Before the 2007 season, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had T-shirts made up that read "Mission 27." It was just one more piece of motivation for a franchise that defines itself by a singular annual goal -- winning the World Series -- and a reminder that anything less than achieving that goal is a failure.
It took three seasons, but on Wednesday night in the Bronx, the Yankees finally did win their 27th world championship, and when Cashman ran into the team's mental skills coach -- yes, the Yankees have a mental skills coach -- he said simply: "Mission accomplished."
Part of what makes the Yankees so admired is the fact that their single-minded pursuit of winning trickles down from the top of the corporate boardroom right into the clubhouse, and filters throughout the organization. If there is a player who represents the on-field embodiment of Cashman's stated mantra, it is Derek Jeter, whose endless recitation that winning is everything may make eyes roll but would undoubtedly make Cashman and owner George Steinbrenner (to say nothing of Vince Lombardi) very proud.
Thus, Jeter would be the first to admit that even though he has had 14 brilliant seasons in pinstripes, only five of them have been truly successful. Those five, of course, are the ones that ended with World Series triumphs in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and now, 2009. Even the relentlessly competitive Jeter, and his trio of longtime teammates (Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte) who have been around for every one of those five titles would surely stop short of comparing those teams; A championship is, at last, validation enough for those squads.
But all title teams are not created alike. Part of what made the Yankees' 27th championship so interesting was that it was richly deserved, and not just because of the riches that made it possible. The Yankees were, without a doubt, the best team in baseball in 2009. But were the '09 Yankees the best of the five title teams in the Jeter era? Below is a snapshot ranking of each of those championship teams, each of which were different in their own way but each of which shared the only definition that truly matters: world champions.
Regular-season record: 114-48, first in AL East
Postseason: ALDS: defeated Texas Rangers 3-0; ALCS: defeated Cleveland Indians 4-2; World Series: defeated San Diego Padres 4-0
Not only is this the best team of the Jeter era, it may be the best team of all-time. The Yanks led the league in runs and on-base percentage, but this was not a typical Bronx Bombers offense. Not one player hit 30 home runs and only two drove in 100 runs. What made them so tough to beat was a balanced lineup and probably the best top-to-bottom pitching staff in team history. Four players (Bernie Williams, Jeter, Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius) batted .300 or better, four (Tino Martinez, Williams, O'Neill and Darryl Strawberry) hit at least 20 home runs and five (Chuck Knoblauch, Jeter, Chad Curtis, Williams and O'Neill) stole at least 15 bases.
Every one of their five starters won at least 13 games and the bullpen had not one but two righty-lefty combos to attack hitters in late innings (Ramiro Mendoza and Graeme Lloyd, Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson) plus Rivera, who in just his second season as a closer had 36 saves and a 1.91 ERA.
The Yankees spent 135 consecutive days in first place, eventually clinching the AL East in early September and finishing 22 games in front. But their most impressive moment came when they were challenged for the only time all season. After falling behind the Indians 2-games-to-1 in the ALCS, the first time they had been behind since April 29, the Yankees won their next seven postseason games, culminating in a World Series sweep of the Padres.
Regular-season record: 103-59, 1st in AL East
Postseason: ALDS: defeated Twins 3-0; ALCS: defeated Angels 4-2; World Series: defeated Phillies 4-2
Any thoughts that this team would be so highly-regarded seemed foolish when it got off to 14-16 start and was mired in third place, 5½ games out, in early May. But from that point on the Yankees went 89-43 to finish with 103 wins. Since the end of the original Yankee dynasty, only the '98 team has won more games in a single season. The catalyst for their turnaround was the return of Alex Rodriguez from hip surgery and the emergence of Mark Teixeira that gave them the destructive lineup many had long expected. The Yankees finished the season with the majors' best offense, leading all of baseball in home runs and runs scored. It was enough to more than compensate for a pitching staff that was surprisingly unsettled, given its depth of talent. CC Sabathia was a stud all year long, and Andy Pettitte was old reliable, but A.J. Burnett was consistently inconsistent, and the latest Rules kept Joba Chamberlain from establishing himself as a front-line starter. As always, they still had Rivera, who finished with 44 saves and a 1.76 ERA.
In the postseason the Yankees benefited from curious, and at times downright hideous, play from the opposition, but the closest they came to being in trouble was when they lost Game 1 of the World Series. Undeterred, they won the next three, making their 27th title a mere formality.
Regular-season record: 98-64, 1st in AL East
Postseason: ALDS: defeated Rangers 3-0; ALCS: defeated Red Sox 4-1; World Series: defeated Braves 4-0
The '99 Yankees spent all season being judged against their historically dominant squad from the year before, but even if they were 16 games worse -- the second-biggest drop-off in baseball -- that overshadowed the fact that the '99 team was pretty darn good in its own right. Unlike the Yankees' two most recent championship teams, that were as admired (or feared) as any Yankee teams of the past 30 years, the '99 team was the first to be hated, a trend that has only continued. It began when the Yankees acquired two-time defending Cy Young winner Roger Clemens in spring training from the Blue Jays, and continued as they steamrolled their way to a second consecutive World Series title.
Offensively, they were not as powerful as the previous season, though they were still mighty dangerous. Jeter had arguably the best season of his career, batting .349/.438/.552 with 102 RBIs, and three other players drove in at least 100 runs. They finished second in on-base percentage and third in runs and batting average, but eighth in home runs.
Their pitching was once again their most effective weapon. Clemens went just 14-10 in his first year in New York, and David Cone had the worst record among the starters (12-9) but the best ERA (3.44) and threw a perfect game in July against the Expos.
This time, they didn't take over first place for good until early June, but they still managed to win the only division in baseball to feature three teams with winning records. In the postseason they even managed to be more dominant than their fabled '98 forebears, setting a record in the wild-card era by going 11-1 en route to their 25th title.
Regular-season record: 92-70, first in AL East
Postseason: ALDS: defeated Texas Rangers 3-0; ALCS: defeated Baltimore Orioles 4-1; World Series: defeated Atlanta Braves 4-2
Unlike the other championship teams on this list, the '96 Yankees were actually underdogs, and had enough compelling personal stories to make them sentimental favorites. From new manager Joe Torre, who lost one brother at midseason and had another nearly die during the World Series, to the comebacks of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, to David Cone, who overcame a life-threatening aneurysm during the season, these Yankees had one heartwarming tale after another.
They were also a pretty good team. Despite having Jeter, the AL Rookie of the Year, and a breakout season from Bernie Williams, the Yankees were not especially forceful offensively, ranking 12th in the league in home runs, ninth in runs scored and 13th in strikeouts. But they had a terrific defense that was second in fielding percentage, a deep starting pitching staff led by Pettitte's 21 win-season, and the best bullpen in baseball.
In his first full season, Rivera served as understudy to John Wetteland, and the two became the best bullpen 1-2 punch in baseball. Rivera had a 2.09 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 107.1 innings and Wetteland finished with 43 saves.
Those two were the biggest reason why the Yankees ended their 18-year championship drought. In the playoffs Rivera allowed just one run while Wetteland saved seven games, including all four in the World Series to earn MVP honors, as the Yankees overcame a 2-0 deficit to upset the heavily favored, defending champion Braves.
Regular-season record: 87-74, first in AL East
Postseason: ALDS: defeated Athletics 3-2; ALCS: defeated Mariners 4-2; World Series: defeated Mets 4-1
The Yankees' most unlikely title team of recent years came in 2000, when they finished with the ninth-best record in baseball, entered the playoffs having lost 15 of 18 games and were challenged early and often in the postseason. Once again their offense had just enough to get them to October. Tino Martinez (.258, only 16 home runs), Chuck Knoblauch (only 26 RBIs) and Scott Brosius (.230 average) began their declines, but the homegrown players -- Bernie Williams (.307, 30, 121), Jeter (.339) and Posada (28 home runs, 86 RBIs) -- asserted themselves as never before to keep the Yankees afloat.
Pettitte led the staff with 19 wins, and though Clemens won just 13, he was the best starter, with a 3.70 ERA and 188 strikeouts. Rivera had, for him, an off-year, with a 2.85 ERA that stands as the second-highest of his career.
More than any other, this Yankees championship relied on imported pieces to get them back to the playoffs. It only furthered their overhyped reputation for buying championships, but it was tough to argue with the results. At various points during the year the Yankees fortified themselves by getting David Justice, Jose Vizcaino, Glenallen Hill, Luis Sojo and even, for little apparent reason other than to keep him from going elsewhere, Jose Canseco, among others, to help the offense, and Denny Neagle to shore up their starting pitching.
Yet almost all the moves worked. Justice was the ALCS MVP in the Yankees' win over the Mariners, Vizcaino delivered the game-winning hit against the Mets in Game 1 of the World Series, Neagle helped deliver the win in Game 4 with 4 2/3 effective innings at the start, and Sojo bounced the Series-winning single to center off Al Leiter in the ninth inning of Game 5. That hit, much like that season, was not particularly pretty to watch as it rolled softly past two diving Mets infielders. But, also like the season, it was just good enough to get the job done.