If not best ever, Yanks are close by

October 22, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO -- Best team ever? The debate can begin now that the New York Yankees have swept the World Series. And a worthy debate it will be.

"I'm a little too young to know about those teams in the early 1900s," said Derek Jeter, who is 24. "But we were 125-50, and not too many teams can say that. I think you can make the argument that we're the greatest."

And you start with their 114-48 regular-season record and 11-2 postseason record, their .714 winning percentage that was the highest since the 1927 Yankees (.722), and fourth highest all-time.

That's compelling evidence for a claim to history, but were these Yankees really better than the '70 Orioles, the '72 A's, the '75 Reds? Were they even better than the '27, '39 or '61 Yankees?

The answers to such questions ultimately are subjective, which is part of the beauty of baseball. But say this for the Yankees -- there's not much more they could have done. And if they're not the best, they're certainly up there.

They produced their final 3-0 triumph behind their least effective starting pitcher, Andy Pettitte. They beat the supposedly invincible Kevin Brown twice in the World Series. They finished the postseason with seven straight wins.

"Of my 21 years at this level, there's no question that in a one-year span, this was the best team I ever saw, not only because of their number of victories, but because of their professionalism, the way they unselfishly tried to achieve their goals," said Paul Molitor, who attended the Series as a spectator.

The Yankees' critics will harp on the diluted talent in this age of expansion, but that's a two-sided argument. There are more teams now, but also a larger talent pool, with players coming from all over the world. If what the Yankees did was so easy, let's see another team match them. It won't happen anytime soon.

Granted, this was the first time in major-league history that three teams finished with more than 100 victories, and the Padres won 98. But the Yankees are the first team since the '39 Yankees to outscore their opponents by more than 300 runs. And the only way to measure a team is against the competition of its day.

"You play in different eras, different times, against different competition," said Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, a member of the '70 Orioles that finished with 108 victories and won the World Series in five games. "To say they're the greatest ever, I think it does injustice to the others. Where they rank, I don't know. But they should rank up there, at least in the top 10."

The '36-'39 Yankees had a better four-year run, averaging 102 victories over 154 games and going 16-3 in the World Series. The '72-'74 A's had a better three-year run, winning three straight World Series and a record six straight postseason series. But this isn't about dynasties. This is about one season, one team.

"As far as the greatest team in history, I have no idea," the Padres' Tony Gwynn said. "The two teams I've played against in the Series were the best teams in baseball -- the Yankees and the ['84] Tigers. The only thing I can say is that they're the most balanced club I've seen. They hurt you in so many different ways."

One criticism of the '98 Yankees is that they lack future Hall of Famers -- Jeter is probably their leading candidate, and he's a long shot. They're not like the old Orioles with Brooks, Frank and Jim Palmer. The old Reds with Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench. The old A's with Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers.

They aren't the Babe Ruth Yankees, the Joe DiMaggio Yankees, or the Mickey Mantle Yankees. They're just the world champion Yankees, a team without a defining star, without a true MVP. That doesn't detract from their magnificent accomplishment. If anything, it enhances it.

Only the Yankees could sweep the World Series with their 3-4 hitters, Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams, going a combined 5-for-35.

Only the Yankees could get six World Series hits and four RBIs out of Ricky Ledee, an outfielder who spent most of the season at Triple-A.

Only the Yankees could romp through the postseason without once using Hideki Irabu, a 13-game winner.

It's not as if they lacked outstanding players. Williams hit .339 to win the AL batting title. David Wells pitched a perfect game. Mariano Rivera worked 13 1/3 scoreless innings in the postseason.

But in an age when individual achievements often take precedence -- McGwire vs. Sosa was the sports story of the year -- the Yankees represented an old-fashioned ideal. One for all and all for one.

Team.

If their unity elevated them, their relentless pursuit of victory defined them. Great as Earl Weaver's Orioles teams were, they rarely turned it on before June. The Yankees went on a tear after starting the season 1-4, and never stopped.

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