• Sal Maiorana

Interlude: In 1997, things just didn't go as planned

The confetti had barely been swept off the streets along the Canyon of Heroes parade route in Lower Manhattan when the first signs emerged that 1997 might not be quite the same as 1996 for the Yankees. If Joe Torre was hoping for peace and tranquility as the team headed into spring training following the Yankees’ first World Series title since 1978, it was naïve on his part, though perhaps born from the fact that he’d only been part of the Bronx Zoo for one year. He likely knew from afar that even in good times there was rarely a sense of true serenity when George Steinbrenner was alive. Now, Torre was right in the middle of it. So many things had gone right on the way to the championship in 1996, and Torre was like a chess master maneuvering the pieces around the board. And even when the waters got choppy, Torre stood calmly at the helm and steered the Yankees through the white caps and the swells, particularly when their 12-game lead in late July shriveled to 2.5 in early September and Yankee fans were apoplectic, fearing a magical season was going to die an awful death. At every turn the Yankees found a way to get it done with critical contributions coming from players up and down the roster. When it was over, Torre and Steinbrenner stood on a podium inside the clubhouse sharing a hug and a cry as they hoisted the franchise’s 23rd championship trophy. Truly, a season for the ages. “Sometimes it’s overwhelming when I go back and look at what happened,” David Cone reflected as the Yankees headed to Tampa for spring training in 1997. “Not only personally, but for the entire team. There were so many human-interest stories.” In the next breath, though, Cone warned, “That sort of magic, that sense of destiny, probably can’t be duplicated” and Torre agreed with his star pitcher. “It’s tough to keep people together,” Torre said. “You knew the day after the season was over that we wouldn’t have all of the people back. We were happy to accomplish what we did with the people we had. Now you just turn the page. The next Yankee team is going to be different. We are never going to repeat that.” Well, they certainly didn’t in 1997. As copacetic as his first year in the Bronx had been, many things conspired against the Yankees repeating as World Series champions, and the seeds of struggle were planted in the offseason and bloomed during the spring.

Cecil Fielder and Charlie Hayes were both upset that they were likely going to be platoon players and requested trades, neither of which was granted. Newly-signed David Wells got into a fight in his hometown of San Diego and broke his hand, and then he showed up in Tampa 20 pounds overweight and suffering from gout. Wade Boggs was as unhappy about the proposed sharing of third base with Hayes as Hayes was. Even mild-mannered Bernie Williams was grumbling about his contract, demanding an extension after his brilliant postseason performance. “I don’t like things too calm,” Steinbrenner joked before the first full team workout. “I worry when things are too calm. I picture a ship in the ocean with no wind and the sails all up. If there’s no wind, then it doesn’t go anywhere.” Things did eventually calm down, but the Yankees lost 10 of their first 15 games and never recovered. Baltimore became just the sixth major-league team in history to lead its division or league from wire to wire, ultimately building a 9.5-game lead in early June before holding on for dear life at the end to edge the Yankees by two games. The 1997 Yankees actually finished with a 96-66 record, four games better than the 1996 championship team, and there were several notable performances along the way. No one was reminiscing much about Don Mattingly anymore as Tino Martinez followed his strong 1996 Yankee debut season with a phenomenal year-long performance. He finished second in the American League MVP balloting to Seattle’s Ken Griffey Jr. as he slugged 44 home runs, drove in 141, and had a slash line of .296/.371./.577 with an OPS of .948. Every one of those numbers would hold up as Martinez’s career highs. Williams had 21 homers, 100 RBI, and a team-high .952 OPS; Paul O’Neill hit 21 bombs, drove in 117, and his .399 on-base was nine points less than Williams’ team-best mark; Derek Jeter backed up his rookie of the year season by hitting .291; Jorge Posada became a regular and batted .250 with 17 homers while sharing the catching duties with Joe Girardi; Andy Pettitte anchored the rotation as he went 18-7 with a 2.88 ERA and 1.240 WHIP, and Wells and David Cone were solid as well; and Mariano Rivera, who discovered how to throw the now-famous cutter midway through the year, excelled in place of the departed John Wetteland, saving 43 games with an ERA of 1.88. On the downside, Fielder, Hayes and Boggs grumbled most of the season, did not produce up to their expected levels, and saw their days in pinstripes come to an end. Kenny Rogers and Dwight Gooden both posted ERA’s above five, and the much-anticipated – not to mention controversial – debut of Japanese star Hideki Irabu was a flop as he got knocked around to the tune of a 7.09 ERA after joining the team at midseason. Irabu was so bad that he was left off the postseason roster, what little there was of it as the Yankees were only around for five games. They took on Cleveland, won two of the first three games, and were four outs away from advancing to meet Baltimore in the ALCS. However, Sandy Alomar stunned Rivera by hitting a game-tying home run in the eighth inning of Game 4, and then against Ramiro Mendoza in the ninth, Marquis Grissom singled and came around to score on Omar Vizquel’s decisive RBI single which tied the series at two games each. “It’s very tough, it’s too hard,” a distraught Rivera said. “It’s going to take a while because I feel like it was my fault. You make a mistake and you pay for it.” The next day the Indians took a 4-0 lead on Pettitte, and after letting the Yankees creep back within 4-3, they turned to Jose Mesa who closed the door over the final two innings to clinch the series. “I thought we were going to win the whole thing,” Wells said in the somber clubhouse in Cleveland. “My stomach was hurting because I thought we were going all the way. I really thought this was going to be a storybook finish.” “My mom used to say everything happens for a reason,” said Torre. “The reason might not be apparent to you for a while. That’s the only way you can go on. If you beat yourself up and think why did this happen, or why did that happen, you’ll go nuts.”

NEXT POST on June 26: Failing to win in 1997 cranks up the heat for 1998.