The Yankees, inevitably

The New Yorkers sweep their second straight World Series. They may be one of history's best teams, but their charm is starting to fade.

Published October 28, 1999 7:15PM (EDT)

A four-game sweep is to a great World Series about what masturbation is to
great sex. That's no knock on auto-gratification, of course. But anyone
wanting the best for baseball this October has to feel kind of cranky and
disappointed at how the New York Yankees seemed mostly to be playing with
themselves during their four-game -- excuse me while I yawwwwn -- sweep of
the Atlanta Braves, capped off by Wednesday night's 4-1 win at Yankee
Stadium. These Yankees of Jeter and Brosius and Hernandez and Rivera and
Williams and O'Neill have swept two Series in a row, and might have to be
included on any good short list of the best ever to play the game.

Blank-faced closer Mariano Rivera finished off the Braves, just as
he finished off the San Diego Padres in Game 4 a year ago, though using him
was a little like driving the Lamborghini down the block to the video rental
shop: unnecessary, but very, very cool. Rivera proceeded to mesmerize and
overpower the Braves and make a statement that he's the No. 1 closer in
baseball, and any team that would try to pry the World Series out of the
Yankees' grip will have to shoot him or something. He was named Series Most
Valuable Player.

"The ball comes out of his hand like a chain saw, busting wood
everywhere," said Braves slugger Chipper Jones.

A lot of people rooted for the Yankees a year ago because of manager Joe
Torre, the man everyone would want to manage their own sons, and such a
likable, close-knit group of players. Some of that appeal evaporated when the
Yankees added Roger Clemens to the team during the offseason, almost just because
they could. Clemens has won the Cy Young Award enough times to almost lose count
(five, more than anyone), and he even made it onto that all-century team
honored over the weekend in Atlanta. But he had never won a World Series
ring, and as he took to the mound in Game 4 he was coming off a humiliating loss to the Boston Red Sox, his old team, during the
American League Championship Series. He was not the ace of the staff, not
even close, but he was lucky enough to get a chance to close out the Braves, and
his step and fastball both had more noticeable hop to them.

"You could probably see the foam coming out of his mouth," said Braves
starter John Smoltz. "Everyone wants to be in that spot."

"I heard people talk about how I could be rattled and things like that,"
Clemens said. "I don't get rattled. Maybe earlier in my career. I pitched a
big game tonight and put pressure on myself to rise to the occasion."

The Braves were here without Andres Galarraga, who missed the entire season with a cancerous tumor in his back, and Javier Lopez, who's
injured, and there was no question of them being on par with this Yankees
team. Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News wondered in print earlier this
week, "What is the sound of one team playing baseball?" and again Wednesday
night it felt most of the time as if the Braves weren't even here, so easy
was it for the Yankees to be the Yankees.

"You can't say we should have won this Series," Smoltz said. "You can't
feel like you were the better team."

Chuck Knoblauch opened the bottom of the third with a grounder to short
that sure-handed Walt Weiss somehow let get under his glove. An error, of
course, though it wasn't scored that way. Derek Jeter came up next,
practically flaring his nostrils at the strong smell in the air of imminent
Yankee feasting, and dropped his wrists on an outside pitch for an
opposite-field single that was so textbook, they're going to have to put out
a new textbook.

Later in the inning, Tino Martinez hit a sharp grounder to the right side
with the bases loaded. First baseman Ryan Klesko got eaten up and the ball rolled into the
outfield, giving the Yanks a 2-0 lead. Another error, of course, but not in
the official scorer's world. Soon Jorge Posada was ripping a single to right
to make it a three-run inning, the celebration was on and the Braves felt
about as relevant to the proceedings on the field as Spike Lee. The Braves
did score a run later, helped by a bad call at first and a seeing-eye single,
but that just encouraged the ever-tasteful Yankees to turn up the heat.

"I'm just glad it's over," said Braves closer John Rocker, the man with
the rare knack for firing up the New York fans, adding with a cocky grin: "If
I played here, they'd love me."

Before the game, he taunted some fans during batting practice. "I'm a
25-year-old millionaire and you're a bunch of degenerates."

The Yankees fans' reaction? A chant of "Where's your ring? Where's your
ring? Where's your ring?"

But Rocker still had his admirers. Actor Danny Aiello, the star of
"Moonstruck" and "Do the Right Thing" and a lifelong Yankees fan, went over
to the Braves clubhouse afterward. He leaned over Rocker, who was poking at
his plate of Spanish rice and strip steak, rather than doing much eating, and
said: "Hi, I'm Danny Aiello and I'm a big fan" as Rocker nodded and smiled
and then got back to poking at his food.

"How can you not be a fan?" said Aiello.

There are a lot of reasons why America has trouble taking pleasure in
still more dominance from the Yankees, but Saul Steinberg probably explained
it best. His famous New Yorker's-view-of-the-U.S. map had fun with the idea
that people in New York think of anything and everything they do as much more
important than what goes on elsewhere. Success in sports just gives them
another reason to think this way, which is why you have to root against them.
There is something sublime, for example, about the sound of a Yankee Stadium
crowd packed tight for a World Series game and making no sound at all, the
way it did through much of Tuesday night's pivotal Game 3.

But one thing you notice when you travel from city to city covering
baseball for a living, visiting places like Kansas City and Anaheim, is that
sports would be a lot more fun if people in the rest of the country were more like New
Yorkers in their approach to games. The New York fans are quick to turn on
players, which can be ugly, and they often cross the line, like when they throw
something as dangerous as a battery at a visiting player. But they care. And
they pay attention.

They were chanting, "Tino, Tino" Wednesday night before
the Braves had gotten halfway through an intentional walk to Bernie Williams,
bringing up Martinez, whereas fans at just about any other major league park
would probably have been gearing up for dot-racing or something.

Once you strip away all the bluster and boast, New York sports fans are
basically innocent. They hurt when their teams hurt and thrill when their
teams thrill. Roger Angell, that greatest of baseball writers, described the
crazy excess of Mets fans in this week's New Yorker in much the same terms.

"This is pitiful, but one really should be sorry for everyone else, all
the rest of us, who can't think of anything to care about on anything like
this scale, and might not have the nerve to hang in there, against such odds,
even if we did," he wrote. "Thanks, Mets. Let's go, Yankees."

It might not be enough to turn anyone into a Yankees fan, but it does
offer a good reminder that all of sports is just a question of perspective.
It's always easy to roll downhill toward the dismissive. Disgruntlement comes
easy. But sometimes it's worth putting in the effort to harvest a deeper
appreciation, if possible.

This for a time threatened to be remembered as the Jim Gray World
Series, like the Earthquake Series a decade ago in the San Francisco Bay
Area. Gray and his tête-à-tête with Pete Rose were the story of Game 2, and
Gray and his on-air snub by Chad Curtis were part of the story of Game 3, won
by Curtis with two homers. But all of that stuff has a way of dropping out of
the picture, and there in front of the victorious Yankees clubhouse was Game 1
winner Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, who doesn't speak much English, telling
Gray, "I'm sorry."

It was quite a moment, since Hernandez was the highlight of the Series,
if not the MVP. (If there had been a Game 5, and he'd had another start, he
would have been.) His effort striking out the side in the bottom of the first
inning Saturday night in Game 1 was jaw-droppingly beautiful. There is poetry
in what Hernandez does out there, and once again the people behind the "Only
in New York" TV commercials nailed it. They have a spot this year showing a
hip night spot where everyone is doing the hot new dance, something that
involves making as if to scratch your chin with your uplifted left knee.

Hernandez was so in control, varying his arm angles and release points and
speeds and breaks, you started to wonder just how many World Series this
basic group of Yankees might win, and now that it's all over, it's time to
wonder some more.

By Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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