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The Fall and Rise

By surviving a late-season slump and playoff stumbles, the Yankees lifted themselves into a historic intracity showdown with the Mets

By Jamaal Greene

Issue date: November 1, 2000

Sports Illustrated Flashback On Oct. 15, exactly 36 years to the day after Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals finished off the Yankees in the seventh game of the 1964 World Series, New York lost Game 5 of the American League Championship Series to the Seattle Mariners. It was only the second time in 12 postseason series under manager Joe Torre -- but the second time in the 2000 postseason -- that the Yankees, one game away from closing out a series, had failed to finish off their opponent. New York, which had won 22 of its last 25 postseason games entering the century, suddenly seemed to have been replaced by some feeble impostor.

Old Yankees fans, though, have a sense of perspective. The old ones -- not the 17-year-olds with the cell phones in the padded seats, not the boomers who once littered the bleachers with Reggie Bar wrappers, but the truly old ones -- have seen chinks in the pinstripe armor before. They recall that 1964 was the last breath of an aging dynasty, the final pennant for Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, and the start of a 12-year postseason hiatus for New York, which had appeared in 15 of the previous 18 World Series. Upstarts like the Chicago White Sox and the Baltimore Orioles had nipped at the Yankees' heels during the regular season before the young Cardinals sent the Bombers into oblivion in that year's Series.

This year's upstarts were the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays; the latter occupied first place in the American League East as late as July 6. Through the first three months of the season, there were plenty of chinks in the Yankees' armor. Second baseman Chuck Knoblauch was in the throes of a throwing crisis that saw him commit all 15 of his errors this season in 51 games between April 8 and June 28. He hinted at retirement after three gaffes in a game on June 15, and he nailed Fox Sports anchor Keith Olbermann's mother, Marie, in the head with an errant toss two days later. Righthander David Cone was having arm problems of his own. After going 60-26 with a 3.31 ERA in his first five seasons with the Yankees, he went 1-7 with a 5.40 ERA in his first 16 starts, through July 4. Worst of all, New York ranked 10th in the league in runs through June. Meanwhile Toronto first baseman Carlos Delgado had begun an assault on the Triple Crown (.363, 28 home runs, 80 RBIs in the first half), and Boston righty Pedro Martinez was 9-3 with a 1.44 ERA through June 25. On June 30 the Yankees were three games back of the Blue Jays and just two games over .500. "People have come and gotten us," said Torre. "It's something we have to fight our way through."

July 6 was a watershed day for New York. On that day the Bombers overcame a seven-run deficit to beat the Orioles 13-9 and move to within a half game of the first-place Blue Jays, and leftfielder David Justice, acquired from the Cleveland Indians on June 29 for unproductive outfielder Ricky Ledee and two minor league pitchers, hit his first home run as a Yankee. From the time of his acquisition to the end of the season, Justice would lead New York in homers (20), RBIs (60) and slugging percentage (.585), and the Yankees would remain atop the division the rest of the way.

July 6 was also the eve of the Yankees' second and last interleague series against their intracity rivals, the Mets. The teams had split two games in June at Yankee Stadium before a rainout, which was to be made up in a two-stadium doubleheader on July 8. It was the first time such a twin bill had been staged anywhere since 1903, when the Brooklyn Superbas played the New York Giants. The Yankees won both games of the Big Apple doubleheader, but the sweep was overshadowed. Mets catcher Mike Piazza, who entered the nightcap hitting .583 off Roger Clemens and who had touched him for a grand slam in June, stepped to the plate in the second inning. The first pitch from Clemens was a Sweeney Todd special to the bill of Piazza's helmet.

The sight of Piazza lying motionless in the batter's box, his eyes searching for nothing in particular, enraged the Mets and their fans, and embroiled New York in controversy. "I thought it was definitely intentional," said Piazza, who suffered a concussion. "I can respect the fact of throwing inside...but I feel there's a definite difference between that and almost ending my career." The incident seemed to light a fire under Clemens, who became for the balance of the season what the Yankees had wanted him to be since trading David Wells for him before the 1999 season: their ace. After the win over the Mets, Clemens went 7-2 with a 3.15 ERA in 17 postbeaning starts. Clemens and lefty Andy Pettitte, who went 10-5 over the same stretch, gave New York the best starting one-two in the league in the second half of the season.

The Yankees were already armed with the league's fidgetiest owner and biggest wallet. During New York's late 1990s run of five consecutive playoff appearances and three World Series titles, it had rarely been content to sit quietly as a season turned into the home stretch. In '96 the Yankees acquired Cecil Fielder in a trade-deadline deal; in '98 Darryl Strawberry and Orlando Hernandez were added to the big league roster at midseason; in '99 New York traded for Jim Leyritz. Midway through the 2000 season, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman looked to address a lack of righthanded power, a paucity of sure-gloved middle infielders and, because of the ineffectiveness of Cone and rookie Ed Yarnall, the need for a fourth reliable starter behind Clemens, Pettitte and Hernandez. The biggest move other than acquiring Justice -- and the least successful one -- was bringing in veteran lefty Denny Neagle from Cincinnati in exchange for Yarnall, Drew Henson and two others. Neagle was inconsistent, going 7-7 with a 5.81 ERA in 16 starts as a Yankee. Designated hitter Glenallen Hill, acquired from the Cubs on July 21 for two minor leaguers, fit better in pinstripes, slugging 11 homers in his first 55 at bats with New York.

The Yankees were equally adept at manipulating the waiver wire, picking up outfielders Luis Polonia and Jose Canseco and infielder Luis Sojo after the July 31 trading deadline. Sojo, a Yankee from 1996 through '99 who had signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent, batted .288 with two homers and 17 RBIs and beaned exactly zero fans with throws in his second go-around. Another old friend, righthander Dwight Gooden, was signed to a minor league contract and pitched effectively as a replacement for long man and spot starter Ramiro Mendoza, who in June was diagnosed with a right shoulder injury and spent most of the season's second half on the disabled list.

The moves inflated the New York payroll from $92.5 million to an astounding $112 million, but they paid off. The Yankees went a league-best 44-22 from July 1 to Sept. 10. "Guys play better here," said Derek Jeter. "Every player wants to win, and that's what this team is about." New York seemed to reaffirm that credo with three straight wins over Boston at Fenway Park in early September. The sweep included eight cathartic shutout innings by Clemens against his old team, pushed the Red Sox nine games out of first and all but cinched a record sixth straight playoff appearance for the Bombers.

The only thing New York affirmed in September, however, was its vulnerability. It went 5-16 from Sept. 11 to the end of the season, including an 0-7 stretch entering the playoffs. Searching for an explanation for the collapse, some observers pointed to the absence of pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who left the Yankees on Sept. 11 to undergo treatment for blood plasma cancer. Others blamed simple complacency after the vanquishing of the Red Sox. Still others, perhaps those old fans, pointed out that age and injury tend to imitate complacency. Paul O'Neill, 37 and battling a right hip pointer since August, closed the season in a 4-for-39 slump and had his last extra-base hit of the season on Sept. 6. Cone, also 37, dislocated his left shoulder while diving after a bunt on Sept. 5 against the Kansas City Royals. He surprised even himself by missing just one start, but after going 3-1 with a 3.93 ERA in the month leading up to the episode, he allowed 23 runs in 14 2/3 innings in his final four starts.

New York did an Indiana Jones roll into the playoffs, clinching the AL East title two days before season's end, when a Boston loss rendered moot the Orioles' 13-2 thumping of New York. Torre had to give his team permission to celebrate. Moet and Chandon flowed in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards that night because, said Jeter, "we're celebrating all the hard work we've put in since February." No team had ever lost its last seven games and reached the postseason, and no Yankees team had ever made the playoffs in a nonstrike year with so few wins (87). Asked about New York's postseason prospects, Pettitte, who by yielding seven runs in fewer than two innings that night had capped his season win total at 19, stated the obvious: "I think it's going to be a little tougher than years past."

The Yanks' first-round draw, the Oakland A's, were young enough for their 38-year-old G.M. Billy Beane to jokingly refer to himself as Dean Wormer and laid-back enough for him to call his creation "the worst team you're going to see [in the playoffs] in a long time." In contrast to the staggering Yankees, however, the A's had marched into the playoffs with 18 wins in their final 22 games, giving them the AL West title and home field advantage over New York. In the opener Clemens got off to a strong start but was hit hard late as Oakland won 5-3.

The next day's pitching matchup, Pettitte against righthander Kevin Appier, favored New York. A loss would be devastating to the Yankees' hopes. That afternoon Pettitte lunched in San Francisco with sports psychologist Fran Pirazolla, who had helped him develop the concentration that led to a 4-1 playoff record in the past two seasons. They didn't discuss the game. They didn't have to. Pettitte went out and pitched 7 2/3 shutout innings en route to a 4-0 Yankees win. "I knew how big this was," Pettitte said afterward. "It's a different atmosphere when you get to the playoffs." Mariano Rivera, who finished Game 2, similarly hailed the start of a second season, saying, "The monkey is definitely off our backs."

Despite a flat slider and a hittable fastball, Hernandez outdueled Oakland's 25-year-old 20-game winner Tim Hudson to win Game 3. Hernandez pitched in and out of jams, but the A's showed their age, committing numerous defensive mistakes to help New York to a 4-2 decision. A win away from advancing and avoiding a grueling overnight trip back to the Bay Area for a game the following evening, Torre threw Clemens on three days' rest in Game 4. The five-time Cy Young winner allowed the first six runs of an 11-1 blowout, dropping his career postseason mark to 3-5 with a 4.32 ERA.

Fresh off the six-hour flight to Oakland, the Yankees scored six runs in the first inning of Game 5. The A's stormed back with five runs off Pettitte, but the New York bullpen held the line. After Tino Martinez caught a pop-up for the final out, Torre wept openly on the field. "There have been so many questions about our ball club turning things on and off, like we wanted to lose 13 of 16," he said. "I was just very proud of the way our guys fought through the fatigue."

More fatigue awaited. The Mariners' unheralded pitching staff had shut down one of the league's hardest-hitting teams, the White Sox, en route to a three-game Division Series sweep. Seattle's rotation continued its brilliant work in the ALCS, shutting out New York 2-0 in the first game behind righty Freddy Garcia and carrying a 1-0 lead into the eighth inning of Game 2 behind lefty John Halama. It had been 21 innings since the Yankees had last scored a run. Then Justice lit the spark. He led off the eighth with a double high off the left-centerfield wall and scored on a single by Bernie Williams. Six more Yankees would cross the plate against a tough Mariners bullpen in the inning as New York won 7-1 and rode its refound punch to an 8-2 win in Game 3 behind Pettitte.

In the fourth game Clemens, this time on a week's rest, pitched a one-hit shutout and struck out 15 Mariners in a gem scuffed by two straight first-inning knockdown pitches to Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez. The Rocket claimed he was just trying to get the ball in on the hands of Rodriguez, who had entered the game hitting .341 off Clemens. After the game A-Rod, stone-faced, echoed the sarcastic refrain spit out by Mets manager Bobby Valentine after the Piazza beaning three months earlier: "I guess he was a little off."

But there was no denying the Rocket's mastery. His fastball hummed in the mid-90s and was clocked as high as 98 on the gun; he mixed in a diving splitter that traveled nearly 90 mph. "I have never seen a pitcher dominate like that," said Justice, who spent most of the '90s playing behind the peerless Braves staff. "I saw Maddux and Glavine and Smoltz shut down a lot of teams, but Roger? That was pure power."

Said Torre: "He got to about the fifth or sixth inning, and I could visualize Bob Gibson pitching against Detroit in the [1968] World Series."

An abbreviated start by Neagle the next afternoon -- and the resultant 6-2 Mariners' victory -- forced a Game 6 in the Bronx. With New York trailing 4-3 in the seventh, ALCS MVP Justice rescued the Yanks again with a massive three-run homer to right. With a 9-5 lead, Torre handed the ball to Rivera, who had not allowed a run in a record 33 1/3 straight postseason innings, since Sandy Alomar Jr.'s eighth-inning clout in Game 4 of a Division Series loss to Cleveland in 1997. The Yankees had gone 28-8 in the playoffs since that game; Rivera had saved 16 of the 28 wins and was the victorious pitcher in two others. For him to fail would have provided a fitting bookend to the greatest run of playoff success baseball had ever seen. He almost did, letting in two runs in the eighth and then allowing the tying run to come to the plate in the ninth before retiring the dangerous Edgar Martinez on a roller to short.

With one more step to go on their season's long road, the 2000 Yankees entered the Subway Series against the Mets more vulnerable than any previous Torre team, looking every bit the dynasty on its deathbed. Still, as old Yankees fans know, the Bombers always come back. The only question was when.

Issue date: November 1, 2000

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