Now they belong to the ages

Their merciless sweep of the Padres in the 1998 World Series places the New York Yankees in the pantheon of the greatest teams ever to play the game.

By Steve Kettmann
October 23, 1998 12:31AM (UTC)
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SAN DIEGO -- An hour after the New York Yankees finished off their merciless four-game sweep of the San Diego Padres in this year's World Series, the corridor leading into the plastic-covered walls of the Yankee clubhouse was as jammed up as the arteries of a lifetime two-steaks-a-day man. The Yankees had put the last buff and polish on a year that guaranteed them a permanent spot in baseball history, and everyone wanted to squeeze into the thick of the orgiastic postgame revelry. Making matters worse, longtime owner George Steinbrenner was standing there in the middle of it all, and the swarm of microphone pokers and notepad toters around him made all motion impossible. Just then, a familiar voice rang out.

"Clear out!" boomed the voice. "You're blocking the way!"


Steinbrenner jerked his head sideways, or tried to anyway. He was enjoying this World Series victory more than he had enjoyed anything, the way he told it, but you don't throw away a lifetime of swatting down challenger after challenger just like that. Steinbrenner reddened, and his weathered face looked a little more weathered as he craned his neck back to get a look. Then he finally twisted around far enough to see who was issuing this cheerful challenge, eyes glinting with merriment.

"Hey!" Steinbrenner shouted back, grinning. "I'm the Boss!" David Wells, the lovable lout who gave Steinbrenner a perfect game this year, wasn't giving up so easily.

"Get out of the way!" Wells repeated.


"You're in trouble!" Steinbrenner scolded.

"Good," Wells said. "I like trouble."

It was a priceless moment between two larger-than-life New York personalities who have clashed in the past. More than anything that happened on the field Wednesday night during another display of the Yankees' top-to-bottom talent, the exchange between Steinbrenner and Wells showed how different this year's Yankees team was from its predecessors. Steinbrenner wrote the checks, but he let 31-year-old general manager Brian Cashman mold this splendid team. Steinbrenner put less into the club day to day than he had earlier in his 25-year run as owner, but he cared more about this bunch of men, which was why it was no surprise to see him getting misty-eyed as commissioner Bud Selig declared the Yankees world champions.


"I've never been this emotional on the stand," Steinbrenner explained. "It might have been embarrassing, but I didn't want to hold back."

Neither did anyone else. Postvictory celebrations have an odd feel to them, as if people are emoting on cue like method actors, as if there's something showy or trumped-up about the performances. But all year long the Yankees swatted down distractions and potential frictions. They took all that talent out on the field every day and did more with it than any American League team ever had, and to do that it took deferring some pleasure. This was release time, and everyone made sure to enjoy it, blasting each other with bubbly and also blasting the storied owner of the most storied franchise in sports. He was defenseless, and didn't even seem to mind much.


"Guys kept handing me bottles to fight back, but they were all empty!" Steinbrenner exclaimed, laughing at himself.

Later, he reflected for a moment on what he had done differently this year, and admitted he had learned to delegate, to take a step back -- not actions that come naturally to him.

"All I did this year was build a great organization," he said. "I give them all the credit. It's a great satisfaction to me. This is one of the great teams in the history of the game and it came in a great year for the game. We did this for New York, and for all Yankee fans everywhere. That's why it feels so great."


Steinbrenner also gave abundant credit to manager Joe Torre, whose low-key style seemed just perfect for this team, especially since Torre knew when to augment it with a forceful nudge, as when he scolded Wells not long before he came through with his perfect game.

"I have a great relationship with Joe," Steinbrenner said. "He's a NewYorker! That's why I hired him."

There was time for some New York swagger, but only once the deeds were done. Wednesday night's game was almost close, won by the Yankees 3-0 mostly because left-hander Andy Pettitte and the bullpen combined on a seven-hit shutout and the Padres were hobbled and humbled, a condition summed up by the sight of granite-block Padres third baseman Ken Caminiti seeming to spiral down into the dirt around home plate every time he picked up a bat. He finally came through with a single to lift his World Series average to .143, but his sore groin obviously had him in a bad way.


No true baseball fan could avoid a shiver of excitement watching as Series MVP Scott Brosius scooped up an easy grounder and threw to first to end Game 4 and give the Yankees a clean sweep. Brosius leaped so high, you wondered if maybe he should have chosen hoops instead of ball, and grinned like the kid on Christmas morning who got just the gift he wanted against all hope. Then he and his teammates were jammed together at the mound in so regular a formation, they looked like insects. It was all so perfect, like just about everything the Yankees did from the start of their record-setting 114-win regular season right up through their classy postgame champagne-fest Wednesday night.

"It wasn't easy," shortstop Derek Jeter said in the clubhouse. "We had a great year, one of the greatest years a team has had, but the only thing easy was the way we played. We played hard every day. To be honest, to go 125-50, I can't think of many clubs better than that."

The Yankees will be given parades through the streets of Manhattan and written up with every bit as many gushing superlatives as they deserve. Countless thumb-sucking tours de force will tell us where this year's team should be counted in the great Top 10 list of all-time clubs, when really making the list ought to be enough. But before the memories of these four nights of baseball fade, it needs to be said that the Padres as a whole were not all that they could be in this Series.

There were exceptions, of course, starting with the incomparable Tony Gwynn. Twice Wednesday night, Pettitte limited right-fielder Gwynn to groundouts, so in the sixth when Gwynn rolled another ball to the right side of the infield, he put everything he had to running to first. Gwynn has a body that would not make anyone think of a Greyhound, or come to think of it, a baseball player, but he can motor -- and he got to first in time to lunge into a brave hook slide, just avoiding the tag of Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez. "Sometimes you've just got to do what you've got to do," he said. "That little hook slide worked!"


Given Gwynn's various ailments, and his age, it was an amazing moment. Later, he used those famous wrists to lash a clean single, one that ended up going for naught. Gwynn batted .500 in the Series, a fitting accomplishment for one of the greatest hitters in memory. "I didn't just burst on the scene," he kidded one reporter who asked why he hit the Yankees all Series long, unlike his teammates. "It's like being a boxer: I was a counter-puncher. I hit the ball real good this Series, but it wasn't enough ... We ran into a buzz saw."

Credit right-hander Kevin Brown, too, with living up to the moment. The aftereffects of a nagging virus had Brown looking even more drawn for Wednesday night's game, but he held the Yankees scoreless through five innings, and did so with raw will, rather than great stuff. His most memorable sequence had nothing to do with the score but had everything to do with how Brown is wired. Paul O'Neill grounded to first in the top of the eighth, and Padres first baseman Jim Leyritz made the unfortunate choice to try to beat him to the bag, rather than flipping to Brown. The call went the Yankees' way. Brown was so livid, he bounced into at least one umpire and looked ready to take them all on until pitching coach Dave Stewart came dashing out of the dugout to calm him down. If the Padres all arrived in the Series with a little more of that kind of fire, they might have at least offered some true competition, instead of looking like a team worn down by two victorious playoff series against 100-win National League teams.

Not that anyone will remember it that way. Before the last ticker tape has fluttered down from a Lower Manhattan office window to the street below, the conventional wisdom will be that no team could have done anything against the mighty 1998 Yankees. Padres general manager Kevin Towers went into the World Series thinking his team would win, and ended it standing there in the San Diego clubhouse, answering all questions and painting a portrait of the Yankees as a team shockingly free of weaknesses.

"They keep coming at you," he said. "They play great defense, they have great speed, they've got a great manager. We were hot in Game 1 and Game 3 and we still lost. But if you'd asked us if we wanted to face the Indians or the Yankees, we'd have said the Yankees. You want to go against the best. We went up against a very good team. We have to give the Yankees credit. You've got to admire them. The expectations next year will be they're expected to win 125 games. Anything less than that is going to be considered a disappointment."


That may be, but for now it's time to sit back and enjoy the memorable way the Yankees finished off a memorable season. That was how it went Wednesday night in San Diego, where the fans slipped into giddy applause for the Padres just seconds after Game 4 ended and where the Yankees celebrated into the wee small hours. As closing time hit the bars in the trendy gas-lamp district, there were Wells and Jeter and David Cone and even the corn-fed rookie, Shane Spencer, strolling down a staircase at a popular nightspot one by one, looking more than anything like Hollywood stars on Oscar night. It was a role that seemed to suit them just fine.

Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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