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Bombers aging, but know how to win

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© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000

NEW YORK -- They are old now. They are creaking.

They are in the last days of their dynasty, these Yankees. More and more, you hear that and, more and more, there is evidence it is true. Yeah, the Yankees are still pretty good, the talk goes, but you should have seen them last year. Or the year before that.

They are slowing now. They are fading.

They are showing their age, these Yankees. It was never more obvious than Saturday night, when they seemed less energetic, less fluid, than the challengers from across town, the Mets.

They are tiring now. They are slipping.

Still, they are the Yankees.

Still, they are warriors.

Great teams remind us of old lessons. Such as this one: There is such a thing as knowing how to win a game. There is something about a team that is at its best when the game matters most, when the game is almost lost, when the other team has the taste of blood in its mouth.

Take Saturday night, when the Yankees showed the entire nation of New York that they are magnificent still.

They were on the ropes and, seemingly, they were over the hill. They looked older than time, older than Cher, older than Yankee Stadium itself, so old that when Don Larsen threw out the opening pitch, the suggestion was that Joe Torre should stick him in the rotation immediately. At the time, the Yankees dynasty looked every bit as past tense as that of the Mings. Or Notre Dame's.

At the time, it was 3-2, Mets, and only sheer luck and Mets baserunning blunders had kept it that close. The Mets had closer Armando Benitez on the mound, and there were only two outs to go, and the Yankees had the bottom of their order coming up, and bookmakers already were laying odds on when George Steinbrenner was going to start firing people.

But the Yankees, like no team as of late, know the way home from here. Despite the money they make, which is staggering, and despite the accomplishments on their resume, also staggering, there is a quality to a champion. Call it heart or will or aura. But it exists. The later the night gets, the younger the Yankees become. And in the big moments, they are lean and quick and hungry as ever.

The ninth-inning rally started with Paul O'Neill, struggling most of the playoffs, drawing a walk. Then came Luis Polonia, singling to right. Then Jose Vizcaino singled to left to load the bases. Then Chuck Knoblauch hit a sacrifice fly. Easy as that, it was tied.

Three innings later, and the Yankees were at it again. A single by Tino Martinez with one out. A double by Jorge Posada. An intentional walk to O'Neill. A Luis Sojo foulout. Then Vizcaino, as unlikely a hero as you could imagine, a player in the lineup only because he hit fairly well against Al Leiter, who had departed like, 14 hours earlier, spanked a single to left.

This is what champions do. Even when they are beyond knocking you out, they claw and scratch and hang around, and then, before you know it has happened, they have turned back time.

By Yankee standards, this has been a difficult year. In seasons past, the Yankees simply rolled over the American League, and the biggest challenge to winning a World Series was counting up how many titles that made it. This year, they had the look of an aging emperor. They were not as deep. They were not as dangerous.

The Mets, on the other hand, came across as young, fresh, fun. The Yankees seemed old, stodgy, a product of yesterday.

But remember this. An old lion still eats.

Because their payroll is so staggering compared to that of some teams, these Yankees have never completely gotten their due for winning four of the previous five World Series. You look at Steinbrenner's receipts, and you shrug and call it the best team money could buy, and you don't dare compare it with Ruth's dynasty or DiMagggio's or Mantle's.

That's not entirely fair. For one thing, other teams have found a way to spend big and win little. For another thing, New York spent more than Detroit and Philadelphia in the old days, too. And back then, the Yankees didn't have to worry about losing players to free agency.

Remember the money, if you wish. But remember the moments, too. Remember the charge from behind to beat the Braves in Game 4 in 1996. And remember this night, when the upstarts from across town came to Yankee Stadium and tried to take a piece of what was theirs.

Who knows? Maybe it happens still. This has the feel of a six- or seven-game Series. Maybe the Yankees turn old, after all.

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