NEW YORK – The idea isn't to pick a fight with Yankees fans, but of course it doesn't take much, especially if you have a Massachusetts driver's license.
There are just certain things you don't dare mention in the company of the pinstriped true believers, and this is one of them: that any team, even another Yankees squad, might be as good as the 1998 edition.
That team, remember, won more games than any in history – 125, with 114 coming in the regular season and 11 in the postseason.
There are more shrines to this team in the minds of New York Yankees fans than there are Buddhist temples in Tokyo.
The players are remembered by their handles, not their full names: Paulie and Boomer, Knobby and Coney, Tino and Straw and Bernie and Andy and Jetes and Mo. Joe Torre was a modern-day Joe McCarthy, Brian Cashman the intern-turned-genius general manager. The Boss still ruled in all his glory, and on the seventh day, he rested, content with his handiwork.
"No team can compare to the '98 team,'' Cashman said here the other day.
Even the hard-boiled New York media bought in. "They just never thought they'd lose, and the other team knew it,'' said Joel Sherman, longtime columnist for the New York Post. "They'd be losing 4-2 in the fifth and look each other and say, 'These are the Kansas City Royals, there's no way we're going to lose to these guys, and they'd go out and score seven runs in the next inning, and the Royals would quit.''
We get it. They were great. They were special. They did something no other team has ever done.
A partition exists between the regular season and postseason. The last team to have a better regular-season record than everyone else and go on to win the World Series was the 1998 Yankees.
"That club obviously accomplished everything it wanted to accomplish,'' said manager Joe Girardi, the backup catcher on the '98 team. "If you look at the standings, you're 11 games behind that club. That's a pretty long ways.
"But I think you're measured by whether you win the championship. That ('98 team) is a pretty good measuring stick. Seattle went out and won 116 games (in 2001) and they didn't win the World Series. That team is not talked about like the '98 team. So for this team to really be compared to that team, I think you have to win the World Series.''
So, if they run the table and win it all, do they belong in the same conversation as the Class of '98?
"First things first,'' Jeter said Wednesday. "You can't compare any team until the season is over with, so you can take this team out of the equation in the answer I'm about to give you.
"So yeah, what we did that year was pretty special and never done before [or since]. We won 125 games. That's pretty tough to do. Going into the postseason we were supposed to win and we won. So I don't think there are too many things bad you can say about that team.''
No one's interested in running down That Team. The question is whether this edition can compare, especially if the Yankees win it all. Let's break it down by talent, numbers and intangibles.
The 1998 Yankees were the last team to win the World Series after posting a better regular-season record than anyone in baseball. Here's how other teams with the best record have fared in the postseason since:
Lost 3-1 in ALDS
Won 4-0 in W. Series
Lost 4-3 in ALCS
Lost 3-1 in ALDS
Lost 4-3 in NLCS
Lost 4-2 in NLCS
Lost 4-0 in W. Series
Lost 4-2 in W. Series
Lost 3-2 in NLDS
Lost 3-1 in ALDS
Lost 4-1 in ALCS
Lost 3-1 in NLDS
Lost 4-0 in W. Series
Second base: Chuck Knoblauch or Robinson Cano(notes). If the Yankees had lost the ALCS to the Indians, Knoblauch's brain-freeze in Game 2 – arguing and pointing at the baseball lying on the ground while Enrique Wilson circled the bases – would rank with Merkle's boner and Snodgrass' muff in baseball infamy. Cano had a breakout season. Advantage: Cano.
Shortstop: Derek Jeter vs. Derek Jeter. The Jeter of 35 years old had uncannily similar numbers to the Jeter of 24, and he has a decade's worth of added smarts. We'll call it a push.
Third base: Scott Brosius vs. Alex Rodriguez(notes). Brosius was World Series MVP despite batting in the No. 9 hole for much of the season. A-Rod is still in search of his defining Yankees moment, but his two HRs in the division series suggests he's getting there. Advantage: A-Rod.
Catcher: Jorge Posada(notes) and Girardi vs. Posada and Jose Molina. Posada was in his first full season as the No. 1 catcher, backed up by the veteran Girardi, He's 37 now, a better bat and slower glove than he had then. Still, the '98 combo had a slight edge. Advantage: The '98ers.
DH: Darryl Strawberry and Chili Davis vs. Hideki Matsui(notes). Last hurrah for an aging Strawberry and perhaps Matsui, who on better knees would win this matchup outright. The option of a switch-hitting Davis tilts the scales. Advantage: '98ers.
Starting pitchers: Andy Pettitte(notes), David Cone, David Wells(notes), Hideki Irabu, Orlando Hernandez(notes) vs. CC Sabathia(notes), A.J. Burnett(notes), Andy Pettitte, Joba Chamberlain(notes) and Sergio Mitre(notes). Cone won 20 games, Wells lost just four, El Duque had the lowest ERA, even Irabu won 13 and Pettitte was in his prime. Not even close. Advantage: The '98ers.
Bullpen: Mariano Rivera(notes), Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton(notes), Jeff Nelson(notes) and Graeme Lloyd vs. Rivera, Phil Hughes(notes), Phil Coke(notes), Dave Robertson, Damaso Marte(notes) and Alfredo Aceves(notes). Rivera was just becoming Mr. October, and 11 years later he's still unrivaled. The supporting casts are similar, but the '98ers were a little more battle-tested. Advantage: The '98ers.
Bench: The '98ers' bench had a higher on-base percentage (.370) than the starters (.364). Shane Spencer hit 10 home runs in 73 plate appearances. Luis Sojo, Tim Raines, Homer Bush and Ricky Ledee(notes) all had their moments. Brett Gardner(notes) gives the '09 Yanks speed off the bench and Eric Hinske(notes) is a power threat, but … Advantage: The '98ers.
The 98ers: In the year Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs, no Yankee hit more than 28, but the team still led the league in runs. They outscored the opposition by a staggering 309 runs, almost two per game. They led the league in on-base percentage, were fourth in homers and second in stolen bases. They were first in ERA and first in defensive efficiency.
The 2009 team: They were first in runs, first in home runs, first in on-base percentage, first in slugging percentage, seventh in stolen bases. Seven players hit 22 or more home runs. They outscored teams by 162 runs, or one per game. They were third in ERA and third in defensive efficiency.
The edge: The incredible run differential gives the edge to the '98ers.
A-Rod lost the drama queen persona. Burnett led the team in pie facials. Teixeira and Sabathia were instant fits. The '09 Yankees had 15 walkoff wins; the swagger returned.
But this is where the '98ers have achieved mythic status. "The one thing I would love to have people think about,'' Torre said when the Yankees won the Series in '98, "is there's no one name that comes to mind, but the team itself.''
Orlando Hernandez, pictured in 1998, defined cool under pressure for the Yankees.
The defining moment of '98 came in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Indians. The Yankees trailed in the series, 2 games to 1, the Knoblauch gaffe having come in a Game 2 loss, and the ball was going to Orlando Hernandez in his first postseason start. Bob Klapisch, a columnist for the Bergen (N.J.) Record, walked into the hotel dining room and encountered El Duque having breakfast with a group of family and friends. El Duque invited Klapisch to join them.
When the waiter was slow in bringing their orders, Hernandez went into the kitchen to help the cooks, then emerged through the doors, carrying plates of food.
"There was no sense at all that he had this huge, heavy load on his shoulders,'' Klapisch said. "He was totally relaxed.''
That night, El Duque held the powerful Indians scoreless on three hits over seven innings. The Yankees won that game, then the next two, and swept the Padres in the World Series.
The '09 Yankees have yet to be similarly tested. Until they are, the comparison is a nonstarter.
"The best? Ninety-eight,'' Posada said Wednesday as he headed to the field for a workout. "One hundred twenty-five wins. You can't compare anybody to 125 wins. It doesn't matter who the players are. It was the team.''