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The Empire strikes back

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

NEW YORK – Everyone stood in the same spot to take a picture. It was a secluded area behind the clubhouse-turned-animal house where hundreds of glass empties littered the ground and new ones still popped like popcorn toward the end of a bag. Not only did the keepers of the trophy want to keep it clean, they knew there was no more appropriate place to pose than against a menacing jet-black wall with the New York Yankees' logo in the middle.

The Empire struck back Wednesday night. It awoke from a nine-year dormancy and, after spending a billion dollars the last half-decade, got it right. It marched with renewed purpose, accompanied, it seemed, by the ominous music that trailed Darth Vader. And with a 7-3 victory to christen the new Yankee Stadium a home of champions in its first season, the Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies for their 27th World Series title and first since 2000.

Gone were the inefficient Yankees of late, their payrolls bloated with overpaid, aging laggards. This group combined young with old, prospects with mercenaries, and they grew into the cohesive unit that for so many years the Yankees had lacked with dizzying results. Championship-free seasons in New York go by dog years, so nine felt like forever to the 50,315 who weren't quite sure what nickname to assign this group.

"You can call us anything you want," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "You're also going to have to call us world champions."

Which doesn't differ much from the usual. The Yankees own more championships than any team in professional sports. George Steinbrenner, the tyrant who bought the Yankees for $10 million and grew them into a billion-dollar corporation, watched his seventh title from home in Florida while his son Hal ushered in a new generation of Steinbrenner with his first championship as managing partner.

The chaos surrounding this one makes it among the franchise's best. It came months after Alex Rodriguez(notes), their best player, admitted to previously using steroids. Which followed the Yankees' signing of three players to $423.5 million worth of contracts. And happened about a year after Andy Pettitte(notes), the winning pitcher in the Game 6 clincher, said he used human growth hormone. All with the specter of the 2004 American League Championship Series loss to Boston still hovering like a stratus cloud.

"Obviously, 2004 left a big mark," Rodriguez said. "But the championship is back where it belongs: in New York City."

Due, in large part, to the 34-year-old Rodriguez, who has stumbled in every way only to find himself at his sport's zenith. He got on base 50 percent of the time and slugged .808 in the postseason. Playoff failures had dogged Rodriguez's career, just as they had those of Hideki Matsui(notes), the World Series MVP following his record six RBIs in Game 6. None of the offseason's big free-agent signings – pitchers CC Sabathia(notes) and A.J. Burnett(notes) and first baseman Mark Teixeira(notes) – knew how a World Series felt, either.

Only the Gang of Four remained. Pettitte, the 22nd-round draft choice who is now the winningest pitcher in postseason history. And Jorge Posada(notes), the catcher whom the Yankees originally preferred as a second baseman. Mariano Rivera(notes), the impermeable closer plucked from Panama, a country with no baseball past and minimal present. And Derek Jeter(notes), the shortstop, the Captain, the standard bearer, the great, whom Cincinnati nearly selected with the No. 5 overall choice in the 1992 draft. The Reds passed. The Yankees chose sixth.

They came up together for the first championship of this era in 1996, the next in '98, '99 and 2000. The Yankees ethos so apparent in past dynasties turned into a Steinbrenner missive – win championships or else – which made the nine-year drought that much more intolerable. Pettitte left at one point, only to be drawn back to what the Yankees embody – largesse, ubiquity and the knowledge that every year they will contend.

"Why wear the pinstripes if you're not going to win championships?" Teixeira said.

When Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano(notes) fielded a Shane Victorino(notes) groundball and looped the throw to first base for the final out, Teixeira squeezed the ball in his glove. Only he didn't feel it. Teixeira looked down to his glove to ensure the ball was there. It was. The sense of calm with Rivera on the mound enveloped the Yankees, and they played as though their championship came pre-fab and they simply needed to figure out how to assemble it.

For that, they turned to Joe Girardi, a teammate of the Gang of Four in his second year as manager after taking over from Joe Torre. The Yankees failed to make the playoffs last season, and Girardi shouldered the blame. He struggled early this year, too, in dealing with the fallout from Rodriguez's steroid admission and subsequent hip injury, plus the general wear and tear that left Girardi's face looking emaciated by season's end.

He did, after all, wear No. 27. It wasn't by accident. He wanted to bring New York its 27th title, and he wasn't going to do it with the same overbearing managerial shtick he pulled in 2008. So early in spring training, he canceled a day of workouts, chartered a bus and went to a Tampa-area pool hall. Anything to take a team full of check collectors and turn it into a single-minded group.

"You throw a bunch of talent together and some years the talent mixes well enough where it creates chemistry and love and fight," Cashman said, "and this team had all that."

From A-Rod and Jeter to Francisco Cervelli(notes) and Freddy Guzman(notes) and everyone in between, including Matsui, who again chased Pedro Martinez(notes) with a surfeit of good swings on mediocre pitches. The first flew into the right-field bleachers in the second inning, a gentle fastball meeting its maker. An inning later, Matsui drove in a pair with a single, and come the fifth, he doubled home two more runners. His six RBIs tied Bobby Richardson's single-game record, and they allowed Girardi to cue the music everybody at Yankee Stadium, new or old, lives to hear.

At 11:14 p.m. ET, the first strains of "Enter Sandman" hit, and Rivera came through the bullpen door. Five outs remained. It wasn't a save situation. No matter. The second Rivera enters the game, he hypnotizes everyone into the same feeling.

"It's over," Jeter said. "It's the same feeling you have every time he comes out of the bullpen. It's over."

And, of course, it was. By the time Victorino rolled up to the plate, the fans finally figured out how to chant "Let's go, Yankees" in wonderful unison. The groundball happened, Jeter smiled as he ran toward first, A-Rod found himself in the embrace of Teixeira and Rivera, and the Bronx slowly burned its Yankees passion proudly once again.

The standards came on. "We Are the Champions." "New York, New York." The on-field stage filled with Yankees. Hank Steinbrenner, George's other son, nearly tripped and fell off the stage. A-Rod couldn't hold the trophy long enough. It was a mess, and on the other side of the field, Cashman was still trying to figure out how he put together the group that gives him a fistful of rings.

A man in a wheelchair rolled up to Cashman. It was Harlan Chamberlain, the father of reliever Joba Chamberlain(notes). He recalled a trip this summer where he told Cashman not to worry so much, which prompted this reply: "It's my job to worry."

Such emotions brought Cashman to Atlanta for a game June 24. The Yankees had lost three straight and five of six. Cashman didn't want to see the season slip away, so he reminded the Yankees of who they are, what they stand for, why they exist. They are a public trust. Embarrass yourself. Don't dare embarrass the team.

Girardi followed with the same proclamation, reminding the Yankees players that they sported a 39-32 record and were one of the best teams in baseball. "Just play like it," Girardi said, and did they ever: The Yankees went 64-27 the rest of the season, the single best stretch in baseball this year and one unmatched over the past five years.

"Sometimes you just want to go home, want a 10-day break," Teixeira said. "That was the middle of the season. It was June. You're tired. And sometimes you just need someone to kick you in the butt and say, 'Let's go.' "

The Yankees went and never looked back. They went off the field together just as they had come on about four hours earlier: together. Inside the Delta House on Wednesday night, backup catcher Jose Molina(notes) dished out shots of Johnnie Walker Black. The Yankees offered the standard champagne (Moet and Chandon) and the top-shelf stuff (Armand de Brignac), and though outfielder Brett Gardner(notes) is no oenophile – "It all tastes good," he said – he scoured through the glass on the floor to find a full bottle to spray in someone's face.

That was his souvenir. Matsui offered the Baseball Hall of Fame the bat he used to drive in those six Game 6 runs. Pettitte left his cap, Jeter a batting helmet and Posada his catcher's mask. In Cooperstown, the reliquary for all things sacred in baseball, they will treat these items like jewelry passed down by royalty.

For, in the baseball world, that's what the Yankees are. They are the nemesis to most, the nuisance to others, the toast of the town and the source of frustration. They may have bought this championship, and they may do it again. The people change and so do the bosses and even the Bosses. The Yankees don't and won't come up with some new identity because theirs is so patently obvious.

"I'll put it in perspective," Jeter said. "Read that sign right there."

Champions, it said. Now and forever.

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