LOOKING BACK AT A 103-WIN REGULAR SEASON IN WHICH the Yankees coasted to the American League East title by eight games over the Red Sox, saw Derek Jeter become their alltime hits leader, set a franchise home run record and opened a state-of-the-art $1.5 billion stadium, it's easy to forget the trepidation Yankees followers felt at the start of the season.
The optimism generated over the winter by the signings of the top three available free agents (CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett) for a combined $423.5 million was nearly dashed on March 5. On that day it was announced that Alex Rodriguez—already embroiled in scandal after being exposed for, then admitting to, using steroids—had a torn labrum in his right hip. Over the next few days it was revealed that he would need surgery and not return for six to nine weeks.
By the eve of Rodriguez's return on May 8, New York had fallen to 13-15 and into fourth place in the AL East, 5½ games behind the front-running Blue Jays. From that point on, however, everything fell into place as manager Joe Girardi's charges marched to a 90-44 record—6½ games better than any other team.
Sabathia tied for the major league lead with 19 wins and lost just two games after the All-Star break. Teixeira struggled early but rebounded to join Albert Pujols as the only player with at least 100 runs, 35 home runs and 40 doubles. Rightfielder Nick Swisher, who began the year platooning with Xavier Nady (soon after lost for the year with an elbow injury), hit 29 home runs. And although Burnett led the AL in walks (97), he won 13 games and provided comic relief by greeting his teammates with cream pies in the face during the postgame interviews following the team's major-league-best 15 walk-off wins.
But for all of the heroics displayed by others, the Core Four had a huge hand in reaching the ultimate goal. Andy Pettitte, re-signed to a one-year, $5.5 million contract to be the fifth starter, stepped up when Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain struggled and finished second to Sabathia with 14 wins. Jorge Posada returned from shoulder surgery to place second in the AL in home runs among catchers. At age 39 Mariano Rivera continued his march to the Hall of Fame with 44 saves. And Jeter went over the 200-hit and 100-run marks in the same season for the seventh time and, along with Teixeira, was a leading candidate for AL MVP honors.
And then there was A-Rod, who for the first time in his career wasn't facing tremendous expectations and responded by reaching 30 home runs and driving in 100 runs for the 13th time.
But as recent Yankees history has proved, no matter how many wins a team has in the regular season, the only gauge of a successful year in pinstripes is one that ends with a World Series trophy. That test would come next.