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Kick Start

Dismantling opponents with fearsome efficiency, the Yankees have run up baseball's best early season record in 14 years


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by Tom Verducci

Issue date: May 18, 1998

Sports IllustratedBaseball's speed-up police hate the New York Yankees. Three times this season American League president and traffic cop Gene Budig has telephoned Yankees general manager Brian Cashman to complain about the dawdling pace of New York's games. Three times Cashman has all but pleaded, I swear, officer. We're trying.

Budig would be better served if he rang up some pitchers on other American League teams to find out why a typical Yankees game lasts three hours, 13 minutes, or 17 minutes longer than the league average. He would find that pitching to a lineup that's as deep as Nietzsche and hits like Nitschke is as arduous as an IRS audit. The Yankees draw more walks, put more runners on base, steal more bases, force more pitching changes and provoke more beads of cold sweat from men on the mound than any other club in the league. Mix in 34 home runs in 31 games and the league's third-best slugging percentage, and the New York lineup is to offense what the Swiss army knife is to cutlery.

 Derek Jeter
Unlike most of the other Yankees, the flashy Jeter (safe behind a cloud of dust at third) finds anonymity hard to come by.   (John Biever)
On top of that offensive diversity, add a pitching staff that has allowed fewer runs than any other American League team, and it makes you wonder what Cashman is doing working the phones for possible trades when he's not fending off Budig. What do you get the team that really does have everything? "If I can't improve the 25-man roster, I'll look for spots where I can improve the 40-man roster," Cashman says.

Says Minnesota Twins designated hitter Paul Molitor, a 20-year veteran, "It's early, but this may be the best Yankee team since I've been playing. On top of pitching, defense and the ability to run the bases, they have a very professional group of people. The thing that I think sets them apart is that they have great clutch hitters who are patient enough to wait for their pitch. If they walk, fine. The next guy can get it done. There's never a sense of urgency to be the guy."

This is owner George Steinbrenner's uberteam, the best his local TV money can buy. (The New York payroll is $63.2 million, the second highest in baseball, after Baltimore's.) The Yankees were 24-7 after Ramiro Mendoza shut out the Minnesota Twins on five hits in New York's 7-0 win on Sunday. The Yankees hadn't started that well since Casey Stengel was managing, 40 years ago. And the 22-2 run that Twins righthander Mike Morgan interrupted with an 8-1 victory last Saturday had not been accomplished in 51 Yankees seasons, since Joe DiMaggio was running down flies for Bucky Harris. Not bad for a team that at week's end had played the fewest home games of any team in the majors (10), whose highest-paid player (centerfielder Bernie Williams) had contributed zero home runs in 119 at bats, whose leading home run hitter (DH-leftfielder Darryl Strawberry) has hit more home runs in the minors than in the majors since he turned 30 six years ago, and whose best hitter (first baseman Tino Martinez) has such a low star quotient that he spent last Saturday strolling through a downtown Minneapolis mall without being recognized. Indeed, one of the more remarkable attributes of the club is its lunch-bucket personality. The clubhouse is decidedly lacking in large heads, the team-leading 7 5/8-sized dome of pitcher Hideki Irabu notwithstanding.

Through an interpreter, Irabu says of his club's run, "No, I've never seen it anywhere. I feel very lucky just to be able to play on this team right now."

Says third baseman Scott Brosius, "I was on a pretty good team in Little League, but we only played 18 games. I've never seen anything like this."

In this century only 15 teams had a better record after 30 games than the Yankees'—and 12 of them finished atop their league or division. The Yankees have made a first impression that recalls the 1990 Athletics, the only American League team this decade to exceed 100 wins; the '75 Reds and the '86 Mets, whose 108 wins are the most in baseball in the past quarter century; the '84 Tigers, the last team to start out hotter than this (26-4); and, in a recent stretch of 43 innings in which the Yankees never trailed, the '72-73 Harlem Globetrotters. Says Molitor, "You can't really find one area where they're short."

So decorated are the Yankees that the team's valuables safe would have made Liberace blush. The 26 Yankees (including injured DH Chili Davis) own a combined 22 world championship rings. They also have accumulated 316 games of postseason experience and 35 All-Star appearances.

Cashman, the rookie general manager, has more ammunition on the way. Davis, who had only four at bats before an ankle injury landed him on the disabled list, is expected to begin his rehabilitation program on Friday and be back in the lineup in July. Cuban refugee righthander Orlando Hernandez is toying with minor leaguers (30 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings) until the Yankees decide to put him in the rotation in place of righthander Mendoza, who will fortify an already deep bullpen.

"This is like scoring five runs in the first inning," Cashman says. "There are still eight innings left, but it sure gives you a good feeling."

The Yankees can be such a devastating team that by the third inning of the second game in a two-game series against West Division-leading Texas last week, Rangers manager Johnny Oates was dialing his general manager from the dugout in The Ballpark in Arlington for reinforcements. "We're going to need a pitcher for tomorrow," Oates said to Doug Melvin, who was sitting upstairs. Oates changed pitchers 10 times while losing the two games, 7-2 and 15-13. "They're solid everywhere," Oates says. "I thought picking up Brosius was a key move for them. He plays as good a third base as anyone in the league."

New York went on to defeat Minnesota 5-1 last Friday (its eighth straight win) in typically resourceful fashion. The Yankees were tied 1-1 with two outs and nobody on base in the seventh when nettlesome leadoff man Chuck Knoblauch singled against righthander Brad Radke. When Knoblauch took off for second on the next pitch, Derek Jeter dutifully did not swing, allowing the stolen base. "The only way I'm going to swing if I see him go is if the pitch is grooved," said Jeter, who two pitches later slapped a single into leftfield to drive home Knoblauch with the run that put New York ahead for good.

"They make you work every single pitch," Radke said. "They didn't swing at one ball in the dirt all night. They know what pitch they want to get, and they'll wait until they see it. When they do get it, they knock the [stuffing] out of it."

The Yankees are drawing walks at a rate that threatens to break the club's 66-year-old record (766), and they're swiping bases often enough to make them a virtual lock to become the first Yankees team since 1914 with 200 steals. Manager Joe Torre encouraged such behavior in spring training when he gave every player the green light to steal. "I wanted people to go out there and try it when it didn't cost anything," Torre says. Last Friday his lineup included six players still free to run at will (Jeter, Knoblauch, Strawberry, Williams, Chad Curtis and Paul O'Neill), not to mention seven .300 hitters.

O'Neill, who had 18 steals in his five previous years in New York, helped win a game in Kansas City on May 1 with enterprising baserunning. With his team down 1-0, he took off from first base on his own with one out in the sixth. He wound up at second on what most likely would otherwise have been a double-play grounder by Martinez, then scored the tying run on a two-out hit by Williams. The Yankees went on to win 2-1.

In that game, as well as the one last Friday, Irabu pitched splendidly into the eighth inning for a victory. Buoyed by his first spring training with New York, a better curveball and a two-seam sinking fastball to complement what used to be a too-straight four-seamer, Irabu (2-0, 1.42 ERA) is a changed pitcher. Opponents have hit .159 against him, down from .311 last year. The man his teammates call Boo Boo but who's built like Yogi Bear is throwing gas instead of tantrums, another improvement over '97.

"He's been sensational," pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says. "From the first day of spring training I could tell. He had a bounce in his step and just looked much more comfortable."

Irabu and his fellow starters have been supported by a bullpen so good that closer Mariano Rivera, who has allowed three hits, no walks and no runs while facing 29 batters this year, spent 18 days on the DL last month (with a groin injury) without being missed. Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton have converted six of eight save chances between them. The Yankees have lost only two games in which they had a lead. Give them at least four runs to work with and the New York pitchers are unbeatable: 20-0 through Sunday.

If you look hard enough, however, there's room to quibble. For one thing, the nearly-as-scorching Boston Red Sox (two games back at week's end) have refused to allow New York a plump cushion in the East. Righthander David Cone, 57-23 (.713) in his past 100 starts, slightly twisted his knee in Texas. Though not serious, the injury added to the 35-year-old Cone's already lengthy medical chart. Lefthander David Wells couldn't last long enough to get the win against the Rangers despite taking a 9-0 lead into the third inning, prompting Torre to barbecue the plump lefthander for being overweight and, at times, careless on the mound. Wells later met with Torre and Stottlemyre to try to persuade them that he's a team player—all the while laying out his personal needs, such as being allowed to pitch deep into games and to keep the weight on in order to feel strong. "He's the Boomer," Torre says. "Let's put it this way: He's on the same page with us. If we didn't have Boomer, my job might be dull."

Actually, when Davis comes back Torre must divide two spots (leftfield and DH) among four veterans (Curtis, Davis, TimRaines and Strawberry), a test even for the worry-proof Yankees manager who, Stottlemyre says, "has more mini one-on-one meetings with players than anyone I've been around. He refuses to allow issues to become problems."

Says Torre, "Managing's not that complicated. It's like leaving a room. There are only two ways to go out: the door or the window."

It helps that Torre has a low-maintenance unit personified by the industrious Martinez, who blends into the crowd in any mall outside of New York despite his 405 RBIs over the last three-plus seasons (more than anyone in the league other than Albert Belle, who has 415). "I get recognized only if I walk around with Jeter," he says happily.

Consider the events at the Metrodome last Friday, a typical day for Martinez and the Yankees. Torre held an optional workout 4 1/2 hours before the game. "Damn near every starting player showed up," Torre says. After the game the Yankees munched on steak and lobster without any of the music or frivolity found in almost every other winning clubhouse. In between the Yankees forced four Twins pitchers to throw 163 pitches in a game that consumed three hours, 11 minutes. That's how New York rolls on. The best team in baseball is going as fast as it can.

Top photo by Al Tielemans

 More flashbacks:
Casey Stengel | Maris and Mantle | Joe DiMaggio
Thurman Munson | Reggie Jackson | Babe Ruth
Mickey Mantle | Lou Gehrig | Chuck Knoblauch
1998 Yankees | David Wells | El Duque



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