Thu Sep 09 04:32pm EDT
For the fourth time in my career and for the second year in a row, I'm lucky enough to be a part of a team that's playing for a division title and a playoff spot in the month of September.
I truly believe — as most players do at the beginning of each season — that every team has a chance at making it to the World Series. With a 162-game season, anything and everything is possible.
Look at the 2006 Detroit Tigers team that I played on. That was a team that hadn't been to the playoffs since 1984. At the start of the year we weren't considered to even be a playoff team, let alone a team that would play in the final game of the season. A lot of people might look around the league and now say the same thing about teams like the Rangers, Reds, Padres or Braves. All four of those teams have played great baseball all season long and are in good positions to make the playoffs, even though few "analysts" considered them to be threats at the start of the year.
When I was traded to New York, a lot of people outside of the game — my friends and family included — assumed that I was guaranteed a spot in the World Series. But the truth is that the Yankees are a team just like everyone else. Everyone in the clubhouses believes we have a shot of getting to the playoffs when the season starts.
But the best thing I learned once I got to Yankee Stadium is that none of the players in this clubhouse assume a title is going to be handed to us. Just because this team won the World Series last year does not necessarily mean that we are going back this year if we do not focus and work hard. Realizing that means the guys are hungry again and working hard to get back.
It's our ultimate goal to win the World Series and I think that anything short of that would be a disappointment for every player and coach in this clubhouse. But keep in mind that at the start of the year, every other team also has that mindset. And right now, there are up to 15 teams in the league that still have playoff hopes and expectations.
When you step on the field in September, every game means something even if your team is out of the playoff race. In 2007 our Detroit team had lost a playoff spot late in the season, but we still had a lot of individuals who were playing to finish up with some high season stats or earning roster spots the next season. Ryan Raburn(notes), Pudge Rodriguez, and myself needed the last few games of the season to bat over .300 on the season. Placido Polanco(notes) needed the last few games to finish with a 200-hit season and Magglio Ordonez(notes) needed the last few games to win the batting title.
To face a team similar to that or a team with a bunch of new September call-ups who are trying to make a mark for next year's team makes every team dangerous this time of year. We've seen that the past few weeks with a team in our division that will be much-improved next year, the Baltimore Orioles. It's not that they are playing spoiler, it's more of just taking care of their business and trying to win games. We have to be ready on a day-in, day-out basis to play these games.
People also talked about the bullseye that came on the Yankees' back when I was traded here. In 2006, when our Tigers team jumped up to the best record in baseball, all the talk was about how our team was good but that we hadn't played New York or Boston yet. With comments like that and those being the so-called teams to beat, you can't help but look forward to playing them and wanting to beat them. You also know as an opponent that when you play the Yankees it's going to be really close to a sell out, which might be some of the biggest crowds you have played in front of that season. The crowd is electric for a road series that we play in, almost providing a playoff atmosphere every night. Those two things I think make teams just a little more excited to play against the Yankees. I feel that bullseye when I step onto the field, but for me, that just makes the game more fun. Everyone is playing every game like it is the final game of the season.
With these few factors mentioned and the final stretch of games coming up there are a few keys to getting where we want to be at the end of the season.
First, we can't take anything for granted. Our record, the opponents record, how many games up in the standings or back in the standings a team might be means nothing. We have to focus on the game we are playing today. We can't worry about the other teams and who they are playing because we can't control the outcomes of those games.
Second, we can't look to far in the future at who we still have to play. Those games will come and be focused on when we get to them.
The last and most important thing is to have fun and enjoy this. Every player and team wants to be in this position to play when it counts in September, and all you can do is enjoy it, because for a lot of us players this doesn't happen every year.