One more mountain to climb
By Jon Lane
As you can imagine, it was bedlam in the clubhouse. Beginning with Hal Steinbrenner, the theme was not only the fact that the Yankees are winners of 110 games, but about how they won them. The character of this team has been remarkable, yet the mighty Phillies, the champs, are their lone roadblock.
The final journey begins Wednesday night, with George Steinbrenner likely to be in the house.
“We’re doing this for him,” Hal Steinbrenner said. “We want to win this whole thing for him. I feel like he’s here. He’s a big part of it.”
It’s a fitting conclusion to the 2009 season: The two best teams fighting for the right to be called champion, or in the Phillies’ case, a repeat champion.
“The fact that we have to go through the world champs to become champs, and they have their chance to defend it. Not too many teams get that opportunity,” said Johnny Damon.
CC Sabathia is ALCS MVP. You can’t argue with that selection, though. The big guy went 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA, allowing nine hits and two runs with 12 strikeouts in 16 innings pitched. Lest we forget that eight-inning masterpiece on three days’ rest in Game 4 that squashed the Angels’ momentum from the night before.
Being the character guy he is, Sabathia deflected credit to Alex Rodriguez and the team’s ability to remain loose through good times and bad. That had him believing from Day 1 that the Yankees were destined to play in the Fall Classic.
“When Al went down, it was going to to make it tough,” he said. “We held it together for awhile until he got back. He made our lineup just that much better, our team that much better. It gave us a lot of confidence.
“It is really not a surprise that we are here. I hate to sound like that, but this is a really good team. Like I said, we get along, we have fun. This is what you get.”
Like Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and a few others, A-Rod will play in his first World Series. Too many Hall of Famers never won a World Series ring, and never had a shot at one.
“I was just in the back with Mark Teixeira talking and a lot of great players have never had the honor to play in the World Series,” Rodriguez said. “So I thank the good Lord for putting me with the greatest organization and 24 great teammates and it feels really good.
“It gets tougher. Honestly, you think about this era with all these divisions and all these championship series and World Series, it’s pretty much more challenging now and it feels good to get in.”
Eight months ago, Rodriguez was a scorned public figure, exposed by his admittance of using performance-enhancing drugs while he played for the Texas Rangers, the tension-filled reaction press conference and the shady company he kept. Then he had a torn labrum in his hip, which threatened to sideline him for the rest of the season.
That actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He went to Vail, Colorado, and had surgery, and spent the next few weeks rehabbing in seclusion. Once he returned on May 8, he homered on the first pitch he saw and hasn’t looked back. Despite playing in only 124 games, he still slugged 30 homers and drove in 100 runs, the last three coming on his final swing of the regular season — a home run.
“I wasn’t around for the first month and a half, but I knew that the guys we brought in this year, they were special talents and special people and all of them did a phenomenal job of playing in New York the first year,” Rodriguez said. “That’s something that a lot of people can’t do, including myself.”
Yet there were times he lifted the Yankees from life support this postseason. There were the home runs off Joe Nathan and Brian Fuentes. There’s the 11-game postseason hitting streak, pretty darn good for someone once labeled the ultimate choker. His postseason tally to date: .438 with five home runs and 12 RBIs.
“Alex is an unbelievable guy,” Steinbrenner said. “It was just a matter of time before his ability would break out in the postseason. Nobody works harder than him in the offseason, nobody works harder than him in training and nobody, you’ll find, has more ability than him. It was just a matter of time.”
Joe Girardi made some strange decisions, but he’s the 10th manager to lead the Yankees to a World Series and the 42nd person to play and manage in the Fall Classic (and the first since Ozzie Guillen in 2005).
Keep in mind how all season he had to work through an unsaid win-or-else edict. He knew that’s what he signed up for, and never hid or lost his composure through all the second-guessing. Now he’s four wins from escaping Joe Torre’s shadow once and for all.
“It’s very special,” Girardi said. “I’m extremely blessed to have this opportunity. I feel my life has been one big blessing. The things that I’ve gotten to do, God has really blessed me. But being here as a player and going through that, and the excitement and the anticipation, and then getting a chance to do it as a manager, I’m extremely happy for the guys in that room, for the Boss, his children, all the people that put all this hard work in to put this team together.
“I have that same feeling of excitement. 1996 was the first time for me. You think about all the work that all the people put in to have this opportunity, as a player all the work you put in in the offseason to get an opportunity. It’s much the same feeling.”
“The trials and tribulations that the guys in that clubhouse went through all year is something that you hope you never have to go through in your lifetime again,” said manager Mike Scioscia. “It was a special group in there to keep going. Special group in there to keep bringing Nick’s memory forward every day. Every day we came to the park and he’s still with us. And I’m sure we’ll have a little peace in that as we move forward. Right now this loss, obviously, hurts.”
And so it’s on to the World Series. Six years ago yesterday was the last time the Yankees played in a World Series game, when Josh Beckett threw a complete-game shut out in Game 6.
The Phillies were the National League’s leaders in home runs (224), RBIs (788), runs scored (820) and slugging percentage (.447), and will make the Yankees pay dearly if they continue to squander scoring opportunities. On the other hand, the Yankees represent the toughest competition the Phils have faced this entire year and are a different team from the one that dropped two of three games to Philly on Memorial Day weekend.
But all that is for another day. The Yankees are partying all night while me and dozens of scribes pen the latest round of tales.