Years from now, when the San Diego Padres have been long forgotten, the New York Yankees will be remembered as having played the 1998 World Series against ghosts and legends, against teams so good that their nicknames had nicknames, against men from the days of Teddy Roosevelt's presidency who were deader than the baseballs they had hit. This wasn't a World Series. It was a seance.
No wonder the television ratings for this Series wound up as the worst ever. Too many people were trying to find the games on The History Channel, what with the Yankees being compared to the 1906 Chicago Cubs, the 1927 Murderers' Row Yankees, the 1975 and '76 Big Red Machine from Cincinnati, and other great teams of yore. Are the '98 Yankees the greatest team ever? The question had been raised before the season was half over. In late summer a reporter asked 67-year-old Yankees coach Don Zimmer how his team compared with the aught-six Cubbies. "Hell, do I really look that old?" Zimmer blurted.
New York's place in baseball history would finally be resolved at precisely 8:24 PST on Oct. 21, when nearly unhittable closer Mariano Rivera dropped to his knees and threw both arms aloft after the last of 125 victories. With their four-game sweep of San Diego the '98 Yankees proved to be the most dominant team in baseball since the game was integrated, and they are surely among the four top teams of this century. Among the Yankees' monumental accomplishments are these:
•They won more than 70% of their games.
•They scored more runs than any other team in the majors.
•They allowed fewer runs than any other team in their league.
•They won the World Series.
Only two other teams were equally thorough in their domination: the '27 Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig, and the '39 Yankees of DiMaggio and Dickey. Both of those teams also won their championships in a sweep. (The 1902 Pirates predated the first modern World Series by one year, but they played .741 baseball and led their league in hitting and pitching.)
Great teams that were slightly flawed include the '06 Cubs, who lost the World Series to the worst-hitting team in the American League, the White Sox; the '61 Yankees, who didn't lead the American League in runs scored or allowed; and the 75 and '76 Reds, whose pitching staffs ranked only third and fifth in the National League, respectively. The '98 Yankees, as San Diego discovered in a Cliffs Notes edition of New York's season, lacked for nothing. The Yankees won Game 1 with a seven-run seventh-inning comeback, won Game 2 in a blowout, won Game 3 with an eighth-inning comeback against the most reliable closer in baseball and won Game 4 by scratching out runs in a 3-0 pitching duel.
"I don't think they have a weakness," says San Diego general manager Kevin Towers. "They have experience and youth, they play good defense, they have speed, they take the extra base, they have power, they have good at bats, they have terrific pitching, they have a manager who's had success, and they have money. I don't know what else there is."