Ranking the Yankees championship teams in the Derek Jeter era
The 1998 team, which won 125 total games, might be the best of all-time
This year's Yankees started slowly but then went 89-43 to finish with 103 wins
The '99 team set a record in the wild-card era by going 11-1 in the postseason
Before the 2007 season, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had T-shirts made up that read "Mission 27." It was just one more piece of motivation for a franchise that defines itself by a singular annual goal -- winning the World Series -- and a reminder that anything less than achieving that goal is a failure.
It took three seasons, but on Wednesday night in the Bronx, the Yankees finally did win their 27th world championship, and when Cashman ran into the team's mental skills coach -- yes, the Yankees have a mental skills coach -- he said simply: "Mission accomplished."
Part of what makes the Yankees so admired is the fact that their single-minded pursuit of winning trickles down from the top of the corporate boardroom right into the clubhouse, and filters throughout the organization. If there is a player who represents the on-field embodiment of Cashman's stated mantra, it is Derek Jeter, whose endless recitation that winning is everything may make eyes roll but would undoubtedly make Cashman and owner George Steinbrenner (to say nothing of Vince Lombardi) very proud.
Thus, Jeter would be the first to admit that even though he has had 14 brilliant seasons in pinstripes, only five of them have been truly successful. Those five, of course, are the ones that ended with World Series triumphs in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and now, 2009. Even the relentlessly competitive Jeter, and his trio of longtime teammates (Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte) who have been around for every one of those five titles would surely stop short of comparing those teams; A championship is, at last, validation enough for those squads.
But all title teams are not created alike. Part of what made the Yankees' 27th championship so interesting was that it was richly deserved, and not just because of the riches that made it possible. The Yankees were, without a doubt, the best team in baseball in 2009. But were the '09 Yankees the best of the five title teams in the Jeter era? Below is a snapshot ranking of each of those championship teams, each of which were different in their own way but each of which shared the only definition that truly matters: world champions.
1. The 1998 Yankees
Regular-season record: 114-48, first in AL East
Postseason: ALDS: defeated Texas Rangers 3-0; ALCS: defeated Cleveland Indians 4-2; World Series: defeated San Diego Padres 4-0
Not only is this the best team of the Jeter era, it may be the best team of all-time. The Yanks led the league in runs and on-base percentage, but this was not a typical Bronx Bombers offense. Not one player hit 30 home runs and only two drove in 100 runs. What made them so tough to beat was a balanced lineup and probably the best top-to-bottom pitching staff in team history. Four players (Bernie Williams, Jeter, Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius) batted .300 or better, four (Tino Martinez, Williams, O'Neill and Darryl Strawberry) hit at least 20 home runs and five (Chuck Knoblauch, Jeter, Chad Curtis, Williams and O'Neill) stole at least 15 bases.
Every one of their five starters won at least 13 games and the bullpen had not one but two righty-lefty combos to attack hitters in late innings (Ramiro Mendoza and Graeme Lloyd, Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson) plus Rivera, who in just his second season as a closer had 36 saves and a 1.91 ERA.
The Yankees spent 135 consecutive days in first place, eventually clinching the AL East in early September and finishing 22 games in front. But their most impressive moment came when they were challenged for the only time all season. After falling behind the Indians 2-games-to-1 in the ALCS, the first time they had been behind since April 29, the Yankees won their next seven postseason games, culminating in a World Series sweep of the Padres.
2. The 2009 Yankees
Regular-season record: 103-59, 1st in AL East
Postseason: ALDS: defeated Twins 3-0; ALCS: defeated Angels 4-2; World Series: defeated Phillies 4-2
Any thoughts that this team would be so highly-regarded seemed foolish when it got off to 14-16 start and was mired in third place, 5½ games out, in early May. But from that point on the Yankees went 89-43 to finish with 103 wins. Since the end of the original Yankee dynasty, only the '98 team has won more games in a single season. The catalyst for their turnaround was the return of Alex Rodriguez from hip surgery and the emergence of Mark Teixeira that gave them the destructive lineup many had long expected. The Yankees finished the season with the majors' best offense, leading all of baseball in home runs and runs scored. It was enough to more than compensate for a pitching staff that was surprisingly unsettled, given its depth of talent. CC Sabathia was a stud all year long, and Andy Pettitte was old reliable, but A.J. Burnett was consistently inconsistent, and the latest Rules kept Joba Chamberlain from establishing himself as a front-line starter. As always, they still had Rivera, who finished with 44 saves and a 1.76 ERA.
In the postseason the Yankees benefited from curious, and at times downright hideous, play from the opposition, but the closest they came to being in trouble was when they lost Game 1 of the World Series. Undeterred, they won the next three, making their 27th title a mere formality.
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