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Yanks are dandy again; Clemens, N.Y. silence Braves, 4-1, for sweep, 3rd title in 4 years; Back-to-back Series sweeps; 'Mentally tough team'; Atlanta fades again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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 just four hits over 7 2/3 innings to secure the World Series ring that had eluded him through for so long. First baseman Tino Martinez gave him all the offensive support he really needed with a two-run single in the third inning.

There was some suspense in the eighth inning, when Clemens got banged up on a play at first base and gave up a couple of two-out hits to put the game in doubt, but nobody was going to rain on this parade. Reliever Jeff Nelson gave up a run-scoring single to end the shutout bid, but closer Mariano Rivera got the last four outs to complete a near-perfect postseason.

Rivera won a game and saved two others to make a very strong case for the World Series Most Valuable Player Award. Over the course of the Yankees' incredible 11-1 postseason, he was 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA and six saves.

Jim Leyritz struck one final blow for all the unsung heroes of the postseason with a pinch-hit homer in the eighth and the Yankees celebrated their third world title in four years.

"I couldn't be prouder of this team," said 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 team that dominated divisional play throughout the decade only to be denied in all but one of their 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 "Murderer's 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," said shortstop Derek Jeter. "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," said owner George Steinbrenner 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 storyline. 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 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," said Clemens. "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 Clemens 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 lineup into the eighth inning on the way to his second overpowering performance of the postseason. He had blanked the Texas Rangers for seven innings in the Division Series before coming unraveled in a showdown with Pedro Martinez in the second playoff round.

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 catcher Jorge Posada drove in the third run with a sharp single to right.

Smoltz settled down to turn in another representative postseason performance, but three runs were too much with Clemens on a roll and the Yankees defense on a mission.

Shortstop Derek 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 at every aspect of the sport.

They'll get no argument from the Braves.

World Series

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.

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