Four remain pride of the Yankees

NEW YORK -- They stood together, arms around each other's shoulders, on a makeshift podium in the middle of a still-packed stadium as euphoria rained from the sky.

Mariano Rivera. Derek Jeter. Andy Pettitte. Jorge Posada.

They had done this before. And not just once. But somehow, this time was different. This time was special. This night was one that made them want to freeze time and hold onto a moment that was nine years in the making.

The clock had already blown past midnight on the night the New York Yankees won their 27th World Series. And the Gang of Four who connected two Yankee generations was going to savor this one for many more ticks of that clock.

So Derek Jeter held the World Series trophy in his hands and looked out at the ecstatic masses.

"Now," he said, cradling that trophy as if he might never let it go, "this thing is right where it belongs."

Behind the four of them, the scoreboard told the tale of the final World Series game, the final baseball game of 2009: Yankees 7, Phillies 3.

But scoreboards never tell you the whole story. And for these four men, this was a night that couldn't have followed a more perfect script if George Steinbrenner had been able to personally sign the big script-writing free agent in the sky to an $8 zillion contract.

The Great Mariano got the final five outs. Derek Jeter slapped three hits. Andy Pettitte won the clinching game of a postseason series for the sixth time. Jorge Posada was the man catching that first pitch by Pettitte and that final pitch by Rivera.

There was something fitting about that -- the four of them finding their names in this particular box score -- because they are the men who connect all the dots in the Yankees' universe.

You might have trouble convincing a Cubs fan or a Giants fan or an Indians fan that it has been a long time since the Yankees had themselves a night like this. But it's longer than you think.

The last time they did this, the men squirting champagne all over the Gang of Four were long-lost names like David Justice, and Denny Neagle, and even Jose Canseco. It feels like those guys haven't played in the big leagues in 90 years, not nine. But the last time the Yankees floated down the Canyon of Heroes, those men were riding right along with them.

In between titles, Mike Mussina came and went. Jason Giambi came and went. Even Raul Mondesi, Rondell White and Karim Garcia came and went.

But Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada kept putting on those pinstripes day after day. Pettitte bolted for Houston, then found his way back. And it was all about waiting for this night to arrive again.

So by the time it did, they understood this wasn't their birthright, wasn't as automatic as their teams had once made it look.

"It makes it sweeter, no doubt," said Andy Pettitte, "because you don't know if you're going to go back. I realize I'm 37 years old. I realize I'm getting older. I realize I'm toward the end of my career. And that makes it sweet.

"The first one is always sweet, because you live your whole life, you want to win a championship, and when you're able to do it that first time, that's sweet. But when so many years pass, you don't know if you're ever going to be able to do it again. So it's just very gratifying to be able to do this."

We understand this is no tale of some plucky underdog battling to this place against all odds. This is a $208 million baseball team we're talking about. This is a team that paid its four infielders alone more money ($81.225 million) than 16 of the other 29 franchises paid their whole teams. This is a team that had spent nearly $1.8 billion hard-earned Steinbrenner-family dollars in between trips to the Canyon of Heroes.

But contrary to popular belief, it's never dollars alone that make that happen. You need talent. You need brains. And you need people -- people who understand what winning is all about, what leadership is all about, what being a teammate is all about.

So these Yankees needed the Gang of Four -- even more than they ever needed them back in the day when they were winning four of these titles in five years.

"On those teams [that won in the '90s], those guys were young," said GM Brian Cashman. "They weren't veteran guys like they are now. They had different roles. Derek Jeter wasn't a leader back then. Jorge Posada wasn't a leader then. They were the guys looking to the David Cones, the Paul O'Neills, the Scott Brosiuses, the veterans around them. But now this is those guys' team. They've taken over that leadership role. And they've proved they can deliver a championship with a whole new cast."

That cast included the World Series MVP, Hideki Matsui, a man who would drive in a record-tying six runs in the Series clincher. And it included a fellow who can finally tune out the ridiculous debate about whether he's a "true Yankee," Alex Rodriguez. And it included the latest batch of Yankees free agents who will eventually earn more money than the gross national product of Trinidad and Tobago -- Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

But those pieces never could have fit if the leaders on this Yankees team didn't do what had to be done to make sure they fit. And the Gang of Four made sure.

"You know what?" said Burnett, still sopping from the Moet & Chandon shower he had to show for his first season in New York. "These guys are very classy individuals -- Jeter, Mariano, Pettitte and Posada especially for me, in my first year here, being a pitcher. They're guys who really showed you how to be a New York Yankee.

"And they do that by being themselves. By showing class. And being the most humble human beings I've ever been around. They're all Hall of Famers, but you wouldn't know it, man. They come in here, and they're just one of us. They're humble people who play this game one day at a time, one game at a time. And that rubbed off on everyone else."

But this was a night to recognize that the Gang of Four was still -- even now -- way more than just a quartet of nostalgic figures from the '90s who hung around the clubhouse, telling stories about the good old days.

Jeter may be 35, but he hit .334 this year. Spewed 212 hits. Finished third in the league in on-base percentage (.406). Then his seventh World Series rolled around, and all he did was bat .407, hit safely in all six games and just miss tying the record for most hits in a six-game World Series.

"This is what you play for," Jeter said on the night he passed Lou Gehrig on the all-time World Series hits list. "When you're 6, 7 years old, you're out on the field, thinking about being in the World Series, winning the World Series. And it's always something special to be able to do it."

He has now won more World Series as a Yankee (five) than Babe Ruth (who won "only" four). And he is so consumed by the quest for a ring that he didn't watch a single World Series game he wasn't playing in over the past eight years. And why was that? Because "it makes me sick" not to be there, he said.

This night came 13 years and 33 days after the first winning postseason game Derek Jeter ever played in. So what were the odds that the same pitcher started this game who started that one -- Andy Pettitte?

Pettitte's manager, Joe Girardi, took a big gamble on a 37-year-old left-hander, starting him on three days' rest in a game of this magnitude. But Pettitte made his manager's IQ look Mensa-ready, by firing five two-hit, one-run innings before tiring in the sixth.

But Andy Pettitte did enough to become the oldest starting pitcher to win a World Series game on short rest since 1959 (Early Wynn). And the oldest to win a Series clincher on any amount of rest since 1931 (Burleigh Grimes). And the first pitcher in the wild-card era to start and win the clinching game of all three postseason series in the same year.

"I just feel very fortunate, very blessed, to be healthy right now and to be able to pitch in the postseason here and help this team win," he said.

You might say the man who caught him on this night, Jorge Posada, had caught him a few times before. Like 202 times to be exact -- 22 of them now in the postseason. Of Pettitte's 229 career regular-season wins, Posada has been the starting catcher in 95 of them. Of Pettitte's 18 postseason wins, Posada has caught 11. They're the only pitcher-catcher tag team in history with that many postseason wins together. Astounding.

Meanwhile, the first postseason start Pettitte ever made came way back in Game 2 of the 1995 division series. The young reliever who got the final 10 outs of that game? It was a kid named Mariano Rivera. Who else?

So how could it be that 14 years later, there was Mariano again, getting the final five outs of another Pettitte start on another postseason stage? This was the fourth time Rivera had thrown the final pitch of a World Series clincher -- more than twice as many as any other pitcher in history. And even at age 40, his aura still shone as bright as it ever has.

Let the historians note that it was 11:14 p.m., Eastern Steinbrenner Time, when the bullpen door swung open Wednesday night and out he came.

Flashbulbs sparkled around him as the Great Mariano began the long jog to his home office -- to do what he does better than anyone has ever done it.

To finish what Andy Pettitte had started …

To end the reign of the defending champions …

And to complete the nine-year journey of the only franchise he has ever thrown a pitch for.

This, for the New York Yankees, is what victory looks like -- what it's looked like for a dozen years now.

Asked if this game felt as if it was over to him when Rivera popped out of that bullpen, Jeter laughed and said: "It's over in EVERYBODY'S mind."

"I mean, he's human," Jeter said of his buddy, Mo. "He's going to give up some runs here and there. But a four-run lead? C'mon, man. We could have gone on and played another nine innings [and he wouldn't have blown that lead]."

And Derek Jeter ought to know. He has watched this man pitch in 88 postseason games now. And never once, in any of those outings, has Mariano Rivera given up as many runs (three) as the closer on the other side, Brad Lidge, allowed in a span of four hitters in Game 4.

These four men -- Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte and Posada -- have now played in six World Series together. Before this group (and Bernie Williams) came along, no other foursome on any team had played in that many World Series together since Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard and Bobby Richardson shared seven, between 1957-64. The all-time record is eight, by Mantle, Ford, Howard and Yogi Berra.

So for the men who make up the Gang of Four, it wasn't winning alone that they celebrated on this night. It was winning together.

"It's special," Jeter said. "We've played together for what -- 17 years, 18 years? We were together in the minor leagues coming up. And you don't see that too often, especially with free agency. You don't see guys staying together. We're like brothers. And to get an opportunity to spend all these years together and win another championship, it really feels good."

They've won more titles together than Ruth and Gehrig, than Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, than DiMaggio and Allie Reynolds. Think about that. Sure, you can say this group had timing on its side. But was that luck? Or was it more? When four players this great share what these four have shared, it's not just about good fortune. Not anymore.

So Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera haven't merely hung out together on a baseball field all these years. They've defined their generation. And on the night they won again -- side-by-side -- after eight empty Octobers, they understood the power of the moment.

"It's amazing," Rivera said. "I mean, I tried to never forget [what it felt like]. But when you're in there, you know how much you miss it. You find out, definitely, how much you miss it to be in this position."

He may be the closer for a $208 million baseball team. But "to be the last team standing and to be on the mound and win the whole thing," said Mariano Rivera, "that's priceless."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.