The Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty

According to Buster Olney, the dynasty's real "last night" came seven years ago, in October of 2001 - the night that Luis Gonzalez fisted a Series-winning single over Derek Jeter's head, ending the Yankee streak of consecutive World Championships at three and ringing down the curtain on a particularly indomitable era in Bronxian history. And Olney's right, in a sense: The Yankee teams of 2002-2007 felt at times like a waning shadow of the terrifying squad that came before them - the team of Scott Brosius and Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez, of El Duque's leg kicks and David Cone's pinpoint control, of Bernie Williams' effortless center fielding and the nasty middle-relief work of Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson, and Ramiro Mendoza. The pre-2001 Yankees weren't as talented, strictly speaking, as some of the squads New York has fielded in the last five years - O'Neill didn't hit like Gary Sheffield, Brosius was no Alex Rodriguez, El Duque's regular-season record never matched Mike Mussina's - but they were vastly harder to beat than the jury-rigged teams of recent vintage, with their uneasy mix of over-the-hill superstars (Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson, Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon) and unready twentysomethings (Melky Cabrera, Philip Hughes, etc.). The Nineties Yanks were the great exception to the Moneyball rules - the team whose numbers didn't tell the whole story, the team that consistently outperformed its Pythagorean record, the team that you knew was going to find a way to beat you when the chips were down. You knew Derek Jeter would drive in the tying run in the seventh and Williams would homer to win it; you knew Paul O'Neill would get the clutch bloop single and that Mendoza would wriggle out of the bases-loaded jam the following inning to save the game; you knew that they'd capitalize on your team's errors and stifle your last-ditch, eighth-inning comeback attempt. You just knew it. And God, how I hated them.

Those days are long gone. But the streak of post-season appearances went on: Even when  the Yankees would struggle early in the season, and people would murmur that this, this at last was finally the year when they wouldn't be playing in October, they always found a way to right the ship, to leave the Jays and Rays and Orioles in the dust and lap the Red Sox - and even last year, when they finally didn't catch us, they still cruised into the playoffs, claiming it as their birthright yet again. And crucial pieces from those old, terrifying teams remained in place - Jeter prancing around shortstop, Posada's hangdog face behind the plate, Andy Pettitte (back after an exile in Houston) sweeping curveballs across the plate, and Mariano Rivera, deadly and elegant, there at the end of every Yankees win. Joe Torre endured as well, until this year, and even then his replacement, Joe Girardi, was a fixture from those great mid-nineties team, Posada's platoon-mate turned Posada's manager, the wheel of Yankee history coming full circle yet again.

And so attention must be paid: Last night, on fields in Boston and Toronto, the amazing run that began when Don Mattingly was still the Yankee first baseman finally ended, and baseball's twentieth century - which was, more than anything else, a pinstriped century - finally, irrevocably, gave way to its twenty-first, in which the role the Yankees filled for generations is very much up for grabs. They will be back, of course, but in a different stadium, under different leadership, and in a different era. And now is the time for their fans and their enemies alike to salute the way they were - a team, and a dynasty, the likes of which we may not see again.