In the wake of my paean to the 2009 Yankees, comparing Yankee championships has become a fairly popular topic among some of my fellow Yankee fans this week, and one friend — firmly entrenched in the 1996 camp — asked me to do a comparison of the two teams.
I can’t really put my finger on why I’ve been relatively dismissive of the 1996 team. I think a lot of it has to do with me being far more emotionally developed as a 28-year-old man than a 15-year-old teenager, as well as the fact that I am even more intense about the Yankees now than I was 13 years ago.
The 1996 championship team was obviously incredibly special. I remember going absolutely bananas after that ball landed in Charlie Hayes’ glove, and you could hear the collective euphoria emanating from the City’s streets for seemingly hours after the last out, a la the Giants’ 2008 Super Bowl win. This year I missed any unrestrained post-victory revelry because I was too busy celebrating the aftermath inside a bar with a victory cigar and champagne.
Additionally, to come back from being down 0-2 and beat the best team in baseball four straight games is ridiculous — games that included Jim Leyritz’s huge 3-run bomb and Andy Pettitte’s 1-0 gem in Game 5. And of course, the fact that the Yankees hadn’t won the championship in 18 years as well as the fact that it was the first Yankee World Series victory of my lifetime also made it incredibly special.
Come to think of it, 1996 was pretty damn fantastic.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
The 1996 team did not have the strongest starting rotation of a Yankee championship team. While many remember Jimmy Key as being the staff ace that year, Pettitte actually had the better year, putting up a 3.87 ERA and 4.08 FIP in 34 starts. By comparison, Key had a 4.68 ERA and a 4.48 FIP. David Cone was excellent in limited duty (11 starts), with a 3.24 FIP. Kenny Rogers was terrible (4.83 FIP), and Doc Gooden — despite the no-hitter that I was in attendance for — was pretty bad as well (4.85 FIP).
Then again, the 2009 Yankees only had three reliable starters in the postseason as well. There’s an unexpected coincidence. The Yankees’ top three starters in 2009 averaged a 3.96 FIP, while Key, Coney and Pettitte were 3.93 FIP, albeit in less innings.
The 1996 bullpen put up a 4.10 ERA in the regular season, while the 2009 bullpen pitched to a 3.91 ERA.
The 1996 offense’s .348 wOBA was 7th-best in a league where the Major League average was .336; the 2009 offense had a league-leading. 366 wOBA while league average was .329.
Some detractors will say the 2009 Yankees were a bunch of hired mercenaries, and it’s somehow less special because three big free agents (Sabathia, Burnett and Teixeira) helped win it all. Of course, it’s not as if the entire 1996 Yankee team was homegrown — David Cone nearly left to play for the Orioles after the 1995 season, erstwhile ace Jimmy Key was signed as a free agent, Tino Martinez came over via trade, and both Wade Boggs, the starting 3B, and Mariano Duncan, the starting 2B, signed with the team as free agents. The common denominator for both the 1996 and 2009 teams? Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, although Posada only had 15 plate appearances and no postseason at-bats in ’96.
In fact, of the 1996 team’s starting nine, rotation and primary bullpen cogs, only four (Jeter, Pettitte, Rivera, Bernie Williams) players were homegrown. Guess how many homegrown players the 2009 Yankees fielded in the starting lineup, rotation and bullpen corps? Eleven (Jeter, Posada, Cano, Cabrera, Pettitte, Rivera, Chamberlain, Hughes, Aceves, Robertson, Coke).
Despite winning the AL East by four games, few expected the 1996 Yankees to go very far in the postseason, although they did have the best FIP in the American League. After beating the Rangers in four games (Game 1 ALDS that year remains Texas’ only postseason victory), the Yankees received a little luck in Game 1 of the ALCS against the birds in the person of Jeffrey Maier, who helped a Derek Jeter home run over the wall in right field. I was at that game, and it was fantastic. Oddly enough, I don’t remember too much else from that ALCS against the Orioles, probably because the Yankees dispatched the O’s pretty handily.
And then of course, the World Series against the Braves, who were the best team in the National League that year (#2 in wOBA and #1 in FIP), featured absurd pitching (3.50(!) team FIP) and were looking to repeat as champions. Things looked particularly grim after the Yankees lost the first two games at home by a combined 16-1. Fortunately the Series basically turned on one swing — that of Jim Leyritz’s game-tying three-run home run off Mark Wohlers in the top of the 8th. After that, the Yankees would never trail again in the 1996 World Series, toppling Goliath once and for all in Game 6.
In 2009, the Yankees got to face a Twins team missing their elite first baseman in the first round; the team that has given them more problems than any other during the past decade in the ALCS; and the best team in the National League in the World Series. Like the 1996 Yankees, the only time the 2009 team was ever really on the ropes in the postseason was after Game 1 of the World Series at home, and both teams took care of business in Game 6 at Yankee Stadium.
The 1996 Yankees’ primary heartache came the year earlier, losing to the Mariners 3 games to two in the first-ever ALDS. Prior to that, the team was, for the most part, pretty bad in the 18 championship-less years.
In the last nine years, the Yankees have had to endure two World Series losses, four ALDS losses (two at the hands of the hated Angels) and one utterly traumatic ALCS loss to the team’s archrivals while also having to see said archrivals not only break an 86-year championship drought, but then win it all again two years later. Not to mention the fact that the overall playing field in Major League Baseball has improved significantly over the past decade.
So was the 1996 championship “better” than 2009? In some ways — ending a longer drought, no one having any preconceived notions about “expecting” to win anything, incredible campaigns from supremely talented youngsters like Jeter and Rivera — yes.
In other ways — tougher AL East; higher level of competition across the league; being expected to win it all every year simply because the team has the highest payroll in the league, despite the fact that spending the most money does not buy a championship year in and year out; incredible campaigns from homegrown studs like Jeter and Rivera who seemingly should be on the decline but somehow keep getting better; a historical and vindicating (.365/.500/.808, 6HR, 18RBI, .365 wOBA) performance from supposed-playoff-choker-cum-reason-the-team-even-made-it-back-to-the-World-Series Alex Rodriguez — no.