Most fans of Major League Baseball can remember the Fall of 1996.
New York did represent the American League also-rans as the 1995 Wild Card, but they floundered away a 2-0 lead in the Division Series to the Mariners. The Yanks proceeded to drop the next three games in Seattle and saw their season end on that memorable, game-winning slide from Ken Griffey, Jr.
Subsequently, the face of the franchise—Don Mattingly—retired and left behind a rag-tag collection of unlikely heroes in 1996.
The roster featured a prominent rookie in Derek Jeter, a couple second-year studs in Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, a budding superstar in Bernie Williams, some bona fides like Paul O'Neill and David Cone, and the balance was filled in with fading stars (Wade Boggs, Darryl Strawberry, Tim Raines, Cecil Fielder, etc.) as well as some spare parts.
There weren't too many known quantities or objectionable pieces playing major roles. Other than George Steinbrenner, of course, but even he was pretty easy to stomach given the organization's humbling stretch.
Even the Jeffrey Maier Incident, which would make many baseball fans vomit up vital organs if it happened today, was a fun little side story unless you happened to root for the Baltimore Orioles (or, again, the Red Sox).
When the Bronx Bombers and their unheralded shortstop won the World Series by beating the defending champion Atlanta Braves, I was actually happy because of a buddy who'd recently moved to Northern California from one of the boroughs. We watched the clincher at his house and everything.
Then the Yankees were good again in 1997.
Not repeat-good—they didn't even win the American League East pennant. But the Bombers did finish second to the Orioles and their record had enough shine to it to take the Wild Card. For a third consecutive year, the Yankees had made the postseason.
Then the Pinstripes won the World Series again in 1998, this time sweeping away the San Diego Padres. Then again in 1999—another sweep, this one of the Braves. Then again in 2000—the cross-town Mets managed to take a game so the Yankees had to settle for a 4-1 tally.
By the time the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks drove the first nail into the dynasty's coffin, the New York Yankees had gone from a pleasant renaissance story to a tedious abomination that provoked impassioned animosity from coast to coast.
Well, don't look now...
Given their recent run of comparative futility, the Yankees aren't as easy to dislike as they were during that spectacular run of championships. Next to the Boston Red Sox' dual championships and new-found ownership of the rivalry, New York was as close to being an underdog as the economics of modern baseball allow in 2009.
Notwithstanding the acquisitions of CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett, many were skeptical of whether baseball's most storied franchise could make all the expensive pieces fit. Granted, everyone knew they would be good—I didn't say they were an underdog—but how good was a real question.
We're beginning to get the answer and it's "very, very good."
So good that, should the Bronx Bombers win the 2009 World Series (something that's beginning to look inevitable), MLB fans might have to worry about 2010 and beyond.
Rivera is almost 40, but he's been this good for this long with only one pitch. It shouldn't be too surprising if the Sandman's common-sense-defying career had several more years in it.
Jorge Posada is 38 and that's getting rather old for a catcher. Luckily, 23-year-old Francisco Cervelli hasn't been terrible in his audition this year and two of New York's top prospects are backstops—Jesus Montero and Austin Romine.
Pettitte is 37 and might be done. However, his role has been diminished by the influx of talent so his loss could be absorbed with minimal trouble.
Johnny Damon is almost 36. There are already replacements in house.
Jeter is 35, but enjoying one of the best seasons of his phenomenal resume.
Alex Rodriguez is 34 and has, all of a sudden, become a devastating bat in crunch time.
A-Rod's regular season acumen was never in question; until this year, he's been the Peyton Manning of the Show—a holy terror for 162 games and then below-average once the games became most important. That all seems to have changed, which is really bad news considering the lineup around him.
Burnett is 32.
Teixeira is 29 and one of the best players in the Bigs. Sabathia is also 29 and also amongst the best at his position. Chien-Ming Wang is another 29-year-old and, despite his lost season this year, figures to recapture the form that made him one of the AL's top hurlers when healthy.
Nick Swisher is a month shy of 29. Phil Coke is 27. Robinson Cano will turn 27 in a few days. Brett Gardner is 26. Melky Cabrera is 25. Playoff-revelation David Robertson is 24 as is Joba Chamberlain. Phil Hughes is 23.
And there are always those deep, deep pockets.
The New Yankee Stadium and the various networks ensure the Bombers will continue to boast a license to print money. Let's have no illusions about this—even the years that see profound Yankee success will almost certainly see a profound Yankee free agent acquisition.
If you can afford to rape the natural resources of smaller market teams to get stronger, why let success slow the machine? If you can win the World Series without Joe Mauer, why not go for another ring with him? Nobody else is expected to be satisfied with a single-helping of riches so why should the Yankees be any different?
They aren't and they won't be.
So what happens if the confidence level—already pretty high on an annual basis—gets ratcheted up a notch by a World Series ring? What happens when the pressure eases as it does after having reached the mountain top?
The internal talent reservoirs look to be pretty stocked at the Major League level. Every team ebbs and flows from season to season so there will be change. But with the buffer provided by even wealthier cash reserves, the New York Yankees are always in a position to mend holes and improve on paper.
Sprinkle in a little extra confidence, reduce the glare on those overhead lights using a World Series victory, and all that talent should be brought to bear even more fluidly.
Which means, 13 years later, the rise of the Yankees could be happening all over again.