The body lay motionless, covered in towels on a training table. Next to the table was an IV stand with a tube connecting a bag of saline solution to the body. It was the eighth inning of the third game of the 2009 World Series when Jason Zillo, the Yankees director of media relations, walked into the visitors' training room at Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia and spied the unidentified player and the two trainers and physician attending to him. Alarmed, Zillo quickly returned to the Yankees clubhouse, where he ran into Joba Chamberlain, who had pitched the previous inning for New York.
"Who is that in there?" Zillo asked.
Chamberlain smiled and said, "The old lefthander."
The old lefthander, 37-year-old Andy Pettitte, had just thrown 104 pitches over six innings before his body fairly shut down from fatigue and stress. "Like something just zapped my legs," he would say nearly a week later. It had been a long, cold night, and even before the first pitch Pettitte had burned up a lot of nervous energy because of an 80-minute rain delay. The fifth inning had been a particular drain; in the top half he singled in the tying run and scored the go-ahead run. In the bottom half, while dashing off the mound to cover first base on a grounder by Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, he felt the strength in his legs leaving him.
Pettitte pushed through another inning, allowing a home run to Jayson Werth, before handing a 7--4 lead to Chamberlain in a game New York would win 8--5 to take a Series lead that it would not relinquish. "I was just exhausted," he says. When he got to the clubhouse, the training staff advised an IV drip to assist his muscular recovery. After all, there was a good chance that Pettitte would have to pitch again in four days, with the World Series on the line, and he hadn't pitched on short rest since September 2006, a span of 104 starts.
The old lefthander, of course, would win two World Series games in four days, including the 7--3 series-sealing victory in which he grinded through 5 2/3 innings. Only two starting pitchers have ever been older when they won a World Series clincher: Burleigh Grimes in 1931 and Eddie Plank in 1913, both at age 38. Plank, a Hall of Famer from the Dead Ball era, and Pettitte are the oldest pitchers to win a World Series clincher on three days' rest.
When Yankees übercloser Mariano Rivera, who turns 40 at the end of this month, got the 27th out of the 27th World Series clincher for the Yankees, it was as if baseball, after eight years in which seven franchises took turns on top, was rebooted to its default status. The game's best team had won. It was the first time the outright leader in regular-season victories had won the World Series since the 1998 Yankees did so.
These 103-win Yankees might not have been as historically great as the 114-win Yankees of '98, but they were off the charts actuarially speaking. A 37-year-old pitcher coming off short rest and an IV drip, backed up by a closer about to turn 40, joined forces with an old catcher, an old left side of the infield and an old designated hitter who'd be named the World Series MVP—an old roster, period—to win the Yankees' first world championship in nine years. In doing so, New York defied the industry trend of emphasizing young, athletic players. The Series MVP, 35-year-old Hideki Matsui, who tied a 49-year-old World Series record in Game 6 with six RBIs, was one of five Yankees 33 years of age or older who made at least 400 plate appearances this season. The others were third baseman Alex Rodriguez, 34; shortstop Derek Jeter, 35; leftfielder Johnny Damon, 36; and catcher Jorge Posada, 37. Among baseball's 105 world champions, only the 2001 Diamondbacks, with six, relied so heavily on so many veterans.
To depend so much on older players was a perilous gambit. To see how risky it was, look no further than the team's closest rival, the Red Sox. Boston counted on thirtysomething position players in almost exactly the same numbers and places as the Yankees: a 33-year-old DH (David Ortiz), a 35-year-old third baseman coming off hip surgery (Mike Lowell), a 33-year-old shortstop (Julio Lugo), a 33-year-old corner outfielder (J.D. Drew) and a 37-year old catcher (Jason Varitek). All of them had down years. While the Boston Old Guard hit a collective .257 with 84 home runs and 301 RBIs, the New York Old Guard hit .295 with 122 home runs and 419 RBIs.
Within hours of winning a title, all teams immediately confront the question: Can they do it again? The Yankees will most likely be the 2010 American League favorite; they are just as likely to seek some younger legs. Damon, who, as if on cue, had to leave the clincher with a muscle strain in his right calf; Matsui, who hasn't played the outfield regularly in two years; and Pettitte are all free agents. Jeter and Rivera are signed through next season, Posada through 2011 and Rodriguez through 2017.