Baseball: Yankees bask in moment of glory

World Series baseball: Comparisons with the best are made as New York celebrates
GEORGE STEINBRENNER, the owner of the New York Yankees, is something of a perfectionist. It had been bothering him, apparently, that the team's World Series design had three rows of six victories, and one row of five. Now, Steinbrenner need fret no more: the Yankees swept their way to a 24th victory on Wed-nesday night, at the end of a season in which they bore all before them.

The San Diego Padres stood in front of the whirlwind for three games and lost all of them, despite a very strong pitcher in Kevin Brown. He and the Yankees pitcher, Andy Pettite, kept most balls in the infield in the final game in San Diego, but it was not enough. The Yankees won 3-0 to take them to their 24th victory, and their seventh sweep - winning the final series without conceding a game.

The Yankees may just be the best baseball team ever. That sentence will stick in the throats of many fans, who regard the team in much the same way that many English soccer fans see Manchester United, or perhaps Chelsea. That will not stop New York from giving them a roaring welcome in a parade today that will take them from Battery Park to City Hall via Broadway.

Their record this season has been, in some respects, unexceptional. Though they have plenty of talent, there is no single star who can take the credit. They were never a participant in the home-run race that galvanised the nation, as the Cardinals' Mark McGwire and the Cubs' Sammy Sosa chased each other into the stratosphere. David Wells pitched a perfect game, but then it was not he who took the team through the last game, it was Pettite, who has had a very patchy season.

But when it came to the numbers that matter, their performance was simply phenomenal. They won. They won, in fact, 125 games, a record for the regular season and post-season combined. Their winning percentage, in a sport where numerology is all, was .714, the third best behind the 1927 Yankees (.722) and the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates (.717).

They won day after day, week after week, month after month, coming out of the American League East like a tornado, sweeping aside the Texas Rangers and meeting their only serious resistance of the year against the Cleveland Indians, who at one stage were two games to one ahead.

The team play was what mattered to the season, a cohesion and collective force that made the New York Yankees bigger than any individual, even than their vociferous owner. "They were such a good team team," said Joe Torre, comparing the 1990s Yankees with the Boston Celtics of the Larry Bird era.

It may not be grammatical, but anyone who has watched their energy unfold on the ground this year will know what he means. Torre, it should be said, began the year with the New York tabloids howling for his head after the team lost three games in a row.

The Yankees are comparable to the 1975 Cincinnati Reds or the Oakland As in their heyday; even with themselves in 1927. The Yankees owned the 1920s, '30s, '40s and '50s in baseball, taking 18 titles in four decades. Six of those were sweeps. But then, like the metropolis that calls them its own, they slumped, taking only two more titles between 1962 and 1996.

As New York has recovered something of its aplomb in the last few years, with Wall Street money flooding back in and Mayor Rudolph Giulani sweeping crime from the streets, they have once more ascended into the heavens. Their 24 titles beats any team in any sport in North America, even the Montreal Canadians with their phenomenal record esablished in the National Hockey League.

This is history; but as Yogi bear might have asked, is it all in the past? The team may well not stay together, as the season ends and Bernie Williams and Scott Brosius debate their future with the Yankees against cold, hard cash.

Steinbrenner himself has been in talks with Cablevision about selling the team, now at the peak of their profitability and performance, in a deal that has parallels with the sale of Manchester United to Rupert Murdoch. And Steinbrenner, who wants to stay in charge, hates Yankee Stadium, and complains loudly and often about it. He wants to move the team downtown, to a smarter place, perhaps dissipating the magic just a little.

However, when all is said and done, the Yankees, along with McGwire and Sosa and all the other boys of summer who made this such a magical year, have already done something for the game that seemed all but impossible a year ago. After the bitterness of the 1994 player's strike, they have restored lustre and dreaming to a game that America still regards as its own, which Babe Ruth called "perhaps the only real game".

It's sheer delight for the New York Yankees players and coaches (above), who show just what winning means to them as they celebrate clinching the World Series, after inflicting a clean sweep on the San Diego Padres. The pain of defeat, however, is etched on the faces of the Padres (left) who can only watch from the dug-out. The Yankees won the fourth match in the best-of-seven series 3-0 on Wednesday to clinch the World Series for the 24th time in their history AP