- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
At the All-Star break in 1998, the New York Yankees had an 11-game lead in the AL East, and by Aug. 18, they had nearly doubled that margin. Their record was 92-30, so there really wasn't any question about whether they would make the playoffs -- only whether they would set a modern-day, single-season record for victories.
In fact, when they clinched a playoff spot, nobody realized it.
I was covering the Yankees that season for the New York Times, and on Aug. 29, they crushed the Mariners 11-6 in a Saturday afternoon home game. The postgame session was routine -- the writers first met with manager Joe Torre and then spoke to the players involved.
I was working on my game story in a silent press box when Ben Walker of the Associated Press mentioned out loud to the rest of us that he thought the Yankees might have wrapped up a playoff spot with their victory that day. Initially, his assertion didn't seem right. But Ben walked up to the back row, where I was writing, and showed me his notes: Because of upcoming games between teams that were chasing the Yankees, Ben ascertained, they had clinched.
The stadium was empty. The players were gone. Nobody had known.
I wrote about it in my story for the next day's paper. On the Sunday morning that followed, it was amusing to see the players learn about the clinching from reporters, rather than on the final strike of a tense late-September game.
But that year, the Yankees didn't care about just making the playoffs, or reaching the World Series. The players felt they had blown a great chance in the '97 playoffs against the Indians, and the Yankees went into 1998 on a mission to win the championship. Or bust.
This drove them to the greatest season in the history of baseball. They crushed teams with their rotation, with the depth of their lineup, with their bullpen, with their bench. They outscored opponents that year by 309 runs, or almost two runs per game. Every member of their primary every-day lineup had an on-base percentage of at least .350. They led the AL in ERA by a little less than half a run per game. They allowed only 37 unearned runs the entire season, one of the lowest totals in history at that time. Their hitters accumulated almost 200 walks more than their pitchers allowed.
They had lost the first three games of the regular season, and after that, they were never really vulnerable again until one 48-hour period in the American League Championship Series, until Orlando Hernandez struck out Jim Thome on a 3-2 changeup with the bases loaded -- a pitch El Duque had learned only weeks before -- to end a sixth-inning rally in Game 4.
Otherwise, they did in the postseason what they had done all season long en route to a 114-48 record. They won 11 of 13 games and outscored their opponents 62-34 in those three rounds of the postseason. They wrecked opponents.
The 1975 Reds were an incredible team loaded with Hall of Fame-caliber players, and their run differential was 55 runs less than the '98 Yankees. The '27 Yankees and '39 Yankees were two of the greatest teams in history, but there were fewer hurdles: only 16 teams in the majors, not 30, and just one round of the postseason. Owners reserved the right to keep star players and pay them what they wanted to, rather than see them walk away as free agents.
The roster of the 1993 Blue Jays was extraordinary and ridiculously well-rounded, and they won 19 fewer games in the regular season. The 2001 Seattle Mariners won more regular-season games (116) than the '98 Yankees, but they lost in the second round of the postseason -- to the Yankees, who understood the legacy they were trying to protect as they beat the Mariners in that ALCS.
It's just a conversation, and reasonable minds can disagree. But I think a strong case can be made for the '98 Yankees as the greatest team of all time.
One rule of thumb as you read my ranking of the Top 10 teams of all time: I don't think any team can really be considered for this list unless they won the World Series. Otherwise, it's like saying Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich or Stephen Douglas is the greatest presidential candidate ever. You have to win the big one.
1. 1998 New York Yankees
The one team in the past seven decades to come close to the '98 Yankees' run differential was the 2001 Mariners. From Elias, here are the greatest run differentials since the end of World War II -- and remember, baseball is set up to spread talent out far more evenly in the modern game, making it much harder to dominate: