Stop Whining! Yanks Are Champs

For those who trust that the New York Yankees are a team of

destiny, the first weekend of the World Series was a cruel shock. With their

fourth straight champion- ship in sight, the Bronx Bombers flew out to the

Arizona desert and promptly got Yankee’d by the Diamondbacks. There’s no other

term for it. Easy outs clanked off their gloves, routine balls trickled into no

man’s land, minor fielding mistakes set up game-breaking home runs.

These are the things that are supposed to happen to other

teams-that have happened to every

team that’s stood between the Yankees and the Commissioner’s Trophy since 1998.

But last weekend, it was the garishly dressed Diamondbacks who were hustling

around the bases, Diamondback pitchers mowing down the side, Diamondback fans howling

for blood in their swimming-pool-equipped, retractable-roofed ballpark, while

the Yankees blanched and faltered.

As they returned home to Yankee Stadium and a ceremonial first

pitch from George W. Bush-on the same night Michael Jordan was making his

return at Madison Square Garden-disbelief was in the air. Just two weeks ago,

these Yankees had rallied from the brink to beat back the powerful young

Oakland Athletics. They dispatched the 116-game-winning Seattle Mariners with

ease. How could this team, with the heart of a champion, get whipped by the arrivistes of Arizona-a franchise that

didn’t even exist when Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte won their

first title in ’96?

If you believe in Yankee destiny, it feels like the end of the

world. The baseball gods have withdrawn their favor. The dynasty is expiring.

After a lost weekend in Phoenix, the obituaries-composed once before in the

Oakland series-were again being set in type.

But if you don’t believe that the Yankees’ previous success was

ordained by fate-that the invisible world teems with Yankee fans, pulling

supernatural strings on the team’s behalf-then, oddly enough, things start to

look much better for the team. Not this year, of course. Though these Yankees

have pulled themselves from 0-2 deficits before-in 1996 against the Atlanta

Braves, this year versus the A’s-to pull off a comeback now, they need to win

multiple games against the Diamondbacks’ two ferocious ace pitchers, Randy

Johnson and Curt Schilling. Chances aren’t good.

Yet even if the Yankees do go on to lose the series, the Bronx

will not be turned upside-down. The winning streak may end, but the winning

will likely go on. And on. That’s how things go for the Yankees.

Forget the three titles in a row. The figures that matter are

these: This team has been to the playoffs seven straight years-every season

since baseball’s first wild-card round in 1995. It has been to five of the last

six World Series, and has won four. Like the Babe Ruth Yankees at the dawn of

the live-ball era, like the Reggie Jackson Yankees after the birth of modern

free agency, this has been a team perfectly adapted to its times. And that-not

the hoodoo, not the juju, not the courage of clutch players-is why the Yankees

win.

There are two ways of looking at the opportunities that

came along when baseball expanded its playoff system. One view is that, now

that the playoffs are open to more teams, every team has the chance to make the

playoffs some year. Hence the one-time postseason appearances of the Chicago

Cubs, the Colorado Rockies and the 1997 World Champion Florida Marlins.     

The other view is that, thanks to

the extra berths, some teams have the chance to make the playoffs every year.

This has been the guiding philosophy of the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland

Indians. But no team has pursued it the way the Yankees have. The 1995 Yankees

that lost to Seattle in the first-ever Division Series round featured Pettitte,

Williams and Paul O’Neill, with walk-ons by Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano

Rivera. By ’96, nine members of the present Yankees were already with the team;

by ’97, there were 10.

That year, ’97, was the last time the Yankees didn’t win it all.

They got a wild-card berth, behind the A.L. East champion Baltimore Orioles.

Both the Yanks and the Orioles fell to Cleveland; the Indians, in turn, lost to

the Marlins. Today, none of those other teams has more than five players left

from ’97. The Marlins have only one, and are in danger of being disbanded by

Major League Baseball.

Consistency, loyalty and teamwork are essential to the modern

Yankee mythology. Part of what makes the myth come true is the fact that these

particular Yankees have been playing together for years. Joe Torre doesn’t have

to guess what his players will do; he’s seen them already. Jeter doesn’t just

know abstract rules of technique on a relay play-he knows exactly how to take a

throw from Williams and how to deliver it to Posada. This is why the Yankees

have seemed nearly immune to blunders in big games, and why newcomers to the

team pick up its rhythms so quickly. Today’s game is like yesterday’s game;

this year is like last year. And last year, the Yankees were world champs.

That’s the inspirational part of the story. Then there’s the

cold-blooded fact behind it: The Yankees are rich enough to make it work.

Plenty of teams have assembled and trained a nucleus of players like the one

the Yankees have. But players who flourish together become expensive together,

too. Most teams have to pick and choose which ones to keep so their payroll

stays manageable. The Yankees-fat on local TV revenue-can keep them all.

And they can add more. For more than 80 years, to the dismay of

fans in other cities, the Yankees have treated the rest of the league as their

junior varsity. In the late teens and 20′s, they cheerfully fleeced the Boston

Red Sox; in the 50′s, they cannibalized the Kansas City Athletics. Since the

70′s, they’ve been able to let money and glamour funnel the best free agents to

the Bronx. Even in the darkness of this year’s series with Oakland, the city’s

newspapers took arrogant comfort in the fact that the A’s M.V.P., Jason Giambi,

would be a free agent this winter. The Yankees weren’t really losing to the

Athletics; they were losing to the Yankees of the future.

If Giambi does show up in pinstripes next spring, it’ll be

nothing new. In ’95, Tino Martinez helped the Mariners bounce Don Mattingly’s

Yankees; in ’96, Martinez inherited Mattingly’s job at first base. In ’96, Mike

Stanton pitched against the Yankees for Texas; in ’97, he was in the Yankee

bullpen. Jim Leyritz and Sterling Hitchcock went from the Yankees to the

Padres; after the Padres met the Yankees in the World Series, the two came back

again. David Wells, Denny Neagle, David Justice, Mike Mussina-the Yankees seem

to play baseball by the rules of marbles, claiming the forfeited assets of

their foes.

Again, it’s wealth that makes it possible-money, and a steady

stream of prospects that the Yankees can trade for veterans. When the Twins

wanted to lighten their payroll by trading Chuck Knoblauch, the Yankees were

ready to deal. When Roger Clemens wanted to leave Toronto, the Yankees had the

cash and players to make it work. Even when they’ve needed to pick up role

players or short-timers, they’ve been able to afford premium ones: Chili Davis,

Jose Canseco, Cecil Fielder, Dwight Gooden.

What separates the Yankees from other rich teams, like the

Dodgers or the Orioles, is a combination of scouting acumen by the team’s

executives and shamelessness by the owner. There are other owners who are big

enough spenders to match the contracts that George Steinbrenner offers, but

none of them have the nerve to eat the contracts Steinbrenner eats. If he thinks the team has made a mistake-as with

Kenny Rogers or Hideki Irabu-Steinbrenner wants to fix it, even if he

has to pay to get rid of the player in question. When the dust settles, the

Yankees have the highest payroll in baseball, but they have the players they

want to have.

Which is not the same thing as having the greatest players. This

past spring, the Red Sox broke camp with the best pitcher in baseball, the best

slugger in the American League and a perceptible edge over the Yankees at

catcher, second base and all three outfield positions. As soon as Nomar

Garciaparra recovered from a sore wrist, they’d have the better shortstop, too.

But Garciaparra didn’t recover-and after briefly moving ahead of the Yanks in

the standings, the Sox unraveled amid injuries and quarreling.

The Yankees, meanwhile, kept playing with a relentless,

suffocating adequacy. That has been the key to Yankee ball all along, in this

generation. They are a fleet of Toyota Camrys, a case of 60-watt bulbs, an

endless string of boxed exactas on the top horses. They play the law of averages

better than anyone else. Every game, they run a decent pitcher out on the hill

and put eight or nine guys in the lineup who have a reasonable chance to do

some hitting and know how to take a walk.

The only astonishing note in the whole process is struck by

Mariano Rivera. If the Yankees have managed to be ahead after eight innings,

the closer comes in, throws maybe five pitches and preemptively ends the game.

And he does it so quickly and precisely, it barely sinks in.

Incredible as Rivera is, he is not the definitive Yankee. That

role belongs to Bernie Williams. At no time in the Yankees’ current string of

successes has Williams been the best-regarded center fielder in baseball.

Someone is always faster, harder-hitting, more spectacular on defense. But when

you add up the last seven years, what center fielder has done better? Ken

Griffey Jr., and not by as much as you might think. Since 1995, Williams has

batted better than .300 every year, with walks and power. And he’s as good now

as he’s ever been.

So why aren’t the Yankees

winning this World Series, too? They are struggling now not with a younger,

hungrier version of themselves, but with an older, possibly more jaded version.

Like the ’97 Marlins, the Diamondbacks are the Yankees without the continuity-a

team stocked with a good, established player at every position, with no regard

for cost. What they lack in tradition and shared experience, they make up for

with Schilling and Johnson. The two aces are well into their 30′s, they both

badly want a ring, and they are peaking.

And the Yankees are having some bad luck. They have had good

luck, mostly, since 1996: Jeffrey Maier stealing that home run against

Baltimore, Albert Belle bailing out on their contract offer, Jamie Moyer

cracking a kneecap, Jermaine Dye breaking his own leg with a foul ball. But

luck is random. This time, the Diamondbacks are getting the bounces.

The bounces matter more, too, because the Yankees are playing in

the crunch more than they’re accustomed to. Despite the investment in the roster

over the years, this team is thinner than usual. Knoblauch, moved to the

outfield because of his throwing woes, is not adequate there. O’Neill and

Justice are clearly in decline. The pitching is shaky, relatively

speaking-after years of coolly rolling through his rotation however he pleased,

Torre is now juggling starters to keep them out of tough spots.

Still, the troubles seem transitory. The Yankees do not,

historically, let sentiment get in the way of their needs. The ineffective

players will be gone next year, and there will be new, effective ones to take

their place. Whatever happens now, the 2002 Yankees should be better than the

2002 Diamondbacks.      

But barring a comeback, the city

will have to get through the winter without a baseball championship for

comfort. The city has other things on its mind. There was talk-as much outside

New York as in it-of how another championship for the Yankees would help heal

the city, how it would bring joy in dark times. Yet the idea of consecrating a

Yankees victory to the memory of Sept. 11 seems small and unnecessary. What

good, at this point, is a show of invincibility?

If the heroes of Sept. 11 needed a baseball tribute, they got it

from the Mets, who wore FDNY and NYPD caps on the field, and who made a rousing

and inexplicable late run at the first-place Atlanta Braves. The Mets fell

short, at the very end, because they were not good enough. But they made their

point. They left an impression.

The Yankees, meanwhile, paid tribute to Sept. 11, too, but kept

their regular hats on, and went after the same prize they’d been pursuing all

summer, with the same determination. That’s why they’re the Yankees. Business

goes on. If you want the memory of heroism in the chaos, of rescue crews

raising a flag on a twisted girder, remember the Mets. If your goal is to see a

new Trade Center rise up once the old one’s been cleared away, you probably

should stick with the Yankees.