When the Yankees beat the Mets in 2000 I was a sophomore in college, and after winning a third straight championship, it felt like the team might never lose again. Of course, they wound up losing in about as excruciatingly a way as possible the following year, falling in the bottom of the 9th in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series with the greatest closer of all time on the mound.
Seconds after Luis Gonzalez won the game for the Diamondbacks, I called my dad from my fraternity in a state of panic and shock. I'd been a Yankee fan my entire life, but the team's run of sustained success in the late '90s coincided with my coming of age, and by the time the World Series rolled around in 2001 it felt as if the Yankees had a God-given right to not only be representing the American League year in and year out, but to take the whole thing down repeatedly.
When that aura of invincibility finally cracked, it was a devastating blow to a good portion of the fanbase, especially those in my age group who were aware that the Yankees had their dark days (the 1988 through 1992 campaigns in particular stand out) but didn't follow the team obsessively until they started getting good again around 1993-1994.
Simply put -- and admittedly perception may be greater than reality here, but bear with me (there is statistical analysis later on) -- one of the biggest reasons the Yankees' 2009 championship has been more exciting to me than any that preceded it is that it feels harder to win it all today.
Since the Yankees' four-titles-in-five-years run in the late '90s, seemingly every team in baseball has sought to improve itself in a variety of ways, perhaps most notably via the adoption of advanced statistical analysis across front offices throughout the league. Wholesale improvement in baseball operations and an increased desire to win has led to a level of parity not even Bud Selig himself could have envisioned. No team has repeated as champions since the Yankees did in 2000, and only one World Series champion in the ensuing years has even made it back to the Series the following year to try to defend its title -- this year's Phillies.
This is not to make light of what the Yankees accomplished in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. I would single out 1996 as probably the most exciting of those championship years, given that it was the first time the Yankees won the World Series in my lifetime as well as the fact that it had been 18 years since the previous title. We all know the 1998 Yankees were a team for the ages, and probably in the franchise's top 3 of all time. Of course, there was also a ton of pressure on that team to win the World Series after a then-record 114 regular season wins, and thankfully they came through in spades.
The 1999 team was also excellent, although admittedly my memory of the playoffs that year is spottier than I'd care to admit, given that it took place during the first semester of my freshman year at college. Unfortunately, the 2000 squad was arguably the weakest Yankee team to ever win a championship, but thankfully they were able to take care of the Mets in the Subway Series.
However, baseball seems to reinvent itself every decade or so, and quite a bit has changed since the Yankees were laying waste to the rest of the league. As mentioned previously, the level of competition during that late-'90s run just doesn't seem as intense as it does now. The 1998 Padres? The 1999 Braves? Those teams would get eaten alive in the modern-day NL (well, maybe not the NL West).
Consider the following:
The late-'90s Yankees didn't have to deal with 18 regular season games a year that the media and fans hype up to a playoff-level atmosphere against the Red Sox, and even if they did, the late-'90s Manny- and Papi-less Red Sox just weren't as intimidating as the 2003-and-beyond squad, despite some very good pitching. This decade the Red Sox have been the second-best team in baseball after the Yankees, and every game can feel like a matter of life or death. It did not feel that way 10 years ago. Back then the entire AL East was basically a Yankee punching bag, especially the now vastly improved Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
The late-'90s Yankees also never lost a playoff series to the Red Sox in about as difficult-to-stomach-a-fashion as possible: coughing up a 3-0 lead in the 2004 ALCS. No need to relive that here, but as many have touched on, that series loss changed the swagger of much of the Yankee fanbase, and for the first time predisposed many a Yankee fan to begin to accept that failure was a real possibility.
The playoff losses of this decade -- losing to the D-Backs and Marlins in the World Series; the Sox in '04; getting dumped in the first round by the Angels twice, Tigers and Indians; and not even making it to the dance in 2008 -- all contribute to why the 2009 victory is so special to me. In the late '90s, the Red Sox still hadn't won the World Series in more than 80 years; this decade Yankee fans have seen Boston win twice since New York last won, the last of which was a mere two years ago.
As I've touched on previously, another huge component of why the 2009 championship is the most exciting of my lifetime is the fact that my passion for the team has grown even more intense during the last several years -- something I didn't think possible -- largely due to the advent of the elite Yankee blogs, most of which weren't even in existence the last time the Yankees were in the World Series and have enabled countless fans like myself to supplement their experience with fantastic commentary on a daily basis, even throughout the offseason.
As a 28-year-old adult, I haven't experienced the joy of a championship since I was a teenager, and not to take anything away from 19-year-old Larry, but the Yankees are a much higher priority to me now than when I was in college.
Returning to opponents' level of difficulty for a moment, this year's run to the championship also felt like one of the toughest, between the unbalanced schedule, a revitalized and very tough AL East and the fact that there are almost no pushovers teams in the American League anymore (save perhaps the Royals). Despite a thoroughly competitive Major League landscape, the Yankees still managed to win the AL East and post their highest win total since 2002.
Additionally, the Yankees' road to #27 wasn't exactly a walk in the park, either. While no one outside of Minnesota likely expected the Twins to win in the first round, the 2009 ALCS was one fraught with concern, given the Angels' dominance of the Yankees during much of the last decade. That the Yankees were able to dispose of the team that has provided more angst that any other franchise (Red Sox included; for as much as facing Boston can be heart-attack-inducing, at least those two teams play each other about as evenly as possible) in six games was incredibly gratifying, not to mention the fact that it should finally quiet some people up about how the Yankees can never beat the Angels.
Additionally, the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies may have been about as even a match on paper for the Yankees as any of the late -'90s World Series foes (at least offensively). It seemed highly unlikely that either team would be able to deliver a sweep, a la 1998 and 1999. The Yankees were still able to take care of business in six games (and make me an even three-for-three in playoff predictions), putting up more than five runs a game in the Series despite, as Larry Mahnken notes, receiving a combined .167/.244/.282 line from Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, Jorge Posada and Mark Teixeira after that quartet went .289/.368/.528 in the regular season.
Of course, none of it would have been possible without absolutely stellar performances from the pitching staff. The Yankees' three-man rotation delivered quality starts in 11 of the team's 15 postseason games (two of which came in losses -- ALCS Game 3 and World Series Game 1), with ace CC Sabathia authoring a quality outing in all five of his starts, going 3-1 with 32 strikeouts and a ridiculous 1.98 ERA. All told, the starters pitched to a 3.43 ERA and the entire staff notched a 3.26 mark. And of course, the bullpen was once again anchored by the greatest reliever in history, as Mariano threw 16 innings of one-run ball in 12 appearances (0.56 ERA) and struck out 14 batters.
Although my emotions tell me that the 2009 title was the most satisfying one I've experienced, I was also curious to see whether the numbers would actually bear this out as well, so I went back and took a look at the cumulative wOBA and FIP of the Yankees, their playoff opponents, and the leagues in each of the Yankees' last five championship years. Numbers in parentheses are the team's rank in their respective league.
|Yankees||.366 (1)||4.32 (4)|
|Phillies||.340 (1)||4.36 (11)|
|Angels||.346 (3)||4.45 (10)|
|Twins||.338 (5)||4.39 (8)|
|Yankees||.350 (7)||4.61 (4)|
|Mets||.338 (7)||4.31 (3)|
|Mariners||.352 (5)||4.65 (6)|
|Athletics||.357 (3)||4.61 (4)|
|Yankees||.357 (3)||4.35 (2)|
|Braves||.338 (9)||3.85 (2)|
|Red Sox||.348 (7)||4.10 (1)|
|Rangers||.363 (2)||4.60 (4)|
|Yankees||.361 (1)||4.15 (1)|
|Padres||.325 (8)||3.84 (2)|
|Indians||.347 (5)||4.54 (8)|
|Rangers||.356 (2)||4.42 (5)|
|Yankees||.348 (7)||4.25 (1)|
|Braves||.332 (2)||3.50 (1)|
|Orioles||.354 (5)||4.89 (8)|
|Rangers||.358 (3)||4.63 (4)|
As you can see, the playing landscape of 2009 is considerably different than it was back then, as the league as a whole posted its lowest wOBA and FIP of any of the Yankees' five championship years. That alone tells us that offense is down and pitching has improved. Despite a suppressed offensive environment, the 2009 Yankees' best-in-baseball offense not only posted the highest wOBA of any of these championship teams -- even better than the 1998 squad -- but beat the league average by 0.32, the greatest margin of improvement over league average. The only other year the Yankees had the best offense in the AL was 1998.
The 2009 Phillies did indeed have the best offense of any World Series foe in this sample, and were also the only top-ranked offense any Yankee team had to face. Of course, Philadelphia's pitching staff's FIP is the worst of the NL teams the Yankees played, and actually below-average for 2009.
The 2009 Yankees also faced top offenses in both the Angels (3rd best in the AL) and Twins (5th-best), making the achievements of the pitching staff in the postseason that much more impressive, although again, neither the Angels' or Twins' staffs were in the top half of the AL in FIP.
The much-maligned 2000 Yankees squad probably had the highest hill to climb, beating superior offenses in the first two rounds and facing a very good Mets pitching staff in the World Series. The 1996 team was also an offensive underdog, although somewhat surprisingly led the AL in FIP. They also faced some pretty terrible pitching staffs in both the Rangers and the Orioles. What's really crazy about 1996 is how good the Braves were -- second-best offense in the NL and a 3.50 FIP in a league where the average was 4.30.
What actually stood out to me the most about the 1998 and 1999 campaigns is that the Rangers were apparently a much better squad than I remember -- I suppose back-to-back first round sweeps will do that. Also, Boston had the best FIP in the AL in 1999, due in no small part to Pedro Martinez. And of course, the 1998 Yankees had both the best wOBA and FIP in the American League that year, something not even the 2009 team can say.
So do the stats back my emotions? Obviously, not entirely -- the Yankees' playoff opponents' average wOBA and FIP in 2009 was .341 and 4.40; in 2000 it was .349 and 4.52; in 1999 .350 and 4.18; 1998 .343 and 4.27; and 1996 .348 and 4.34, so draw from those numbers whatever conclusions you will.
Regardless, baseball from 1996 through 2000 was a considerably different animal that it is now, and for that and for all the reasons I cited above I maintain that the Yankees' 2009 title is the most gratifying of my life.