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Yankees have right pieces in place for another run
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
So many times they seemed whipped by the wind, but they were always willin' to keep moving. Red Sox GM Dan Duquette called them "vulnerable" even after they had beaten Pedro Martinez three times this season.
Maybe this was the year the Yankees could have been beaten. One break or two and the Oakland A's would have done just that. If the Indians hadn't yawned away the first five months, they could have. But all these coulds and woulds all came back down to a third straight world championship when Mike Piazza didn't get out from behind the plate on a throw from center field and the winning runs scored in the ninth inning of the fifth game of the World Series.
Four world championships in five years.
It was a Series far greater than most five-game World Series, first because of the tension created by ownerships who revile one another in seas of jealousies, fans who cannot abide one another and players polarized in the Roger Clemens-Piazza holy war. But the fans were not good -- they were great, with none of the disgraceful behavior seen in Game 4 of the Yankees-Red Sox ALCS at Fenway Park in 1999. Every game was a struggle, the first series where every game was decided by one or two runs since 1915.
One of the underlying themes throughout it all was that this was the last hurrah for both teams. And in the Mets' case, it could be true. OK, GM Steve Phillips probably won't be a free agent, but Bobby Valentine could leave. They have Al Leiter -- is there anyone who doesn't think he's a No. 1 now? -- and the emerging Glendon Rusch. But the other three starters are free agents, as are relievers John Franco, Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook.
Their best player, Edgardo Alfonzo, is tied up. Robin Ventura was hurt and will come back big time. If Jay Payton can do what he did in 2000 after three years of injuries, he's just at the third stop of the elevator ride to the roof deck. Piazza is young, but there is a big problem; patella tendinitis is no laughing matter for a huge catcher, and there is concern that it's going to get worse, not better, as he continues to catch.
But the potential restructuring of the Mets is tricky. Alex Rodriguez would allow them to stick with their young outfield, as long as they go get a left-handed bat. But if Mike Hampton -- who is going to get Kevin Brown money, and perhaps more -- leaves, then they have to win the war for Mike Mussina. They had to trade a lot of good young pitching to get Leiter, Piazza, Rick White and others, and now they have to pay the inflated price for free agent pitching.
On the other hand, while their rivals paint the Yankees as old, their core is young, especially their heart, Derek Jeter. He is one of those rare players that cannot be validated any way but by seeing him play every day, where his defense, athleticism, baserunning, passion and clutch talents can be seen. When this run started in '96, Jeter was a rookie and learning. Now he is the soul of the team.
"Every one of us noticed that Jeter was the first one over the railing and out to home plate when the winning run scored in Game 1," said Leiter. "That," said Mets pitching coach Dave Wallace, "was the sign of a team with leadership. When the team's superstar is the first one onto the field and cares the most, you have something special."
To add to the Jeter plaque comes this Joe Torre assessment: "Two years ago, Roger Clemens drilled Derek as hard as anyone, except Piazza. Derek jumped up, ran to first, stole second, scored. Never said a thing. Talk doesn't make you tough. Jeter is tough. There's a lot of Bob Gibson in Derek Jeter. I can't give him any greater praise."
Andy Pettitte, who has won two fewer games over the last five years than the major-league leader, Pedro, is 28. Jorge Posada, the second-best catcher in the American League with a bullet, is 28. Mariano Rivera, the greatest reliever in Yankee history, turns 31 this week. Bernie Williams will be a better player at 37 than he was at 27.
There are decisions to be made on Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius. Steinbrenner would love to put A-Rod on third base beside his buddy, but with Jeter and Rivera going to arbitration a year away from free agency and Posada in a huge arbitration year, that may not be possible. But Ramirez is a possibility. So is Mussina. So is trading for Sammy Sosa (Andy MacPhail has set a Nov. 12 be-signed-or-be-marketed deadline), Mo Vaughn or Johnny Damon.
No matter what they do, Clemens and Orlando Hernandez are going to be fine in the 2-3 slots in the rotation, and if Chuck Knoblauch comes back, then with an added bat or two and a retooled bench, the Yankees will again be the team to beat.
When Yankees pitchers and catchers report to Legends Field in Tampa, they will do so knowing that they will be expected to be playing in the last game of the 2001 season. With their core, their front office, Torre and a lynchpin named Jeter, that is a reasonable expectation.
Money will lock up, not lock out
But while the owners see how fast they can spend the $2.5 billion handed them by Fox, there have been questions about a possible 2002 lockout and its impact on next year's free agents like Jeff Bagwell, Jeter, Barry Bonds, Damon and Chan Ho Park.
"I don't think there will be a labor shutdown in 2002, no matter what cold war rhetoric there is right now," says one club president. "There might be a signing freeze for a while, but the players will get their money. But there won't be a lockout because of all the new ballparks and the Fox money. I think most everyone realizes that the revenue disparity is about owners versus owners, and to shut down the industry to try to get the players to help them out is a pipe dream. This is not the NBA. The baseball players are not basketball players, and there is no comparison between the union leadership of the two sports."
Another reason to believe there will not be a lockout in 2002 -- the All-Star Game is scheduled to be played in Milwaukee.
News and notes
Williams is a Stanford guy, in Reinsdorf's eyes bright, and he's long been Reinsdorf's man. But the core of the organization under Schueler -- Evans, Monroe, scouting director Duane Schaffer and scouts Dave Yoachum, Eddie Brinkman and Mike Pazik -- has worked together for nearly a decade. Evans has already quit after being bypassed. The rest may look elsewhere. Now, will Reinsdorf try to make his guy look good by shooting into the market after A-Rod and Mussina?
No baseball owner is smarter than Reinsdorf, and none is more unpredictable, but he may have to be prepared for some big changes. Fortunately for Williams, Schueler, Evans, Monroe and Schaffer have left him with one of the best young talent pools in either league. Oh, yes, dealing with the arbitration cases of Magglio Ordonez, James Baldwin, Herbert Perry, Keith Foulke and Paul Konerko this January without Evans there to do all the work will be interesting.
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