PHILADELPHIA – The New York Yankees' 27th championship, their first in nine years, will have grown from a seemingly dead at-bat.
The common perception when they are waving from their flat-bed trucks, when their city has fallen hopelessly for them again, will be that their victory was about their money, and their many other advantages, and that they simply ride again over the underprivileged.
For that matter, his heady dash from first to third isn't for sale either. And neither, on this cool night when the Yankees took a 3-1 lead in the World Series with a 7-4 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, was the thump-thump Damon sent through their dugout, through their hearts.
Rebuilt in parts, older in places, unproven in others, the Yankees looked for a moment like those other Yankees, the ones they've been living down for the better part of a decade. They didn't just win, didn't just play to the brink of another title, they'd refused to lose, which ballplayers such as Derek Jeter(notes) and Jorge Posada(notes) and Mariano Rivera(notes) would know is different.
They'd taken the ball on three days' rest. They'd played back from Wednesday night's loss in New York City. They'd come to Citizens Bank Park and stood amid the white hankies and irritable locals. They'd fought for every inch. They took a ball off the thigh and gone deep. They took one off the ribs and hammered a stake-to-the-heart double. Alex Rodriguez(notes) did that. CC Sabathia(notes) did that. Johnny Damon did that. They all did.
And so they'd played the National League's best team – by stature and deed baseball's best team for going on a year – to the verge of a one-and-done.
The Yankees are there for a million reasons. Two hundred million, some will say. But, when an angry and delirious crowd is standing and stomping, and when a pitcher is choosing between 94 mph fastballs and 85 mph sliders, and when momentum has run off to the other dugout, the establishment does not accept checks.
The Phillies had edged toward them in the seventh inning, when Chase Utley(notes) pulled Sabathia's 107th pitch of the night – his 4,240th pitch of the season – into the right-field bleachers, drawing to 4-3. They'd tied them in the eighth, 4-4, when Pedro Feliz(notes) scorched Joba Chamberlain's(notes) 97 mph fastball into the left-field bleachers. And they appeared to set themselves up for the win – or plenty of chances for it – when Brad Lidge(notes), their mercurial closer, ripped through Hideki Matsui(notes) and Jeter to start the ninth inning, then bore down on Damon. The Phillies, see, they don't lose well, either. That's how they got here, too.
That was when, as Posada would say, "Johnny Damon really won the game for us."
Damon would force nine pitches from Lidge, the last six thrown with two strikes. He'd foul five of them, take three of them, and push one into left field for a clean base hit. He'd chop at some, flip his bat at some, one-hand a couple, survive them all, and then get just enough of a fastball to hit it a couple hundred feet.
"I kept sitting slider," Damon said, "and he kept throwing the fastball. They really don't teach you to do it that way. They normally always tell you to look fastball because if you sit slider, it would be too tough to catch up to a fastball. But I felt like his slider made me look silly on a couple pitches, so I kept sitting slider and just reacted to the fastball. So after the third 3-2 count, he threw three fastballs, and fortunately I got enough of it to get it over the shortstop and not enough of it to bounce in front of Raul [Ibanez, in left field] there."
It was the one they'll all remember when they recount the season, and all that had put them here. While on the same pitch Damon stole second base and, with the infielders aligned toward the right side in a defensive shift against Mark Teixeira(notes), third too, while Teixeira was hit by a pitch, while Rodriguez drove in a run with the biggest hit of his life and Posada drove in two, none of it happens without Damon.
Rodriguez, who'd cashed it in, called it, "an unbelievable, tenacious at-bat by Johnny Damon."
Chamberlain, who'd stood to wear this one for a while, called it, "a great at-bat."
Jeter, who'd swung over a Lidge slider for the inning's second out, said, "What we did tonight, you better hope you don't have to do that a lot with him pitching."
So, Damon stood at third. Maybe his presence forced fastballs to Rodriguez. Maybe Lidge couldn't stop wishing Damon wasn't there, couldn't believe he hadn't finished him, regretted his failure to cover third. Maybe he carried all those things.
What was clear, everything had changed, because Damon believed it would. And because of it, the Yankees, these Yankees looked familiar again.
The final out in the ninth inning, the 27th out, wouldn't come. Not in time to save the Phillies, anyway. So, here they are.
Posada has been here more than a few times. He smiled.
"We know where we are," he said. "We fought tonight."
And that was the difference.
- Johnny Damon