Best team ever? Yankees’ San Diego return brings back 1998 memories

The elevator was old and slow and actually creaked as it opened, but the Yankees had just won a humdinger of a baseball game to go up three games to none in the 1998 World Series, so as many folks as possible crammed into the small capsule behind home plate at old Jack Murphy Stadium.

From the back, a familiar voice:

“All the way down and let me off,” Milton Berle said. “Then you can take the rest of these SOBs the rest of the way to hell.”

Well, sure, why wouldn’t Uncle Miltie be part of the fun? He was wearing a Yankees cap, of course, because in that summer and autumn of 1998 it seemed like everywhere you went, everyone was wearing a Yankees cap, or a Yankees jacket, or a Yankees jersey, or a Yankees sweatshirt.

Berle was 90 years old, and as he slowly shuffled toward the Yankees clubhouse with his grandson he said, “I’ve been a baseball fan all my life, which means I was a baseball fan when Babe Ruth was …”

(Uncle Miltie worked blue. You can use your imagination to figure out what came next. Hint: if you think it’s too vulgar, multiply it by 10. You may get close.)

“… So I’ve seen all the great teams. None greater than this team. This team is impossible to beat.”

Berle wasn’t the first to suggest that point, and wouldn’t be the last, but in the glow of that 5-4 Yankees win the notion was starting to solidify, right there in the cool air of the recently renamed Qualcomm Stadium, in the heart of an unseasonably cool San Diego evening. We already knew the Yankees were awesome.

That night, after what had been a day-long civic holiday in San Diego, after the Padres had seized a 3-0 lead, after Trevor Hoffman had been summoned to the tune of “Hell’s Bells” and turned the ballpark, 64,667 strong, into a frenzy … well, that was the Yankees’ 124th win of the season. That was already eight more (playoffs included) than any professional baseball team had ever won before.

They’d come back with five runs in the seventh and eighth innings, Scott Brosius driving in four of them with two home runs, the last a three-run shot off Hoffman, the future Hall of Famer. It wouldn’t be until the next night when the Yankees would make it official and finish off the Padres and wrap up a title. But that night in San Diego felt like the coronation.

And that two-day coronation in San Diego solved the question.

Best team ever?

Twenty-two years ago — last time the Yankees played a postseason game in San Diego before Monday night, before Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays — the best ever became the best ever in a most agreeable climate in a most unfamiliar terrain.

“I’ll let other people decide where we stand in relation to other teams,” Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said back then, acting the part of captain some five years before he’d actually attain the “C,” “because I don’t care. There isn’t another team in the history of the game I’d rather be a part of than this one. I’ll go to war with these guys.”

That team went to baseball’s bloodless version of war 175 times and won 125 of them. Nobody has ever been that coldly efficient. Interestingly, the run started on the West Coast where the Yankees went 1-4 to start the season in Anaheim and Oakland, enough of a stumble that a Joe Torre Watch had begun.

It ended with that businesslike two-game sweep at the Murph, with Torre’s office a crowded Who’s Who of celebrities and friends. At one point Reggie Jackson, serving a brief exile from the Yankees’ employ but there to show support for Torre, was tapped on the shoulder and asked if he wanted his cigar lit.

“Thank you!” Reggie said.

“Don’t mention it,” Milton Berle said, and then Berle said something else that can’t be reprinted here, and the room burst into laughter, and Torre said, “the only way this team could be any better is if you were sitting in this chair.”

“You’re not wrong,” Uncle Miltie said.

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