games of the series, the Yankees outscored Boston 15-3 on 22 hits and four home runs.
I don’t speak for all Yankees’ fans obviously, but I do think my sentiment at the time was similar to that of most fans: This was a team that was in mid-dynasty, it was firing on all cylinders and nothing was going to stop it at this point – not even Atlanta and their three future Hall of Fame starting pitchers. Any resistance from the Braves would simply be delaying the inevitable.
Even facing Greg Maddux when trailing 1-0 in the eighth inning of Game 1 didn’t seem like a daunting task; it turned out not to be. After batting around in the eighth, scoring four runs, the Yanks walked away with a 4-1 win and a 1-0 series lead. There wouldn’t be any optimism for Atlanta at all in Game 2 as the Yankees beat up Braves’ pitching to the tune of 14 hits as Cone dominated on their way to a 7-2 win and a 2-0 series lead.
Back in the Bronx for Game 3, the Braves had themselves a 5-1 lead in the fifth inning with Tom Glavine on the mound. They may have seen a glimmer of hope, but the Yankees and their fans were as relaxed as could be. Home runs from Chad Curtis, Tino Martinez, and Chuck Knoblauch brought the Yankees all the way back, and in the bottom of the tenth, Curtis came to the plate again and launched another bomb — a walk-off blast against Mike Remlinger.
The Braves did what they could to make the inevitable suspenseful in Game 4. After Clemens left with two outs in the eighth inning having allowed no runs, reliever Jeff Nelson allowed an inherited runner to score. With the Yankees leading 3-1 and with runners on first and third, Torre summoned Rivera, who had a nasty habit of removing suspense from baseball games. Four outs from Mo later and the Yankees had their 25th championship. Rivera, with two saves and a win in the Series, earned himself the Series MVP award.
Over the series, the Yankees outscored the 103-win Braves 21-9, concluding an absolutely dominating postseason run. Their 11-1 postseason record even topped the ’98 teams’ performance, and the 48-31 run differential is remarkable considering the sole loss was by 12 runs.
I’ve always felt the 1999 Yankees are overlooked historically. It’s likely due to the middling start, the serious off-field issues, and having immediately followed the ’98 group. Although they’re not in the discussion of best Yankee teams with the 1927, 1939, and 1998 juggernauts, to me they’re in the next group. Notching 98 wins before the dominating manner in which they finished the season puts them on that level.