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Diane Pucin

They Take Fun Out of Hating Yankees

October 04, 2002|Diane Pucin

The New York Yankees have come to Anaheim. In baseball's postseason. Not for a vacation but for playoff games. And they embrace the Rally Monkey.

"It's a fun atmosphere," Derek Jeter said of playing at Edison Field. "There's been a lot of Yankee fans when we've played here but I wouldn't anticipate that the next couple of days. They got that monkey, though. Looking forward to it."

What makes the Yankees the Yankees, besides George Steinbrenner and a $140-million payroll, is their non-cocky confidence, their blase sense of entitlement, their professional urgency instead of frantic, pressured nervousness.

These are the biggest sporting moments Orange County has hosted, two American League division series playoff games against the greatest sports dynasty in American history. Don't even think the Angels have grabbed any kind of momentum because they won Game 2 in a dramatic way.

"We were down 0-2 to Oakland last year," Jeter said. "We lost the first two games at home."

The Yankees won that series, 3-2, sweeping the A's at Oakland. In Game 3, Jorge Posada hit a home run, Mike Mussina (who will start tonight against the Angels) threw seven scoreless innings, Jeter and Posada teamed for a great pickup, flip and tag at the plate of Jeremy Giambi and the Yankees won, 1-0.

The Yankees won Game 4, 9-2. Bernie Williams drove in five runs. Back at Yankee Stadium in the foregone conclusion that was Game 5, Jeter passed Pete Rose for the major league record in postseason hits and the Yankees won, 5-3, and became the first team in history to win a five-game series after losing the first two games at home.

But Jeter also pointed out that just because the Yankees came back to beat Oakland last year does not mean the Angels haven't earned some advantage by splitting in New York this year.

"Oakland was a different team than Anaheim," Jeter said. "Anaheim is tough. A lot of people are picking us to breeze through this round, but the Angels are a tough team. They don't strike out. They put the ball in play, move runners over, they have quality pitching, they don't beat themselves."

What's impressive about the Angels is the way they, and their manager, have been unaffected by the enormity of playoff baseball, New York-style. Manager Mike Scioscia easily accepted all the criticism about his use of his bullpen after Game 1 and followed his own mind in Game 2. Scioscia's belief in himself installs itself in the heads of his players.

What's impressive about the Yankees is the way they gracefully assume they will be champions, how smoothly they avoid making mountains out of molehills and how well they understand what has brought the Angels here.

"You have to forget about what happened the previous night," Jeter said. He meant this about losing Game 2 and about his being called out on strikes in the bottom of the eighth inning with two out and the bases loaded. Strike three, Jeter is convinced, was outside. "But that's over," Jeter says. "No sense thinking about it anymore."

Alfonso Soriano wouldn't get angry about the Troy Percival pitch that smacked him square on the back, either.

"It was not on purpose, no, I don't think," Soriano said. "It's just baseball. It just happens. What should you do but just move on?"

The Yankees are secure enough about themselves that they can acknowledge the Angels as something more than a gutsy little team, which is the TV story line.

Since 1998 the Angels have gone 24-21 against the Yankees. "We notice that," New York relief pitcher Mike Stanton said. "We know we are playing a team we don't intimidate."

Yankee Manager Joe Torre was once an Angel broadcaster, in the mid-1980s. He remembers the Angels' heartbreaking Game 5 loss to Boston in the 1986 American League championship series, when they were within an out of their first trip to the World Series.

"I got to know the Cowboy [owner Gene Autry] and a lot of people around here and really became close to them," Torre said. "I felt so badly in 1986. I was in Chicago at the time of that Game 5 loss and I just felt very badly for the Cowboy and for Gene Mauch. I could still see it now, Reggie [Jackson] standing next to Mauch in the dugout, waiting for the last out to be recorded. It wasn't to be.

"This is a club I always rooted for, obviously not when I play them, but otherwise because I have a connection here."

So Torre understands the Angels and their haunted past. He sympathizes and might even feel a little sad if the Yankees break Angel hearts. But only a little.

As the Yankees took batting and fielding practice Thursday, balls were flying off the bats. Laughter ricocheted off the walls. This is so far from pressure for the Yankees. This is fun. They appreciate the opponent, but they expect to win.

It's easy to resent the Yankee name, the monstrous payroll, the imperious Steinbrenner. It's hard to dislike Torre, Jeter, Soriano, Williams, Jason Giambi, coach Don Zimmer and all the others who are happy to be Yankees because it's a privilege and not a right, an honor and not a burden.

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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