The 1998 Yankees won what was then an American League record 114 games, and the funny thing is they started slowly, and had a bit of a slump in September. The Yankees lost their first three games of the season, and four of their first five games. Panic was already starting to set in given the team’s quick exit from the 1997 postseason.
Then, in September, the Yankees lost eight times in a 12-game span at one point. They were already a lock for the postseason — the Yankees won their 100th game on September 4th — but still, no one likes to hit the skids in September. You want to finish strong and go into the postseason feeling good about things. The Yankees eventually righted the ship and won their final seven games of the year. It was touch and go for a bit though.
For much of the 1998 season, 26-year-old rookie outfielder Shane Spencer was on the Columbus shuttle, going back and forth between Triple-A and MLB whenever the Yankees needed a body. He played two games with the Yankees in April, one in June, three in July, and seven in August before returning as a September call-up. Spencer had a great Triple-A season, hitting .322/.397/.570 with 18 homers in 87 games. It was also his second straight year at the level.
When Spencer came back up in September, he initially rode the bench. He appeared in only seven games during the first 21 days of the month, and four of those seven appearances came off the bench late in blowouts. The Yankees were struggling a bit and having a hard time scoring runs — they scored no more than three runs six times in that 4-8 stretch — so Joe Torre stuck with the regulars to try to get them going before October.
The legend of Shane Spencer started in earnest on September 18th. He came off the bench in a blowout against the Orioles, and smacked a grand slam off Jesse Orosco.
Game one of the doubleheader: 3-for-5 with two home runs. Game two of the doubleheader: 2-for-3 with a walk. The Yankees won both games. A performance like that will earn an unproven player more playing time, so Spencer was in the lineup again the next day, and he went 3-for-4 with another homer. A grand slam against the Devil Rays followed the next day. And on September 27th, in the final game of the regular season, Spencer hit another grand slam, his third in eleven days.
“I’m not shocked, I’m happy. I’m just having a good time right now,” said Spencer to Jack Curry. Overall, Spencer hit .373/.411/.910 (236 OPS+) with six doubles and ten homers in 1998.
The 1998 Yankees never really had a set left fielder. Chad Curtis received most of the playing time out there, though Tim Raines, Ricky Ledee, and Darryl Strawberry also saw time in left field as well. It was basically a “who is playing the best right now?” situation. The Yankees were so good that year it didn’t matter. They were plenty good enough to overcome the left field revolving door.
The Yankees of course carried Spencer on the 1998 postseason roster after his huge September, and given the fact they weren’t locked into one player in left field, it was easy for Torre to get Spencer into the lineup. He started Game Two of the ALDS against the Rangers. Two hits and a dinger. He also started Game Three of the ALDS. Three-run homer. That gave Spencer nine homers in his last eleven games.
Spencer started the first three games of the ALCS against the Indians, but didn’t fare all that well (1-for-10). There was also some controversy in Game Two in the series. With the score tied 1-1, Raines started the bottom of the ninth with a leadoff single. Spencer, the man who’d hit nine homers in his previous dozen games, was ordered to bunt (!) pinch-runner Homer Bush over to second. For real.
The bunt was never laid down. Paul Shuey’s first pitch to Spencer was out of the zone and Bush stole second, so, with the runner in scoring position and a guy who’d hit nine homers in his last 12 games at the plate, Torre took the bunt sign off. I mean, duh. Spencer struck out and the Yankees didn’t score, and eventually they lost the game. The inevitable “Spencer should’ve bunted him to third!” nonsense was sputtered in hindsight the next day.
The Yankees did rally to win the ALCS in six games, and in the sweep of the Padres in the World Series, Spencer started just one game. Game Three against the lefty Sterling Hitchcock. He didn’t even pinch-hit in the other three games. Spencer went 1-for-3 with a double in that one World Series start.
Spencer’s magic had worn off, and he didn’t have much big league success the rest of his career, but the magic lasted long enough to help the Yankees win the 1998 World Series. The 28th round draft pick who spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before getting his first big league opportunity had become a September and October hero.
“That’s a fun story,” said Paul O’Neill to Curry when Spencer was in the middle of his home run binge. “It’s so much fun. The game goes in slow motion when you feel like he does. He’s just grinning when he runs around the bases. It’s fun to see, especially for a guy whose paid his dues in the minor leagues. You need stories like that in baseball.”