Epilogue: 'The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty'

Originally Published: May 2, 2005
By Buster Olney

Editor's note: "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," published by Harper Collins, is now available in paperback and can be ordered by clicking here. The following is an excerpt from the book's new epilogue, which picks up the story following the Yankees' 3-2 loss to the Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, the last game played in pinstripes for Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius and Chuck Knoblauch.

Epilogue
The victory parade that would have taken the Yankees up New York City's Canyon of Heroes for the fifth time in six years was canceled, so Enrique Wilson, the team's utility infielder, decided to change his flight home. He was supposed to return to the Dominican Republic on Nov. 12, eight days after the end of the World Series, but moved up his departure a few days. He was at home when he heard that American Airlines Flight 587 – the plane he was supposed to be on – had crashed in Belle Harbor, a neighborhood in Queens. Two hundred and sixty-five people were killed in an accident that shook a city still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

When Wilson saw Mariano Rivera in spring training the next year, the reliever expressed great relief that Wilson was still alive. If Rivera had held the lead against Arizona, Wilson would likely have been on Flight 587. "I am glad we lost the World Series," Rivera told Wilson, "because it means that I still have a friend." For Rivera, this was further confirmation that they were all subject to God's will.

For a decade, George Steinbrenner had grudgingly deferred to some of his high-ranking baseball advisors – Gene Michael, Brian Cashman, Joe Torre, Mark Newman – when major decisions were considered. But some of his executives thought the loss to the Diamondbacks damaged their credibility in the owner's eyes. Steinbrenner took the reins back, veering onto his own erratic course, following his impetuous instincts. "You have no idea, day to day, what he's going to do," said one club official in 2003.

David Wells was a free agent after the 2001 season, and Yankees executives had warned Steinbrenner about the downside of re-signing him – he was high maintenance, he had a bad back, and there was the perpetual question of his conditioning. With his talks with the Yankees halted after cursory conversations, Wells negotiated a handshake deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks; the plan was to finalize the contract once Wells took a physical examination.

But Steinbrenner phoned Wells, met him for lunch, and without consulting his executives a second time, offered him a contract. Wells made the deal and went on to pitch well in 2002, going 19-7 – a success that encouraged Steinbrenner to make more of the major decisions alone. The loss to the Diamondbacks seemed to make Steinbrenner even more desperate for championships, and he reverted to his old habits. In the early months of the 2002 season, the Toronto Blue Jays were desperate to dump outfielder Raul Mondesi and the $24 million that remained on his contract, but could find no takers. Even in a sport generously populated by players who partied extensively and slept very little, Mondesi was considered a wild man, staying out all night; teammates sometimes wondered if he slept at all before playing in day games. Mondesi had some productive seasons early in his career, hitting 33 homers and driving in 99 runs in 1999. But scouts thought his 24-hour schedule and unrestrained lifestyle wore on his body, which thickened noticeably as he neared his 30th birthday. Now, in the summer of 2002, his lack of discipline seemed to have taken its toll.

Mondesi had none of the subtle qualities that the Yankees had valued during the dynasty. He was a free-swinging hitter, rather than a contact hitter, and he seemed utterly incapable of making adjustments from pitch to pitch; opposing pitchers repeatedly threw him sliders low and away, out of the strike zone, and he repeatedly swung aggressively at them, rather than trying to punch the ball to right field.

His batting average was barely .200 for Toronto in June, when a series of injuries hit the Yankees' outfielders. Enrique Wilson, a utility infielder, started in right field against the Mets June 29, on national television, and misplayed a fly ball in the second inning, with Steinbrenner watching from his private suite. The owner raged, summoned his executives, and demanded action.

About four hours after Wilson's gaffe, Toronto general manager J. P. Ricciardi was driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike when his cell phone rang; it was Paul Godfrey, the president of the Blue Jays. "Are you sitting down?" Godfrey asked Ricciardi. "Guess who the Yankees want." Mondesi. Ricciardi almost veered off the road.

Randy Levine, the Yankees' president, had called Godfrey. Cashman argued strongly against a deal for Mondesi, feeling his enormous salary would be prohibitive. He and Michael had kept Steinbrenner from making moves like this in the past, but Steinbrenner could not be dissuaded. He wanted Mondesi. Now.

Within hours, the Yankees agreed to pay the rest of Mondesi's salary for 2002, or about $5.5 million, and $7 million of his $13 million contract for 2003. Twelve and a half million dollars, in large part because Enrique Wilson misplayed a fly ball, and despite the fact that Mondesi was a flawed player.

The rise of the Red Sox
The Yankees won the American League East for the fifth consecutive season in 2002, but the Anaheim Angels knocked them out in the first round of the playoffs. They played sluggishly, rolling over easily whenever the Angels counterpunched in the games. "It looked that way the whole series," said Jorge Posada, who had advanced from being a part-time catcher to an All-Star, and was one of the few holdovers from the Yankees' old guard. "It looked like they wanted it more than we did." Derek Jeter was reminded by a reporter that the team had accomplished so much in the recent seasons. "Some of us have," he replied, softly drawing a line between the Yankees who had shared in the glory years and the growing number who had not.

Steinbrenner looked to cut costs in strange ways. Two weeks after the Yankees were eliminated, the team fired 25 of its employees, including Leo Astacio, who had helped with the videotape machines in the clubhouse and served as an interpreter for Orlando Hernandez. The dismissals probably saved the team less than $1 million, about the same amount of money Jason Giambi might earn for playing 10 games. The employees who were let go were given a choice: sign a waiver in which they agreed not to discuss their dismissals or forfeit the severance package offered by the team.

Cashman and Newman had once managed to bridge the gap between the executives in the Tampa and New York offices, but in the winter of 2002-2003, the lines were distinct again. The goal had once been to debate hard and then present a unified recommendation to Steinbrenner, but more and more of the opinions coming out of the Tampa office reflected Steinbrenner's desire. Cashman became more isolated, and, friends said, more discouraged.

George Steinbrenner
Steinbrenner

Brian Cashman
Cashman

Cashman's arguments with Steinbrenner became louder, more vociferous. It seemed as though Cashman was trying to get fired, a close friend said; he had three years remaining on his contract, and his passion for the only organization he had worked for had waned. It was more like a job to him than ever before, he said to an acquaintance. Shortly after the Yankees lost to Anaheim, Gordon Blakeley, the Yankees' director of international scouting, was sent to Nicaragua, under orders from Steinbrenner to sign Jose Contreras. The bidding between the Yankees, Boston, and the Mariners began in earnest at four years, $24 million, for a pitcher without a single day of major league experience. But Blakeley told rival executives that he had come to sign Contreras, no matter the cost; Steinbrenner promised Blakeley that he would be fired if he failed to land the pitcher. Hearing this, another executive realized his team had no chance to sign Contreras, so he decided to at least make the Yankees pay exorbitantly and kept matching the Yankees' offers, driving up the price. The Yankees signed Contreras to a four-year, $32 million deal – a contract much larger than that signed by many established players in the same offseason.

The deal was stunning to executives with other teams, the clearest indication that Steinbrenner intended to plow ahead, despite the luxury tax. If the tax was designed to impede the Yankees, as Steinbrenner believed, then the signings of outfielder Hideki Matsui (three years, $21 million) and Contreras were a clear response: Screw you. His team was making more money than anybody else's, building new revenue streams as the cash flow for other teams was drying up, and they would not be stopped – and certainly not by the Red Sox. This was business, and now it was also personal. "The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America," Larry Lucchino bitterly told Murray Chass of the Times. Before the 2003 season, the Yankees had accumulated eight starting pitchers; they were back to treating championship building like a hot dog-eating contest.

In an interview with the Daily News prior to spring training of 2003, Steinbrenner suggested that Derek Jeter spent too much time out at night and questioned the work ethic of the Yankees' coaching staff. In subsequent months, he feuded with Don Zimmer and angered Stottlemyre by reversing a proposed plan of action on Contreras. For seven years, Torre's refusal to engage Steinbrenner publicly had shielded the team from the manic must-win-today metabolism created by the owner's complaints. But in 2003, Torre took the bait for the first time, complaining publicly about how he was treated, telling George King of the New York Post that he wasn't having as much fun. Rather than defusing the Yankee powder keg, Torre had begun feeding it, and friends who visited his office thought he had lost his enthusiasm for the job and was fed up with Steinbrenner. Torre had deep and lasting relationships with many players during the championship run, but those personal ties were fading as the Yankees shuttled players in and out. "I think he feels he's lost the connection to the team, in some way," said one longtime friend. "These are guys he doesn't know very well, and he doesn't know how to reach them." Torre's contract was set to expire after the 2004 season, and for months he did not seem interested in an extension.

The Yankees would win 101 games in 2003, but the Red Sox had become a much more formidable threat. For years, team executives had viewed Boston as a sleeping giant, and after John Henry – a former Yankees limited partner – and Tom Werner and Lucchino arranged to buy the team, they hired 28-year-old Theo Epstein as general manager. Epstein was more aggressive than Dan Duquette but also more personable, and he immediately began taking advantage of Boston's enormous revenues, constructing a deep and dangerous lineup. When Boston needed bullpen help in midseason, he made moves quickly, twice outbidding the Yankees.

The old rivals would meet in the American League Championship Series, in a tough and tense playoff, and when Boston took an early lead in Game 7, it seemed the balance of power between the two teams might finally shift. But the Red Sox blew their lead, and Aaron Boone hit an extra-inning homer to win the game for the Yankees; Steinbrenner was giddy. On his way out of Yankee Stadium, he paused to watch the Red Sox buses depart. "Go back to Boston, boys," he said, with a reporter from the Daily News standing alongside him. "They didn't treat us very well in Boston, but you know, we get the last laugh."

His euphoria lasted hours. The Yankees faced the Marlins in the World Series, as prohibitive favorites, and Steinbrenner's complexion was ashen throughout the games, his face tense.

The Yankees won Game 3 in Florida to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, and in the 11th inning of Game 4, they had the bases loaded, one out, the score tied; this was their chance to all but finish off the Marlins. But Boone struck out, failing to put the ball in play, before John Flaherty made an out to end the inning. The Marlins won the game in the 12th inning, and went on to take Game 5.

In the eighth inning of Game 6, with Josh Beckett dominating the Yankees, Steinbrenner was seething. He went to Cashman's box to tell him there would be a meeting in Tampa in 48 hours, to discuss the reconstruction of the team; after all, three seasons had passed since the Yankees' last championship.

"There are going to be big changes," Steinbrenner snapped. After the 2003 season, without soliciting an opinion from Michael or Cashman, Steinbrenner negotiated a $39 million handshake deal with Gary Sheffield, a 35-year-old perennial All-Star with a reputation for complaining. It was a mistake, Cashman thought: the team had to get younger. He had lobbied unsuccessfully to shift Soriano to the outfield and sign the Japanese-born Kaz Matsui to play second base in his stead. And when Sheffield wavered on his oral agreement with Steinbrenner, Cashman, seeing an opening, worked frantically to complete a deal with 27-year-old free agent Vladimir Guerrero. But with Guerrero on the verge of signing for the same annual salary as Sheffield and with one extra year on the contract, Steinbrenner killed the negotiations with Guerrero. Sheffield had capitulated, and Steinbrenner insisted, "I want him, I want him, I want him."

Pettitte exits; A-Rod arrives
Andy Pettitte was eligible to become a free agent after the 2003 season, but teammates assumed he would sign with the Yankees again; he had been a lasting thread in the fabric of the team, the one member of the rotation drafted and developed by the organization, the heir to Whitey Ford's legacy. For a while, it seemed settled: Clemens, headed into retirement, had made loose plans to visit Pettitte in New York during the 2004 season to play golf and maybe do some television work.

But as Pettitte's negotiations with the Yankees dragged on – partly because of his own agents – the pitcher began questioning how serious the team was about retaining him. Steinbrenner, who had initiated the talks about trading Pettitte in 1999, had never really demonstrated the same affection for him as he had for many of the other players; while the Boss personally wined and dined Sheffield in the fall of 2003, Pettitte never got a call. The Yankees had concerns about the condition of Pettitte's elbow, too. Still, they did make a late overture – the suggestion of a $40 million offer. In the end, though, it was decided that the pitcher who had won more games than any other during the dynasty would leave the Yankees, unsure of how Steinbrenner felt about him, to play with his hometown team, the Houston Astros.

Just hours after the deal was signed, Clemens – who also lived in the Houston area – was on a local radio show, musing about a comeback. Pettitte heard him on his car radio and phoned his friend: "Are you serious?" "Lefty," Clemens said, "everything's changed." A month later, Clemens, too, signed with Houston.

With their old aces gone, the Yankees and the Red Sox made a wish list of replacements, and at the top of both lists was Montreal pitcher Javier Vazquez; Curt Schilling, almost a decade older, was ranked second by both. But Expos GM Omar Minaya told Boston that they didn't have minor league prospects good enough to get Vazquez; the Yankees did, offering first baseman Nick Johnson and outfielder Juan Rivera. So the Yankees got Vazquez, while the Red Sox took Schilling, their second choice. And the Yankees dumped Jeff Weaver on the Los Angeles Dodgers and in return got Kevin Brown, a moody player who had destroyed much club property in post-game rants during his career. Executives and scouts who knew Brown wondered how he would survive the stresses of New York, and Cashman was well aware of the risk. But this was where the Yankees' once-vaunted pitching stood: they had no left-handed starters, no minor league mound prospects on the cusp of the big leagues, and few pitchers capable of dominating hitters. The pitching ratio of innings to strikeouts would turn out to be the team's worst since 1994; the ratio of innings to hits was its worst since 1989. It was the weakest staff in Torre's tenure as manager.

The 2004 Yankees could hit, though, thanks in part to a major addition to their lineup, the most expensive player in the game and perhaps the best: Alex Rodriguez.

The acquisition of Rodriguez developed improbably. Cashman had been on vacation in Anguilla on Jan. 19 when he got bad news from Yankees president Randy Levine: Aaron Boone, who had beaten the Red Sox with his extra-inning homer months before, had blown out his knee playing in a pickup basketball game. Cashman kept Boone's injury a secret for a week while he called around to other teams to ask about available infielders. There appeared to be no ready solution. At the end of the week, Cashman attended the New York Baseball Writers' dinner and was seated, coincidentally, next to Rodriguez. Only hours before, after months of failed negotiations between Texas and Boston, A-Rod had been introduced as the Rangers' new team captain. As the two chatted breezily, an idea popped into Cashman's head: Rodriguez could be the Yankees' third baseman. Cashman bumped into Levine as the dinner broke up. "I've got this crazy idea," Levine said. "What about A-Rod for third base?" "I'm way ahead of you," Cashman replied.

Rodriguez had signed a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Rangers; $179 million and seven years remained. The Rangers agreed to pay $67 million, while the Yankees would shell out $112 million – to replace Boone, a No. 8 hitter who was set to make about $5 million. New York now had four players with contracts in excess of $100 million; the left side of their infield, Jeter and Rodriguez, would make more in average annual salary than the entire Milwaukee Brewers roster. On his way to the press conference in New York, Rodriguez's plane stopped in Tampa, where he picked up Jeter. En route to New York, the two stars – once close friends, now mostly estranged – spoke about their differences. According to a friend familiar with the conversation, Jeter bluntly told Rodriguez that he had to stop making barbed remarks like those he had made to Esquire before the 2001 season. That kind of stuff won't fly if we're teammates, Jeter told Rodriguez. The reporters will feast on it; a feud between two New York superstars would generate thousands of stories and create a serious distraction.

By all appearances, Jeter buried the hatchet, perhaps for the sake of making his own working life more tolerable and controversy-free, and to bypass a potential problem that might affect the team's chances for success. And Rodriguez, like Roger Clemens in '99, seemed to work hard to fit in. "He follows Jeter around like a puppy dog," said one Yankee. Rodriguez made a smooth transition to playing third base. But like Clemens in '99, he never appeared fully at ease in his pinstripes, struggling in the moments of greater pressure during the regular season: at the outset of the year, in the first games against Boston, with runners in scoring position in the Subway Series against the Mets. And A-Rod had become a lightning rod in the rivalry with the Red Sox. On July 24, Boston pitcher Bronson Arroyo hit Rodriguez with a pitch, and when Rodriguez started to bark, Arroyo's catcher, Jason Varitek, stepped in front of him and snapped back, "We don't throw at .260 hitters." "[Expletive] you," Rodriguez shouted repeatedly, and with that, Varitek rammed his glove into Rodriguez's face, igniting a bench-clearing fight. There would be more animosity later in the playoffs, and Curt Schilling all but said that Rodriguez wasn't a real Yankee; real Yankees like Jeter and Rivera and Williams had class. And as the Yankees moved further away from the 2001 World Series and the days of O'Neill and Martinez, the distinction between those old Yankees and new Yankees hardened.

The projected Opening Day lineup for the 2004 Yankees would earn about $85,000 per inning, and the club's payroll neared the $200 million threshold. "I don't know if it's the luxury tax, or maybe [Steinbrenner's] age, or that they've lost two years in a row," Seattle general manager Pat Gillick said in the winter of 2003. "But something is driving him to spend money."

The reason for the manic spending, Yankees employees agreed, was Steinbrenner's single-minded quest for championships. The question was whether he could ever dole out enough to overcome the team's lack of cohesion; whether any disparate collection of stars, no matter how talented, could win while playing under the enormous expectations of Steinbrenner and the team's fans. The only thing that mattered was that the Yankees win the last game in October; otherwise, the season would be deemed a failure.

The dynasty of 1996-2001 – now gathering sharp outlines in the Yankees annals like the Babe Ruth dynasty, which lasted through 1932; the Joe DiMaggio years, which began in 1936; and the Mickey Mantle era, which ended in 1964 – had been achieved in part because of the players' shared history. Martinez, Sojo, Rivera, Jeter, Cone, Brosius, Posada, and the rest were fully invested in one another, propping one another up along the way. Some of them had played together for years in the minor leagues before ascending to the Bronx. This bond was not something that could be bought.

A collection of stars
From the time that Gene Michael took over the team in 1990, club executives had carefully weighed players' personalities when making decisions, but more and more the choices were based on statistics, the soulless numbers. The Yankees had once acquired or developed players not just because of their talents but because their character added a necessary ingredient – Jeter's confidence, O'Neill's intensity, Raines's humor, Girardi's professionalism. They weren't all superstars, but together they were extraordinary. Now the patient, meticulous empire-building of the early '90s was all but gone, and the farm system was close to barren. By 2004, Jeter, Rivera, Williams, and Posada were the last Yankees with consecutive tenure from the championship years.

Jason Giambi
Giambi

Jason Giambi knew all about chemistry. He had been the fraternity president of the Oakland Athletics, the Grand Keeper of High Volume. He combed his hair and shaved only occasionally, led the team in homers and partying and on-field fun, and was the American League MVP in 2000. Then he cut his hair and went corporate, collecting millions of dollars to sign with the Yankees.

But in the two years between his last summer with Oakland and his 2003 season in New York, his batting average shriveled from .342 to .250. And he was still an outsider with the Yankees. Instead of being the chief bad boy and spokesman for the clan, as he had been with Oakland, he shied away from the spotlight, telling old friends that he thought he'd made a mistake. He found the pressure of being a Yankee stifling, he said, and thought the clubhouse was fractured – a common refrain among some newcomers. Chris Hammond, signed by New York before the 2003 season, was shocked by the atmosphere there. Players tended to disappear into unseen corners of the stadium, mostly to avoid the pack of reporters in the clubhouse. "You'd never see the stars," said Hammond, who lasted one year with the team. "The only time you'd see them was right after games or on the plane. It took me a whole season to get to know everybody. I knew who was on my team, but I really didn't know them."

Giambi became increasingly isolated, even before he left the team in the midst of the 2004 season because of a benign tumor in his pituitary gland. His failure to start in Game 5 of the 2003 World Series – he had sat out because of a sore knee – cost him enormous credibility with teammates. "He's done here," said one longtime member of the organization in the summer of '04. "Finished." Others on the team thought he was deeply affected by the booing of the fans in Yankee Stadium, the enforcers of the Steinbrenner doctrine. It would get worse. Months later, Giambi's sealed grand jury testimony in a federal case leaked out: he had admitted to taking steroids in his first two seasons in New York. Signing with the Yankees, he had once said, was a dream come true, but the rest of his career promised to be a nightmare lived daily.

The Yankees still owed Giambi $82 million over four years. In fact, they were obligated to pay Jeter, Rodriguez, and Giambi about $124 million in 2006 and 2007 – about $72 million per year for just three players. This was partly because the Yankees had heavily backloaded their contracts – "mańana economics," it was called in the team's offices – and because Steinbrenner's simplest recourse to achieve his mandate was to spend. They couldn't trade prospects because they didn't have any; in the summer of 2004, they didn't have any minor leaguers good enough to make a deal for Arizona pitcher Randy Johnson. They couldn't trade their major leaguers for good return because almost all of them bore contracts that were unthinkable for other teams. And they couldn't step back and rebuild and work diligently to overcome atrocious drafts because Steinbrenner would never let that happen.

Steinbrenner's passion was still there, closer to the surface than ever, as he approached his 74th birthday. In December 2003, he had collapsed at the funeral of football great Otto Graham, and in the months that followed, friends were concerned about his health. As the Yankees prepared to play their home opener in 2004, Steinbrenner was on live local television in New York when fans started chanting his name, and he broke down weeping and struggled to regain his composure. Steinbrenner mostly did not do interviews anymore, declining to answer messages from reporters; rather, the Yankees issued press releases from Steinbrenner through public relations maven Howard Rubenstein. With Don Zimmer gone, Steinbrenner had made his peace with Joe Torre (partly at the urging of a family member), giving the manager a three-year contract and $20 million worth of respect. But other employees still feared him, and he continued to berate them, as he always had. Hours after a story appeared in the New York Post detailing Cashman's unhappiness and desire to leave the team after the 2004 season, the GM got a phone call from Post reporter George King. "I'm calling for a response," King said. Cashman didn't know what he was talking about. "The Yankees have just picked up your option for 2005," King explained. That's how Cashman learned Steinbrenner would control his life for another season. It wasn't until hours later that Rubenstein called to inform him officially of the Yankees' decision.

The Yankees would win 101 regular-season games in 2004, but because of the team's weak starting rotation, the games often turned into ugly slugfests. On Aug. 31, they were routed at Yankee Stadium by the Cleveland Indians 22-0, the worst home defeat in the club's history. At batting practice the next day, inspirational music blared from the scoreboard – "When the going gets tough," Billy Ocean sang, "the tough get going" – and the big screen showed motivational movie clips. Steinbrenner, apparently the source of the day's theme, stood alone in his private box, hovering over the players. A veteran approached Cashman as he stood with Torre, and asked, "Hey, Cash, what the hell is going on?" Well, Cashman rationalized to the others, it could be much worse. If it were the 1980s, maybe Steinbrenner would have fired pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, demoted a couple of pitchers to the minors, brought in some pitching advisors. So the Boss is playing some music: it's not so bad. But it did feel a little bizarre, and in spite of the Yankees' record, the entire season felt that way. Nothing was ever quite right; the team never clicked smoothly. Two days after Steinbrenner's symphony, Kevin Brown, whom the Yankees badly needed to be a frontline pitcher, came out of a start frustrated and punched the wall outside Torre's office, breaking his left hand. Instead of tuning up for the playoffs, he would miss almost a month.

The Yankees would rack up 242 homers and 897 runs during the regular season (though Giambi added nothing, batting .208 and floundering so badly that he didn't make the postseason roster). They beat Minnesota in four games in the Division Series and won the first three games of the AL Championship Series against Boston, including a 19-8 win in Game 3 in Fenway Park. Rodriguez had some big hits against the Twins and Red Sox; at the time, it appeared the A-Rod era would begin with a title. Instead, it turned out very badly.

Torre worked Rivera and fellow relievers Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill heavily during the regular season, sometimes to make up for the deficiencies in the rotation and sometimes out of his desperation to win every game. But the undisciplined approach of the long summer hurt the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.

Quantrill, who never rested to heal a bad knee he hurt on Opening Day, was virtually useless, and Gordon was exhausted by the middle of the series. Rivera had an even larger burden to bear. With the Yankees three outs from sweeping the Red Sox, Rivera blew a 4-3 lead in the eighth, and Boston went on to win in the 12th. And in Game 5, Torre called on Rivera in the eighth inning after Gordon disintegrated, and the Red Sox tied the game and won in 14 innings.

The Yankees still had an enormous advantage in the series, leading 3 games to 2, with Games 6 and 7 to be played in Yankee Stadium. No team in major league history had ever come back to win the final four games of a best-of-seven series – certainly not the Red Sox, with their ignominious history, and certainly not against the Yankees. But Boston took a 4-0 lead in Game 6, as Schilling – him again – pitched exceptionally. Steinbrenner, watching in his office, called in administrators to ask how many ball-and-strike calls home plate umpire Joe West had missed with the Yankees' hitters at the plate (the Yankees, unlike other organizations, habitually charted this kind of thing). When their answers didn't satisfy him, he snapped, "That's wrong, you're all on the bubble," and having issued this customary threat to dismiss them, he sent them out. Minutes later, he called them back to ask how many pitches West had missed with Red Sox batters at the plate. Again, he didn't like their answers: "You're on the bubble!"

Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter
A-Rod, left, and Derek Jeter were left wondering what happened after the ALCS.

The Yankees rallied for a run in the eighth, Jeter hitting an RBI single to score Cairo and cut the Boston lead to 4-2. Rodriguez followed Jeter to the plate, with the Yankees badly in need of a big hit; like many of the Yankees, Rodriguez's swing had become longer and longer as he tried to swing big and hit home runs, and as the game wore on and the pressure from the Red Sox mounted, he had become more vulnerable. Rodriguez dribbled a ground ball along the first base line, and Arroyo gathered the ball and reached to tag Rodriguez – who slapped with his left hand at Arroyo's glove. As the ball came loose, Rodriguez raced to second base, and the Yankees appeared to be on their way to another comeback. But the gathered umpires determined that Rodriguez should be called out for hitting Arroyo's glove. Rodriguez, feigning innocence, raised his arms to his sides: what did I do? Later, after Boston won the game, the Red Sox players tore into A-Rod for the play, Schilling calling it "bush-league"; some of the Red Sox lobbied reporters to focus on the incident.

In the press conference after Game 6, Torre sounded angry as he told reporters he didn't know who his starter would be the next night. The Yankees had a staff loaded with All-Stars, a luxury afforded by the team's massive payroll, but the extra-inning games and a rainout had taxed their rotation. Torre was boxed into making a choice he almost certainly didn't want to make: His starter for Game 7, one of the most important games in club history, would not be a scion from the distinguished line of Yankee pitchers of recent years – not Pettitte or David Cone or Clemens; not even Wells. It would be Kevin Brown, the pitcher who had angered teammates by busting his hand six weeks before.

Six of the nine batters Brown faced reached base, and by the time Torre emerged from the dugout in the second inning to summon a reliever, the Yankees trailed 2-0 and Boston had the bases loaded. Torre took the ball from Brown without acknowledging the pitcher with words or a pat on the back; other Yankees treated Brown similarly as he passed through the dugout. Javier Vazquez, the Yankees' new pitcher, threw a fastball with his first pitch, and Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon blasted a grand slam.

Jeter singled home a run in the third, but it barely made a dent in the Red Sox lead. From first base, he turned, his face twisted, and shouted at Rodriguez, much in the same way Bulls guard Michael Jordan used to yell at backup center Will Perdue: C'mon, let's get it done. But Rodriguez grounded out to the pitcher, and as the Red Sox went on to a 10-3 rout, a crowd of Boston fans seemed to emerge from the darkest corners of Yankee Stadium and take over the place. The Yankees' collapse had been the worst in postseason history.

After the game, Jeter sat in front of his locker, still seething. "It's not the same team. I've said that before," Jeter said sharply. "It's not the same team."

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine