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Original Issue

The Return Of Mystique And Aura?

They're not just a pair of dancers at a New York nightclub; they're the near-nightly story of this postseason, when the Yankees got their old, late-'90s groove back

No sports team in the world takes its mystique and aura as seriously as the New York Yankees. The Yankees have won so many championships and had so many legendary players that they don't need to tell you how good they have been. But ... they do anyway. It's the Yankee Way. This is unmistakable when you go to Yankee Stadium for any game, and exponentially so for a playoff game. Depending on which side of the pinstripes you stand, the experience of Yankee Stadium in the postseason can be as warmly familiar as your home movies or as grating and annoying as somebody else's home movies. ¬∂ Here's the wind-through-the-trees voice of Bob Sheppard, still introducing (by way of recording) "Nuhm-buhr 2, Deh-rick JEET-uh." There are the fans in the rightfield bleachers bleating players' names during the first-inning roll call—"JOHN-ny DAY-mon! JOHN-ny DAY-mon!"—until the player waves back. Up on the new video board in centerfield, there is the crackling black-and-white footage of Babe Ruth's ferocious swing, Lou Gehrig considering himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth, Yogi Berra jumping into the arms of Don Larsen, Reggie Jackson reaching down and bashing his third straight World Series home run, Derek Jeter running the bases with his right arm pumping in triumph and, finally, Mariano Rivera closing the montage by throwing one more cutter for strike three.

And booming over all this Yankees hysteria on the video board is the voice of John Sterling, the longtime radio play-by-play man whose signature call is simply "Thuhhhhh Yankees win!" He reminds everyone that when it comes to the Yankees, "we play all nine innings" (you know, unlike those exasperating teams determined to stop after seven). He suggests that "a deficit in this yard is just a lead in waiting" (and the Yankees have 55 comeback wins—four in the postseason alone—this year to prove it). Finally, most significantly, he pronounces, "Mystique and aura again take center stage."

For many years, the old line went, the Yankees uniform was good for two victories in a seven-game series. That's how intimidating it was to face the Bronx Bombers. But that went away for a while. In the last eight years the Yankees have lost in the World Series to two expansion teams (2001 and '03), blown a three-games-to-none ALCS lead to Boston ('04), and, gasp, even missed the playoffs one year ('08). They won a lot of games, more than any franchise during that span, but no championships. Nobody feared Darth Vader anymore.

There is a difference this year, this October: Mystique and aura no longer sound like an empty cry for the past, the nostalgic longing for a long-ago dynasty. Their return was the story of the postseason's first fortnight—how the Yankees, who held a 2--1 ALCS lead over the Angels through Monday, got their groove back, and how their opponents seemed as lost and tentative as tourists in Times Square. How many ways can Yankees opponents beat themselves? Baserunning blunders. Dropped pop-ups. Poor pitching at the worst times. As the television writer Michael Schur (The Office, Parks and Recreation) wrote on Twitter, "If Sherlock Holmes suspected the Yankees of murder, he'd make four crucial errors in the investigation, and they'd get away scot-free."

It was not all that surprising when the Twins lost their minds and blew late-inning leads in the AL Division Series, which the Yankees swept. The Twins, after all, barely sneaked into the playoffs, a low-payroll team held together by string and duct tape and Joe Mauer. This was the third time the Yankees had ripped the Twins in the playoffs. (They did so in 2003 and '04 as well.) Angels centerfielder Torii Hunter played on those Minnesota teams and says, "We had no frickin' chance. We made minimum wage."

The ALCS, however, was supposed to be different. The Yankees were playing the Los Angeles Angels, a very good team (97 wins during the season, a sweep of Boston in the Division Series) that pays a very good wage, not to mention a franchise that had run the Yankees into the ground in recent years. They knocked off the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs in 2002 and again three years later. From '04 through '08 the Angels had a winning record against the Yankees every year.

Only ... something changed. In the first inning of Game 1 last week, Los Angeles shortstop Erick Aybar and third baseman Chone Figgins staggered helplessly under a windblown pop-up and let it drop between them. That allowed one run to score. Later, Hunter charged a base hit too hard and saw it bounce off his glove, and another run scored. That was enough for an easy 4--1 Yankees victory. "It hit something," Hunter said afterward, though he could not identify what. Maybe the cowboy boot of the ghost of Billy Martin.

The second game was a five-hour, 10-minute miniseries in the rain with plenty of mistakes on both sides, though the decisive two belonged to the Angels. The first of those happened in the 11th inning, when Angels closer Brian Fuentes, clinging to a one-run lead, grooved a waist-high, middle-of-the-plate fastball to Alex Rodriguez. The count was 0 and 2, making the pitch even more unforgivable. A-Rod crushed it to rightfield, and even a howling wind and pelting rain could not keep it from soaring into the first row of seats for a game-tying homer.

Then in the 13th, with the score tied, the Yankees had runners on first and second with one out when Angels second baseman Maicer Izturis ranged left for a ground ball and, instead of taking the sure out at first base, wheeled and tried for the force-out at second. It was a brain-fog moment; the runner at second meant nothing. He threw wildly, allowing Jerry Hairston Jr. to score the winning run. As the saying goes: Bad idea, poorly executed.

The question is: How did this Yankees team get its groove back? How, after eight years of bloated payrolls, shaky defense, a pitching staff without a clear No. 1 pitcher and repeated postseason heartbreak, did the Yankees once again become the kind of team that not only runs over opponents but also seems to unnerve them before the first pitch?

The answer, of course, begins—and, many non-Yankees fans would say, ends—with money. The Yankees missed the playoffs in 2008, and team management responded to their postseason dry spell with typical Yankees restraint. They bought the best starting pitcher on the market (CC Sabathia, for $161 million over seven years), a No. 2 starter with perhaps the best pure stuff in the league (A.J. Burnett, for $82.5 million over five years) and a switch-hitting, power-hitting, Gold Glove first baseman (Mark Teixeira, for $180 million over eight years). They traded for a flaky outfielder with the versatility to play four positions and a keen eye (Nick Swisher). It was a full, and very expensive, makeover.

But a few other things happened too. Derek Jeter worked with a new fitness trainer who helped him restore some of his flexibility, especially in his left hip. This may have helped him have one of his best offensive seasons. He also showed a sudden and shocking improvement in the advanced defensive metrics favored by statheads. Jeter had a negative Ultimate Zone Rating—a measure of how many runs a player saves with his defense—every year since the statistic was invented in 2002. This season, however, UZR estimated that Jeter saved the Yankees 6.4 runs more than the average defensive shortstop, a staggering turnaround for a 35-year-old middle infielder.

"I'm leery of defensive numbers," one AL G.M. says, "but there's no question that he was better defensively this year."

Alex Rodriguez, after years of underperforming in October, is crushing the ball during these playoffs. The knock that A-Rod wasn't a pressure player was always suspect; his cumulative postseason numbers were awfully similar to Jeter's. But the Yankees third baseman concedes that after a nightmarish spring training, when he admitted using steroids as a younger player and underwent arthroscopic hip surgery, he simplified his approach: See the ball, hit the ball, as the expression goes. "I know you guys are looking for something profound," A-Rod says. "I'm just in a good place."

Other stuff happened too. The Yankees, against the odds, stayed remarkably healthy for a franchise that leans so heavily on its veterans. Johnny Damon, at age 35, had one of his best years; Hideki Matsui, 35, had one of his best despite a balky left knee; and Jorge Posada, 38, hit 22 home runs and slugged .522. Healthy and focused, the Yankees have All-Stars or near All-Stars at every position except centerfield (where Melky Cabrera dutifully fills the role of the scrappy Yankee), a Cy Young winner leading the staff and the best closer in the game's history. In baseball, "playing the game the right way" is code for teams that move runners over with productive outs, play sound defense and throw strikes. The Yankees do all those things, but with a $200 million payroll they've also assembled a lineup that led the league in on-base percentage and homers, and a pitching staff that led the league in strikeouts and saves. That's playing the game right.

And so the Yankees have, once again, become the most intimidating team in baseball. In golf, people talk about how Tiger Woods, more often than not, simply plays solid and consistent golf and waits for golfers to make critical mistakes. The same is true in NASCAR with three-time champion Jimmie Johnson. This Yankees team could always beat you. Now, though, they are content to let you beat yourself.

"We can't count on the Angels to keep giving us breaks," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after Game 2, but he might be wrong about that. Remember during the 2001 Yankees-Diamondbacks World Series, when Curt Schilling said of Mystique and Aura, "Those are dancers at a nightclub"? Well, don't look now, but Mystique and Aura are performing nightly in the Bronx again.

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This Yankees team could always beat you. Now, though, they are content to let you beat yourself.


Photograph by JOHN IACONO

LETTING OUT THE CLUTCH With his Game 2 blast, A-Rod became only the third player in postseason history to hit a game-tying, extra-inning home run.



COLDPLAY A Series of Angels' blunders included a blown 11th-inning lead in Game 2 (above) followed by Izturis's game-ending bad throw.