Courtesy of Jack Curry

The Music of Baseball

A conversation on the 1998 Yankees and the Clash with Jack Curry.

When I sat down to chat with former New York Times baseball writer and current YES Network Yankees studio analyst Jack Curry to discuss his new book, The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever (a team I covered partly for this paper that year), he began by noting that – perhaps for the first time – the players from that squad could look back with pride on their accomplishment of winning more games in one season than any sports team in history: 125-50. Distance provided a unique perspective in which they could reveal their honest accounts of that incredible run; “25 years later, I think the pride, and if you want to call it the swagger, was oozing a lot more,” Curry said of the players’ contribution to his wonderfully researched and charmingly written book. “These guys were very happy and content with where they stood in baseball history.”

That magical year ended, as all monumental Yankees seasons do, with a championship – joining the cream of their unequalled 27 titles in 1927, 1939, 1961. It was an astonishing season, filled with perfect games from a hungover pitcher (David Wells), a cancer diagnosis for one outfielder (Darryl Strawberry), a Cuban defector splashing onto the scene (Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez), and the birth of the greatest closer professional baseball will ever witness (Mariano Rivera). Still, after all that has been dissected and written about this historic bunch, Curry’s research and interviews expose much more, especially the human stories enhancing the color of the baseball drama. Fellow beat-writer from that season, Joel Sherman, and one of the team’s radio voices and now TV voice, Michael Kay, admitted to Curry after reading his book that they learned things they had no idea were occurring at the time. Retrospection at its finest.

As for its bold title that the 1998 Yankees were the “greatest team ever,” Curry and I agreed that his including of the perspective of arguably the world’s leading baseball historian, John Thorne (founder of Total Baseball) certainly helps. Thorne, who concurred with this summation on the team’s legacy, told me back in 1993 that the 1939 Yankees were the best team ever. This was primarily due to their compiling stats with the biggest disparity in runs scored to runs given up (kind of the point of the game), but Curry, who reminds me that the ’98 team has the second greatest run-differential ever, got him to concede on their greatness. “I could reel off the statistics and how that team dominated,” Curry told me. “But to win three tiers of playoffs when teams for most of the last century had to only win one series, the World Series, to win it all, makes the biggest difference. It was much harder to win it all in October in 1998. I think if you’re picking the best four or five teams of all time, it’s the ‘98 Yankees, it’s the ‘27 Yankees, it’s the ‘39 Yankees, it’s the 1976 Reds. And I’ll leave a wild card out there for number five, because there’s a lot of teams that could vie for that. The one place where I think John and I disagree a little bit is he thinks that you could be considered amongst the greatest of all time if you didn’t win a World Series. The 1906 cubs were 116-36 but didn’t win a World Series. To me, you’re out if you can’t complete the deal, like the 2001 Mariners, so you’re not amongst the greatest of all time.”

Curry shared some great stories about the team and delved deeper into some of the charismatic personalities and stellar and not-so stellar moments from that season in our extended conversation, but what Jack and I really wanted to talk about was music. Curry is a lunatic music fan, a fellow music geek that is as passionate as it comes. Many of his avid followers of his yeoman’s work on television and social media reportage know little about this side of him… until now. Once Jack knew this was thee Aquarian Weekly, the longest running independent music/pop culture paper in the naton, he was raring to go. And so, here is where things got fun:

What was your favorite band growing up? And what is it now?

It’s a great question. I’m pretty transparent about this on Twitter. I will preface this by saying I grew up in Jersey with a brother that is a couple years older than me and who’s a music savant. So, the first band/musician that I fell in love with was Springsteen, but the band that I grew to adore – and I always tell people is my favorite band of all time – is the Clash. I was fortunate enough when I was 16/17 to see them at Bonds in Manhattan.

You went to that show? Holy shit.

I went twice! They played 20 shows or something in 10 days and I was mesmerized James, and my brother and I actually got on stage at the end of one of the shows, but we got pushed off very quickly [Laughs]. Yeah, Joe Strummer and the Clash became my guidepost. I thought that Joe Strummer had a message in all of his music. I also loved his solo stuff after the Clash broke up. So, the Clash will always be my favorite band. If you ask me who my favorite band is today, I’m probably gonna throw you a curveball – there’s a reggae artist named Chronixx. My wife and I go to the Caribbean a lot and several years ago one of my buddies over there, a guy named Van Roy, a bartender and great dude, said, “You got to listen to this guy Chronixx, he’s the next Bob Marley.” I loved him. I’ve seen him perform about half a dozen times. He’s got very socially conscious music. I’ve actually interviewed him because I did a little web series for a while at YES where I would try and incorporate some of my music love. I also love the National. I would put them high up as another band that I listen to a lot these days, but I’m a new wave/punk kid from the late seventies/early eighties, so the Smiths, Talking Heads, Ramones, and really anybody who sort of sounds like that in the current genre – Arcade Fire, the 1975 – I want to take a listen.

Where in Jersey did you grow up?

I was born in Jersey City, which we always called ‘the sixth borough.’ My buddies and I would head over to Manhattan on the PATH train when we were 13/14 years old, heading down to the village to explore record stores, go to sporting goods stores because we thought they sold better baseball gloves or hockey sticks than the ones in Jersey City… they probably didn’t. Yeah, I lived there for the first 27 years of my life. I got married, I moved out a little more to suburbia, but Jersey City molded me. It’s a tough place, but I learned a lot there.

What was the first song that really sparked you? How old were you? 

We’re probably gonna have to go back to Springsteen. It’s probably “Jungleland,” something off Born to Run that was so mammoth that it stuck with me. I mean, obviously, when you’re eight, nine, 10 years old, your parents are playing music that sticks with you, too. I’m wearing a Johnny Cash t-shirt right now. My father adored Johnny Cash and my brother and I grew up listening to that. So, I’m sure when I was 10, I would have told you it was “I Walk the Line” or “Ring of Fire,” but Springsteen definitely hit me hard as a kid growing up in New Jersey. Then, later on, London Calling from the Clash. Because I cover baseball, people will say, “If you were a baseball player, and were headed to the plate to bat, what would your walk-up song be?” I never hesitate – I just say “London Calling.” I’ve talked to Paul O’Neill (former Yankee great and member of the 1998 team) about this. You need something, especially now with the pitch clock, that it’s going to hit you in 10 or 15 seconds, and “London Calling” has that at the beginning. That would get me fired up as I went up there and struck out on three pitches [Laughs].

You said your parents played music; did they play professionally?

No, but my father probably should have. My brother and I, to this day, still have cassette tapes of my father playing guitar and singing. He had a lot of skills and a lot of talent, but I don’t know that he was as aggressive as he should have been getting people to hear his music, because – I can get misty talking about this – my mom died in ‘94 and my dad died in ‘95, so it’s been a long time, but I cherish the fact that we have these cassettes where my dad is just going off playing music, just riffing and doing whatever he felt like. Unfortunately, it didn’t pass on to my brother or I, but it passed onto the next generation. My brother’s son, one of my nephews, is in a couple of bands and he can really play the guitar. He’s got some serious skills.

Yeah, I lost my dad in 2019, and he would have adored this book, Jack; he really would have.

I appreciate that. 

So, you don’t play an instrument then?

I don’t. I’ve always loved music. In college, I was not only the sports editor, but I also did music reviews. I interviewed Billy Idol when I was in college because he came to Fordham and played on campus, but I’ve never had the skill. My wife plays the guitar, too, so she’s another one that’s nearby – and I love listening to her. I took about four lessons playing the guitar, but I was a pretty honest kid with myself and I didn’t see it being a skill that I was going to adapt to. It’s sort of like golf. I have a bunch of friends that tried to get me to play golf. I tried about five times I said, “Nope, this is not for me.” I love music, but I have no ability to play anything.

I think self-awareness is a wildly underrated trait. Speaking of my dad, I’ll never forget his speech to me when I was around 14 and was a small kid and had hopes to play high school football. I had played Pop Warner and the like, but was not built in any possible way to play at any higher league. He said, “Son, to play football, you need speed, size, and strength… and you don’t have any of those.” Set me straight, saved me from serious injury [Laughs].

He’s a wise man, he hooked ya up.

What is your medium of choice to listen to music?

I’ve migrated back to vinyl. It’s interesting that you asked that question because when you get to the age that I am, and my wife will ask, “What do you want for your birthday? What do you want for Christmas?’ Everybody’s asking me… and I’ve recently just begun to say, “Just get me this.” I pick out a record I want. It’s been neat to go back and have that to recapture those moments from when I was a kid. I mean, for the longest time I bought CDs, but I don’t know the last time I popped a CD in, so it’s obviously streaming music, listening on my phone, listening on my laptop. But I do get a real kick out of the vinyl experience. On a rainy day, I’ll sit in my office and just pull out five or six albums, and I feel as if I’m 14/15/16 years old again, going back and reliving those memories.

When you pass on your music love to younger generations like your nephews, do you give them the classics? For instance, do you find that you need to start them on the Beatles? Or right to the Clash. What do you do to get them going?

That’s a great question. I’m going to use my brother as an answer here. I remember when my nephew Shane was starting to get into bands, my brother texted me excitedly that Shane had asked him to download a couple of Clash songs for him. We were excited about that! I think… I always say this, James, there are your ears and there are my ears, it’s your sensibilities and then it’s my sensibilities. I don’t try to force my music down anyone’s throat. If someone is curious and if someone asks me, I’ll say, “This is why I’m listening to this artist,” or, “This is what I like about them.” I have to tell you, I had an experience a few weeks ago, late April… I had never been to Red Rocks in Colorado, so I went to Red Rocks in Colorado and saw Bob Marley’s five sons playing his music. You talk about a spiritual experience and an experience that resonates? Now, when I came back that is a story I wanted to tell a lot of people, but that doesn’t resonate with everybody. I’d say eight out of 10 people I shared it with said that it was not their kind of music. I had one friend who said… probably not the greatest friend because he should know me, “You flew all the way to Denver for a concert?” I said “Absolutely!” I would have flown to Europe for a concert because that’s where my interests lie.

All right, last one. What song or album or band reminds you of the 1998 Yankees or vice versa?

Wow, that’s a great question. It would have to be, as I’m struggling to come up with an answer here, it would have to be an album that every track hit you – every song hit you, every song was perfect, you wanted to listen to every song. On the ’98 Yankees, you didn’t want to just see [Chuck] Knoblauch and [Derek] Jeter hit. You wanted to see [Jorge] Posada and [Scott] Brosius hit at the bottom of the order. You didn’t want to just see [David] Cone and [David] Wells pitch, you want to see [Andy] Pettitte and El Duque [Orlando Hernandez] pitch. Wow. I would probably pick – I’m going heavy on the reggae here – I would probably pick something from Bob Marley or Johnny Cash or Springsteen or Elvis Costello.

There you go, all your favorites.

Because those are my favorites, right? And I already talked a lot about the Clash, but it would be in that wheelhouse, because those are the artists that meant the most to me.