Reggie Jackson hasn't played in pinstripes since 1981. But tonight, hours before the Yankees are to face the Atlanta Braves, Jackson struts into the legendary clubhouse at Yankee Stadium and instantly takes over the room. Now employed as one of George Steinbrenner's "baseball people," Jackson has flown in from California for the big series. A curvaceous blonde woman wearing a press pass walks up and begins to introduce herself, but Jackson cuts her off.
"Damn," he says. "A beautiful woman in the clubhouse?" He looks her up and down, slowly. Twice. "The women reporters are usually pretty . . . rough. Where'd they import you from?"
As shestutters a reply, Derek Jeter appears, crossing from the player's lounge to his locker. Jeter is wearing a T-shirt and tight running shorts that highlight his tapered torso and minuscule waist.
"Reginald!" Jeter says, shaking Jackson's hand. Jeter tries to keep moving, but Jackson won't let go of his hand.
"How'm I doing?" Jackson says, rolling his eyes from Jeter to the blonde. "Pretty nice, huh?" Jeter glances quickly at the woman and doesn't say a word. "Whaddaya think?" Jackson asks, pointing his cigar at the woman for emphasis.
Jeter, who managed to date Mariah Carey for months and keep things discreet, changes the subject. "What you doing in town, Reginald?"
"Motherfucker hasn't paid me in six months!" Jackson yells. "I had to come collect! I didn't know about it till my secretary told me!"
Jeter moves rapidly toward his locker, tossing back some gentle sarcasm. "You don't need any more money!" he says. "You're rich already! Give me a loan!"
Jackson, flattered, grins widely, not noticing that the blonde has also managed to escape. Talk returns to baseball: Is this the best Yankees team ever?
"Sheee-itttt," Jackson exhales. "They're a good team, maybe a great team -- but talk to me after they've won the World Series. If they even get to the World Series. That's the test. Remember," he says, "you're talking to Mr. October!"
Thousands of fans are ready to argue with Reggie and crown these Yankees right now. They've watched this team win big (pounding out 12, 14, and 12 runs in consecutive games versus the Sox, Red and then White), win little (a crafty pitching gem by David Cone to beat the Orioles 1?0), win lucky (a horrible umpire's call bailing them out against Baltimore), and win gloriously (David Wells's perfect game against the Twins).
The victories just keep piling up, 67 wins in the first 88 games. At this rate, the Yankees will shatter one of the game's oldest landmarks, the 116 regular-season wins racked up by the 1906 Chicago Cubs. The toughest challenge these Yankees have faced is ordering dinner for a pitching staff that includes a Cuban, a Japanese, an Australian, a born-again Christian, and a beer-loving Southern California flake.
Whatever the team's final numbers -- and there are signs that the Yankees won't keep winning three out of every four -- the way the Yankees are succeeding deserves close attention. Playing in the capital of hype, for an owner who is the major-league career leader in bluster, they go about their daily business with the discipline of a Marine drill team. Like Jeter in his encounter with Jackson, they refuse to be distracted. The defining symbol of this team is the blond-wood Pottery Barn picture frames perched in players' lockers, holding snapshots of their smiling children.
"We're grinders," says manager Joe Torre. "Baseball is our job. And that's the way we approach it." The all-for-one, one-for-all mythology, though, disguises plenty of machinations: One day, Torre is stroking the ego of the prickly Chuck Knoblauch; the next, he's poking at the pride of David Wells.
The Yankees won a World Series two years ago with largely the same cast of characters, but the personality of this year's model is quite different. The 1996 Yankees also generated headlines with off-the-field dramas, especially the heart transplant that saved the life of Torre's brother Frank. "In '96, we had so many human-interest stories, it was like living in a TV movie-of-the-week," says David Cone, who won a pivotal game in the World Series months after surgeons plucked an aneurysm from his pitching arm. "This year, it feels like we're working on a classic."
Inside the visitors' locker room in Cleveland, reporters are grilling Scott Brosius for more details, more of his feelings, about the weird moment last night when he beat the Indians twice. In a tense ninth inning, with the score tied and the bases loaded, Brosius tapped a slow roller down the third base line, just far enough for Tino Martinez to score. Then a bizarre reversal: The home-plate umpire waved off the whole thing, saying the ball had deflected off Brosius, making it foul. Torre leapt from the dugout to argue; Brosius trotted back from first base, confused and winded, to face the flame-throwing Mike Jackson again. Then Brosius fouled off five straight nasty two-strike pitches before taking ball four, forcing in the winning run.
The beat writers want to know: Wasn't Brosius angry about the controversial call? Did he think the call was wrong? How did he compose himself so quickly?
Brosius, a soft-spoken dead ringer for Lenny on Laverne and Shirley, shrugs and offers several variations of "I just tried to focus and make contact."
The questions keep coming: How was he able to keep a clear head in such a pressure-packed situation?
"It's because he's a good Christian!" shouts Tim Raines. Raines, lounging on the locker-room couch, cracks up both Brosius and the writers. The Yankees have one of the best-attended prayer groups in the majors -- including Brosius, Chad Curtis, Joe Girardi, Andy Pettitte, Paul O'Neill, Darryl Strawberry, Darren Holmes, and Raines -- but they're not sanctimonious. That Raines can joke about their faith is another sign of how loose and mature this team is.
Jeter and Raines are the leaders when it comes to keeping things light. But the Patient Zero of the team's fierce determination is Paul O'Neill. Last October, right here in Cleveland, O'Neill set the tone for this year's team. The Yankees were one out from playoff elimination, and they barely had a pulse. Then O'Neill, hobbled by a season's worth of aches, whacked a pitch into right field and launched his tired body toward second base. The tying run was in scoring position.