2003-05-02 / Sports

Cone: Yankees OK, But Not Yet 1998 Great

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch
Cone: Yankees OK, But Not Yet 1998 Great

Cone: Yankees OK, But Not Yet 1998 Great


By Bryan Hoch

Baseball Columnist

It should come as no surprise that David Cone, hampered by chronic bursitis in his right hip and trapped watching yet another bad string of Mets baseball, briefly allowed his thoughts to drift off to his Yankees past this week.

Like you, Cone has been watching the Yankees’ recent dominance of the American League. It seems all too familiar to the 40-year-old righthander: Cone was in pinstripes the last time we saw the Yankees play this well, contributing his veteran guile to a pitching rotation that helped hurl New York to a 114-win World Championship campaign in 1998.

As a result, he’s the first to question those who are prematurely calling the 2003 version of the Bronx Bombers the greatest Yankees team ever.

"That 1998 team was the most ruthless team I’ve ever played on," Cone said, standing in front of his locker across town at Shea Stadium. "Opposing teams were just shaking their heads saying, ‘Man, you guys never give up.’ There was this relentless nature about us."

Cone, then a spry 35 years of age, was an integral piece of that ’98 Yankees club, posting a 20-7 record to pace a starting rotation that included Andy Pettitte, David Wells, Hideki Irabu and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez. All five of the Yankees’ starters reached double digits in wins that season, with spot starter Ramiro Mendoza earning another ten wins in his 41 appearances (14 starts).

The offense backed up the pitching: Bernie Williams led the club with a .339 batting average, with Derek Jeter right behind at .324. Paul O’Neill contributed a .317 clip, and Tino Martinez paced the way with 28 home runs. Even young Shane Spencer got into the act, deluding fans into thinking that he might be the next Mickey Charles Mantle with ten homers in just 67 at-bats.

It all added up to one dominating run for the Bombers, and even though the Yankees began to pull away from the rest of the American League early on, Cone says they still remained hungry, trying consciously as a club to achieve the top won-loss record in the game’s history.

It’s true. Here’s all you need to know about that: the ’98 Yankees didn’t lose their 20th game until June 28th against the Mets – one team, the Detroit Tigers, has already lost their 20th this season, and seven clubs are within five losses of their 20th, including the Mets.

Yes, it was one incredible summer for Cone and those Yankees, and as he watches the current version of the Pinstripers from a distance, he certainly sees the potential for a reprise performance in the Bronx. But, that kind of repeat over a six-month schedule is much easier said than done, and Cone already sees a few cracks developing in the Yankees’ armor.

"It’s extremely impressive," Cone says of the 20-6 start. "But the rotation has pitched deep into games, and the starters, by and large, have gone more innings than anyone else."

That could wind up being a problem for the Yankees down the summer stretch drive, especially with the anchors of the pitching staff – Roger Clemens (40) and David Wells (39) – pushing ever-closer to retirement. Cone acknowledges that the duo is "as good as they’ve ever been," but as the injured hurler can attest, health is always a concern when you press on past 35 or thereabouts.

Right now, that might seem to be a minor blip on the Bombers’ radar screen, fodder for sports talk radio and little else, but it’s worth exploring: what happens if Clemens, Wells or Pettitte should miss a few starts somewhere down the road? Can Jose Contreras or Sterling Hitchcock be counted on to give quality innings?

Cone isn’t quite sure, and that could wind up being a major sticking point – unlike in 1998. The Red Sox are still in the thick of things in the AL East, just three games back. The race might be even closer, had Boston wonder-kid GM Theo Epstein’s plan to go with a closer-by-committee not backfired miserably.

"The key there is Boston," Cone says. "We had nobody pushing us, but I don’t think Boston’s going to be going away."

Cone also doesn’t quite see the depth on this Yankees roster that his ’98 team had during that magical season. Erick Almonte has done a decent enough job holding the fort at shortstop in Derek Jeter’s absence, and both Joe Torre-favorite Todd Zeile and outfielder Bubba Trammell have been nice additions, but Cone will take the ’98 Yankees’ reserves of Darryl Strawberry, Tim Raines and Homer Bush any day.

"We had incredible depth," Cone said. "It was a great veteran group. There was a veteran presence on that bench with great role players. Everyone always pulled for those guys. We were allowed to give guys breaks."

If you want to draw one similarity between the two Yankees teams, they’ve both dealt with some measure of extreme drama. In 1998, it was Strawberry’s diagnosis of colon cancer; this season, George Steinbrenner has been chirping quite a bit from the owner’s box, calling out Jeter to step up as a team leader this spring and more recently embarrassing Torre by sending Contreras to Tampa for remedial instruction.

That caused Torre to fly into as much of a rage as we’ve ever seen him, opining that Steinbrenner had made him out to look like a "liar" in the eyes of both Contreras and the New York press. For what it’s worth, Cone – who’s already probably burned his bridges in Steinbrenner’s eyes by bolting from the YES Network for the Mets – takes his old skipper’s side.

"Everyone’s got their hot points, their hot buttons," Cone said. "Joe’s a proud guy. He’s very guarded about his word, and he talks about trust a lot." "It’s a thing he values so much. I’ve heard him say it many times – that’s what makes him the great manager he is." So, what’s the final verdict in Cone’s crystal ball for the 2003 Yankees? He declined to say, and perhaps that’s just as well: the last thing the Amazin’s need right now is one of their players talking trash from across the Triboro Bridge. However, as the Yankees steam on, Cone will be watching as an interested observer. "It says a lot about that team to even be compared to that (1998) team," he said.

•Bryan Hoch can be contacted at bryanhoch@yahoo.com.

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