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YANKEES ARE BACK WHERE THEY BELONG

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WHEN PLAYERS began congregating at the pitcher's mound Sunday, and the celebrating began, and the reality sank in that after 15 years of waiting the New York Yankees were back in the World Series, it was clear things were finally starting to look the way they should. The way they were meant to be.

In a world that seems to be spinning out of whack, it's comforting to know some things just belong where they belong. The Boston Celtics belong in the NBA Finals. The Green Bay Packers belong in the Super Bowl. The Mona Lisa belongs in the Louvre. The leaning tower belongs in Pisa. Kathryn Hepburn belongs with Spencer Tracy. Richard Petty belongs at the Daytona 500. Rush Limbaugh belongs at the dessert bar at North's cafeteria. Ernest Hemingway belongs at the Cafe' Select on the Boulevard Montparnasse.LaVell Edwards belongs beneath Y. mountain with his arms folded. Luciano Pavarotti belongs at the Lincoln Center. Prince Charles belongs at a polo match. F. Scott Fitzgerald belongs at the Yale Club bar, waiting for his well-dressed friends.

Sean Connery belongs in a tuxedo. Frank Sinatra belongs in a smokey room with the lights low. Henry Winkler belongs in a leather jacket. Leonard Nimoy belongs on the bridge of the Enterprise. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" belongs on late-night reruns.

"Citizen Kane" belongs on the silver screen. Bette Davis belongs on the Walk of Stars . . .

And the Yankees belong in the World Series.

For the better part of this century, the Yankees WERE the World Series. It was the Yankees against whomever the National League wanted to send. On good years it was the Dodgers or the Cardinals, teams with impressive traditions of their own. But it was always the World Champion New York Yankees vs. FILL-IN-THE-BLANK.

Until 15 years ago, the Yankees were nearly always there; you could count on it. If you were around for the '50s or '60s - or '20s or '30s for that matter - the annual fall classic was the culmination of a contest to see who got the chance to lose to the Yankees. Autumn meant burning leaves, sending the kids back to school, and, of course, hating or loving the Yankees.

It wasn't the World Series, it was the New York Yankees Invitational.

Because everyone with access to a radio, newspaper, television or a subway token could follow the Yankees, they were the best-known team in the solar system. If you were 11 years old and didn't know the starting lineup, as well as the pitching rotation and first two relievers, there was something dangerously wrong. It was like forgetting the words to the national anthem. If your sixth-grade teacher asked who Elston Howard was and you happened to draw a blank, there was a good chance you'd be held back a year.

Heaven knows the Yankees have tried to botch it up over the years. They went a decade-and-a-half without showing up for their own coronation. They've changed managers 19 times in the past 20 years. They've conducted business with a loudmouthed, overbearing, egocentric bully as their owner.

But somehow they couldn't completely destroy the images of DiMaggio lacing a hard liner to the gap; Mantle towering one out from the left side of the plate; Ruth calling his shot; Larsen tossing a perfect game; Jackson stamping his name on the month of October forever.

No matter how many marshmallow salesmen they punched out, managers they fired or recovering drug abusers they signed, the Yankees were still the Yankees - the most famous team in history. They were always there lurking on the edge of America's consciousness.

Perhaps this year's Yankees aren't the legendary figures of old. Maybe the name Derek Jeter doesn't roll off the tongue of every kid in America, and Darryl Strawberry isn't exactly what you had in mind when looking for heroes in the 1990s. But it is New York and this is October. For a sport that tolerates players spitting in the umpires' faces; that spends more time in the courtroom than on the field; that moves at the speed of a head cold; that pays millions of dollars to self-centered, petulant bores; that plays games on artificial grass in stadiums with the sky blocked out . . . baseball has finally done something right. It has put the Yankees back where they belong.