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A Decade Ahead of the Rest

Thomas Boswell
By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, October 28, 1999; Page D1

NEW YORK – Baseball time stretches over so many decades and generations, from Ty Cobb through Ted Williams and Willie Mays to our own day, that often our ability to weigh the game over large spans almost becomes numb. We know we can only truly judge matters within eras, not across them. But, in the presence of certain enormous feats, that simply isn't enough.

For example, on Wednesday night, the New York Yankees swept the World Series for the second consecutive year. To do it, they beat an Atlanta team that has won five pennants in the 1990s and must, by any standard, be called historic.

Only one other team, the 1938-39 Yankees of Joe DiMaggio, has had two perfect World Series in a row. But they beat long-forgotten Cubs and Reds teams. Ladies and gentlemen, the Yanks just disassembled a 103-win team with one of the best rotations ever: three Cy Young award winners and an 18-game winner.

"For me, this is a better team [than '98], because we had to validate what we did last year," said Yankees Manager Joe Torre.

The Yankees won this final Game 4 in typical fashion – with fundamentals, not flash, with teamwork, not thunder, with inside baseball and camaraderie, not superstars. Paul O'Neill epitomized their gritty old-school ethic. His father died in the morning. He played right field at night. "I don't know if I could have done that," said winning pitcher Roger Clemens.

The rally that decided the game was perfect for the underwhelming Yanks – the great team that nicks you to bits. On a night when the Braves' John Smoltz had almost overpowering stuff, the Yankees needed only three innings to peck and probe for a three-run rally that decided this 4-1 game.

An infield hit. A sliced opposite-field hit. A walk. A two-run single off an infielder's glove. A clutch two-out grounder through the hole. Other teams score a dozen runs off lousy pitchers and prance the bases after 450-foot homers. The Yankees take charge of the game early with three runs in a Series game off Smoltz at his best. And never hit a ball 200 feet in the air.

The most chilling aspect of this Series was the way the Yankees won with a sense of indomitable inevitability that is normally alien to baseball. Over the years, certain pro basketball and football teams have given the impression that they could name the score. But in baseball, that isn't supposed to be possible. Yet, October night after October night, the Yankees win easy or the Yankees win hard. But the Yankees win.

Twice in this Series, the Yankees' victories have been sudden and almost dismissive – in Game 2 and again Wednesday night. And, twice, the Yankees have given the Braves every reasonable hope of victory and then, in the late innings, broken their hearts with a methodical relentlessness that has left Atlanta psychologically unprepared to rebut in the next game just one night later.

For the second straight October, the Yanks' postseason record was incredible: 11-2 in '98 and 11-1 this year. All season, they played .600-plus ball. But, when it really matters, against tougher and more concentrated opposition than they'd play at any other time, the Yanks suddenly play over .900. And they do it two years in a row. We can't just say, "That's interesting." It's on the edges of athletic impossibility.

It can be argued that if Bobby Cox had managed differently, this Series would be tied at two games each and we could all talk about the Yankees without hyperventilating. If Cox had taken Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine out after seven innings or even after they'd given up leadoff hits in the eighth, the Braves probably would have won Games 1 and 3.

However, it's unfair to nag at the Yanks with ifs and maybes. Cox's perennial World Series gaffes are a basic Braves weakness. The Yankees seem to be able to capitalize in more ways, and more often, than any team.

There has been universal caution toward putting these Yanks on too high a shelf, even in New York, where partisans usually leave restraint to others. From Manager Joe Torre on down, great reserve was shown toward comparisons with Yankees teams that included Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle. The plaques in Death Valley might not approve.

We're cheating ourselves, however, if we short-change what is happening before our eyes. No, the Yankees do not have a single great slugger – even in this age of sluggers. No, even Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter would probably not be the best players at their positions in the entire game. Except for closer Mariano Rivera, the Series MVP, perhaps no Yankee would. And the Yankees don't even have a 20-game winner or 250-strikeout monster.

They are simply an interlocking perfectly balanced team. One that sticks together through tough times, like Torre's prostate cancer this spring or O'Neill's sorrow now. How good a team are they? Let's frame the question this way: Since World War I, how many teams, besides the Yankees themselves, have ever won three World Series in four years or less?

Only the 1972, 1973, 1974 Oakland A's. That's it.

So, when we call this Yankees club the Team of The Decade, we still may not be giving them their due. Look at them as they were in this fourth and final game. Give them their full stature. Chuck Knoblauch and Derek Jeter start it off – a superior double-play combination and as good a one-two punch to top a lineup as this era has seen. Polish up that mental image of tough O'Neill, probably smashing something in the dugout after making an out. Add Bernie Williams, the sweet switch hitter, and Tino Martinez, with an uppercut hack made to order for Babe Ruth's porch. Don't they always find a way to bring the crucial run home?

Then, turn the mind's eye into the Yankees' dugout. Has any modern team ever had a brain trust as sharp, as calm and as trusted by its players as Torre, Don Zimmer and Mel Stottlemyre? In an age when current players barely seem to tolerate those from whom they nominally take orders, these three men are both respected and deeply liked. Torre's tears, as he hugged one player after another, was the lasting image of the Yankees' victory celebration.

Finally, however, these Yankees are defined by the oddest characteristic. They are consistently indefinable. They should be good, even great. But add them up however we will, they never come out quite this great.

Yet they are. Back-to-back sweeps say it. Those 11-2 and 11-1 postseasons say it. The degree to which solid, first-rate teams – such as the Rangers, Red Sox and Braves – simply give up hope, says it. So, we must say it, too.

How good are these Yankees? Here's how good. For Opening Day next season, every right-thinking fan will have to relearn a slogan that rang throughout baseball for decades and which is now fully warranted again. It is the ultimate baseball compliment: "Break Up The Yankees."

Because you sure can't beat 'em.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
 

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