Yankees buy, reclaim part of their birthright

NEW YORK – Everyone here wanted to talk about six years ago. Champagne corks whizzed like stray bullets, and beer flowed at Oktoberfest, Yankees-style, and New York was abuzz because its team was back in the World Series for the first time since 2003. Which was all well and good, certainly, if not off by a digit.

The right number is five, actually. Don’t ever think otherwise. The Yankees may not have been to a World Series since 2003, but they haven’t been the Yankees in the truest sense – fearsome and gruesome and awesome – since 2004. The franchise-changing loss to the Boston Red Sox wrought the reconstruction of the Yankees, and though never will they exorcise the embarrassment of blowing four straight ALCS games, the 5-2 victory against Los Angeles that delivered their 40th American League pennant Sunday night at least validates the process.

It was a long restoration, a five-year plan, the sort seen from another Evil Empire. And it took money that looks like it was delivered by TARP: $1,056,894,314 spent on players alone since the 2005 season, give or take a few million this year. And yet if it delivers that elusive 27th World Series ring, one the Yankees will have to snatch from defending champion Philadelphia, a billion might as well be a penny and five years a day, because all the struggle of turning the chokingest team in history into this – a mighty machine – took more than time and money.

Photo Babe Ruth batted .313 in the Yankees’ first World Series appearance in 1921. Derek Jeter batted .346 in the Yankees’ last appearance in 2003.
(AP Photos)

Yankees' 40
The Yankees will make their 40th appearance in the World Series, sporting a 26-13 record.
Year Winner Opponent
2009 Yankees vs. Phillies
2003 Florida 4 Yankees 2
2001 Arizona 4 Yankees 3
2000 Yankees 4 N.Y. Mets 1
1999 Yankees 4 Atlanta 0
1998 Yankees 4 San Diego 0
1996 Yankees 4 Atlanta 2
1981 Los Angeles 4 Yankees 2
1978 Yankees 4 Los Angeles 2
1977 Yankees 4 Los Angeles 2
1976 Cincinnati 4 Yankees 0
1964 St.Louis 4 Yankees 3
1963 Los Angeles 4 Yankees 0
1962 Yankees 4 San Francisco 3
1961 Yankees 4 Cincinnati 1
1960 Pittsburgh 4 Yankees 3
1958 Yankees 4 Milwaukee 3
1957 Milwaukee 4 Yankees 3
1956 Yankees 4 Brooklyn 3
1955 Brooklyn 4 Yankees 3
1953 Yankees 4 Brooklyn 2
1952 Yankees 4 Brooklyn 3
1951 Yankees 4 New York 2
1950 Yankees 4 Philadelphia 0
1949 Yankees 4 Brooklyn 1
1947 Yankees 4 Brooklyn 3
1943 Yankees 4 St. Louis 1
1942 St. Louis 4 Yankees 1
1941 Yankees 4 Brooklyn 1
1939 Yankees 4 Cincinnati 0
1938 Yankees 4 Chicago 0
1937 Yankees 4 N.Y. Giants 1
1936 Yankees 4 N.Y. Giants 2
1932 Yankees 4 Chicago 0
1928 Yankees 4 St. Louis 0
1927 Yankees 4 Pittsburgh 0
1926 St. Louis 4 Yankees 3
1923 Yankees 4 N.Y. Giants 2
1922 N.Y. Giants 4 Yankees 0 (one tie)
1921 N.Y. Giants 5 Yankees 3

“Look around this clubhouse,” said CC Sabathia(notes), the series’ MVP, and he did, craning his neck side to side. Sabathia signed with the Yankees for $161 million this offseason because they paid him far more than any other team would, sure, and to play with the men he eyed: to his right was Derek Jeter(notes), to his left Alex Rodriguez(notes), behind him Jorge Posada(notes) and off in the corner Mariano Rivera(notes). They, along with Hideki Matsui, are the remains of 2004.

That’s it. Five pieces. The Captain, the best player this postseason, the catcher who caught the final strike Sunday and the closer who threw it to him and and the slugger who remains a constant threat. The others in pinstripes try to empathize and wonder what it was like and learn quickly not to bother, as 2004 is verboten, something they’ve tried to avenge five years’ running and accomplished only now.

They remain not just because they can play – and all five still can – but to keep around those who understand what 2004 stands for in Yankees lore: a low point, something plumbed in other eras, though never so much in one crushing blow. It destroyed the Yankees’ equilibrium, and while such a thing was bound to happen following championships in 1996, ’98, ’99 and 2000, to see it crumble so quickly was discomfiting.

No wonder, then, things are different. Only three others on this team – Robinson Cano(notes), Melky Cabrera(notes) and Phil Hughes(notes) – were even in the Yankees’ organization during 2004. Yes, the other 17 players plied their trades elsewhere. Joba Chamberlain(notes) was a chunky nonentity at Nebraska-Kearney, a Division II school. Alfredo Aceves(notes) was still playing in the Mexican League. Andy Pettitte(notes), who with a victory Sunday became the winningest pitcher in postseason history, had left the Yankees and gone to Houston.

And Johnny Damon(notes)? Well, he was the leading “Idiot” on that Red Sox team.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Rodriguez said, and for him especially. Gone is nearly every label affixed to him – gag artist, October flunky, fake Yankee – and in their place equal-and-opposite complimentary sobriquets. He is playoff hale and hearty, his postseason home runs finally the bona fide sort, and Sabathia unleashed the October ace he hid the last two seasons, and each of the nine players general manager Brian Cashman has given a long-term contract since ’04 – those two, plus Rivera, Posada, Damon, Matsui, Cano, Mark Teixeira(notes) and A.J. Burnett(notes) – contributed big.

Of course Cashman has the resources to devote $954.9 million to those nine, and that gives him the most distinct advantage in baseball. Don’t kid yourself otherwise. Don’t undersell the job Cashman has done, either, in recovering from crippling contracts to build a team that can win now.

Over the last five years, he has overhauled his roster, forced out the manager that took the Yankees to their last four championships and survived not only the wrath of triple the Steinbrenners any previous GM did. While George couldn’t keep his eyes peeled – “I tried to call the Boss and I think he was sleeping,” Reggie Jackson said – the new owners, George’s sons Hal and Hank, looked on with pride. They showed faith in Cashman. He delivered.

While part of his plan flopped – the Yankees’ farm system is again bereft, and that dream of building a pitching rotation from the inside ended up with Hughes and Chamberlain in the bullpen and Ian Kennedy(notes) AWOL – Cashman recovered by being resourceful. And that is taking the word at face: using the resources on hand to succeed. He flew to California to woo Sabathia, then jetted to Texas to rope Pettitte and brought Burnett in the fold for a rotation that complemented his lineup.

Pitching, as much as anything, brought the Yankees success in the late ’90s, and Cashman knew a return to that would lead to the postseason, which New York missed last season for the first time since 1995. Well, that and Angels miscues. Errors from Howie Kendrick(notes) and Scott Kazmir(notes) allowed two insurance runs in the eighth, and coupled with Pettitte’s 6 1/3 solid innings, Chamberlain’s two outs and Rivera’s final two innings, the Yankees were back where they believed they belong and partied accordingly.

“I don’t know how you rate happiness,” Jeter said, though having been in the Bronx since 1995, he ought to know it goes something like this:

Home in October: despondent.

First-round loss: miserable.

ALCS loss: dejected.

World Series loss: sad.

Pretty ring: Well, it’s about damn time.

It’s not a linear equation, not with the Yankees. To them, it is all or nothing, which is why in 2001 Luis Gonzalez devastated them, and in 2003 Josh Beckett(notes) did the same, but 2004 was worse: Not only did they lose, they blew it, and never had they ascended the mountain since.

Until Sunday, when inside their $1.5 billion stadium the Yankees worked through more than 100 bottles of bubbly in a celebration five years in the making. They did it among themselves, because the Yankees aren’t the sort to go spraying the crowd, as Tampa Bay did last year, or who celebrate in front of their fans, as the Phillies did last week. Vestiges of the old Yankee attitude – that they’re better than everyone – still exist and probably always will.

“It is really not a surprise that we are here,” Sabathia said, and, yeah, that’s a pretty good example, even if he was quick to add: “I hate to sound like that, but this is a really good team.”

It’s not bragging if it’s true, right? Sabathia signed here for a reason, and so did Teixeira and Burnett and all of the others since 2004: To a baseball player, being a Yankee remains the ultimate. For the money and the prestige and the challenge. Nowhere else is greatness an obligation.

Four more victories and it’s theirs. A championship in 2009 can’t erase what happened five years ago, though it can validate everything since: the money and time spent, the reconstruction executed and the pursuit of those beautiful gilded baubles that make everything so worth it.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Oct 26, 2009