DO EIGHT SEASONS MAKE FOR A DROUGHT IN THE FARMERS' almanac of baseball championships? They do in the micro-climate of the Bronx, where championships are expected and eight seasons without meeting expectations—even while winning more games (by 35) than any other franchise—are long, hard, fallow years. ¶ With apologies to the folks of Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the North Side of Chicago, the drought is over. The New York Yankees are world champions again, nine years, 55 starting pitchers and about $1.5 billion in payroll since they last won the World Series in 2000.
Much has changed during that wait. The Yankees play in a new, tricked-out version of Yankee Stadium. There has been the fading public profile and health of the patriarch of the franchise, owner George Steinbrenner. On the night of that last title, Oct. 26, 2000, the Yankees used 15 players in a 4-2 victory over the Mets. All of them are out of baseball except for four: Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera. They remain, nine years later, the hub of the franchise, even eclipsing the once-bombastic Steinbrenner as the center of the pinstriped world.
What the Yankees got right in year nine of the drought was building around that core, especially when it came to starting pitching. All it took was a spending spree of $423.5 million in 12 days in December 2008, sprinkling the riches upon pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira, a dragnet of the top three free agents available in baseball last winter.
With Sabathia and Burnett, the Yankees' starters had their best ERA (4.48) since they last went to the World Series in 2003 and their best strikeout rate (7.48 per nine innings) since the drought began in 2001. Sabathia and Burnett never missed a turn, starting 77 times, postseason included, and New York won 50 of those games. The two started back-to-back games 23 times, and only once did the Yankees lose both.
So confident was manager Joe Girardi in the power of Sabathia, Burnett and the old warhorse Pettitte that he chose to use a three-man rotation throughout the postseason. To be fair, with Chien-Ming Wang and Ian Kennedy hurt and Joba Chamberlain ineffective as a starter, Girardi was left with no especially strong fourth option. The Yankees became the first team since the 1991 Twins to win a world championship with a three-man rotation through the playoffs.
As much money and pitching as the Yankees burned through in nine years, the old guard of Jeter, Posada, Pettitte and Rivera gave this championship a familiar look. Though all of them are on the far side of their 35th birthday, their game showed almost no diminution. Jeter was the leadoff spark and reliable shortstop; Posada the stalwart, emotional catcher; Pettitte the low-brimmed, broad-shouldered, steely-eyed battler; and Rivera the ultimate postseason weapon, master of the endgame. All these years later and still they were among the most important cogs in the machine.
Steinbrenner, another cog left from 2000, had a reduced public role. His presence was made known at the World Series mostly by a rallying cry. WIN IT FOR THE BOSS was splashed across the great monstrosity of a videoboard that hung beyond centerfield, and it was printed across the front of T-shirts worn by the stadium's grounds crew. On the back of those shirts was the number 27, with a smaller 26 crossed out above it.
Since Steinbrenner accepted the Commissioner's Trophy in 2000, seven other franchises have won the World Series, all but the Marlins and the Diamondbacks breaking droughts of greater length. The Angels won the first world championship in franchise history. The Red Sox won for the first time in 86 years, the White Sox for the first time in 88 years, the Cardinals for the first time in 24 years and the Phillies for the first time in 28 years. Baseball seemed to be playing a game of pay-it-backward, allowing some older fans, finally sated, to die in peace and younger ones to understand the magic of a once-in-a-generation title.
This game of making good on overdue payments finally ended with another Yankees world championship. Or did it? Patience in New York, as Oakland general manager Billy Beane once said, has an official measurement: The time it takes from a traffic light turning green to the first guy leaning on his car horn. Eight seasons in the Bronx is a very long time. The drought is over.