Thursday November 5th, 2009

NEW YORK -- The aroma that one perceived, as one walked off the field and inside toward the home clubhouse in the moments after the Yankees had won their 27th World Series on Wednesday night, was strong. It was one part expensive perfume, and one part expensive champagne, and it was unmistakable. It was Eau de WAG.

The area in between the Yankees' dugout and their clubhouse usually functions as an indoor batting cage, but on this night it served an arguably more important purpose. It was a holding pen for the players' wives and girlfriends -- their WAGs, in the current parlance. As their husbands and boyfriends conducted the first few minutes of their post-championship bacchanal, team security sensibly kept the WAGs out of the clubhouse -- "Someone could get hurt in there!" -- and they hugged each other and took pictures of each other and took sips from plastic cups, as they waited for things to calm down just a little. They included in their number Joanna Garcia, a guest star on Gossip Girl and the girlfriend of Nick Swisher, and Minka Kelly, a cheerleader on Friday Night Lights and the girlfriend of Derek Jeter. Kate Hudson, Alex Rodriguez's steady, was not subjected to the confines of the holding pen -- she starred in Bride Wars, after all -- but she was around.

Eventually, CC Sabathia came out looking for his wife, Amber, and his son, who goes by the nickname "Li'l C," and he escorted them in the direction of the clubhouse. Amber inquired of the rest of the women, "Are you guys going in to get wet?" and most of them soon followed, the security guards momentarily stupefied, perhaps, by all that champagne and all that perfume. On the way, Garcia noticed Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, whose blue dress shirt was already soaked through, and she stopped to speak with him for a moment. "Congrats, Brian!" the actress said.

"You too," Cashman said. "Uh, you too, Jo."

Spending a few minutes with the Yankees' WAGs -- who are stunning, almost all of them, and famous, several of them -- constitutes just one way by which you can tell that this team is different from all the rest. These are, by and large, not women who would conduct relationships with any old ballplayer, but with the most successful and well-compensated members of the profession -- nothing derogatory is implied by that -- and the Yankees have many of those. They have, in fact, three of this year's top four most richly paid players in the game, and six of the top 23 (in Rodriguez, Jeter, Mark Teixeira, A.J Burnett, Sabathia and Mariano Rivera). It is foolish to think that without them, and without an overall payroll of $206.8 million that is nearly 50 percent higher than that of their closest competitor, that the Yankees would on Wednesday night have been celebrating the franchise's 27th title. Their World Series rings were, in one way, bought and paid for by the contents of the Steinbrenner family vault. There's no way around it.

But the Yankees also had the game's highest payroll in 2002, and they did not win the World Series then. They had the game's highest payroll in 2003, and they did not win the World Series then. They had the game's highest payroll in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. They did not win the World Series in any of those years.

This season's iteration of the Yankees was different from all of those. Those clubs were burdened by the presence of vastly overpaid former free agents -- players like Kevin Brown, and Carl Pavano, and Jason Giambi -- who did not, by and large, live up to their considerable contracts. (It's worth noting that the club's payroll in both 2005 and 2008 exceeded this year's). It is difficult to argue that any single member of this season's club is overpaid, at least wildly overpaid. And a lot of the credit for that ought to go to Cashman, who finally figured out how to again turn the Steinbrenners' dough into a championship.

Part of the equation, Cashman recently admitted, was fortuitous timing. This past winter, the Yankees had several big contracts finally coming off their books, at the same time that a few uniquely talented players entered the free market -- Sabathia, Teixeira and Burnett, specifically -- and who were therefore available to the highest bidder, which is usually the Yankees, if they so choose. "We had areas of need," Cashman said. "We had to go in and attack that. But timing's everything. We had a lot of money coming off our roster and free agents that happened to be high-talent, high-character people. We were fortunate for that combination to be in place, and to be in position to actually score from it. We wanted to make sure that we found highly talented grinders."

Cashman knows of highly talented loafers. "In the past," he said, "we were in a situation where on that 25-man roster, people didn't necessarily enjoy each other. They enjoyed playing the game, they enjoyed playing in New York, but they didn't necessarily enjoy each other as teammates, I think. We didn't have as close a team. But this year it's all different."

A significant part of that difference came from the offseason acquisitions that Cashman paid handsomely to make. Sabathia, Teixeira and Burnett, and Swisher too, are all extremely skilled baseball players, but they're also team-first types, and they helped remake what was formerly a fractious clubhouse. So too, Cashman believes, did second-year manager Joe Girardi, who, in a widely lauded move, decided last March to sacrifice a day of spring training practice in order to take his charges to a Tampa-area pool hall for an impromptu billiards tournament. "I'm going to give Joe Girardi a great deal of credit," Cashman said. "This team has come together and enjoyed each other, and it's a great thing to see."

"It's just one of those weird things where you put a team together and hope they click," says Sabathia, who independently of Cashman mentioned the pool tournament as a key moment in the Yankees' season. "This is one of those teams. We've been really close, all of us, since day one, since the first day of spring. Giving each other crap across the locker room. It's a fun clubhouse."

"I thought it was going to be a very corporate team," Swisher says. "But the great thing about it is, with the personalities we have in this locker room, it's transformed itself into a wonderful thing. You can't single out one individual. From day one it's been a total team effort. Egos are checked at the door every day, regardless of how much you're making or whatever."

"There was a huge debate we were having before between us guys," Swisher added, "about whether winning creates fun, or fun creates winning. We never came up with a final answer. But either way, we've done both."

Not the stuff of Lincoln and Douglas, certainly. And it's impossible to measure how directly the personalities of Cashman's acquisitions resulted in a World Series win. The players in question are so individually talented that they might have won a championship even had they despised one another. But Cashman isn't so sure. "It can be a real long season if you have knuckleheads adding to your daily grind," he says. "Trying to find the right people that are talented makes it that much more difficult."

One of the many things that the infusion of Sabathia and Teixeira, et al, did was that it seemed to help Alex Rodriguez, formerly (and, arguably, currently) one of the game's preeminent knuckleheads. Their influence in the clubhouse seemed to divert attention and pressure from him, to loosen him up. He responded by returning from an offseason that included an admission of steroid use and a potentially devastating hip injury to produce his 12th consecutive 30-plus home run, 100-plus RBI season, and then, in a departure from his career history, one of the greatest postseasons ever: He hit six home runs in the playoff, and drove in 18 runs (one off the all-time record), and he finished with an OPS of 1.308. The Yankees would not have won the World Series without Cashman's offseason acquisitions. But they also might not have won it without the impact that those acquisitions made on their most singularly talented incumbent.

******

As the Yankees' victory party raged on in their clubhouse on Wednesday night, a man who appeared to be his mid-60s stood far back in a corner, next to his wife.

"Francisco Cervelli just poured a champagne bottle on his momma's head!" the man said.

"Oh, lord," his wife replied. "Oh no!"

The couple turned out to be the parents of Andy Pettitte, the 37-year-old starting pitcher who earned the victory in Game 6 -- his second win of the World Series, and the 18th of his career, a major league record.

The stuff with which Cervelli had doused his mother was the good stuff. Korbel is for the chumps that don't play in stadiums that cost $1.5 billion to build. Here, there was Moet & Chandon -- not bad -- but there was also Armand de Brignac, which you know is good because it comes in a gold-colored bottle, and which you can buy for upwards of $259.00 on the Internet. Can one taste the difference? "It all tastes great!" said noted oenophile Brett Gardner.

Sometimes overlooked in assessments of the 2009 Yankees is that not all of them are hired mercenaries -- however personable those mercenaries might be -- lured away from the clubs that nurtured them immediately after they hit the open market. No fewer than 13 of the 26 players who made the Yankees' World Series roster came up as farmhands through the franchise's system. Those players include Pettitte, Jeter, Rivera and Jorge Posada, players who long ago developed into stars and who the Yankees were able to retain -- or, in the case of Pettitte, re-sign -- thanks to their unmatched financial wherewithal. But they also include younger pieces like Gardner, Cervelli, Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Dave Robertson -- players who make far less than their older teammates, and who even if they were not nearly as integral to the Yankees' championship as they were, were still integral.

"To get where you need to go," Cashman says, "You need to have it all going. Successful outside-the-organization acquisitions, via trades and free agency, and then the internal players who worked their way to the top and solidified themselves. When Posada and [backup catcher Jose] Molina go down for a month combined [in May], Cervelli gets called up from Double-A. What's he do? He hits .300, has a phenomenal year for us. He produced a walk-off win for us" -- against the Blue Jays, on September 16 -- "and he hit a big home run against Atlanta in June when we're getting no-hit into the sixth, and he does a sprint around the base paths."

Hughes, the Yankees' first-round pick in 2004, transitioned this season from a starter who was still struggling to find his big-league rhythm into baseball's best setup man. ("I was asked earlier this year, what was the turning point this season?" Cashman said. "For me, it was Phil Hughes securing the eighth inning for us. All of a sudden, everything seemed to click in. It was almost like we all knew. Our guys realized we can be great.") Robertson, a 17th-round pick in 2006, led all American League pitchers who threw more than 20 innings with 12.98 strikeouts per nine innings, and earned a victory in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Twins by coming in to a two-men-on, no-outs situation in the top of the 11th inning and escaping without allowing a run. Gardner, a third-round pick in 2005, played mostly a reserve role this season, but still tied Ichiro Suzuki for 13th in the American League with 26 stolen bases and played stellar defense in centerfield, usually as a late-inning replacement.

You couldn't see it on Wednesday night, due to the opaque plastic sheeting that had been hung up in the Yankees' clubhouse in order to protect the players' lockers from the free-flowing champagne. But over the course of the season, Swisher had on one of his locker's walls created an ever-growing collage that featured taped-up headlines that he had cut out from the New York tabloids that trumpeted the accomplishments of his teammates, likely to the horror of the interior designers who had picked out the clubhouse's recessed lighting and wooden paneling and frosted-glass locker dividers and Yankee blue carpeting. The usual suspects were well represented in the collage ('HOORAY JORGE,' 'GODZILLA!,'), but so too, to a surprising degree, were the club's more callow, less well-paid members. 'JOBA STIMULUS,' said one headline; 'MELK MONEY,' said another, celebrating one of Cabrera's three walk-off hits before the All-Star break.

"It started off as a fun thing," Swisher explained. "But then it became, Hey, you know what, this is what we're capable of doing. My locker's the last one you see as you walk out, so guys can take a look and say, look at this, this is what we can do."

The Yankees did what they did thanks in large measure to highly paid players who did high-impact things. But they also did it due to the contributions of players who earn, in most cases, fractions of the salaries commanded by some of their teammates, players whom the Yankees drafted and developed. Not a roster spot was wasted. That, more than the savvy signings of some of the game's most manifestly talented players, might be the greatest of Cashman's and his scouting department's achievements this year.

******

The victory party was winding down, and Cashman's worries, for one evening, were limited to only his parental duties. "Grace, stay right here," he said to his daughter, as he went off to issue more congratulations and shake more hands. Then he realized that young Grace was surrounded by dozens and dozens of bottles of plonk, and that the environment was not exactly wholesome. "Listen," he said to her. "Don't drink."

Soon -- perhaps as early as Wednesday -- Cashman's attention will turn to the effort to replicate the success of 2009, in 2010 and beyond. The good news for Cashman, and the bad news for the other 29 franchises that constitute the major leagues, is that his club now appears to be set up to succeed in the long term. Just three of the key contributors to the Yankees' championship -- Pettitte, Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui -- will become free agents this winter. The Yankees will almost certainly re-sign Pettitte, if, as he probably will, he decides to play another season (he was noncommittal after Game 6 -- "I'll need to get home, talk to my family, talk to the Yankees, find out where they're at, and then I can probably start trying to figure out what I might do," he said). They can, however, allow both the 35-year-old Damon and the 35-year-old Matsui, who made $13 million apiece in 2009, to walk, and then use the savings to add a couple of the best free agents on this winter's market (say, Matt Holliday and John Lackey).

They will also be able to retain their nucleus of stars -- Rodriguez is signed through 2017, Sabathia through 2015 (although he can opt out after 2011), Teixeira through 2016, Burnett through 2013 -- and while both Jeter and Rivera are due to become free agents after next season, it's virtually inconceivable that they'd ever play anywhere else. "I was thinking of retiring," a smiling Rivera said from the stage that was set up on the infield immediately after the final out of Game 6, as he held up a tabloid with a large "27" printed on its front page. "But I think I'm going to play for another five years!" While age might one day take its toll -- Rivera will by next spring be 40, Jeter is 35, Posada is 38 -- none of those players, somehow, yet appears to be slowing down much.

Add to all those established stars the young Yankee-developed contributors -- Hughes, Chamberlain, and so on -- who should only improve in the next few years, and there is little reason to think that this World Series title might not represent the beginning of another period of Yankee dominance, such as baseball experienced starting in 1996, when New York won four championships in five seasons.

Whether it is good for the sport that a franchise with financial resources that dwarf those of any of its competitors seems to be on the cusp of such a run is a debate for another day. Now, it is time to appreciate the 2009 Yankees. They were the best team that money can buy. It took, however, more than money to assemble a baseball team this cohesive, this productive, and this good.

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