As anyone on the face of the civilized world knows by now , the New York Yankees have just completed one of the most dominating seasons in the history of professional sports. In the process, as many phemomenoms before them , sports or otherwise, they have captivated not only a city and a nation but much of the planet as well. I have seen Pakistani and Korean tourists visiting New York for the first time buying and proudly wearing Yankee caps and T-shirts. These people , obviously, know little or nothing about the game and are not truly baseball fans but are testimony to the Yanks compelling accomplishments.
But the full appreciation of what this team has done in 1998 belongs mainly to the dyed in the wool baseball fan. The guy who’s been following baseball as a religion , collecting cards , reading box scores and fantasying about being a big league hero long before his puberty began. It is among this elite group where now, in the afterglow of the success and celebration , that the endless debate over whether this is the greatest team of all time will rage in every locker room, bar room and office for most of this offseason.Many of the self proclaimed baseball gurus from all of the radio and TV talk shows and web sites have decided to take the politically correct approach and say that you cant really compare this team with the great ones of eras past. They say it’s an “apples and oranges” comparison. I say this is a load ! You can , and if you’re a true fan , should compare them.
And you can draw definitive conclusions.I agree that the debate over the “greatest” in most arenas is hopelessly subjective. Who was a greater president , Lincoln or Roosevelt? If you ask who was the sexiest female screen star ever , depending on who you talk to and what their tastes were , you’d be as likely to hear Jean Harlow or Lana Turner as Sharon Stone.The key difference here is that these qualities cannot really be quantitatively measured. The fundamentals of being a great leader or being sexy have not really evolved over the centuries. Our interpretation of these things may have but not the fundamental qualities themselves.
So comparing these qualities from different eras would be very very subjective.Baseball is different however. The game has evolved greatly over the decades and will continue to evolve.
So I propose when comparing the 1998 Yankees to the legendary teams of eras past you cannot do it based solely on on-field accomplishments or winning percentages or even number of hall of famers on their roster. The comparison must be made on the teams ability to play , compete in and win the game of baseball.So where does that rank this years World Champions ?Lets consider some of the great teams you have heard mentioned on the other side of this debate. First of all , lets immediately eliminate the 1906 Cubs or 1909 Pirates or any other teams prior to say 1920. The game of baseball was still fledgling back then and did not have even a percentile of the popularity it has now. Suppose some marketing genius decided to create a new sport with new rules and involving new skill sets. And lets say that this sport had instant fan appeal and drew a considerable number of participants and leagues were formed and fans paid to watch. Even with no prior history , this game in its initials years would have dominant teams.
There would probably even be teams that won 70-75 % of their games and swept their way to a championship. This would be more of a result of the initial recruiting process , payroll and luck of a given team over another. As time went by and the sport grew in popularity and revenue potential , more athletes would become involved in this sport. Secondary leagues would be formed and children would start playing.
The number of years of experience and skill sets of the players would grow exponentially each passing year, and thereby the level of competition would be greater. The team that won 75 % of the first seasons games would be sub .500 in a few years if it did not develop it’s talent.
The same comparison can be made to the early baseball teams. The level of competition had not matured to any appreciable level. There were very few bona-fide stars on the league and the sport itself did not have the widespread cultural status or media exposure it would grow to enjoy in years to come.The Cubs accomplishment of 1906 is not to be understated. They won 116 games and played at a .763 winning percentage. Although they were bested by the cross town rival White Sox in the World Series, they continued their dominance by coming back to claim the next two world titles (sadly for Cub fans the last ones they would ever win).
But the game was in an evolving stage and each year fan interest and talent grew. At the end of World War I , talent began to flood the majors and other markets began to accumulate that talent pushing the Cubs back to a second division teamThe next , and probably most oft mentioned , team that will be compared to the 1998 Yankees are their 1927 counterparts. For decades, this team was held as the barometer of greatness. The same arguments do not hold here since by the end of the roaring 20’s baseball was in fact a cultural past time and the league was laden with now legendary talent and none more so that what resided in the Bronx.
If you compare the teams on paper and look at ’27s Murders Row line up and their 110 wins , .714 winning percentage, World Series sweep and the gaudy numbers put up by the regulars in the line up, a very strong case can be made to dismiss the ’98 team as worthy competitors. But this view is grossly deceptive.First off if we look beneath the starting lineups and at the entire roster, things look much better for the 1998 team. As dominant as this early Yankee lineup was, it was focused mainly on five players , all who had outstanding seasons ; Ruth , Gehrig, Lazzeri , Combs and Meusel. There were weaknesses at shortstop, third base and catcher , but these were compensated by the performance of these five stars.
There was also no bench to speak of on this team which wasn’t a problem since the bench was a rarely utilized concept in 1927. The pitching staff was also rock solid with the four starters winning 18 or more games each win an ERA of 3.00 or under.I’ll contend that on paper perhaps this was baseballs greatest team ever. You can crunch the numbers all day and all night over and over and still find different angles which to view the results. But this debate is not about numbers but about who is a better team. And that’s the interpretation that I have of this, what team is more capable of winning a baseball game.
Period. The reason I feel that this is really not a contest is due to evolution. Evolution of baseball as a game and evolution of the athlete. In the seventy years since Murderer’s Row extolled their dominance on the league . Both athlete and game have come a long way and this, above any possible statistical fact , puts the modern day Yankees well above any team of this bygone era.
Consider what would happen if the 1927 Yankees somehow came back to earth in all their pride and glory with all of their abilities at the prime of their careers. And supposed they were pitted against the 1998 Yankees in a best of seven series , or best of nine or best of 25 or whatever. Can anyone possible argue what complete dominance the new era Yankees would have? Consider what is at the ’98 teams disposal both in the dugout and on the field.
Consider the advancements in training , conditioning , diet and rehab common to the modern athlete compared to the 1927 model. In 1927 an athletes diet was primarily red meat , whiskey and cigarettes. Spring training consisted of jumping jacks , tossing a medicine ball , and lots and lots of boozing. Natural athleticism had to go much further in 1927 since strength and conditioning were not nearly as much a part of the historical athletes regime as it is today. The elder Yankees did not have to endure night games , plane travel , exhaustive press conferences , local media pressure , contract negotiations and endorsements. The modern day athlete is stronger, faster, more resilient and , because of technological advancements and decades of history, smarter. Thrust into today’s game with today’s demands, the 1927 Yankees would not endureMore noteworthy than the athletes evolution is that of the game itself.
Baseball was far simpler in 1927. There was no strategy to speak of comparative to today. A manager has far more options to try and defeat another team.
A modern team uses its entire roster , platoons players to match opposing pitching , uses his bullpen to get better matchups , employs a five man pitching rotation and utilizes a great deal more strategy that has been proven throughout decades of experience. Also technology has given the modern day manager much more information with which to make game effective decisions such as situational statistics and player tendencies. The game , which once was based purely on ability , has evolved into as much of a science as an art. The edge physically and mentally is so very much in favor of the modern team.Additionally, there is the issue of the overall caliber of major league players today. The requirements to compete at the major league level are significantly higher that in the ’20s mainly because there are far more players vying to compete at that level. In modern baseball, players begin playing the sport in some organized fashion when they are very young.
After little leagues , there is scholastic competition and then, one of the single most significant enhancements ever to occur in the sport, the farm system. The minor league system which allows a franchise to grow and cultivate it’s talent prior to putting them at their highest level was instituted by the great Branch Rickey , the same man who broke baseballs color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson in 1947 , while he was the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s.Now , by the time a player reaches the major leagues , he has potentially 15 or more years of organized baseball experience under his belt. If you consider what a microscopic percentage of players with big leaguer aspirations actually make it to that level it’s easy to understand the overall level of talent required as opposed to that in 1927.For all of these stated reasons , I say you can eliminate not only the 1927 Yankees as the greatest team but also teams like the ’39 Yankees and ’54 Indians (who’s American League victory mark was surpassed by this years Yankees) and any other team of prior to , say 1960.Now at this point some may continue to pitch that pathetic “apples and oranges” argument and say that these teams should not be compared to teams that play in a modern day environment with modern day situations but should be evaluated based on their status and accomplishments relative to the situations and competition of their day. To me , that is not what’s being debated here.
This is to determine what team has the best ability to beat any other team .Many can make a case for John L. Sullivan , the turn of the century heavyweight who so clearly dominated boxing in his day ,fighting most of his bouts bareknucked , as being the best boxer ever. Others can chime in and say it was Dempsey or Louis.
But for almost identical reasons that I feel the Yankees are superior, I have no doubt that Ali or even Tyson would have cleaned these guys clocks in five rounds.So who does that leave as competitors to the ’98 Yankees as the greatest ever ?I submit a short list of : The ’61 Yankees , the ’70 Orioles , the ’76 Reds and the ’86 Mets.Most of my earlier arguments don’t hold water here since we are talking about more or less the same era.
Here we can compare these clubs team by team on pretty much an even surface. All of these teams has certain areas of strength greater that the ’98 Yankees. In the case of the ’76 Reds , if you combined the two clubs into one roster , the starting lineup (with no DH) would probably feature five Reds (Perez , Morgan , Rose , Bench , Foster) and probably a platoon of Griffey Sr. with O’Neill in right field.
However, the ’76 Reds starting rotation had only one pitcher that would crack the Yankees five man ensemble. (Don Gullet would probably replace Hideki Irabu as number five). Also the Reds bench no one who compared to what the Yankees had and their bullpen wasn’t nearly as sound.As far as the others on the list , all great teams by any measure , their focus was on specific strengths. The ’61 Yanks had tons of power and good starting pitching. The ’70 Orioles played flawless defense and had possibly the best four man rotation of the modern era , and the ’86 Mets had character, charisma and heart. But none had all of the ingredients that made , in my opinion, the ’98 Yankees the greatest of them all.
On the field this team had more balance , symmetry and depth than any ever. Lacking any one marquis superhero (ala Bonds , Griffey , Maddux , Belle , etc) , this team beat you up and down it’s lineup. Opposing pitchers had no soft spots to face 1 through 9.
They were masters at clutch hitting, solid fundaments , and flawless team work. Each month, each week , each day , a different player would emerge into the spotlight as the team hero. One player would go down to slump or injury and another would step in without the team losing any of its rhythm.
And while their bats and gloves seemed to rise to any and all occasions , their starting pitching and bullpen was equally brilliant. This team was the true definition of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Their tenacity , persistence and intensity created an aura which served to intimidate their opposition not only in their home temple of Yankee stadium , but as most unwelcome guests in the visitors ballpark as well.
And as with many great teams of the past, their were no ego clashes , no primadonnas. This was a team by every definition of what a team is supposed to be. Their unselfish style and reluctance to personal ambition was exhibited in their ability to support and compliment one another both on and off the field. And presiding over the whole affair was indisputably the games best management and coaching staff to grace a dugout in many years.
Consider also that all of this accomplishment was done under the constant scrutinizing eye of the most relentless and unforgiving media city in all of sports and a temperamental czar of an owner. So I submit to you that this years World Series champions is the team of the ages, capable of defeating any other team of any other era at any given time. This was a team of consummate professionals who gave a welcome respite to professional sports in an era were greed and individuality seem to be the motivating force.So what will come next ? Will a team come along and eclipse this ones accomplishments ? History says that that’s inevitable.My arguments about evolution of game and athlete would be flawed if I didn’t think this will eventually happen as well.
But the evolution of baseball has slowed considerably in recent years. For something to continue to evolve it has to start at its lowest level , in baseball’s case , children.There has been a notable reduction in interest of baseball for children in past years due to the alternate options for grabbing their interest. In the ’20’s through as recently as the ’70s a schoolboy not interested in watching , talking about or playing the game was considered by his peers to be somewhat of a freak. Frankly, come springtime , baseball was by far the primary diversion for school age boys. Recently other warm weather organized sports , perhaps a bit more “chic” or “’90s” such as organized soccer have cropped up and taken some kids off the diamond.
Additionally , thanks to increased family capital and modern technology , there are a lot more non athletic diversions like VCRs , cable TV, mountain bikes and video games that seem more appealing. It seems that the sport of baseball has lost much of the link to “americana” that it had enjoyed for many generations. This all has served to drive down participation in little league and school league baseball over recent years. In the ’60s a schoolboy would collect baseball cards and fantasize about being Mickey Mantle. Now he is more likely to collect beanie babies and fantasize about banging one of the spice girls.
Offsetting this has been the incredible wave of players coming in from foreign countries , particularly in 3rd world Latin American areas like the Dominican , Panama and Puerto Rico, who have no VCRs or video games and probably don’t even know who the Spice Girls are. They start playing baseball in the street at about five years old barefooted , with sticks as bats and rocks as balls and continue to play year round as a way of life never losing sight of their dream to make it to the bigs as many many of them have. The impact that these people have has on baseball has been astounding. Just ask Sammy Sosa. Using the world and not just our schoolyards as stock for future generations of baseball stars will serve to ensure that the level of talent in future generations will remain high.So will a team attain a higher status that our current Yankees ? Probably but don’t start to hold your breath.
What the Yankees did this season will be the benchmark and will be a source of pride and satisfaction for New Yorkers and baseball fans for many years.