On Tuesday night, May 19, 1998, the Yankees hosted the Orioles at Yankee Stadium for the first game of a three-game mid-week series. Baltimore was coming off a great 1997 season in which they won 98 games, on their way to the AL East title and an appearance in the ALCS. Yet in 1998, they had two problems over the season’s first seven weeks. First, they were off to a sluggish 20-24 start, which to be fair, in most seasons wouldn’t be cause to hit the panic button. Secondly, this wasn’t most seasons - the Yankees were performing like Secretariat with a 90-pound jockey on his back, having won 27 of their previous 32 games.
As a result, at the start of play that evening, the O’s found themselves 12 games behind the Yankees, and could be forgiven for being a bit cranky. To make matters even more tenuous for Baltimore is that they’d be sending lefty Doug Johns – he of the 6.17 ERA and 7.17 FIP at the time - to the mound, while the Yankees would be countering with David Cone.
Date of Game: May 19, 1998
Final Score: Yankees 9, Orioles 5
Game MVP: Bernie Williams
Despite the grim outlook, the Orioles struck first when Harold Baines drove in Rafael Palmeiro with an RBI single in the top of the second inning. Although the Yankees got it right back with a Joe Girardi RBI grounder in the bottom of the frame, it was clear the Birds brought their bats with them to the Bronx that night, as RBI hits from Roberto Alomar and Baines along with a sacrifice fly from Jeffrey Hammonds gave the O’s a 5-1 lead after their half of the fourth inning.
Surprisingly, Johns and reliever Sidney Ponson kept the Yankees in check through six innings, and still led 5-1 going into the bottom of the seventh. Yet if that Yankee team was anything, it was relentless, and the lead wouldn’t stay at four for long. Chuck Knoblauch had himself a good seventh-inning stretch and led off the bottom of the frame with a double. A few minutes later he’d be driven in by a Paul O’Neill RBI double, then Tim Raines would send O’Neill home with an RBI hit of his own. With seven frames complete, the Baltimore lead had been cut to 5-3.
After a quick top of the eighth, after inducing a flyout from Knoblauch to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning, Ponson issued back-to-back walks and was replaced by Alan Mills who got Derek Jeter to fly out for the second out. Now with two outs and the tying runs on base, Baltimore manager Ray Miller went to the pen again, summoning lefty Norm Charlton to face Paul O’Neill. Although we may have only had a vague sense of it at the time, all hell was about to break loose.
O’Neill came through with an RBI single to cut the lead to one, bringing Bernie Williams to the plate with the tying and go-ahead runs on base. With the switch-hitting Williams due up, and with Bernie’s history of being stronger from the right side, Miller once again went to the mound and brought in flame-throwing righty Armando Benítez to turn Williams around to his weaker side. (Of interesting note, although Bernie was in fact better right-handed, he posted a remarkable .333/.412/.571 triple-slash line from his “weaker” side in 1998.)
You likely remember what happened next. Benítez spun a cement mixer of a slider to Bernie on a 2-1 pitch and Bernie absolutely vaporized it, giving the Yankees a 7-5 lead:
In my estimation, that ball was hit so hard, it would still be rolling somewhere if it hadn’t hit a seat in the upper deck. As you likely also remember, Benítez – rather than cursing at himself, or waiting to get back into the dugout to kick a water cooler – decided to go the petulant teenager route, and nailed Tino Martinez between the shoulder blades with his next pitch.
Years later, during a broadcast when the clip was shown, David Cone would sum up the feelings of many of us when he said he’ll always remember the first two things that went through his mind after Tino was hit: How disturbing the noise was when the ball hit Tino in the back, followed by “Thank God Darryl [Strawberry] is on my team” as the Yankees made their way out of the dugout toward the mound.
Matters were in the pushing and shoving, posturing phase until the members of the Yankees’ bullpen got to the mound in order to deal with Benítez a little more sternly. Led by Jeff Nelson and Graeme Lloyd (who both clearly had spent years practicing throwing a baseball, but not one second practicing how to throw a punch) things became intense quickly with hands and bodies flying en masse toward the Baltimore dugout. After a few seconds of noteworthy action, including the angriest I’ve ever seen Joe Girardi, it appeared things may have settled down as Jeff Nelson made his way toward Benítez, when someone grabbed Nelson from behind. Benítez, in response, made the poor choice of throwing a punch at Nelson.
After about a 15-minute delay to restore order, action resumed with former Yankee Bobby Muñoz on the mound for Baltimore to replace Benítez, who had been ejected. Tim Raines stepped in calmly for the Yanks, with Tino on first base. To the surprise of no one who remembered Muñoz as a Yankee, he grooved a first-pitch fastball right down Broadway to Raines, which didn’t end well for the ball or Muñoz:
When Raines’ line drive into the right-field bleachers landed, the Yankees had a 9-5 lead and one of the more gratifying, schadenfreude generating, home runs in their history. “Don’t let the door hit you on your way to fourth place, Orioles” went through the head of every Yankees’ fan. (Well, at least mine.)
The rest of the night was fait accompli, as Mike Stanton slammed the door on the O’s with a perfect ninth, securing the 9-5 victory to push the Yankees to 29-9. There would remarkably be another 96 wins remaining in the ‘98 campaign, but few stood out like this one.
From the mid-nineties to the early aughts, the Yankees had seemingly innumerable amazing games and amazing moments, but that gratifying sequence in the eighth inning that night in the Bronx is always going to be remembered by every fan who watched it.