Few Clouds 33° Good Morning
Few Clouds 33° Good Morning

Many turning points, heroes in championship year

Yankees manager Joe Girardi holds up the World

Yankees manager Joe Girardi holds up the World Series trophy. (November 4, 2009) Photo Credit: Getty Images

A season that began under a cloud ended in a downpour of champagne.

As a brief synopsis of the 2009 Yankees, who won the franchise's 27th world championship Wednesday night, that works as well as any, though it's probably a bit simplistic.

And there was nothing simple about this season for the Yankees, regardless of their 103-59 regular-season record - the best in baseball - and 11-4 postseason record.

"It's such a long season, I feel like it's Christmas Day today," Mark Teixeira said, speaking more of the time of year than anything. "But in the end we worked so hard all year. The joy, the satisfaction that we have with each other. The fun that we're having right now . . . it's all worth it."

Make no mistake, this was no rags-to-riches, underdog-takes-it-all story. Not with a payroll that again topped $200 million and the nearly $425 million committed to free agents Teixeira, A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia.

But money doesn't mean things will be easy and certainly doesn't ensure a world championship. Previous Yankees teams of this decade proved that.

What was different this year?

Many players point to Joe Girardi.

The ultra-intense second-year manager didn't so much change from his first season as much as he recognized changes needed to be made, such as showing a more human side to his players. Just as important, he brought to spring training the goal of engendering team bonding, something missing before.

"This year I think he did something special," Mariano Rivera said of Girardi. "He tried to put us together since the first three weeks of spring training and I think that helps a lot."

Part of that was canceling one spring training workout in favor of a team-wide pool tournament. Natural personalities such as Nick Swisher, Burnett and Sabathia were allowed, and encouraged, to flourish.

Girardi also helped in the players' presenting a united front Feb. 17 when Alex Rodriguez provided the season's first cloud with a news conference he repeatedly has referred to as "embarrassing."

And although A-Rod's performance that day and during some of the days that followed caused plenty of eye-rolling, both inside and outside the clubhouse, there was no doubt the steroid admissions had humbled Rodriguez in a way no past postseason failure had.

And then came what Rodriguez called hitting "the bottom," hip surgery that caused him to miss the first five weeks of the season.

"You have 25 guys that bought into Joe Girardi's system and did a phenomenal job," Rodriguez said early Thursday morning. "We're family. I wish we could come out tomorrow and play for no reason. Because we love it. That's how much we love each other."

A-Rod made a memorable return to the lineup May 8 in Baltimore, hitting a three-run homer on the first pitch he saw. Beginning with the victory that night, the Yankees went a baseball-best 90-44 to end the regular season.

But again, citing A-Rod's return date is overly simplistic in terms of evaluating the season.

Because that overshadows such details as Sabathia taking the mound with a 1-3 record that same night and pitching a shutout to send him on his way to a 19-8 season and true "ace" status, especially in the postseason.

Or that Teixeira's early-season slump continued for a few days, reaching its nadir May 12 at .191 before he began his climb to MVP-like numbers. Or that a 4-3 loss in Boston June 11 dropped the Yankees to 0-8 against their blood rival (anyone remember that now?).

Anyone recall that as late as June 23, after a 4-0 loss to Atlanta, the Yankees (38-32) trailed Boston by five games?

Maybe the key date was June 8, when Phil Hughes made his first relief appearance. "We really had no idea what to expect," Girardi said several times during the season as Hughes kept dominating.

Hughes' postseason struggles aside, what the Yankees got was a lockdown setup man for Rivera, a setup man who had a 1.40 ERA in in 511/3 innings in which he allowed 31 hits and struck out 65.

And there was Rivera, who at 39 had one of his best seasons, saving 44 games in 46 opportunities with a 1.76 ERA, then being even more of a lockdown guarantee in the postseason. Afterward, he said he felt as if he could pitch five more years.

"I'm serious," said Rivera, who has one year left on his contract.

Rivera was part of the Core Four - along with Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte - who stood tall all season. Jeter had an MVP-caliber year at the plate and in the field. Pettitte won all three clinching games in the postseason, raising his postseason victory total to a record 18.

For the Core, it had seemed like longer than nine years.

"I forgot how good it felt," Jeter said. "This is outstanding. It's a long year. Couldn't ask for anything better."

Nor could Hal Steinbrenner who, while lacking his famous father's bombast, doesn't lack his expectations.

"We try to do it every year," Hal Steinbrenner said on the field shortly after accepting the World Series trophy from commissioner Bud Selig. "We set out every year, that's our goal and we don't feel like we succeed unless we do it, and we did it."

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