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Kick Start
Tom Verducci
May 18, 1998
Dismantling opponents with fearsome efficiency, the Yankees have run up baseball's best early season record in 14 years
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May 18, 1998

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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The Finer Points
The '98 Yankees will never be mistaken for the legendary Bronx Bombers. As these stats show, New York is winning partly because it ranks first or second in the major leagues in many of the "little things."

CATEGORY

RANK

AVG

Plate appearances per game

1st

41.58

Pitches per plate appearance

2nd

3.92

Walks per game

2nd

4.71

Stolen bases per game

1st

1.48

On-base percentage

1st

.380

Sacrifice flies per game

1st

0.61

Relief pitchers faced per game

1st

3.13

Baseball's speedup 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.

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 überteam, 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 7⅝-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 17⅔ innings) until the Yankees decide to put him in the rotation in place of righthander Mendoza, who will fortify an already deep bullpen.

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