Late last Friday night in their locker room at Jacobs Field, the New York Yankees found themselves in a scary position—face to face with a mysteriously glutinous postgame spread after a thorough defeat. In addition they had fallen behind the Cleveland Indians two games to one in the American League Championship Series. Talk about your gut checks. "Geez, is this s—going to get any better?" New York manager Joe Torre grumbled upon surveying the food.
To which jittery first baseman Tino Martinez, to that point hitless against the Tribe, quickly replied in earnest—if unnecessary—self-defense, "I'll get better, Skip. I will get better."
Martinez's nervous confusion was understandable. New York had led the American League East from April 30 to season's end, had swept the Texas Rangers in the Division Series and then had won the Championship Series opener. But suddenly the dreadnought had hit an iceberg. The heretofore zenlike Yanks were such a wreck last Friday that Torre called a meeting to persuade his players to forget about a botched bunt play that had occurred two days earlier, and that meeting was before Cleveland righty Bartolo Colon had become just the second pitcher in 189 games to beat New York without relief help, 4-1. That also was before the Jacobs Field caterers arrived.
"I don't want to say uptight" Torre said of his players, "but there was a lot of pressure going on."
What better way to dissipate pressure over the next two days than to give the ball to a Cuban refugee who knows the real meaning of the word and to a biker's son who laughs in the face of it—not to mention in the face of his manager. The Yankees' two antacid tablets: Orlando Hernandez, whose pitches are as mystifying as his birth certificate, and David Wells, whose love for big games is matched only by his love for chocolate. "There's nothing in the world more gratifying after a good meal than a couple of bites of a Snickers bar," Wells says.
Hernandez, who pitched into the eighth inning of Game 4, became only the third rookie in American League Championship Series history to start a shutout. Then Wells added to his reputation as the most eccentric ace in baseball. When Torre visited the mound to remove him from Game 5 with a 5-3 lead and five outs to go, Wells briefly refused to hand over the baseball. As reliever Jeff Nelson jogged in from the bullpen, Wells said to Torre, "Tell Nellie to go back. It's not too late."
Torre, whose game face is usually as expressive as the mugs on Mount Rushmore, cracked up. "Just go get that round of applause," he said, mindful of the hostile Cleveland audience.
A few steps from the dugout, as the crowd booed him in frustration, a grinning Wells removed his cap and swirled it in a Stengelesque bit of showmanship. "He was goofy all night," Torre said later in high praise of Wells, who, after closer Mariano Rivera finally nailed down the 5-3 victory, got credit for his second win of the series, third of this year's playoffs and seventh in eight career postseason decisions.
Hernandez and Wells combined to allow the Indians three runs over 14⅓ innings and no hits in eight at bats with runners in scoring position. Their mastery allowed the Yankees to take a three-games-to-two lead even though New York had an anemic .198 batting average for the series and had back-to-back hits only once in 169 plate appearances since the seventh inning of Game 1. Cleveland had the right pitchers lined up for Game 6 and, if needed, Game 7 to put another scare in the Yankees: righthanders Charles Nagy and Colon. In this year's postseason Nagy and Colon each had a 1.23 ERA, and the Tribe was 4-0 in games they had started.
If rooting for the Yankees of a generation ago was like rooting for General Motors, pulling for these Yanks is like cheering for Microsoft. They're so deep that their bullpen catcher, Dale Sveum, a backup infielder who was dropped from the roster in August, is in the first season of a two-year, $1.6 million contract. They're so deep that their team psychologist, Fran Pirozzolo, shags balls during batting practice. In their coolly corporate clubhouse, Wells is the rock-and-roll Yankee—he likes his music loud, his beverages cold and, in pushing one of owner George Steinbrenner's rules, his chin bearded.