Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why I Love the Yankees

By winning another World Series, the best team money can buy is good enough for other baseball fans to hate again.

I’m old enough to be the father of most players on the 2009 New York Yankees.

But to watch them celebrate their 27th World Series championship on the field at Yankee Stadium gave me as big a thrill as their titles in the '70s when I was a teenager.

My devotion to the Yankees began in the '60s, when I first spotted them on the family’s black-and-white Zenith in my Brooklyn neighborhood.

The Yankees usually lost in those days, and their most popular player, Mickey Mantle, hobbled around the bases, a shell of the legend he had been.

Still, I knew the Yankees had the richest baseball tradition and more World Series titles than any other team.

They also looked classy in their home uniforms: white with blue pinstripes and an overlapping NY on the left breast. Athletic business suits.

The advent of free agency in the ’70s allowed tempestuous owner George Steinbrenner to pay top dollar for talent, and the Yankees became great again.

Watching free agent Reggie Jackson smash three home runs on three pitches against three different pitchers to clinch the ’77 World Series remains the greatest athletic feat I’ve ever seen.

Jackson smiled when I told him that two decades later, when I became a Yankees beat writer for Gannett Newspapers.

Covering the team I rooted for as a boy was a dream job. The thrill was never greater than on October 27, 1996—the night the Yankees beat Atlanta, 3-2, to clinch their first World Series in 18 years.

Fortunately, I listened to veteran sportswriters and didn’t wear good clothes to that game because ballplayers do get a kick out of dousing reporters with champagne.

Those Yankees teams became a dynasty under manager Joe Torre, winning the World Series in 1996, ’98, ’99 and ’00.

Critics grouse that the Yankees “buy” their championships. Nonsense.

Baseball imposes no cap on players’ salaries, like football or basketball. Any baseball team can spend whatever it wants to acquire the best players.

Don’t you think Pittsburgh Pirates fans, whose team has had 17 consecutive losing seasons, wish ownership could target the right players and pay them like the Yankees?

You bet they do.

And because baseball has revenue sharing and imposes a luxury tax on teams that spend above the threshold on players’ salaries, the Yankees indirectly financed the Florida Marlins who beat them in the ’03 World Series and the Tampa Bay Rays who reached the ’08 World Series.

I love that the Yankees spend aggressively to put the best product on the field every year.

The Yankees don’t always win — this year’s title was their first since 2000 — but they always try.

Money from such revenue streams as the new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009 and the eight-year-old Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network helps the Yankees keep their core players under contract.

A quartet of young stars from the ’96 team I covered — shortstop Derek Jeter, catcher Jorge Posada, starting pitcher Andy Pettitte and relief pitcher Mariano Rivera — won their fifth World Series rings in 2009.

I’m proud of them. I’ve watched them grow up. And I look forward to the day Jeter and Rivera are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Money helped the Yankees surround their veteran corps with stars like third baseman Alex Rodriguez, pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira.

And money helped the Yankees sign Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui in 2003.

Yet even loyal Yankees fans understand baseball is a business.

Matsui is 35 now, with knees so creaky he can’t play the outfield anymore.

The Yankees will likely replace him, even though he earned World Series Most Valuable Player honors for driving in six runs with three hits in his final game.

Matsui will always have 2009, and the thrill of experiencing a championship with the team he loves.

So will I.

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