Champions belong in any discussion of greatest teams

NEW YORK - Let's just say it: Dynasty.

Dispute their methods all you want. Call them the best team money can buy. But do not deny these Yankees their ultimate greatness, their hallowed place in history.

Not since the 1972-73-74 Oakland Athletics has a team won three World Series in a row, but the A's only had to get through two rounds of playoffs, not three.

Not since the 1949-53 Yankees has a team won four championships in five years. This team has done its forebears - Joe D. and Mickey and Yogi and the Scooter - proud.

"This is the Yankee team I admire the most," said Reggie Jackson, who played for those three-peating A's and was part of another great Yankee era in the 1970s.

"Nobody had a great year. As good as the pitching staff has always been, it was not as good as it's been in the past. I'm more impressed this year in what Joe Torre has done, the sanity everyone has maintained."

The need for sanity expired just before midnight, when Bernie Williams hauled in Mike Piazza's deep fly with a man aboard in the ninth - the tying runs, and wouldn't that have been a moment - for the final out, then knelt on the warning track with his head bowed.

"It was probably the most scared I've been when Mike hit that ball," Torre said. "I screamed, `No!' Because any time he hits a ball in the air, it's a home run in my mind."

Then it was time for insanity, for the now-familiar trappings of Yankee victory - the riot police, the pileup between second base and the pitcher's mound, the tears flowing from Torre, that old sap.

"I think this was the toughest one yet," said Torre. "There was a lot going on this year - people getting hurt, Mel (Stottlemyre) getting sick, the way we finished the season so poorly. A lot of people questioned our bullpen, but when the time came to put money on the table, they came through."

It was a terrific World Series, from a competitive standpoint, as terrific as a five-game series can be. The Mets lost four games by a grand total of five runs. They lost last night's game despite an effort by Al Leiter that was a monument of guttiness. They lost one game they led in the ninth inning, and they lost this one when Luis Sojo, that old Mariner hero, delivered a two-out single off Leiter that scored Jorge Posada from second base with two outs in the ninth.

When the throw home bounded into the dugout, and Scott Brosius, who had started on first base, raced home as well, and Sojo scooted all the way to third, you could hear echoes of Rick Rizzs: "Everybody scores!"

"I talked to El Duque in the dugout in the eighth inning," Sojo said. "I said I wanted to hit. I wanted to be the hero. Look at me! I'm talking to the media! This is the happiest day of my life."

Bobby Valentine will get second-guessed for leaving Leiter in to pitch the ninth, and then to pitch to Sojo, having racked up 142 pitches, but he shouldn't. As John Franco said, "It was Al's game to win or lose. He left it all on the mound. If I was Bobby Valentine, I would have left him in, too."

Leiter had started the ninth with little hint of a problem, striking out Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill. But then Posada turned in one of those game-turning at-bats, working the count full, fouling off several pitches, then drawing a walk when Leiter thought he had him struck out.

The rest was vintage Yankees - Brosius drilling a single, then the Sojo magic, and then the most ominous development of all for the Mets: the bullpen door opening and Mariano Rivera trotting to the mound for closure.

"It's amazing," sighed Leiter. "Over the course of three hours, what in your mind was a good outing can be ruined in three or four minutes."

It was hard to cut through the noise and the static of this series, where a good-natured comment by Benny Agbayani about the Mets winning in five games became front-page news, where the Roger Clemens-Piazza bat incident was scrutinized to the maximum degree.

"Maybe Agbayani was right," Yankee Jeff Nelson said. "He just had the wrong team."

But the extraneous hoopla that gripped this Subway Series shouldn't obscure a Yankee team that has earned the right to at least join the argument when the discussion turns to the best teams ever.

"This core group, winning four World Series in five years in a day and age when you have to come through layer after layer of postseason play, we can put our record, our dedication, our resolve up against any team that's ever played the game of baseball," Torre said.

"We may not have the best players, but we certainly have had the best team."