This time it's the Yankees with something to prove
When the World Series starts Wednesday, the proud, confident defending world champion Philadelphia Phillies will face the New York Yankees, baseball's biggest chokers for the last eight years. What happened? Did these two cities, after a century, decide to swap identities? Live long enough, you really will see everything.
Go to Philadelphia this month and you'll see stories about how the Phillies have reversed the town's ancient inferiority complex about its pro sports teams. You are no longer a sucker if you dare to believe in a Philly team's chance for a positively ridiculous comeback win. It's now the Phillies' trademark, especially in the playoffs. Ask the Rockies and Dodgers. Both are still numb.
Gratitude for the Phillies' reversing of this generations-long hex is so intense that affection drenches Citizens Bank Park, where fans wave their white rally towels over their heads for what seems like hours at a time. Boos? They don't exist. Heroes? By the boatload. Under pressure, they now expect expensive baseball teams from New York to roll over and gag. Don't the Mets do it every year?
The Phillies won a pennant last week, and afterward, there wasn't even a riot outside the park. A year ago, I walked out of Citizens Bank, questioned my sanity, and to escape the madness, blocked the path of the only taxi I saw. Within a block, fans kicked out the cab's headlight. Why? Why not. Last week I exited the same park, found an orderly line of cabs and a driver who said, "The fans expect to win now. So it's not too dangerous."
What happened to the franchise that was so accustomed to misery that it celebrated its 10,000th defeat? That team is gone.
Go to New York this month and you are met by the opposite mood. Before Game 6 of the ALCS against the Angels, a Page 1 tabloid headline on the Yankees blared, "We Ain't Chokin'."
Who said you were? Then I realized that the Yankees, not the Phillies, are now the team that is surrounded by folks who doubt them, stand ready to judge them and go into panic mode if they see that Mark Teixeira's postseason batting average is less than .200. Argghhh, have we signed another bazillion-dollar gag artist?
Some mock the New York tabs. Not me. They've had the city's baseball pulse right for decades. How would they present this Series? With traditional Yankee confidence? Or some desperate show of overcompensation? We have our answer. There were insults for "Silly-delphia" and a fake photo of the Phillies' Shane Victorino in a cheerleader's skirt: "The Frillies are coming!"
All good dumb fun. But when the Yankees were still the Yankees, such over-reaching would never have been needed.
How worried are the Yankees that their "aura and mystique" have been permanently impaired since they blew Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, then pulled the biggest postseason choke in history against Boston in 2004? You can put an exact price on their concern: $423 million.
That's how much Hank and Hal Steinbrenner were willing to spend on free agents so their team could open its new ballpark with a world title season. It wasn't a baseball decision. It was a business decision, a dead-earnest defense of the most valuable brand in the sport. You can't sell $2,000 tickets or market trinkets if "Yankees" is synonymous with losing the last game every year.
Victory celebrations tell a lot. For decades, the Yanks were restrained until they clinched the World Series. Other teams mobbed the mound wildly for lesser events, but not the Bombers. Now, that's been reversed, too. Last week, the Phillies celebrated carefully; they remember that Brad Lidge's relief miseries this season began when he hurt his knee in their post-Series mob scene last year. On Sunday night in the Bronx, the Yankees were going so bonkers everywhere. Near the mound, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada were hugging. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Teixeira, as if choreographed, leaped into a three-way clinch in the infield. Look back: Rivera and Posada, still hugging? Long after the game, the Yankees were back on the field spraying champagne on fans.