Friday, November 27, 2009

Right mix of personalities, not talent on bloated payroll, put NY Yankees over the top

Right mix of personalities, not talent on bloated payroll, put NY Yankees over the top
By Marc Carig/The Star-Ledger
November 07, 2009, 8:21PM

Jennifer Brown/The Star-LedgerYankees captain Derek Jeter holds the World Series Trophy above his head as the Steinbrenner family applauds at a celebration on the steps of City Hall Friday honoring the Yankees and their World Series championship.NEW YORK — Scraps of plastic sheeting covered the replica Yankee Stadium facade that rings the ceiling of the home clubhouse. Drained champagne bottles sat tucked away in lockers that would soon be emptied. A few caps rested on the floor, their labels still attached, “World Series Champions,” stitched to their fronts.

Saturday morning, days after clinching their 27th world championship, signs remained of what the Yankees accomplished together.

But soon, the physical evidence in the clubhouse will be wiped away. Soon, new players will come and old ones will go. Soon, all that will remain of the 2009 Yankees will be a bond, one that will last forever.

“That bond is always there, no matter if you don’t see each other for a month, six months, a year,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “That bond is always special.”

Before taking the Yankees to the championship in his second season as the manager, he played on three championship teams during the franchise’s dynasty. He was reminded of this constantly this postseason, as former teammates Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, David Cone, Charlie Hayes and Scott Brosius each came to participate in pregame ceremonies.

With each, despite the passage of time, Girardi felt the connection.

By proving themselves as the best team in baseball — and doing it with a sense of chemistry despite a clubhouse filled with big names and even bigger paychecks — Girardi said the 2009 Yankees have earned the same destiny. They, too, will feel a bond.

“To be able to maintain that in this city, with the scrutiny that we have, and the egos that come with the big players we’re attracted to, it’s a remarkable job by our manager and our coaching staff,” said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.

The payroll hovered at a staggering $206 million and the roster boasted some of the best talent in baseball, which has been standard operating procedure in the Bronx for years. Yet, for the first time since the fall of the last dynasty, the Yankees also discovered the right mix of personalities, too.

“If you look at it, our guys have been able to check their egos at the door,” Girardi said earlier this season, when asked about one of his favorite qualities about the team. “You have to have a sense of pride for what you do. But you don’t necessarily have to have pride.”

These Yankees, Girardi said, proved over and over that they understood the distinction.

Derek Jeter, the captain, consented to a change in his familiar spot in the batting order. Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia, who combined to fetch $341 million in free agency last offseason, emerged as steady clubhouse influences.

But the most important shift came from Alex Rodriguez, who at long last, became just one of the guys.

“I’m a baseball player,” the Yankees’ star said. “My goal was to simplify things. I’ve done that.”

To celebrate something so ordinary seems strange. Yet in Rodriguez’s case, ordinary was an achievement. Already saddled with a perception that he was self-centered, Rodriguez’s steroids admission and hip surgery only brought on more scrutiny.

But this season, Rodriguez may have best personified the unselfishness that Girardi had preached. In the clubhouse, Girardi praised Rodriguez for mentoring the team’s younger players. At the plate, he lauded Rodriguez for show a level of patience that proved he trusted the players around him to come up with big hits.

Rodriguez spoke of forming bonds, whether with other stars or with unheralded players, such as third-string catcher Francisco Cervelli.

“Whether Cervelli, CC or Teixeira, we’re all the same,” he said. “We’re all one, and we’ve enjoyed that.”

Then, Rodriguez shared a thought that would have been unthinkable at the start of the season: “I really enjoyed this year.”

Before the World Series began, designated hitter Hideki Matsui was asked what he believed was the biggest difference between the current Yankees and teams from recent seasons past. Matsui, who during his tenure watched as talented players who proved to be poor fits came and went, answered without hesitation.

“I think every year we had some really good quality, great players,” Matsui said through a translator. “But I think the biggest between this year’s teams and the prior teams is the team chemistry. I think (with) this year’s combination, everybody clicked. We have great players but everybody sort of just blended into one team. That’s the biggest difference.”

The signs of that chemistry showed as early as spring training, where golf putting contests broke out in the middle of morning drills, where Sabathia took teammates to Orlando Magic basketball games at night, and where Girardi suspended workouts one day to take the entire team on a billiards outing.

“It was just a way to have everybody connect on every level possible,” Cashman said.

Those connections produced walk-off wins, cream pies and kangaroo court fines. And they were evident again Saturday morning in the artifacts that could be seen in an otherwise empty clubhouse.

Right fielder Nick Swisher started a collage on one of his locker walls at the start of the season, featuring photos of all his teammates. It nearly stretches to the ceiling.

Reliever Alfredo Aceves began charting wins and losses on a team schedule he taped to his locker wall halfway through the season, preserving in blue marker the second-half surge that propelled the Yankees to a championship.

Catcher Jose Molina taped a photo of the Yankees to his locker at the start of the postseason, in silver ink the words “we are a team.”

Yes, all of those tangible signs of their bond will soon be gone. But what the Yankees really accomplished this season will forever remain.

“We’re champions,” left fielder Johnny Damon said. “You can’t take that away. And it’s going to be that way for history.”

© 2009 All rights reserved.

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