In triumph, tragedy, a point of pride

October 28, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

NEW YORK -- They were crying now, the manager who recovered from prostate cancer, the third baseman who lost his father two months ago, the right fielder who lost his only yesterday.

The fans were singing, first, "We Are the Champions," then, "New York, New York." And the All-Century pitcher was hugging his children, then leaving the field to roars, the newest prince of the city.

History, destiny, tragedy, they all blended into one emotional tapestry last night, one glorious collage of baseball excellence. The New York Yankees are not just the Team of the '90s or the Team of the Century. They're a Team for the Ages, a model for every other sports franchise in this age of selfishness and greed.

In the city that never sleeps, they are the team that never rests, world champions for the third time in four seasons, and still looking for more. The Yankees could never match last year's 125-victory extravaganza, but they were even better in this postseason than the last, losing only one game.

The final triumph came last night, a 4-1 victory over Atlanta marked by Roger Clemens' first World Series triumph and Mariano Rivera's last spectacular stand of 1999. The outcome was never seriously in question. This was a night for celebration, and for emotional release.

The Yankees beat three former Cy Young winners and perhaps a future one in this Series. The Braves managed just six hits in 21 innings against three of the Yankees' starters. Without question, the New York Mets would have put up a better fight.

But this isn't about the Braves, four-time World Series losers in the '90s. This is about a team that makes every opponent look bad, every opposing manager look foolish and every opposing star look overmatched.

Yes, even on a night when they were confronted with another loss in their extended family -- the death of Paul O'Neill's father, Charles -- the Yankees continued their inexorable march through history.

Their 12th straight Series victory tied a record set by the 1927, '28 and '32 Yankees. And their back-to-back Series sweeps were a feat last accomplished 60 years ago by -- who else? -- the 1938 and '39 Yankees.

It's downright eerie the way the Yankees are able to perform amid tragedy, but it's a tribute to their manager, their professionalism, their solidarity, their utter resilience.

"This club is so special," Joe Torre said. "I can't put it into words."

The Yankees won in '96 after Torre's brother, Frank, underwent a successful heart transplant on the eve of the Series clincher. They won in '98 with Darryl Strawberry battling colon cancer. And they won in '99 with three players -- Scott Brosius, Luis Sojo and O'Neill -- mourning the losses of their fathers.

But that's not all.

Andy Pettitte's father continues to struggle with a variety of health problems. Chuck Knoblauch's father is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. And lest we forget, this season also marked the passings of former Yankees greats Joe DiMaggio and Jim (Catfish) Hunter.

"We played with some heavy hearts," Clemens said. "I don't know if I could have done what Paul O'Neill did."

But, as Derek Jeter put it, "This is just a team that knows how to win."

The fans sense that, and the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium was festive, electric, crackling with anticipation. Hundreds of flashes lit up the sky when Whitey Ford threw out the first pitch to Yogi Berra, with the current Yankees applauding from the top of the dugout steps.

"Yankee Pride" is a concept that many fans find intolerable, especially in rival American League cities like Baltimore.

But the tradition is real, and never more palpable than on crisp October nights when the Yankees are putting the finishes touches on another world championship.

The Yankees expected to win last night. Their fans expected them to win. And maybe the Braves expected them to win, too.

Looking back, the 1997 Orioles were one of the few teams to stand up to these Yankees, winning eight of 12 meetings and the AL East title by two games.

That was the season in which Rivera replaced John Wetteland as the closer, and the only one of the last four in which the Yankees failed to win the Series.

Since then, they're 22-3 in the postseason. Rivera has emerged as the game's best closer, Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez the best postseason pitcher and Jeter one of the best players. And still, this team remains greater than the sum of its parts.

Sure, the Yankees spend more than almost every team. But the Orioles are proof that spending doesn't always guarantee success. And the single-minded professionalism that began under former manager Buck Showalter in the early '90s has become the hallmark of these championship teams.

Under Torre, the clubhouse has absorbed personalities as diverse as David Wells, Darryl Strawberry and Clemens. This Series might have turned out differently if the Braves had protected a 5-1 lead in Game 3, forcing Clemens to pitch under more pressure last night.

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