Torre turns fears to cheers in magical Yankees season After 1-4 start, team won 22 of next 24, looking back only for place in history

October 23, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- It seems so long ago now, but there was a point in the 1998 season when speculation was mounting that New York Yankees manager Joe Torre was not long for this baseball world.

The club had lost four of its first five games. The rival Orioles were flying high, for the moment. The Boss -- Yankees owner George Steinbrenner -- was on thunder road. How long could Torre last?

He smiles now when he remembers that week, but nobody was smiling then. The Yankees finally busted out with a 13-run performance against the Seattle Mariners and never looked back, winning 22 of their next 24 games to serve notice to the rest of the American League that something special was going on.

"We had a meeting, and I said to them, 'We're 1-4 we've got to do something about it,' " Torre said, "and they did."

The Yankees won like no American League team had won before. They overtook the Orioles and Boston Red Sox and dominated the American League East, winning the division by 22 games and setting an American League record with 114 victories. And still that wasn't enough to satisfy the critics and the historians.

The only way this could truly be one of the greatest teams in baseball history would be if it went all the way to its second world title in three years.

"I didn't buy into that until we got into [the postseason]," Torre said. "We won 114 games and that, in its own right, is a wonderful accomplishment. But the more you win, the more you start thinking about it. The thing that would have bothered me the most would have been not winning the World Series and having people look down their noses at us."

He couldn't be certain until they popped open the champagne at Qualcomm Stadium on Wednesday night, but there really was no danger of that. The Yankees swept the Texas Rangers in the Division Series. They survived a modest challenge to dispatch the Cleveland Indians in the American League Championship Series. And they trounced the overmatched San Diego Padres in the 94th Fall Classic.

They overcame the bad start. They overcame an early-season injury to designated hitter Chili Davis. They overcame the postseason loss of left fielder Darryl Strawberry, who became the club's inspirational leader in exile after he was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery during the Division Series.

"I've never been around a more courageous and determined group," Torre said. "To continue playing hard and never taking a day off from that. That was an indication to me that we were something special."

The Padres found out first-hand that the Yankees were something special. In fact, it became so obvious so fast that the National League challenger didn't even have time to feel the sting of an opportunity lost.

The Padres were underdogs coming in and they were smiling on the way out. There was just no sense in not enjoying the TC moment, especially when the sellout crowd of 65,427 -- the largest to see a baseball game in San Diego -- stayed long after the game to applaud them for their impressive season.

It was the Year of the Padre in San Diego. The team, in its quest to endear itself to the populace in anticipation of a November stadium referendum, did everything but give out frequent friar points.

The Yankees have designs on a new stadium, too, but that became a back-seat issue as it became apparent that the team also had designs on history.

Want to talk architecture? How about the construction of this world championship team? The Yankees won 125 regular and postseason games without a star system. There are several members of the starting lineup who deserve to be on the 10-slot ballot for American League Most Valuable Player, but not one with a chance to win the award.

Shortstop Derek Jeter led the league with 127 runs. Bernie Williams won the American League batting title with a .339 average, but his run-production numbers were limited by a month on the disabled list. Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill both ranked among the league leaders in RBIs, but neither came close to challenging for the RBI title.

"To come in here and do what we've done is just tremendous," said Jeter. "I don't see any team being better than us."

The Padres could only tip their caps in affirmation. They took a three-run lead into the late innings of Game 1, only to see the Yankees wake up with a seven-run seventh inning and then run them out of Yankee Stadium in Game 2.

The same kind of thing happened in Game 3 in San Diego. They took a 3-0 lead on 20-game winner David Cone, but the Yankees arose again and won on the strength of a two-inning, two-homer performance by third baseman Scott Brosius -- who would drive in another run in Wednesday night's series-clinching victory and be named World Series MVP.

Future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn delivered the concession speech, which was short and to the point.

"The Yankees," Gwynn said, "are a great team."

The comparisons with the 1927 Murderers' Row Yankees are precarious, because that team featured two of the most dynamic players in the history of the game -- Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig -- but the 1998 club was so deep and so balanced that it cannot be denied a prominent place in baseball history.

The '27 Yankees had a higher winning percentage. The '98 Yankees won more games overall and had to win three tough playoff series to take possession of the world championship trophy. You can make a case either way.

"I think that will be discussed for years," Brosius said. "I think we probably had the best single season of anybody all time, and that is quite an accomplishment."

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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