A Habit of Winning

The mayor is just standing there in the Yankee clubhouse, not fifteen minutes after the Yankees clinched their fourth American League pennant of his two terms, the thick green nozzle of the Moët Brut bottle angled deep into that famous comb-over. This, however, would be no token photo-op foam splatter as in years past. The bottle, held aloft by a disembodied arm from the crowd, is drained methodically over his cranium, gurgling for one second, three seconds, five – an entire 750 milliliters coursing over his forehead and shoulders while the mayor stands there with that beatific smile, as serenely patient as any Wall Street widow undergoing a hot-oil scalp treatment at Frederic Fekkai.

“I used to say, it was the one campaign promise I made back in 1993 that I haven’t kept, that we have a Subway Series,” Giuliani rasps joyfully.

He pauses to rhapsodize on the season that’s just unfolded, easily the most arduous and counterintuitive of any in the charmed run of the Joe Torre years. “You’re looking for an MVP of the series, it might be the Yankees front office,” the mayor gushes, speaking in the hurried, breathless tones of a ninth-grader. “Justice hits the big home run … Justice wasn’t here at the beginning of the season. I mean, unbelievable. Vizcaino comes up, he gets the hit that starts off the inning. None of these guys were here. Unbelievable administration,” he glows, using that distinctly mayoral argot. “Unbelievable management.”’

For four years and three world championships, the mayor has labored to underscore the linkage between the rebirth of the Yankees and the rebirth of the city during his tenure. Usually, he’s done it through the lens of nostalgia – summoning the sepia-toned imagery of the hegemonic Yankees of the Eisenhower years (as typified by the crew-cut blond Jugend of Whitey and the Mick) to the prosperous, mugger-free New York he sought to conjure, and sort of did.

But the Yankees, as assembled, might be an even more potent symbol. The teams of the Torre Era shed once and for all those associations of plain scariness that dogged the franchise, and the city, during the wild Billy Martin seventies and into the eighties. The city, and the team, came once again to stand for a place of opportunity, nineties edition, and Yankee Stadium as an Ellis Island for the baseball overclass. From Clemens to Knoblauch to Neagle, a team of immigrants – admittedly, rather high-income ones – journeying to New York from as far off as Toronto, Minnesota, and Cincinnati to pursue a dream, or at least a ring.

Yes, fans from Fenway to Flushing see them as a faceless corporate juggernaut. But winning, they’ll tell you, feels different in pinstripes. It just does.

“I never thought I’d ever hit a home run that would make me feel as good,” left-fielder David Justice is saying, his shiny head rising amid a swarm of microphones as he holds the Championship Series MVP, which looks a bit like a skyline of glassy corporate towers. Justice’s twenty home runs since he arrived in June arguably saved the season, and his titanic seventh-inning home run almost certainly saved the game. But tonight, the latest in a series of arriviste Yankee heroes (see Cecil Fielder in 1996) is contextualizing this year’s championship run with all those thrilling years previous – in Atlanta and Cleveland, of course.

“Before I got here, they won three of the last four World Series,” Justice says, gamely trying to wrap his soft, southern-tinged Cincinnati lilt around an ungainly mix of first- and third-person. “They were a great ball club before we got here and we didn’t want to come in here and mess up the mix.”

“They.” “We.” Whatever. Seven of this year’s pennant-clinchers were not here in June. Many will not be in April. It hardly seems to matter. “We haven’t seen something like this since the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Yankees squared off in 1956, so all the jokes might be true – it might be like the Civil War all over again, with one brother who’s a Yankee fan fighting one brother who’s a Mets fan,” says preternaturally articulate left-hander Denny Neagle, displaying that notably quick-study New Yorkiness that’s so characteristic of the most ambitious of newcomer Manhattan professionals. Neagle has been a Yankee since July 12.

The new, in this case, served to jump-start the old. As much as the secret of the team’s stunning success in the past half-decade undoubtedly lies, as the players ceaselessly assert, with the Boss’s “keeping the core” – Bernie, Paul, Andy, Derek – “intact,” that core began to hobble this year. If the Yankees looked scattered in losing fifteen of eighteen to close out the season, it seemed more a product of karma than of bad planning, as though the fates were finally aligned against the aging Goliath. Chuck couldn’t throw. Darryl and Mel got sick. Paul got old. There were, for the first time in years, stakes, a chance at failure, a desperate tinge to their customary hunger for perfection. Yankee observers were starting to doubt, despite the signs in the stands that read, we don’t believe – we know.

Before the season, relief pitcher Ramiro Mendoza was mentioned in every trade talk. Torre said the team couldn’t win without him. Mendoza got hurt. The team won without him. “Every year is a little bit different, but this may be a little more gratifying because we had our problems,” Derek Jeter shrugs after the game, having to go on to explain that no, after three rings in four years in the bigs, he still does not take this whole ceremony of bubbly-splattering for granted.

The curious thing about the Yankees is how it never grows old, the quest; it never gets tedious. Every year they win is like the first year. Perhaps it’s because with all the new players, it always is. Boyish general manager Brian Cashman just keeps responding to the inevitable downswings by maneuvering in the needed parts as if he were implementing some just-in-time corporate-inventory scheme.

After the game, Joe Torre, looking as graciously humble as a monsignor, seems to be allowing himself to exhale for the first time since April.

“I think I was reaching into my mouth to dry my hands tonight. I don’t think there was a whole lot of water there,” joked Torre after the Yankees hung on in their seesaw 9-7 Game 6 clincher, a game that saved Torre’s signature year, his masterpiece among masterpieces.

As the bottles drain, one Yankee doesn’t seem to tire of the Handelian water music – reliever Mike Stanton, whose first World Series came when he wore the double knits of the Atlanta Braves in 1991.

He sneaks up behind a circle of reporters surrounding Game 6 winning pitcher – and immigrant of a very rarefied sort – Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. Bending low, Stanton unleashes a torrent into El Duque’s eyes.

“Don’t y’all think they gave us way too much champagne?” howls the Houston-reared reliever to no one in particular.

Winning seems easy to the Yankees. It never is.

Which is why tonight, there isn’t a “y’all” alive who could possibly give us all too much champagne.

A Habit of Winning