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Speed, Power, Heat: An Inside

Posted: Tue May 12, 1998

Are the Bronx Bombers ready to make
another run at the World Series? After
last season's disappointing finish, the
New York Yankees have jumped out
to one of the best starts in baseball
history. In this week's SI, senior writer
Tom Verducci draws some conclusions
about the game's flagship franchise.

CNN/SI asked Verducci a few
questions about the piece, which
reaches newsstands and subscribers
starting Wednesday.

Will the Yankees win the Series? (400K)

CNN/SI: Is the Yankees' early success a case of a lot of people playing
well at the same time, or are they really this good?

Tom Verducci: I actually think this is how good they are. I think they are a
great team that's hot right now, but when they cool off I don't think they'll
cool off by much. They don't have a Griffey in there, and they don't even
have a Tony Gwynn, but 1 through 9, everybody in their lineup battles the
pitcher. Every batter is a tough out. And their clutch hitters, the big guys in
the middle of the lineup, take a lot of pitches, they really make the pitchers
work. And I think basically they wear down people. There's no spot in that
lineup a pitcher can look forward to. Sometimes you'll pitch around a guy
and pick somebody else in the lineup you want to get out—I don't think you
can do that with this Yankee lineup.

CNN/SI: You write in the story that during spring training manager Joe
Torre gave everyone the green light to steal bases. Where did this sudden
fondness for running come from?

Verducci: In the second half of '96, when the Yankees picked up Darryl
Strawberry and Cecil Fielder, their personality changed from a National
League-style, aggressive team to a traditional, American League,
let's-hit-some-home runs kind of team. And they actually stayed a little bit
too much that way last year as well. When they got to spring training this
year—obviously getting Chuck Knoblauch will help your running game—I
think Torre wanted to remind them about being aggressive. So when he gave
everybody the green light, he wanted to find out which guys would run in
which situations. And he got a better feel for how aggressive guys are, and
he realized this team does like to run.

To me, Derek Jeter is the perfect example of that, because Jeter was a big
base-stealer in the minor leagues, and, in his first couple years in New York,
he didn't run as much. Now he's much more comfortable, he knows pitchers
better, and his stolen-base percentage has been terrific, which means he's
picking good counts to run on and good situations to run.

CNN/SI: What kind of influence has Darryl Strawberry had on this team?

Verducci: He's healthy now. Last year his knee just never was healthy; he
basically couldn't hit last year. He was just a one-legged batter. I remember
Gene Michael, who's now a Yankee scout, telling me in January, after
watching Strawberry work out down in Tampa, "If you are in any rotisserie
league, take this guy." Michael saw that the snap was back in Darryl's swing.
The other thing is that with his legs healthy, he's also running. And a lot of
times you look at stolen bases as the measure of a running game, but the
Yankees like to take extra bases, and Strawberry's been very good about
that. If you have a DH who runs the bases well, and who will hit 20 home
runs for you, it's a bonus.

CNN/SI: What about the success of Hideki Irabu? Was it just a matter of
him getting acclimated to this country?

Verducci: Looking back on it, I think the Yankees would definitely say they
rushed Irabu last year, and all the hype about being the Japanese Nolan
Ryan certainly didn't help. He really wasn't in shape to pitch last year—he
was heavy, he didn't have the benefit of spring training, his arm strength
wasn't there—and the Yankees asked him to come out and be Nolan Ryan
right away, which was, looking back on it, unfair. This year he's a little bit
lighter—he's not a fitness freak by any means—but he's a little bit lighter,
and his stuff is just so much better. He's throwing a lot harder now, he added
a two-seam fastball, his curveball—Mel Stottlemyre worked with him on
that—is much sharper than it was last year. So the whole package is better.
Plus, except for maybe one or two rare instances, he's really kept his
composure on the mound. Last year any little thing, an umpire's bad call on a
pitch, would set him off and it would lead to a home run. Now he's just not
giving anything away on the mound, he's very composed, and he has good

CNN/SI: You mention David Cone's injury problems and David Wells'
inconsistency in the story. Is the starting rotation the Yankees' most glaring
soft spot?

Verducci: One of the things that makes the Yankees so good is, if they lost
one of their everyday players for a month with an injury, I really don't think
there would be a big dropoff. It wouldn't be like the Dodgers losing Mike
Piazza or the Mariners losing Ken Griffey. The Yankees have got great
depth. But pitching-wise, especially with David Cone, they'd be in a spot of
trouble. Cone's knee injury kind of scared them a bit. It looks like he's going
to be fine, but it kind of reminded them of just how valuable Cone is. His last
start before he got hurt, his split-finger was back and his velocity was up. I
don't think he's ever going to be back to where he was completely—that's
just age and wear and tear—but he is a solid No. 2 behind Andy Pettitte,
and I think if you take him out of there the rotation falls apart a little bit.

But you talk about depth; that's where Orlando Hernandez comes in. He's
sitting down there in Triple-A right now, ready to pitch in the big leagues. I
think the Irabu experience last year has scared the Yankees off in terms of
rushing anybody, but if one of their starters did go down, and they needed
somebody tomorrow, it would be Hernandez. One of the reasons they
pushed to sign Hernandez, Torre told me, was that to make the Knoblauch
deal they had to give up Eric Milton, and Milton would've been that guy in
Triple-A, the panic button in case somebody went down. Now they've got
Hernandez and they're very comfortable with that.

CNN/SI: It's obviously early, but where does this team rank in terms of the
best you've seen?

Verducci: I think the 1998 Yankees might be a shade behind the 1986
Mets because they don't have the dominating pitching that that Mets team
had—I mean, 108 wins, that's the most anybody's won in the last quarter of
a century. I don't think the Yankees are going to win that many games, but I
do expect them to get over 100 victories, and that's only happened once in
this decade—the '90 A's team—in the American League.

CNN/SI: So you think even with expansion weakening the competition, this
Yankees team might be among the best teams in the last 10 or 20 years?

Verducci: In order to get into that category you have to win a
championship, there's no doubt about that. You tend to get forgotten if you
don't. The '95 Indians team was kind of hurt by the strike because it wasn't a
full season and then they lost to the Braves in the World Series. But that was
one of the most dominating offensive teams I've ever seen. I don't think the
Yankees can slug with that Indians team, but I think what makes the
Yankees so unique in this day and age is they are so complete. And they are
so deep. You look at teams like Atlanta, which is short in the bullpen;
Cleveland, which is short in starting pitching; the Dodgers, who really aren't
balanced with left-handed hitting—all these teams you can point to flaws, but
you look around at the Yankee team, and they're not short anywhere. And
that's what sets them apart. That's why I think probably they'll wind up
between 101 and 105 wins. I'll be surprised if they don't.

Tell us what you think. Sound off on the CNN/SI Message Boards.

Cover photograph by Brian Lanker

Issue date: May 18, 1998