NEW YORK -- The last time -- or the only time, rather -- A.J. Burnett reached this stage, he was confined to hooded-sweatshirt status. An injured pitcher on an overachieving team, Burnett was 26 years old at the time, with vague ideas about how difficult it was to reach the World Series but no concrete evidence to back them up.
Burnett was part of a low-payroll team with a low-payroll set of goals, the type that changed only slightly when he signed his first free-agent contract with the Blue Jays. And so it wasn't until the age of 32, when he sauntered into the home clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, that Burnett realized how different franchises have different ideas.
"Somebody said in Spring Training if you don't win a World Series, it's a failure," he said. "And I agree."
Now, Burnett has reached the World Series and he can thank himself for that. One-third of his team's $423.5 million spending spree this winter, Burnett is far from the only high-priced talent the Yankees have imported in recent years. But along with CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, he is one of the most successful -- and one of the most significant reasons why the Yankees, for the first time in six years, are headed to the World Series.
"This is night and day from what I've been going at for the past nine years," Burnett said. "This city's a completely different animal. I'm just glad to be a part of it, hopefully to bring the World Series trophy back to this city."
Outspending the rest of the league on free agents is nothing new for the Yankees, who have been doing so with regularity now for the better part of a decade. Problem is, they have rarely done so effectively.
Anxious to reload an aging core of homegrown talent after their dynasty years of the late 1990s, the Yankees proceeded to make mistake after expensive mistake. Players such as Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, Tony Womack, Jose Contreras and Kei Igawa landed big-money contracts from the Yankees but did little to justify them on the field, most of them leaving after brief stints in the Bronx. Those who did see some success, such as Jason Giambi, still found it impossible to satisfy the franchise's bloated expectations.
There was some consternation then, and for good reason, when the Yankees shelled out $161 million over seven years for Sabathia this winter, $180 million over eight years for Teixeira and $82.5 million over five years for Burnett. There were no guarantees that this newest trio might be any different.
Turns out they were. Burnett, in his first season in pinstripes, has overcome bouts of inconsistency to become the Yankees' clear No. 2 starter. Teixeira spent a chunk of the summer as the odds-on favorite to win the AL MVP Award, laying waste to the short porch in right field and playing the type of Gold Glove-caliber defense the Yankees haven't seen since the days of Don Mattingly.
"I took a lot of pride in it," Teixeira said of his defense. "I took almost as many ground balls and throws as I did swings in the cage. As I've gotten into the big leagues, I've realized it's even more important nowadays."
Then there is Sabathia, who constructed a Cy Young-caliber season and all but willed the Yankees into the World Series -- twice beating the Angels in the AL Championship Series, including once on short rest, to win the series MVP award. In his first year in the Bronx, Sabathia has already become one of the most fearsome left-handed pitchers in franchise history.
The common thread? With the exception of Burnett, who won a ring in 2003 with the Marlins but did not participate, these three Yankees have all completed impressive individual feats while consistently falling short of baseball's ultimate team goal. Until now.
"It feels good," Sabathia said. "We came in with the goal in Spring Training of winning the championship, and we're one step closer. It's a close team, and we have a lot of fun together. And it just feels good to be able to celebrate with those guys in there."
Some will besmirch them for it. Because the Yankees are spending roughly 43 percent more on their payroll than any other team in baseball, things such as the World Series come easier. There is a far greater margin for error in areas such as scouting and player development when a check can heal all wounds.
But that has not always worked in the past. Over the last decade, it hasn't worked at all. Instead, it has taken a group of free agents who have gelled together, who genuinely like each other and who -- here's the important part -- have not succumbed to the pressures of playing in New York.
More than anyone, perhaps, this World Series run belongs to the old guard -- to Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, all of whom were around for the Yankees' four most recent World Series titles. Certainly, it belongs also to Alex Rodriguez, the driving force behind the team's playoff successes, and to Joe Girardi, the manager who has helped everything click.
But without Sabathia, Teixeira and Burnett, it's all but certain the Yankees would not be here. For the first time in a long time, the Yankees emptied their pockets and did not regret it, instead parlaying that winter spending spree into an American League pennant.
"It is really not a surprise that we are here," Sabathia said. "I hate to sound like that, but this is a really good team. We get along, we have fun. This is what you get."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.