I want to say this as plainly as possible: I love sports domination. I understand this runs counter to most people. It certainly seems that, based on what I've been reading about the Yankee payroll since their most recent championship, most people prefer parity. That's nice. Parity has it's place in sports. But there's something viscerally appealing to me about a blowout, and I suspect I'm not the only person who feels this way.
A lot of people will argue that sports are a microcosm for life. But sports are absolutely nothing like life. Life is complicated; full of questions and lacking answers. There are very few things in life that are black and white, there are only various shades of gray. Sports are the exact opposite of that. If you ask me who should be MVP of the American League I will tell you quickly and with unwavering certainty: Joe Mauer. But I couldn't even pick a best man at my wedding. I had a seven-way tie. Sports give us answers in a way life never can. They give us clear winners and losers, underachievers and overachievers, heroes and villains. And we tune in, at least in part, for that clarity.
Take a moment to think about a SportsCenter highlight real: A diving catch. A home run. A slam dunk, or a blocked shot, or a glove save. There is something definitive about all of these plays, and all these players. Something that says: At this particular moment, I am better than you, and there is absolutely no debate about it. Tell me you don't love the garish simplicity of these moments. Mariano Rivera is my favorite Yankee. It's certainly in part because he seems like the classiest of men and the greatest of teammates. But it's mostly because I find something very comforting about saying, there goes the greatest closer to ever live, and then moving on to the next problem.
So, yes, 1998 was my favorite Yankee championship. They were the greatest Yankee team any of us are ever going to see. In a recent blog post debating the Yankee's financial advantage, Joe Posnanski wrote:
"Baseball, for many reasons, is built in such a way that the best teams win less often than in other sports. A 13-win NFL team wins 81% of the time. A national championship contending football team might lose once or twice — or not at all. A 60-win NBA team wins 75% of the time, and a big time college basketball team will win closer to 90%... A 100-win baseball team wins 62% of the time… So, dominant baseball teams don’t LOOK dominant in the same way they do in football or basketball."
Well, there was no hiding the Yankees dominance in 1998. They won 114 games during the regular season and finished 22 games ahead of the Red Sox (who won a second-best 92 games.) They were the best hitting team and the best pitching team in the league. I didn't look up defensive statistics, but they had Brosius, and Tino, and a youngish Bernie Williams, and a pre-meltdown Knoblauch, and I seem to remember those four being pretty sound defensively, too. As if to hammer home the point, David Wells pitched a perfect game. Then they went 11-2 in the postseason and people pretended the Cleveland Indians had a shot in the ALCS. They steamrolled through the year in a way you rarely see in baseball.
I remember hearing a lot of people at the time -- from friends to SportsCenter announcers -- talk about how unfair that team was. But to me, something never felt quite right about that. Sure, that team, like most Yankee teams, was built to be a juggernaut. In his '98 season preview for SI, Tom Verducci makes it sound like the biggest worry going into the season would be which bagels to eat in the clubhouse. But it was still a team with Chad Curtis, and Hideki Irabu, and Joe Girardi. I can think of Yankee teams since then that certainly appeared more dominant at the start of the season.
I don't think PECOTA existed back then (this was still 5 years before Moneyball,) but I doubt it would have projected the Yankees anywhere near 114 wins (their Pythagorean record was 110 wins.) Michael Jordan shrugging his way to 63 playoff points isn't fair. Pete Sampras at Wimbledon isn't fair. It's obvious before the games even start, like homecoming at a powerhouse college football program: the other guy is just showing up to lose.
But the 1998 Yankees seemed different, at least on paper. They were coming off a disappointing season, and the Braves sure looked good that year, and Baltimore was making waves. They seemed, well, beatable. Except that they weren't. They started winning at a truly historic pace, and they never really slowed down. And only after the fact did their championship seem inevitable.
I think this is, above all else, why that team means so much to me. They weren't yet the collection of all-stars that the team would become famous for. They were all very-good to great players, but they were playing above their heads. Scott Brosius hit .300. Bernie Williams had an OPS+ of 160. David Cone won 20 games. David Wells went 18-4. And so on. You rarely -- in real life or in sports -- see anybody exceed their potential with the degree and consistency of that team. There is always a fall back to earth.
Shortly after the last Winter Olympics, Chuck Klosterman wrote an interesting essay defending indifferent US Olympian Bode Miller. In it he wrote:
"There are those who argue that sports are important because they symbolize the middle-class laymen who spend their paychecks on season tickets, but that is not always true; sometimes they are important because they embody feelings we can't experience. Most of the time, we don't love players who are like us; most of the time, we love players who aren't like us at all... You are not like Cal Ripken Jr. You aren't that dedicated, you aren't that intense, and you care about your job a whole lot less. Ripken might be your favorite player of the past 25 years, but the two of you have almost nothing in common."
Well, that's exactly how I feel about the 1998 Yankees. I will never reach the stratosphere of success and stay there. Something will always be around the corner to humble me. That's just the way life works. And that's OK. But the 1998 Yankees are the greatest team I have ever seen. And for that, they will always be my favorite. No doubt about it.