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2006-08-24 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

New Yankee Stadium Won't Hinder Championship Tradition
By Neil S. Friedman

It was quite fitting that the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Yankee Stadium was held on August 16, the same day that Babe Ruth died in 1948, because the event marked the death knell for the House That Ruth Built, which has been the home of the winningest team for the last 83 years.

Rumor has it that Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner wants to nickname the new stadium, just north and across the street from the current site in The Bronx, the Home of Champions, which is quite apropos considering the team's legacy. Hopefully, it is also a forecast for the team's future.

While traditionalists are decrying the change, rational supporters know it is a wise move, since the stadium, except for the immaculately-maintained field, is in desperate need of repairs, not to mention the lack of luxury boxes that for years Steinbrenner has craved to bring in additional profits to boost the team's already substantial bottom line.

While several baseball franchises have opened new stadiums across the country in the last two decades, the only modification Yankee Stadium got was when the Bronx ballpark was renovated 33 years ago. Since then, the third-oldest ballpark - after Boston's Fenway Park (1912) and Chicago's Wrigley Field (1914) - has steadily depreciated.

Future home aside, the Yankees hardly played like champions as they lost the first two games following the ceremony. However, after languishing in second place the first half of the season, the Yankees held a slim game-and-a-half margin as they headed to Fenway to face their archenemy. But, with an exhausting five games totaling almost twenty hours - including the longest nine-inning game (at 4:45) ever played - over four days, the Yankees swept the Red Sox and improved their American League Eastern Division lead to six and a half games on Monday.

Nevertheless, with thirty-seven games - as of today - before the playoffs, New York's lead is comfortable, but certainly not insurmountable, especially with Boston coming to The Bronx for three mid-September games.

The single opponent Yankee fans have been concerned about in nail-biting September pennant races for the last decade has been the Red Sox. Even though Boston broke the Curse in 2004 when they won their first World Series since 1918 after ousting the Yankees from the playoffs, perhaps the most unparalleled rivalry in professional sports remains alive and fiercely competitive.

Until early July, it looked like the Yankees' twelfth consecutive playoff appearance was doubtful as they looked like a team that might be vying for a wild card post rather than another division title. But, after trailing the Red Sox by 3 1/2 games a month ago, it now appears Boston will be the team competing for a post-season slot with Chicago and Minnesota.

Injuries, which had already sidelined two starting pitchers, peaked in May when two of the team's corner outfielders and top RBI men - Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield - suffered long-term injuries. A month later, sophomore sensation Robinson Cano was sidelined by an injury and only returned a few weeks ago, but in peak form. Matsui could return in September, but Sheffield may be shelved until 2007.

Despite the fact that about half the Yankee batting order was comprised of rookies, second-tier players and other team's castoffs, the damn Yankees have been playing pretty damn well - most of the time - as their record indicates. That's essentially because the team's core of veterans - Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada - and more recent additions, like Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina, have provided the ability and leadership to keep them in contention.

The Yankees strengthened their roster before the July 31 trading deadline, but the Red Sox couldn't mange a deal, but underwent medical setbacks that mirrored the Yankees earlier problems.

But, talent aside, much of the credit for the Yankees' resilience goes to Brooklyn-born manager Joe Torre, who skillfully deals with 25 different personalities, knows how to motivate his players when he detects budding complacency.

Certainly after Boston Massacre II this weekend, skeptical Yankee fans are no longer whispering among themselves that this might be the first year since 1994 their team wouldn't be playing baseball in October.

But, no matter what happens between now and October 1 - the last day of the regular season - astute baseball fans know the playoffs are something completely different. And many Yankee players have been there before. Eleven times in the last eleven years, including eight straight division titles. Most Yankee players know how to cope with playoff pressure. The young Detroit Tigers squad, on the other hand, is unfamiliar with that kind of tension and the franchise hasn't been in the playoffs for decades, which, despite the best record in baseball and talented lineup, could be detrimental when autumn leaves start to fall.

After a long season that began in early April, the Yankees' mettle will be tested in the coming weeks. But ever since Joe Torre became the Yankees' manager, the team has flourished to near dynasty-proportions, winning four World Series in the process. Nonetheless, despite being baseball's wealthiest team, due to financial disparity, a championship has eluded the Yankees for the last five straight seasons.

Yankee fans want - dare I say, expect - nothing less than a championship every year. And despite the change of venue in three years, it's logical to predict professional sports' most triumphant team will continue the distinguished tradition it has sustained for eight decades.

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