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Damn Yankees! 

Joe Torre makes the case 'You gotta have heart'

click to enlarge : "It's nuts!" Joe Torre said of his team's 22-3 postseason record over the past two years - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • : "It's nuts!" Joe Torre said of his team's 22-3 postseason record over the past two years

"The great game opens a portal onto our past, both real and imagined, comforting us with intimations of immortality and primordial bliss."

-- John Thorn

The modern era of baseball begins with the first World Series in 1903. Ask anyone, from home-run champ Mark McGwire and batting champ Larry Walker, to Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez and disgruntled former Rockies manager Jim Leyland: It doesn't add up if you don't make it to the World Series.

I came to Atlanta on the subway, having heard something about a subway Series, making my way from the airport to the ballpark in plenty of time for batting practice before the first game.

At the church of baseball, batting practice is communion. The reverberating crack of a wood bat on a baseball is a soothing sound, a sheltering blanket that administers to the psyche and can bring peace in the same way that those Ocean Sounds or Forest Rains tapes can have on a sleeping conscience. The rhythm of the bats, the chatter of the seasoned old coaches, the lighthearted games in the batting cage, the competition among the pitching rotation and the bench players -- they are all anchors to sanity.

Before the World Series, however, the field is awash in journalists, officials, celebrities and various well-connected shakers. Somewhere out there, there are athletes too, preparing for the day's work while Spike Lee makes home movies and Evander Holyfield draws a crowd. Somewhere beyond the layers of onlookers, the ball-and-bat banter of batting practice takes place.

click to enlarge With 11 strikeouts in 7 and a third innings, El Duque single-handedly kept the Braves from getting to first - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • With 11 strikeouts in 7 and a third innings, El Duque single-handedly kept the Braves from getting to first

Atlanta's been to five World Series in the '90s, and they've made it to the postseason an astonishing eight of 10 years. They know something about playing in October down here in Georgia. Every fan gets a tomahawk, and Jimmy Carter brings his own grocery bag of peanuts to share with the crowd around Ted Turner's field-level box seats. Nevertheless, it's not much of a scoop when one native Atlantan tells me that "our fans suck." Even the fabled "war cry" that accompanies the Tomahawk Chop seems more like a dirge than a rally song.

Game 1 of the Series threatened to duplicate the delicious tension of the unforgettable playoff Series with the Mets, which culminated in a 15-inning Mets victory followed by an 11-inning loss to end their season. The Braves -- Yankees opener matched Greg Maddox, in excellent form, against Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, a pitcher who escaped Cuba less than two years ago on a homemade raft and has pitched in the last two World Series. Only in New York, surrounded by Clemens and Cone, Pettite and Rivera, could a pitcher this good walk in such a quiet shadow. Despite surrendering a lead on a Chipper Jones home run in the fourth inning, El Duque was untouchable, letting up only that one hit in 7 1/3 innings, and finally getting the win thanks to a Yankee eighth inning that featured three walks, three hits, two errors and three strikeouts.

If you want to remember me for one thing other than being suspended from baseball, remember that I won -- I played in more winning games than anybody in the history of sports.

-- Pete Rose

Before Game 2 in Atlanta, the All-Century Team, a fan-voted, all-star squad of 30 players, was introduced to the press in a downtown hotel, bringing the likes of Warren Spahn, Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Ernie Banks, Mike Schmidt, Bob Gibson, Ken Griffey Jr., Nolan Ryan, Warren Spahn, Roger Clemens and Hank Aaron together. Later in the day, they were augmented by Mark McGwire, Ted Williams, and Pete Rose.

The "open house" interview session instigated the kind of delightful torture that could have only have been invented in Greek myth. Do I dash for an early word with Willie Mays? Or should I engage Hank Aaron in conversation? Do I go to Cal Ripken or to his hero, Brooks Robinson? Or his hero, Stan Musial? And who could keep themselves from a rare audience with the reclusive Sandy Koufax?

The elite icons of the sport engaged in rapid-fire and folksy anecdotes from their days in the game, comparing fastballs across the eras, speculating on the strength of contemporary hitters and engaging in the inevitiable debates about the members not selected to the team. Most notable among the missing, according to the players selected to the team, were Frank Robinson, 4th on the all-time home-run list, and Roberto Clemente, who Koufax ranks somewhere with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron as a runner-up to either the best player or best hitter he'd ever faced.

click to enlarge "If the team wanted to win, is the only reason they'd hire me."  Pete Rose - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • "If the team wanted to win, is the only reason they'd hire me." Pete Rose

Pete Rose wasted no time in living up to his old moniker of "Charlie Hustle," though these days he's not hustling down the base paths as much as hustling his name, his case and his signature to every shock jock, cub reporter and casino gambler who'll listen to the self-proclaimed "best ambassador baseball has." Rose cited the difficulty he had going to the ballgame to watch his son play in Cincinnati. The lifetime ban from baseball imposed on him in 1989 by then-Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti for illegal gambling on baseball prohibits Rose from being on a major-league ball field or participating in any aspect of major-league baseball. "I drive so many people crazy ... when I go to the game," Rose said of the ushers and security personnel he encounters. "They're paranoid about me being at the game .... can he park here? Can he go into this entrance? Can he sit here? Can he buy a hot dog? A Diet Coke? They're all scared they're going to lose their jobs."

After a stirring and ghostly acknowledgement of the deceased All-Century players -- including Ruth, Traynor, Cobb, and Jackie Robinson -- whose family members sat on the field as their representatives, I don't think any of us could have handled a seven-game series. I would have been perfectly content to go home after the All-Century ceremonies, to wait another day for an actual game.

Apparently, the Braves felt the same way, laying down their bats for eight innings and getting only one hit against David Cone in his seven innings of dominant pitching. The entire game was a colossal blunder for manager Bobby Cox, who benched four of his starters, hoping to provide a spark with the unusual lineup.

"It kind of surpised me," said clean-up hitter Brian Jordan. "It's unusual in a World Series to change the line-up so dramatically. I know the guys who aren't playing were pretty surprised."

Cox blames his postseason misfortunes -- four losses in five World Series -- on luck. There's no denying the strengths of his teams that win 100 games a season, but never four in a Series. But you earn your breaks. Cox is so adamant about his bad luck that he claimed "neither club scored any runs last night, really," after the Yanks beat the Braves 4-1 in Game 1, and he still believed that his team was playing world-championship ball going into game 4, proclaiming: "We're up two games to one, in my book." In an age where owners, coaches, analysts and aces all chant the mantra of "staying within yourself" on the field, Cox goes a little overboard, creating players who are too content in knowing that they are better than their box scores.

Cox consistently blew games by trying to get eight innings out of struggling starters. In Game 1, he left Maddox in for an eogjtj inning in which the first four hitters singled, walked, reached on an error and singled in the tying run.

In Game 2, Cox hit the panic button, starting the J.V. on a notoriously thin bench. To make matters worse, two of the "offensive" replacements, Keith Lockport and Ozzie Guillen, made key errors. "I feel like Bill Buckner, right now; goddamn!" Guillen said when approached after the game.

click to enlarge "When they don the pinstripes, they don a sense of immortality."  George Steinbrenner - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • "When they don the pinstripes, they don a sense of immortality." George Steinbrenner

Game 3 found Cox leaving Tom Glavine -- barely recovered from the flu -- in for yet another eighth inning, in which the pitcher put the tying run on base with a single and a triple to open the inning, setting up an extra-inning nail biter.

En route to being named the new manager of the Cubs, Atlanta hitting coach Don Baylor made one last effort to revive his team's batting as he did during the regular season. Baylor noted the pressure on Braves hitters, and the way the team has used it against themselves. "We have to score early, we can't wait till the game's out of hand. ... We have to start in the first inning. His team finally answered the call in Game 3, leading off the 1st inning with a single, a double (the first of three from Bret Boone) and an RBI ground-out, scoring five runs and knocking Yanks starter Andy Pettitte out by the fourth inning. Forget the fact that the Braves yielded four home runs between the fifth and tenth innings to lose 6-5, and you can join Cox in a victory dance..

"There always will be a tomorrow. You got me today, but I'm coming back."

-- Buck O'Neill

Following Game 3, David Cone made an offhand prediction that pitcher Roger Clemens, after a disappointing season with a merely mortal 14-10 record and a 4.60 ERA, was poised to have a defining moment as a Yankee in Game 4.

Clemens even managed to make himself seem like a sympathetic underdog after his drubbing in Boston during the playoffs. Once he had his leg trampled and had to leave a shutout game in the eighth, how could anyone help but root for him?

As indomitable as the Yanks seem these days, they continue to make a compelling story because of the soap-opera obstacles that have confronted the team off the field. Manager Joe Torre started the season sidelined for two months with surgery for prostate cancer, and three players -- Luis Sojo, Scott Brosius, and Paul O'Neill -- have spent part of the stretch mourning the deaths of their fathers.

"We care about each other," Torre explained after completing the sweep. "We have respect for each other. You know, these are human beings. Too many times when players make a lot of money and play this game of baseball, they lose their passion, lose their humanity, but when you're in this clubhouse, you realize how human these guys are." Torre concluded the interview, declaring "I want to get wet!" as he bolted off in search of a spraying bottle of non-alcoholic champagne.

In the victorious Yankee clubhouse, owner George Steinbrenner praised everyone from Torre to the advance scouts, saying, "No team will be talked about from New York, from any sport, for showing any more heart than this team. This team was made of heart." Steinbrenner relayed the words of encouragement he used to motivate his team before the game, fending off the threat of miracle upsets. "I told my players to stay focused on what your job is. Your job is to get to the World Series and to win it. These miracles happen all around us, and I'm happy for all of them that happen. But the facts are, we walk the walk, and we talk the talk."

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