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Fall in NY? Time for the playoffs
10/05/2004 7:24 PM ET
NEW YORK -- You can tell that it is early October in New York. The leaves in Central Park are just beginning to turn. And the Yankees in the Bronx are just beginning to play the really big games.

With all due respect to the other 29 franchises and the other 29 ballparks, Yankee Stadium is Postseason Central. This is the most frequent October venue in the game, just as this is frequently the happiest October venue in the game.

The Yankees have 43 first-place finishes in their history. The Yankees have 39 American League pennants in their history. The Yankees have 26 world championships in their history. Even with that, their playoff status has never seemed more perennial than it has lately. Tuesday night, when they opened an American League Division Series against the Minnesota Twins, the Yankees were appearing in their 10th consecutive postseason.

To the citizenry here, the opposition at this early postseason stage seems to be a prop, a device, a second banana, a necessary part of the storyline, but not a co-equal principal in the Yankee drama. On paper, the Twins fill their roles. They were so far over on the small-market side of baseball's economic system that three years ago they became candidates for contraction.

Of course, since then they have won three straight division titles. They are nobody's patsies. But they did lose 13 regular season games in a row to the Yankees. And they did lose a 2003 Division Series to the Yanks, 3-1, dropping the last three games, scoring only three runs over those three games.

Yankee Stadium crowds probably define the term "partisan crowd," particularly in the postseason. OK, there was a man here wearing a "Yaz" Red Sox jersey Tuesday night. He must have been either confident in the size of the Yankee Stadium security force or supremely certain of his personal charm.

The difference between the Yankees crowds and the gatherings at other ballparks is that in most places there is the hope of victory, but here, there is the confident expectation of victory. You see each autumn stories in the New York papers about how difficult it is for opponents to come here and succeed in this atmosphere, especially at this time of year when the stakes are raised.

There is some question about whether those opponents historically haven't done well here because Yankee Stadium has some mystical properties, or because the New York fans are so vociferous, or because the Yankees have so often been so good.

And what makes this whole welcome-to-the-lions'-den thing play even larger is that Ron Gardenhire, the Twins' manager, wants to do nothing to alter the Twins' perceived position as little guys and outsiders and underdogs. Gardenhire likes it that way. He does not do an "aw, shucks," country bumpkin in the city routine, but he keeps dropping clues that the Yankees are the ultimate big guys and his team is not.

Talking about the re-signing of starting pitcher Brad Radke, Gardenhire said: "I know $10 million, that's no big deal here, but that's a big deal to us, our organization."

Or, on the issue of the Yankees' alleged vulnerability due to uncertainties in the starting rotation, Gardenhire said: "Everybody keeps saying the Yankees really 'struggled' this year. I wish we could have won 100 games and struggled."

Yankees manager Joe Torre, meanwhile, is as usual, the embodiment of the Yankee manager persona that he has perfected through the years. Let others worry in public about the fact that the Yankees still can't name a Game 3 starter. Let others fret and stew about a rotation with as many questions as answers. Torre is the voice of calm, confident professionalism.

"Every time you go into a series like this one, whether you're the favorite or the underdog, when you put on this uniform, you always feel the need to win," Torre said Tuesday.

Everybody has a need to win at this level. It is just that, at Yankee Stadium, the visitors historically haven't been able to fill that need all that often. Many Octobers have ended the same way here. But each one is a new one. So let's play ball and find out if the 2004 model will be that much different.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.