Like Babe Ruth said: “Baseball is not only the best game, it’s the only game.” And who would know better than The Babe, the man who excelled at both of the main aspects of baseball, pitching and hitting. While he changed the game completely with his unprecedented power hitting, as a young baseball player he was an outstanding pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, winning 20-plus games twice, setting a record for shutouts by a left-handed pitcher that stood for over 50 years, and going 3-0 in World Series play with an amazing .087 Earned Run Average in only three and a half seasons as a full-time pitcher. His .671 winning percentage (94-46, 2.28 E.R.A. lifetime) is one of the best marks ever for pitchers with over 100 decisions. Traded to the Yankees in 1920, he became a right fielder and proceeded to change and dominate his sport like no other professional athlete before or since.
Babe Ruth also started the New York Yankees on the road to being the most dominant of all professional teams, winning 26 championships. During his tenure with the Yankees they played in seven World Series, with Ruth hitiing 15 home runs in World Series games, winning four titles, and he left a legacy of excellence and high expectations that has surrounded the team ever since. Now once again the Yankees are playing post-season baseball, during an era of three rounds of playoffs that make it even more difficult for teams to reach, never mind win, the World Series.
The current Yankee team is built for the playoffs, and so far, so good. They swept MInnesota in the Divisional Playoff round and have a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series against their old nemesis The Los Angeles Angels in the second round, including Saturday night’s 4 to 3 victory in a 13-inning nail biter, one of the most excruciatingly intense and well-pitched playoff games in recent memory. They have not been in a World Series since 2003, when they lost in six games to the Florida Marlins. They also lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in seven games in the 2001 World Series. Prior to that time, the Yankees had won four titles in 5 years from 1996 to 2000, making them the greatest baseball dynasty of the playoff era. There are only four holdovers from that team: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte.
These guys were kids in their Series-winning years, all showing poise and baseball knowledge beyond their years and flourishing under the steady hand of manager Joe Torre. Torre now manages the Los Angeles Dodgers who are fighting for the National League Pennant for what would be a dream World Series match up if the Yankees and Dodgers make it out of the second round. Jeter, Rivera, Posada and Pettitte are now in their mid to late thirties, yet are all somehow still performing at incredibly high levels, having turned in seasons that compare with their best. Joining them on the big stage are Alex Rodriguez, the world’s best baseball player but one with no World Series rings, Robinson Cano, Johnny Damon, Melke Cabrera, Phil Gardiner, the veteran professional hitter Hideki Matsui and newcomers Mark Texiera and Nick Swisher.
Having lost Chien-Ming Wang, their best pitcher, to injury, the Yankees re-signed Pettitte and lured top pitching free agents C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, who have proven to be stars that can pitch under the white hot spotlight that is Yankee Stadium at playoff time. A new Yankee Stadium, by the way, replacing the House That Ruth Built across the street. Their manager, former Yankee catcher and World Series star Joe Girardi, is under pressure to deliver a championship since missing the playoffs last year in his first year as Yankee skipper, the first time in 13 years the Yanks failed to make the playoffs. He has been a good manager, guiding them to 103 wins, the best record in baseball n 2009.
Girardi is running the team his own way in the playoffs, adding speed with bench players who can pinch run, steal bases and cover extra ground in the outfield in late innings, and courageously using only a 3-man starting pitching rotation, leaving the young Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen where he has enjoyed his greatest success after 2 years of being jerked around by the front office as to whether he would be a starter or a reliever. It is to Girardi’s credit that the kid hasn’t gone nuts and has proven to be a great reliever in the pressure of the playoffs so far. Both he and young Phil Hughes have been outstanding, and so have the rest of the relievers. As far as the professional, crisp and winning baseball Girardi’s team is playing, he can thank the four holdovers from the recent glory years for their leadership by example. No one works harder than these four to stay in top shape and mentally prepare themselves for any situation that might arise.
The Team Captain, Derek Jeter, has always been a clutch performer, always raising his level of intensity and achievement in the playoffs. The Great Mariano Rivera, as he is called these days, is a model of consistency and poise that has made him the best closing pitcher in the history of the game, and if possible he gets even better in the playoffs, as attested by his miniscule .074 playoff E.R.A. Posada is all passion and fire, while Pettitte is a shrewd old master pitcher who finds a way to get great hitters out and keep his team in the game. These playoffs have so far been as good as baseball gets, with the best players at the top of their games finding one more way to win, one more clutch hit or strikeout or dramatic fielding play. Let’s hope the new Yankee Stadium gets christened with a championship. The Babe wouldn’t want it any other way.