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Calling The Shots - Edition #45

By George Soules
Thursday, October 18th, 2001

You Gotta Believe

A year ago, World Series-time, I wrote a story about how the Yankees had done it again, somehow survived adversity and old age, to win their third straight world championship. Joe Torre was the focal point of my baseball dissertation, his lugubrious mien hardly changing, through tough times and highlights, even though my forecast talked very explicitly about another team celebrating victory in this, the coming year.

I thought that my prescience would be certified when the Yankees lost their first two games against the Oakland Athletics a week or so ago. I was wrong. If you are a Yankee-hater, it is easy to fear the probability of a comeback, their legacy being so daunting. If you are a Yankee fan, the dread of losing converts you into an instant pessimist, for fear of not being able to handle the inevitable, to be better prepared.

Clearly, the Athletics should have won: they were young, faster, more dynamic, with momentum on their side. Did Derek Jeter steal the playoffs from them? Maybe. There is a tendency in sports that once it is decided that a player is a hero, a superstar, everything he does has the touch of magic. In this way, Jeter's improvised cutoff and football flip to prevent the Athletics from scoring the tying run in Game 3 becomes the stuff of legend. His leap into the stands to snare a foul ball in Game 5 adds another gem to the crown.

But who is to say that if the Athletics had scored that run in Game 3, that the Yankees wouldn't have responded in kind, in a later inning? Or that Jeter's acrobatics in Game 5 were merely a case of "hustle," something that any player worth his salt should be prepared to do? Splitting straws? Maybe. Athletics manager Art Howe acknowledged the Jeter effect by saying: "Whenever they need a big play, he's there to make it. Whenever they need a big hit, he gets it."

But later, Howe said something more eloquent and to the point, "If you lose playing well, you tip your hat. Tonight we contributed quite a bit to our demise."

The Athletics lost not because of Jeter, but because they were unsure of their destiny. The Yankees won because they were unsure that their destiny was to lose.

The Athletics may have had momentum coming into the division playoffs, but now the Yankees have the "Big Mo" going into the American League championship series.

That's really the key: experience and momentum.

As a tennis player, I recall arriving at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in 1980, prepared to vanquish any and all comers. My initiation went well: the first ten players or so in the pecking order were soundly defeated. A kind of fear began to be noted in my opponents' eyes before taking the court.

The club pro became another victim as my confidence expanded. Then, one afternoon, a good player managed to beat me in three tough sets. I gave it my all, but it was not my day, as the cliche goes. My feathers stripped, the aura of invincibility gone, players that had been easy pickings in the early going suddenly became very tough nuts. The slide never stopped until I quit playing there.

After the Yankees improbable, historic win, Jeter crowed: "We're not going home until someone beats us."

Fortunately for Yankees' fans, Jeter's tough talk is not just hot air. The team has momentum and a sense of invincibility on its side. Plus Joe Torre. Win or lose, his instincts are usually right. It is a gift borne by experience that is unlikely to betray. Even if the Yankees lose in the series against the Seattle Mariners, or in the World Series itself, it probably won't be because Joe made a boo-boo or two. It will be because another team believes that it can beat the Yankees. And that no Derek Jeter or Joe Torre can stop them.

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