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OK, so the '98 Yankees were pretty good

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 17, 2010 05:35 PM

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A silly little Friday baseball post to cap off a sadly barren week at TATB but a ridiculously busy week elsewhere . . .

77T425.jpgSo Joe Torre has 15 more games in Dodger Blue before he turns the reins over to Donnie Baseball. I assume this means we can look forward to "The Dodger Years" hitting the bookstores in roughly 18 months? Have to imagine Torre's take on Manny would make A-Rod look like his favorite son by comparison.

I bring this up today because I've been making progress ripping through the mound of baseball books that's been piled on my desk for . . . well, a long time. Let's just say I'm pretty sure there's a first-edition copy of "Boys of Summer" somewhere anchoring the pile. And who does this Bouton character think he is, anyway? The Mick would never do such a thing!

I'm a picky reader, so I'm pleased and a bit surprised to say that pretty much everything in the pile has been a joy to devour. Josh Wilker's "Cardboard Gods," Dirk Hayhurst's "The Bullpen Gospels," Dan Epstein's "Big Hair and Plastic Grass," . . . if they're not literary home runs -- and I'd argue that the first two are for sure -- they are at least damn fine baseball books that aren't necessarily about baseball.

The current selection is "The Yankee Years," Torre's candid and occasionally vicious remembrance of his 12 seasons in pinstripes, written by SI wordsmith Tom Verducci. I'd read bits and pieces and various excerpts when it was published to great fanfare in February 2009, and I'm greatly enjoying the early innings of reading it in full.

Roughly a quarter of the way through it, here are two revelations/reminders that have stood out so far, other than the fact that Derek Jeter really was Torre's favorite son.

  • In the winter between the 2003 and 2004 seasons, the Yankees tried to trade for a different third baseman after Aaron Boone blew out his knee and before they swooped in and dealt for A-Rod. You may be familiar with his work. Don't know about you, but I'm glad Adrian Beltre never played there, because we'd probably never have had the pleasure of watching him play here.

  • The 1998 Yankees were probably the best team of my lifetime, with only the mid-70s Reds (logic) and 2004 Red Sox (pure, unadulterated sentiment) also in the argument. I realize that's hardly news given that the 1998 Yankees won 125 games and lost 50 including the postseason. But I bet you don't hear such a sentiment often at the Baseball Tavern, you know?

Yes, those Yankees were loaded. Loaded. Hell, even Joe Morgan might acknowledge they'd take a game from the '76 Reds in a seven-game set. But they were also a study in balance and outstanding roster construction. The rotation was Pettitte, Cone, Wells, El Duque, and Hideki Irabu, and while the latter has become a punch line, he won 13 games and his 109 adjusted ERA was better than Pettitte's (104). The 'pen was deep as always (Mendoza, Nelson, Stanton), and the closer, an android curiously called Mariano Rivera by the division of ACME that built him, hadn't yet revealed that his warranty and his right arm apparently will last forever.

But what is most impressive about this Yankees team with the passing is its virtually perfect lineup. Of course it featured its share of name-in-lights stars, with Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada just approaching their peak years and Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams still going strong (Williams in particular had a monster season, hitting .339 to win the batting title.). But the depth is what made it truly astounding; every regular hit at least 10 home runs, Darryl Strawberry slugged .542 as a platoon DH, and only Chad Curtis and Chuck Knoblauch had an OPS below .824.

mikelowell.jpgThe bench featured a future Hall of Famer (if there's any justice) in Tim Raines, a late-summer callup who hit 10 homers in 73 plate appearances (Shane Spencer), a .380-hitting pinch-runner (all-name Hall of Famer Homer Bush), and a steady defensive catcher (Joe Girardi), not to mention cameos from a future hack of a third base coach (Dale Sveum) and future heck of a third baseman (Mike Lowell).

To wind this back to an actual point, it was in "The Yankee Years" where the talent and depth of the New York offense that year was best articulated. Verducci noted that the Yankees had a different leader in home runs (Tino Martinez, 28), hits (Jeter, 203), doubles (O'Neill, 40), on-base percentage (Williams, .422), and steals (Chuck Knoblauch, 31).

Knoblauch, a relentless pest at the plate even as he declined defensively, also led the Yankees in being hit by a pitch (18).

It is here that we will note that Jeter was fifth on the team in HBP with five. Though someone should probably go back and check the video to make sure he was, you know, actually hit by the pitch.

C'mon, allow a Sox fan one crumb of snark.

The '98 Yankees were amazing, and to be reminded of them again was oddly appealing in the sense that its always cool to be reminded of genuine greatness. But they were the Yankees. It's a begrudging admiration.

Now, maybe if Pedro could have pitched every game in the ALDS against Cleveland, and then . . .

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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