Slick Yankees back where they belong

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The Independent Online

Hat-trick of titles for baseball's most successful team is based on teamwork.

Hat-trick of titles for baseball's most successful team is based on teamwork.

In the end, it came down to experience. The New York Yankees weren't the best team in baseball this year, far from it. But when it comes to the World Series, they just belong. And this time too they simply knew too much for their opponents, their cross-town foes the Mets.

The Yankees' clinching 4-2 victory in Game 5 on Thursday night, all the sweeter because it was secured on the Mets' home turf of Shea stadium, makes it 26 World championships in all for the most successful franchise in the history of the sport, including three out of three since 1998, and four in the last five.

In the little matter of who is best in the Big Apple, it was also no contest. The Bronx team's millennium year triumph over their rivals from the borough of Queens made it 11 out of 14 for the Yankees in Subway Series match-ups since 1921. But they had to fight every inch of the way.

"This was the toughest," the Yankees' manager Joe Torre said afterwards. "There was a lot going on here this year, with people getting hurt, but we hung in there. It's never easy, but we had a lot of trouble putting things together this year. It's been a grind."

And it has been: a regular season ending with 15 losses in the final 18 games; tough divisional and league championship series against Oakland and then Seattle, capped by a World Series in which every game was close. A little more experience, the avoidance of a couple of mistakes at key moments - and the Mets could have been going into the last two games with a 3-2 lead, instead of wondering what went wrong.

So it was in Game 5. With the score tied at 2-2 at the top of the ninth inning, the Mets' gallant but tiring starting pitcher, Al Leiter, struck out the first two Yankee hitters, before issuing a two-out walk to the Yankees' catcher Jorge Posada.

Significantly, the Mets manager Bobby Valentine decided to keep Leiter in the game. Scott Brosius singled, and then Luis Sojo, a former Yankee recalled to the squad after being discarded by the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier in the season, somehow squeezed a weak single into centre-field. Two runs scored, and the Mets were doomed to defeat.

But the climax could not have been more gripping: one Mets runner aboard, and Mariano Rivera, the deadliest closer in World Series history, facing Mike Piazza, the Mets' most dangerous hitter, who the previous evening had almost saved the game with a big two-run homer.

This time, however, Piazza's towering hit fell 20 feet short of the fence. Bernie Williams made the catch in deep centre field, and the Yankees had become the first team since the 1972-1974 Oakland Athletics to win three in a row.

This 2000 Series has been a triumph, among others, for the Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, voted Most Valuable Player, and for Paul O'Neill, who overcame a hip injury and a batting slump to hit .474.

"What can you say?" Jeter said as he accepted the MVP trophy. "This is a group of MVPs. Every game, we have a new hero. You can't say enough about this team. You could pick a name out of the hat. Vizcaino in the first game. O'Neill, Stanton, our bullpen, Luis tonight. That's how you win. It's not just one guy."

Jeter, though, has been spoken of in the same breath as Joe Di Maggio. He was voted MVP of the All-Star game in Atlanta in the summer, and in the World Series he batted .409 (nine hits in 22 at-bats) with two solo home runs. He also extended his Series hitting streak to 14 games, matching the third-longest in history.

Torre said of Jeter: "This kid, right now - the tougher the situation, the more fire gets in his eyes. You don't teach that. It's something you have to be born with."

Above all, victory was vindication for Torre himself, who stayed loyal to his players, despite lapses in their form, trusting they would come through when it mattered. "When you go through things with the same group of people, you never lose faith," O'Neill said. "And Joe doesn't forget, That's a credit to him and what he's brought to this team."

However, next year several of those stars in the squad, among them the 37-year-old O'Neill, will have to be replaced. Right now, however, the Yankees may exult. As for the Mets, they are left with the defiant autumn refrain of the fans of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, eternal victims of the Yankees in Subway Series of the 1940s and 1950s. "Wait until next year."

WORLD SERIES: New York Mets 2 New York Yankees 4 (NY Yankees win best of seven series 4-1).