Baseball: International cast of stars fire Yankees back to top of world
America's richest team wrap up Series – and win the popularity contest too
Friday 06 November 2009
For once it truly was a World Series. The final out was secured by a closing pitcher from Panama with eyes of ice and not a nerve in his body. The victors' greatest hero though was a Japanese citizen, whose feats on baseball's greatest stage this last week saw him named Most Valuable Player – the first time that World Series honour has gone to a member of that baseball sub-species, the designated hitter.
But in a deeper sense, normality has been restored. This morning, the New York Yankees will parade down Broadway as world champions, after their triumph over the Philadelphia Phillies. And this time, even the most unreconstructed Yankee-hater will not begrudge them their moment.
This was the Yankees' first title in nine years, an embarrassing drought for a franchise that utterly outspend their rivals and tend to regard the world championship as a birth right. But it was not the only reason this 27th one in their collection was special.
The new Yankee Stadium (a $1.5bn – £1bn – bauble mostly financed by Big Apple taxpayers) opened in April, but its true christening only came on Wednesday night, as the team stood once again at the summit of its sport.
In terms of celebrity-spotting, and that maddening sense of superiority, the place felt pretty much like the old stadium next door, scene of the 39 World Series in which the Yankees had previously appeared, but now locked as demolition crews do their work.
The most visible difference this week was the absence of bunting around the upper decks of the new stadium: perish the thought that anything interfere with the sight-lines from the luxury suites and boxes whose revenues are helping recoup the $423m (£255m) the Yankees invested in free agents over the close season.
And New York deserved to get it back. Over six games, they out-hit, out-pitched and out-lasted the Phillies, the defending champions. In the regular season the Yankees had the best record in baseball. This post-season they demolished the Minnesota Twins, and ground down the Los Angeles Angels. Philadelphia won Game One of the World Series, but thereafter looked second best. By the time Mariano Rivera took the mound at 11.15pm on Wednesday to despatch the last five hitters and seal a 4-2 series win, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
Rivera, a veteran who was around for the four titles won between 1996 and 2000, is the greatest performer of his (maybe any) era in arguably the most stressful position in any sport – the closer who sits around until the very end of a game, only to be called upon at a moment when a single mistake can wreck an entire season. In these 2009 play-offs, Rivera never made a mistake that mattered.
But even his near-flawless execution paled beside that of Hideki Matsui. Matsui is 35, and though he has been in New York for six seasons since moving from Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants he only speaks to reporters through an interpreter. His knees are so shot that the Yankees play him as designated hitter, who in the American League bats for the pitcher but does not field.
But in this World Series, Matsui's bat made up for any deficiencies in his legs. He hit a near-unbelievable .615 in the Series; on Wednesday, he drove in six runs in the Yankees' 7-3 victory, tying a record for a single game. His contract is up at the end of this season and, it was hitherto assumed, the Yankees would not renew it. They may now think again.
Somehow these Yankees are different. Yes their wealth and swagger create enemies but this bunch is more loveable than usual. Often in the last eight dry years, the Yankees have seemed a random group of underperforming zillionaires. But the 2009 vintage projects a real camaraderie. Take the once petulant third baseman Alex Rodriguez – he of the $275m contract, the richest in all team sport, long dubbed "A-Flop" for his failure to deliver when it mattered. This year began with his admission of past steroid use. It ended with a battery of clutch hits against the Twins, Angels and Phillies that surely laid to rest the myth that "A-Rod" is a choker, not a team player.
This morning at 11am local time the tickertape will be tumbling down on the Yankees as they make their way up Broadway to City Hall where Michael Bloomberg, New York's mayor, will present them with the keys of the city. Not yet the keys to the nation's heart – but one day, who knows?
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