The New York Yankees returned home early this morning and took a day off before returning to work in preparation for Game 1 of the World Series on Saturday night. During a low-key clubhouse celebration after Monday night's 6-1, American League Championship Series-clinching victory over the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees were asked again and again if they'd like a Subway Series against the New York Mets.
"The best part about it is I don't have to pull for anybody to win now," Manager Joe Torre said. "I've been pulling for our club to win all year. It's nice to take a day or two off. Whatever way it goes, it goes. I tell you, what the Mets have done over the last couple of weeks has enabled them to just walk with pride. There's no question, whatever happens from here on out."
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was somewhat less diplomatic. At times, he appears to have trouble even saying the word "Mets," so when asked if he had a preference for a World Series opponent, he smiled a tight smile.
"Bring 'em on," he said.
Will it matter? While a Subway Series might mean higher television ratings and ignite interest in the Big Apple, the Atlanta Braves would serve as a more appropriate opponent for baseball's team of the century.
For much of the past decade, the Braves and Yankees have been the sport's best organizations. They have the best management teams and the best field managers. They have the great starting pitching and lineups sprinkled with superstars -- well, Atlanta's Chipper Jones is a star; the Yankees have Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill at the head of an impressive chorus line.
Regardless of who wins the National League title, the Yankees will be favored to win their third World Series championship in four years and their 25th of the century. For a second straight October, the Yankees are sailing through the playoffs, sweeping the Texas Rangers and needing five games to send Boston packing in the best-of-seven ALCS.
Overall, they've won 18 of their past 21, and when the Braves or Mets study their scouting reports, they're going to find:
Great starting pitching. Orlando Hernandez, David Cone and Andy Pettitte are 5-0 with a 1.61 earned run average in the postseason. None of them has gone less than seven innings in an outing.
Reliever Mariano Rivera hasn't allowed a run since July 21.
The Yankees aren't crushing the ball. They hit just .239 against the Red Sox, but when they need hits, they're getting them. Williams hit a game-winning home run in Game 1. O'Neill and Chuck Knoblauch got key hits in Game 2. Jeter and Jorge Posada won Game 5 with home runs.
"They're a very veteran ballclub," Boston Manager Jimy Williams said. "They've been through the war, so to speak. They've won championships. Most of that club is the same as it was before. They not only have very good pitching, they have outstanding closers."
In short, they are a team that knows how to win. Unlike a season ago, when they were overwhelmingly better than every other team, the Yankees win now because they have great pitching and they do almost everything right.
They're also a team that puts winning first. Torre has been unafraid to make tough decisions. He dropped Roger Clemens in the pitching rotation. He informed Knoblauch, who had a career-high 26 errors during the regular season, that he may be removed from close games in favor of Luis Sojo. And in the playoffs, he has made Joe Girardi his number one catcher instead of Posada, the talented young catcher of the future.
On some teams, such moves would be met with grumbles. But on the Yankees, players appear to focus on nothing except the bottom line, which is winning.
"We've worked a long time for this, these are the moments you always cherish," Girardi said. "Especially because things haven't always been easy for us this year."
The Yankees survived despite a series of jolts. They traded David Wells and two other players for Clemens during spring training. Torre left the team for two months to undergo surgery for prostate cancer. Darryl Strawberry, while recovering from cancer surgery, was arrested and charged with cocaine possession and soliciting a prostitute.
At various times, there have been the usual problems. Pettitte started poorly and was almost traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Clemens had, for him, a disappointing season. Cone's arm is so fragile that he may not even be offered a contract for 2000.
Still, the Yankees are playing for another championship.
"To go back the year after that special year we had, with everything we've had to deal with, this is just a special, special group," Torre said. "I'm very proud to be associated with this team. They deserve to celebrate."
If they win again, they'll be baseball's first back-to-back winners since the Blue Jays did it in 1992 and 1993.
"It's so much tougher to repeat, especially the way the postseason is set up," Torre said. "We've been measured against ourselves all year. I warned the club in spring training we cannot compete against ourselves because that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing."