World Domination

Conventional wisdom says that baseball, more than ever, has become a young man's game. So how did one of the oldest teams in World Series history win the title with such ease?
November 16, 2009

The body lay motionless, covered in towels on a training table. Next to the table was an IV stand with a tube connecting a bag of saline solution to the body. It was the eighth inning of the third game of the 2009 World Series when Jason Zillo, the Yankees director of media relations, walked into the visitors' training room at Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia and spied the unidentified player and the two trainers and physician attending to him. Alarmed, Zillo quickly returned to the Yankees clubhouse, where he ran into Joba Chamberlain, who had pitched the previous inning for New York.

"Who is that in there?" Zillo asked.

Chamberlain smiled and said, "The old lefthander."

The old lefthander, 37-year-old Andy Pettitte, had just thrown 104 pitches over six innings before his body fairly shut down from fatigue and stress. "Like something just zapped my legs," he would say nearly a week later. It had been a long, cold night, and even before the first pitch Pettitte had burned up a lot of nervous energy because of an 80-minute rain delay. The fifth inning had been a particular drain; in the top half he singled in the tying run and scored the go-ahead run. In the bottom half, while dashing off the mound to cover first base on a grounder by Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, he felt the strength in his legs leaving him.

Pettitte pushed through another inning, allowing a home run to Jayson Werth, before handing a 7--4 lead to Chamberlain in a game New York would win 8--5 to take a Series lead that it would not relinquish. "I was just exhausted," he says. When he got to the clubhouse, the training staff advised an IV drip to assist his muscular recovery. After all, there was a good chance that Pettitte would have to pitch again in four days, with the World Series on the line, and he hadn't pitched on short rest since September 2006, a span of 104 starts.

The old lefthander, of course, would win two World Series games in four days, including the 7--3 series-sealing victory in which he grinded through 5 2/3 innings. Only two starting pitchers have ever been older when they won a World Series clincher: Burleigh Grimes in 1931 and Eddie Plank in 1913, both at age 38. Plank, a Hall of Famer from the Dead Ball era, and Pettitte are the oldest pitchers to win a World Series clincher on three days' rest.

When Yankees übercloser Mariano Rivera, who turns 40 at the end of this month, got the 27th out of the 27th World Series clincher for the Yankees, it was as if baseball, after eight years in which seven franchises took turns on top, was rebooted to its default status. The game's best team had won. It was the first time the outright leader in regular-season victories had won the World Series since the 1998 Yankees did so.

These 103-win Yankees might not have been as historically great as the 114-win Yankees of '98, but they were off the charts actuarially speaking. A 37-year-old pitcher coming off short rest and an IV drip, backed up by a closer about to turn 40, joined forces with an old catcher, an old left side of the infield and an old designated hitter who'd be named the World Series MVP—an old roster, period—to win the Yankees' first world championship in nine years. In doing so, New York defied the industry trend of emphasizing young, athletic players. The Series MVP, 35-year-old Hideki Matsui, who tied a 49-year-old World Series record in Game 6 with six RBIs, was one of five Yankees 33 years of age or older who made at least 400 plate appearances this season. The others were third baseman Alex Rodriguez, 34; shortstop Derek Jeter, 35; leftfielder Johnny Damon, 36; and catcher Jorge Posada, 37. Among baseball's 105 world champions, only the 2001 Diamondbacks, with six, relied so heavily on so many veterans.

To depend so much on older players was a perilous gambit. To see how risky it was, look no further than the team's closest rival, the Red Sox. Boston counted on thirtysomething position players in almost exactly the same numbers and places as the Yankees: a 33-year-old DH (David Ortiz), a 35-year-old third baseman coming off hip surgery (Mike Lowell), a 33-year-old shortstop (Julio Lugo), a 33-year-old corner outfielder (J.D. Drew) and a 37-year old catcher (Jason Varitek). All of them had down years. While the Boston Old Guard hit a collective .257 with 84 home runs and 301 RBIs, the New York Old Guard hit .295 with 122 home runs and 419 RBIs.

Within hours of winning a title, all teams immediately confront the question: Can they do it again? The Yankees will most likely be the 2010 American League favorite; they are just as likely to seek some younger legs. Damon, who, as if on cue, had to leave the clincher with a muscle strain in his right calf; Matsui, who hasn't played the outfield regularly in two years; and Pettitte are all free agents. Jeter and Rivera are signed through next season, Posada through 2011 and Rodriguez through 2017.

None of those seven Yankees, however, showed obvious signs of decline this year. Jeter, for instance, stole 30 bases and hit .334, a combination untouched at that age in 84 years, and done before then only by three Hall of Famers: Max Carey, Eddie Collins and Honus Wagner. Rivera, the first man to pitch in five World Series--clinching wins, told Yankee Stadium fans during the trophy presentation that he wants to play another five seasons. "I'm serious," he reaffirmed later that night.

Damon and Matsui present the most pressing questions for the Yankees as the team tries to shape the defense of its title. Damon turned himself into an extreme fly ball hitter to take advantage of the new, homer-friendly Yankee Stadium, where his OPS was 120 points higher than it was on the road. Defense, especially his throwing, is not his strong suit. The club needs to get younger and more athletic in the outfield. (The other starting corner outfielder, Nick Swisher, turns 29 this month and was sometimes removed for defensive reasons.) Matsui had the second-highest slugging percentage of his MLB career and, like Damon, has the perfect stroke for the new stadium, but his inability to play the field clogs the DH spot, which manager Joe Girardi will most likely want to open up for a rotation of his aging players, Posada and Rodriguez in particular.

Pettitte, though, may be less disposable, given the rotation's limited depth. (There was a good reason the Yankees went with a three-man rotation through the entire postseason.) The old lefthander says he will repair to his Texas ranch for bow hunting, four-wheeling and just plain relaxing before he decides whether he wants to keep pitching or retire. "I know I'm close," Pettitte says of retirement. "I can't sit here and tell you exactly when. You never know what can happen, but I don't think three years from now I'll be pitching or trying to pitch. It's getting close to that time."

Pettitte weighed the same decision last winter, though then it was complicated by the condition of his shoulder, a nonissue now. Pettitte pitched through pain at the end of the 2008 season, after which he was examined by doctors from the Yankees and the Astros. If instability that suggested an injury waiting to happen was found in his left shoulder, Pettitte decided he would quit. "The last thing that I wanted to go through was to break down during the season," he says.

The reports from both doctors were encouraging. His shoulder would be fine with stretching and resistance exercises. He decided to keep pitching, and, though other teams were interested, he wanted to continue on with the Yankees.

"I thought, I'm going to come back," he says. "I wanted to pitch in the new ballpark and make a run at this thing with the boys I came up with. This was about the time of [the Yankees'] signing CC [Sabathia] and A.J. [Burnett]. I'm looking at the team and going, Oh, my gosh. If I can stay healthy and A.J. and CC stay healthy, we have a chance to win the World Series."

There was one hitch. The Yankees, after doling out $423.5 million in free-agent contracts for Sabathia, Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira, were not sure if they had room left in the budget for Pettitte. "It wasn't about Andy Pettitte," the team's managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner says. "We had a payroll number in mind. I'm a financial guy, what can I say?"

Pettitte was coming off a 14-win season in which he led the Yankees in innings and strikeouts in the wake of his December 2007 admission that he had used HGH earlier in his career. New York G.M. Brian Cashman signed him for a below-market guarantee of $5.5 million. He earned another $5 million in performance bonuses. Pettitte gave the Yankees another 14 wins and his usual reliability, missing a single start, his first in five seasons. Since 1995, when Pettitte broke into the big leagues, he has more wins than any pitcher in baseball (229) and more starts (458) and innings (2,926 1/3) than any pitcher except Greg Maddux.

The new $1.5 billion ballpark turned out to be more than just an inspiration for him to come back. "I love to run," he says. "I've always had a mind-set about sticking to my workouts like, I'm not going to pitch well unless I do this and that." The new stadium is equipped with a small pool that has a current in it which allows a user to swim in place. Dana Cavalea, the club's strength and conditioning coordinator, persuaded Pettitte to use the pool in between starts as a workout and cut down on his running, to put less stress on his body. "As you get older," Pettitte says, "you have to be a little more open to adjustments in your routine."

Pettitte also enjoyed the bigger, brighter weight room in the new stadium, a welcome contrast to the cramped, dark facility in the old stadium. "It's like working in an office that doesn't have good lighting, and the workplace production is not as good," he says. "Then you change the lighting, and it brightens your day. It's a better working environment."

That Pettitte and the older Yankees remained strong into November was also made possible, in part, because the Red Sox did not challenge them in September. The Yankees held a comfy nine-game lead on Boston on Labor Day, and Girardi spent the month preparing for the playoffs by giving his everyday players occasional rests and his pitchers extra days off between starts. The plethora of off days in the postseason schedule also worked to the advantage of the older Yankees. New York had more off days (16) than game days (15) in October and November. By the time he took the ball on short rest for Game 6, Pettitte had made eight consecutive starts with at least one extra day off.

If the Phillies had won Game 6, the Yankees would have given the ball to Sabathia in Game 7 for what would have been his second start of the Series—and third of the postseason—on short rest. Says Pettitte, "I felt like we were treating [Game 6] like a Game 7. I know I was. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I didn't want to put it on CC in a Game 7."

Pettitte is the John Updike of the postseason, his oeuvre both consistent and prolific. He has won more postseason games (18) than anyone else while pitching to a 3.90 ERA, a tick better than his career mark of 3.91. With his appearance in Game 6, he became the only pitcher ever to start three clinching games in one postseason and the only one to start three World Series clinchers in his career. In the 86 World Series games played since 1993, Pettitte has three wins on short rest, as many as all other starters in baseball combined. In World Series history only Bob Gibson (five) and Ken Holtzman (four) have more wins starting on short rest.

In Game 6 Pettitte worked his way through nine base runners, punctuated by occasional fist pumps and a rare barking episode at an umpire. After throwing 10 balls on 11 pitches in one stretch in the fourth inning, Pettitte asked umpire Joe West where one particular close pitch missed, but West gave him no reply. When Pettitte walked off the mound after at last finishing a scoreless inning, he stopped to scold West.

"Why won't you acknowledge me?" Pettitte says he told West. "At least give me something, whether the ball was down or away. Whenever I say something, can you please answer me?"

Matsui provided Pettitte with the runs he needed with two-run hits in triplicate: a home run in the second, a single in the third (both off an ineffective Pedro Martinez) and a double in the fifth. Jeter, the oldest shortstop on a world championship team since Pee Wee Reese of the 1955 Dodgers, rapped three hits and scored two runs. Rodriguez, making good on his postseason plan not to chase pitches, twice turned walks into runs.

In the end, or at least what one fan in the upper deck prematurely believed to be the end, Rivera was pitching with Posada behind the plate, as familiar a postseason sight as Pettitte intently staring out from between the top of his glove and the bill of his cap like the gunner of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, or Jeter, with that mechanized inside-out swing, fighting off pitches as if shooing away bees, somehow shooting them to safe landing spots in rightfield. "We're like brothers," Jeter says of the four Yankees with five championship rings.

As the Phillies' Shane Victorino mustered a 10-pitch resistance against Rivera with two outs in the ninth inning, fouling off pitch after pitch, somebody on the third base side of home plate in the top tier of Yankee Stadium let loose a bunch of shimmery, metallic-looking confetti. The stuff cartwheeled and flip-flopped, catching the stadium lights here and there like snowflakes in moonlight. As Victorino kept fighting for the last shred of Philadelphia's playoff life, the confetti fluttered all the way to the field.

It was a cinematic moment, a real-life snow-globe scene worth preserving in memory for its historic familiarity. Rivera throwing to Posada, with Jeter at shortstop ready for another victory leap, and Pettitte prepared to run from the dugout to join them with yet another postseason win in his back pocket. It was a moment when they were the same old Yankees again. And no greater compliment could they seek.

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It was as if baseball, after eight years in which seven teams took turns on top, was rebooted to its default status. The best team had won.

"We're like brothers," Jeter says of the four Yankees with five championship rings.

PHOTOPhotograph by ERICK W. RASCO27TH HEAVEN Rivera (left of Rodriguez, 13) was, as always, at the center of things in the clincher, but Series MVP Matsui (third from right) was far from a fringe player. TWO PHOTOSDAMIAN STROHMEYERCOUNCIL OF ELDERS All over 33, Pettitte (left) won a pair of games, A-Rod (below right, with Teixeira) knocked in six runs and Matsui was the Series MVP. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (TEIXEIRA AND RODRIGUEZ)[See caption above] PHOTOROD MARSOX APPEAL Expect Boston to make a renewed run at King Felix. PHOTOPOOL/GETTY IMAGESOLD SCHOOL The core of (top, from left) Pettitte, Posada, Jeter and Rivera is likely to be back, as will Swisher (middle), but Matsui, who got a bubbly bath from Sabathia, may have to depart. TWO PHOTOSAL TIELEMANS[See caption above]

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