Buck Showalter, in the third season of his tenure as the Yankees manager, was finally realizing success with his rebuilding efforts with the Yankees. Working with GM Gene Michael, they traded for talent like Paul O'Neill and Jim Abbott the year before. They acquired veteran talent like Jimmy Key, Wade Boggs, and Steve Howe through free agency. They also recognized the value in their farm system, developing rookies like Bernie Williams, Scott Kamieniecki, and Gerald Williams.
Jimmy Key was the outstanding ace of the pitching rotation. Through 113 games, he posted a record of 17-4 with a 3.27 ERA. He came in second in the Cy Young voting, and sixth in the A.L. MVP voting. He had 18 quality starts out of 25. He was the most significant contributor to the success of this team.
Paul O’Neill, at age 31, provided the most firepower from the lineup. He led the league with a .359 batting average. He led the team in home runs (21), RBI (83), and tied for the lead in runs scored with Danny Tartabull (68). The team had five everyday players hitting .300 or better, which included Paul O’Neill, Wade Boggs (.342), Don Mattingly (.304), Luis Polonia (.311), and Mike Stanley (.300). All this helped the team come in first in the league in OPS (.836) and second in the league in runs scored (670) and batting average (.290).
It is hard to appreciate, in retrospect, how much excitement this team generated for the fans. New York Yankees baseball had fallen into major disrepute, and the fans stopped coming to the games. Through the second week of August, Yankee Stadium attendance was just less than 1.7 million. To put that in context, this year Yankee Stadium attendance passed 1.7 million in attendance on July 2. Nevertheless, this was the first time that the Yankees would finish first in the division for the first time in 14 years. It was only the second time in those 14 years that they finished with a W/L percentage above .600.
There was also heartbreak that year. In spite of their success, the season tragically ended on August 11 due to the baseball players’ union strike. Compounding the tragedy was the fact that for the first time in a long time, the Yankees were legitimate contenders. They had a division lead of 6.5 games, and were a virtual lock for the playoffs. The AL West leading Texas Rangers were 10 games below .500. Hard to believe, but true. The expected wildcard would have been the Cleveland Indians, against whom the Yankees had swept all nine games. They were 2-4 against the AL Central leading Chicago White Sox, but they had only faced the Jimmy Key once (which the Yankees won) and they drew the bottom of the rotation in both series. A World Series was within their grasp.
As I said earlier, it is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the recent magic started. Despite the strike and the frustration, they proved to themselves and to the world that they had a strong team and they could win. They would eventually win it all in 2 years, and would start the storybook dynasty of the late 90’s. Good times.