Every Friday, we will be taking a look back at the career of a critical player in New York Yankees history that doesn’t quite get the recognition they deserve. When looking at the storied history of the Yankees names like Ruth, Mantle and Jeter quickly come to mind. Today, we will be looking at those players who played a critical role. Simply put, without these individuals, the Yankees wouldn’t have been the Yankees.
Second base has not been the strongest position in Yankees history. For this article, I decided that Tony Lazzeri and Willie Randolph were too good to qualify for this list but they do deserve some more attention. Meanwhile, guys like my childhood idol Chuck Knoblauch, and Randy Velarde have strong ties to PEDs and off-field issues. With that said, today we will be looking at two critical keystone pieces of the 1990s dynasty!
When most Yankees fans hear the name Mariano, they justifiably think of the greatest closer to ever play the game. Not only is Rivera the best closer, but he’s also one of the best pitchers of all-time. However, he wasn’t the only Mariano to play for the New York Yankees.
Duncan’s career started in 1982 when he signed with the Dodgers’ organization as an undrafted free agent. He would establish himself as a quality defender and a proficient base stealer after his debut in 1985. However, due to his low average he struggled to find playing time before being shipped in a 1989 trade to Cincinnati. Duncan would play two seasons, winning the 1990 World Series before moving the Philly. He would win the National League pennant in 1993 and earn his only all-star appearance in 1994. However, a rough 1995 season would see him released.
Meanwhile, the Yankees lost Randy Velarde to the California Angels and were looking to add another middle infielder to their roster. The Yankees added Duncan on a cheap deal and entered the season with him penciled in at second. Duncan would quickly establish himself as a critical member of the team. Duncan shocked the baseball world with his .340 average. He would become a Yankees legend when he coined the mantra for the team “We play today, we win today…das it!”
The Yankees would follow Duncan’s words in 1996 as they won their first World Series since 1978.
Duncan would play parts of three more seasons in professional baseball and today serves as a hitting coach in the Mets’ organization.
Duncan wouldn’t be the only second baseman on the 1996 team to play a critical role for the Yankees. In late August of that year, the Yankees added utility infielder Luis Sojo to the roster as the team approached the postseason. Sojo’s career started in Toronto and then a stop with the Angels before heading to Seattle. With the Mariners, Sojo played a key role with their 1995 team but a difficult 1996 saw him lose his job.
The Yankees front office saw Sojo as a good utility piece but no one could have predicted his importance to the Yankees’ dynasty. Sojo would play in parts of seven seasons with the Yankees and while he only hit .261, he would elevate his game to another level in the postseason and hit .400 in 12 World Series games. Notably, Sojo drove in the World Series winning run against the Mets in the 2000 Subway Series.
Sojo was loved by Yankees fans and teammates. Bernie Williams nicknamed him “El Mejor” — Spanish for “The Best”, while John Sterling called him the best .200 hitter in MLB history.
My favorite Sojo memory comes from Game 2 of the 2000 ALDS against Oakland. With the Yankees winning 3-0 in the eighth inning, Sojo shuffled to field a routine ground ball. However, Sojo’s cleats became tangled and he went falling to the ground. Now with runners on first and third, the Yankees had to bring Mariano Rivera into the game to finish off the A’s. After the game, Sojo told reporters with a smirk, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”
Sojo retired after the 2003 season, and later crushed a walk-off home run off Ron Guidry in the 2004 Old Timers’ Game.
Today, he currently manages the Spanish National Baseball team.