Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees gathered for lunch last week at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco at the invitation of SI, to celebrate one of the most famous and accomplished sets of teammates in sports history. Rivera, Posada and Jeter are the first trio of teammates to play 16 consecutive seasons together in any North American team sport, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Pettitte missed only three of those seasons with the Yankees while playing for his hometown Houston Astros from 2004 through '06. They have won five world championships together.
It took months for me to get the four of them -- the Core Four, as they've come to be known -- together. One planned date in spring training fell through, for instance, just days before the event because Rivera, a deeply religious man, said he would not give personal time on a Sunday. "It's my church day," he said.
On the night before the lunch last week, with everything in place, Jeter decided to move up the time by one hour. He is, after all, the captain. When Rivera was the only one to show up on time and threatened to leave because of the others' lack of punctuality, I couldn't tell if he was kidding or not. He looked serious enough to worry me that the whole thing was going kaput before it even got started.
The gathering was even more special than I thought, because after they arrived the four of them realized that it was the first time they had been alone together for a meal. They all broke into the big leagues with the Yankees in 1995, but this was their first time together without being part of a larger group.
Listening to them sometimes was like driving a station wagon full of Little Leaguers and hearing the silly, comfortable conversations. They joked almost immediately, for instance, about a situation in the previous game in which Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez was on third base and Posada was at first. "Did you see coach Alex?" Posada said. "Coach Rodriguez was giving me all kinds of hand signals over there. I wasn't going anywhere."
I joined them at the table and helped steer their conversation through what turned out to be a celebration more of their friendship than their years as teammates. The story of the Core Four, in their own words, can be found in this week's edition of Sports Illustrated. Here are bonus excerpts from our lunch conversation, edited for length and clarity:
SI: Since you've been together in the big leagues, since '95, does anything stand out to you about what's different now than it was then?
Posada: I think the athletes are different. I think the way guys prepare. Guys come to spring training ready to go. There's not a guy from Day One who's not ready to go. You see guys doing their bullpens and their work ethic during the offseason. I see the way the machines and the workouts and all that stuff has changed so much... the way people train, the way they get ready for the season.
SI: It's a real 12-month-a-year job.
Posada: No question. Last year we won on November 4 and I was in the gym probably two or three weeks after that. I took two weeks off and started working again. It was tough because it was going to be a short offseason, but you still have to think about 2010, because 2009 was over. I mean, this is a long, long season, and if you don't take care of yourself to get ready for that, you can't continue.
Pettitte: For me it took a little longer. In years past you take a couple of weeks off or whatever. I took about a month.
SI: You were pretty gassed at the end?
Pettitte: Yeah, I was.
Rivera: You ask where the game has changed? The guys now are stronger. Before, you knew, 'This guy can't hurt you.' That's why the Yankees got upset with me when [Luis] Sojo hit the home run off me [in September 1995]. Because you know Sojo cannot hurt you. Maybe a single here, a single there, but a home run? Impossible. But now everybody can hit a home run. Plus, the fields... they're shrinking the fields more, the baseballs are jumping....
SI: Strike zone?
Rivera: Oh! Strike zone is shrinking by the second.
SI: If I could put you on the commissioner's on-field matters committee, what would you like to see changed?
Posada: They're talking about speeding up the game, speeding up the game. Listen, they talk about the Boston-Yankees series? Friday we're on TBS, Saturday we're on Fox and Sunday we're on ESPN. It's 2:30, 2:25 and three minutes between innings. And that tells you why the game is taking forever.
Rivera: That's 40, 45 minutes.
Posada: And it's two teams that are very good about selecting the pitches they're going to get. Very, very patient. The game doesn't change.
Rivera: When you control the time for baseball, you let me know. Because I don't think you will ever control the time for baseball. How do you control it?
SI: A lot of people say that's one of the best things about it: There is no clock.
Rivera: That's why baseball is unique. How are you going to control it? Unless you say, 'You're going to play three hours. Whether we play six innings for three hours or eight innings for three hours, that's the game.' Otherwise, how are you going to control it? How are you going to say, after 10 runs, the game is over, like Little League. Are you going to tell guys, 'You have to go up there swinging because the game is taking too much time?' Come on. So when you guys come up with that solution, let me know.
Posada: They talk about everybody staying in the batter's box? Everybody is staying in the batter's box. Pitchers are pitching faster. There's not much else that you can do.
SI: So what else would you do?
Jeter: I would say no four o'clock games -- before somebody gets killed. And they have to do something with the schedule. I would go back to the old schedule, the balanced schedule. I don't like the 20 games against some teams.
SI: Because it's too much -- seeing the same team too many times?
Jeter: You've got to make it fair for everybody. Everybody should have the same schedule.
SI: Bigger strike zone?
Pettitte: Maybe a little higher strike. That would be nice. They gave us a little more back when -- off the edges. But obviously with Questec and stuff they have now, umpires are being judged, but I think they could give you a little more of a high strike.
Rivera: They're trying to speed up the game and they're using all of these technologies to say, 'Oh, that's a ball.' 'That's a strike.' 'He was wrong.' 'He was right.' But they're trying to speed up the game.
Pettitte: The ball at the belt is a ball. The catcher squats down, he catches it right there [in front of his face] it's a given that it's a ball. I mean, you would think that's the perfect pitch to hit.
Posada: Yeah, that's the one you can hit, right?
SI: You guys still seem like you have fun after all these years.
Pettitte: I think the tough part is you're never not going to enjoy what we do. For them [Jeter and Posada] it's not only playing the game, it's hitting... you guys, getting a big hit, how much fun is that? You know what I'm saying?
Rivera: But I have seen people who are miserable, even doing what they do, even doing well. So, what are you doing?
Pettitte: Like, I don't think we're ever not going to love jogging out to the mound, you know what I'm saying? And getting ready for that start. And again, it makes it even that much more special whenever Georgie is behind the plate, because he's been there for so long, and I turn around and tell everyone to get ready for the game and there is Jeet at short, so there's a comfort level with these guys. That's also been a big part of me coming back also.
SI: So being together keeps bringing you back?
Pettitte: It's that desire to continue to do that, not only with our new teammates, and obviously it's awesome to see us win that championship for guys who haven't won it, but just to be able to do it with these guys. I know it's special. I know what we've been doing is special. That's made it fun, and also with the family situation for me, with my family in Houston. It was easy in my first year back when I pulled them out of school and moved them up to New York. My oldest ixnayed that one real quick. He wanted to be back home.
SI: How about when the season ends? You talk? Text?
Pettitte: We text.
Posada: We stay in touch. We try to get Andy to come back. 'Andy, please come back. Please come back.'
SI: You guys took a picture together after the last game at Yankee Stadium in 2008. Do you guys do that every year?
Posada: Yeah, it's Andy's idea.
Rivera: Yeah, and it's great because you don't know how long we're going to be together.
Jeter: We've done it other years because we did it when Bernie [Williams, another homegrown Yankee who played for New York from 1991 through 2006] was there, too, right?
Posada: We've done it since '03 because Andy's been retiring since '03.
Pettitte: I started it that year because I didn't know what was going to happen. Just kind of uncertain about what the year was going to bring. Because I knew the Yankees knew that my elbow had been bothering me for a long time and I just never knew what was going to happen, so I wanted a shot of all us together in '03. And we've been doing it ever since.