NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees have been the dominant major-league team of the 20th century, so why should the final decade be any different?
They are the glowing pinstripe that runs through baseball history, and they have re-established professional sports' greatest dynasty just in time to enter a new millennium.
Start spreading the news. The Yankees defeated the Atlanta Braves, 4-1, last night at Yankee Stadium to complete a stunning four-game sweep and win the storied franchise's 25th world championship.
The sellout crowd of 56,752 watched future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens shut down the Braves on four hits over 7 2/3 innings to secure the World Series ring that had eluded him for so long. Closer Mariano Rivera came on when things got a little tense in the eighth and got the final four outs to register his eighth consecutive scoreless appearance in the postseason.
Rivera was named World Series Most Valuable Player after recording a victory and two saves, but he refused to take any more credit than anyone else on the Yankees' roster.
"We were all MVP," he said jubilantly. "The whole thing. The manager, the coaches and the 25 guys on the field."
True enough, it was a total team effort. First baseman Tino Martinez and catcher Jorge Posada provided all the offensive production that was necessary with a couple of run-scoring hits in a three-run third inning, and 1996 Series hero Jim Leyritz chimed in with a pinch home run in the eighth just to loosen up the tight game.
"We've got 25 guys who go out there every night and find a way to win," said shortstop Derek Jeter, who tied Hank Bauer's major-league record by hitting safely in his 17th consecutive postseason game. "To me, we're the perfect definition of a team. It seems like every night there is a different hero."
There was never any serious doubt last night, just a hint of suspense in the eighth inning, when Clemens got spiked on a play at first base and gave up a couple of two-out hits to bring the tying run to the plate. Reliever Jeff Nelson came on and gave up a run-scoring single to end the shutout bid, but Rivera hasn't given up a run in his last 36 appearances. It was a slam dunk.
Over the course of the Yankees' incredible 11-1 postseason, Rivera was 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA and six saves. The Yankees' pitching staff had a combined 2.19 ERA in the Series.
"I couldn't be prouder of this team," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "They play nine innings of every game. It's so special I can't put it into words."
Talk about champagne and sympathy. The Yankees christened themselves the undisputed "team of the decade" in the traditional shower of bubbly and beer, enjoying the fermented fruits of their second World Series sweep in a row. The Braves will forever be remembered as the other team of the '90s -- the club that dominated divisional play throughout the decade only to be denied in all but one of its five appearances in the Fall Classic.
It almost doesn't seem fair. The Braves reached the playoffs eight consecutive times, excluding the postseason cancellation of 1994. The Yankees packed their postseason prowess into a shorter time period, but never came back from the World Series empty-handed.
Last night's clincher was their 12th consecutive victory in World Series competition, tying the major-league record set by the "Murderers' Row" Yankees of the late '20s and early '30s. Their 22-3 record in postseason play the past two seasons is testament to their amazing ability to peak at just the right time.
Think about it. That's an .880 winning percentage against the best competition that Major League Baseball has to offer. The Yankees 11-1 record this October was even better than last year, when the club set an American League record with 114 regular-season victories and was recognized as one of the greatest teams of all time.
"Going into the year, I didn't feel the expectations were fair," Jeter said. "We won 125 games last year and nobody may ever win 125 games again, but we came back and won again."
Once again, this postseason was thick with poignant pinstriped subplots. Utility infielder Luis Sojo lost his father just before the start of the World Series, forcing manager Joe Torre to leave his place on the roster open until Sojo could return for Game 3. And early yesterday morning, right fielder Paul O'Neill learned that his father had died after a lengthy illness.
The whole season was an emotional challenge, beginning with the shocking news last spring that Torre had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. The Yankees also mourned the death of legendary outfielder Joe DiMaggio and pitcher Catfish Hunter, and the roster took a hit when Darryl Strawberry was suspended for much of the year after a drug and solicitation arrest.
"This is a team that has overcome so much this year," owner George Steinbrenner said during the trophy ceremony. "Joe went through what he went through. Straw went through what he went through and three guys lost their fathers. This is a mentally tough team, just like New York is a mentally tough town."
Of course, the two previous world title teams faced similar postseason trauma. Torre's older brother, Frank, underwent a heart transplant during the 1996 World Series, and the Yankees learned during the '98 Division Series that Strawberry was suffering from colon cancer.
Clemens had his own story line. He had won five Cy Young Awards and established himself as one of the greatest pitchers of all time, but until last night, he had never known the joy of winning it all. He had come oh-so-close in 1986, before the storied Boston Red Sox collapse against the New York Mets, but had to jump from the Red Sox to the Toronto Blue Jays and finally to the Yankees at the start of spring training this year to get in position for his title-clinching performance last night.
"I feel very blessed to be on this team," Clemens said. "We have some heavy hearts on this team. I don't know if I could have done what Paul O'Neill did tonight, or Luis Sojo. There have been some heavy hearts, but it's just been wonderful to play with these guys. I think I know what it feels like to be a Yankee now."
It took him just a few innings to wipe away the indignity of his early-game blow-up against the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series, dominating the struggling Braves into the eighth on the way to his second overpowering performance of the postseason.
"I just thought it was the perfect way to end the World Series, the man coming over here because he wanted a World Series ring," Torre said. "And we traded for him because we thought he was a good fit for our club. I couldn't see it not happening today with the way his career has gone, and it just seemed like a perfect setup for us."
Braves starter John Smoltz is better known for his postseason heroics, but he blinked first and gave up three runs in the third inning. Martinez put the Yankees up by two runs with a bases-loaded single that skipped past Braves first baseman Ryan Klesko and Posada drove in the third run with a sharp single to right.
Smoltz settled down to turn in another solid postseason performance, but three runs were too much with Clemens on a roll and the Yankees' defense on a mission.
Jeter and third baseman Scott Brosius made flashy defensive plays in the sixth inning, as if to illustrate that the Yankees can play on a world championship level in every aspect of the sport.
They'll get no argument from the Braves.
"You know, to win three, that's hard," said Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. "They could have been knocked out in the first round like anybody else. It's so hard to go all the way every year. It's amazing to me. Even with a great ballclub, things can go wrong and breaks could go against you I think it ranks way up there."
Atlanta vs. New York Yankees Yankees win series, 4-0
Last night--N.Y. 4, Atl. 1
Game 1--New York, 4-1
Game 2--New York, 7-2
Game 3--N.Y., 6-5, 10 inn.