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New York YANKEES
Tom Verducci
March 29, 1999
These Yanks can't possibly be better than last year, can they? Yeah, they can
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March 29, 1999

New York Yankees

These Yanks can't possibly be better than last year, can they? Yeah, they can

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By the Number

1998 Team Statistics (AL rank)

1998 record: 114-48 (first AL EAST)

BATTING AVERAGE

288 (2)

OPP. BATTING AVG.

24 (1)

RUNS SCORED

965 (1)

ERA

3.82 (1)

HOME RUNS

207 (4)

FIELDING PCT.

.984 (3)

One hundred sixty-two games of light calisthenics await the Yankees. Only the crucible of October, when a hot pitcher or two can dominate a series, will make them sweat. They are Michael Jordan's Bulls, as close to a sure thing as you get in sports.

The Yankees were at least 22 games better than every other team in the American League last season. Now they're even better because clutch pitcher Orlando Hernandez, who spent two months in the minors last year, has a full season ahead of him, as does designated hitter Chili Davis, who missed all but 35 games with an ankle injury. They're better, too, because they traded for one of the best pitchers in history, Roger Clemens, without really hurting themselves. The cost of 37⅔ innings (lefthanded reliever Graeme Lloyd), 71 at bats (backup infielder Homer Bush) and an out-of-nowhere 18-4 season (lefthanded starter David Wells) brought giggles to the New York clubhouse.

"I love Boomer," said one Yankee, "but getting the Rocket? There's no comparison."

Says pitcher David Cone, "Yes, we are a better team—on paper. That's not easy to say after you've won [125] games, but it's true."

Because of the fuss over Clemens, Bernie Williams—the centerfielder, cleanup hitter, batting champion and highest-paid Yankee ever ($87.5 million over seven years)—reported to camp this year with hardly anyone noticing. "Bernie Williams is a footnote here," Cone says.

Tino Martinez was wallpaper too. That's not normally how you'd describe a player who joined Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio as the only Yankees to drive in 120 runs in back-to-back seasons. Paul O'Neill? The hitter with the fifth-best batting average in Yankees history (.317) created more of a stir playing drums behind John Mellencamp in Indianapolis this winter than he did at training camp.

The Yankees' personality hasn't changed much. They're still so filthy rich that they made Joe Girardi, a 31-RBI man and backup catcher, the fourth-highest-paid backstop in the league ($3.4 million). Their rotation is still so deep that Ramiro Mendoza, who would be a No. 2 starter on many teams, will remain in the bullpen as a long reliever. Their lineup is still so loaded that World Series MVP Scott Brosius—who improved his RBI total from 41 in 1997, with Oakland, to 98 with New York last year-will bat eighth or ninth. "If you're a pitcher facing this lineup, where do you draw a breath?" says Brosius.

Owner George Steinbrenner brought back both Girardi and Brosius despite having younger, cheaper replacements available (Jorge Posada and prospect Mike Lowell, who was traded in February to Florida). "That's the way it should be," O'Neill says. "Trying to repeat means trying to repeat with the same people."

Clemens, though, does change the clubhouse dynamic a bit. The 36-year-old five-time Cy Young winner has whiffed 3,153 batters without having won a world championship; only Hall of Famers Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro and Ferguson Jenkins have struck out more and gone ringless. Getting Clemens a ring will have the emotional tug of getting Elway a Super Bowl win, Earnhardt a Daytona victory or Lemmon a weekend tee time at Pebble Beach. "I was worried a little about complacency," Steinbrenner says. No more.

"Last year we added [Chuck] Knoblauch and now Clemens," O'Neill says. "Adding a premier player is exciting to a team. I know when we faced a guy like Clemens, you ran that extra sprint and took that extra stretch before the game. It's the first thing you think of when you wake up that day, knowing if he's on, he can flat out blow you away."

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