'98 Yankees: The Best Ever?

Even last spring, the great Yogi knew it: This New York Yankees team was special.

"I said they were going to win by 25," Yogi Berra recalled Wednesday. "They only won by 22."

And then they went 11-2 in the postseason, completing one of baseball's greatest years with a 125-50 record, capped by a Wednesday night's 3-0 win over San Diego. The victory finished off the Yankees' first World Series sweep since 1950.

They finished with a .714 winning percentage, the highest in baseball since the '27 Yankees Murderers' Row team and the fourth-highest ever.

But how good are they? The best in 71 years? The best ever?

"That can't be answered," said Berra, who then proceeded to try.

As part of Yankees teams that won 14 pennants in 16 years, Berra is uniquely qualified to judge. He holds the record for most World Series games, at-bats, hits and doubles.

"I hope they can win five in a row like we did," said Berra, a member of 10 Series champions, including the five straight from 1949-53.

Led by the M&M Boys, the '61 Yankees had more power, with Roger Maris hitting 61 homers and Mickey Mantle hitting 54 en route to a 109-53 record and a 4-1 Series win over Cincinnati.

The '39 Yankees were the strongest of Joe DiMaggio's teams, finishing the regular season 106-45 and sweeping the Reds to win their fourth straight Series title.

The '27 Yankees, generally regarded as baseball's best, went 110-44 and then swept Pittsburgh.

And what of the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds, the Big Red Machine led by Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Pete Rose?

"I would rank this team third or fourth," said the Chicago Tribune's Jerome Holtzman, who has been on the beat for 42 seasons and is the senior baseball writer in the United States. "There isn't a Hall of Famer. They don't have a dominant hitter."

Holtzman rates this team behind the '27 Yankees, the '61 Yankees, the Big Red Machine and perhaps the '19 White Sox, who threw the World Series against Cincinnati in a gambling scandal.

Morgan puts these Yankees behind the '76 Reds because there's no superstar. Cincinnati had three of them in Bench, Rose and Morgan, and Tony Perez and Dave Concepcion were close behind.

"If you're going to dominate for a long time, you have to have a stud," Morgan said. "I don't like talking about individuals or throwing them up against my team because they're going to come up second-best. But they're a team."

It's also hard to rank these Yankees because they had a huge lead by the All-Star break and coasted to a 114-48 record, the most wins in the regular season since the '06 Cubs went 116-36.

"New York played against themselves all year just to see how good they could be," Morgan said. "Maybe they would have won 120 games if someone was pushing them."

Sparky Anderson knows something about great teams, too. He managed the Reds to Series titles in '75 and '76, as well as the 84 Detroit Tigers, who started the season 35-5 and beat San Diego 4-1 in the Padres' only other World Series appearance.

"You can never rank teams for this reason: There's no way the '27 Yankees can ever play the '98 Yankees or the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland Athletics or the great Reds team," Anderson said. "They're a great team for this era and will go down in history as a great team, but they cannot be rated until they've won at least three World Series."

The Swingin' A's from 1973-75 were the last team to win three with the same nucleus. New York manager Joe Torre looks up to the Catfish Hunter-Reggie Jackson-Rollie Fingers teams as a standard, along with the Yankees in the '40s and '50s, and the Big Red Machine.

"I don't remember the '27 Yankees, but you hear about those guys a lot," the 58-year-old manager said. "It's tough to look back at the '27 Yankees and say we're better position by position, but everything is based on bottom line. ... Since everything is based on the bottom line, I guess so."

All through September and October, as the wins kept piling up, more and more Yankees talked about magnitude of the accomplishments.

"There's going to be a lot of arguments historically about where this team fits in," David Cone said. "It's the most professional team, it's the best team in baseball. We've worked very hard to play professionally, to come out every night. We won 114 games during the regular season, and you don't do that without being an unbelievably professional team, and I'm very proud to be part of it."

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