"...hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."- Andy Dufresne (The Shawshank Redemption)
I'd be lying if I told you I expected this.
Throwing a lot of money at problems was nothing new for the New York Yankees of this decade and it never fixed anything before.
Granted the Yankees of 2003 made it to the Fall Classic after going overseas to sign highly acclaimed stars in Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras. However, since then the road to the World Series seemed much tougher to travel and the light at the end of the tunnel was fading.
The Yankees had lost their last five postseason games in which they had a chance to eliminate an opponent. They had lost their last four postseason series (Overall record of 7-13 in those series). In 2008 the Yankees had done the unthinkable and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
Gone was the manager behind the dynasty and many other key components. Derek Jeter remained, so did Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and a guy who came extremely close to departing in Andy Pettitte, but that's it.
These Yankees had been overpaid (OK so perhaps they still are), lacked fight, lacked pitching, and failed to hit in big spots from the top of the order to the bottom.
They threw a lot more money at their problems this past offseason...A lot. Most notably $82.5 million for AJ Burnett, $161 million for CC Sabathia, and $180 million for Mark Teixeira.
This was nothing new, I had watched this movie every year and the ending never changed. Nothing would change, none of these guys had ever done much in October...Fewer and fewer players in pinstripes had done it in October.
And early on it looked like precisely that same movie. No clutch hitting in sight, no starting pitching, and a bullpen that looked like might end up burned out by June.
A few weeks after the return of shamed superstar Alex Rodriguez though I noticed that things seemed to be different. They were getting clutch hits, 14 walk-off hits on the season with three of them coming in a single weekend in May against the Minnesota Twins.
AJ Burnett had his struggles for a decent portion of the season but CC Sabathia was emerging as a legit ace.
The bullpen seemed to improve as the season went along. Phil Hughes tried out his luck there after struggles in the rotation and was a big hit as the set-up guy. Alfredo Aceves (Mexican Jim Leyritz) also gave the Yankees strong innings coming out of the pen along with some spot starts. Dave Robertson also emerged later in the year as a reliable reliever.
And then some guy named Mariano Rivera is still going strong.
The defense was improved, particularly in the infield where the Mark Teixeira showed off his defensive prowess to go with improved seasons from Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano.
The chemistry seemed stronger than it had been in years. Gone was the loner Mike Mussina, brought in were the personalities of Nick Swisher, AJ Burnett, and CC Sabathia. It's often debated in the sport of baseball, which has more of an individual aspect than many other sports how much this really matters.
All I can say is that they were a looser group, baseball seemed more fun and easier to this group and I can say as a fan it's been more fun watching them this year than the robots I was subjected to watch in years past.
Who wouldn't want to catch the helmet of the guy that just hit a walk-off homer? Who wouldn't be itching to get a pie in the face at the end of a great win (Ask Francisco Cervelli if you're not sure)?
Much of what I mentioned are the reasons for the Yankees turnaround in 2009, going from 89 wins in '08 to 103 and reclaiming the AL East title for the first time since 2007.
Did the clutch hitting vanish once October hit? Certainly there were struggles at times with runners in scoring position but oftentimes they have done well for themselves, coming back to win in five of the seven wins they have accumulated so far this postseason. Two more walk-off wins to boot.
The brightest star? How about the boy who cried "October" himself? Alex Rodriguez. From 2005 on he had gotten just one postseason RBI, and it was a solo shot in 2007 that was not nearly enough to keep his Yankees from being eliminated that night.
Hitting .438 so far, the three-time MVP has five home runs and 12 RBIs. Three of his five home runs have tied a ballgame, and he is one home run away from tying Bernie William's team record in a single postseason.
Skip Bayless calls him "Can't Count on Sabathia." I'm just gonna go with ALCS MVP. Three playoff starts total, three wins, three earned runs allowed, hardly a sweat.
Andy Pettitte has continued to be reliable after all these years. Three quality starts for him in as many attempts, just two wins but they were series clinching wins.
And how did the ALCS end? Some guy named Mariano Rivera once again. The ageless Mariano Rivera. People said (OK I did too) that he cannot complete six out saves anymore. He did just that to send the New York Yankees to their 40th World Series appearance in a 5-2 triumph. He also pitched two and a third shutout ball in Game 2 to help the Yankees win a wild one in extra innings.
Is the ride over? Not by a long-shot, the World Series starts Wednesday against the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies. They have an unhittable ace of their own in Cliff Lee, a scary lineup of their own featuring Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins among others. And Mr. Perfect Brad Lidge appears to be back in 2008 form after a rocky regular season.
The goal is always to win the World Series but no matter what happens from this point on I am grateful for the 2009 New York Yankees. No longer will I be spending an entire off-season grumbling about a "bunch of overpaid chokers" and how they can never win when it matters. These Yankees seem to be a different breed, they will be in the hunt in 2010 and there will be no shame in losing to the Phillies.
But don't think I've become complacent, I want this series and I know we can win this series. Things seemed hopeless in past years but I've got a good feeling about 2009.
I have hope, and as we already know that's a good thing. Maybe the best of things!
And no good thing ever dies...