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Yankees Get a Close Look at Johnson

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

The Yankees had started the season 1-4, and had just been dragged around the Kingdome by the Mariners. If they didn’t shape up, and fast, they would come back to New York to open their home season with a record of 1-6. So they decided to have a team meeting. No one remembers for sure who called it, just that Paul O’Neill did most of the talking. So you know it was important. O’Neill would rather play.

It was about this time that Yogi Berra was asked if he had any advice for Joe Torre, especially since Yogi once got fired as Yankee manager after 16 games. This was after George Steinbrenner had promised that Yogi would keep his job all season, no matter what.

“Yeah,” Yogi said one day. “Tell Joe to win some games.”

In the visitors clubhouse at the Kingdome, the Yankees wanted to talk about the same thing. There was no panic in the room, about the record or the manager’s job or how in the tabloids the owner seemed to be hovering like a vulture. But the veteran Yankees understood something, from other teams and other cities and other seasons: Sometimes you need a game in early April as much as you do in September.

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This wasn’t the newspapers talking. This wasn’t the radio. This was the Yankees themselves, talking to each other. And listening.

“Having a team meeting that early was a big deal,” David Cone was saying Sunday morning in the Yankee clubhouse. “Other guys spoke, but I mostly remember O’Neill. He stood up and said, ‘You better believe certain games can turn a season around. And we’ve got a chance to turn things around right here.’

“And we turned things around right there,” he said. “From the second game of that Seattle series until now, we’ve just been relentless. This team is more relentless about winning than any I’ve ever been around. Every single day.”

O’Neill came out of the players’ lounge then. He had been watching television in there. It was only 10:30, still three hours from when the Yankees would play the White Sox. O’Neill already looked ready to play. He comes out of the players’ parking lot ready. He is more relentless than any of them, and around the ’98 Yankees that is saying plenty.

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O’Neill is uncomfortable being discussed as one of the Yankee stars, or the unofficial captain of the team. Of course he was uncomfortable talking about some speech he made in front of his teammates before the sixth game of the season.

“I wasn’t the only player who talked,” he said. “But even after a few games I didn’t like the way things were going. We were picked to win, we were supposed to win. I knew we were going to start winning. Then we start off not playing well at all, and when you do that, you give the media a chance to get into it, and then before you know it, stuff can get out of hand.

“So I did say, ‘Let’s not wait to turn this thing around.’ I told everybody it was time for us to bull our necks. The way we were playing at that point was no joke, at least not to me. And trust me, as much talent as we knew we had, no one knew that if we were just patient, we’d be 72-26 at the end of July. It’s one thing to have everybody say you’re going to be good. It’s another to show everybody you’re good. I figured Seattle was as good a place to start as any.”

So they beat the Mariners 13-7. Mike Stanton got out of a big bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning. Hideki Irabu gave them a good start in the next game and the Yankees won 4-3. Since that 1-4 start, they are 72-22. That is 50 games over .500. Maybe it is why the crowds at Yankee Stadium are 50,000 and more these days. Someday people will talk about the summer of ’98 the way they talk about watching Reed and Frazier and Bradley and DeBusschere, or the Mets of October 1969, or Namath’s Jets, or Mark Messier’s New York Rangers.

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“You hear guys say all the time how much they hate to lose,” Darryl Strawberry said the other day. “This team means it.”

The Yankees looked like nothing the first week. Now they have given you everything. There is one winning streak after another. They win one series after another. They lose Derek Jeter, they lose Mariano Rivera, they lose Bernie Williams, they lose Tino Martinez. They keep going. They are relentless. There are still 60 games of the regular season to go, and then October. The whole thing keeps getting bigger. In the year of the home run in baseball, this whole team is a tape-measure shot. One that does not stop rolling.


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