“I guess if you can’t win ballgames, you gotta try to win fights,” Yankees owner George Steinbrenner jokingly taunted after witnessing one of the uglier brawls in baseball history. “If I hadn’t been upstairs, I would’ve tried to get [Armando Benitez], too.”1
Despite having baseball’s biggest payroll, the 20-23 Baltimore Orioles came into Yankee Stadium on a five-game losing skid,2 alone in the American League East cellar, 11 games behind the 28-9 Yankees. New York not only had the best record in baseball, but was off to the franchise’s best start since 19393 and the best of any major-league team since the 1984 Detroit Tigers.4
The stark differences between the two teams’ seasons could be summed up by their previous games. The Orioles wrapped up a humiliating homestand with a 6-3 loss that capped off a four-game sweep for the upstart Tampa Bay Devil Rays.5 Meanwhile, the Yankees were coming off a perfect game thrown by David Wells.
David Cone took the mound for New York, sporting a record of 5-1 on his way to a 20-win season. The Orioles countered with Doug Johns, a 30-year-old southpaw with a career 5.66 ERA, who’d spent all of 1997 in Triple A and had just been reactivated from a stint on the disabled list for insomnia.
The pitching matchup proved more competitive than anticipated, however. Both pitchers surrendered a single run in the second inning: Cone on a line-drive single by Harold Baines; Johns on a groundout by Joe Girardi that allowed Scott Brosius to trot home from third.
Baltimore took the lead in the third on an RBI single by Roberto Alomar. Baines collected two more RBIs on another line-drive single to center field. And in the fourth inning, Jeffrey Hammonds hit a sacrifice fly that tagged Cone with a fifth run.
With the Orioles up 5-1, rookie right-hander Sidney Ponson replaced Johns in what became a three-up-three-down sixth inning, but surrendered a leadoff double to Chuck Knoblauch in the seventh. Paul O’Neill drove Knoblauch home with a double, then scored when Tim Raines blooped a single into left-center field. Ponson got out of the inning still leading 5-3, but in the bottom of the eighth, he issued back-to-back walks, bringing Derek Jeter to the plate representing the go-ahead run.
Orioles manager Ray Miller called on Alan Mills, who got Jeter to fly out, then immediately went back to his bullpen for Norm Charlton to set up a lefty-lefty matchup against O’Neill, which didn’t work in Baltimore’s favor. O’Neill belted Charlton’s second pitch for an RBI single. With two outs, the tying run at second, and the go-ahead run at first, Miller brought in a fourth pitcher in as many hitters, asking closer Armando Benitez to collect a four-out save.
The 25-year-old fireballer had developed into one of baseball’s best set-up men in 1997.6 But his impressive regular season gave way to one of the worst postseason series for any reliever. In the American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians, Benitez made four appearances, all in games that became one-run Orioles losses, and was on the mound when the game-winning runs were scored in three of them. He gave up just three hits, but those were two home runs and a walk-off single that left him with a record of 0-2, a blown save, and an ERA of 12.00.
When Bernie Williams connected on a 2-and-1 slider, many Baltimore players and fans had flashbacks to that Cleveland series. The ball soared down the right-field line and landed in the upper deck for a three-run homer, putting New York up 7-5. But as Williams rounded the bases, as his teammates congratulated him at home plate, and as Tino Martinez walked to the batter’s box, a few other Orioles recalled a different game, on June 7, 1995.
As a rookie, Benitez entered that game against the Seattle Mariners down 3-2 with two runners on. He walked the first batter he faced on four pitches, loading the bases for Edgar Martinez, who smashed Benitez’s first offering over the left-field wall for a grand slam. The frustrated rookie hurled a fastball into the next Seattle hitter’s shoulder, emptying both benches.
That now-former Mariner whom Benitez had plunked three years earlier was Tino Martinez, and he was about to become a victim of history repeating. The reliever who regularly flirted with triple digits on the radar gun uncorked a fastball that buried itself between the numbers on the back of Martinez’s jersey.
By his own account, home-plate umpire Drew Coble “ejected Benitez almost before the pitch got there.”7 The Yankees poured out of their dugout, led by Darryl Strawberry. The Orioles followed as their closer threw down his glove and gestured toward the oncoming Yankees as if taunting them into a fight. Benitez later claimed he was trying to innocently express confusion about the Yankees’ anger. “Everyone was coming to me. I had to throw my glove off and say, ‘What’s going on?’” Benitez insisted.8
The teams converged around the mound, and for a moment it seemed that calmer heads might prevail. Orioles players didn’t seem too enthusiastic about standing up for Benitez’s actions. “You know it’s bad when guys on their team in the middle of the brawl are saying it was [garbage],” Yankee infielder Dale Sveum noted.9 Jeter and others restrained Strawberry while Miller pulled Benitez away from the scrum and toward the visitors’ dugout.
That moment of calm was shattered the second relievers Graeme Lloyd and Jeff Nelson arrived on the scene. The two sprinted from the New York bullpen and attempted a pincer attack against Benitez with Lloyd circling behind Miller to hit Benitez from the right while Nelson followed from his left. As soon as punches were thrown, the gaggle surged toward the action with players falling over one another.
Meanwhile, several Yankees and Orioles held back Martinez, who yelled about the 1995 incident as he attempted to swim through the mob to get to Benitez.
As Benitez stood on the top step of the dugout, Strawberry sucker-punched him, leaping at the pitcher with a left hook, then falling into the dugout. Others followed and piled on, including Mills, who jabbed his right fist into Strawberry’s face, leaving a mouse under the slugger’s left eye.
“This was the most afraid I’ve been during a baseball game,” Cone confessed. “It got really violent.”11
Once Yankees manager Joe Torre calmed Strawberry down and marched him back to the home side of the diamond, and Cal Ripken Jr. and Orioles coach Eddie Murray restored order in their own dugout, the umpires began sorting things out. Strawberry, Lloyd, Nelson, and Mills were all ejected, and the game resumed after a 25-minute delay.
With Martinez on first and Bobby Muñoz, the O’s fifth pitcher of the inning, on the mound, Raines blasted the first pitch he saw 408 feet to add two more runs to what would be a 9-5 New York win.
Benitez insisted that hitting Martinez was unintentional, offering his 17 walks in 17⅔ innings as evidence of his lack of pitch control. “I try to throw inside. I tried to scare him a little bit. I’m sorry about that,” he said. “I feel very bad for hitting Tino. … I don’t want people to think I’m a bad guy.”12
Martinez rejected Benitez’s repentance. “An apology doesn’t mean anything to me. He knew what he was doing,” he responded.13
Even some on Benitez’s own team weren’t convinced. Miller called him “an immature young kid” and “out of control.”14 One anonymous teammate described him as “25 going on 15,” and another said, “He embarrassed the whole organization. … He may be ready physically to be a closer, but he’s not ready mentally.”15 Webster said the blame for the brawl fell squarely on Benitez because “he hit the guy”16 and acknowledged that “if I was Tino, I’d be upset, too.”17
The next day, the American League handed Benitez an eight-game suspension and fined him $2,000. He chose not to appeal.18
Martinez sat out the next two games with a “bruise on his back … this big” (as diagnosed by Steinbrenner).19 In his return, he belted an RBI triple, but strained his shoulder sliding into third. He believed the injuries were related as the bruise limited his range of motion. After sitting another six games, he went into a prolonged slump. Martinez, who had been batting .326 with an OPS of .957 before getting drilled, hit just .165 through June.20
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also accessed Baseball-Reference.com. Video of the brawl is available on YouTube.
1 Peter Botte, “George Weighs In with Fightin’ Words,” New York Daily News, May 20, 1998: 60.
2 The Orioles’ losing streak eventually extended to nine games, the team’s longest since its infamous 0-21 start to the 1988 season. They’d exceed that with a 10-game losing streak in August-September.
3 The 1998 team was the fourth team in franchise history to still have a single-digit number in the losses column after 37 games. The 1928 and 1939 Yankees both started their seasons 30-7. The 1998 team’s record matched that of the 1926 team and has since been matched by the 2022 Yankees. https://stathead.com/tiny/RGJNh.
5 The Devil Rays finished the season 63-99. Their seven wins against Baltimore were the most against any opponent.
6 Benitez converted 29 of 30 save situations into 20 holds and 9 saves.
7 Joe Strauss, “Orioles Go Down Fighting,” Baltimore Sun, May 20, 1998: 1E.
8 Ken Rosenthal, “Benitez’s Immature Act Wears Thin,” Baltimore Sun, May 20, 1998: 1E.
9 Roch Kubatko, “Steinbrenner: ‘Worst I’ve Seen,’” Baltimore Sun, May 20, 1998: 1E.
10 Bill Madden, “Lay Blame on Benitez, Orioles Say,” New York Daily News, May 20, 1998: 60.
11 Ian O’Connor, “Baseball Trips on Its Tradition,” New York Daily News, May 20, 1998: 58.
12 Joe Strauss, “O’s Benitez Remorseful,” Baltimore Sun, May 22, 1998: 1D.
13 John Delcos, “Yankees Notebook,” Rockland (New York) Journal News, May 24, 1998: 4D.
14 Strauss, “O’s Benitez Remorseful.”
15 Tom Verducci, “Fevered Pitch,” Sports Illustrated, June 1, 1998: 61.
16 Strauss, “Orioles Go Down.”
17 Kubatko, “Steinbrenner: Worst I’ve Seen.”
18 Strawberry and Lloyd each received three-game suspensions and were fined $1,000, while Mills and Nelson each got two games and $500 fines.
19 Botte, “George Weighs In.”
20 From May 29 to June 30, Martinez had 16 hits in 97 at-bats. https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.fcgi?id=martiti02&t=b&year=1998#896-923-sum:batting_gamelogs.