In triumph, tragedy, a point of pride

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- They were crying now, the manager who recovered from prostate cancer, the third baseman who lost his father two months ago, the right fielder who lost his only yesterday.

The fans were singing, first, "We Are the Champions," then, "New York, New York." The All-Century pitcher was hugging his children, then leaving the field to roars, the newest prince of the city.

History, destiny, tragedy, they all blended into one emotional tapestry last night, one glorious collage of baseball excellence. The New York Yankees are not just the Team of the '90s or the Team of the Century. They're a Team for the Ages, a model for every other sports franchise in this age of selfishness and greed.

In the city that never sleeps, they are the team that never rests, world champions for the third time in four seasons, and still looking for more. The Yankees could never match last year's 125-victory extravaganza, but they were even better in this postseason than the last, losing only one game.

Their final triumph came last night, a 4-1 victory over Atlanta marked by Roger Clemens' first World Series triumph and Mariano Rivera's last spectacular stand of 1999. The outcome was never seriously in question. This was a night for celebration, and for emotional release.

The Yankees beat three former Cy Young winners and perhaps a future one in this Series. The Braves managed just six hits in 21 innings against three of the Yankees' starters. The New York Mets would have put up a better fight.

But this isn't about the Braves, four-time World Series losers in the '90s. This is about a team that makes every opponent look bad, every opposing manager look foolish and every opposing star look confused.

Yes, even on a night when they were confronted with another loss in their extended family -- the death of Paul O'Neill's father, Charles, at 79 -- the Yankees continued their inexorable march through history.

Their 12th straight Series victory tied a record set by the 1927, '28 and '32 Yankees. And their back-to-back Series sweeps were a feat last accomplished 60 years ago by -- who else? -- the 1938 and '39 Yankees.

It's downright eerie the way the Yankees perform amid tragedy, but it's a tribute to their manager, their professionalism, their solidarity, their utter resilience.

"This club is so special," manager Joe Torre said. "I can't put it into words."

The Yankees won in '96 after Torre's brother, Frank, underwent a successful heart transplant on the eve of the Series clincher. They won in '98 with Darryl Strawberry battling colon cancer. And they won in '99 with three players -- Scott Brosius, Luis Sojo and O'Neill -- mourning the losses of their fathers.

But that's not all.

Andy Pettitte's father continues to struggle with a variety of health problems. Chuck Knoblauch's father is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. And lest we forget, this season also marked the passings of former Yankees greats Joe DiMaggio and Catfish Hunter.

"We played with some heavy hearts," Clemens said. "I don't know if I could have done what Paul O'Neill did."

Then there was Sojo, who missed the first two games of the Series to attend his father's funeral in Venezuela.

He made his first Series appearance last night, replacing Knoblauch at second. Before taking the field, he scrawled his father's initials on his left wristband. His father had predicted the Yankees would sweep the Braves in the Series.

"I kept looking at it every out, every pitch," Sojo said. "I kept saying, 'This is for you. This is for you. You predicted this.' "

The crowd, of course, was not nearly as somber. All night, Yankee Stadium was festive, electric, crackling with anticipation. Fans exited the subway with brooms. Hundreds of flashes lit up the sky when Whitey Ford threw out the first pitch to Yogi Berra, with the current Yankees applauding from the top of the dugout steps.

"Yankee Pride" is a concept that many fans find intolerable, especially in rival American League cities like Baltimore. But the tradition is real, and never more palpable than on crisp October nights when the Yankees are putting the finishes touches on another world championship.

The Yankees expected to win last night. Their fans expected them to win. And maybe the Braves expected them to win, too.

Looking back, the 1997 Orioles were one of the few teams to stand up to these Yankees, winning eight of 12 meetings and the AL East title by two games. That was the season in which Rivera replaced John Wetteland as the closer, and the only one of the last four in which the Yankees failed to win the Series.

Since then, they're 22-3 in the postseason. Rivera has emerged as the game's best closer, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez the best postseason pitcher and Jeter one of the best players. And still, this team remains greater than the sum of its parts.

Sure, the Yankees spend more than almost every team. But the Orioles are proof that spending is no guarantee of success. And the single-minded professionalism that began under former manager Buck Showalter in the early '90s has become the hallmark of these championship teams.

Under Torre, the clubhouse has absorbed personalities as diverse as David Wells, Darryl Strawberry and Clemens. It took all season, but there was Clemens last night, saying, "Now I know what it feels like to be a Yankee."

Clemens allowed one run in 7 2/3 innings, conquering his October demons. The Yankees scored three times off John Smoltz in the third, Jim Leyritz added a trademark, pinch-hit Series homer in the eighth, and the celebration was on.

It was not your typical celebration, not on such a night of conflicting emotions. But it was a Yankees celebration, complete with Torre kissing players on the cheek. It was a Yankees celebration, tears of sorrow, tears of joy.

Back-to-back

Teams that have won World Series in consecutive years:

Years ....................Team

1907-08 ................Chicago Cubs

1910-11 ................Philadelphia Athletics

1915-16 ................Boston Red Sox

1921-22 ................New York Giants

1927-28 ................New York Yankees

1929-30 ................Philadelphia Athletics

1936-39 ................New York Yankees

1949-53 ................New York Yankees

1961-62 ................New York Yankees

1972-74 ................Oakland Athletics

1975-76 ................Cincinnati Reds

1977-78 ................New York Yankees

1992-93 ................Toronto Blue Jays

1998-99 ................New York Yankees

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