Slide of the Yankees

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

TAMPA, Fla. – Derek Jeter keeps his four World Series rings in a safe-deposit box. He doesn't need any more reminders that it's been five seasons since the Yankees won a World Series.

"It seems like it's been longer," he said.

Everywhere Jeter looks, he sees the past. Ex-Yankee Tino Martinez threw out a first pitch this week at Legends Field. Banners fly commemorating the championships. Fans thank Jeter for the memories, and he remembers they're just that: Gone but for a fistful of diamond jewelry.

In the first year of the drought, 2001, the Yankees' payroll crept over $100 million for the first time. Since that season, George Steinbrenner has spent $783,466,307 on players and has nothing to show for it.

"You're spoiled," Jeter said. "You still realize how hard it is. I was the first one to say while we were winning that it's difficult to do. You need the breaks to go your way. Since then, we've been to two more World Series. Just hasn't happened for us."

As Opening Day approaches, the typical question surfaces: Can the Yankees win this season? The answer is yes, of course, but another question, phrased a tad more judiciously, better illustrates the state of the Yankees these days.

Do they know how to win anymore?

On the surface, the question sounds absurd. Jeter still plays for the Yankees. Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera each have four rings, and Randy Johnson and Johnny Damon won championships with their former teams.

Nine Yankees come with World Series-winning credentials, a far cry from the 1996-2000 dynasty. Still, Mike Mussina doesn't have one, nor does Jason Giambi. And even people in Djibouti know Alex Rodriguez still sports naked hands.

Winning takes more than talent, which the Yankees undeniably have. Their lineup, with Damon's arrival, could score 1,000 runs, done only once since 1950. Their pitching rotation, if healthy, could go six deep with Johnson, Mussina, Shawn Chacon, Chien-Ming Wang, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright.

It takes defense, and the Yankees' is shaky. It takes relief pitching, and the Yankees' is dubious. It takes moxie, and, frankly, the Yankees have lost theirs.

Top to bottom, their 2002 team was arguably the most talented since Jeter's arrival in 1996. It certainly was their best pitching staff: Mussina, Roger Clemens, David Wells, Andy Pettitte, Jeff Weaver and Orlando Hernandez all were in the rotation at one juncture. Rivera, Mike Stanton, Steve Karsay and Ramiro Mendoza were tremendous out of the bullpen.

And they lost in the first round to Anaheim.

"The best team doesn't always win," Damon said. "The year we won in Boston, I thought the Angels were the best team. The year the Marlins won, I thought [Boston was] the best team. In 2001, I thought the A's were the best team and the Diamondbacks won. You just have to get hot."

The responsibility for that inexorably falls on Joe Torre. After the 2004 gag against the Red Sox and last season's first-round exit against the Angels, there were questions whether Steinbrenner wanted him back as manager. A genius during the four championships, Torre earned a new reputation: underachiever.

"I wouldn't say we've regressed," Jeter said. "Some teams have caught up."

To return there, Jeter believes the Yankees need to play small ball – to bunt more and move runners over and play better defense. On the last count, he is right. Regarding the bunting, perhaps not so much: In Torre's 10-year tenure, the two seasons with the least sacrifices – 1999 (16) and 2000 (22) – were also the ones in which they won their most recent championships.

Style of play is simply a scapegoat for a bigger issue that has infiltrated the franchise: They're no longer the big, bad Yankees. When the Diamondbacks beat them in the 2001 World Series, the cloak of invincibility was lifted, and when the Marlins stunned them in 2003, the Darth Vader factor started to fade.

More than anything, the 2004 AL Championship Series loss to the Red Sox crumbled the wall that separated the Yankees and the rest of baseball, and they've done nothing to regain that clout except spend money.

"We're going to win soon," Damon said. "There are a few players in here who haven't won who are ready for it."

It's a bold statement, especially with the Red Sox and Blue Jays threats in the East, the White Sox and Indians loaded in the Central and the A's and Angels dangerous in the West. The AL is a gauntlet this season. It's conceivable that the Yankees could miss the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

Two years later they started their incredible run, one like no team had strung together in almost 50 years. Before it, only two teams had won four championships in five years, and they were the Yankee empires of the late 1930s to early '40s and the late '40s to early '50s.

What Jeter has come to understand is that because the Yankees so embrace their past – 26 championships, they'll kindly remind you – it will always be a part of their present. He only hopes they can repeat it in the future.

For the Yankees, five seasons is an eternity.

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