Will the 1998 New York Yankees go down as the greatest team in major league history.
They may wind up setting the all-time record for most wins in a season but chances are fans and collectors alike will not rank them No. 1 of all time.
Starting play this week, the Yankees are an amazing 90-30 and are on a pace to break the major league record of 116 victories set by the 1906 Chicago Cubs. They would have to play at a pace of 27-15, well above the winning percentage they have played at all year. Add to that the schedule that finds them playing 18 of their final 29 games against teams with losing records and the mark seems well within the Yankees' grasp.
Less likely is the chance of breaking the 1906 Cubs' mark for winning percentage of .763. They played only 152 games that year and the Yankees are certain to wind up losing more than the 36 defeats the Cubs suffered that season.
Purists will note the current Yankee team is playing in an expansion year but the truth is there is just one expansion team in the American League, Tampa Bay, and the Yankees didn't face the other, Arizona, in interleague play. In addition, the American League has some pretty decent teams this year when you factor in the Boston Red Sox -- who have a shot at winning 100 games themselves this season -- Texas, Anaheim and Cleveland. The other impressive stat is the Yankees consistency -- they haven't had a serious losing streak and have winning records in each month -- 17-6 in April, 20-7 in May, 19-7 in June, 19-7 in July and 13-3 in August.
No one on this year's Yankee team is likely to be named MVP because of the depth of the club. Bernie Williams is having a great season and may lead the league in hitting but it would be hard to make a case he is more valuable than Derek Jeter or Paul O'Neill. The real strength of this year's club is the starting rotation that may be the best in Yankee history. David Cone, David Wells and Andy Pettite are all contenders for the Cy Young Award and Hideki Irabu is the best fourth starter in baseball. Add to that a great, deep bullpen anchored by Mariano Rivera and you have the best pitching in baseball (better than the bullpen-depleted Atlanta Braves).
While the 1998 Yankees are a collector's dream because they are, after all, the Yankees and may wind up winning more games in one season than any team in history, they may come up short.
It would be a hard argument to consider this team the best of all time, both in terms of success and popularity. The Yankees still have to win the playoffs in the American League -- beating the arch- rival Red Sox won't be a cakewalk -- and then will most likely face either Atlanta, Houston (with Randy Johnson) or San Diego in the World Series.
Dominant teams do win it all. The 1984 Detroit Tigers started the season 35-5 enroute to a 104-58 mark, swept through the playoffs and World Series and may have been the best team since this year's Yankees. Like this year's club, they weren't loaded with superstars but had top quality role players, a home run hitter in Kirk Gibson and a relief pitcher whose screwball was unhittable that year in Willie Hernandez.
An even better club was the 1976 Cincinnati Reds that topped off back-to-back World Series' wins by sweeping the Yankees. The Big Red Machine was operating on all cylinders that year with 102 wins and had the likes of future hall-of-famers Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench and should have been hall-of-famers Tony Perez and Pete Rose. It wasn't an expansion year although it can be argued the Reds' starting staff wasn't the measure of this year's Yankee club.
Actually this year's Yankee club isn't as strong as either the 1927 team, generally regarded as the best in New York and major league history, or the 1961 team. The 27 bunch went 110-44 and won the American League by 19 games. It swept the Pirates in four straight in the World Series, little surprise considering it had Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri, all of whom drove in more than 100 RBI. Oh yes, Ruth hit 60 homers that year but wasn't the MVP; teammate Gehrig with 47 homers and 175 RBI won the award. Waite Hoyt, who would later do play-by-play of Cincinnati Reds' games, won 22 games on a strong staff.
The 1961 club won 109 games -- Detroit won 101 and finished eight games back -- and like the 27 club had two big bats in Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Yes, that was the year Maris hit 61, Mantle 54 but it was an expansion year with both Los Angeles (now Anaheim) and Washington playing in its first-season. The 1961 club, which beat the Reds in the World Series in five games, also had better known pitching with Whitey Ford and Ralph Terry than the 27 team.
The true test is time. Winning 117 games, the playoffs and World Series will help but successful teams, like fine wine, age well. This year's club may be a good measuring stick for teams in the 21st century, especially if the Yankees can put together two or three more years like this one.