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Yankee Future: Uncertain : Baseball: Team won 25 of its last 31 games, but even $55 million could not purchase a pennant for George Steinbrenner.

October 15, 1995|DAVID LENNON | NEWSDAY

They were looked at by others around baseball as a collection of mercenaries, the best team that money could buy. From the moment they broke camp in Fort Lauderdale last April, these New York Yankees were supposed to be champions. Only the rigors of a 144-game endurance test stood between them and the World Series berth many had predicted.

No one should be surprised that it did not happen. Even $55 million could not purchase a pennant for principal owner George Steinbrenner. But something transformed these Yankees during the final six weeks of the season. What was perceived as an underachieving group of millionaires became a gutsy ballclub worthy of its proud Bronx heritage.

They won 25 of their last 31 games to clinch the wild card in Toronto on the final afternoon of the regular season. They gave the two largest crowds in the history of new Yankee Stadium a pair of inspired victories in Games 1 and 2 of their American League division series against the Mariners.

Ultimately, the Yankees were a David Cone split-fingered fastball and four outs away from advancing to their first league championship series since 1981. And even after that didn't work out, they found themselves three outs away after scoring in the top of the 11th in Game 5. The Mariners needed yet another heart-stopping comeback to abruptly halt that pursuit in the Kingdome last Sunday night.

Instead of flying to Cleveland, the Yankees' chartered plane headed home to New York. A victory in the decisive game of the division series would have done more than give the Yankees a shot at the AL crown. It would have kept this club together for at least another four games.

As the players dressed in the clubhouse after the 6-5 loss, they knew it could be the last time they would see each other. The future is uncertain for the 1995 Yankees, and many of them have played their last baseball game together.

"That's what hurts," said Wade Boggs, his voice soft and eyes slightly red from tears. "You go around hugging guys and don't know if you'll ever see them again. That's the tough part about this game. I don't have anything running through my mind as far as the future . . . I'm still numb."

Cone struck out nine through seven innings and carried a 4-2 lead into the eighth in Game 5, enhancing his Cy Young reputation with every pitch.

Ken Griffey homered to bring the Mariners within 4-3, but Cone retired Edgar Martinez for the second out. However, he then allowed three walks and a single before Mariano Rivera was brought in to get out of the jam. The pitch that will be remembered is the 3-and-2 split-fingered fastball Cone bounced to pinch hitter Doug Strange that forced home the tying run.

Cone made no excuses afterward, expressing only regret that he could not get this team one step further. Cone already has a World Series ring and was pitching in his ninth playoff game for his third team. The so-called hired gun, acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays July 28, still was stung by the sudden defeat.

"I'm going to try and feel proud of the effort," Cone said. "It's tough to get over the disappointment of having the lead. If we got four more outs, we'd be the ones celebrating . . . Part of the disappointment is you don't know what the team is going to look like next year. That's why you need to get away, to get a perspective on the experience."

Buck Showalter, a manager without a contract for next season, had said he would do whatever was necessary to win Game 5. That included bringing in Jack McDowell from the bullpen on one day's rest. McDowell threw 84 pitches in his duel with Randy Johnson Friday night and wound up going 1 1/3 innings-plus in Game 5.

With runners on first and second, McDowell struck out Edgar Martinez and got Alex Rodriguez on a grounder to short in the ninth. He also stranded two runners in the 10th. But it all came apart in the 11th. After Joey Cora's bunt single and a base hit by Griffey, , McDowell surrendered the game-winning two-run double to Edgar Martinez.

"I feel bad for a lot of people in this clubhouse who busted their butt all year," McDowell said. "It's something you live through and move on . . . Only one team ends up successful. The rest wind up forgotten about."

McDowell's assessment was a bit harsh. Don Mattingly made the first postseason appearance of his 13-year career in one of the greatest series in playoff history. He also played like a man 10 years younger, hitting .417 with a home run, four doubles and six RBI. The captain came close to being the hero in Game 5, slicing a two-run double to left field that gave the Yankees a 4-2 lead in the sixth inning.

Mattingly offered little clue as to his plans for next season. After the loss, he balanced sorrow with the satisfaction of finally ending his postseason drought. And playing as if it were 1985 all over again.

"It was a great series, period," he said. "It hurts not to move on. It'd be harder, though, if you knew you didn't give it everything. We did."

Randy Velarde, second only to Mattingly in pinstriped seniority, gave the Yankees their brief one-run lead in the top of the 11th inning. The nine-year veteran, signed as a wandering free agent out of the Homestead camp, delivered a one-out single off Johnson to score pinch runner Pat Kelly from second base. The Yankees' bench went wild as the Kingdome crowd fell silent. It would be their final moment of jubilation this season.

"I'm just thankful I was given the opportunity to come back and play with this group," Velarde said. "Any time you go to war, these are the guys I want to go to war with. They gave it all they had and then some. They left it on the field."

If that is how they are remembered, they should be proud of that legacy.

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