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Top of ninth for Yankees

As playoffs begin, their run impresses

NEW YORK -- Funny, the things you think about sometimes.

Like today, for example. I walk into The Stadium, pick up the club propaganda and see that the Yankees are in the "postseason" (still a tough term for an old baseball fan) for the ninth straight year. I was around here for the first of those years. Trust me, it was a very big deal.

The year was 1995. It was the first year of John Harrington's wild card, and that's how the Yankees got in. Yeah, that's right. They couldn't beat out the Red Sox. But thanks to a provision that had the solid backing of the man in charge of the Red Sox, the Yankees became the American League's first wild-card entry. (Betcha you never thought about that.)

People in New York were very excited. The Yankees had last won anything in 1981. All of George Steinbrenner's huffing and puffing and blustering and tinkering and spending had produced very little in that 14-year period. In the interim, the Red Sox had won a pennant. The Hicksville Brewers had gotten to the World Series. The Hicksville Royals had won it all. The Hicksville Twins had won twice. The impoverished Oakland A's had won it all. Then, worst of all, a team that didn't even accept its mail in America had won it, back-to-back. All the while the Boss sputtered and fumed.

Finally, in 1995, they got back in, with a first-round matchup against the Seattle Mariners. And nobody was talking about George Steinbrenner. No, it was about the team, No. 1, the status of manager Buck Showalter, No. 2, and, finally, the farewell of Donnie Baseball. Fate and history had not been kind to Don Mattingly, a great Yankee who had given his best service to some very ordinary teams and who now, in 1995, was being forced to retire prematurely because his back was killing him.

It turned out to be one of the great baseball series I have ever seen. The Yankees won Games 1 and 2 at home. But the format then was 2-3 and the Mariners were very good in the Kingdome. It came down to an epic Game 5, and the Mariners won it with Randy Johnson coming out of the bullpen and Edgar Martinez bringing in Ken Griffey Jr. from first base with a double into the left-field corner. As long as I live, I never will forget the sight of Junior running those bases with the speed of Maurice Greene and the power of Secretariat, cutting the corners at second and third like the blueblood child of baseball that he is, being buried in a pile of teammates after sliding across the plate with the winning run and popping up with a million-kilowatt smile. It is such moments that make this a very pleasurable way to make a living.

Did anybody know this was the start of something big?

I don't think so. We had gotten used to the idea that any team utilizing the proper combination of moxie and moolah could find a way to win. But that was pre-Derek and essentially pre-Mariano, and when you peer deeply into the inner recesses of Yankee goings-on, these two players -- Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter -- have had more to do with what's gone on than anyone else in the organization.

Well, OK, Joe Torre has had something to do with it, too.

When the 1995 Yankees were celebrating their reentry into the world of postseason play, Torre was sitting home waiting for the phone to ring. He had been fired for the third time in his managerial career, this time by the St. Louis Cardinals. But the Seattle series would be Showalter's last hurrah as a Yankee skipper, and when Steinbrenner set out to find a manager, he listened to a tip from team aide Arthur Richman, who persuaded him that Torre's calm demeanor was just what the Yankees needed after several years of Showalter's oppressive micro-managing.

Every sports fan knows the rest. For the fifth time in their history, the Yankees have put their stamp on an era, producing championships No. 23, 24, 25, and 26 before being denied No. 27 in the ninth inning of Game 7 in Phoenix two years ago. Last year they never really got close, losing to the eventual champion Angels in the Division Series when their starting aces took turns being hammered after the Yankees won the first game on a big home run by Bernie Williams.

This past season was a difficult one, but the Yankees still managed to win 101 games.

"We've had things going on all year, which we always seem to have," says this afternoon's starting pitcher, Mike Mussina. "But we wound up with a good record, and we're in the postseason."

If they're not the American League favorites, then who is?

"I'm more confident with our starting pitching than I was coming in last year," says Torre. "Last year, there was an uneasiness."

His first four rotation starters combined for a 70-32 record, and two of them -- Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens -- are pitching as well as they have all year. If the Yankees lose to the Minnesota Twins, there will be no excuses.

When you're a Yankee, your perspective is different.

"It seems like a long time since we won it," says Jeter. "What was it, two years? Seems a long time since that three in a row."

Um, Derek, it actually was four out of five. In Boston people would not forget a thing like that.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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