Ex-Yankees great rejects comparing Judge’s men to Mattingly’s 1995 heroes

The New York Yankees in 1995 and 2023.

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After the Yankees hit their lowest ebb following a 2-0 loss to the Braves on August 16, manager Aaron Boone exhorted them to fight back citing the example of the 1995 team. That team led by Don Mattingly defied the odds by winning 19 of their last 23 games, including 11 of the final 12, to clinch a postseason spot. While many have pinned hopes to see a similar miracle, Yankees legend Paul O’Neill, who was on that team, rejects any such comparison between Judge’s men and Mattingly’s 1995 heroes.

According to O’Neil, winning games was the biggest difference between the two teams.

“The long picture of the season changes at this point, where every single game is kind of its own series,” he told NJ Advance Media. “It’s not, ‘We’ve got to win a series.’ It’s, ‘You’ve got to win today.”

The Yankees of ’95 benefited from lower expectations, using them as an advantage to catch opponents off guard. This stands in stark contrast to the present-day Yankees, who have been regarded as one of the significant letdowns in MLB.

O’Neill remarked that during 1995, it wasn’t necessarily anticipated that the Yankees would emerge as victors. He mentioned the excitement that comes with gaining momentum and exceeding expectations. He recalled their impressive record in 1994, which was unfortunately overshadowed by the strike, preventing them from reaching the playoffs and achieving any significant milestones.

O’Neill noted that their playoff appearance in ’95 was somewhat unexpected, while in contrast, the current situation holds different dynamics. He emphasized how this year, the Yankees were anticipated to reach the World Series, and this weight of unmet expectations adds significant pressure on the players, creating a notable distinction between the two scenarios.

The Yankees’ 1995 story

On September 5, 1995, the Yankees experienced another bout of frustration following a pivotal defeat against the Seattle Mariners at the historic Yankee Stadium. Throughout the season, they had been struggling to make significant progress, and this loss marked yet another missed opportunity to advance in the highly competitive race for the inaugural American League wild-card playoff position.

Sitting at a record of 60-61, the Yankees were grappling with a sense of disappointment stemming from their inability to capitalize on the previous year’s progress. In the preceding season, they had managed to secure the best record in the American League before a strike abruptly concluded the campaign in August, extending the franchise’s enduring playoff drought. The team was disheartened not only by their failure to sustain the positive momentum but also by the fact that they were falling short of supporting their revered captain.

Aware that the 1995 season would likely mark the end of Don Mattingly‘s playing career, the Yankees carried the weight of his elusive pursuit of postseason success throughout his entire tenure. O’Neill, the team’s right fielder, recalls a shift in focus as the Yankees slipped below the .500 mark in September.

joe-torre-paul-oneill-new-york-yankees
AP Photo/Charlie Krupa

Reflecting on that period, O’Neill remembered it as a time when the team was fueled by the desire to support Mattingly. It was a remarkable stretch, driven by the realization that this could be Mattingly’s last chance at postseason success. It served as a rallying point for the team, symbolized by their efforts on and off the field.

The profound respect everyone held for Donnie translated into a collective drive to win not only for the Yankees and the city of New York, but also specifically for him.

Subsequent to the defeat against Seattle, the Yankees swiftly rebounded with a victory against the Mariners in the ensuing game, followed by an impressive sequence of five consecutive wins. This initial six-game streak seamlessly evolved into a remarkable surge: Over the course of their last 24 games, the Yankees triumphed in 19 instances, ultimately securing the wild card berth on the concluding day of the season.

The ’95 Yankees, led by Buck Showalter as their manager, drew their strength from notable stars during their late-season surge. Mattingly, despite dealing with chronic back problems, maintained a .288 batting average as he played at first base at the age of 34. Wade Boggs, a future Hall of Famer, showcased a .324 batting average while holding down third base. Emerging talent Bernie Williams contributed 18 home runs and 82 RBI from his center-field position. O’Neill displayed his prowess with a .300 batting average, 22 home runs, and 95 RBI. Tony Fernandez excelled as a solid shortstop, while that season also saw the brief debut of Derek Jeter.

Don Mattingly of the New York Yankees in 1995.

Their rotation was reliable, featuring a 15-game winner in Jack McDowell, a successful mid-season acquisition in David Cone who recorded a 9-2 record in 13 starts, and the presence of rookies Andy Pettitte and Sterling Hitchcock, who together secured 23 wins. Rookie Mariano Rivera, though experiencing a 5.31 ERA, contributed to the team both as a starter and reliever. John Wetteland, serving as the closer, converted 31 of 37 save opportunities.

O’Neil wants current the Yankees to follow the 1995 story

Nearly 30 years later, O’Neill now serves as a Yankees broadcaster on YES. Interestingly, the current-day Yankees found themselves dropping below the .500 mark with their loss in Atlanta on Wednesday night—marking the first time the organization has experienced such a scenario this late in a season since their 1995 record of 60-61. Remarkably, this year’s Yankees held the same record entering Friday’s game against the Red Sox.

Back in 1995, the Yankees were only trailing by two games for a wild card position at this stage, but they had less than a month to rescue their season due to the lingering effects of the strike that had shortened the preceding year’s season to 144 games.

As the present-day Yankees return to action following an off day, they were beaten 8-3 by the Red Sox on Friday. The Red Sox are one of the three teams currently ahead of them in the race for the third AL wild-card spot. Toronto holds a seven-game lead, followed by Seattle at six-and-a-half games, and the Red Sox at three-and-a-half games ahead. The challenge of making up this deficit seems substantial, yet the Yankees still have 40 games left to play.

O’Neill wants the Yankees to shift the focus to the present moment, regardless of the outcome of the previous day. According to him, this is a crucial juncture where one can reflect and see that it’s possible to achieve.

He suggests that the Yankees should adopt a similar mindset shift as his team did in 1995. The legend pointed out that the upcoming schedule includes a three-game series against Boston and another against the Nationals. O’Neil emphasized the importance of approaching these games with a dominating attitude, especially against the Red Sox, who are ahead in the standings. Additionally, he highlighted the need to secure wins against the Nationals due to their lower performance level.

However, he stressed that relying on overall series wins, as might have been the case in April, is no longer effective. Instead, he emphasized the need to focus on each individual game within these series. The key is to avoid taking a long-term perspective and to prioritize immediate success in each matchup.

Given the consistent struggles the Yankees have faced throughout the season, O’Neill holds a pessimistic view about their ability to achieve this feat, much like many fans who have closely observed their performance. He reflected on the dynamic of their winning streak in ’95, expressing that there was an eagerness to step onto the field each day to see if they could make progress. However, O’Neill doesn’t perceive the same level of enthusiasm within the current Yankees team. He believes that there needs to be a moment where they embrace the challenge ahead, even though it might seem daunting at present.

Yankees slugger Aaron Judge hits a 464-feet home run at LoanDepot Park, Miami, on August 11, 2023.
AP

According to O’Neill, the Yankees’ performance hasn’t met the initial expectations that were set, leading to the current discussion. However, he acknowledges the presence of talented players on the team, including superstars like Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole, as well as a strong bullpen.

O’Neill suggests that there remains a potential for the team to achieve victory. However, he emphasizes that for this to happen, the players need to display a clear intent to win games when they step onto the field.

Drawing a comparison between the ’95 Yankees and the 2023 team, O’Neill remarked, “When you look at it, is their bullpen stronger than ours back in ’95? Likely. Are their starting pitchers experiencing the same level of health we had at that time? It’s doubtful.”

O’Neill’s perspective highlights the shift in team dynamics, but he emphasizes that the core issue lies with the offense. Looking at the offensive statistics, he believes that Gerrit Cole should have amassed approximately 15 wins by now. Nonetheless, the lack of run production has prevented him from achieving this.

The current situation seems to reflect a sense of concern among the pitchers about the offense, while the hitters are equally preoccupied with the state of the pitching. The focus should instead be on stepping onto the field and finding a way to secure a victory for the team on that given night.

O’Neill holds the belief that if the Yankees can secure a playoff spot, as they have the potential to become a formidable contender. If they manage to clinch the third wild-card spot, they would engage in a best-of-three series against the AL’s third seed, likely the Twins who are leading the relatively weaker AL Central. Despite the current challenging situation, he emphasized that the circumstances could shift rapidly.

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