Despite success, Yankees loved

Outpouring of support for NYC being felt by champs, now in ALCS

October 17, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | By Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE - Baseball's postseason used to be a relatively simple proposition. Yankees fans rooted for the Yankees and everyone else rooted against them.

The reasons were simple, too. The Yankees have long been the richest team in baseball, so they have the wherewithal to buy the kind of success that many smaller-market teams can only dream about. The Yankees also are from New York, a city long perceived in middle America to have an obnoxiously inflated opinion of itself.

That would have been the dynamic this year, too, if not for the tragic circumstances that have led Americans to rally around New York as a symbol of a nation bloodied but unbowed.

The Seattle Mariners, who will play host to the Yankees in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series today at Safeco Field, were supposed to be the more likable team. They had lost superstar after superstar to baseball's harsh economic environment, but assembled an impressive club this year that tied the major-league record with 116 victories in the regular season. Surely, this was the team America would choose to end the long Yankees dynasty.

Think again.

The Yankees, the team you once loved to hate, have come to represent the unbendable spirit of the city most brutalized by the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. They understand where baseball ranks in the greater scheme of things, but have respectfully embraced their role as chief spirit-lifter for a shaken metropolis.

Now, much of the nation - with the obvious exception of the Pacific Northwest - is cheering them on as if they were Team USA.

"I think, with what went on in the real world as opposed to the baseball world, the NY on our caps symbolizes more than just baseball," said Yankees manager Joe Torre.

Torre saw the change in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. The Yankees resumed their season in Chicago and found a once-hostile stadium suddenly filled with signs proclaiming affection for New York.

"I remember Chicago was our first stop, and it was `God Bless America, We Love New York,' " Torre said. "It didn't keep them from rooting for the White Sox, but I think they sensed a little camaraderie with the fact that we are from New York and with the horrific thing that went on.

"Boston was probably the most sensitive and emotional. They were singing `New York, New York' in Boston, of all places."

Shortstop Derek Jeter could feel the difference that first night at Comiskey Park, too, but he knows that hometown fans can't help being hometown fans.

"We played Chicago and I think it was the first time since Little League I can remember people not booing us or booing you or getting on you or telling you how bad you are," Jeter said. "But it only lasted one night, so I think everything is back to normal."

It wasn't, however, business as usual at Yankee Stadium when New York completed a dramatic three-game comeback against the Oakland Athletics on Monday night to earn a place in the ALCS and keep alive hope for a fourth straight world championship.

"That's as loud as I've heard it in Yankee Stadium," Jeter said. "You compare it a little bit to '96 when we were in the World Series. The Yankees had not seen the postseason or a World Series in I think 18 years [actually 15], and it was pretty loud. But last night I think by far was the best atmosphere I've seen at Yankee Stadium, and it says a lot about the people of New York.

"They wanted to see us win. That's what we have heard all along and they came out and supported us. Thus far, this postseason has been pretty special."

The Mariners had to fight hard to extend their special season, coming back from a game down to defeat the Cleveland Indians in the other AL Division Series. But they may pay a price for allowing the best-of-five playoff to go the distance.

The Mariners had to use their two best starting pitchers - Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer - to secure the final two games. That leaves today's Game 1 assignment to 15-game winner Aaron Sele, who won his only regular season start against the Yankees in 2001 but is winless (0-3) in three career postseason starts against them.

Garcia will come back on three days' rest for the second time in this postseason to pitch Game 2 and Division Series hero Moyer is set to start Saturday at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees also had to go five games, but they have so much depth in the starting rotation that left-hander Andy Pettitte will be pitching on a week's rest when he takes the mound today. Right-hander Mike Mussina, who pitched so well against the A's on Saturday, will be pitching on normal rest when he starts Game 2 tomorrow.

If that puts the Mariners at a disadvantage, they clearly look forward to the challenge of trying to unseat the Yankees, especially after losing to them in last year's ALCS.

"It's always fun playing the Yankees," said Mariners manager Lou Piniella. "I mean, they are what everybody is trying to accomplish, what they have done. The success that they have had here over the past four or five years, it's just unparalleled in modern sports. You've got to tip your cap to them and give them credit."

Piniella also recognizes that the Yankees have been cast in a special role this year - bringing some joy back to the citizens of New York - but that won't change the approach of the Mariners.

"We don't want to give them too much joy," Piniella said. "They have been through a lot, and we understand that. But we'd like to curtail their enjoyment here over the next seven days."

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