Appreciate These Yanks Before They’re Gone

Legend has it that when Alexander the Great finally concluded his conquests and gazed upon his empire, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer. And so it seems to be with the New York Yankees.

For eight decades now, New York has dominated baseball. This team has been so good, so frustratingly superior, that it once inspired a play where a Washington Senators fan sells his soul to Satan, knowing it is the only way his team can beat New York to win the pennant.

Yankee history is so storied that its past heroes?Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle?are not actually people, but rather myths, legends, ghosts that haunt the annals of baseball and cast an eternal shadow over all those who come after.

It is said that one print journalist, who covered the Yankees in the 1920s, simply quit writing about Babe Ruth because he knew that anyone who hadn’t actually seen Ruth play simply didn’t believe he was real. No one could be that good.

To Bob Costas, renowned sportscaster for NBC who will surely enter the Hall of Fame himself, Yankee history is so grand that he carries a Mickey Mantle baseball card in his wallet.

And Joe DiMaggio was far more than a baseball player in his time. He was a cultural icon, remembered always with Marilyn Monroe and living forever in the sadness of Simon and Garfunkel’s plea for the return of Joltin’ Joe.

Given the weight of New York’s baseball history, how does today’s team stack up with the greatest Yankee dynasties of seasons past?

Unquestionably, Joe Torre’s ballclub deserves a prime seat at the banquet hall of baseball immortality.

Stepping outside the current sympathy of a nation grieving for New York, and beyond the accompanying emotional charge, this Yankee team is certainly as hated as those of long ago. The team is hated because no one can beat it. Despise the Yankees then, if you must, but also keep a corner of your heart and mind open to cherish what you are seeing played out on the world’s greatest diamond. For this team will soon be gone, and there will never be another one like it.

Contrary to the sour-grapes assertions of those who have fallen before the Yankees over the past six years, New York did not build this reign by purchasing everyone else’s talent. New York dominates because its organization is the strongest, because it makes smart personnel choices in order to nourish a thriving farm system.

The Yankees’ most consistent ace since their first mid-’90s championship is Andy Pettitte. The Yankees took Pettitte in the 22nd round of the 1990 draft, eventually signing him after a stint of junior college ball.

Much of New York’s core, including Mariano Rivera, Ramiro Mendoza, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, was brought up through the system?Yankees since day one.

Instead of receiving criticism, New York should be praised for not giving up on players like Williams. The Yankees stuck with him for years, believing he would eventually come into his own as a great ballplayer.

And how about Jeter? The story goes that in 1992, debating who to take with their first-round selection, one Yankee scout said, “How about Jeter?”

“Isn’t he going to the University of Michigan?” said the other.

“No,” said the first, “he’s going to Cooperstown.”

And that was it. The Yankees took a leap of faith, putting their hope in the young shortstop who now has more postseason hits than any player in history.

Perhaps New York’s biggest gamble was investing in a pitcher many had heard of but few had ever seen.

As Livan Hernandez pitched the Florida Marlins to the 1997 World Championship, rumors circulated that Hernandez had a brother called “El Duque” still living in Cuba, and he was supposedly even better than Livan. Who knew if the guy really even existed? And who knew if he could really pitch? But the following season, the Yankees had a roster spot for a mysterious refugee with an arsenal of wicked pitches and a high leg-kick.

Indeed, Orlando Hernandez followed in his brother’s footsteps, risking his life by sailing to Florida on a fishing raft. Hernandez signed with the Yankees and has since become New York’s most clutch postseason starter.

A strong farm system gives the Yankees enough options to keep the young players they want, trading other talented prospects for proven commodities. That’s how Tino Martinez was acquired. In fact, every Yankee not drafted or taken as an unwanted free agent was picked up in a trade, with the exception of Mike Mussina. Even Roger Clemens was traded for.

The smartest deal New York ever made was for Paul O’Neill. After the 1992 season, the Yankees gave up Roberto Kelly, at one time thought to be the franchise, for a Cincinnati left hander who had never batted higher than .270. For the next six seasons, O’Neill never hit below .300. More than a strong hitter, O’Neill is the Yankees’ heart and soul, a symbol of the gritty New York work ethic.

Last year, the Yankees won just 87 games and limped into the playoffs. Yet when the smoke cleared, they were once again the only team left standing. Though it is clich in most instances, the Yankees truly have hearts of champions.

This season was no different, as New York had no business beating a Seattle team with 116 wins, nor should it have knocked off an Oakland club that, since July, was even better than the Mariners. But when the curtain goes up every October, New York’s cast of characters consistently rises to the occasion.

Scott Brosius, for instance, has had a mediocre career. Yet, on the biggest stage, the 1998 World Series, Brosius came up big and walked away with MVP honors.

When the weather grows brisk, Mariano Rivera steps into another realm, transforming from human being to demon. Rivera may never break Bobby Thigpen’s record for saves in a season. But he is in a class above Thigpen, because when Torre gives Rivera the ball in October, whether in the eighth or ninth inning, everyone knows the game is over.

Despite Rivera’s dominance and Jeter’s consistent autumn heroics, Roger Clemens in the only Yankee who is a bona fide superstar, and his postseason history is actually very lackluster.

The Yankees don’t have a Pedro Martinez or an Alex Rodriguez. They are truly a club whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And perhaps that is what we will remember most about this Yankee team?the indomitable will and intangible ability to beat teams that are superior on paper.

Whatever you consider the case to be, push aside some of that hatred and reserve at least a little admiration for this Yankee club. Because soon they will be gone, and teams this special don’t come around once in a lifetime. They come around once.

James welcomes feedback at: [email protected].