For most championship runs, there’s a moment of doubt. Time stands still as fans collectively hold their breath in a key moment, realizing that their team of destiny might be quite the opposite.
The 1996 Yankees had that in at least the first five games of the World Series. The ’98 Yankees, the best team in living memory, were down in the ALCS to the Indians.
Somehow, the ’99 Yankees never went through that. The Rangers were an afterthought within a few days. The ALCS was closer than the 4-1 finish would indicate and the Fall Classic had a few nailbiters.
However, in running roughshod to a repeat, the Yankees went 11-1 in the postseason with just a single loss to the league’s best pitcher.
A Forgettable Sweep
The 1999 Rangers exemplified the high-offense era; They had six players with at least 20 home runs and three with 35 (Pudge, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro). At the same time, none of their five starters had an ERA below 4.79 (which was actually above-average). John Wetteland was their closer.
The Yankees took Game 1 of this ALDS in lopsided fashion as Orlando Herandez tossed eight two-hit innings. Ricky Ledee put the Yanks up with an RBI double in the second and the Bombers slowly extended the lead with Bernie Williams going deep.
Game 2 was the closest call with the Yankees trailing 1-0 through 4.5 innings. However, Scott Brosius and Ledee had RBI doubles over the next few innings to put the Yankees in front. Darryl Strawberry homered in the first inning of Game 1 as Roger Clemens shut down the Rangers in a 3-0 Game 3 win.
When I came up with ALDS MVPs at River Ave. Blues, I copped out and gave it to Royce Clayton for this series, as he went 0-for-10 for Texas. The Rangers had just three extra-base hits in 92 at-bats.
Pedro Martinez pitched the Red Sox into the ALCS, which pitted the long-time rivals against each other for the first time in postseason history. With Martinez unavailable until Game 3, the Yankees worked to the early advantage at home.
Fitting the rivalry, Game 1 was a nailbiter as Boston put up three runs in the first two innings. The Yankees tied it up on a Derek Jeter single in the seventh. After El Duque completed eight innings, Rivera took the ball through the 10th inning, where Bernie Williams came through as the hero on Rod Beck’s second pitch.
Williams, of course, had nearly signed with the Sox in the offseason, making his walk-off shot even more crushing for Boston.
The Sox rebounded in Game 2 as Ramon Martinez went toe-to-toe with David Cone. A Tino Martinez homer broke the tie before Nomar Garciaparra responded with a two-run homer off Cone to put Boston up.
The Yankees trailed with two outs in the seventh when Chuck Knoblaugh doubled home Ledee. Two batters later, Paul O’Neill smacked an RBI single as New York held on for a 3-2 win.
Game 3 belonged to Pedro and only Pedro. Martinez struck out 12 over seven scoreless innings at Fenway Park while the Red Sox beat up on Clemens and Hideki Irabu for a 13-1 victory, the only Yankee loss of the postseason.
While the Yankees won Game 4 by seven runs, it was close enough that Rivera got a five-out save in relief on Andy Pettitte. The Yankees went ahead for good on an error by Bret Saberhagen early and an error late led to a six-run ninth, capped by a Ledee grand slam.
Derek Jeter homered two batters into Game 5 while Hernandez tossed seven one-run innings en route to ALCS MVP. Ramiro Mendoza got out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning and closed out the series, sending the Yankees to their second straight World Series.
Team of the Decade
For most of the 1990s, the Braves were the bandied-about dynasty. They reached back-to-back World Series and finally won in 1995. Up 2-1 in the ’96 Fall Classic, they had their grasp on the heart of a decade and, one Jim Leyritz homer later, it slipped from their hands.
Even with the 125-win ’98 Yankees, the Braves had a chance to wrest control back of the decade in the ’99 World Series. They had the same Big 3 in their rotation and had the NL MVP with Hall of Famer Chipper Jones.
Game 1 pitted Greg Maddux against Hernandez and the duo gave fans at Turner Field a duel to remember. Jones broke the ice with a solo shot in the fourth inning and Maddux made it stand up … until the eighth.
The series pivoted on that eighth inning with the Yankees putting two runners on right away. Knoblauch bunted, but defensive replacement
Brian Jordan Brian Hunter misplayed the ball and loaded the bases for Jeter. Jeter singled and knocked Maddux out, tying the game.
Paul O’Neill then singled against John Rocker and a drawn-in infield as the Yankees went on to win, 4-1.
Hernandez struck out 10 and brought his postseason record to 5-0 at the time.
Six of the first seven batters reached against Kevin Millwood in Game 2 as the Yankees blew out the Braves, 7-2, behind a marvelous start from Cone.
Back at Yankee Stadium, Pettitte was shelled and the Braves took a 5-1 lead through four innings. The Bombers slowly chipped away against Tom Glavine with convicted awful human Chad Curtis, who didn’t even play Game 2, hitting a solo shot. Then Tino added one.
Bobby Cox allowed Glavine to start the eighth, which was a mistake. Joe Girardi singled and Knoblauch came through with a game-tying two-run shot to the short porch (Read: Our blog title) that snuffed out the Braves’ title hopes.
Rivera tossed two scoreless frames to bring back up Curtis, who led off the bottom of the 10th inning with a walk-off homer.
A forgotten performer in Game 3? Jason Grimsley. The right-hander relieved Pettitte and worked around four baserunners to keep the Braves at five through the sixth, paving the way for Jeff Nelson and Rivera. Without his sterling long relief, the comeback wouldn’t have been possible.
From there, it was simply a matter of whether it’d be another sweep. After a tough first season in pinstripes and a bad ALCS start, there were plenty of doubters for the 36-year-old Clemens. He put those doubts to rest when he touched Babe Ruth’s plaque before Game 4 and proceeded to shut down the Atlanta, providing the perfect culmination to his first title.
Rocket held Atlanta scoreless for the first seven innings. Meanwhile, the Yankees got all the runs they needed in the third inning. They loaded the bases off John Smoltz and brought up Tino Martinez with one down. Martinez hit a grounder which could have been double play fodder. Instead, it went off Ryan Klesko’s glove and into right field for a two-run single. A Jorge Posada single made it 3-0, which it’d stay until a lone run crossed in the eighth.
Aided by an insurance run, Rivera closed down a four-out save without issue. He forced Keith Lockhart to fly out to Curtis, and the celebration was on in the Bronx.
Rivera tossed 4.2 scoreless innings and had two saves to go with a win, earning MVP honors. For the unanimous Hall of Famer, it was a plaque-worthy accomplishment.
The 1999 Yankees remain mostly a footnote to the ’98 team for many, but I hope my long diatribes have shown some of the value hidden in remembering this great and worthy champion.