Yankees: 3 International Signings Who Played Big a Role in Late ’90s titles
By Scott Roche
International signings were key to the Yankees last championship
The New York Yankees have had some success signing impact players in the international free agent market, but they have also missed on others. Three key signings that helped shape the team during their run of World Series titles in the late 1990s and early 2000s are ranked below.
Key Yankees international signing: 3. Bernie Williams
Signed on his 17th birthday out of Puerto Rico in 1985, Bernie Williams struggled in his first few years in the Bronx. He was the subject of trade talks in the mid-1990s. George Steinbrenner wanted General Manager Gene Michael to deal him, but Michael did the right thing by holding on to the future centerfielder as he was part of four championship teams over five years.
In 1998, Williams led the American League with a .339 average and became the first player in MLB history to win the batting title, Gold Glove Award, and a World Series championship in the same season. He also had 26 home runs and 97 RBI in the regular season. Following the season, he signed a seven-year, $87.5 million contract extension to remain with the Yankees.
In 1998, he batted a career-best .342 in 158 games with 25 home runs and 115 RBI. In each year of that contract the Yanks made the playoffs and Williams became a clutch postseason performer.
In 121 playoff games, Williams had 22 home runs, 80 RBI, 22 doubles, 83 runs scored, and 128 postseason hits. That was still not good enough to get him into the Hall of Fame. Finishing with over 2,300 hits, he has a plaque in Monument Park at Yankees Stadium and had his No. 51 retired in May of 2015.
Key Yankees international signing: 2. Orlando Hernandez
Pitching wins championships and one of Brian Cashman’s best international signings played a key role in three consecutive World Series titles from 1998-2000. Signed to a four-year, $5.6 million in 1998 from Cuba, Orlando Hernandez was an instant top of the rotation starter.
Hernandez was a big-game pitcher in October for the Yankees. In six American League Division Starts in New York, he went 3-1 with just a 1.78 ERA in 27.1 innings pitched, giving up six earned runs and striking out 25. His best postseason was in the 1999 American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox when he named series MVP.
He went eight innings in Game 1, but after falling behind in a 3-0 deficit after just two innings on the mound, he worked six more scoreless frames to allow the Yankees to rally and win the game in the bottom of the 10th. He then went seven innings in Game 5 at Fenway Park, scattering five hits giving up one run and striking out nine as the Yankees closed out the series on the road.
In six years in Pinstripes, Hernandez went 61-40 with a 3.96 ERA in 139 games. The first three years of his tenure with the Yanks produced three of the greatest years in franchise history.
Key Yankees international signing: 1. Mariano Rivera
Where else would you go for the top spot? When the Yankees signed Mariano Rivera on February 17, 1990, little did they know that they were signing the games best closer and current all-time saves leader in Major League Baseball during his 17 years in Pinstripes. He is also baseball’s first unanimous Hall of Fame selection when he was inducted in 2019.
Known for his devastating cutter that earned him 694 career saves between the regular-season (652) and postseason (42), Rivera served as the Yankees closer for five World Series championships in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009. During that time he had an 8-1 career postseason record with 11 World Series saves. He owns the postseason record for the lowest career ERA in the playoffs at 0.70. He pitched an incredible 33.1 consecutive scoreless postseason innings. He allowed only 11 career postseason runs.
He finished his career as a 13-time All-Star and was named 2013 All-Star Game MVP. In the 2003 ALCS against the Red Sox, he earned the MVP award for the series after saved two games and was the winning pitcher in relief in Game 7 when Aaron Boone hit a home run off of Tim Wakefield.
There have been many international signings by the Yankees, but these three signings help to set up a string of four World Series titles in five years in the late 1990s. Pitching wins championships and Hernandez and Rivera played big roles in four titles.