No choke: This time it's the Yankees with something to prove

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

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.

What happened to "act like you've been there before."

But that's the point: A majority of the Phillies have won a world title in their current uniform; just four Yankees have. And those famous four Yanks were also part of many of the '01-'08 flops.

Of course, 200 years of history between New York and second-city Philly might not be easy to erase. Sure, '08 was an anomaly with the Phillies winning it all (for the second time since 1883) while the Yanks missed the playoffs for the first time since '95. But blue blood against blue collar doesn't usually work out too well for the underdog. And that's definitely what the Phillies still are.

Both teams have enormous power, but the Yankees hit and walk better: Edge to New York, if Teixeira wakes up at all.

In the regular season, the Yankees had a vastly better and deeper bullpen. That's changed a bit. In the postseason, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain have looked nervous, and as a result, Manager Joe Girardi has worked Mariano Rivera often and hard. So far, he has held up. By contrast, Phillies starters J.A. Happ and Joe Blanton look comfortable in occasional middle inning relief. And, at least so far, Lidge (48 for 48 in saves last year but the worst closer in baseball in the regular season) has come up with a cutter that's helped him save three postseason games. Still, in the World Series that may be equal parts pitching duels (CC Sabathia vs. Cliff Lee) and slugfests, you would certainly prefer the Yankees' bullpen.

There's one dead giveaway that Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel believes something special is needed, something to remind the Yankees of their recent postseason disasters. He's starting Pedro Martínez in Game 2. Yes, the same Pedro who knocked down old New York coach Don Zimmer in a Red Sox-Yankees brawl. That means Martínez could be back again in a Game 6, also at Yankee Stadium.

In June, Martínez, 37, couldn't even find a team to sign him. Yet as a Phillie, he's 5-1 with a 3.15 ERA, including seven shutout innings in the Division Series. Manuel watched film of Martinez with the Red Sox battling the Yanks; he was only throwing 87 to 91 mph.

"He was throwing harder than that last week," Manuel said. "His command is absolutely outstanding. He's a pitcher."

This World Series will start in an atmosphere that longtime baseball lovers could hardly imagine. The Phillies arrive in New York with rings on their fingers and generous comments about the beauty of the new big ballpark and their respect for the long tradition of the Bronx Bombers.

"It's where you dream of playing as a kid," Jayson Werth said. "It's Yankee Stadium."

The Phillies can afford to be gracious. After all, they are the world champions.

The Yankees? They are just another expensive New York team in pinstripes with tons of baggage and plenty to prove.

Take a good long look. It's never happened before. Who knows if we'll ever see it again?

© 2009 The Washington Post Company