It ended as all postseason series seem to end for the New York Yankees. Their American League Division Series against the Oakland Athletics culminated with Mariano Rivera, the Mr. October of bullpens, alchemizing baseballs into fleeting wisps of smoke, manager Joe Torre sobbing tears of joy and relief, and a clubhouse attendant wheeling another cartload, of champagne into the Yankees' clubhouse. Until that familiar endgame, however, the two-time defending world champions had looked little like their usual regal selves. The upstart A's came within a hit or two of showing the baseball establishment that the emperor has no clothes.
Oakland pushed the Yankees to the limit: a deciding fifth game. It was just the second time in 11 postseason series under Torre that New York had to risk its playoff life on one game. The Yankees escaped with a 7-5 win, but only after enduring so much stress that Torre said he occasionally had to glance at the scoreboard to remind himself that his team, which held a 6-0 lead 10 batters into the game, was still ahead. "Usually I don't do this," said New York first baseman Tino Martinez, who delivered a three-run double in the opening inning, "but I found myself in the sixth and seventh innings counting the outs until we'd get to Mariano."
The full complement of games was required mostly because Torre had no confidence in a fourth starter and because his offense was sputtering. On top of that, his ace during the second half of the season, Roger Clemens, continued to shrink from postseason responsibility. Those deficiencies figure to come into play when New York plays Seattle for the American League championship. Clemens lost Games 1 and 4, dropping his career postseason record to 3-5 with a 4-32 ERA. (His teams are 4-10 in his postseason starts. At week's end the Yankees had won 21 of their past 24 postseason games; Clemens took all three losses.)
Rather than use Denny Neagle or David Cone in Game 4, Torre asked Clemens to end the series last Saturday on three days' rest. The Yankees had 15 cases of champagne waiting in a storeroom off their clubhouse. Clemens got to the mound late—he was in the clubhouse changing shirts and rubbing hot liniment over his body while his teammates waited at their positions in the first inning—and left early. He was booed off the field by the Yankee Stadium fans after failing to get an out in the sixth inning of what became an 11-1 drubbing. The champagne was returned for a refund.
Clemens complained about a tight strike zone, but 22-year-old Oakland starter Barry Zito whimpered not a bit. Zito became the first rookie lefthander to beat the Yankees in Yankee Stadium in the park's 124-game postseason history. Zito's cool was typical of the A's youthful spirit. They played with �lan, starting with their first run of the series, when third base coach Ron Washington waved home Eric Chavez from second on a hard-hit single with no outs in the fifth inning of Game 1, down 2-0 to Clemens. "I saw [rightfielder Paul] O'Neill field the ball back on his heels," Washington said. "That's when I sent him."
O'Neill, bothered by a hip pointer and 37-year-old legs, played the field in this series with the mobility of a Fridgedaire. He did, however, with a bloop double in his last plate appearance, finally end a stretch of 77 at bats without an extra-base hit.
The huffing and puffing of O'Neill and Clemens, 38, not to mention Torre's finding no use for Cone, 37, Neagle, 32, and DH Jose Canseco, 36, made New York resemble the '64 Yankees—an aging dynasty at the end of the line, playing in the postseason against a young club on the rise (with the A's in the role of the '64 Cardinals). "We think this will be our worst club over the next five years," Oakland general manager Billy Beane said after Game 4. "You'd better beat us now, I guess."
Zito's win forced both clubs to fly overnight to Oakland for Game 5. Less than an hour before the first pitch on Sunday, Torre called a meeting of his players in the clubhouse. "We had to get on that damn plane and come all the way out here," he told them, "and let's not have it all be for nothing." He scanned the room looking for "eye contact and body language" and was so impressed he said little more. "Wow," he said later. "I could tell they were locked in and ready to go."
Torre didn't know it at the time, but Chavez had unwittingly primed the Yankees by saying at a pregame press conference, "They've had a great run.... But it's time. I think tonight, if we can get this game, people are going to start looking at this team for years to come as starting something that [the Yankees have] accomplished the last couple of years." The Yankees heard the comments over the loudspeakers while taking batting practice.
"Past tense!" harrumphed third baseman Scott Brosius. According to one Yankee, Brosius "made sure every starter knew about it before the game." The Yankees then rocked Gil Heredia for those six first-inning runs.