NEW YORK -- The hat said "champions," and Joe Girardi was having a hard time keeping it on his head.
He blamed his hair. We'll blame the wording, because no matter how much champagne the Yankees sprayed Sunday, Girardi knows that winning 100 games and winning the American League East doesn't earn a Yankee team that "champions" title.
|Mariano Rivera has been around long enough to know the work has just begun. (AP)|
You're not a champion in September. You're a champion in October -- or not at all.
The younger Yankees, the ones spraying most of the champagne after Sunday's division-clinching 4-2 win over the Red Sox, may not realize that yet. Their manager does. Their closer does.
Mariano Rivera pumped his fist after the final out, but he understands.
"Let me tell you something," Rivera said. "When the organization pays so much for the team, definitely, if I'm an owner, I would demand that."
Demand winning it all?
"Of course," Rivera said. "I wouldn't expect anything less than that."
Those who hate the Yankees can snicker, and ask how a team that hasn't won a playoff series in five years can still act as if winning it all is all that counts. But he's right.
Red Sox fans will say the same holds true for their team, and they may be right, too.
But I'm not sure there's anywhere in the game where winning a division title means less than it does here. There may not be anywhere else where it can be dismissed as "just a step," as Girardi called it Sunday.
"That's the way it is here," said the second-year manager, who was part of two championship teams as a Yankee player. "We don't play just to make the playoffs."
It's understood, and it's why when the Yankees simply shook hands after clinching a playoff spot last week in Anaheim, even one Red Sox official said, "I admire that about them."
It's understood, even by those who weren't part of the back-to-back-to-back championship teams from 1998-2000.
"We've still got work to do," CC Sabathia said. "That's what we set out to do, win a championship. We're just one step closer."
Sabathia made the playoffs two years ago with the Indians, and again last year with the Brewers. You'll read plenty next week about his poor playoff record, but you'll also read about how he expects this team to win it all.
In his mind, and in all their minds, the Yankees are supposed to win it all.
"That's how we feel," Sabathia said.
They may win. They may not.
But unless they win next month, they won't be champions.
And if they do win, we're guessing that those hats will fit.
The other stories to watch this week:
Red Sox-Yankees, again? The Red Sox began the season with eight straight wins over the Yankees. The Yankees ended it with nine wins in the last 10 meetings with Boston, including seven straight wins at Yankee Stadium.
Which means, if the two teams meet again in the American League Championship Series ... absolutely nothing.
"You can do any message-sending you want in these six months, and it doesn't mean diddly," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman agreed, even before the weekend series began. "If we sweep them or they sweep us, if we meet again, it'll be a distant memory."
Besides, to get Yankees-Red Sox, Act III, the Yankees will need to beat either the Tigers or the Twins and the Red Sox will need to beat the Angels.
"We're not going to play [Boston] in the first round, so our problem is not going to be them," Cashman said. "The first hurdle, probably, is the first one, the five-game set, and it has nothing to do with them."
The Yankees will no doubt be heavily favored over their first-round opponent. The Red Sox may be favored, too, even though the Angels might have the better team.
"There's no reason the Angels couldn't beat the Red Sox -- except that they never do," one American League scout said Sunday.
The Tigers, or the Twins? The Yankees' first-round opponent will be determined this week (or in a one-game playoff next week), and we'll know a lot more after the four-game Tiger-Twins series that begins Monday at Comerica Park.
Normally, playing on the road is a disadvantage for the Twins, who have maybe baseball's biggest home-field advantage at the Metrodome. But Comerica Park has been friendly to them over the years. The Twins are just 2-3 in Detroit this year, but they're 46-39 there since Comerica opened.
The wild Braves: A week ago, even the Braves seemed to regard their playoff chances as the longest of longshots. The website coolstandings.com gave them a 3.8 percent chance of making it, and that seemed about right.
The computer put the chances at 19.1 percent entering play Sunday, and a look at the remaining schedules for the Braves and Rockies tells you it's not over.
The Rockies, with a 2½-game lead, have three home games against the Brewers, and then three games in Los Angeles against the Dodgers, who have beaten Colorado 12 times in 15 meetings.
Meanwhile, the Braves play seven consecutive home games, the first three against the Marlins and the last four against the Nationals.
The market for managers: As it turns out, Bobby Cox's managerial career won't end this week. If the Braves can overtake the Rockies, his season won't even end this week.
But other managerial changes are coming, including most likely in Cleveland and Baltimore. Among the possible candidates in Baltimore, according to one rival executive: former Mets manager Willie Randolph.
Three games to watch: 1. Twins at Tigers, Monday. Do you realize the Tigers haven't won a division title in 22 years? If you remember -- and everyone in Michigan does -- they overcame a 3½-game deficit in the final eight days of the season to beat the Blue Jays and win the AL East that year. They'll try to hold on and win the Central this time, and the big four-game series opens Monday with Rick Porcello facing Nick Blackburn.
2. Astros at Phillies, Tuesday. As of Sunday, the Phillies were still listing J.A. Happ as Tuesday's scheduled starting pitcher. But with his ninth-inning problems getting worse by the day, manager Charlie Manuel has admitted that Happ is also a possible postseason closer. Will he start? Will he close? We'll see.
3. Marlins at Braves, Wednesday. Javier Vazquez has 15 wins, but he hasn't beaten the Marlins in eight starts since May 2003. The Braves need every win they can get in their last-gasp effort to catch the Rockies for the National League wild card.