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Bearing Down
Tom Verducci
September 18, 2000
Boosted by a retro Rocket and a host of newcomers, the Yankees blew away Boston and established themselves—again—as the team to beat
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September 18, 2000

Bearing Down

Boosted by a retro Rocket and a host of newcomers, the Yankees blew away Boston and established themselves—again—as the team to beat

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Just before the New York Yankees embarked on a victory parade up lower Broadway last October, Roger Clemens floated an idea to teammates Derek Jeter and Chuck Knoblauch about commemorating their latest World Series championship with two rings: the typically ornate one provided by the club and a second, even gaudier one commissioned by the players. The idea quickly gained favor with the rest of the team. The result was an enormous piece of jewelry forged out of platinum, set off by 25 diamonds that are used to spell out the interlocking NY logo and the inscription TEAM OF THE CENTURY. Each ring is worth about $40,000. The idea of wearing on your finger a hunk of metal and stone the cost of the average teacher's salary does have a practical side. In a pinch, the bauble can serve as a doorstop or a ship's anchor.

So forget what you heard back in June about the Yankees being just another contender for a division title. The rich are getting richer. New York is loaded, and as it showed while taking three of four games from the Boston Red Sox in a series that began last Friday at Fenway Park and concluded Monday night at Yankee Stadium, mix-and-match championship rings and a record $112 million payroll are only the beginning of the wealth that sets the Yankees apart. New York has an offense so deep that former MVP Jose Canseco is a superfluous part-time DH whom manager Joe Torre didn't want. Moreover, the rotation is so flush with aces that former Cy Young winner David Cone, even with his 8-3 postseason record, may not be called on this October.

Despite New York's midseason hiccup and the rise of upstarts such as the Chicago White Sox, the Oakland Athletics and the Seattle Mariners, the American League looks eerily as it did on the day of that parade: The Yankees are the team to beat for the pennant, and Clemens is the ringleader. Featuring a fastball clocked as high as 98 mph, the Rocket, 38, dominated Boston over eight innings in a 4-0 New York win last Friday to run his record in 14 starts to 8-0 with a 2.25 ERA since July 2, when he returned from the disabled list.

Following the righthanded Clemens's lead, lefty Andy Pettitte, who had been nearly as scalding, outpitched Pedro Martinez the next day with eight innings of one-run ball in a 5-3 victory. On Sunday 24-year-old rookie lefthander Randy Keisler, making his first big league start, and revitalized 35-year-old righty Dwight Gooden combined to throttle Boston 6-2. After the Red Sox' 4-0 win on Monday, the Yankees were eight games ahead of Boston and the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East, only three games behind the White Sox in the race for the league's best record and a league-high 44-23 since July 1. That run included a 23-5 mark when either Clemens or Pettitte started. "Don't be surprised to see them win it all again," says one American League manager. "They've got Clemens and Pettitte hot, and they have more thunder in their lineup than they did in the first half."

New York is attempting to win its fourth world championship since 1996, each time with a different No. 1 starter. In '96 it was Pettitte (though Cone pitched Game 1 of the Division Series); in '98 it was lefthander David Wells; last year it was righthander Orlando Hernandez; and this year it's Clemens. That's a huge leap in stature for the Rocket, whom Torre described as "a lost puppy last year," Clemens's first with the Yankees after forcing a trade from the Blue Jays in which New York gave up cult hero Wells. In '99 Clemens was 14-10 and won the World Series clincher over the Atlanta Braves, but his 4.60 ERA was the worst of his career, he endured annoying injuries to his leg muscles, and he suffered the Yankees' only postseason defeat. That was a humiliating 13-1 loss in Boston in which he didn't make it out of the third inning and was hooted from the mound by his former hometown fans. Though he denied it at the time, he said last Saturday that "my back wasn't right" in that defeat.

Clemens began this season 4-6 with a 4.76 ERA before a strained right groin muscle put him on the disabled list on June 15. He soon thereafter reported to the Yankees' minor league facility in Tampa for nine days of therapy. On the mornings of four of those days, owner George Steinbrenner chatted with him in the clubhouse before his treatments and workouts, once scolding him by asking, "Where's the Roger Clemens we traded for?"

"I had two choices: get dressed real quick and get on the field, or sit there and listen," Clemens recalls. "I listened. I understood the Boss was venting. He's allowed to do that."

Beginning on May 30, New York had slipped into a 30-game morass in which it went 12-18 and, because of shoddy pitching, lost eight times when it scored six runs or more; the Yankees had suffered only nine such defeats all last season. "Actually, I felt pretty good then," Torre says. "You know why? No one in our division was playing well. If we'd been in the Central Division [behind Chicago], they'd have had to pipe in daylight for us, we'd have been so far back."

The Yankees have been a different team and Clemens a different pitcher ever since he came off the disabled list. Clemens, who nibbled with his splitter and slider in his first 1� seasons in pinstripes, has been attacking hitters with his fastball early in counts and on the inside corner of the plate. He threw so hard last Friday night that he could hear his teammates in the dugout cackling with excitement as the speeds of his pitches were posted on an auxiliary scoreboard at Fenway. Clemens occasionally peeked at the board in the early innings and then forced himself to stop. Every pitch felt so good flying out of his hand that he didn't want to be disappointed if a low number flashed above him.

Before Clemens took the mound in the eighth, Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre told him, "Empty the tank." Clemens retired the side in order, finishing with such a ferocious strikeout of Carl Everett that it prompted Torre to recall Los Angeles Dodgers righthander Bob Welch's epic game-ending strikeout of the Yankees' Reggie Jackson in the 1978 World Series. Clemens threw eight straight fastballs to Everett. The last, his 125th pitch of the day, sizzled past Everett at 96 mph.

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