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General Interest

THE OLD GUARD YANKEES SHINE IN ’09

The New York Yankees, Major League Baseball’s most successful team and the most famous sports team in the world, are having themselves a dandy of a season. They’ve been an excellent team again since 1996 when they went on an old time Yankee-style tear of winning 4 World Championships in 5 seasons, an incredibly difficult feat in these days of 3 rounds of playoff games. No other baseball team has been able to accomplish anything remotely similar since the advent of the playoff system to determine which teams advance to the World Series. A team has to remain focused and hot for two grueling elimination rounds, staving off other excellent teams that get suddenly hot, and then maintain that intensity in the World Series. And with management having just invested in a brand new Yankee Stadium and the three top free agents on the market over the winter, the pressure was on to win it all this year.

It has been almost 9 years now since they last won a World Series. Oh, they reached there twice, only to lose to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 and the Florida Marlins in 2003. Since then, they’ve been eliminated in the second round in 2004 and in the first round of the playoffs 3 straight times. The last time this happened it cost Manager Joe Torre his job after 12 stellar seasons, an incredibly long run for the George Steinbrenner-owned Yankees. He was replaced by Joe Gerardi, a former Yankee catcher who was around for the beginning of the late 90’s dynasty before giving way to current long-time All Star catcher Jorge Posada and moving on to coaching and managing. The Yanks didn’t even make the playoffs in 2008 for the first time since 1995. The vultures circled and the Yankees were pronounced over the hill and a team in transition heading nowhere fast.

Gone were old warriors Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill and Scott Brosius. Nowhere to be seen were tenacious bulldog pitchers like Davids Cone and Wells, Andy Pettitte and El Duque, Orlando Hernandez, all of whom ratcheted up their considerable skill level come October. Sure, Pettitte was back after a three year exile in Houston, but last year he faded in the stretch, going 14-14 for the first non-winning record of his career. There has been a lot of talk about Alex Rodriguez being a distraction and there being no team chemistry with all the new free agent millionaires the Yankee brought in over the winter.

Mostly there was a lot of chatter about the last three holdovers from 1996 getting a little long in the tooth and losing their edge. These would be team captain Derek Jeter, the face of baseball and a fantastic player who knows a hundred ways to win a baseball game, Posada, who had off-season shoulder surgery and started the season late, and the great Mariano Rivera, the best closing pitcher ever to play the game. Incredible as it may seem, these boys of summer are now 35, 37 and 39, respectively, an age that usually signals if not the end of a baseball career, the twilight years at best. While all three men are superb athletes with great work habits, no one cheats Father Time forever. The feeling was that these three hearts and souls of this Yankee team would falter and drag the team down.

The team started the season spottily too, with an up and down April and May while their arch rivals the Boston Red Sox looked to be the better team, beating the Yankees in every meeting. Jeter was in better health than in recent years when he played through a series of injuries, never admitting they were a hindrance. His return to top form helped keep the Yanks in the race while they struggled. Posada was rehabbing his shoulder and Mariano blew a couple of saves and started to look decidedly human. One of their best starting pitchers, Chien Ming Wang, succumbed to a series of injuries that knocked him out for half the season last year and likely this season too.

The two new free agent pitchers, C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, were not in the dominant groove expected of them. Pettitte has been solid, but he is 37 and getting by on smarts and experience. Joba Chamberlain, their Ace Apparent, experienced a lot of growing pains as a starter after shining as the set-up man for Rivera last year. Alex Rodriguez, possibly baseball’s most talented player, also started the season late, recovering from surgery on his hip. Hideki Matsui has been limited to the Designated Hitter role due to surgery on his knee. 35 year-old Johnny Damon had to take over Matsui’s left field job and decent but not spectacular Nick Swisher was hired to play right field. Center Field, long the glory position in Yankee Stadium was up for grabs in spring training and shared by two young players who had yet to prove themselves, Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera. All in all, many thought this was a team in transition and would again miss the playoffs.

On the plus side, new first baseman Mark Texiera has been a marvel, hitting in the clutch, fielding his position well and piling up home runs. Second baseman Robinson Cano has also been terrific, bouncing back from a sub-par performance last year. Outfielder Brett Gardner has added a new dimension to their base running game with his blinding speed and daring and Melky Cabrera is becoming a clutch performer and has a great arm in the outfield, saving many a run as opposing base runners think better of taking the extra base. Swisher has been a welcome addition too, a loose-goose country hardball player enjoying a career year.

Matsui’s been in a sweet hitting groove, knocking a walk-off homer the other day, and Damon’s bat is still as lethal as ever in his new #2 spot in the order. The utility players have been ably filling in for the injured and coming off the bench with solid contributions. The bullpen has solidified with the dominant success of Phil Hughes in Chamberlain’s former role as set up man, with Phil Coke and Alfredo Aceves shining too. Their catcher-of-the-future Francisco Cervelli opened a lot of eyes with his potent bat and his ability to call games at the major league level before he was sent back to the minors to make way for Posada, a move that some said was a mistake since they felt Posada would be unreliable behind the plate after his surgery.

Then came the hot weather and a team that was coming together as a unit starting to feel their oats. Jorge Posada is doing the lion’s share of the catching and his hitting has been outstanding, his home run power still a threat. Mariano has been as great as ever as a closer, those couple of blown saves early on seemingly a fluke. After struggling when he returned, Alex Rogriguez is again striking fear into the hearts of opposing teams when he comes to bat and fielding his position flawlessly. And Derek Jeter, moved into the unfamiliar lead-off role in the lineup this year, has shown the world he is still Derek Jeter both at bat and on the field. After scoring the tying run in the All Star Game his team would win, Jeter’s Yankees started a 10 game home stand and have won 8 of 9 so far, taking over first place from Boston.

There were a magic few games recently when it looked like the late 90s with Posada and Jeter getting clutch hits late in the game and making spectacular plays to save runs and then Mariano coming in to close out the games with skinny one run leads 3 nights in a row with that eerie calm and indomitable confidence. These three have set the tone for their team, and everyone else is doing their best to live up to their quiet professionalism, competitive fire and killer instinct. The starting pitching has been strong, the bullpen stronger and the fielding and hitting better than any other team. And the old guard is there leading not only by the example of their stellar play, but by the sheer force of their personalities.

Rivera and Posada are serious hardworking family men, bright students of the game they have spent their adult lives learning and eager teachers to the younger players and even the veterans new to the Yankees. Derek Jeter, one of the most famous athletes in the country, handsome and single, seems to be an impossible person: one who has not succumbed to the debilitating temptations of the big city and become a vacuous playboy frittering away his talents on the nightlife and growing an ego the size of New York like so many before him. He remains the polite, clean living and driven young man he was in 1996, still calling his former manager Mr. Torre and keeping his private life private in the biggest fishbowl in a fishbowl age.

Even people who hate the Yankees, and there are no shortage of those, never have a bad word to say about The Captain. When he signed a 10 year contract paying him $18 million per season in 2001, he never slacked off in his pursuit of excellence and continues to hone his skills and stay in game shape all year round. With his own money he started the Turn Two Foundation, a charity dedicated to keep young boys from getting involved with drugs and alcohol that runs programs and activities designed to help the youngsters get the most out of their lives. He has never been involved in a scandal of any sort and there have never been any suspicions of him using steroids or abusing another person.

The same can be said of Rivera and Posada, and there has seldom been three such big stars on one team who acted less like stars. They know theirs is a team sport with the success of the team relying on the preparation, dedication and professionalism of every member of the team, and they have never let down their teammates or fans in this respect. This is a team to savor and watch closely because who knows how much longer these three amigos will continue to put their stamp of modest intensity on their team, playing hard every inning of every game, getting the most out of their gifts and raising the bar in the clutch.

They’ve been together a dozen years and have come to define the Yankees. This has become a very interesting season indeed and we can all look forward to baseball being played at its highest possible level at Yankee Stadium and we have these 3 old dogs who everyone thought had left their best days behind them to thank. With their old bulldog of a pitcher buddy, the prodigal son Andy Pettitte rejoining them, along with a superb supporting cast, this can wind up being a very special season indeed. The excitement is palpable and even the fair weather Yankee fans and the doubters are sitting up and taking notice. World Series win #27, anybody?  Play ball!

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