Is this the year - at last - for the New York Yankees?
It's been nine years since the Yankees' last World Series title – an eternity for New York. But the Yanks are well positioned to make amends, starting Wednesday against the Minnesota Twins.
Mike Segar / Reuters
Every time a New York Yankee wins a game in the ninth inning, he gets rewarded with a pie in his face during the postgame on-the-field TV interview.
So far, that's happened 15 times – the most in the major leagues. And having the confidence to come from behind is just one reason the most storied franchise in baseball history is a leading contender to bring another ticker-tape parade to Broadway.
The Yankees finished the regular season with the best record in baseball, giving them home field advantage at their new $1.5 billion stadium throughout the playoffs. The team is oozing swagger.
Surprisingly, baseball's biggest team has been distinctly short on swagger in recent years. Last year, the team did not make the postseason for the first time since 1993 – the season before the strike. For "The Boss," owner George Steinbrenner, who has opened his wallet to the tune of $1.5 billion on salaries since 2001, anything short of that confetti-filled trip to City Hall is not a success. Dallas may be a football town and Detroit a hockey mecca, but New York thinks of baseball as its sport.
"It's really different in New York," says Joel Fish of the Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia. "In sports in general, people ask, 'What have you done for me lately?' In the case of the Yankees, they ask, 'What have you done for me today?' "
Since 2000, the answer has been "nothin', nada" – not a single World Series title.
To try to remedy that, the Yankees – as they have before – opened the checkbook. They signed free agent pitchers C.C. Sabathia ($15.2 million per year), A.J. Burnett ($16.5 million per year), and first baseman Mark Teixeira ($20.6 million per year).
By the time the Steinbrenners were finished last off-season, they had a payroll of $201 million, the highest in the big leagues.
So the Yankees will enter the postseason with more pressure on them.
From a statistical standpoint, the big spending adds 15 to 30 percent in the win percentage, estimates Andrew Zimbalist, a baseball historian at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "It's an advantage but not a determinant of success," he says.
The most important factor in the postseason, say others, is for a team to have three good starting pitchers and a lights-out closer who can shut down the opposition in the ninth inning.
"It's all about pitching in the postseason," says Brian Brewer, coach of Marietta College in Ohio, which won the Division III World Series in 2006. "The Yankees have a pretty experienced pitching staff."
Left-hander Sabathia is akin to an NFL lineman in pinstripes, throwing a baseball with pinpoint accuracy. He tied for the league-lead in wins, with 19 and was fifth in the American League with a 3.37 earned run average.
But after Sabathia, the Yankee starters are more vulnerable. Righty A.J. Burnett, a raw-boned veteran with both speed and guile, has been inconsistent. Lefty Andy Pettitte has had a good second half to the season but is not as dominant as he once was.
"Boston has the best power arms," says Mr. Brewer. "Their arms are unbelievable."
The Yankees have been on the right emotional arc this season. They started out coping with the latest Alex Rodriguez controversy – revelations about his past steroid use – and Teixeira's apparent inability to hit anything smaller than a cantaloupe.
But since the All-Star break, the Yankees have been reborn, with Teixeira blasting shots into the stands and shortstop Derek Jeter being his usual model of excellence and consistency.
All of this leads to a new confidence – and more pies.
"It's nothing other than a good sign," says Mr. Schechter. "It's cool they are having fun with it."