Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Book Chat: Jack Curry On His New Book, "The 1998 Yankees," The Greatest Ever

The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever 

By Jack Curry

Twelve; 288 pages; hardcover, $30; eBook, $16.99; available today, Tuesday, May 2nd

Jack Curry is an an analyst on the Yankees' pregame and postgame shows on the YES Network, where he has worked since 2010. He has won five New York Emmy Awards. Prior to that, Curry covered baseball for 20 seasons, first as the Yankees' beat writer and then as a national baseball columnist. He is the co-author of three acclaimed books on the Yankees, Swing and a Hit, with Paul O'Neill, which was released last year (click here for Brooklyn Digest's coverage); Full Count: The Education of a Pitcher, with David Cone, from 2019 (click here for our coverage); and The Life You Imagine, with Derek Jeter, which came out in 2001.

In his new book The 1998 Yankees, Curry examines why this team, that went 125-50 on their way to winning the World Series, should be acknowledged as one of the greatest ever.

Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner said at the time, "Right now, you would have to call them the best team ever."

With the 25th anniversary of that wonderful season upon us, Curry revisits the season to discuss how the team was built and why the Yankees were such a talented, compelling, and successful club. 

The story of the season, which was full of memorable moments, is told through Curry's observations and reporting from that season, as well as interviews with more than 25 players, coaches, and executives, who revealed some behind-the-scenes stories about the journey they took to reach greatness. One of the big moments was David Wells' perfect game, and the story around that remarkable achievement shows what made the team special.

The players that led this team, and other championship seasons before and after 1998, are some of the most recognizable, beloved players in Yankees history, among them Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada, and the uncomparable closer Mariano Rivera.

In addition, the 1998 Yankees had new faces added to what was already an incredible lineup that had won the World Series two years before. Chuck Knoblauch was brought in from Minnesota to be a solid presence leading off, Scott Brosius took over at third base and became the World Series MVP, veteran Chili Davis was a force, and, at the end of the season, phenom Shane Spencer, who did nothing but hit home runs in September. There also was addition of El Duque, Orlando Hernandez, and all the excitement around what he brought to the team, to one of the best rotations in history.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Jack Curry about The 1998 Yankees, and here is that conversation (edited and condensed for clarity:

Jack Curry. Photo credit: E.H. Wallop.

Jason Schott: How did this one differ from the ones you recently wrote with David Cone and Paul O'Neill?

Jack Curry: When you're writing a book with a player, Jason, your mission is to make sure you tell their story, you tell their story accurately, but you also have to get their voice. You want people who are their friends or their family to pick up that book and say to themselves, 'wow, this sounds like Paul wrote it,' 'wow, this sounds like David wrote it,' and that's challenging. I do appreciate that Cone's father and O'Neill's wife both told me that they felt as if they had written the book, so that's a challenge that I didn't have with this book. This is Jack Curry's book; I didn't have to sit in my office at 1 o'clock in the morning some night and, after I wrote a passage, say 'eh, not sure Paul would have said it that way,' or 'I better go back to my notes and try to see how Paul might have phrased that,' and it's obviously, when you're doing a book with an athlete, it's not stenography; I don't want to boil it down to that. It's much more different than that. but it's trying to find the guy's voice, and I have to tell you, Jason, it was liberating to write this book because it's Jack Curry's voice, it's my observations from that season, it's my reporting, it's my interviews, and I did feel a level of freedom in not having to be there to mimic someone's voice.

JS: Were you still the Yankees beat writer for the New York Times that season before you became the national baseball columnist?

JC: It's interesting, I got off the beat in '97; Buster Olney took over, he was the beat writer in '98. I was a national writer in '98, but the Yankees were the biggest national story, so I ended up covering a ton of that team.

JS: So, you were jumping back and forth between the Yankees and the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run chase that summer?

JC: I was in St. Louis when McGwire hit 62, exactly right, and I did not do a ton of McGwire and Sosa in this book, only because I wasn't ignoring them. I mentioned it a few times, but my goal was to tell the story of the Yankees, but if you do go back and you did a daily capturing of that '98 season, those guys were getting a lot more publicity than the Yankees were. The Yankees were just a machine, they kept winning, which was less sexy than two guy who, at the time, were having a very cordial, very friendly chase to the top of the mountaintop, so that got a lot more attention.

JS: You write that the Yankees knew that at the time and took a sense of pride in that, calling themselves "grinders," that while they were hitting home runs, they were grinding out wins every day.

JC: If you look at that lineup - up and down that lineup - I think you could describe all of those guys as grinders. It was Knoblauch's first season, and he brought an energy at the top of the lineup, we know who Jeter is, O'Neill was a grinder, Tino Martinez was a grinder, Brosius was a grinder. People I think often misconstrued who Bernie Williams was, but this was a guy who was going to lay a heavy at-bat on you every time, and one of the things that I'm glad that I did in this book, Jason, was I found (former Red Sox catcher) Jason Varitek at a Yankees-Red Sox game one day. He was a rookie in '98, so I wanted to get someone's perspective who had to sort of battle that lineup, and as we sat in the Yankee Stadium third base dugout, you could see Varitek almost reliving a nightmare, basically saying, 'yeah, we tried to do this to O'Neill, but it didn't work that often,' 'oh, we tried to do this to Bernie, but you couldn't really get him out here,' Tino was this, and he turned to me and said, 'I feel like I'm giving you the same scouting report on every guy, but that's who they were, they were just so difficult to get out, they extended at-bats, etc.'

JS: I think it was necessary context that you begin the book with the loss in 1997 in the American League Division Series in Cleveland when they were defending their World Championship. How important was it to start there?

JC: I thought it was of vital importance because I truly believe, as I wrote, that the march through 1998 started in '97. I think it's 15 guys played for '96, '97, and '98, and I think 23 played for '97 and '98 - obviously we're not just talking 25-man rosters, so you had a lot of overlap. You had a lot of guys who lived that nightmare, and Jason, they felt they were a better team in '97 than they were in '96. I'm not saying they thought it was going to be a cakewalk, but they saw back-to-back championships right before their eyes, and when that ended, I'll still remember that clubhouse and just how morose they felt. Steinbrenner walking around patting guys on the back, saying, 'We'll do it again, we're going to win it next year,' and in the moment, you think, 'okay, George, sure, say whatever an owner is supposed to say.' Well, he was right, and that team was committed to not letting that happen again, so I thought we had to start in '97, I think the chapter was called "Before Glory, Suffering," and I think it was true. '98 doesn't happen in the manner that it did, with that dominance, unless they had some suffering in '97. Not saying they wouldn't have won in '98, but I think from Day 1, after that little hiccup in the first week, that team was on a rampage.

JS: I forgot the adversity they faced in the first month, that they opened in another house of horrors, Seattle, and then after a wild 13-10 Opening Day win at Yankee Stadium over Oakland, a beam at The Stadium came down, forcing them to rearrange a bunch of games.

JC: It was a crazy start to the season. Everyone knows there was a lot of angst spilled about Torre's future. I found out, and I don't think this was heavily reported back then, if much since then, that Cashman felt that his job was also in jeopardy. You mention the other things that were happening, but by the time that beam fell, after that, that team was already starting to go on a roll. I think it said a lot about their resilience that they were bouncing around to different parts of the country, they played a couple games at Shea, they relocated a series, I think, with Detroit - they just kept winning, and so, you started to see who that team was going to become.

JS: On May 19, 1998, the Yankees had a massive brawl with the Baltimore Orioles, which began with Armando Benitez hitting Tino Martinez intentionally in the back with a fastball, which you say really galvanized them. 

JC: I don't think the Yankees needed to be galvanized, but I think the Orioles poked the bear, so to speak. The Orioles/Armando Benitez because it was a one-man show, you saw, and I've watched that YouTube video probably 15 times while writing this book, you just saw the Yankees like a tidal wave after that happened. They were just attacking the Orioles dugout, 25 guys that had their eyes on Benitez, and they were not going to let anybody push them around, and as much as they were respected around the league, and they had players who were gentleman, I do think that that incident sent a message. I do think that incident said, 'whoa, wait a second, you're not doing that after Bernie Williams hits a home run. You're not doing that to Tino Martinez, we are not letting that happen on our turf!'

JS: I watched the clip again myself, it was a 98 miles-per-hour fastball in the numbers.

JC: There was no doubt he was throwing at him, and Benitez has tried to say the pitch got away from him, etc. Everybody on both teams knew that it did not, and Tino and Posada were really good talking about that in the book. I appreciated them going back with me and reviewing what happened in that situation because I think galvanizing is the perfect word. That's what that moment did.

JS: You mention Posada, he really became a regular part of that lineup in 1998, along with other new faces Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Brosius, who was an afterthought when they got him, and Chili Davis. How did that change the dynamic of the lineup?

JC: I talked to a lot of the leftover guys, Jeter, O'Neill, Cone, and they were impressed with how quickly those guys fit in. I even said to Jeter, well, how could the guys like the ones you just mention, really understand what you experienced in '97, he said, 'oh, if you were in our clubhouse, you got it. If you were in our clubhouse, you understood what we felt we left out there' so they were part of that very quickly. I think Knoblauch brought a toughness and a grittiness. At that moment in time, his career is on a Hall of Fame trajectory. I know when you look at what happened in New York, it probably did not turn out totally the way Chuck would have wanted, even though he got three World Series rings, but the Yankees needed a pesky leadoff hitter at the top and a guy who could be tough, and Knoblauch was that guy. Brosius, and Cashman said it best, he just was a gift that fell out of the clouds - or maybe he said that about El Duque, but it actually applies to both of them. I think when you were going to have a great team/extraordinary team, you have to have some players who did things that you didn't expect, and to me the three guys were Brosius, Spencer, and El Duque because, in spring training, if you mentioned those three names, you would have had a Cuban pitcher who they didn't know a ton about who they just signed, a career minor leaguer, and a guy who just hit .200 in Oakland. Instead, they turned out to be three essential pieces of one of the best teams of all time.

JS: What was it like when El Duque arrived because they had to fight to get him in, and the second he showed up, he was incredible.

JC: I loved covering El Duque, I loved covering his games, I loved his antics in the clubhouse, and in the beginning, he was so fresh-faced and so excited and so new, he talked right up to the moments he was starting, which was unbelievable because, as you know, starting pitchers rarely talk, and he was so animated, (first base coach) Jose Cardenal would translate for him, so you did feel as if you were covering a showman on and off the mound, and just the way he pitched. John Flaherty (Jack's YES colleague who was on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998) had a good anecdote in the book where El Duque pitched against Tampa Bay (in his first start on June 3, 1998), and Flaherty said that their scouting report said basically 'mediocre fastball, throw a couple of breaking pitches.' He said that the scouting report gave you no glimpse into who El Duque really was, with the different arm angles, pitching to the corners, the way he would compete, so he really was a delight to cover...(Flaherty) wasn't in the lineup, but he remembered the scouting report.

JS: One of the fascinating things in the book was David Cone was the leader of the pitching staff, how he had a great relationship with David Wells that you highlight, and took El Duque under his wing through the season.

JC: Cone was the guy who took pressure off people in the clubhouse because he enjoyed the interaction with the media, he didn't mind talking every day, and some position players didn't want to do that. O'Neill, who I had a good relationship with, he really didn't want to answer baseball questions every day. Cone loved it, Cone reveled in doing that. It took the pressure off guys who just wanted to maybe go get their work done.

JS: That's pretty instructive that, as a starting pitcher he would do that.

JC: Cone was very big on being a teammate in the four days where he wasn't pitching, and he said not every starting pitcher is like that, but he felt that if he could help a teammate on a day he wasn't pitching, well, why wouldn't he do that? If he knew there was something that a right-hander was trying to do to Chuck Knoblauch, he would let him know, and a lefty was doing this to Paul O'Neill, he would let him know. Some guys were receptive, some guys weren't, but yeah, they didn't have a captain back then, but put it this way, I'll take captain out of the equation, if you took a poll in 1998 and asked those Yankees players who was their favorite guy on the team, who was the most popular guy, it would be David Cone, without a doubt Cone would win that.

JS: Cone and Wells kind of epitomized the mix of players the Yankees had on this team, in that Cone was very thoughtful of a player, while Wells was fiery, and it seemed that split evenly throughout the team. How did Joe Torre manage those personalities, and how had he evolved in his third year at the helm?

JC: I thought Torre, when he came in, I'm going to go back a little bit to '96, I thought he was the perfect manager for that '96 team because there were some struggles. Joe had a soothing way about him that I think, in the course of a long baseball season, you need. This isn't football; you don't play just once a week and you can't be screaming at guys, so when Joe did scream or did yell at a guy, it resonated because he did it so rarely. I think in '98, and I interviewed Torre for this book, Torre takes less credit. He said he noticed in spring training, and then of course they had that hiccup at the beginning of the season, but he noticed in spring training how driven this team was, and he said he could sense it from an early part of the spring and he kind of just jumped on their backs. Now, there's more to it than that, obviously a manager makes who knows how many decisions every day, but Torre gave the team a lot of credit for being the ones that drove the bus in '98...I always called Joe soothing - soothing and stoic, I thought those were the traits he exhibited as a manager.

JS: How important was it to have a postscript at the end of the book updating where every player is at present, good or bad, with some that are quite surprising.

JC: Very important, Jason. I'm a journalist and I was covering the 1998 season, and I was telling people about that, but I felt that we would have been remiss if we didn't at least give people a thumbnail sketch of what has happened in the last 25 years. There are some people whose lives probably didn't twist and turn in the way that they had hoped they would, so I did want to make sure that we mention that. It's a book about the 1998 Yankees, I wasn't going to do a whole chapter on player X who has had a lot of difficulty, but I did want to let the readers know what has happened across the last 25 years.

JS: Would you say this is the best team ever because, in the past 25 years, no team has come close to what they achieved, like some teams have won around 110 games, but fizzled out of the playoffs since then. This team did everything you possibly could.

JC: I do think it's the best team ever. I should preface that by saying it's probably impossible to pick a 'best team ever,' but we debate everything, we argue about everything, we discuss everything, so when it came time for me to write a book because I do believe this was the best team ever, and you're right, no one has come close to 125 wins. I have a ton of other stats in this book that express why I thought they were the best team ever, and I thought Cone put it very nicely in terms of roster construction, as well, just how every guy knew his role, and that's what made them so great because Homer Bush knew his role, Andy Pettitte knew his role, Mike Stanton knew his role, up and down that roster they were just loaded with talented players whose desire was to win.

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