Sweeping Questions

The Yanks Are Champs Again. So What?

It was déjà vu all over again in the Yankee clubhouse. The same faces. The same almost businesslike champagne squirting. The same turtleneck on a misty George Steinbrenner. The same Yankee-outfitted mayor.

But there were some subtle differences. The nasty Nando bubbly was replaced by Fre Sparkling Brut ('an ideal choice for celebrations and other occasions calling for an alcohol-removed alternative,' according to the bottle) in deference to Darryl Strawberry's recovery, while magnums of fleur bottle Perrier-Jouët, vintage 1995 ("This assertive, nicely maturing wine has vivid toasty-earthy aromas, ripe flavors and a rich mousse," according to Wine Spectator) were furtively passed around for the players' drinking pleasure and a late on-field squirting celebration.

Lending a little historical gravity to the situation were first pitch batterymates Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, surveying the scene from in front of Mike Stanton's hermetically sealed locker. While Berra took a swig of Fre ("Who-hoo," judged Yogi), Ford harkened back to celebrations past. "The Yankees were cheap back then," he laughed. "There were only six bottles of champagne for the whole room."

With this bad-old-days moment fresh in our minds, let us then put this millennial season and this millennial team in a little perspective, historical and otherwise.

Are the Yankees the team of the decade?

Is Derek Jeter an eligible bachelor? It's amazing how the events of the past week have rendered that once-pressing question completely rhetorical. Actually, the Yankees earned a more important distinction. With their third world title, the fin de siècle Yanks can call themselves the Team of the Quarter Century, a/k/a the Free Agency Era. That said, their best players (Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera) are all homegrown.

Is Joe Torre a genius?

As I've said in this space before, no, but then again Stephen Hawking could never figure out when to hit and run either. Even Torre's biggest payoffs (Hawking could tell you that Chad Curtis hitting two homers in one World Series game was a 1000-to-one shot) seemed more like good hunches than grand plans. But Joe's the managerial equivalent of Rivera: He's a closer. He's only lost one playoff series as a Yankee and that happened only after Mo proved his mortality in '97. Torre's "What, me worry?" demeanor seems to work perfectly with this team of self-starters, and despite his professed love of NL-style little ball, he doesn't manage his way out of big innings or issue intentional walks to load the bases. Among living managers, only Sparky Anderson owns three World Series rings, so although it may sound strange to say, Torre's record makes him an all-timer.

What was Bobby Cox thinking?

A lot of smart people think Bobby Cox is the best manager in baseball. Here's why. He's won eight consecutive division titles. His teams have won 100 games three times in a row. In every full season he's managed since 1984, he's won at least 89 games. And what's he got to show for it? One World Series ring. But it's got to be more than Leo Mazzone's rocking in the dugout that turns Cox from Joe McCarthy into Stump Merrill every October. Some of his micromoves are real headscratchers—Ozzie Guillen as a defensive replacement? Keith Lockhart as DH? Mike Remlinger in the 10th inning?—but why does every single one explode like a Pinto at a demolition derby? There's only one logical explanation: The Native American spirits are unleashing their wrath over the Tomahawk Chop. Remember, sports fans, the Braves' only championship came over the even-less-p.c. Cleveland Injuns.

What makes the damn Yankees so good?

Let's go to the videotape. Game 1. Eighth inning. Yanks down, 1-0. Derek Jeter facing Greg Maddux, bases loaded, no outs. On an 0-2 count, Maddux throws Jeter a slider, oh, two inches off the outside of the plate. On his last at bat in the sixth, Maddux threw him the same pitch on 2-2 and Jee almost fell flat on his face while striking out. This time, Jeter thought about swinging, he wanted to swing, started to swing, but—in the same way that he dumped Mariah Carey—he resisted temptation. Ball one. Now, Maddux knew he had to come inside, and Jeter muscled the next pitch to left field to score the first Yankee run, drive Maddux from the game, and once and for all shift the momentum of the Series. It's the reason why Deep Blue can't play baseball. It's called learning.

So how do you beat the Yankees?

Ask Pedro Martinez. He was the one pitcher who had the Yankees' number in the postseason this year, and he was engineered for the job. The Yankee hitters make opposing pitchers throw strikes. And even guys like Maddux and Kevin Millwood, if forced to chuck it over the plate, will eventually throw something that even Luis Sojo can hit. But Pedro has so much speed and so much movement he's the only starter in baseball who remains unhittable even when his pitches are in the strike zone. Until cloning comes to the big leagues, this strategy will remain strictly hypothetical.

Are the Yanks the best team ever without a Hall of Famer?

Actually, this team has a fairly typical load of Cooperstown types. The '27 Yankees, in which marginal players made the Hall precisely because they were members of the team, tend to skew people's perceptions. But the U.S. Steel Yankees of the '50s and '60s featured three Cooperstowners—Berra, Ford, and Mickey Mantle—while the Bronx Zoo sported only Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and a series of wouldas and couldas. Among the '99 Yanks, Roger Clemens remains a shoo-in, while David Cone did more this season to solidify his Hall credentials than any player this side of Mark McGwire. With career totals that look more like Honus Wagner than Phil Rizzuto (see chart below), Derek Jeter merely has to avoid fast friends and small planes to become a Kid in the Hall. Bernie Williams is the Yank on the bubble. Roughly halfway through his career, he owns a .304 average, 151 homers, and 681 rbi, so a couple more rings would really help his case. And it's possible that Paul O'Neill, Chuck Knoblauch, Rivera, or even Tino Martinez could hang around long enough to make a legit run at the Coop.

What will next year's Yanks look like?

Y2K problems notwithstanding—"We're saddened to announce that the team physician has been unable to reset Joe Girardi's internal clock and he remains stuck in the dead-ball era"—this team faces fewer question marks than the '96 or '98 teams. Most of the main cogs are signed for the long haul, while some sure-to-be-departing role players like Girardi and Stanton won't be missed. However, based on past history, look for one of the starters to pack their bags. Although they didn't know it at the time, '98 Game 1 starter David Wells and '96 clincher Jimmy Key did their pinstripe swan song in the Big Tilt. And so we ask: Who gets David Cone's locker?

Are we talking Dynasty with a capital D here?

You mean like with Joan Collins? As long as George owns the team, the key components will always be there—Jeter and Williams ain't goin' nowhere—while other everyday players are, as they say, replaceable. The pitching is iffier. Each important hurler has a big question mark after his name (though, like I said, Coney is more of a when than an if): Is Roger Clemens washed up at 36? Is Orlando Hernandez really 34? 44? Satchel Paige? And which is the real Andy Pettitte? The one who baffled the BoSox and the Rangers or the one who threw BP to the Braves? Will Ramiro Mendoza have to arm wrestle Hideki 'Puss-y Toad" Irabu for a shot at the rotation? And scariest of all, can Mariano Rivera continue to be, well, Mariano Rivera? Okay, get off the ledge. Because the Yankees still have fewer questions, pitching or otherwise, than any other team in baseball. Their winning ways should continue.

Will any prospects bust out in the near future?

Nick Johnson, a 20-year-old first baseman with more patience than Adam Sandler's mother, was ranked as the Yanks' top prospect by Baseball America. He looks like a young Edgar Martinez, and could force Tino into early retirement. Shortstop Alfonso Soriano may be every bit as good, although he's the only one in the organization who wants to see Jeter move to third base. Lefty Ed Yarnall could step into the rotation if Cone leaves. And 19-year-old outfielder Jackson Melian could be the next Bernie. Or the next Hensley Meulens.

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