NEW YORK -- The Yankees got their rings. The Angels stood and watched.
You want to know what that ring means to a great player? Don't ask the guy who has one. Ask the guy who doesn't.
"I don't care about anything else," the Angels center fielder said Tuesday morning. "Nothing else. Don't give it to me. I just want a ring."
He just wants to get one.
It seemed special, on that Wednesday night in November when the Yankees beat the Phillies (behind Pettitte and Rivera) in Game 6. It seemed somehow even more special on this Tuesday afternoon when the Yankees picked up that fifth ring, then beat the Angels (behind Pettitte and Rivera) in Game 7 of a 162-game season.
Maybe it was the appearance of ailing owner George Steinbrenner, and of longtime trainer Gene Monahan, who is being treated for cancer. Maybe it's the realization that Jeter (22 on his first ring day) is now 35, that Rivera turned 40 a few weeks after the World Series, that Pettitte will turn 38 and Posada will turn 39 this summer.
"Everyone talks about how long we've been here," Jeter said. "But in our minds it seems like we're still little kids. We want to come out here and contribute and try to be consistent. That's what we've tried to do throughout the years, and that will never change."
In their minds, there's no reason there shouldn't be more ring days to come. And maybe there will be.
Jeter is hitting .303 through seven games of 2010 (surprise, surprise), and his contributions in Tuesday's 7-5 win included a home run, a run-scoring single and a key double play started. Rivera already has four scoreless appearances and three saves, Pettitte has a win and a 0.75 ERA, and Posada (3 for 4 Tuesday) is the Yankees' top hitter, at .429.
New York Yankees
Recap: Yankees 7, Angels 5
They've kept going, and they've kept winning, and someone like Hunter, who has played 1,507 big leagues games and made it to six postseasons -- with no rings -- can appreciate it even more than the rest of us can.
So Hunter stood and clapped as the Yankees got the latest rings, even though he wished it could be him, even though the Yankees made it to the World Series by beating his Angels in six games.
"I'm not a hater," he said. "We got beat by the best team."
There's no reason yet to believe that they're not the best again. The Yankees have already won road series from both the Red Sox and the Rays, and the early returns on the changes they've made are mostly positive.
Curtis Granderson is off to a .357 start, and he and Nick Johnson both have on-base percentages of better than .400.
The Angels haven't looked nearly as good so far, and while manager Mike Scioscia expressed confidence Tuesday morning ("We'll be fine," he said), there are already some reasons for concern.
Erick Aybar, taking over the leadoff spot after Chone Figgins left as a free agent, has a good on-base percentage (.387), but no stolen bases. Brandon Wood, taking over at third base, finally got his second hit of the season in the ninth inning Tuesday.
The pitching hasn't yet been as good as expected (the five-deep rotation is 1-6 with a 5.91 ERA). And the Angels played an ugly game Tuesday, with Bobby Abreu's ninth-inning grand slam only slightly obscuring the nine walks and assorted mistakes (including Kendry Morales losing track of the number of outs).
But even though the Angels came in with a 2-5 record, there was a sense that Tuesday's game mattered even more to the Yankees. Pettitte told reporters that he felt even more pressure than in a World Series game, because he so much wanted to get a win on ring day.
|Manager Joe Girardi presents a ring to Derek Jeter, one of four players to earn five with the Yankees. (US Presswire)|
Jeter said again that he never compares one title (or one ring day) to another, but there were reasons that this one stood out.
There was the appearance of Steinbrenner, whose health is poor enough that he rarely shows up anymore (and that he barely seemed to notice the huge ovation when he was shown on the stadium video board). Jeter called his pregame visit to the owner's suite, to present Steinbrenner with the first of the 2009 rings, one of the real highlights of his day.
There was also the appearance Monahan, who missed all of spring training and the first part of the season while being treated for cancer. Manager Joe Girardi said presenting Monahan with his ring -- the first the Yankees handed out during the on-field ceremony -- was the toughest for him, at least emotionally.
The ceremony began with Monahan, and it ended with Hideki Matsui, the World Series MVP who left the Yankees and signed with the Angels as a free agent. And if it was touching that the Yankee players stood on the top step of the dugout to applaud Monahan, it was just as special that they surrounded Matsui as soon as he got his ring.
Or as soon as he thought he got his ring.
Jeter had secretly replaced it with a fake, cheap replica that the Yankees handed out to fans at their final spring game in Florida. He had it presented to Matsui as a joke, with Girardi bringing Matsui's real ring out later during the baseline introductions.
"Knowing Matsui, he probably appreciated the fake one, too," Jeter said.
Knowing Jeter, he appreciated this ring every bit as much as he appreciated his first, and his second, and his third, and his fourth.
The rings matter as much as anything else these guys get, more than all the trophies, even more than the chance to make the Hall of Fame, as Hunter said one day this spring.
"All I want now is the ring," he said. "My satisfaction would be winning the World Series. If I get that, I'm passing out on the field."
He's played 14 seasons in the big leagues. He's made $80 million.
And all he can think about is the ring.
You want to know what the ring means?
That's what it means.