As the clock struck midnight in the Bronx, the Los Angeles Angels were down to their last out against the greatest relief pitcher in history, Mariano Rivera. It came with vintage finality -- strike three, swinging -- and Rivera walked into the embrace of venerable catcher Jorge Posada, who refused to let him go. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, mainstays of what some are calling the greatest infield of all time, hugged as one near the pitcher's mound.
It was a powerful convergence of talent, history and tradition, reminding us once again that vulnerability just doesn't play in October. The Angels, for all of their resolve, were the team making wild throws, botching routine plays and stepping curiously out of character during this ALCS. The Yankees played the game right, to the point of cruel efficiency at the finish.
And the best part of all: When the World Series opens Wednesday night, the Yankees just might meet their match in the Philadelphia Phillies.
For the past three weeks, these two teams have struck observers as titanic, otherworldly, without real weakness. Such arguments are highly subjective, but in my mind, this is the best World Series pairing of unstoppable-looking teams since the Yankees of Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry played the Dodgers, with their murderer's-row lineup of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Dusty Baker and Reggie Smith, in 1977 and '78.
In any case, it will be difficult to look away. Such a sterling collection of faces: the regal Jeter, the defiant Jimmy Rollins, the raw-boned Rivera, the scruffy Jayson Werth, the movie star-handsome Cole Hamels. People may not realize that Pedro Martinez, for all of his colorful past, has pitched in only World Series game (a start for the '04 Red Sox). How fascinating to watch him stare down A-Rod, who will be playing his first.
Among the many tawdry episodes involving Martinez and the Yankees -- the Grady Little affair, the come-get-me gestures, the felling of Don Zimmer -- Pedro once wisecracked, "Wake up the Bambino, I'll drill him in the ass." That won't be necessary now. I'm guessing he goes after A-Rod, he of the supernatural postseason stats, at the first logical opportunity.
The finest sporting confrontations are always marked by contrast, and this one's a beauty. The way Joe Girardi rifles through his bullpen, forever consulting an enormous binder full of numbers, the Yankee manager comes across as a guy who has his shirts all lined up neatly for the coming week. Manuel probably grabs the first damn thing he can find. The Yankees' crowd may be a bit more corporate than in past years, the result of absurdly overpriced tickets, but you'd never catch them holding little white towels. It's a whole new day in Philly, the fans' notorious cynicism replaced by an almost heavenly sense of faith, and they wave those things like crazy.
For the Yankees, a world championship would be one of many, and most likely dwarfed by such legendary seasons as '27, '37 and '61. The Phillies won last year's title against the vaguely familiar Tampa Bay Rays, clinching it on a night that began in the bottom of the sixth inning (due to a rain-forced suspension) and lasted just 1:18 on the clock. No one would question their worth as repeat champions, should they pull it off, but defeating the mighty Yankees would mean absolute validation.
There's plenty of history to be considered on other fronts. Jeter and Rollins, each the heart and soul of his team, represent the most heralded pairing of World Series shortstops since the 1982 Fall Classic, which featured the Cardinals' Ozzie Smith and the Brewers' Robin Yount, who had what Frank Robinson called the best offensive season he ever saw at that position: .331, 210 hits, 29 homers and 114 RBIs.
There's also the matter of a pitcher's endurance, and for that we should give eternal thanks to CC Sabathia. With Sabathia due to pitch Games 1, 4 and 7 (the latter two on three days' rest), the Phillies will almost surely counter with Cliff Lee in all of those games, if required. What a pleasant counter to the dreariness of pitch counts, pampered arms and front-office paranoia. If you prefer a "Large" in your sample sizes, three days' rest worked for nearly a century in baseball. It was never surprising to see a pitcher make three starts in a World Series, the list including Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Dizzy Dean, Early Wynn, Whitey Ford, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Mickey Lolich (the most recent: Curt Schilling in 2001). Today's pitching coaches would rather not hear the details, because most of those guys worked on two days' rest at the most crucial stages.
More than anything, though, this World Series is about a mood. Take it from a San Franciscan who experienced the prime of Barry Bonds' career, or from any Red Sox fan who endured the whimsical ways of Manny Ramirez: There's nothing cool about a separate set of rules. If a single player rises above the rest, in both treatment and attention, it eventually brings down the franchise. A-Rod finally figured that out this year, cheerfully withdrawing into a world of humility, team sprit and love of the game. The Phillies are naturally built that way, a selfless group in which Carlos Ruiz and Shane Victorino are considered every bit as worthy as Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.
The Phillies did something quite remarkable this year. In the wake of Harry Kalas' death (the passing of their esteemed and beloved play-by-play voice), they carried his image wherever they went. Any night, any dugout, there was Harry's blue sportcoat on a hanger -- as if waiting for the man to show up -- and his favorite white loafers underneath. That's my snapshot for a World Series at Yankee Stadium: a monument among the Monuments. Sweet memories brought to life. May it go the full seven.