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 The baseball gods have withdrawn their favor.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
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
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
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.