MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

Yankees' will to win steeped with rich tradition

Even with The Boss gone, players know what's expected when wearing pinstripes

Yankees' will to win steeped with rich tradition

NEW YORK -- Among the thousands of memories that flooded the mind of Joe Torre during Hall of Fame weekend was one that involved Ruben Sierra, a two-time Yankee who wasn't among Torre's favorites during his first managerial tour of duty in the Bronx.

The Yankees traded Sierra during the 1996 season -- Cecil Fielder was the medium of exchange -- and the following spring, Sierra took a shot at his former manager, one that Torre rather enjoyed, one that still makes him laugh.

Said Sierra: "All they care about over there is winning."

Said Torre: "You don't like to be labeled. But I hope that one sticks."

Sierra's inadvertent compliment was embraced by late owner George Steinbrenner as well. "I told Joe 'Congratulations,'" The Boss once said. "'It'll be OK with me if they put that on my tombstone.'"

The words seemingly hold true even now, 18 years after Sierra's intended insult to Torre and, not coincidentally, in the 20th year of Derek Jeter's career. That phrase, if recalled at all these days, is spoken with a smirk and a cackle. Certainly no one would deliver it quite so seriously or emphatically as Steinbrenner.

But the serious sense of "We damn well better win," still fills the Yankees' clubhouse. It is as conspicuous in the home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium II as Thurman Munson's vacant locker was in the home clubhouse in YS I.

Even the current Yankees -- with their roster 25 percent reconstituted in the last month and their mathematical chances of an occupied October diminishing every other day -- have that sense. It's not every team with an MO of score twice and hope, not every team with a rotation in shambles that keeps its pedal to the metal and hangs with the mighty Tigers for 12 innings or most of the last three games.

For three nights now, they have given every indication they are made of mettle. They're not particularly well-equipped. But they do get after it. Steinbrenner must have left instructions. And his constant references to tradition must be echoing.

"You're aware of the history of the team," Carlos Beltran said on Tuesday. "I don't know how different it is here, but it is different. Here and in St. Louis. It is the tradition that makes it different. No one tells you to do anything different or feel different, but you do because of the tradition. You don't talk about it day in and day out. But you know it's different.

"Some of it is the ballpark. If we played in the old Yankee Stadium, I think it would be a bigger difference. You know, they had those ... ghosts Derek talked about. You felt the tradition more there. You'd want to add to it."

Beltran has played for the Royals, Astros, Mets, Giants, Cardinals and Yankees. He has a background that makes his assessments credible.

Chase Headley knows only from the Padres and, for almost three weeks now, the Yankees. He has fewer life experiences. Maybe the Indians and the Royals are different from the Padres, too. He can't know. He does know, though, that expectations in the Bronx are more powerful than those he knew in his first big league stop, if only because of the passion in the stands.

"From what I know about it here, the expectations are the same every year -- 'Get to the postseason, win the World Series,'" Headley said. "It's not like the Yankees say this is the year we're going to load up and go for it. Here, it's 'all in' every year. It's standard. And you know it."

It's been that way, beginning with the first championships during the Steinbrenner years -- 1976, '77 and '78. Bucky, Reggie, Goose were acquired. The '79 Yankees slipped. On-paper improvement was accomplished shortly after that sad season ended -- Rick Cerone, Bob Watson, Rudy May and Tom Underwood were imported. But that was reloading, not loading up for one 162-game charge.

"You never wanted to be on the Yankee team that fell short," Bucky Dent said at Old-Timer's Day. "People say George was demanding, and he was. But what he did is make you demand more of yourself. He made it different here by doing that."

Other components have made the Yankees experience different for Headley. The more prominent one plays 25-35 feet to his left.

"The first three of four games here, I'd look over and see Derek Jeter. You pinch yourself when you see him," Headley said. "And then you think of how many times he's won, how many games he's won. He doesn't say, 'This is the way it's done.' But you recognize all he's achieved, and it gets in your mind."

Players who joined the Big Red Machine in the 1970s had similar experiences. Bob Bailey was a veteran of 14 seasons -- mostly undistinguished seasons with the Pirates and Expos -- before he was traded to the Reds in the winter of '75-76, after the Reds had won the first of two successive World Series. He didn't need advice on how to approach the game or the importance of winning. But ...

"It's a completely different atmosphere over here," he said during the '76 National League Championship Series. "They have fun, but it's deadly serious once a game starts. And they don't take losing very well at all. No one ever said a word to me -- except Bench explained to me how the Reds wore their stirrups -- but you got a sense that they were very serious about getting back to the World Series."

The greatest difference may be in the clubhouse reactions to losing. Teams with tradition -- those Reds, the Jeter Yankees, the Cardinals of McCarver and Gibson and the Braves teams of the '90s -- turned the page well before the ensuing game, but a period of grousing, cursing and self-hatred came first.

A memorable moment occurred in 2003, Tom Glavine's first year with the Mets, when he let it be known that too many teammates were not sufficiently irked by defeat. He had delivered a similar message in the Braves' clubhouse three years earlier.

"There's a way consistently successful teams go about their business," Glavine said that night in 2003. "Winning isn't the only thing they care about. You maintain your personal priorities, but they certainly do hate to lose. And they do whatever they can every night to avoid it."

See New York Yankees, August 2014.

Marty Noble is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.