• Sal Maiorana

Losing was not an option for the '98 Yankees

NEW YORK (July 2, 1998) – It didn’t matter to the 1998 Yankees who they were playing, where they were playing, how many runs they were down, or how many games they were ahead in the non-competitive chase for the AL East crown.

Losing simply wasn’t tolerated. Losing was not an option for these guys.

People used to joke that George Steinbrenner thought his teams should go 162-0 every year. In 1998, it seemed the Yankees themselves felt that’s what should have happened, too.

If there was any day when they could have been excused for not having the ambition or the wherewithal to push through and find a way to win, it was this nondescript Thursday night, an interleague game no less, against the mediocre Phillies.

They had already won the first two games, making this the 28th non-losing series in the 30 to date, and they were 10 games ahead of the Red Sox. So, when Hideki Irabu got lit up for five runs inside the first four innings and the Yankees were staring at a 7-2 deficit going into the bottom of the eighth, they could have mailed it in and accepted defeat for just the 21st time in 78 games, especially with division rival Baltimore due into the Bronx next.

Not this team. Losing wasn’t tolerated. Losing was not an option.

They scored three times in the eighth, gave up a run in the ninth, and then, with two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the ninth, Derek Jeter doubled, Paul O’Neill walked, and Tino Martinez launched a dramatic game-tying three-run homer, sending what was left of the crowd into a frenzy.

The Yankees weren’t going to lose now, surely the Phillies knew it, though New York’s 9-8 victory didn’t register until the 11th when rookie Ricky Ledee came through with a game-winning bases-loaded single up the middle.

“Incredible,” said David Cone, who sat out in the bullpen watching the Yankees pull out one of the most improbable victories of the season, a game most other teams would not have won.

“I’m proud of the way this team plays from behind,” Joe Torre said as the Yankees won the third in what would become a season-best 10-game winning streak. “We still play the same brand of baseball. It’s a great feeling for the manager that these guys don’t phone it in. They get into a pretty good routine and way of playing the game. I’m proud of that.”

For Martinez, coming through in a big spot was nothing new, but that was the case for most of these Yankees. “It seems every time that situation arises for us,” Martinez said, “the hot man is up.”

Ledee was not part of that group though. At least not until now.

He was just 16 years old when New York picked him in the 16th-round of the 1990 draft and he toiled eight years in the minors, not even reaching Double-A until 1996.

The Yankees did not give up on him, and at long last, with Bernie Williams headed to the disabled list with a sprained knee, Ledee got the call and made his debut on June 14, the day David Cone struck out 12 Indians.

Ledee singled off Jaret Wright in his first big-league at-bat, and by the time O’Neill trotted home with the winning run against Philadelphia three weeks hence, Ledee’s average was at .304, his on-base percentage .385.

‘‘You root for anyone who is called up to do well,’’ said Jeter. ‘‘But this was special for me, personally, because I played with Ricky in the minors in 1992. We’ve played together for a while. He’s a quality person, so I am pulling for him.’’

When he was 12 years old, Ledee had argued with his father, a musician in their native Puerto Rico, just before Antonio Ledee was leaving on a trip to perform. Ricky did not kiss his father goodbye that day in May 1986, and hours later 35-year-old Antonio was killed in a car accident, leaving behind Ricky, his brother Omar, and their mother, Anita, who was pregnant with a third son who would be named Anthony.

‘‘He wanted me to be a professional ballplayer,’’ Ledee told the New York Times. ‘‘I didn’t play for a long, long time. He was the one who wanted me to play. He was a singer and he didn’t want me doing that. He pushed me to play baseball. When he died, I couldn’t play anymore.’’

But he returned to the game six months after the accident, and now, more than a decade later, having endured a long journey to get to the Bronx, he was delivering the first game-winning hit of his Yankees career.

“It makes you feel that you have contributed to the team,” said Ledee. “Every chance that I have, I just try to get the job done. I just wanna take advantage of everything. I’m here, and until they send me down, I’m still here.”

He would get sent down after the All-Star break, but he would return when the rosters expanded in September. When it was announced just before the start of the postseason that Darryl Strawberry had colon cancer, Ledee took his spot on the 25-man roster and he would go on to start three of the four World Series games against San Diego, going 2-for-3 in each game and driving in four runs.

NEXT POST on Aug. 4: The Straw Man delivers again.