NEW YORK – The sign men were out bright and early at the Yankees’ minor league complex, sticking vinyl strips with a fresh, white “27” over the “26” that had been up on the board for nine, long years to mark the team’s total of World Series titles.
Wind caused a few problems at the Himes complex in Tampa, Fla., but eventually the numbers were posted along with a new “2009” in what had been an open blue space below “2000.”
“It’s a ton of joy,” manager Joe Girardi said on WFAN radio later in the day. “There’s a sense of relief, because you know that you could rest your mind a little bit for a while.”
Turmoil and turnover ceased in Yankeeland, at least for the moment. A 7-3 victory over Philadelphia on Wednesday night had brought the title back to the Bronx, etching the names of Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, CC Sabathia and others into the team’s long list of champions.
“Every World Series victory is special, but this one is especially sweet coming in the first year in our new home,” owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement. “This group will become legendary – similar to the 26 world championship teams that preceded them.”
Even though the clubhouse was still wet with champagne Thursday and the triumphant parade through the Canyon of Heroes was a day away, attention already was turning to the future.
Girardi said he was likely to switch from uniform No. 27 to No. 28 next year, signifying the next quest.
But which players will the Yankees add for their title defense? Are the likes of John Lackey and Matt Holliday in the mix?
“Basically, you have got to get after it,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “It pretty much comes pretty quick. I’ll be in Chicago with the other GMs on Monday. Two trades already have taken place.”
Matsui, the World Series MVP, is eligible for free agency, as is Andy Pettitte, who beat the Phillies in Games 3 and 6. So is Johnny Damon.
Matsui, limited to designated hitter because of bad knees, wants to return. So does Damon, bothered by leg and back pain.
The 37-year-old Pettitte needs time to decide whether to retire or return for a 16th major league season and try for a sixth World Series ring.
“I have to talk with my family,” he said.
There may not be room for Damon, who turned 36 Thursday, and the 35-year-old Matsui, especially if the Yankees land Holliday, the top available free-agent slugger on the market. Damon and Holliday both are represented by the same agent, Scott Boras.
“They could play Matt Holliday in right field, too,” Boras said. “He has a strong arm. They have needs for two outfielders.”
Nick Swisher, who took over in right after Xavier Nady got hurt, hit just .128 with two RBIs in the postseason after batting .249 with 29 homers and 82 RBIs during the regular season. But the St. Louis Cardinals, who acquired Holliday from Oakland in July, are expected to try to re-sign the 29-year-old.
“Certainly St. Louis has an interest in Matt,” Boras said. “Matt had a very enjoyable time there.”
The Yankees figure to be after pitching, too, and Lackey figures to be the top available free-agent starting pitcher. New York’s used just three starting pitchers throughout the postseason – Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Pettitte – deciding not to take a chance on starting Joba Chamberlain or Chad Gaudin. New York became the first Series champion with just three postseason starters since the 1991 Minnesota Twins.
Chien-Ming Wang had shoulder surgery on July 29 and can’t be counted on for the start of next season. Depending on offseason events, Chamberlain and Phil Hughes could wind up in the rotation or the bullpen. And left-hander Damaso Marte has given Girardi new confidence.
Girardi was especially pleased with the breakout postseason of Rodriguez, who led the Yankees with a .365 average, six homers, 18 RBIs, 15 runs and 12 walks.
“I’m sure Alex was tired of answering the questions about the last few years in the postseason,” Girardi said on the radio show.
Rodriguez said he felt liberated after admitting to using steroids from 2001-03, then missing the first month of the season while recovering from hip surgery.
“I think there was a burden that was probably lifted off of him when he came back from Colorado and had a chance to self-reflect,” Girardi said. “He went through a tough year last year – the marital problems and the divorce, and that’s never easy, and then the hip problem and then the steroid use. I think there was a relief when he got through everything and got to the other side.”