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Yankees begin as frontrunners



Special to ESPN.com

Sept. 29

It has been this way every year but one ('97) since Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera began their run in 1996: the road to the World Series runs through Yankee Stadium.

Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter has been a playoff catalyst for the Yankees.

Are they prohibitive favorites? No, because they, like every one of the eight teams in the playoffs, have warts and vulnerabilities. Hey, the Twins can get to the ALCS again. After all, they have been the best team in the league in the second half, they have the best bullpen of the four postseason American League teams and Johan Santana and Brad Radke are hot starters. So can Oakland, with a hot week from Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Ted Lilly. Or the Red Sox, in some mano a mano version of the Thrilla in Manila.

But before you start planning on a Cubs-Red Sox or Twins-Marlins World Series, give the Yankees their props. They have not been healthy all season. Jeter is an October fulcrum unlike anyone else. Mike Mussina is not only 20-2 against the Twins, but he, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens have restored their starting pitching to near-April levels. Jason Giambi swung the bat the last week better than any time since he began dealing with knee and hand problems, and Mariano Rivera rolled through September.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, the bridge from the starters to Rivera is something out of the Nepal foothills unless Jose Contreras emerges as a postseason giant. The defense is sometimes erratic (oh, that BaggyDome turf and mainsail roof in the daytime!), and the starters did get racquetballed by the Angels. Yeah, yeah, yeah, these are not your Tino Martinez Yankees.

But October is about pressure, and it is pressure that makes the Yankees the favorites, yet the most vulnerable. Torre, Jeter, Clemens, Rivera, Jorge Posada, et al, have dealt with expectation for eight years, and by and large, handled it with dignity and excellence. They survived injuries and the bizarre rantings of owner Phinneas T. Bluster to stave off what amounted to the invasion of the Visigoths dressed in Red Sox uniforms.

Yet there is a truth first written by the great and elegant Roger Angell, that when two teams end up in a protracted and passionate series, the team having the most fun wins. It has to do with who has what to lose and who doesn't. But check your World Series histories and explain how else the two worst recent teams to win it all in terms of paper talent -- the '85 Royals and '88 Dodgers -- beat the Cardinals and A's, respectively?

In this regular season, see Marlins v. Phillies, or the Red Sox. One of the year's most clichéd absurdities was criticism of the Boston players' celebration of making the tournament, when it was about the love of playing, the joy of being able to play in October and the rollin'-and-tumblin' fling these baseball lifers have had with the most passionate fan base in balldom, culminating in Kevin Millar, Todd Walker, Derek Lowe, Lou Merloni and Gabe Kapler running down Yawkey Way in their cleats and uniform pants with 500 fans in pursuit, then going into The Baseball Tavern, hurdling the bar and begin bartending.

The greatest barrier facing the Yankees is that they have to win. In George Steinbrenner's world, losing is not an alternative. If they win, they did their job, like a GM assembly worker, or a toll taker on the Garden State Parkway. If they lose, Phinneas T. Boss will ...

... be quoted a lot.

The Twins have nothing to lose. They are very good, they learned a lot last October, they have the BaggyDome and a lot of Corey Koskies, Doug Mientkiewiczes and Shannon Stewarts who can rise to any occasion. The A's have the self-imposed pressure of trying to win one time before the statute of limitations runs out on their $50 million payroll. The Red Sox have the pressure of the Calvinistic and misanthrope media, but Nomar Garciaparra and David Ortiz are seemingly immune to every dreary, irrelevant mention of Babe Ruth, Joe McCarthy, Bucky Dent or Bill Buckner. Chicago, of course, is a far, far different and forgiving baseball culture than New England, so the only National League entrant with the pressures of the past are the Braves, whose 12 straight first-place finishes don't satisfy some.

If the Yankees win again, they will have overcome more than any Marlin or Athletic will ever understand. But if the Yankees do win, they will not be allowed to feel what those Red Sox Visigoths or Marlins or Cubs would feel, because they're damned well expected to win at that price.

And the winners are ...
It is a game of performance, and if Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Gary Sheffield, Jim Thome, Eric Gagne or Ivan Rodriguez had played in the American League, they would be the Most Valuable Player.

None of them do. Alex Rodriguez had another great year. He is the best player in the league, he loves the game and he does care. But as Jayson Stark pointed out, when the Rangers most needed him, he wasn't playing well, and his role as Tom Hicks' advisor burdened them with so many (Chan) Ho Ho Ho contracts that it doomed them again. Sorry. Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells have cases.

David Ortiz
First baseman/DH
Boston Red Sox
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
AB BA HR RBI OBP OPS
445 .288 31 101 .370 .963

MVP is about value to a team, and that value comes statistically and, some years, emotionally. Three weeks ago Bobby Valentine called it -- "David Ortiz is this year's Miguel Tejada." Big hits. Emotion in the stretch when teams need heart and energy. In the stretch in Chicago, Ortiz had homered to put the Red Sox ahead in a crucial game, and when Mike Timlin allowed a home run to tie it in the bottom of the inning, the ESPN camera caught Ortiz with his arm around Timlin, promising they would pick him up.

Ortiz won it in the 10th with another home run.

I buy the Jorge Posada argument. When I asked White Sox players, they singled out Carlos Lee as their MVP. Oakland owner Steve Schott wiped out any chance Tejada would repeat.

There's something about Ortiz, beyond the homers and RBI. Magic. Remember, it was Ron Gardenhire at the break who singled out the loss of Ortiz as the biggest change in the Twins, and in separate interviews on ESPN in the last 10 days, Torii Hunter and Mientkiewicz said the same. Remember all those blown leads and the half-dozen worst losses of the season? And they always came back. Ortiz was that soul, with Kevin Millar his archangel.

Barry Bonds over Albert Pujols. Roy Halladay over Pedro Martinez and Esteban Loaiza. Gagne. Angel Berroa as AL rookie of the year, and even if you, as I, are insulted by the ethnocentric demeaning of Japanese baseball by considering Hideki Matsui a rookie, Jody Gerut had better numbers, and Rocco Baldelli is a magic man. Brandon Webb was the best rookie pitcher in the game, but what Dontrelle Willis did to spark the improbable rise of The Phish cannot go unrewarded.

Singling out one manager is unfair, but Felipe Alou took over a team with 50 percent of its lineup and 60 percent of its rotation changed, his closer gone, and still went to the final day with a shot at the league's best record. So he gets it, over Dusty Baker, Jack McKeon and the remarkable Frank Robinson. In the American League, what Tony Pena wrought in Kansas City was remarkable, although Lou Piniella had just as big an impact on the Devil Dogs.

Executives of the year? Brian Sabean and Ken Williams.

But as a reminder as to how smart we all are: Ortiz was a non-tender, and Loaiza was a last-minute, no-one-wants-him signing.

News and notes
  • Can Mark Mulder come back this season? Probably not. But because of a hormone treatment called Forteo that could be one of the most significant medical breakthroughs of the last decade, it's possible. The drug is to build bone mass and heal osteopathic fractures, an osteoporosis miracle, and it is assumed that it can help in the healing of all fractures, which is why it is part of the treatment for Mulder and Michael Vick. Mulder has been running in water and throwing, and nothing has been written off.

  • Rangers owner Tom Hicks expects that the club will drop its payroll by 25 percent, which Scott Boras believes violates the "commitment" the club made to Alex Rodriguez. This is all understandable, but A-Rod is unmovable and won't get that contract anywhere else. He was put on waivers and went unclaimed in August. But no one should question his desire to win.

    Matt Mantei
    Closer
    Arizona Diamondbacks
    Profile
    2003 SEASON STATISTICS
    IP H BB SO S ERA
    55.0 37 18 68 29 2.62

  • Arizona's hopes of moving Matt Mantei's contract along with Curt Schilling and/or Junior Spivey may not be possible. Mantei picked up his $7 million option for next season, then revealed he pitched in pain with a bad shoulder from May through the end of the season. With his medical history, no other club may be willing to take him on.

  • It's already presumed that Tejada will end up in Anaheim and Kaz Matsui in Seattle, but their agents insist nothing is close to set in stone. In fact, there are those who think Matsui will end up with the Dodgers or the Mets.

  • The attention on the Giants' "no mas" approach to Monday's makeup game was on San Francisco, but the fact is that the Mets didn't want to play. They want the Bruce Springsteen revenues from Wednesday night's show, and Springsteen's roadies needed to be set up Monday.

  • How cool was it that Eddie Vedder went to see his beloved Cubs on Thursday in Cincinnati, and gave an impromptu concert in the Reds clubhouse? If the Cubs make the Series, Vedder had better throw out one first pitch and do the seventh-inning stretch. When he first began writing songs, he'd go to a donut shop near Wrigley and compose.

  • As if the end of the season wasn't bad enough for the Mariners, one of their pitching bonus boys, 6-foot-9 right-hander Justin Ockerman, is going this winter to Michigan State, where he's projected as the Spartans' starting power forward -- with the Mariners paying his college bills under the tuition bonus plan.

  • The Reds have put out the word they next want to dump Junior Griffey, Sean Casey and Danny Graves.

  • The Commissioner's Office decreed that no clubhouse or dugout can have television monitors because of the Seattle protest about the Red Sox having a flat screen TV in the bullpen. Incidentally, when the ban was instituted, the Red Sox had a better record, higher batting average, more home runs per game and .7 more runs a game without the TV on in the 'pen. Excuses, excuses.

  • There is a lot of enthusiasm for Wally Backman to replace Jerry Manuel in Chicago, but what about Cito Gaston? How can a man win consecutive world championships and not manage again?

  • And why is Dave Stewart not interviewed in Cincinnati? Incidentally, several GMs have suggested that if Omar Minaya gets the Reds' GM job, the logical candidate for the Expos' job is female L.A. assistant GM Kim Ng.

  • Thank goodness the Rockies decided to retain Dan O'Dowd, despite some media pressure. The farm system has been restored, they have young pitching -- but whether or not any team can win at Coors Lite is another matter, entirely.

  • While the Red Sox are clearly afraid of Scott Williamson in the postseason, Jason Varitek says "Scott Saurbeck will be our biggest surprise."

  • The Giants' surprise will be Edgardo Alfonso.

  • And while the Giants are 65-27 in one-run games at Pac Bell since it opened, former Reds GM Jim Bowden says, "there is no better manager at playing littleball and one-run baseball than Jack McKeon."

  • Life isn't fair: Adam Kennedy has busted his tail to improve defensively, then, fearing a non-tender if the Angels sign Tejada, broke his hand the final weekend of the season.





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