Sports Nut

Geezers Win! Geezers Win!

The old-as-dirt New York Yankees take the 2009 World Series.

The Yankees celebrate winning the World Series

What’s the lesson of the 2009 New York Yankees? With the Bronx Bombers taking an early 7-1 lead in Game 6, we had more time than usual to bat around the clichés of sports championships to see which ones might fit. Had the Yankees redeemed the long suffering of their supporters? Did they stand for youthful vigor or quiet professionalism? Did they represent the idea that pride and excellence can’t be bought and sold—or the exact opposite?

There are Yankees fans under the age of 10 who had never seen their team win a title. There you have your long suffering. With tattooed yobs like Nick Swisher and A.J. Burnett and players like Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte who shave to solemn, muted trumpet fanfares, New York’s win can be attributed to both swagger and savvy. And of course there’s that ridiculous payroll, a third again the size of the sport’s next largest. An apologist can cite the $1.4 billion the team spent on salary between its two most recent titles as proof that cash can’t buy rings. Everyone else can mock him and point out that the Yankees spent $423 million on just three players last winter.

The Yankees’ great season wasn’t quite that neat and tidy, though. The most significant number about this ballclub, and one that more neatly gets at the sheer strangeness of the 2009 Yankees, is $84 million. That’s how much the team paid Jeter, Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Johnny Damon, and Hideki Matsui. None of them should be any good at all, and yet without them the team wouldn’t have even made the playoffs.

The first four of these players, all veterans of the team’s dynastic run under Joe Torre, are really, truly old. Leave their greatness aside—men their age usually can’t take the field at their positions. In 2009, Posada became one of just 16 catchers ever to play 100 or more games at age 37. Jeter became one of 44 shortstops to play 100 or more games at 35. Rivera is one of four relievers ever to save at least 20 games at 39. Even Pettitte is a bit of an oddity as one of only 69 pitchers to throw at least 190 innings at 37.

It’s not as strange that Damon and Matsui are still regulars at 35—old left fielders and designated hitters aren’t rare—but they’re shockingly good for their age, each hitting a bit above a .270 batting average, .360 on-base, and .475 slugging. Ten left fielders have surpassed all three marks at 35. Five designated hitters have done so.

Going by the numbers at the hard-core stat-head site Fangraphs, these six players accounted for about a third of the Yankees’ wins this year, and their collective performance was worth about $100 million. The enduring mystery of the season was how one team could have so many old players and do so well.

Take Game 6, the clincher and a game honest Yankees fans admitted to dreading. The great Pedro Martinez, an artist throwing smokeballs and dead fish, was on the mound for the Phillies. Second baseman Chase Utley, the second-best player in the National League four or five years running, was set to strike down the World Series home run record set more than 30 years ago by beloved if obnoxious Yankee legend Reggie Jackson, right there in the Bronx. Pettitte was going on three days’ rest; he hadn’t thrown 100 pitches while doing so in more than eight years.

None of it mattered. Matsui tied a 49-year-old record by driving in six runs in a single game and earned Series MVP honors largely on the efforts of that standout performance. (This makes him, I believe, the first position player to win the prize while starting only half his team’s games.) Posada and Pettitte worked together like it was 2000 again, crossing up Utley with sliders and high fastballs. Rivera came on in the eighth inning to preserve a four-run lead with his usual mechanical efficiency. Damon scored a key run early before pulling himself out of the game when he was injured—an injury that might have cost the Yankees if it had happened in any of the team’s other 176 games. And Jeter scored two runs and pumped his first majestically, leading from the lip of the outfield grass as only a true captain can do.

Of course, these old-timers weren’t the only key players for the 2009 Yankees. Alex Rodriguez hit so many clutch shots that no one really cared about the revelation that he decorates his bedroom with paintings of himself as a centaur. A-Rod came one short of tying such legendary clutch performers as Sandy Alomar Jr. and Scott Spiezio for the most RBI in a postseason. (You see, all the game’s greats come up huge in the playoffs.) CC Sabathia showed why he was probably the best free agent pitching signing since Greg Maddux. And even Burnett was mostly useful. You could even argue that the latter two and Swisher introduced some spontaneity to a team that had been dryly lethargic (when not just dead) for many years.

Still, a disproportionate amount of the Yankees’ success came down to old dudes who just shouldn’t have been as good as they were. That raises a question: Is it buying a title when you had no right to expect you’d get a real return on your money? Even with guys playing longer these days and keeping themselves in better shape, gambling $84 million—more than the Opening Day payrolls of 18 teams—on the fortunes of players due, in baseball years, for canes and wheelchairs was insane.

The Yankees were the best team in baseball this year, and they played like it when it counted, which is good for them and perhaps especially good for the psyche and legend of Alex Rodriguez. (All that centaur does is win!) But if there’s anything of significance to take away from the 2009 World Series, it’s that this is most likely the end of something rather than the beginning. If there was any nascent dynasty on the field, in fact, it was probably the team built around Utley, Cliff Lee, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, and others who aren’t due to collapse into dust. The Yankees richly deserve their title. Don’t get used to it, Yankees fans—it may be a long while before they get another one. Unless they spend another $400 million this winter. Which they might.