The 1999 World Series has no secrets. The New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves have been on the national stage for so much of the last decade, won so many games and celebrated so many big moments that it seems appropriate that they meet one another in the final World Series of the 20th century.
The Braves will be playing in their fifth World Series in nine years. They haven't missed the playoffs since 1990 and have established themselves as baseball's model organization by almost any measure.
But because they've won just one World Series in that time, the Braves have been asked again and again this week if they need to win another to validate all their other success.
"I don't think we have to win to validate anything for anybody," pitcher Tom Glavine said, adding such talk was important "to people outside our clubhouse."
On the eve of Saturday night's Game 1, Manager Bobby Cox called a team meeting to discuss such issues. He reminded his players of the things they talked about eight months ago when they began this journey. That day in Florida, Cox told his players about the excitement of being in a pennant race and how his new players would learn to love the day-to-day adrenaline rush. He talked to them about Atlanta's Second Season--about winning in the playoffs and getting to the World Series. And today, having survived a season in which they were decimated by injuries and pushed to the limit by the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series, Cox reminded them that there was still a final chapter to be written.
"We've got one more to go," Cox said.
Few teams could begin spring training so certain of what the next few months would hold. Few teams understand so much about winning and chemistry and character and all the other good things that champions have.
The Yankees understand. They're four victories from their third World Series trophy in four seasons, and at a time when the end of the century is being celebrated in all sorts of ways, this World Series is being billed as one that will decide the team of the '90s.
Both teams generally dismissed such talk today, saying one World Series was important enough on its own.
"I couldn't tell you who the team of the '80s was or who the team of the '70s was," said Glavine, who will face New York's Orlando Hernandez in Game 1. "My feeling on all that is this team of the decade stuff is nice to talk about. It adds a nice flavor. But as players, you put on your uniform every year and go into the spring training and hope you're in a position to win a World Series. We're trying to be the world champions this year. That's what we set out to do in February."
The Yankees could have said exactly the same thing. Owner George Steinbrenner sets the bar at the same place each season and can be unforgiving when his team disappoints him. Last week, moments after the Yankees suffered their only defeat in eight postseason games, a telephone rang during Manager Joe Torre's postgame news conference.
"Is that for me?" Torre asked.
When reporters laughed, Torre said: "You never know."
Such is the life of the manager of the great Yankees.
"You work for George Steinbrenner and just getting to postseason play is not enough, which is fine," Torre said. "He's promised the people of New York a lot more than that. And fortunately, we've been able to deliver for three out of the last four years."
The Yankees are favored to win even though the teams appear to be evenly matched. Both have superb starting pitching, beginning with Glavine and Hernandez (4-0 with a 0.97 ERA in five postseason starts). The Braves may have a slight edge in middle relief, especially because they have three lefties to face New York's left-handed power in the late innings, but the Yankees have baseball's best closer in Mariano Rivera (0.42 career postseason ERA).
The Braves made left-hander John Rocker their closer after Kerry Ligtenberg blew out his elbow in spring training. Rocker is a combustible jumble of emotions that constantly bubble near the surface. He also has a 96-mph fastball, has pitched in eight of Atlanta's 10 postseason games and hasn't allowed a run.
The starting pitching on both sides is so good that Cox has the luxury of putting John Smoltz into the fourth slot in the rotation and using him in relief in Game 1 and a possible Game 7. The Yankees have such a wealth of pitching that five-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens is scheduled to make just one appearance--in Game 4 against Smoltz.
If the starting pitchers dominate, it may not matter that New York's everyday lineup is better. After the Braves lost first baseman Andres Galarraga to cancer and catcher Javy Lopez to a knee injury, they became a different type of team. They're more aggressive, steal more bases and must make a host of little plays. They're so different that they barely resemble the Atlanta team that lost to the Yankees in the 1996 World Series.
Braves leadoff hitter Gerald Williams has been an unexpected surprise and center fielder Andruw Jones is a budding star. But the Braves essentially have one superstar--Chipper Jones--and another very good hitter--Brian Jordan--in the middle of their batting order.
Don't expect Jones to see a pitch in the strike zone in clutch situations.
As for the Yankees, who have won 18 of their last 21 postseason games, they're hitting just .237 in the postseason and lost two of three to the Braves in a regular season series. But they have a first-rate leadoff hitter in Chuck Knoblauch and four 100-RBI hitters in the middle of their lineup--Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez--for the first time since 1939.
"The Yankees have a great ballclub--probably a little better than ours," Chipper Jones said. "We're going to have to play four perfect games to beat them."
CAPTION: Braves starting pitcher Tom Glavine will be in charge of gumming up Yankees offense in Game 1. He will face off with New York's Orlando Hernandez.