By Neil Keefe
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“This is what you dream of as a kid. It doesn’t get any bigger than this. You’ve got to enjoy it when the spotlight is on.” – Derek Jeter

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“It takes a lot to be here. We were spoiled in the 1990s and 2000, so to be back and win it is really special.” – Jorge Posada

“I can’t be happier than I am right now with this special team that we have. We worked hard for this one. It’s a beautiful thing.” – Mariano Rivera

“This is what you set out to do when you go to Spring Training. It’s a great feeling to be able to accomplish with the rest of the team. This is what you play for.” – Andy Pettitte

That was a year ago.

“You can sit here and you hear teams that lose, and they always say, ‘I felt as though we had a better team.’ We didn’t have a better team. They beat us. There are no excuses. They played better.” – Derek Jeter

“I’m going home. I’ll tell you that when the time will come. That I will tell you guys later on when it happens. I don’t want to talk about that.” – Mariano Rivera

“I’m just not sure. The only thing I know right now is I love taking the mound every fifth day. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stuff right now at this stage of my life that I don’t like about baseball.” – Andy Pettitte

That was over the last 21 days. How things have changed.

At this time last year, the Core Four were the toast of the sports world. The idea that four players could be a part of five championships together (I know Posada played in only eight games in 1996) and still produce nine years since their last title was unfathomable. It was a feat that will likely never be duplicated by another group of four athletes ever again. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte had brought winning back to the Bronx the way they had 13 years ago and three times in between. They were the focal point of Major League Baseball and not a negative word was being written about any of the four. And had the Yankees won it all again this year, no one would be questioning the age and abilities of the Core Four, but Brian Cashman gave the reasoning for the criticism that would come after the season ended and the criticism that is upon us now.

“I think you look old when you don’t play well,” Cashman said. “I think that we didn’t look old against Minnesota at all, and that was a week before we looked old against Texas. Texas made us look old because of how they played against us and how we played against them.”

Fast forward to the present day where for the past three weeks, the Core Four have been beaten daily by every media outlet with baseball coverage. If you had never watched baseball before October 22 and decided to become a fan of the game in the last 21 days, you would most likely think the following things:

1. Derek Jeter is the worst defensive player of his generation and a liability in the field and at the plate.

2. Jorge Posada has needed a walker to get him from the dugout to the plate for the last four years.

3. Andy Pettitte is as brittle as Carl Pavano once was in this city.

4. Mariano Rivera is still the man, but worth just a one-year deal and not the two years minimum he is looking for.

Every day has been a part of the “Slander The Core Four” campaign and it has been as painful to watch as Seth Rogen was on the premiere of Conan on Monday night. But I think at this point I would rather listen to Seth Rogen’s laugh or listen to him retell the made up story about he proposed to his girlfriend than read another article telling me that Derek Jeter is the worst fielding shortstop in baseball history and should be given a one-year deal for the league minimum in 2011.

I thought those four nights in October 2004 would be the darkest days of my life as a sports fan, and that nothing would ever even enter the same tier of pain, but I have to say that the last three weeks are slowly making a run at it. The four players that have been the heart and soul of the Yankees since I was nine years old (minus those three seasons when Andy was in Houston) are being belittled every single day and I can’t check my usual sites, turn on the TV or listen to the radio without hearing someone take a jab at 2, 20, 42 or 46. I’m close to having to watch every World Series from 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2009 just to verify that these guys did in fact win five championships.

Sure most of the stories taking shots at the Core Four are being written by people whose work needs to be read with a grain of salt and by people who would like nothing more than for Jeter and Rivera’s negotiations to turn ugly, Pettitte to retire and Posada to tell Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi where they can stick the DH role. But they are stories and topics being written about and discussed nonetheless.

Last week I had to defend Yankees fans against Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg, who decided that winning two postseason series suddenly made Rangers fans the best in baseball and the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington the most intimidating place for visiting teams to play in the majors. He forgot that winning that third postseason series is actually all that matters.

Now I have to defend the Core Four against those who have been waiting since I was in fifth grade for the opportunity to take shots at the last remaining part of the Yankees’ most recent dynasty in hopes that it would finally be crumbling. It’s not like 2, 20, 42 and 46 really need me defend them, but I figure they have done enough for me over the last 15 years, this is the least I can do to repay them. Here’s what the Core Four means to me.

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Number 2, Derek Jeter, Number 2
Derek Jeter isn’t just another player. Not to me at least. Since I was nine years old, Derek Jeter has been the starting shortstop for the Yankees. So basically the entire portion of my life that I can remember from an age where I could comprehend exactly what was going in a baseball game, Jeter has been the starting shortstop for the Yankees. Now we are inching closer and closer to the point where he won’t play shortstop for the Yankees, and then we will inevitably reach the point where he won’t even be on the Yankees. To think that someday he won’t be in the lineup is like thinking that the Yankees won’t wear the interlocking NY on their hat. It’s pretty hard to cope with.

I’m 24, so yes, I’m part of the generation of Yankees fans that “don’t know what it’s like to lose.” Is that a bad thing? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I can’t help that I was born during the years when Don Mattingly was hitting balls into an empty upper deck in right field, and I can’t help that I grew up with a team that made the postseason in 15 of the lat 16 season. (Every Mets fan reading this is probably holding back some tears).

I have maybe said a handful of bad things about Jeter in my life, and they usually come when the season is about to end, and he swings at the first pitch of an at-bat with the team trailing. I told Sweeny Murti after the season that I would give Jeter four years and $100 million for what he means to this team, and I am a believer that he will bounce back in 2011. I am also a believer that he was injured for the majority of 2010 because the drop in his numbers just seems to be too drastic for a player of his caliber despite his age and there has to be another reason aside from age that his batting average would fall 64 points.

Don Mattingly was the face of the Yankees before Derek Jeter and while Don Mattingly was my favorite player before Derek Jeter, I caught him at the tail end of his career, so it has been all Derek Jeter all the time since then and I don’t really know anything else. There will be another face of the Yankees once Jeter can no longer play. Maybe it will be Jesus Montero and he will be the face of the team for the future starting in 2011 and the face of the new generation of Yankees fans. Or maybe it’s going to be someone else. There will always be a player that is the face of the team whether or not they are as big as Babe Ruth was, or Lou Gehrig, or Joe DiMaggio, or Mickey Mantle, or Reggie Jackson or Don Mattingly. There will always be another face of the franchise, but there will never be another Derek Jeter.

Number 20, Jorge Posada, Number 20
When I divided up the blame for the Yankees’ ALCS loss to the Rangers, I wrote this about Jorge Posada:

“Posada is like the aging family dog that just wanders around aimlessly and goes to the bathroom all over the place and just lies around and sleeps all day. You try to pretend like the end isn’t near and you try to remember the good times to get through the bad times, and once in a while the dog will do something to remind you of what it used to be, but it’s just momentary tease.”

Well, Jorge Posada being told by Brian Cashman that he will be the DH in 2011 is like the vet telling you something is wrong with the dog, and it is the first step of recognizing there is a problem that can’t be fixed. The problem here is that Jorge Posada no longer has the abilities to be a starting catcher in the majors. Everyone knew that this would happen in the fourth year of his deal, but the Yankees had to include the fourth year at the time given the season he had in 2007 and mainly because none of their catching prospects were close enough to the majors yet.

It’s always been known that Jorge Posada has been the vocal leader of the Yankees over the last few years and he really never got as much as credit as he deserved. The only time the Yankees missed the playoffs during Posada’s tenure with team happened to be the year (2008) that he only played in 51 games due to injury. But at the same time, if you asked someone in recent years who their least favorite position player Yankee is, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they said Jorge Posada. Now I don’t agree, but I kind of understand. There has always been this weird love/hate relationship with Posada and I’m not really sure why.

I believe Posada will be a decent bat in 2011. He won’t be who he was offensively in 2007, but that’s pretty obvious. But now that he will only have to worry about hitting at the age of 39, and not have to focus and be prepared to catch and hit, I think he will have an increase in production.

Number 42, Mariano Rivera, Number 42
Mariano Rivera is drawing the least amount of offseason attention of the Core Four despite being a free agent and understandably so. When you put up a 1.33 ERA in the regular season and then don’t allow a run in 6 1/3 innings in the postseason, the only way you are going to make negative headlines with that kind of production at the age of 40 is if you decide to use your cell phone for incident exposure purposes.

Think about this: Mariano Rivera is the best ever at what he does. Over the years there has been hype around what seems like a new closer every year whether its Francisco Rodriguez, Eric Gagne, Jonathan Papelbon, J.J. Putz, B.J. Ryan or the countless others that were phenomenal for a season or two. But Mariano has been doing the same thing since 1995, and has been doing it in the ninth inning since 1996.

Mariano will be a Yankee in 2011 the same way Derek Jeter will be. Someday I will tell my kids about the best relief pitcher ever that threw only one pitch and everyone knew it was coming and still couldn’t hit it, the way my dad used to tell me how Bobby Orr would just skate around the rink untouched to kill entire penalties. It’s at the point where Mariano could hold the ball up to show the hitter the grip, like a coach shows a hitter the ball before he puts in the Juggs machine in the batting cage, and hitters still wouldn’t be able to hit it.

I think the most amazing stat in sports is that Wayne Gretzky would still be the all-time leader in points in the NHL if you took away all of his 894 goals. But one of the most incredible stats in baseball history is Edgar Martinez’s career against Mariano:

10-for-16 (.625), 2 HR, 6 RBI, 2 2B, 3 BB, 4 K, .700 OBP

Why? Because no one has numbers like that against Mariano Rivera. At least they’re not supposed to.

Number 46, Andy Pettitte, Number 46
If and when the Yankees get Cliff Lee, they will have three lefties in their rotation. That is, if Andy Pettitte comes back. And if the Yankees do get Lee and Pettitte does return, they will have the best rotation in baseball. But if the Yankees don’t get Lee they will have a problem. If they somehow don’t get Lee and Pettitte doesn’t return, they will have a major problem.

Andy Pettitte is a major piece to the offseason plans for the Yankees and if he returns, he is a major piece to the 2011 team. A potential rotation of Sabathia, Lee, Pettitte, Hughes and Burnett has me getting ready to stock up on Andre for next October. But the potential rotation of Sabathia, Hughes, Burnett and question mark and question mark has me stocking up on Four Lokos. The Yankees are either going to hit a parlay that gives them the best rotation in the league or lose out on a parlay the way the gambling world did on Sunday when the Browns embarrassed the Patriots.

I don’t see how Andy Pettitte can retire. If he wanted to retire, it would have made the most sense to do it after the 2009 season. He would have gone out as a champion having been the winning pitcher in the AL East clincher, the ALDS clincher, the ALCS clincher and the World Series clincher. There is no way he can decide he’s had enough after what happened this October. There just isn’t.

I was at the game on May 5 when Pettitte left early with what was later reported as an elbow problem. Further reports following the game didn’t seem promising and I honestly thought I had seen Andy Pettitte pitch for the last time ever. But he came back from that injury to go 9-3 with a 3.29 ERA before the groin injury.

If Pettitte had struggled for the entire season and could barely get anyone out for six months like Chet Steadman, then I would say, “OK, his body just can’t handle pitching 34 times a year anymore.” But when you realize that he was 11-2 with a 2.70 ERA in the first half, an All-Star and went 1-1 in the postseason with a 2.57 ERA, there’s no question that Pettitte can still compete at a very high level.

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