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Friday, November 6, 2009
Postseason had many defining moments

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

There are no more games to be played this year, except for what will be rewound over eggnog and turkey legs until the spring thaw. Some of those memories will be difficult to purge without a stiff drink: why Charlie Manuel did not yank Pedro Martinez after six triumphant innings in Game 2 of the World Series, only to make the same mistake again when he allowed a weak, beaten Martinez to face Hideki Matsui with a left-handed reliever ready in Game 6. Other playoffs flashbacks will be more pleasant, whether on Broad Street or Broadway: the daily, frightening postseason redemptions of Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia, the heroic lashes of Chase Utley, the rise of Cliff Lee and the vintage aging of the Jeter-Rivera-Pettitte-Posada classic quartet, recalled all winter simply for the sake of delight.

New York Yankees
The Yankees won the World Series for the first time since 2000.

The 2009 postseason will be remembered for the end of one era (the Yankees' five-year hangover from losing the 2004 American League pennant) and the beginning of another (the inevitability of full-scale instant replay in baseball). The Yankees defeated the defending titleholder Phillies and are champions again, and Rodriguez, after 2,166 regular-season games -- second most among active players to Ken Griffey Jr. -- finally joins the champions club without conditions.

Devastating losses often have devastating consequences, and until late Wednesday night, when Robinson Cano flipped Shane Victorino's ground ball to Mark Teixeira with Rivera trailing the play with his right arm cocked in an anticipatory, victorious fist pump, the 2004 AL Championship Series had reverberated through the bones of both the Yankees and Red Sox.

Boston won two titles and has never since been identified with losers, while the Yankees, once three outs from continuing their torture of the Red Sox, continued to be rich and dominant and good, winning the AL East three times to Boston and Tampa Bay's one each … but were never quite the same. Despite the names of Randy Johnson, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu and Kevin Brown, the big-money approach seemed bloated and desperate … the famed intimidation factor, that the Yankees always win and Boston loses, was gone. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman attempted a market correction, but all his measured, build-from-the-grassroots strategy of Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes buttressing the kids did was make everyone wonder after each poor start just exactly why Johan Santana wasn't pitching for the Yankees.

Over the past 30 days, the new group -- headlined by Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Teixeira, fortified by Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and, of course, Mariano Rivera -- put an end to it all with a spirited championship run, charting a new course to an old location: the famed Canyon of Heroes.

In 2008, awful weather ruined the World Series, and highlighted the question of how baseball could sell out its signature event and degrade its fans for television dollars. The game responded with schizophrenia: a promised day game in the World Series that never occurred -- the last day game in the World Series was 22 years ago, in 1987 between St. Louis and Minnesota -- replaced by a West Coast day game in each Championship Series, but a World Series whose Game 7 was scheduled for Nov. 5. Next year's playoffs are scheduled to likely end in November for a second consecutive year.

This year's crisis -- the egregious umpiring during the playoffs -- represents the beginning of a new era, for baseball cannot escape this offseason without a long-term plan to deal with getting calls right. For the first time in Series history, a play -- Rodriguez's double off Cole Hamels in Game 3 -- was correctly overturned into a home run using replay. The replay debate will require a more skillful response from the baseball establishment, for the issue -- technology -- is a bit more complicated than merely finding better umpires.

From the start of the postseason, big games grew larger because of critical errors by the men in blue. C.B. Bucknor had his moments in the Boston-Angels series. Phil Cuzzi blew a huge call that might have turned around the Yankees-Minnesota series. Tim McClelland, one of the best umpires in the business -- if not the best -- gravely admitted his failure in Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano's who's-on-third act during the Angels-Yankees series.

The World Series had its moments, too. Ryan Howard trapped a ball called a double-play liner by Brian Gorman in Game 2 that killed a Yankees rally that might have broken open a close game. Utley was called out by Gorman on a key double play in the same game that might have given the Phillies a chance to rally on Rivera and go up 2-0 in the Series.

The problem is not simply the umpires, but that the technological tools are too good to ignore -- slow-motion television replays from so many angles give the television viewer even more reason to distrust umpiring. The scrutiny is so great that the technology is undermining the umpires to such a degree that the "human element" argument -- one commissioner Bud Selig and many baseball people prefer -- no longer has any validity.

In the old days, players and fans at the stadium did not know of an erroneous call until long after the game was over. Today, each stadium sometimes replays controversial calls on crystal-clear, high-definition scoreboards, for the players to see as the game is going on. Inside the stadium, each section and suite is equipped with flat-screen monitors that replay and freeze-frame (with a zoom lens) a given play.

Even the inaccurate television toys -- the graphic overlays that simulate whether a pitch was within the strike zone -- undermine the authority of the umpires. That is not to say that the umpiring does not need a makeover as well. If technology is placing more emphasis on the umpiring, it also is doing so on the umpires. The cold fact is that many umpires are out of shape and overweight, making it difficult for them to perform the simplest of tasks, such as move quickly to reposition themselves to gain better views of plays in the field and on the base paths, as well as crouch properly behind the plate for balls and strikes.

Selig has resisted leaping too enthusiastically into the instant replay pool, and for good reason. Baseball isn't football, the sport of flags and do-overs. Unlike in football, a play in baseball has continuing ramifications beyond the spot of the controversy: runners advance, counts change. In the fourth inning of Game 4 of the World Series, Howard scored on a Pedro Feliz two-out single, but television replays showed he did not touch the plate. Sabathia never tagged Howard retroactively, instead throwing the ball to second to try to erase the advancing Feliz. How could such a play be reviewed?

In football, the do-over always can be invoked, even on touchdowns. Thousands of plays in football have simply disappeared, like Soviet dissidents. Replay first down. Baseball has too many moving parts.

Nevertheless, the umpiring was the singular issue of these playoffs. Selig says he prefers the human element of umpiring -- and who wants to see Manuel tossing a beanbag onto the field after a safe call at first? -- but there is too much critical mass to do nothing. If Selig does not act, even in some curbed, measured form, he will be admitting to the players in the dugouts as well as the millions who pay to watch his sport that accuracy does not matter, that he is willing to live with important games being played under false pretenses. And if he does nothing, it won't be long before the Major League Baseball is accused of essentially fixing its games for refusing to adopt available tools that would improve accuracy. I do not envy him.

The Yankees

For each of us, hell has a face. For Rodriguez, his hell came in the form of potentially not being able to play baseball, the one thing he can say he does better than anyone else currently walking the face of the earth. He has not been so candid as to completely articulate his fears, but during the course of the postseason, after another vicious double or electric home run, he would dance around the edges of his newfound, guarded, abbreviated interview style and explain how early in the season he was unsure of the future, how he did not know whether he would be able to be on the field.

So much of him had been enveloped in image; he appeared to be more than who he was, and that image was obliterated into a million shards of glass. He had been living a colossal lie, the player anointed as steroids-free who one day would pass Barry Bonds and restore dignity to the home run title. If he did not create the lie over the years, he certainly did not do anything to discourage it.

He was exposed during spring training as having used performance-enhancing drugs. Then, in a few searing passages in a book by former Yankees manager Joe Torre, he was depicted as narcissistic and superficial, even beyond the limits for a baseball player. Within weeks, Rodriguez was on the operating table, undergoing hip surgery, a tell-all book about him awaiting his return.

His image was in tatters, his career potentially over if his hip was as damaged as originally feared. It was unclear whether Selig would try to suspend him once he admitted his PED use. He already had lost respect in the clubhouse with his bizarre courting of pop icon Madonna and a photo spread in Details magazine that showed him in a dingy gym, kissing himself in a mirror.

For all his greatness -- A's general manager Billy Beane once said Rodriguez, then in his second year, was the greatest player who had ever lived -- and his record-setting salary, Rodriguez realized he had been careless with his immense gift, and now his health could be taking it all away from him.

It was here that intimates say Rodriguez had his moment of clarity: He would focus on baseball instead of the trappings of the celebrity life. Few of his contemporaries could understand why it was so hard for Rodriguez to simply concentrate on the game. In many ways, it is harder to be a great player today than ever before, for the perks of the life -- Rodriguez has earned more than $600 million in guaranteed salary so far in his career -- can make the game seem secondary. Everything Rodriguez craved, they said, could be achieved by focusing on his talent more, instead of less, for whenever he did, there was no one better.

It should be noted that the Yankees spent $423.5 million on three players in the offseason -- Teixeira, Sabathia and Burnett -- but they did not begin playing like a championship club until Rodriguez returned May 8. The Yankees had lost eight straight games to the Red Sox to start the season, highlighted by a 16-11 loss April 25 at Boston, when Burnett was spotted a 6-0 fourth-inning lead off Josh Beckett and wound up giving up eight runs in five innings. The bullpen remained unsettled, and the weight of expectations, even more than normal because of the extravagant offseason spending, seemed to weigh on Cashman and manager Joe Girardi.

Nor were the Yankees a particularly harmonious ballclub. Culture strains tested the bonds of the club, for even with the additions of Sabathia, Burnett and Teixeira, the championship core of the Yankees still was tied to Torre, a year removed from being the Yankees' manager, but whose specter seemed omnipresent.

"I've heard the criticism that I somehow betrayed the trust of the clubhouse," Torre told me during spring training. "That wasn't the point at all in the case of Kevin or Alex. I tried to humanize them. I tried to say that they were human beings and that playing this game is not easy."

Rodriguez homered in his first at-bat in Baltimore. Three days later, the Yankees won the first of nine straight games. They had lost 15 of 29 games to start the season without him. Teixeira was hitting .192 when Rodriguez arrived. They took over first place for good July 18 and destroyed Boston in the second half of the season, going 8-1 to even the series at 9-9.

The fractures suffered in the Yankees' camp were severe. For the bulk of the summer, Cashman could not conduct an interview without somewhere mentioning how deeply Torre had hurt him. Randy Levine, the Yankees' president, who holds considerable front office power, told intimates that Torre had finally revealed to the public the petty side insiders had dealt with for 12 years. If the lines between where the Torre dynasty ended and where the new chapter began had often been blurred by the Yankees' consistent winning and the continued presence of the Jeter-Posada-Rivera-Pettitte core, the Torre book provided the final, demarcating line.

The Phillies

The final result notwithstanding, there is no greater time to be a Phillies fan. Admission to that club always has been accompanied by losing -- dour, uneventful and constant. The Phillies have been around since Reconstruction -- 1883, to be exact -- and have lost more frequently and consistently than any other team in the history of the sport.

Today's Phillies have achieved the champion's attitude to go with the World Series title they secured in five games over Tampa Bay in 2008. Howard drove in 141 runs and hit 45 home runs this season. They were the team opponents did not want to face, the team bullpens around the National League feared and, worse, the team that had created for itself an aura that it always could come back in any game. For the first time since the late 1970s, but in a more impressive fashion -- those Mike Schmidt-Steve Carlton-Greg Luzinski teams found themselves frustrated by the Reds and Dodgers -- the Phillies have proved to be dangerous and championship-level on the field, bold in the front office.

Philadelphia took over first place for good May 30 and swatted away its flawed rivals in Atlanta and Florida, winning the NL East for the third consecutive season. The Phillies scored 820 runs but most impressively struck in the market to nab Lee and Pedro Martinez. The result was a team that won two games fewer than the Dodgers but was worlds more dangerous, slicing through the postseason with the same scary power, destroying opposing closers, Colorado's Huston Street and L.A.'s Jonathan Broxton.

The Phillies finished off the Dodgers and Rockies in 2009 the same way they punished the Brewers and Dodgers a year before by nearly never trailing in games. They were ready to defend their crown.

The World Series

In the three days before Game 1 of the World Series, a sudden rallying campaign overtook Yankee Stadium in the form of T-shirts and video tributes that did not permeate either the Yankees' three-game sweep of Minnesota in the Division Series or their Championship Series win over the Angels: Win it for the Boss. His presence has been about as subtle as a wrecking ball since he purchased the Yankees in 1973, but George Steinbrenner did not make a public appearance during the Series and has faded from public view for nearly two years. Even statements written by his longtime publicist Howard Rubenstein are infrequent. His signature of zipping around the Yankees' spring training complex in a golf cart ended roughly half a dozen years ago.

The transition of power -- from Steinbrenner to sons Hal and Hank -- has been so jarring in its totality that the message was clear by the symbolism if not by outright articulation by the Yankees: Winning one for the Boss strongly suggests he might not live to see another. The urgency of the slogan was reinforced earlier this season when YES, the Yankees' television network, advertised for what seemed like weeks a special documentary on Steinbrenner, as if to gird the public for the inevitable.

The Series had its moments of discovery, the first being when the Phillies continued their remarkable two-year streak of not trailing in a series. Their 6-1 win in the opener announced the presence of Utley, who homered twice off Sabathia, and the otherworldliness of Lee, who struck out the final two batters -- Rodriguez and Posada -- to end the game without giving up an earned run. Lee's star turn came in the seventh, when he caught a Posada pop-up on the mound as if yawning -- glove on his right hip, hardly looking the ball into the mitt -- and then in the eighth, when he snared a Cano grounder behind his back.

The Yankees won the next three games and effectively the Series by receiving better performances from their best players. Martinez-Burnett in Game 2 was a classic. Jose Molina's clipping a sleeping Jayson Werth off first in the fourth turned the tide. Teixeira boomed a Martinez high changeup into the right-field seats, and Matsui -- Yogi Berra-like -- yanked a Martinez curveball nearly off the dirt and hit it over the fence in right for a lead the Yankees would not relinquish.

Individual battles define baseball more than any other team sport, and the season was reduced to two major performers -- Lee and Utley -- against a motivated ensemble cast. Rodriguez spent the postseason rewriting not only his legacy, but also the record books. When his career is over, he might own close to every record there is for him to have, in the regular season and the playoffs.

The 2008 World Series MVP, Hamels, went from throwing a no-hitter through three innings in Game 3 to having his toughness challenged for the entire winter after his sudden, fatal meltdown. Sabathia, on three days' rest, might have won the championship in Game 4, leading 4-2 in the fifth but surrendering a hit to Jimmy Rollins and a walk to Victorino with the deadly 3-4-5 hitters coming up. No one got the ball out of the infield. Utley, his tormentor, and Howard popped up to Jeter. Werth struck out.

"You have to understand," Reggie Jackson said. "That CC came here to be in the middle of it. He didn't come here to be on the sideline. He came here for a piece of the action."

Tim McClelland
There were numerous missed calls by umpires during the entire postseason.

The play of the Series occurred later that game, after Girardi, having stuck too long with Sabathia, allowed Utley to rip yet another home run off his ace. Then the Phillies, in a champions' last stand, tied it with yet another home run, this one by Feliz off Joba Chamberlain.

Brad Lidge, shaky but readjusted, made his first appearance of the Series and retired the first two batters in the ninth inning before Johnny Damon's classic 11-pitch at-bat broke the Phillies. Damon singled. The Phillies shifted for Teixeira, and Damon promptly stole second and third on the same play, ungluing Lidge. Lidge then hit Teixeira, and Rodriguez crushed a bullet down the left-field line for a double. Three runs later, the Yankees were up three games to one. Damon was the key.

Talk about the money, and it is significant, for it allowed the Yankees to purchase superior ballplayers in superior numbers -- they have three players earning $20 million per year, and six of their regular nine earn at least $10 million per year -- but from the World Series back to the Division Series, the Yankees played a step ahead of the rest, not only making the bigger play in the biggest moments, but the smarter one, too. The critical mistakes seemed to come against the Yankees because their opponents -- Carlos Gomez, Nick Punto, Abreu, Vladimir Guerrero and Werth all got picked off on the base paths in critical moments -- seemed to play out of desperation even in favorable situations. Perhaps it was the pressure of knowing the Yankees' offense was capable of scoring big runs at any moment, or the looming shadow of Rivera, or just bad plays at bad times, but fundamentals don't cost money … or at least aren't supposed to.

In the finale -- made possible by an 8-6 Phillies win in Game 5 -- Martinez looked every bit his flu-ridden 38 years. He had arrived at the summit every bit as indomitable as his reputation, but long before admitting to the public that he had "nothing left," he surely had known it himself. Perhaps in a fatal moment of pride, Martinez did not relent, and his dishrag fastballs hurried to the plate, lifeless, and in the end, the clincher was no contest at all. Matsui homered in the second, and Manuel, showing too much deference to the future Hall of Famer, allowed Martinez to face Matsui again with lefty star-in-waiting J.A. Happ ready with the bases loaded. Matsui hit a two-run single. No matter; Matsui -- in an MVP performance -- later drove in two more runs off Happ.

As early as the fourth inning, when Pettitte -- who did not finish the sixth inning but received a standing ovation -- walked two with two outs but escaped, the countdown to Rivera began in earnest, intensifying when Howard's first home run of the Series in the sixth inning made it 7-3.

In a moment of ill-advised braggadocio, Rollins suggested the Phillies had "solved" Rivera. Manuel said the same. "We can hit him," the Phillies' manager said. Rivera, soon to be 40 this month, did not give up an earned run in the World Series. In a week-long chess match, he provided checkmate.

If the few days after the World Series are, as the romantics suggest, the loneliest days on the calendar, they also are the most cynical, for the business decisions of the future already are erasing the terrific feats of the playoffs. Seventy-nine players around baseball filed for free agency the day following the Series. Matsui and Damon, of course, stand at the center. Neither has filed yet, but it seems inevitable that the business side of the game will undo what is being celebrated in the Canyon of Heroes. The word itself, "hero," grows less heroic and more complicated all the time, especially today. All might be forgotten in New York about Pettitte's and Rodriguez's PED admissions because the Yankees are again champions, and because the steroids era has given way to a sketchy combination of reform and amnesia, but this selective memory is no different than what has occurred in San Francisco with Bonds, Mark McGwire in St. Louis, and Sammy Sosa or Rafael Palmeiro. Winning might mute the emotions, but it does not change the facts.

The curtain closed. Manuel vowed -- "Like McArthur, I shall return," he said. Howard, humbled by the game he mastered the round previous, took home a record 13 strikeouts in a World Series. Cashman, subdued in relief, said in an understatement that Rodriguez no longer has anything to prove. Jeter, as if preemptive, took the microphone at the winner's circle and proclaimed, "We deserve to be here," and few could argue. If this was the end of the Martinez show, it was a damned good one. Few have commanded the stage like Pedro Martinez, especially whenever he arrived in New York wearing a visitor's jersey.

And then there was the vindicated Sabathia, who did not win a game in the Series but gave the Yankees what they had been missing since the days of David Cone, David Wells and the great El Duque, a pitcher who would demand the ball in the clenches. Nobody will say the moment is too big for him again. And so it is done. The Yankees had more difference-makers, which pretty much has always been the case.

"Everyone talked about pressure in coming here," Sabathia said. "I didn't feel that. With all these great players, they made it easier to win."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.