The uproar over exorbitant ticket prices and cheap homers in the brand-new ballpark in the Bronx has mostly been drowned out lately by late-inning heroics and silly, infectious pie-in-the-face celebrations. A major-league-leading 17 come-from-behind wins—fueled by surprisingly relaxed superstar Alex Rodriguez, suddenly unconscious slugger Mark Teixeira and rejuvenated former reserve Melky Cabrera—have brought the Yankees out of their early doldrums, when all the talk was about empty $2,500 seats (reduced now to a bargain $1,250) and flying baseballs.
"I'm having a blast," says Rodriguez, and that's a great way to put it for just about every hitter in a ballpark that had yielded a crazy 87 home runs in 23 games through Sunday, a pace that will break the record of 303 homers hit at Coors Field in 1999. The $1.5 billion edifice seems perfect for a $200 million roster loaded with strikeout pitchers and fly-ball hitters.
Shaky pitching and injuries to A-Rod, rightfielder Xavier Nady, catchers Jorge Posada and Jose Molina and setup men Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte had the Yankees struggling to a 13--15 start. It didn't hurt that they were scheduled to play 10 of 13 games against the Orioles and the Twins just as they welcomed back Rodriguez, who underwent hip surgery in March. His return has been marked by a constant smile, clutch hitting and no controversy since he became a flash point in February after acknowledging he took steroids during his days with the Rangers.
Rodriguez, who has sparked the Yankees to 12 wins in 16 games, called himself the "happiest .200 hitter [actually .189 at week's end] in baseball," and he's also the most powerful (.604 slugging) and impactful. (Four of his seven homers had tied games or put the Yankees ahead.) What's more, Teixeira's slugging percentage, .396 when A-Rod returned, is .852 since.
While the additions of mature stars Teixeira and ace lefthander CC Sabathia strengthened the roster, righthander A.J. Burnett and instant fan-favorite outfielder Nick Swisher have added a goofy element to a previously serious clubhouse. Burnett's main contribution lately is the whipped-cream pies to punctuate walk-off wins (the Yankees lead the majors with six walk-offs).
Improved rapport between second-year manager Joe Girardi and his players, notably with the veteran stars who had been close to iconic, fatherly Joe Torre, seems evident. "In 36 years this is the best clubhouse I've been around," says Ray Negron, who started as a Yankees ball boy and is now a club executive. Most managers have favorite players, but as Negron points out, "With Girardi, you wouldn't have a clue as to who the favorites are."
Right now, they are all favorites in the Bronx. As captain Derek Jeter says, "Everyone's loose and having fun."
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Photograph by CHUCK SOLOMON
DASHING Batting .307 with 10 homers, Johnny Damon has helped key the Yankees' surge.