General view as members of the Yankees celebrate winning the pennant following the American League Championship Series game on Oct. 13, 2018, against the Cleveland Indians at Yankee Stadium.

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Murti: How 1998 Yankees Overcame A 3-Day Moment Of Crisis In ALCS

Sweeny Murti
August 16, 2018 - 9:30 am
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Note: This is the fourth article in WFAN.com’s weeklong series remembering the 1998 Yankees on the 20th anniversary of their world-championship season.

Twenty years later, it’s hard to remember that the Greatest Team Ever had even a moment of crisis or doubt.  But that moment always comes, even for the best of the best. For the 1998 Yankees, it hit them during the American League Championship Series.

The first 118 wins were easy, so to speak. They won 114 games in the regular season, swept Texas three straight in the Division Series and won Game 1 of the ALCS against Cleveland 7-2. The Yankees were all but unstoppable.

But then came Chuck Knoblauch’s blunder and three days that would test the championship mettle of these Yankees.

Game 2 of the ALCS was tied 1-1 in extra innings. Cleveland’s Jim Thome singled to start the 12th and was replaced by pinch-runner Enrique Wilson. Travis Fryman laid down a bunt to move the runner into scoring position. Tino Martinez fielded the bunt and threw to Knoblauch covering the bag, but the ball hit Fryman in the back and rolled away. Knoblauch blew a bubble with his gum and pointed at the runner, waiting for the umpire to rule interference on Fryman. He was still pointing as the live ball rolled away and -- with 57,000 fans screaming for someone to pick up the ball -- Wilson scored the go-ahead run all the way from first. The Indians went on to win the game 4-1 and tied the series one game apiece.

“That was a blow,” manager Joe Torre recalled this week. “That was about as tough a loss as you could have because it was uncharacteristic for us to give something away, and especially at home.”

Their place in history hinged on what happened next.

MORE: A Conversation With Paul O'Neill About '98 Yankees

Torre wanted his team relaxed heading into Game 3. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially with a scheduled day off that would make the Game 2 loss marinate even longer. So as the team boarded the plane for Cleveland, he told them there would be no batting practice or workout the next day. “Go to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” he told them.

Because it was the postseason, the players were allowed to travel with their spouses. Nevalee O’Neill, Paul’s wife, made her way to the front of the plane where Torre was seated. She knew her famously intense husband better than anyone.

“Paul’s got to work out,” she insisted to the manager. Torre laughed. They both knew that looking at an Elvis Presley jumpsuit was the last thing “The Warrior” wanted to do on the off day.

“So then I changed it to voluntary (practice), and pretty much everybody showed up,” Torre said.

MORE: Brosius Proved To Be Anything But An Afterthought On 1998 Yankees

The next night, before Game 3, Torre held his usual pregame meeting. In the regular season, his meetings were infrequent. But Torre gathered his troops before every postseason game “just to try to add perspective to where we were and what we were doing.”

It was usually nothing heavy, but this time Torre sensed he needed something to lessen the weight his players were carrying around.

“I always felt because of our record there was so much pressure on us because we had to live up to ourselves,” Torre recalled. “And unless we won every game, in our minds we would have lost the impact of what winning 114 games gave us. 

“You have tunnel vision as a player, and I just sensed tightness that I was going to try to do something about,” Torre said.

MORE: Keidel: 1998 Yankees Were Perfect

“You guys aren’t having any fun,” he told them. “You've got to have some fun.”

After the meeting broke up, the players went about their final pregame preparations. O’Neill and Torre ran into each other in the hallway. 

O’Neill thought too highly of Torre to say anything during the meeting that might be perceived as disrespectful to his manager. But now in the hallway alone, their eyes met, and O’Neill had a message for his manager.

“Skip, it’s not fun unless we win,” O’Neill told him.

“I couldn’t fight that with him,” Torre remembers 20 years later.

O’Neill remembers the moment well. It was born out of his frustration of losing to Cleveland the year before in a five-game Division Series. The Yankees were the defending champs after winning the World Series in 1996 and had somehow let a two-games-to-one lead over the Indians get away, losing games 4 and 5 on the road.

“It’s devastating when you lose,” O’Neill told me this week. 

“(We) just expected to get back to the World Series like we did in ’96, and you see what a finality it is when you lose,” O’Neill explained. “So it is only fun when you win because you have something to answer for if you don’t. I don’t care how great a year you have, unless you win a World Series, it’s not complete.”

This story of O’Neill’s rebuttal to Torre's pregame speech is one the ex-manager has told often over the years, summing up perfectly his team’s near-obsessive need to win. And O’Neill was the living embodiment. 

“Paulie was always wound pretty tight,” Torre says now.  “But that was the one thing about my club -- even though they were uptight, they always played well. They never lost their ability to compete. Sometimes you see teams that are uptight and they can’t perform that way.  But these guys were good.”

And then they lost Game 3 to the Indians 6-1 on a four-hitter by 25-year-old Bartolo Colon. Down two games to one, crisis mode was now dangerously close to a full-blown panic.

“That’s where the idea of ‘If you don’t win’ starts to enter your mind,” O’Neill said. “And what a waste if you don’t (win).”

The Yankees had now lost two games in a row. They were playing on the same field where they were eliminated from the playoffs a year earlier.

As they prepared for Game 4, Torre described his team as “numb” because, not only were they in a virtual must-win spot, but their starting pitcher, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, hadn’t pitched in 15 days because of the team’s three-game sweep in the previous round.

Torre knew that Hernandez, the Cuban defector who made his major league debut just four months earlier, had pitched in plenty of big games for the Cuban national team. The manager didn’t think there would be any extra nerves for a playoff game, and his suspicions were confirmed the morning of Game 4.

While eating breakfast with his wife, Ali, in the hotel restaurant, Torre saw Hernandez helping out an apparently undermanned wait staff by clearing some dishes and handing out menus to patrons. This was the guy who was starting the most important game of the season in a few hours.

“That sort of eased my tension watching that,” Torre said.

Later, Torre tried to transfer that laid-back energy to his famously intense owner, George Steinbrenner. Torre had been summoned to the owner’s hotel suite, where Steinbrenner was killing time by watching his beloved Ohio State football team on TV. 

“I got a little bit goofy,” Torre explained. “He says, ‘What do you think?’ He was really tense.

“And I said, ‘Well, I think Ohio State will win this game.’ And he cursed me a little bit.

“Then I just told him how I felt. ‘Whatever happens, George, I know Duque’s not nervous. He was down there at breakfast just now, and he seemed relaxed, very confident.’”

The 15-day layoff proved to be no match for El Duque’s big-game demeanor. Hernandez spun seven scoreless innings and allowed only three hits.

The Yankees took a first-inning lead against Indians starter Dwight Gooden, the former Met and Yankee. That first run? A solo home run by the third batter of the game -- O’Neill.

The momentum had swung back to the Yankees.

“Oh yeah, that put it back on our side,” Torre says now.

The Yankees never trailed the rest of the series. They won 4-0 in Game 4 and then took the next two games to clinch the American League pennant.

The Yankees would go on to sweep San Diego four straight in the World Series to finish their remarkable season with 125 wins and the only thing that mattered to them -- the championship.

The Yankees not only validated their regular-season dominance but found redemption for the one that got away a year earlier.

“I don’t know if it was confidence as much as it was determination,” Torre says now. “I think everybody had a bad taste in their mouths about how we lost in ’97.”

And even though the end goal was always on their minds, the '98 Yankees knew the secret to getting there was the singular focus of the game in front of them.

“They came out every day to play. It was unbelievable,” Torre said. “They wanted to win every game. There was never a letdown.”

Only a three-day moment of crisis. After they overcame that and won, then it became fun.

Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN