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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Against Core Four backdrop, rookies make their mark

Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees hits

Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees hits a home run in his first MLB at bat during the second inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium on August 13, 2016. Credit: Getty Images / Rich Schultz

Alex Rodriguez, as promised, was gone Saturday morning. The only artifacts left from his 12-year stay in the Bronx was the nameplate above his locker, which contained two baseballs, a cap, a few pairs of spikes and assorted workout gear.

Coordinating A-Rod’s early dismissal had been an exhausting process for the Yankees, devouring the past week. But filing the paperwork for his unconditional release, effective in 48 hours, was not the only thing on the front office’s agenda before Saturday’s game against the Rays. Far more significant was the promotion of two highly regarded young prospects, Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge, with Joe Girardi immediately writing them into the lineup.

Girardi still was dealing with a bit of an A-Rod hangover, but Brian Cashman, who held court outside the Yankees’ clubhouse, appeared energized by the turnover, as general managers often are by the arrival of promising talent. Not that Cashman needed any affirmation, but the Yankees also happened to be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1996 World Series title, the one that launched the dynasty — and served as the origin story for the Core Four.

The legends of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Jorge Posada were in their infancy in ’96. Bernie Williams, though older, belongs in that same magical mix as well. What better group to emphasize the power of potential?

It was against this backdrop that Cashman introduced Austin and Judge, two sleep-deprived, nervous kids now saddled with reviving a franchise.

“It’s a new day,” Cashman said. “And it’s been a new day quite a lot lately.”

Look what’s happened since the All-Star break. The Yankees traded away their most valuable assets for a handful of top 100 prospects before the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline, helped Mark Teixeira announce his pending retirement and then orchestrated A-Rod’s controversial exit — 14 months before his contract was up. That’s a hectic few weeks.

And along the way, they’ve climbed back into the wild-card race with four straight victories, the latest an 8-4 win over the Rays.

The Yankees matched a season high with five home runs, and not one was hit by a player older than 26. Austin and Judge, batting seventh and eighth, also made history by becoming the first rookies to homer in their first major-league plate appearances in the same game for the same team. Austin belted an opposite-field shot that sliced inside the rightfield foul pole and Judge followed with a spectacular blast that caromed off the tinted glass in center before plopping down into the netting above Monument Park.

“You can’t draw it up any better,” Girardi said.

And what a relief for the manager, who broke down in tears the previous night in discussing the emotional strain of A-Rod Week. To see the Yankees’ blueprint start to pay off so quickly also had to be gratifying for Cashman, who has insisted that they have the pieces to construct a championship team, and sooner rather than later.

The Core Four never realized they were on the brink of greatness when they first broke in together during the ’96 season. Even Jeter didn’t dare to dream about a handful of rings. He was too busy trying to keep his job, like any other 21-year-old rookie. But being around each other and creating that winning attitude made them believe great things were possible. That’s what the Yankees are trying to cultivate again.

“I think it happens to every team, every organization, at some point,” Jeter said. “You have to try to find that right mix of young players and veteran players. But you’ve got to take it one step at a time. You can’t just say we’re going to win a bunch of championships.”

As a fading Jeter was finishing his days in the Bronx, October baseball was no longer a guarantee for the Yankees, and odds are they won’t make the playoffs this year, either, for the third time in four seasons. But there is more reason to hope now, just as there was in the early ’90s, and Saturday provided more glimpses of that.

“It’s a great time to be a Yankee,” Judge said.

And just wait until instructor A-Rod gets to tutor them next spring.


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