Yankees can rest easy after ALCS win

There was a burden in the Bronx on Sunday night, shared by the people in the home dugout, the people in the front office, even the people among a record-setting crowd at the New Stadium.

It’s not easy to play for the Yankees. It’s not easy to run the Yankees. Despite what you may think, it’s not easy to root for the Yankees, either.

No matter the injuries, no matter the slumps, no matter the opponent, you are supposed to win the World Series. Every year. When a Steinbrenner signs your paycheck, you are evaluated on a pass-fail basis.

“You know what? To be in this situation, it’s tough,” said catcher Jorge Posada, who has never worn another uniform. “It really takes a lot. I don’t think I can put into words what we’ve been through.”

On this night, he didn’t need to. We saw it ourselves at Yankee Stadium, after Posada squeezed the final strike of the Yankees’ 5-2 triumph over the Angels in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.

New York has its record 40th pennant. More obvious, though, was that this team hadn’t won one since 2003. The postgame scene told you that. Seconds after Mariano Rivera’s last cutter sailed past Gary Matthews Jr., three players joined in a happy embrace behind the mound.

One was Alex Rodriguez. With 15 years and 11 days of major league service, he will play in a World Series for the first time.

One was Mark Teixeira. With seven years of major league service, he will play in a World Series for the first time.

The other was Derek Jeter. He has played in the World Series six times. He has four rings.

And as they bounced around the infield, it was hard to tell which of them had celebrated one of these before. For a team preordained to play this deep into autumn, the Yankees seem awfully happy and relieved to be doing it.

“There’s a lot of expectations on this team every year,” Jeter said later. “We lost Game 5, everybody said we were choking.”

Oh, right. The talk about manager Joe Girardi’s curious bullpen decisions in Anaheim. The talk about whether 2009 was about to become 2004. The talk about how Saturday’s rainout hurt the Yankees, because ace John Lackey could oppose them in a Game 7.

A crowd of 50,173 turned out — Kate Hudson, John McEnroe and Rudy Giuliani among them — to see the Yankees win the pennant. But I sensed that a good number of the witnesses, and perhaps a majority of them, were there to see for themselves that all was well with their team.

Remember: The Yankees hadn’t reached the World Series since 2003. They still haven’t won one since 2000. They’re not going to get sympathy in Pittsburgh or Cleveland or San Francisco. Or Chicago’s North Side, as if we had to mention that. But around here, that’s a long time.

And the Yankees were one loss from compromising CC Sabathia for the World Series, one loss from risking a rightful pennant in a Game 7 that could have been decided by a bounce or a break or a blown call.

downlevel description

This video requires the Adobe Flash Player. Download a free version of the player.

The everyone-on-their-feet vigil during the Yankees’ long, game-changing, three-run rally in the fourth?

It was fueled by nervous energy. Trust me.

“They were really into it,” Girardi said, “and I think the fans were anxious.”

In time, though, their worries went away. Even though the Yankees missed chance after chance to salt the game away — they stranded 12 baserunners — the reliable Andy Pettitte saw to it that Rivera had a 3-1 lead with six defensive outs to play.

History said that was plenty of rope. In 83 career postseason appearances entering Sunday — during which he compiled an ERA of 0.71 — Rivera had allowed two earned runs precisely once.

And that was nine years ago.

So, the pennant was in hand. Rivera allowed one run in the eighth, but the Angels forgot how to handle the sacrifice bunt and surrendered two unearned runs in the bottom of the inning. Ballgame.

Now the World Series wait is over for Teixeira, Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Nick Swisher and others. But everyone will want to talk about A-Rod. And this is one occasion when everyone should want to talk about A-Rod.

In a season that began with his steroid admission and hip surgery, his star has never shone brighter when it mattered most. Rodriguez batted .429 in the ALCS and would have won Series MVP honors if Sabathia hadn’t been so brilliant in two starts.

Rodriguez sounded satisfied — but not too satisfied — in a clubhouse filled with smiling families and Chandon champagne.

“A lot of great players have never had the honor to play in a World Series,” Rodriguez said. “For me, I thank the good Lord for putting me with the greatest organization, and 24 great teammates. It feels really good.”

Did he ever start to wonder if this was going to happen for him at all?

“It gets tougher,” he replied. “You think about our era, all these divisions, championship series and World Series. It’s much more challenging now. It feels good to get in.”

A-Rod and his teammates deserved to enjoy this, and they deserve to host the Phillies in Game 1 on Wednesday night. The new stadium will have no appreciation for the emptiness felt on the other side of 161st Street since 2004.

“We christened this beautiful ballpark and put this team right where it belongs: in another World Series,” said Gene Monahan, the head athletic trainer and a Yankees employee for 47 years.

“Now, we can really call this place home, because it lives up to what’s across the street. It means a lot to us, to be able to do that.”

Since February — or since October 2003, to be more accurate — the Yankees have yearned for the games they are about to play. It’s the only stage where they don’t have to offer platitudes about how their ultimate goal lies somewhere in the future, too abstract to discuss.

The World Series is here, and the Yankees are in it. From close up on a crisp Sunday night, you could have sworn it was a novelty.