The rest of the American League prays that the Yankees have regressed toward the middle of the pack—imagine New York as only the ninth-winningest team in baseball—and that three of their every-day players are rust-covered and in career free fall. The problem with that scenario is that it's exactly what occurred last season, which nonetheless ended as did the previous two, with the Yankees spilling champagne on one another. This is the one team in baseball that could cut a deal with Dom Perignon for stadium pouring rights.
The Yankees are a modern dynasty not because they dominate their league, but because they act as if they own October. Just ask George Steinbrenner, who locked and barricaded himself behind the door of the Yankees' clubhouse at Shea Stadium as his team scored the World Series-clinching runs in the ninth inning of Game 5 against the Mets. In a desperate bid to keep his club from being jinxed by advance preparations for a postgame celebration, Steinbrenner refused to open the door to TV technicians who needed to quickly construct a small stage for the championship-trophy presentation. Commissioner Bud Selig, not daring to face Steinbrenner's wrath, dispatched his lieutenant, Paul Beeston, who was greeted with expletives from behind the door. Steinbrenner at last relented upon the conclusion of the top of the ninth, but only with a warning that Beeston, not closer Mariano Rivera, would be to blame if the two-run lead did not hold up. Only minutes later Steinbrenner was crying tears of joy on the shoulder of a relieved Beeston.
Even after they won just 87 games and after the struggles of third baseman Scott Brosius, first baseman Tino Martinez and rightfielder Paul O'Neill, the Yankees once again morphed into bullies in October. Under manager Joe Torre they are a .754 team in the postseason (46-15), including a 33-8 run during their three-peat. "If we lose a game, we know how to handle it," Martinez says. "We don't panic. Other teams start to think, Now we have to win."
"The other thing," Brosius says, "is that the one constant has been great pitching. In the postseason you only need three starters. If you have four, that's a bonus. When you have three guys throwing well, you have to like your chances. We've always had that."
Torre's Yankees have never been better equipped for October than they are this year. The addition of free agent Mike Mussina to a rotation that includes Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Orlando Hernandez gives Torre four starters who are capable of pitching Game 1 of a series. Mussina, freed from the responsibility of propping up the entire Orioles staff, might follow David Wells in 1998, Hernandez in 1999 and Clemens in 2000 as New York's fourth postseason staff leader in as many years. Says Torre, "He should have a big year for us. When you have one guy you count on, you don't want that one day he pitches to get away from you; if it does, it can be crushing. Here, we have four guys to rely on."
The rotation is Wite-Out for those blemishes that might otherwise inspire optimism in New York's opponents. Chuck Knoblauch is always just one heave away from the throwing yips, even though Torre said, "I don't see the uneasiness anymore." Knoblauch's arm has continued to be erratic this spring—he had six errors in his first 15 exhibition games—though he was more direct in answering questions about it. Torre nonetheless raised the prospect of moving Knoblauch to left-field and replacing him at second with hot-hitting rookie Alfonso Soriano.
Then there is the declining production of O'Neill, 38, Brosius, 34, and Martinez, 33, all of whom are playing in the walk year of their contracts. The batting, slugging and on-base averages of O'Neill (who will retire after this season) and Martinez have dropped for four consecutive years. Brosius hit .230 last season, second-to-last among the 87 AL players with at least 400 at bats. Naturally, the trio awoke to hit a combined .308 in the postseason.
The rest of baseball should know by now that their best shot at ending the Yankees' run is to keep them out of October. This is a team immune to complacency—Steinbrenner included. In January, when the Super Bowl was played in Tampa, across the street from the Yankees' spring training site, the owner blistered NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue over the phone for three days before the game. Steinbrenner blew a fuse over the mere site of Port-a-Johns that the NFL had happened to station beneath a sign that read NEW YORK YANKEES. 26-TIME WORLD CHAMPIONS. The toilets were repositioned. The Boss was just getting ready for October. Bully for him.
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