The Yankees will take on the San Diego Padres tonight, a rare occurrence indeed. Since I prefer to ignore inter-league play altogether, let's pretend this is the first time the two teams have met since the 1998 World Series.
During all my years living in China, my two favorite purchases had nothing to do with the country itself. Well, that's not entirely true - neither purchase would have been possible without China's rather lax attitude toward intellectual property rights. Favorite Buy #2 - a Criterion Collection edition of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai - pales in comparison to Favorite Buy #1: a box set of every World Series video from 1943 to 2008.
I was especially happy to get my hands on the 1998 World Series video - my VHS copy was cruelly stolen from me years ago when my mom mistakenly returned it to Blockbuster Video. The video - modestly entitled "Team of the Century" - is chock-full of the kind of half-baked inspirational cheese that would make me vomit if they were talking about any team except the Yankees. When it comes to the Bronx Bombers, however, I can't get enough of lines like this:
"If they ask for our star, give them 25 names. And if they forget our names, just tell them 'we were Yankees.'"
OH MY GOD, IT'S SO GOOD! JUST HOOK IT TO MY VEINS!
The late-nineties Yankees dynasty had many good teams (which is why we they really were a dynasty), but the '98 squad was their pièce de résistance. Teams like this practically ruined the Yankee fan experience for an entire generation of kids who now expect every scrub called up from Triple-A to be Shane Spencer and every Cuban pitcher to win their first ten postseason starts, like El Duque (I'm looking at you, Jose Contreras!).
But what about the National League champion from that season, the San Diego Padres? They've gone down in history as mere patsies of the 125-win Yankee juggernaut, which doesn't afford them the respect they deserve. They won 98 games during the regular season - at least four games better than each of the last three World Series champions. They are still the only team in history to face three 100-win teams in the postseason, having defeated the 102-win Astros and the 106-win Braves before taking on the Yankees.
Leading up to the Series, the Padres' plan was to ride starter Kevin Brown for Games One and Four, with hopes of a Game Seven. That was no idle threat - a few weeks earlier, Brown had struck out 16 Astros in Game One of the NLDS and thrown an 11-K, complete game shutout of the Braves in Game Two of the NLCS. Brown's late-nineties dominance often gets overlooked, but he was far better than any Yankees starter in '98. His 164 ERA+ dwarfed the likes of David Wells (127 ERA+) and David Cone (125 ERA+).
Statistically-speaking the '98 Yankees were built on quality rotation depth, as opposed to having a true ace. These are the sorts of teams who are often expected to struggle in a postseason series, particularly against a team with a dominant starter who can go 1-4-7. Fortunately for those Yankee teams, all four of their starters (Wells, Cone, Andy Pettitte, and Orlando Hernandez) would go on to become legendary postseason performers in their own right.
Despite battling the flu, Brown would out-pitch Wells in Game One. Brown left with the lead, but the Padres' bullpen gave up the game-tying home run the Chuck Knoblauch, and then...
Glorious. Brown would throw eight-innings of three-run ball in Game Four, which wasn't nearly enough to overcome Pettitte's seven-inning, no-run masterpiece.
Though they were swept, the Padres didn't go quietly against the Yankees. They held a lead in the seventh inning of Game One and the eighth inning of Game Three. I would argue that this was the year the legend of "Mariano Rivera: Greatest Closer Ever" was born. Going into that Series, many baseball pundits argued that Trevor Hoffman was the superior closer. In fact, he'd had a better regular season than Rivera (265 ERA+ for Hoffman, a measly 233 ERA+ for Mo). When Hoffman came in during the eighth inning of Game Three, with AC/DC's "Hells Bells" blasting from the loudspeakers and Qualcomm Stadium shaking like the massive football field it, in fact, was, I couldn't help but think of Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn's entrance at the end of Major League...if the Wild Thing had come in and immediately given up a back-breaking home run to the villainous Clete Haywood. With one on and nobody out, and the Padres nursing a 3-2 lead, Hoffman gave up a deep fly ball to Bernie Williams, a walk to Tino Martinez, and a three-run home run to Scott Brosius. The best closer in the National League pitched one inning with a lead in that Series, and couldn't hold it. Hoffman and Rivera would go on to be the two greatest closers of their era, but anyone watching that night probably could have guessed that Mo would inevitably come out on top.
If YES should happen to show some highlights of the '98 Series this weekend (and I sure hope they do), please remember that the Yankees didn't simply roll over a bunch of chumps. The '98 Padres were a fitting final challenge for the greatest team I've ever seen, and I'm certainly glad they're not around to play this year's Yankees.