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Sierra Changes His Outlook, Torre Changes His Mind…Powered By Beltran, Astros Break Through In Playoffs

Sierra Changes His Outlook, Torre Changes His Mind

Ian O'Connor

11 October 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

USA Today

One of the great comeback teams you'll ever see, in any sport, had to be saved Saturday night by the most improbable comeback Yankee of them all.

It was Ruben Sierra's eighth-inning, three-run home run that tied the score at 5 before the Yankees beat the Minnesota Twins 6-5 in 11 innings in the decisive Game 4 of the American League Division Series. It was also Sierra who had once called Joe Torre a liar.

For that indiscretion, Sierra was run out of New York in 1996.

But Torre himself was a thrice-fired manager before being touched by stardust. Maybe he gave Sierra a second chance because baseball gave Torre four.

"You don't condemn a guy forever for one emotional thing he said," Torre said as he walked out of the Metrodome interview room Saturday night and toward a clubhouse flooded with champagne and the bubbly talk of another series with the Boston Red Sox.

In 1996, Sierra claimed Torre reneged on a promise of more playing time, and before the manager had grabbed even one of his four championship rings, he had Sierra on the first train out of Dodge. "Ruben has no clue what baseball is about," Torre would write in his book, Chasing the Dream.

The manager called Sierra "a spoiled kid" and the most difficult player he ever had to manage. "As much as I tried to talk to him about the team concept of baseball," Torre wrote, "he just never did get it."

He gets it now. Eight years later, and three days removed from his 39th birthday, Sierra was entrusted by Torre to take a swing at a 2-2 slider from Juan Rincon.

The Twins were holding a 5-2 lead in a Game 4 that ultimately could've destroyed the Yankees' season.

With two men on, Sierra drove the ball 388 feet over the Metrodome's right-center wall. And it was only a matter of time before someone -- this time third baseman Alex Rodriguez -- manufactured the winning Yankee run in extra innings by stealing third base and scoring on a wild pitch.

Sierra gave Torre the kind of redemption-soaked playoff homer that Darryl Strawberry gave him in another lifetime, back when the Yankees were building their dynasty and Sierra was wasting his talent on a wayward journeyman's trail.

"We could've had a lot of fun," Torre told Sierra in the spring of 2000, when Cleveland's fading slugger approached his former manager at the Indians' Winter Haven, Fla., camp, hugged him and asked for his forgiveness.

Sierra could've had the kind of fun he had in the Metrodome, a million miles from stops he made in Atlantic City; Cancun, Mexico; Puerto Rico and six big-league cities on the way back to a team certain it would never take him back.

"I'm a different guy," Sierra said, a bottle of champagne in his hand. "Before I was young; I was selfish a little bit. I wanted to play so bad. . . . I was young. I made a mistake."

Sierra had lived up to the nickname bestowed on him by his former manager in Oakland, Tony La Russa, who called him "the village idiot." Despite the Winter Haven hug, Torre wasn't sold on a Sierra return last year when Brian Cashman brought it to his desk.

"Ruben wasn't at the top of my list," Torre said Sunday night outside the winning clubhouse. "Certain things didn't sit well with me. It was all about him."

Actually, one thing sat well with Torre. "Ruben knew how to hit," he said. "I thought if he had to fight his way back to the big leagues, maybe he'd say, 'Let me use my instinct and experience to help a ballclub.' "

In other words, let him be everything Joe Torre once said he could never be. Let him be a guy who doesn't just care about stats. Let him be a guy who would never be dumb enough to say, "The Yankees don't care about people. They just care about winning."

Sierra so completely remade himself in his second pinstriped act that Torre gave him the honor of managing the team during its final regular-season game in Toronto. Sierra had evolved into a team player. A bench player and part-time DH who was quick with a tip for those without the benefit of his 18 years of big-league experience.

"His attitude has been outstanding," said the captain, Derek Jeter.

"I'd see him pull young guys aside," Torre said, "and try to help them any way he could."

The Yankees needed a different brand of help in this Game 4. They didn't need a cheerleader; they needed a home-run hero.

Thanks to Sierra, it didn't matter that Gary Sheffield had lost a fly ball in the fourth inning and the Twins had taken a 2-1 lead and then a 5-1 lead. It didn't matter that Johan Santana, on short rest, had given his team its chance to force Game 5. It didn't matter that Twins fans were hopeful enough to mock the New Yorkers with a seventh-inning chant of "O-ver-rat-ed."

It only mattered that the Yankees had 61 come-from-behind regular- season victories and two come-from-behind Division Series victories heading into Sierra's at-bat.

"I was just trying to make contact," Sierra said. "I had a feeling something was going to happen."

What happened was what everyone expected to happen: The Yankees again facing the Red Sox for the sake of old times.

Ruben Sierra thanked his God and his manager, and not necessarily in that order. The village idiot of Oakland had become the crown prince of New York.

The Yankee who once called Joe Torre a liar made the greatest comeback of all.

Ian O'Connor also writes for The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News.

Powered by Beltran, Astros Break Through in Playoffs


12 October 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

PHOTO: John Bazemore/Associated Press

Houston's Carlos Beltran after hitting a solo home run in the third inning of Game 5 against Atlanta.

ATLANTA, Oct. 11 - When the Houston Astros were fading from the National League Central race in July, the Astros' general manager, Gerry Hunsicker, received phone calls from contenders around baseball looking to cherry-pick the Houston roster.

Hunsicker fired his manager, but he did not wave a white flag. He kept the Astros together, which included holding tight to the star center fielder Carlos Beltran, and Houston salvaged its season and won its first postseason series in its 43-season history Monday night.

Beltran was 4 for 5 with two home runs and five runs batted in to lead the Astros to a 12-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game 5 of their division series before a sellout crowd at Turner Field. By taking the series, three games to two, the Astros, a wild-card entry in the playoffs, will meet their Central Division rivals, the Cardinals, in the National League Championship Series, which opens in St. Louis on Wednesday night.

"We're fading fast and have Beltran, who other teams want," first baseman Jeff Bagwell said. "It's a credit to this organization and the front office that they said we're not giving up."

The Astros, who loaded up in the off-season for a postseason run with the former Yankees pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, were 56-60 on Aug. 14. Houston had also acquired Beltran from Kansas City on June 24.

Beltran had nine R.B.I. in the series, breaking the N.L. division series record of eight set in 1999 by Ken Caminiti, a former Astros third baseman who died Sunday of a heart attack.

"Obviously, Cammy is on our minds," Bagwell said. "He would have loved to seen the Astros do this and been happy for us."

The victory here was payback for the Astros, who had lost three playoff series to the Braves and had failed to win a postseason series in seven previous attempts. In losing the 1997, 1999, and 2001 division series to Atlanta, Houston scored 26 runs. They scored 36 in this series.

Beltran had 10 hits in 22 at-bats, including four home runs. He was almost not a factor in the series after being hit in the ribs with a fastball in Game 1 and then going 0 for 5 in Game 2 because he could not swing properly.

"I'm still sore, but I wasn't going to take myself out of the lineup," Beltran said. "The day after that second game, I was able to recuperate a little bit more."

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