• Sal Maiorana

Three losses to open 1998, and the panic meter was really jumping

OAKLAND (April 5, 1998) – What happened to the Yankees during the first three nights of the 1998 season was no laughing matter unless, of course, you were a member of the Oakland A’s. “The Yankees? Come on, be serious,” said second baseman Scott Spiezio, who was asked – apparently by reporters with straight faces – whether the Yankees were in trouble after they’d dropped their first three games of the season. “They’re going to be fine. Believe me.”

Added third baseman Dave Magadan, “How is anyone going to keep that lineup down for very long? I mean, they’re great. A team that talented will click all at once. Give it a couple of days.” Of course, as it turned out, truer words could not have been spoken, but no one knew it at the time as mass hysteria was setting in after New York got outscored 21-6 in losing twice to Anaheim and once to Oakland. Spiezio and Magadan had spoken a day earlier when Spiezio hit a go-ahead grand slam off David Cone in the sixth inning to lift the A’s to a 7-3 victory, giving New York its first 0-3 start since 1985. That was the year Yogi Berra was fired 16 games into the season and declared he would never return to Yankee Stadium as long as George Steinbrenner owned the team, a proclamation he had yet to go back on to this point. Never mind that the high-priced Yankee offense had done nothing in the first three games, and the Yankee pitchers had been knocked all around two ballparks. Young Brian Cashman – in the general manager’s office barely two months – and Joe Torre were the poor souls who were already feeling the wrath of the Boss, even though Steinbrenner was back in New York and not on the opening trip. “We are the Yankees, there is always going to be hype for us,” Cashman said. “It’s nice to have on paper a team that makes a lot of people pick you. But because you have name recognition does not mean you will be champs. I don’t think anyone in this organization thought this would be easy.” In Torre’s book The Yankee Years, written with Tom Verducci, the manager recalled Steinbrenner summoning Cashman back to New York from Oakland following the third loss. Why that was necessary, no one knew, but it seemed to Torre as if it were a punishment of some sorts, as if the Yankees’ early struggles were Cashman’s fault. So when the Yankees finally rang the bell in 1998 by defeating the A’s 9-7 in a back-and-forth 10-inning struggle, Torre passed around his lineup card from the game, had every player sign it, and mailed it back to Yankee Stadium, care of Cashman. His accompanying note read: “Congratulations, the first of many” meaning this was officially Cashman’s first victory as Yankee GM, even if he was no longer in Oakland to enjoy it. “When you take this job, you know what you’re getting into,” Torre said as he was being peppered with questions about his job security which seemed very much in peril, even with this initial victory. After all, the 1996 championship was long forgotten, replaced by Torre’s failure to repeat in 1997. “Really,” Torre continued, “if I worried about him (Steinbrenner) then I’d be managing scared and distracted, and I’ll never do that. What we’ve accomplished in the last two years has put my mind at ease.” It was a brave public front, but with expectations through the roof for this Yankee team, losing 4-1 and 10-2 in Anaheim and then 7-3 to the A’s, Torre knew the owner was in panic mode and if he did anything rash, Torre’s head was going to roll, not Cashman’s. Which is why the victory over the A’s was so very needed, even though it was tempered by the pulled groin suffered by closer Mariano Rivera which would disable him for nearly three weeks. Making his first appearance of the season, Rivera blew the save in the eighth inning when he couldn’t protect a 5-4 lead. After New York regained a 7-5 lead in the ninth, Rivera retired the first two A’s in the bottom of the ninth before injuring himself. This meant the Yankees would have to get their season headed in the right direction without their best reliever and would have to rely on the lefty-right combination of Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson to close games. Both were certainly capable, but neither were close to being the equal of Rivera. If all that wasn’t bad enough, Graeme Lloyd replaced Rivera and couldn’t get the last out. He walked Matt Stairs on a 3-2 pitch and then gave up a tying two-run homer to Jason Giambi. One can only imagine Steinbrenner back in New York watching this happen, but thankfully, for the sanity of everyone in the organization, the Yankees bounced back from that double dose of disaster to win the game. They scored twice in the 10th with Chuck Knoblauch and Derek Jeter delivering two runs with a sacrifice fly and a single, respectively, and then Nelson locked down the first of what would ultimately be 125 victories, pumping his fist after recording the final out as if the Yankees had just won a playoff game, which is what this game sort of felt like. “This is more satisfying, because we rammed a lot of stuff into today,” Torre said. “This may tell us something about ourselves.”

NEXT POST on July 3: Joe Torre vents during a season-turning meeting in Seattle.