2000 Last Stop: Dynasty
The end of the line in the Subway Series saw the Yankees claim their fourth championship in five years, securing their place as one of the greatest teams ever
By Tom Verducci
Issue date: November 1, 2000
Bernie Williams moved steadily toward Piazza's fly ball and gloved it in front of the warning track at Shea Stadium. The Yankees' dangerously exciting run for a fourth world championship in five years, including three in succession, had ended fittingly with one last heart-stopping moment. The 4-2 win set them leaping and hugging about the field, with the weeping by Torre and George Steinbrenner to come soon after. They won the last game of the Series as they had won the first, on a two-out, final-at-bat single by a backup infielder. This time it was second baseman Luis Sojo who dribbled a ninth-inning grounder past Al Leiter and out of the reach of diving infielders Kurt Abbott and Edgardo Alfonzo. The ball looked like a pedestrian wiggling through traffic to cross a busy Manhattan street.
"Every year is a different story," said Derek Jeter, the Series MVP. "I'd be lying if I said this one wasn't more gratifying. I mean, we've struggled this year. We've had tough times."
The Yankees stormed to a 20-8 start but were virtually a .500 ball club (67-66) for the final five months of the season. They finished with the ninth-best record in baseball. They staggered to the postseason with seven straight losses and were in a 3-15 free fall. The playoffs, though, would confirm their resolve as much as their greatness. This run included challenges they had never faced in the four previous postseasons under Torre. They won an elimination game (Game 5 of the Division Series, against the Oakland A's); they won a game in which they trailed heading into the ninth inning (Game 1 of the World Series); they survived an unprecedented loss by Orlando Hernandez (Game 3 of the Series); and they endured a Mets club Jeter called "the best team I've seen [in the postseason] in the five years that I've been here." Three of the World Series games were decided in the winning team's last at bat, and the other two ended with the tying run at the plate.
No true fan dared leave a Subway Series game early, no matter if he had paid $1,000 for a ticket or not. And no fan, despite some predictions of ill behavior, dared scrawl graffiti on the Subway Series. The well-behaved crowds were treated to excruciatingly taut baseball. "The fans who came to these games and the ones who watched at home saw 47 wonderful innings of baseball," said Bobby Valentine.
The last of them was the most painful for Valentine. Leiter had pitched gallantly for eight innings, hoping that his 11th postseason start would end for the first time with a win for himself. The day before Game 5, Leiter had told Valentine, "You don't have to worry about intentional walks. You don't have to worry about pitch counts. I could throw 152 pitches. I'm going to give everything I have, and I'm going to get the victory tomorrow."
Leiter reached the ninth inning on 121 pitches. He started the last frame by whiffing Tino Martinez on three pitches and Paul O'Neill on five. But Jorge Posada had one of those at bats that define the Yankees. Just as O'Neill wore out Armando Benitez in Game 1 with a 10-pitch plate appearance that led to a walk and the game-tying rally, Posada refused to give in to Leiter. With the count 2 and 2, Posada fouled off two pitches, took a ball, fouled off another and then finally walked. It was the ninth pitch of the at bat.
The Yankees kept coming at the Mets like this. Though they didn't always push runs across, the Yanks were as relentless as a waterfall. They put at least one runner on in 40 of 47 innings, including all but four of the last 42. They hit only four home runs, but two of them came in Game 5: one in the second inning by Williams, who had been 0 for 15 in the Series, for the first run of the night, and one by Jeter in the sixth that tied the game at 2-2.
After his duel with Posada, Leiter had thrown 138 pitches and was competing with what he called "the inner fire in your gut." He did not have the strength to get enough bite on his slider or enough velocity on his four-seam fastball, so he tried to get by with more two-seam sinking fastballs and occasional curveballs. The Yankees had two righthanded hitters scheduled up, Scott Brosius and Sojo. Valentine never warmed up the righthanded Benitez, who worked in Games 3 and 4 and had pitched on three straight days only three times during the season. Valentine did not have faith in Benitez. He did have faith in lefty John Franco, whom he ordered to get ready. But Franco, too, had pitched the previous two days, and just once all season had Valentine pressed him into a game for a third straight day.
"Striking out those first two guys and the pitches he threw to Posada made me think he had plenty [left]," Valentine said. "I was wrong. If I brought somebody else in, they definitely would have gotten the guy out and we'd still be playing."
Brosius looked at a ball and a strike before he lined a hard single to leftfield. Posada stopped at second. Leiter was up to 141 pitches, and Sojo came to bat. Leiter threw a fastball, leaving it up and over the plate. Sojo swatted at it with his lunging, awkward swing, sending the ball on its path to centerfielder Jay Payton. "A 15-hopper," Leiter called it.
Posada rounded third and took a peek at Payton as he chugged toward home. The centerfielder made an extraordinary throw, a bullet with the quickness and accuracy that seemed likely to nail Posada. Piazza chose to try to catch the ball behind the plate, rather than stepping up and making a swipe tag. "I thought if I moved up, I'd open the backdoor to him," Piazza said.
Said Posada, "He opened the front door instead."
Piazza never caught the ball. It hit Posada's hip and went rolling into the Mets' dugout, allowing not only Posada to score but also Brosius. "[Piazza] felt he would let the ball get to him," Valentine said. "If he would have gone out in front of the plate, he would have given the plate to the runner to slide by him. If that ball is a fraction of a second sooner or an inch away from the runner's leg, Mike would have caught it and tagged him out. We'd also still be playing."
At last Valentine removed Leiter. The pitcher trudged to the dugout bench, where he hung his head between his legs and let his eyes go wet with sadness. "Losing the World Series," said Leiter, who had won championship rings with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and '93 and the Florida Marlins in '97, "feels as bad as winning one feels good."
The last three outs belonged to Rivera, who has become so automatic that fly ball outs in front of the warning track are about as much drama as he allows. Rivera faced 24 batters in the Series and threw a total of 24 balls. Nearly three-quarters of his pitches--69--were strikes.
This game showed the deep inventory of experienced, clutch players that Torre has at his disposal.
Then there was Torre. His 16-3 record in World Series games gives him the best winning percentage (.842) among men who have managed more than one Series. He joined Casey Stengel (1949-53) and Joe McCarthy (1936-39) as the only managers to win three World Series in a row. The Yankees, in fact, became the only club in the quarter century of baseball since the advent of free agency to win three consecutive World Series. Their run of four titles in five years was done previously by only two of their gloried forefathers, the 1936-41 Yankees, who won five in six years, and the 1947-53 Yankees, who won six in seven. In the five years under Torre the Yankees are 46-15 in the postseason, a .754 winning clip. In the days before the playoffs expanded to three rounds, the Yankees needed to play only 28 postseason games in the five-year span of 1949-53, winning 20 of them for a .714 percentage.
"Winning four World Series out of five years in this day and age when you have to come through layer after layer of postseason play, we can put our record, our dedication, our resolve up against any team that's played the game, in my mind," Torre said. "We may not have the best players, but we certainly have had the best team."
This World Series again proved that Torre's Yankees have demonstrated their greatness in the postseason more than in the regular season. They won four games against the Mets by a total of five runs. The wow factor for this team was not in domination but in clinical execution at crucial moments. The Yankees were exacting in implementing their game plan. They gave Piazza, for instance, just three at bats with a runner in scoring position all Series because they kept his table setters, Timo Perez and Alfonzo, off base. They walked a total of only 11 batters while getting 25 free passes. Their infielders and outfielders were flawless; the only two Yankees errors were charged to pitchers.
Following the final game, Torre cried on the field. After celebrating with his coaches and players, he drifted toward the backstop, where his moist, dark eyes scanned the crowd for his wife, Ali. He leaned on a wall and dropped his head on his arm in a moment more of exhaustion than reflection. Ali soon arrived, and they shared a kiss and a hug. Then Torre cried a little bit more.