Yankees' "Core 4" Are Even Better In '09 Than They Were In '98

When Mariano Rivera got the Angels' Gary Matthews, Jr. to swing at strike three to clinch the Yankees' 40th American League pennant, he didn't jump in the air or do a war dance on the mound or fall to his knees. He simply walked slowly off the mound and embraced catcher Jorge Posada, both sporting grins a mile wide. It was an utterly graceful moment that seemed to last forever while I was watching it -- the subdued celebration of two old friends who have done this sort of thing many times before, and are savoring it once again.

Rivera and Posada, as well as Game Six's winning pitcher, Andy Pettitte, and team captain Derek Jeter are all making their seventh trip to the World Series in pinstripes (Pettitte also appeared in the 2005 Series as a member of the Houston Astros). The "Core 4" all came up at roughly the same time, getting their first cups of coffee with the Yanks in 1995. In this era of free agency, when a lot of the game's detractors say fans are "rooting for laundry" -- cheering the uniforms rather than the transients wearing them -- such stability and longevity is mind-blowing. I can't think of a team since the Dodgers of the '70s and early '80s whose core stayed essentially the same for so long. And for the Yankees, you'd have to go back to the pre-free agency Mantle-Ford-Berra dynasty, which won nine pennants between 1953-63.

The 2009 Yankees are probably the best team the franchise has fielded since the record-shattering 1998 crew that won 125 games and swept the World Series against San Diego. But here's what I find truly astonishing -- not only are the same four players at the core of both teams, but all four have also had seasons that were equal or superior to their performances in '98.

Andy Pettitte went 16-11 with a 4.24 ERA in 1998. This year, he was 15-9 with a 4.16 ERA. He had more strikeouts in fewer innings this year, as well as a lower WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched). Derek Jeter had a higher batting average and on-base percentage this year than he had eleven years ago, and his fielding, which had been in decline for several years, rebounded to late '90s form. Were it not for the Twins' Joe Mauer, Jeter would be a strong candidate for this year's American League MVP.

Jorge Posada, playing exactly the same number of games as he did in '98, hit more home runs, drove in more runs, and had a higher batting average, OBP and slugging percentage. And Mariano Rivera had one of the best seasons of his Hall Of Fame career. Compared to 1998 -- when he was already one of the premier closers in the game -- he pitched more innings, recorded more saves, gave up fewer earned runs, got more strikeouts, and allowed fewer walks and hits.

The rest of the team may not have been around as long as the Core 4, and free agent signings like CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Mark Teixiera played a huge part in sending the Yanks back to the World Series for the first time in six years. But it's not like this team is a bunch of mercenaries brought together for a year. Hideki Matsui is in his seventh season with the Yankees. Alex Rodriguez is in his sixth year. Robinson Cano has been in pinstripes for five seasons now.

When you get right down to it, however, the Yanks wouldn't be cleaning champagne off the clubhouse floor if it weren't for the holdovers from the last Yankee dynasty, which last tasted a World Series victory in 2000. This foursome has been so consistent, for so long, that it's hard to imagine a Yankee lineup without them in it. But all four are clearly on the back nine of their playing careers.The youngest of the four, Jeter, is 35. Rivera, the oldest, will turn 40 in November. Pettitte has been thinking of calling it quits for the last few years, and if the Yankees go all the way this year, he may not be back in 2010. Rivera has hinted that next year will be his last.

So I'm savoring this return to the Fall Classic -- who knows if it'll happen again for these very special players. Although the way these guys can step up their game, I'd think twice about betting against them even when the opponent is Father Time.

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