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Mussina, O'Neill, Pettitte:
symbols of Yankee brilliance



Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Mike Mussina had been on the other side, looking out from the home dugout at Camden Yards as the Yankees celebrated the ALCS championship in 1996.

Mike Mussina
Yankees starter Mike Mussina is 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA this postseason.
"All along, I thought: 'Did I come aboard too late,'" he said in a corner of the Yankee clubhouse after Monday night's ALCS clincher over the Mariners. "Or: 'Will I deter them?' And when I think of my wildest dreams, they were never quite like this.

"To be down 2-0 and go 7-1 against two teams that won over 100 games [and actually totalled 218 regular-season victories]?" Mussina continued. "Then, to be on the field in Yankee Stadium this evening? One doesn't dream of anything like this."

Paul O'Neill has been with the Yankees since the beginning of The Restoration. He won't say it, because he doesn't want anyone fussing over him, but everyone knows he's going to retire at the end of this season.

Monday night, when he came up in the sixth inning and the PA began blaring his mid-game at-bat theme song (The Who's "Baba O'Reilly"), every person in The Stadium rose and began applauding. And applauding and applauding in a spontaneous, deafening, tear-jerking tribute to this man Joe Torre calls "the soul of these teams."

O'Neill stepped out of the box, looked up and around. "It was incredible, something I'd never experienced before," he said.

Of course, when he was reminded that it was a tribute to him, he said: "I didn't think of it like that." But it was for Paul O'Neill, and there was no pre-planning, no event, just a passionate outpouring for the man.

"It was," said O'Neill, "a night a little different from any other night I've ever experienced here. And I've experienced a few."

"It was," said Torre, "perhaps the greatest night of all."

Television cannot capture the O'Neill moment, or what it was like to be on that field in the stadium in this city on that night at this time. It doesn't matter if you're tired of these Yankees or not, for this team to come back 0-2 against the two best teams in baseball and shut down the two best offenses in the American League less than six weeks after the terrorist attack that changed America wasn't like any other victory outburst. "It makes you proud to think that you could provide a distraction," said O'Neill.

Obviously, there are generations of Yankee moments. But to be a part of the rally of the city -- and the city -- clearly touched the players and coaches and mayor Rudy Guiliani.

"There are real heroes, we are not them," said Torre. "But to feel a part of New York's proud response is beyond winning. Then to go back to the team thing, to be down 0-2 and come back and play the way we did against two great teams is the most remarkable accomplishment of any team I've ever managed."

The Yankees are in their fifth World Series in six years because Mussina first beat Barry Zito and then beat Freddy Garcia in games the Yankees felt they had to win. They knew few pitchers could, but Mussina did.

They won because Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Alfonso Soriano, O'Neill, Tino Martinez, David Justice and Chuck Knoblauch all contributed at points. They won because Andy Pettitte was Andy Pettitte, Ramiro Mendoza thrice was brilliant and Mariano Rivera is the best there is and perhaps ever was.

The Yankees also won because Seattle never got going -- and specifically because Ichiro never got going. "They pitched him as well as he can be pitched," said Lou Piniella.

There are real heroes; we are not them. But to feel a part of New York's proud response is beyond winning.
Yankees manager Joe Torre
Pettitte started it with the first pitch he threw to Ichiro in Game 1, a ball he dropped close to Ichiro's back foot. Next time up, Pettitte dropped in a big, looping curveball on the first pitch. "They moved his feet and they moved his eye level, and they did it the entire series," said one Mariner scout who'd been following the Yankees. "They kept it up the whole series."

By Game 4, Roger Clemens was going up with high fastballs and finishing him with filthy splitters in the dirt. And in Game 5, Pettitte was up and down, out and in, jamming him his first two at-bats.

Yankee pitchers, like their hitters, transcend rotisserie stats. "There is a calm knowledge of situations," says Pettitte.

In the Oakland series, until the final game was in hand, the A's were 4-for-43 with runners in scoring position. Throw out the third game of the ALCS, and the M's were 0-for-17 with runners in scoring position until the seventh inning of the final game and it was 9-0.

"That's not luck," said Piniella. "They are good, and they know how to be good."

And now that New York has awakened and embraced the Yankees as a symbol in a far greater victory celebration, the Yankees have responded. They have become the team of the city that is raising its fists to remind the world that it cannot be beaten.

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