By Peter Schwartz
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One day during the 1996 season rookie shortstop Derek Jeter passed by Mariano Duncan’s locker in the Yankees clubhouse and asked the second baseman the following question.
“We play today?”
Duncan’s reply was very simple and right to the point.
“We win today. Dassit.”
So was born the slogan that would define the 1996 New York Yankees. The phrase became so popular that Duncan had t-shirts made bearing the words, “We play today, we win today, dassit!”
“A lot of people think that I’m the only one that came up with that saying,” Duncan said recently. “Since that day, every single day before the game started, we used to get together and say that.”
Ninety-two times during the regular season the Yankees played and won as they captured the AL East title. That was followed by 11 more victories in the postseason as the Bombers won the World Series for the 23rd time in franchise history and for the first time since 1978.
For Duncan, it was season to remember.
“I think my best memory is when Charlie Hayes caught that fly ball to win the World Series,” he said. “That’s one of the greatest moments that I ever had.”
Duncan was a huge part of the Yankees’ run to that championship. He was 33 years old when he signed a two-year deal with the Yankees as a free agent on Dec. 11, 1995. He then went on to hit .340 during the regular season with eight home runs and 56 RBI.
The funny thing is that he was not supposed to be the starting second baseman. The plan was for Duncan to be a bench player, but those plans changed in spring training when Tony Fernandez suffered a broken elbow and Pat Kelly was also hurt.
“Joe Torre came to me and named me the starting second baseman,” Duncan recalled.
The veteran formed quite a middle infield tandem with Jeter, who would go on to be named the American League Rookie of the Year. Duncan was on fire right off the bat, hitting .333 with nine RBI during an 11-game hitting streak to start the season. In the postseason, Duncan hit .313 in the ALDS against the Rangers, but was just .118 (4-for-34) against the Orioles and Braves in the ALCS and World Series, respectively.
Despite his playoff struggles, Duncan proved to be quite a leader and was one of many of the right buttons that Torre pushed during his first year as Yankees manager.
“Joe Torre put a good team together that played the game the right way,” Duncan said. “Since Day 1, we believed in ourselves and we believed nobody could beat us. When you believe in yourself and do what you’re supposed to do, a lot of good things are going to happen.”
Along with many of his 1996 Yankee teammates, Duncan will be on hand to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that world championship team on Saturday Aug. 13. He also made his first Yankees Old Timers’ Day appearance last month and remembered what it was like when he was a player.
“I used to see all those great superstars and Hall of Famers that came to the field,” Duncan said. “It makes me feel old right now. At 53, oh my God I’m an old-timer now.”
All of those players certainly made big contributions to that championship team, but the biggest surprise was Duncan. For a guy that wasn’t even supposed to be a big factor, he turned out to be an important piece of the puzzle. Not only did he lead on the field and at the plate, but he also helped pen the Yankees’ rallying cry.
“We play today… We win today… Dassit!”
It had a nice ring to it and as it turns out, the players not only wore the t-shirt but they received rings as well.
For more coverage of the 1996 Yankees celebration, please click here.
Please follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan