Thursday, November 5, 2009

Yankees regain their championship mojo

So many times this decade, the Yankees seemed to have a championship screenplay written only to go off-script at the exact wrong time.

There was Rivera's stunning failure in '01. Josh Beckett's coming out party in '03. The Series That Shall Not Be Named in '04. The fishy resurgence of Kenny Rogers in '06. Joba & The Midges in '07.

In each of those years, the promise of a 27th championship ultimately rang hollow. It was enough to take the wind out the sails of even the most boastful fan.

The Yankees still maintained a winning culture throughout the decade–winning more regular-season games than any team in baseball–but it was no longer a championship culture.

"Any season that doesn't end with a championship is a failure" was the Steinbrenner Doctrine during the dynasty years of '96-'01. It was a statement of intent that was as concise as it was impossible to live up to. It created a mind-set that stuck around these parts for a long time, far longer than it ever should have.

Bernie, Cone, Tino, and O'Neill were all history, but the expectations they helped create remained. It made the failures that followed all the more intense.

And then this team came along.

It began in the offseason, when Brian Cashman brought CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira on board, two players that came with a character that matched their immense skill level.

They were already established All-Stars and, yes, extremely costly, but they were also the type of players that did more than compile stats. They made their team better.

In Sabathia, the Yankees now had what they had so sorely been lacking all decade, a true ace. In Teixeira, New York now had a first baseman who could change games both with his bat and his glove.

While the Yankees performed a face-lift on their roster, Alex Rodriguez was undergoing a transformation of his own. The third baseman had hit rock bottom in spring training, buried by the tag-team of his PED admission and a tricky hip surgery.

But for the first time in his career, A-Rod showed something that he always seemed to lack previously. Guts. He homered in his first at-bat back in the lineup, didn't say anything stupid in the press, did his best to stay out of the tabloids, and then turned a solid regular season into a breakout postseason that included 18 RBI in 15 games.

The arrival of Sabathia and Teixiera, and the re-shaping of A-Rod were all key factors to the championship run. But none of it would have been possible had it not been for the continued excellence of the Old Guard. Never was that more apparent than in the clinching Game Six last night.

In the game that decided the World Series, Derek Jeter had three hits, Andy Pettitte was the winning pitcher, Mariano Rivera got the save, and Jorge Posada was the catcher for both of those pitchers.

The Core Four–as they came to be known–made the most of their opportunity to perform together at a high level this late in their careers. It speaks to the type of players they are. Four potential Hall of Famers spending almost their entire careers together.

But, just as it was during the dynasty years, it's the players who fly under the radar that tend to make the biggest impact in the games that count. Enter Hideki Matsui, a Yankee who lived through all those years of disappointment since joining the team in 2003.

Playing in what may very well be his final game in pinstripes, Matsui drove in six runs in Game Six, winning the World Series MVP award despite starting just three games in the series. Sometimes less is more.

Personally, this was my favorite Yankee team ever to follow. They were talented and likable, hard-working but also goofballs. They liked whipped cream pies, and WWE championship belts, and 300, and Creed. It was fun staying up every night to watch them, and there's certainly going to be a void in my life starting tonight.

I'm actually going to miss them.

And that's what makes baseball the greatest sport to follow. When you watch your team every day for seven months, they start to become like old friends. As dependable as the dog that lays at the foot of your TV.

Last night's celebration was the culmination of that relationship between the team and its fans. So to all those Yankees that said thank you to the fans after the game, I say this:

You're welcome. Now let's do it again next year.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at Follow Dan on Twitter at danhanzus.

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