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Mudville: June 23, 2024 11:46 am PDT

Greatest Team Ever

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Jack Curry has done a terrific service to baseball fans. He shows the personalities and the talents of a once in a lifetime team when baseball was a much different sport.

He takes us inside one of the greatest teams, perhaps the greatest team of all time, with his new book The 1998 Yankees. Amazingly, it’s been 25 years since that team won the World Series and totaled an unprecedented 125 victories (including the postseason).

Here at The Story we dig deep. I had a wonderful conversation with Curry about the ins and outs of writing this book and his unique insight into that team’s players.

But first, let’s go to page 208 and Joe Torre’s words to those Yankees before their World Series showdown with the Padres.

“The Yankees needed four more wins over the San Diego Padres to celebrate their 24th World Series title, a number that was tempting and tantalizing and scary and surreal,’’ Curry wrote. “All it would take is one strong week of baseball for the Yankees to be remembered as one of the best teams of all time. All it would take is one anemic week of baseball for the Yankees to be remembered as an outstanding team that failed to win a championship. “Four more wins to history,” Torre said.

“The fiery Jorge Posada shouted, ‘Four more wins!’

“Torre followed up by saying, ‘And how are we going to get there?’

“Posada declared, ‘We’re going to grind!’’’

At any level of baseball, the game comes down to a grind. That is often lost on this new breed of leadership in baseball today. Players who grind, win – and that included the Yankees’ 24-year-old shortstop and future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter.

Talent, combined with a refusal to give in, makes all the difference. Do it right, and it makes a champion and more.

Do all that with the 1998 Yankees and you wind up with a 4-0 sweep of the Padres, a really good team; and I was there as well to cover that World Series, to finish off that 125-win season for the Yankees. I had spent much of the previous 10 years around the Padres, working in San Diego before being lured back to New York by legendary sports editor Greg Gallo. Though I was covering the Knicks at the time, Gallo, always one to make the most of his resources, pressed me into MLB action that October because of my relationship with Tony Gwynn and the Padres.

I had a first row seat to Yankees greatness … and now so do you through Curry’s book.

“I thought that team was respected around baseball,” Curry said, “and everybody thought they were gentlemen, but I used the phrase, ‘gentlemanly bullies’ in my book. They did want to destroy teams.”

This week on his way to the YES Network studios, Jack Curry and I discussed this most special Yankee team, and special time in baseball.

Jack is a friend and I have known him a long time, and I still get a kick out of his music references. I asked, if at the time, he had any inkling he would be writing a book about those Yankees in 25 years.

“I don’t know if I looked that far into the future,’’ Curry answered, “but I do remember this: When they were 61-20, I remember saying to myself, ‘This team has played half the season at a 122-win pace. This is pretty special.’ So I did think something special was happening, but to say that I thought 25 years from now I’d be trying to reminisce and recapture what happened with that team, I don’t think I honestly looked that far into the future. When it ends and they win it all and they got the 125 wins, maybe in the back of my mind I did think, ‘We’ll be talking about this team a quarter century later.’’’

That team pummeled opponents.

“I thought that team was respected around baseball,” Curry said, “and everybody thought they were gentlemen, but I used the phrase, ‘gentlemanly bullies’ in my book. They did want to destroy teams. Jeter is quoted as saying that in the book. I think they had nine wins where they beat teams by 10 runs or more; a third of their wins they won by five or more. One of my favorite things I did in the book – because most of the quotes are from Yankee people – but I did sit down with Jason Varitek and having him go through that lineup 25 years later, I could almost see the steam coming out of his ears again, trying to figure out, ‘How the heck do I get these guys out. There are no holes. And if you throw a pitch that’s close, they don’t mind taking it and letting the next guy do the damage.’’’

YES Network analyst Jack Curry threw the ceremonial first pitch before the game between the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Guardians at Yankee Stadium on May 3, 2023, in The Bronx, New York. (Photo by New York Yankees/Getty Images)

The top five starting pitchers for that Yankees team accumulated 79 wins. Will we ever see that again from a starting rotation? Of course they had the great Mariano Rivera on the back end to save their victories.

The wins broke down this way for the Top 5: Andy Pettitte (16), David Wells (18), David Cone (20), Hideki Irabu (13), and Orlando Hernandez (12).

“I was talking to Gerrit Cole a week ago, I gave him a copy of the book,’’ Curry told me. “I made that remark to him about 79 wins and he said, ‘Check out my 2018 and 2019 Astros.’’’

In 2018 Justin Verlander (16), Dallas Keuchel (12), Gerrit Cole (15), Charlie Morton (15), and Lance McCullers Jr. (10) combined for 68 wins and in 2018 the Astros’ five top starters Verlander (21), Cole (20), Wade Miley (14), Brad Peacock (7), and Zack Greinke (8) combined for 70 wins.

Neither of those Astros teams won a World Series.

Close – but not equal to the ’98 Yankees; and the courage and pitching knowledge of those Yankee starters was amazing.

“The depth of the Yankee starters and even Irabu, who gets forgotten about and unfortunately is no longer with us, he won in double digits,’’ Curry noted. “He was the pitcher of the month in May, so they threw four aces at you and a guy in Irabu who was a competent starter that year.’’

“A few people have asked: How would the ’98 team compete today? I said they’d be just as good, if not better,’’ Curry said with passion in his voice.

The strength of personality was strong, too, in ’98 with the Yankees.

“You start off with Cone and what he meant in any clubhouse,’’ Curry began. “I had good relationships with (Paul) O’Neill and Tino (Martinez) and (Chuck) Knoblauch and I wrote a book with Jeter a couple of years later.

“We were fortunate that El Duque was dropped in our laps, and what a story he was,’’ Curry said about one of my favorite pitchers of all time. “Wells was a wild card but you still had to listen to what he had to say. I also enjoyed talking baseball with (reliever) Jeff Nelson – and then there is Posada and (Joe) Girardi. I felt like Girardi gave you the technical side of catching whereas Posada gave you the emotional side of it. Up and down that clubhouse I think there was a lot to be brought out of there.’’

June 3, 1998: #26 Orlando ''El Duque'' Hernandez of the New York Yankees in action during a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, New York. The Yankees defeated the Devil Rays 7-1. (Credit: Al Bello /Allsport)

El Duque and his escape from Cuba and his will to win was something special.

“Kevin, we had a rain delay at YES last year and there were five of us sitting around,’’ Curry said. “And I’m working on the ’98 book so obviously that is in my head. I said, ‘One game. You got one game to win in the postseason. Who are you picking?’ And it was guys younger than me and everybody had their guy; but when I said El Duque, they looked at me a little weird. And I said, ‘I’m telling you, man, take Bob Gibson, take Tom Seaver, I get it, I am not arguing against those guys – but I’m okay with El Duque. I like my chances.’’’

There is a wonderful story in the book about Cone drumming up a story about Edgar Martinez disrespecting the Yankees as a means of motivation, a la Michael Jordan.

“I thought that showed David’s clubhouse smarts,’’ Curry said. “I’ve told people Cone is the unsung hero of that team. Yes, he won 20 games. Yes, he pitched well in the postseason – but that story and how he helped (Darryl) Strawberry that year, how he helped other people that year, Cone is just the best teammate. If they took a poll of the favorite teammate of that ’98 team, I think Cone wins that easily.’’

The pieces fit together perfectly on that team, pieces like third baseman Scott Brosius.

“Brian Cashman said he was a gift from the heavens,’’ Curry explained. “They saw him as a guy who could play steady defense and if he hit .250 they’d be happy. He ends up hitting .300 and I find it kind of neat that his homer and RBI total were 19, 98, in the year of 1998 and then he has an MVP type season. Talk about an incredible find – and Cashman gives his scouting department credit for pushing him to get Brosius.’’

At the other corner of the infield was Tino Martinez.

Tino and I were inducted into the same class of the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame a few years ago and it was a treat to spend a weekend talking baseball with Tino.

“He had to replace (Don) Mattingly, which isn’t easy to do; and I think Tino gets shortchanged on the defensive side,’’ Curry said. “I think he was an above average defensive player. He was athletic. He didn’t freeze when he had to throw the ball. He’s in the middle of that order. Now his postseason numbers were not great – but he hits that  grand slam off Mark Langston and everything is forgiven once he does that.’’

Tino Martinez of the New York Yankees bats during Game Three of the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers on October 2, 1998 at The Ballpark in Arlington in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images)

As for his YES teammate, Paul O’Neill, Curry said, “When you talk about work ethic and you talk about intensity, you and I know, you could take Jeter, you could take Cone, you can take Bernie Williams, but it sort of seemed like O’Neill’s refusal to give away at-bats, refusal to be mediocre, I think that permeated that team and I think that other guys on that team watched O’Neill and saw the way he acted, and though they all may not have been as angry as him when he made an out, I think they watched him and I think it rubbed off on them. I think they realized what it meant to O’Neill, and it should mean that much to them too.’’

Up and down the lineup and the bench were big time performances of the 1998 Yankees. Tim Raines hit .290. Bernie produced a .339 batting average and a .997 OPS.

“Homer Bush didn’t play a lot, but he hit .380,’’ Curry noted. “Straw had 345 plate appearances and hit 24 home runs. Shane Spencer has one of the greatest Septembers ever. You think there are no at-bats to be had on that team. That forces Torre to play him.’’

There is a quote in the book from Dale Sveum saying, “Shane was ‘The Natural.’ It was ridiculous what he did with the homers and the grand slams and helping us in the playoffs.’’

Spencer spent six years in Single-A. He grew up in El Cajon, just outside San Diego, and idolized Tony Gwynn; and catching a line drive off Gwynn’s bat in Game 3 was a World Series highlight for him. Spencer told Curry that when he played in a golf tournament after the season in San Diego, he wound up in Gwynn’s foursome. Gwynn, who always had a smile on his face, said: “Nice to meet you. You stole Christmas presents from my kids.’’

The legacy of ’98 will be remembered in so many ways, and Curry has a gift of telling the story so well and getting players to open up to him.

New York Yankees Paul O'Neill in action, at bat vs San Diego Padres, Bronx, NY 10/18/1998 (Photo by Chuck Solomon/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

“This is my fourth book,’’ he told me, “and I am fortunate enough they have all been New York Times bestsellers. I found out last night this one was a best seller. I did one with Jeter, one with Cone, one with O’Neill, and now this one, just my name on it. It’s kind of cool to have one with just your own name on it.’’

“I appreciate all the support from family, the people I work with, because I have a full-time job with YES, so trying to do books, it can be challenging. There are always people behind the scenes who are helpful with these kinds of projects. I wrote 75,000 words in 10 weeks,’’ Curry said. “That was hard. This was very draining. I did all the reporting and the research in the season but I didn’t start writing it until the Yankee season was over. It was a time crunch.’’

How do the ‘98 Yankees deserve to be remembered?

Curry gets to the heart of the matter in this final paragraph of the book when he quotes Derek Jeter and then adds his own comment. Here is exactly what Curry wrote:

“’Greatest team ever, greatest team ever, greatest team ever,’ Jeter once said to me. And then he laughed. But I know he believed it. So do I.”

Jack Curry believed Jeter’s words: The 1998 Yankees. The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever.

Enjoy taking this 125-win ride once again, 25 years after baseball history was made.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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