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Keidel: 1998 Yankees Were Perfect

Jason Keidel
August 13, 2018 - 10:39 am

Note: This is the second article in WFAN.com’s weeklong series remembering the 1998 Yankees on the 20th anniversary of their world-championship season.

Playing stickball a few flyballs south of Harlem in 1978, I wanted to be Reggie Jackson -- with that violent swing that seemed to corkscrew him into the dirt after every pitch, his Afro bulging from under his batting helmet. The Big Apple streets were freckled with orange candy bar wrappers, the bulging letters "REGGIE" splashed across the plastic, along with a snapshot of his epic swing. Jackson was as much a part of late-'70s Gotham as graffiti, discos and bellbottoms. 

A 7-year-old kid -- my age when Reggie launched those three homers on three pitches from three separate pitchers in the 1977 World Series -- didn't care that he was a mercenary, not professionally born in the Bronx. Kids didn't care about free agents versus homegrown legends. We just loved the best three at-bats in World Series history, followed by the greatest curtain call in history. Indeed, as kids become adults, we learn that great players, like great teams, aren't all created the same or in the same place. Legendary teams are a melting pot of vets and rookies, of starters and relievers, of homegrown studs and imported stars. 

As we age, we may become less jaded or spellbound by stars we later discover are just men, but there are occasional players, teams and seasons that shove us back through that portal to prepubescence.

Such a team for this fan was the 1998 Yankees. Though deep into my 20s by then, the '98 Yanks had an innate magic that comes along once a generation, perhaps once a century. They didn't have the blue-collar charm of the '96 team that snapped the 18-year drought between World Series titles. They had already sprayed some diamond aerosol on their odd world of woe, the stench of Stump Merrill's club long gone. 

The '98 squad didn't have the soap-operatic lure of the late-'70s clubs, which stopped fighting each other just long enough to win consecutive titles. They actually played with and for each other. They didn't have the irascible Billy Martin storming up and down the dugout, karate-chopping dirt at umpires. They had the laconic Joe Torre, who brooded under the bill of his cap, never seeming to move, or blink, for nine innings. 

They didn't have the disparate parts the '96 team had with Wade Boggs at third and Mariano Duncan, of all people, batting .340. But while the '96 team bridged the '70s to the '90s, the 1998 team was more complete and mature, with the Core Four becoming men by the time they swept the Padres for the World Series title.  

Yet the '98 squad seemed, in a nondenominational way, blessed. It sounds absurd now, but that club stumbled out of the gate, going 1-4 to start the season, the first strokes of a George Steinbrenner missive in the works, Torre's seat about to get prematurely hot. 

Then something clicked. And clicked. Like some accelerated evolution, the team went from crawl to walk to sprint in science-fiction speed. It was as if they had snapped some membrane that was keeping baseball clubs in one bubble, while the Yankees found the algorithm to another baseball universe, orbiting one world while the rest lived in it. They went 14-1 after their dubious start, and no one questioned the Bombers' bona fides again. 

No sport is more tethered to stats than our pastime. And the Yankees' record speaks for itself. But it was more than the 114 regular-season wins. More than the World Series rings. The team was perfect. And in an era of rampant juicing -- when every other batter seemed to be some slugging behemoth whose swing was built by equal parts batting cage and syringe -- not one member of the '98 Yankees hit as many as 30 homers. But that doesn't mean the Bombers lacked bats. Four players in their lineup swatted at least 20 homers, while two (Scott Brosius and Derek Jeter) hit 19. 

While Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa stole the sports page with their historic two-man tango to the home run crown, the Yankees owned the sport. They played a brand of ball that fit any era. They scored while keeping the ball in the park. They moved runners over. They made opponents pay for errors. And no team seized on the enemy's mistakes the way those Yanks did.  

And though chicks may dig the long ball, the Bombers had pitching. Lots of it. With David Cone, Andy Pettitte, David Wells and some Cuban import with the Wild West moniker, El Duque. If a starter accidentally stumbled, they had the best bullpen on the planet, a conga line of relievers -- Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, Ramiro Mendoza and Graeme Lloyd -- ready to close the door just far enough to let the greatest reliever in history, Mariano Rivera, shut it with one pitch -- his cutter -- that bewildered batters for 15 years. 

After 114 wins, the World Series almost felt like a formality. Yankees haters will point to that extra strike Tino Martinez got in Game 1 before he clubbed that grand slam, as if the Padres weren't going to be steamrolled by that pinstriped freight train anyway. 

I went to the parade to see my heroes for the last time. To see Torre and Bernie and Derek and Paul and Tino and Mo cruising up Canyon of Heroes through sheets of confetti. That Yankees dynasty won two more titles in '99 and 2000, but by then I was plagued by the writing bug and began to cover sports, forever losing that childlike, godlike projection upon immortals who soon became all too mortal. If you had to see one baseball team through a child's eyes, it was so fitting and comforting that it would be the 1998 Yankees. 

After all the wins and the World Series and the parade and declarations, it was this Yankees team -- not the 1927 team of Ruth and Gehrig, not the team that won five titles from 1949-53, not the 1961 squad, not even the Bronx Zoo teams -- that was the best ever to bear pinstripes. And after all that winning and cheering, the man I remember most vividly was ... John Madden. 

Why recall a football coach during a singular moment in baseball history? The old coach, who became better known as a broadcaster and avatar of the video game bearing his name, was calling an NFL contest on some anonymous Sunday in early November. The subject of winning and winners came up. Speaking of which, Madden said, the whole point of any team sport is to win, and no one had done it better in his lifetime than the 1998 Yankees, whom he gave cross-cultural kudos during a game that surely did not have baseball in its script. 

The 1998 Yankees were the best team not because they did everything perfectly, but because they did nothing poorly. You often hear coaches or managers say a team often loses a game more than it wins one. If that's the metric, then find a team, in any sport, better than the 1998 Yankees. 

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel