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The lovable Yankees

ATLANTA - The lovable, hugable New York Yankees. The Little Engine That Could. There's been Rocky, Chariots of Fire, Hoosiers and now the Darling (not Damn) Yankees - the underdogs. "I've always felt like we were the underdogs all season," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "Not many people were high on this club this year."

Underdogs? This 1996 Yankees team, at least on paper, doesn't fit that description. It boasts the highest payroll in the game - about $60 million - and plays for the most hated owner in the game, Gorgeous George Steinbrenner. Add to those variables the fact that the Yankees are traditionally the franchise most fun for fans to hate, and the last team that would be considered inspirational would be the Yankees.

But that is exactly why they are such a likable team. Everyone, save for Yankees fans, loves to hate the Yankees. But they've overcome that persona.

How can you hate a team that managed to show so much heart this year? They held off the Baltimore Orioles for first place in the American League East, showed that heart by beating Texas and Baltimore in the playoffs, then came back from a 6-0 deficit in Game 4 of the World Series to defeat the Atlanta Braves 8-6 in 10 innings.

"The best thing that ever happened to this team was when our lead in the division went from 12 games to three," Torre said. "If we had stayed up nine games or so the whole year, I'm not sure how we would have played in the postseason. We had to see what we were made of."

They are made of the right stuff.

No one gave the Yankees a chance of going back to New York in this Series after the Braves won the first two games in New York. One American League general manager, despite having seen the Yankees' tough play firsthand, believed they were through. "I said before the Series started they would be swept," the GM said.

And yet they showed that grit and determination once again, coming back to take a 3-2 lead in the Series, with Andy Pettitte's brilliant pitching performance in a 1-0 win last night over the Braves. It forced a return to Yankee Stadium for Game 6 tomorrow night - a possible clinching game for New York.

"We're here representing the American League," Torre said after the first two losses. "We earned the right to play here and we are sure as hell not going to roll over and die."

Torre is the driving force behind the change in the perception of the Yankees. He is a three-time loser, fired from managing jobs with the New York Mets, the Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals. His one brother died this season, his other brother is in a hospital waiting for a heart transplant. He was willing to work for Steinbrenner, and yet he remains one of the nicest men in baseball. How can you not want good things for this man?

It doesn't stop with Torre, though. Bernie Williams plays the game with an admirable style and grace, with a sensitive personality that also includes playing jazz guitar and a humbleness that belies his new status as one of the best players in the game.

Then there is rookie Derek Jeter, a 22-year-old rookie phenom whose love for the game shows through in his play and still remains respectful enough to call his idol, Cal Ripken, "Mr. Ripken."

There's David Cone, the gusty big-game pitcher who came back from surgery to remove an aneurysm from his right shoulder in April. His return at all this year was uncertain, yet there he was in Game 3 leading the Yankees to a 5-2 win in the first game in Atlanta. Big Cecil Fielder, playing in his first World Series, Jimmy Key, who came back from rotator cuff surgery in 1995, starting for the Yankees tomorrow night in Game 6. This is a team worthy of the good things that have come its way.

"This is a team that doesn't worry about individual numbers or accomplishments," Torre said. "That is a rarity. I've never managed a team like this."

There has certainly never been a championship Yankees team like this one.

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