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Yankee magic disappears

Bronx Bombers fizzled out as Red Sox exorcise demons

Posted: Thursday October 21, 2004 2:36AM; Updated: Thursday October 21, 2004 10:14AM
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Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter
Disappointing Yankees: Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter were part of the most expensive sports team ever assembled.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- Bernie Williams, one of the Yankees' old-timers who remembers when the team actually won a World Series once in a while, strode slowly, almost purposefully, across the field at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, looking more hacked off than disappointed.

He glanced over his left shoulder at the mob of Red Sox celebrating near the pitcher's mound -- the Sox whooping it up in the Bronx had to be a particularly galling sight to someone like Williams -- and disgustedly flipped off his batting helmet as he disappeared into the Yankees dugout.

And that's the way the Yankees' reign ended, and maybe Williams', too. The ghosts are banished forever, the curses broken, the magic lost to the night. The biggest collapse in the history of baseball -- call it a choke if you will, because that is what the tabloids will do -- is complete.

The mighty Yankees lost four in a row to the hated Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, rolling over in Game 7 like untrained puppies in trouble, completing a choke that outdoes any the Red Sox might have gagged out over the past century.

"Right now, I'm just shocked by it all, the way that it ended," said Gary Sheffield, one of the new Yankees brought in precisely to fend off these types of foreign celebrations. "This is weird all the way around. But that's the way it goes. It just got away from us."

The most expensive team that George Steinbrenner's money could buy, the most expensive sports team ever assembled -- with a payroll in excess of $184 million -- couldn't buy its way into the World Series. That's the bottom line of bottom lines.

All that talent, all that experience, all that pinstriped history was crushed in a historic rebound by the formerly damned Red Sox, a team that hasn't been to the World Series in nearly two decades and hasn't won one since 1918.

It's not simply that the Yankees lost this series. The Yankees lose in the postseason all the time. Last year in the World Series, for instance. The year before that in the Division Series. The year before that in the World Series.

This was not about losing. It was about who they lost to -- the Red Sox, of all teams -- and the way these Yankees lost. The total, historic, unprecedented collapse of one of the greatest dynasties in sports.

Four days ago, the Yankees had the Sox by the throat, had them three outs from elimination, down by a run in the bottom of the ninth in Fenway Park. The Yanks had won the first two games and had wiped out the Sox in Game 3, 19-8. The Sox clearly were going down.

And then, incredibly, they rallied against the best closer in postseason history in Game 4, scratching out a run against Mariano Rivera, then winning on a 12th-inning David Ortiz home run. And then they won again, and again, and Wednesday they jumped on the Yankees in Game 7, becoming the first team in baseball history to win a seven-game series after losing the first three games.

Curses? Magic? The ghosts in the old Bronx ballyard. They're all history now.

The biggest choke in baseball history?

"We had four games to win one and we couldn't do it," a dejected Derek Jeter said in a silent Yankees clubhouse after the Red Sox clinched their first pennant since 1986 with the 10-3 win. "The bottom line is, we didn't do it."

The Yankees won more games than anyone in the AL this season, they held off the Red Sox for the AL East title, but when it came to winning the pennant, they proved to be, clearly, the inferior team.

Their pitching, without Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte and David Wells, didn't hold up. Their hitters, somewhat surprisingly, folded once the Sox started to win. And almost before the Sox or anyone else could fathom how far the Yankees had fallen, they hit bottom.

"We obviously broke down in several areas," said the team's general manager, Brian Cashman. "Offense, the bullpen, starting pitching [on Wednesday]."

Yankees pitchers had a 5.17 ERA in the series. Their starter Wednesday, Kevin Brown, lasted only 1 1/3 innings. Rivera, who came into this postseason with the best record of any closer in postseason history, blew saves in Games 4 and 5.

But it was the sluggers -- this team, unlike those in the past, was built on offense, not pitching -- who really hurt them. They blasted the Sox in the first three games. But in the last four, they floundered in the worst of ways.

Alex Rodriguez, maybe the prized big-money catch of the offseason, hit .429 with a homer, three RBIs and seven runs scored in the first three games. He hit .117 with a homer, two RBIs and just a run scored in the four losses.

Sheffield, the big free-agent signee of the offseason who will be a factor in the MVP voting this season, hit .692 with a homer and five RBIs and seven runs scored in the three Yankees' wins. In their four losses, he hit .058 with no RBIs or extra base hits. He didn't score a run, either.

Jeter, the shortstop and leadoff man and the heart of the team, struggled the whole series, finished with a .200 batting average and just one extra-base hit.

And Hideki Matsui, who began this series with a .600 average in the first three wins, with two homers, 10 RBIs and seven runs scored, hit only .263, didn't hit a homer or drive in a run and scored only twice in the four losses.

"They did pitch good," said catcher Jorge Posada (.259 for the series), "but we were trying to do too much."

This win by the Sox was not David bringing down Goliath. The Red Sox have the second-highest payroll in the big leagues, behind only the Yankees. They're not the poor sisters of the AL East by any stretch.

But they are champions now, and that will send the free-spending Yankees into another offseason of change. The team is burdened with huge contracts, but heads will roll. Williams, the longtime centerfielder who was one of the few steadies in this series, may be the first as the Yankees concentrate on signing free-agent superstar Carlos Beltran of the Astros.

In the aftermath of the loss, Cashman considered the rubble, as he did last year when the Yankees lost to the Marlins in the World Series. What he has is a one-dimensional team with power but little ability to manufacture runs, and a team with an expensive pitching staff that is rapidly aging and prone to breaking down.

The Yankees will spend to get new talent, because that's what they do. And they'll hope what didn't work this year works in 2005.

"We're a here-and-now club," Cashman said.

Only the now has passed for this year.

John Donovan is a senior writer for SI.com.