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Yankees use teamwork to march along at historic pace


61-20, that's an NBA record.

That's the '67-68 76ers, the '80-81 Celtics or the '84-85 Lakers with a game to go. Some basketball team rather regularly wins 75 percent of its games. Sixty wins out of 82 is an attainable figure in that sport. Since the institution of an 80-game schedule in 1961, 45 NBA teams have won 60 games or more.

But baseball? Uh-uh, no way. The dynamics of baseball are so entirely different. If an NBA team has a great starting five and a couple of reliable substitutes, and if it can remain reasonably healthy, it can win 60 games.

Baseball's variables start with the identity of that day's starting pitcher and they end with the idea that a team could conceivably be subject to a perfect game setback in which 27 consecutive men were retired on vicious line drives.

In the entire 20th century, only four baseball teams have won 60 of their first 80 games. They are the 1902 Pirates, the 1907 Cubs and the 1912 Giants. And, of course, the 1998 New York Yankees, who are 61-20 at the halfway mark.

Eighty-six years is a long wait. The paint in Fenway Park was hardly dry when a team last won 60 of its first 80 games.

The next targets for the Yankees are the American League records of 111 wins and a .721 winning percentage, each held by the 1954 Cleveland Indians, and the major-league standards of 116 wins and a .763 winning percentage, established by the 1906 Chicago Cubs. They will need to win 117 to move in front of the Cubs and a staggering 124 to claim the all-time percentage record.

The 1906 Cubs had four Hall of Fame players in manager/first baseman Frank Chance, second baseman Johnny Evers, shortstop Joe Tinker and pitcher Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown. There were no gaudy offensive stats, even by the dead ball standards of the day. Third baseman Harry Steinfeldt was the leading batter (.327) and run producer (83 runs batted in, or 18 fewer than Juan Gonzalez has right now). The pitching numbers are impressive, as befits a team that was 116-36. The highest ERA among their top six pitchers was Carl Lundgren's 2.21.

They won the pennant by 20 games over a good New York Giants team. There was further competition from Pittsburgh, which had such greats as Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke and Ginger Beaumont. The rest of the eight-team league was under .500.

The 1954 Indians likewise had four Hall of Famers, three of whom were pitchers. The twin aces were Bob Lemon (23-7) and Early Wynn (23-11). The third Hall of Famer was 36-year-old Bob Feller, who was 13-3 as a spot starter. Hall of Famer No. 4 was center fielder Larry Doby, who led the league with 32 homers and 126 RBIs. Second baseman Bobby Avila won the batting title with a .341 average in what had to go down as his career year.

The pitching was, of course, phenomenal. Mike Garcia was the third starter, and all he did was go 19-8 and lead the league with a 2.64 ERA. Art Houtteman was 15-7. Rookies Don Mossi (6-1, 1.94) and Ray Narleski (3-3, 2.22) tied down the bullpen.

There most definitely was competition. The Yankees won 103 games that year, and no Casey Stengel team ever won as many. Chicago won 94 games to finish third. No other team broke .500.

It is fashionable right now to say that what makes the current Yankees so special is that, offensively speaking, no one is having that so-called career year. That's not entirely true. Third baseman Scott Brosius hit .203 last year, and he's on his way to approximating his '96 numbers. Bernie Williams was hitting .353 when he went down. Derek Jeter might wind up with some very nice numbers.

But no Yankees regular started the All-Star Game, and hardly anyone squawked. What characterizes the Yankees on offense is balance and depth. They survived the two-week loss of Jeter and they still are sailing along with Chad Curtis in center while Williams struggles to get healthy.

The Yankees are a true T-E-A-M. The 1998 Yankees have one projected Hall of Famer in Jeter, and that is it. The next closest possibility, believe it or not, is Tim Raines. If they are analogous in this regard to any team someone under 50 could possibly relate to, it is the 1984 Tigers of 35-5 fame. (You could argue that Jack Morris and Alan Trammell might be Cooperstown-bound, but neither is anything approaching a lock).

The Yankees are marching along an awe-inspiring historical path in their quest to break the record, but there is one thing they should know about the 1906 Cubs and the 1954 Indians.

Neither won the World Series.

Pub Date: 7/08/98

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