These Yankees are monumental

Los Angeles Times

Frame the weathered benchwarmer swatting the fresh ball into the dying center field grass. reeze the lumpy catcher stumbling across home plate. Remember the gray jerseys dancing out of the dugout and leaping into one another’s arms and floating together across the diamond like a thick cloud through the October chill. For three consecutive years we’ve seen this dance, four times in the last five years, and now it deserves to hang in the front hall forever. The New York Yankees did more than win the World Series Thursday. They established themselves as the greatest, most enduring team in baseball history. Their 4-2 victory over the New York Mets, coming on a ninth-inning single by a guy named Luis Sojo, with a winning pitcher named Mike Stanton, placed this team on a level above those containing Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. The 4-1 series victory by a club that won earlier games with heroics by Jose Vizcaino and Jeff Nelson raises it above those with Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. Better than the Bronx Bombers. Better than Murderers’ Row. Better than the Big Red Machine. So common, they don’t have a nickname. So tough, they don’t need one. “We might not have had the best players,” said Manager Joe Torre, his uniform now surely darkened forever with champagne, “but we have had the best team.” So powerful, after they finally pushed ornery Met starter Al Leiter through the ropes Thursday on Sojo’s two-out, first-pitch line drive with runners on first and second, Leiter retreated to the dugout to cry. So powerful, when the Mets’ Mike Piazza flied out to Bernie Williams in deep center field with a runner on third to end the game, George Steinbrenner cried. Let’s write that again. George Steinbrenner cried. That alone should make this the strongest team ever, although Torre offered more reasonable evidence. “This core group, winning four series in five years, when you have to come through layer after layer of playoffs each year … “ he said. “We can put our record, our dedication, our resolve, up against any team that has ever played the game of baseball.” The only two such teams that can compare are Joe DiMaggio’s Yankees, who won five World Series in six years (1936-41), and Yogi Berra’s Yankees, who won six in seven years (1947-53).

But as of that center-field genuflection by Williams, they don’t compare. Since 1996, these Yankees have gone 46-15 in the postseason. That’s more postseason wins as their historical competitors combined. DiMaggio’s Yankees went 20-4 Berra’s Yankees went 24-11. It’s not just the wins, it’s the suffocating environment in which they must be breathed. Today’s Yankees have had to battle through three World Series type events each year. Those Yankees annually endured just one. The second reason this team is better dates to the 1976 beginning of free agency, which has caused the sort of player turmoil that didn’t exist earlier. These Yankees played with 12 major lineup changes during their five years. Berra’s Yankees had just as many changes in two more years. DiMaggio’s Yankees had two fewer changes in one more year. “That’s true, with everybody moving around, it’s harder to keep good teams together like they used to,” said official baseball historian Jerome Holtzman. “But c’mon. Is Paul O’Neill like Babe Ruth? Is Tino Martinez another Lou Gehrig? How does Jorge Posada compared to Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra?” A team with only two potential future Hall of Famers — and that’s if Derek Jeter stays sound for the next couple of decades — cannot be the best ever. But did they play against better players? This is the one inarguable point that cements this team’s legacy. Nobody in the history of baseball has played so well, for so long, in an era when everybody was allowed to play. DiMaggio’s Yankees did not compete in a league that allowed African Americans. Berra’s Yankees competed with only a handful of African Americans in that dynasty’s final years. As for Latins and other foreign-born players, the Yankees’ four World Series victories involved 46 international athletes. DiMaggio’s Yankees played in World Series involving nine foreigners. Berra’s Yankees played with and against only five foreigners. “But it takes time to make historical assumptions,” Holtzman said. “Everything today is not the greatest.” But maybe sometimes it is. And during occasions such as Wednesday night, it is nice to appreciate history while it is happening in front of us. The Yankees showed us when they saved a run in the fourth inning on a brilliant pickoff by Andy Pettitte of Kurt Abbott at first base, even though there was also a runner at second base at the time. Pettitte knew Abbott wouldn’t be paying attention, and Martinez drifted behind him at first base and made him pay. The Yankees showed us again in the ninth, after Leiter had thrown nothing but strikes in getting strikeouts on the first two batters, bringing up Posada with Shea Stadium sounding like one of those planes overhead. Posada fought the count to 2-and-2, then fouled off one pitch. And another, Then ball three. Then another foul. Then Leiter walked him. Up stepped Scott Brosius, who took two balls, then did what only a veteran would do. He didn’t tentatively wait for ball three, he swung away, and knocked a single to left. Then Sojo, who was cut by the Pittsburgh Pirates this year, whois 34 but looks 50, who only entered the game in the bottom of the eight, swung at the first pitch. “I don’t know how to explain this,” said Sojo. You don’t. You remember it. You cherish it. You understand that you may never see it again.