In my years as a fan I’m fortunate enough to have seen my Yankees win five World Series, seven pennants and more division titles than I can count. (That’s not true, I can count past 14, but you get the point) So it probably sounds a little weird when I say that my favorite team was one who didn’t do any of those things. 1993 was the first time I got to see the Yankees really compete. I also played with that roster for far more hours than I care to admit in Ken Griffey Jr. Presents: Major League Baseball, the greatest sports video game ever made. Don’t agree? Fight me.
In the 92-93 offseason, the Yankees were sitting on four straight losing campaigns and an 11-year playoff drought. George Steinbrenner was technically still under suspension, and New York City had yet to shed its pre-gentrification reputation - most of the country still viewed it as more like NYPD Blue than Friends. When the Yankees tried to go big in free agency for the likes of Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux and even David Cone, they whiffed. So instead, general manager Gene Michael started moneyballin’ before it was in style. He traded the kinda OK Roberto Kelly for a Reds outfielder named Paul O’Neill, who was then more famous for kicking a ball than for hitting one. He made another Key addition (pun intended, direct your rotten vegetables over there, please) with Jimmy Key who’d just gotten the win in the decisive game six of the 1992 World Series (fun fact: five future Yankees pitched in that game, can you name them?) And he signed all-star and future equestrian Wade Boggs. Stick wasn’t even for that one, he agreed with the Red Sox that Boggs was on his last drumsticks, but George wanted him, probably because, like young me, he just thought it’d be cool.
And it was. So much fun stuff went on during the ‘93 season. Jim Abbott, who had a very solid MLB career with one hand threw the Yankees’ first true no-hitter in ten years. O’Neill had a breakout year, as he learned to hit to all fields and posted an .871 OPS. Key made a very strong Cy Young case posting a 3.00 ERA and 6.3 rWAR…at least he should have finished ahead of Jack friggin’ McDowell. Boggs put up his first of five straight .370-or-better OBP Yankee seasons.
Some skinny kid named Bernie Williams got contact lenses and took over center field from the departed Kelly. Catcher Mike Stanley put up a phenomenal 26-homer, 143 ops+ season, and his backups, Jim Leyritz and Matt Nokes hit double digit homers, too. Dion James hit .332. Pat Kelly, Randy Velarde, Danny Tartabull, Mike Gallego. There was nobody you’d really call a star, just a lot of guys producing.
Then there was Mattingly. Don Mattingly is the reason I’m a Yankee fan - when I first discovered baseball and saw him play, everything he did just looked like exactly what a baseball player is supposed to do. It was hard to watch him struggle in the early 90’s with both his performance and his health. But in ‘93, at least some semblance of the old Donnie Baseball was back. He won his eighth gold glove and had his best season in every meaningful category since 1989.
And the Yankees contended, like really contended, something that just a year earlier I wasn’t sure I’d ever see. It wasn’t a perfect team by any means - they didn’t have much pitching behind Key, and their bullpen relied on guys like Steve Howe and Steve Farr and maybe a few other Steve’s I’m forgetting. At the all star break they were only seven games over .500. But they started to play very well right after that and reached 60-45 at the end of July. They hit their high water mark of 18 games over a few times in August, and as late as September 9th, they were tied for first in the AL East. Unfortunately they scuffled down the stretch to 88-74, while the Blue Jays reminded us why they were reigning champs. Toronto went on a 16-2 run and eventually won the division by a comfortable seven games. ‘93 was the last year before the wildcard came into existence, which the Yankees would have won, had it existed.
When people talk about the Yankees’ dynasty era, they generally start with 1996 and the CORE FOUR (this phrase should only be read in a booming voice, preferably with dramatic music playing in the background). Like those guys magically appeared to a desperate franchise like super heroes out of the sky. But I’ll always think of the start of that era as ‘93. After their disappointing finish, the Yankees, with mostly the same roster, had the best record in the AL when the strike hit in ‘94, and in ‘95, again mostly the same guys with some help, finally broke their playoff-less streak. Jeter, Mo and company didn’t walk into a mess. They walked onto a team that was ready to go and into a culture that had been built up for them. There is no ‘96, no ‘98, ‘99 or 2000, without ‘93.