Yankees arrive at desired destination

NEW YORK -- The home clubhouse at the new Yankee Stadium has everything the pampered, modern-day ballplayer could want -- except intimacy. As franchise icon Yogi Berra so memorably observed after taking his first spin through the place in April, "If you want to talk to a guy, you have to walk half a mile.''

Funny, but the place doesn't seem so cavernous when the locker stalls are covered in plastic, there's a makeshift podium in the middle and joyous players are trooping through the front door to find bottles of Chandon California Brut Classic lined up on the table in front of them.

When high-priced athletes cast aside their inhibitions and act like complete goofballs, it's a case of fraternal bonding at its finest.

Shortly after Sunday turned to Monday, this patch of land in the Bronx was the scene of a ruckus. The New York Yankees had just beaten the Los Angeles Angels 5-2 to capture the American League pennant and earn a spot in the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, and the players reveled in their achievement.

As Derek Jeter, ALCS MVP CC Sabathia and the team's other stars stood still for quickie interviews, backup catcher Francisco Cervelli roamed the clubhouse pulling off champagne sneak attacks. After holding a relatively subdued celebration following their recent ALDS victory over Minnesota, the Yankees cut loose for a good 15 to 20 minutes.

"I don't care how many times you've been here,'' said Jeter, champagne dripping off his cap. "It still feels good.''

Yet jubilation inevitably gave way to perspective. The Yankees haven't been to a World Series since 2003, and they endured a long winter of soul-searching after failing to make the playoffs in 2008. So, it was inevitable that some voices of reason would emerge.

One belonged to outfielder Johnny Damon, who played for Boston's curse-busting title team in 2004 before signing with New York as a free agent. After many of his teammates fled the scene and retired to a back room for a more quiet celebration, Damon nursed a Bud Light and cast a contemplative eye toward the future.

"You always want to have that title when you're done playing, to be a winner,'' Damon said. "I have former teammates in Oakland and Kansas City who never got this opportunity. A lot of guys never get to this situation. That's why we need to take full advantage of it and go full bore for the next 10 to 12 days.

"Our job isn't done until we win four more games. That's when I'll be happy. Right now, this is great, but our job isn't done yet.''

Baseball fans can feel free to complain about the protracted schedule, the midnight finishes and the seemingly endless array of umpiring gaffes, but the 2009 postseason is certainly ending on the right note. In one dugout, you have the Phillies, baseball's defending champions, looking to become the first repeat National League title winner since the 1975 and '76 Cincinnati Reds.

On the other, you have the Yankees, driven and motivated because they're, well, the Yankees. They have the biggest stars and cash the biggest paychecks, and anything short of a title will be perceived as a staggering disappointment. In New York, fans take greater umbrage over losing, talk-show hosts bray the loudest, and the thud from an unsatisfactory ending is bound to resonate well into the winter.

The stakes for the 2009 Yankees were elevated last winter, when the Steinbrenner family chose to spend $423.5 million on Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett in free agency. When the team's new ballpark opened in the spring, with its jumbo scoreboard, ultra-wide concourses and $16 price for a slice of pizza and a bottle of Stella Artois, it fed the perception that the Yankees reside in a universe all their own.

But even fans in the other 49 states who hate the Yankees for their suffocating tradition, their $201 million payroll and their celebrity girlfriends would be hard-pressed to argue that this team doesn't belong here. The Yankees led the major leagues with 103 victories and a 57-24 record at home. They scored an MLB-high 915 runs, and their run differential of plus-162 was the second-best in baseball to the Dodgers.

Still, the postseason has been more of a grind than the Yankees' 7-2 record would indicate. Although they dispensed with the Twins in three games, they hit a mere .225 as a team and needed an extra-inning walk-off homer by Teixeira to win Game 2 of the series. It was basically a case of all A-Rod, all the time.

In the second round of the playoffs, the Yankees benefited from some shoddy defense and baserunning by the Angels. Along the way, manager Joe Girardi was second-guessed for his strategy, and there were references to the 2004 ALCS, when New York blew a 3-0 lead against Boston.

"We came into the series and everybody talked about how tough the Angels were,'' Jeter said. "Then we lost Game 5, and everybody said we were choking.''

It's comforting to know that the old reliables will always be there at crunch time. On Sunday night, Andy Pettitte threw 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball to notch his 16th postseason win and break a tie with John Smoltz for first on the career list. Pettitte is now 5-2 in clinching games in the postseason.

Girardi, taking a page from the Joe Torre October-sense-of-urgency handbook, chose to skip set-up man Phil Hughes in the series finale and go straight to closer Mariano Rivera in the eighth inning. Rivera allowed his first postseason earned run at home since the 2000 Subway Series against the Mets, but nevertheless posted his 37th postseason save.

"I've played with Mo since I was 18 years old, so nothing he does amazes me,'' Jeter said. "You could probably throw him out there and start him in a game if you wanted to. He can do everything.''

After Rivera struck out Gary Matthews Jr. for the final out, Jeter, Teixeira and Rodriguez locked arms and formed their own personal mosh pit. Within moments, the rest of the New York roster had gravitated toward third base and joined them in the scrum.

Burnett, considered a talented underachiever for much of his career, opted out of a multiyear contract with Toronto to sign a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Yankees in December. He posted a 13-9 record with a 4.04 ERA, and started a tradition by dispensing whipped cream pies after walk-off victories. With every celebration, he saw a different, more carefree side to the Yankees than he had witnessed from the opposite side of the field.

"They're probably the loosest, most enthusiastic clowns before games and workouts,'' Burnett said. "Everybody is on each other, and everybody gets along. From day one this team just grew in this clubhouse. It started with [Girardi] and what he was teaching with teamwork. They say chemistry wins, and it's true.

"When you're on the other side, you think, 'They're all business and they don't have fun.' But this is the best group of guys I ever played with.''

The best part is, the Yankees aren't done yet. They've survived the Metrodome and the Rally Monkey, Joe Mauer and Torii Hunter, bone-chilling cold and midday California shadows. A-Rod has a new, spiffed-up October image, Nick Swisher is hitting .150 in the postseason, and it doesn't matter a lick. What matters now is what happens next against the Phillies.

"This is night and day compared to where I've played the last nine years,'' Burnett said. "This city is a completely different animal. Somebody said in spring training -- I don't remember who it was -- that if we don't win the World Series, it's a failure. And I agree.''

The high stakes are nothing new for the Yankees, but at least they're in a position to make the right kind of history. What they do with the opportunity is strictly up to them.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.