Bearing Down Boosted by a retro Rocket and a host of newcomers, the Yankees blew away Boston and established themselves--again--as the team to beat

September 17, 2000

Just before the New York Yankees embarked on a victory parade up
lower Broadway last October, Roger Clemens floated an idea to
teammates Derek Jeter and Chuck Knoblauch about commemorating
their latest World Series championship with two rings: the
typically ornate one provided by the club and a second, even
gaudier one commissioned by the players. The idea quickly gained
favor with the rest of the team. The result was an enormous
piece of jewelry forged out of platinum, set off by 25 diamonds
that are used to spell out the interlocking NY logo and the
inscription TEAM OF THE CENTURY. Each ring is worth about
$40,000. The idea of wearing on your finger a hunk of metal and
stone the cost of the average teacher's salary does have a
practical side. In a pinch, the bauble can serve as a doorstop
or a ship's anchor.

So forget what you heard back in June about the Yankees being
just another contender for a division title. The rich are getting
richer. New York is loaded, and as it showed while taking three
of four games from the Boston Red Sox in a series that began last
Friday at Fenway Park and concluded Monday night at Yankee
Stadium, mix-and-match championship rings and a record $112
million payroll are only the beginning of the wealth that sets
the Yankees apart. New York has an offense so deep that former
MVP Jose Canseco is a superfluous part-time DH whom manager Joe
Torre didn't want. Moreover, the rotation is so flush with aces
that former Cy Young winner David Cone, even with his 8-3
postseason record, may not be called on this October.

Despite New York's midseason hiccup and the rise of upstarts such
as the Chicago White Sox, the Oakland Athletics and the Seattle
Mariners, the American League looks eerily as it did on the day
of that parade: The Yankees are the team to beat for the pennant,
and Clemens is the ringleader. Featuring a fastball clocked as
high as 98 mph, the Rocket, 38, dominated Boston over eight
innings in a 4-0 New York win last Friday to run his record in 14
starts to 8-0 with a 2.25 ERA since July 2, when he returned from
the disabled list.

Following the righthanded Clemens's lead, lefty Andy Pettitte,
who had been nearly as scalding, outpitched Pedro Martinez the
next day with eight innings of one-run ball in a 5-3 victory. On
Sunday 24-year-old rookie lefthander Randy Keisler, making his
first big league start, and revitalized 35-year-old righty Dwight
Gooden combined to throttle Boston 6-2. After the Red Sox' 4-0
win on Monday, the Yankees were eight games ahead of Boston and
the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East, only three
games behind the White Sox in the race for the league's best
record and a league-high 44-23 since July 1. That run included a
23-5 mark when either Clemens or Pettitte started. "Don't be
surprised to see them win it all again," says one American League
manager. "They've got Clemens and Pettitte hot, and they have
more thunder in their lineup than they did in the first half."

New York is attempting to win its fourth world championship since
1996, each time with a different No. 1 starter. In '96 it was
Pettitte (though Cone pitched Game 1 of the Division Series); in
'98 it was lefthander David Wells; last year it was righthander
Orlando Hernandez; and this year it's Clemens. That's a huge leap
in stature for the Rocket, whom Torre described as "a lost puppy
last year," Clemens's first with the Yankees after forcing a
trade from the Blue Jays in which New York gave up cult hero
Wells. In '99 Clemens was 14-10 and won the World Series clincher
over the Atlanta Braves, but his 4.60 ERA was the worst of his
career, he endured annoying injuries to his leg muscles, and he
suffered the Yankees' only postseason defeat. That was a
humiliating 13-1 loss in Boston in which he didn't make it out of
the third inning and was hooted from the mound by his former
hometown fans. Though he denied it at the time, he said last
Saturday that "my back wasn't right" in that defeat.

Clemens began this season 4-6 with a 4.76 ERA before a strained
right groin muscle put him on the disabled list on June 15. He
soon thereafter reported to the Yankees' minor league facility in
Tampa for nine days of therapy. On the mornings of four of those
days, owner George Steinbrenner chatted with him in the clubhouse
before his treatments and workouts, once scolding him by asking,
"Where's the Roger Clemens we traded for?"

"I had two choices: get dressed real quick and get on the field,
or sit there and listen," Clemens recalls. "I listened. I
understood the Boss was venting. He's allowed to do that."

Beginning on May 30, New York had slipped into a 30-game morass
in which it went 12-18 and, because of shoddy pitching, lost
eight times when it scored six runs or more; the Yankees had
suffered only nine such defeats all last season. "Actually, I
felt pretty good then," Torre says. "You know why? No one in our
division was playing well. If we'd been in the Central Division
[behind Chicago], they'd have had to pipe in daylight for us,
we'd have been so far back."

The Yankees have been a different team and Clemens a different
pitcher ever since he came off the disabled list. Clemens, who
nibbled with his splitter and slider in his first 1 1/2 seasons
in pinstripes, has been attacking hitters with his fastball
early in counts and on the inside corner of the plate. He threw
so hard last Friday night that he could hear his teammates in
the dugout cackling with excitement as the speeds of his pitches
were posted on an auxiliary scoreboard at Fenway. Clemens
occasionally peeked at the board in the early innings and then
forced himself to stop. Every pitch felt so good flying out of
his hand that he didn't want to be disappointed if a low number
flashed above him.

Before Clemens took the mound in the eighth, Yankees pitching
coach Mel Stottlemyre told him, "Empty the tank." Clemens retired
the side in order, finishing with such a ferocious strikeout of
Carl Everett that it prompted Torre to recall Los Angeles Dodgers
righthander Bob Welch's epic game-ending strikeout of the
Yankees' Reggie Jackson in the 1978 World Series. Clemens threw
eight straight fastballs to Everett. The last, his 125th pitch of
the day, sizzled past Everett at 96 mph.

When asked the next morning if Steinbrenner's criticism had
influenced his revival, Clemens snapped, "People can write
whatever they want. That's not what I think about when I'm out
there. I've got my legs under me now.... If he wants to get after
me, that's fine. But it's not going to motivate me any more than
I'm motivated. That comes from my work ethic, which comes from my
family background. My mother worked three jobs while raising six
kids. That's where the motivation comes from."

The win was the 259th for Clemens, who this summer agreed to a
three-year, $30.9 million extension. He has talked about winning
his 300th game in a Yankees uniform. Oddly, though, Clemens said
on Sunday he will consider retirement after this season:
"Nothing's set until I sit down with my family after the season.
I have a boy who just started high school. I haven't seen my
family in 14 days. I had a sister-in-law who was murdered this
summer. Those are the things that are important.... It will be
especially interesting if we are fortunate to finish up the way
we did last year, to go out like that."

Whether or not Steinbrenner is the Prod of the Yankees, general
manager Brian Cashman is their Sultan of Swap. Though heralded
deals for Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez and B.J. Surhoff fizzled,
Cashman added lefthander Denny Neagle, who through Monday had won
six of his 11 starts with New York, and six other players, all of
whom have performed better with the Yankees than they did with
their previous teams: Canseco, outfielders Glenallen Hill, David
Justice and Luis Polonia, and utilitymen Luis Sojo and Jose
Vizcaino.

Cashman made his acquisitions without giving up any major leaguer
of prominence. Besides helping New York weather injuries to
regulars like second baseman Knoblauch, centerfielder Bernie
Williams, rightfielder Paul O'Neill and leftfielder Shane
Spencer, those six additions were batting a combined .309 with 36
homers (including 16 by Justice and 12 by Hill) and 113 RBIs (48
by Justice) in 683 at bats. "Guys play better here because they
want to be here," shortstop Jeter says. "Every player wants to
win, and that's what this team is about."

Even Canseco, with his .387 on-base percentage in his part-time
role, has contributed. Cashman claimed the 36-year-old Canseco on
waivers from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to block Tampa Bay from
trading him to another contender and then was shocked when the
Devil Rays, instead of withdrawing the waivers, awarded Canseco
to the Yankees. The addition angered Torre, who hadn't been
consulted and who had planned to use Justice primarily as
designated hitter rather than in the outfield, where he would be
more likely to aggravate a strained groin muscle.

Torre, who turned 60 on July 18, has another season on his
contract. Nevertheless, the Yankees are pondering potential
replacements for him if he chooses to retire after this season,
which Torre says he doesn't plan to do. "Right now it's still fun
for me," he says. "I don't think it matters what happens in the
postseason. To me, it's a contract, and I plan to honor it. I
wouldn't even rule out [signing another one]."

Torre does have a short list of concerns to address before
October. He says he needs to get Knoblauch "comfortable again";
the second baseman, suffering from tendinitis in his right elbow,
was 1 for 18 through Monday since returning to the lineup on
Sept. 6. Moreover, as evidenced by two off-target throws to first
last Saturday, he's still plagued by his infamous scattershot
aim. Torre also needs to get setup men Jason Grimsley, Jeff
Nelson and Mike Stanton out of their slumps (chart, page 46) and
to find rest for overworked closer Mariano Rivera. Nelson, Rivera
and Stanton have a combined 1.10 ERA over 114 2/3 career
postseason innings.

The Yankees are 35-10 in postseason games since 1996, including
18 wins in their past 19 games. The kind of crisp baseball they
played in Boston appeared to be a dress rehearsal for October.
Patience at the plate and timely hitting supported the strong
pitching of Clemens and Pettitte. For instance, though the
Yankees got only two hits in the first six innings, they wore
down Martinez by forcing him to throw 92 pitches. Then, with New
York trailing 1-0 in the seventh, third baseman Scott Brosius
belted a two-strike, two-out changeup into the leftfield screen
for a three-run homer, only the second three-run dinger allowed
by Martinez in nearly two years. On Sunday, Brosius banged a
two-run shot in the second inning that gave New York a lead it
never relinquished.

Brosius may be the consummate Yankee, a guy with a knack for a
clutch hit who is so humble he keeps his 1998 World Series MVP
trophy stashed away in a closet at home. Whether Brosius and the
rest of the lords of the rings add to their collection may depend
greatly on Clemens, who's uniquely motivated to earn some more
jewelry. When the Yankees received their team-ordered rings
before a game on May 29, Clemens was shocked to find that his
ring was inscribed not with his 22 but with 33--the number worn by
Wells. He immediately gave the ring back to a club official to
return to the manufacturer. Clemens refused an offer to have the
ring replaced. "I don't want it and never will," he says. "It's
the principle. Very odd, don't you think? It upset a lot of guys
on the team, I know that."

This time, with a lead role, Clemens may give the Yankees another
chance to get it right.

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Boosted by a retro Rocket and a host of newcomers, the Yankees, including Jorge Posada (right), ripped the Red Sox and established themselves--again--as the team to beat. [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK SOLOMON I'M HOME On Sunday a hard-charging Jeter eluded Scott Hatteberg's tag to score from third on Williams's grounder in a 6-2 Yankees win. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON ROGER AND OUT? Despite his resurgence Clemens is hinting at imminent retirement.

A Blot by the Pen

Chuck Knoblauch's arm isn't the only one the Yankees are worried
about. If New York is to thrive in the postseason, three
heretofore reliable members of the Yankees setup
corps--righthanders Jason Grimsley and Jeff Nelson (above) and
lefty Mike Stanton--must snap out of their second-half funk. Here
are the trio's numbers in relief before and after the All-Star
Game through Monday (ranked according to second-half
ERA). --David Sabino

FIRST HALF SECOND HALF
RELIEVER W-L ERA OPP. BA W-L ERA OPP. BA

Jeff Nelson 6-2 1.69 .156 1-1 4.24 .242
Jason Grimsley 2-2 2.98 .256 0-0 5.81 .242
Mike Stanton 2-1 2.89 .252 0-2 8.00 .301

"Guys play better here because they want to be here," says Jeter
of his new mates. "Every player wants to win, and that's what
this team is about."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)