The Yankees' season ended on the next pitch, but O'Neill's example has carried over to this year's team. O'Neill fights until the last breath. You'd think a team riding such a phenomenal wave would look like it's having fun, but the only emotional displays associated with the Yankees are O'Neill's volcanic temper tantrums. "When I first came to the Yankees," Torre says, "a lot was made of the fact that Paul breaks things, that he gets mad when he makes an out. I think some people misdiagnosed that as being selfish. There's a certain amount of wanting to get a hit every time up that doesn't necessarily mean you're selfish; it just means you're passionate about it, and you're a perfectionist." The only caution Torre says he's given O'Neill is to not hurt himself. "We've made strides with water coolers," Torre says, timing his punch line. "Now they're plastic. So we're all right."
O'Neill isn't much of a talker, but he can be slyly funny. Ask him to assess the grueling two weeks that took the Yankees to Baltimore, Cleveland, the Bronx for two days, and Atlanta, then to Queens for a bragging-rights match with the Mets, and O'Neill says, "Yeah, I'm ready for it to be over. I'm out of clean clothes."
Turn the conversation to O'Neill's role in this dynamo, though, and his wincing, self-abasing Irish Catholic side takes over. He's been reclining, relaxed, on a stool; now O'Neill bends forward at the waist and stares at the floor as he talks, politely and briefly, before fleeing to the pregame bridge table.
O'Neill shuffles the cards. He's paired with catcher Girardi against coach Don Zimmer and third-baseman Brosius in a season-long tournament. "We been beatin' em up pretty good so far," O'Neill says. Yet even as he's winning at bridge, O'Neill is working at baseball: He keeps glancing away to study a TV monitor, which is showing videotape of Al Leiter, the starting pitcher for the Mets tonight. "Look at that," O'Neill says to Tino Martinez, who is hunched over in front of the screen; O'Neill and Martinez nod, having picked up a clue to Leiter's curveball. "Left-handers are getting better hacks than righties," O'Neill says.
Other Yankees point to Girardi, the veteran catcher, as another leader: Bumped from his starting role by young Jorge Posada, Girardi doesn't sulk -- he tutors Posada between innings. Athletes respect nothing so much as physical gifts, and so the 24-year-old, supremely confident Jeter has become a leader as well.
But this isn't "Derek's team," or "Paul's team," in the way that one dominant personality usually emerges out of the 25-man roster, demanding to carry the load in tough situations. "We kind of see ourselves as a unit, focusing on a common goal and putting aside selfish things," says Chad Curtis, who has played capably in center field while Bernie Williams has been injured. "That's so clichéd, but it really is the case on this team. People are gonna read that and say, 'Oh, yeah, they all say that.' But I've been on quite a few teams, and I've never seen it before."
Up in Cooperstown, they're already casting the bronze Hall of Fame plaque of Greg Maddux. The Braves right-hander takes the mound at Yankee Stadium on a warm night in late June riding a two-month winning streak. Now he's buzzing through the batting order of the ballyhooed "best team in baseball." For the first two innings, the Yankees look docile, taking pitch after pitch before grounding out meekly.
Then, in the third inning, Knoblauch faces Maddux for the second time. First pitch -- snap. A single to right field. Up comes Jeter. Third pitch -- snap. A single to center field. O'Neill is the hitter now. Maddux floats his best pitch: A mesmerizing change-up. Pop: A first-pitch single to center, scoring Knoblauch.
Next is Martinez. First pitch: Another change-up. Martinez slashes. Another hard single. Game tied.
Three innings later, the game still tied, Maddux asks to be replaced. Afterward, he blames his early exit on a stiff neck, caused by a bad night's sleep at the Grand Hyatt. The Yankees jump all over the Braves' weak bull pen, beating baseball's second-best team 6?4.
Later, Martinez says the Yankees weren't being docile at all in the first part of the game. It was part of the plan of attack for facing a pitcher like Maddux. "Your first at-bat, if you have a pretty good at-bat, you're gonna see quite a few pitches," Martinez explains. "You see his fastball, his change-up, whatever he's gonna throw. The next few at-bats is the time you gotta try to sit on one certain pitch. This lineup makes adjustments during a game faster than any team I've been on. We talk about it in the dugout -- what we're looking for, what he's doing -- and we know we've got a good chance to get him eventually."
Inevitability: That's the best way to describe the Yankees this year. Either the ocean-deep starting-pitching staff -- Cone, Pettitte, Wells, Hideki Irabu, and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez -- throws a suffocating game, or the intensely focused hitters keep punching until they find an opening. The 1906 Cubs, the team with the most regular-season wins, had an airtight defense, anchored by the famous Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double-play combination. But those Cubs played in an era when somebody named Harry Davis could lead the league with twelve home runs. The game was so different it makes comparisons to the '98 Yankees silly.
The team that's commonly lauded as the best ever, the 1927 Yankees, was overwhelming, featuring Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri, Combs, and Meusel -- the famed Murderers' Row. The '98 Yankees have an Assassins' Row: Expose one vulnerability and they'll kill you. They wear out even the most precise pitchers. "You've gotta do everything you can to keep your mistakes to a minimum," says the Braves' Tom Glavine. "They don't have a lot of guys who swing at bad pitches. They take a lot of walks. They go out, they play the game hard. If they beat you, that's that; they don't make a big deal out of it."
The only place where Roger Maris's single-season homer record isn't threatened, it seems, is in the Bronx. Martinez leads the Yankees with a modest 14 dingers. But check the names at the top of this year's home-run derby: McGwire, Griffey, Sosa. Then check to see where their teams are in the standings.