Friday, January 28, 2005

2004 In Review, Part IV: End of An Era

Part I, Part II, Part III

Last time, I wrote what could be charitably described as "A Brief History of the Yankees," from about 1974-1995. When I left off, the Yanks had just lost the 1995 Division Series to Seattle.

As painful as the loss to the Mariners was, the '95 season showed the seeds of good things to come. Andy Pettitte and Sterling Hitchcock came up from the minors to be major contributors in '95. Bernie Williams had the first of eight straight .300 seasons. Derek Jeter got a September cup of coffee with the club, Jorge Posada got a small demitasse--one game as a defensive replacement. Mariano Rivera got hit around in a few starts with the big club, but he also showed great promise. Placed on the postseason roster, he gave some powerful hope for the future with a couple of clutch appearances in the Division Series.

Still, you couldn't convince me of that at the time. After the losing seasons of the early 90's, after the scuttled 1994 season, after Seattle came back from 0-2 in the 1995 Division Series, I began to worry. I was a fan of the most storied franchise in baseball, and the more involved I got as a fan, the worse things had gotten. I started to wonder if I was a jinx.

But when the Braves went up 2-0 against the Yanks in the 1996 World Series, I was relatively calm. The Braves, with their teenaged phenom Andruw Jones, had just crushed Andy Pettitte and the Yanks at home, and it looked like the whole thing was a mis-match. But we'd had "wait til next year" after the strike, then "wait til next year" again after the Seattle Series. Still, it felt like the team was making progress--last year we make it to the playoffs, this year we make it to the Series, maybe next year, we win the Series.

I could hold on, I told myself, one more year at least. If we lost in '97, though, I was convinced the Bleacher Creatures would find me and mete out some anti-jinx justice, like in Master and Commander.

Then, the worm turned. The Yankees swept the next four games, winning the title at the Stadium. I'll spare you the gory details, but the big turning point came in the 8th inning of Game 4 when Mark Wohlers, after twice blowing the fastball by Jim Leyritz, threw a slider with two men on and a 6-3 lead. Leyritz smoked that slider to tie the game, and the Yankees never looked back. That was the real beginning of the Golden Era.

The Yanks finished second to the Orioles in 1997, and lost the Division Series to the Indians, but that barely smarted after after finally having tasted the champagne the year before. The Yankees didn't sit still, they retooled. For the 1998 season, they brought on Chuck Knoblauch and Scott Brosius by trade, and Orlando Hernandez on a reasonable three-year deal out of Cuba. That 1998 team crushed the opposition. Only two losses to the Indians marred the postseason. In 1999, they traded for Roger Clemens, fresh off of two Cy Young Awards in Toronto. This time, the team lost one post-season game.

In 2000, it looked like the team finally slacked off. They finished first in their division, but with only 87 wins. They were the fifth-best team in the league. And it didn't matter--the Yanks went five games with the Oakland A's in the ALDS, but still won the title. Against the Mets in a Subway Series. Could things get any better.

Now, Buster Olney would say that the Yankees Dynasty ended in October of 2001, with the Game 7 World Series loss to the Diamondbacks. But I would say that the Golden Era ended somewhat earlier, in December of 2000. That's when the Yanks signed Mike Mussina.

It's hard to fault Mussina for the end of an era. It's not really about Moose, he was just a sign of the changing times. At first, when the Yanks became contenders again, New York fairly rejoiced. These Yankees, the Joe Torre Yankees, were a good group of guys--hard working, god fearing, professional. After years of ignoring the farm system, the Yankees had home-grown talent on display. Even after the first wave of talent--Jeter, Pettitte, Rivera, Posada--there were still prospects bubbling throught the Yankee minor league system. Prospects like Alfonso Soriano, D'Angelo Jimenez, and Ricky Ledee made the future seem bright, and that's not even counting the prospects the Yankees sent off in trades.

But as the wins piled up, as one championship followed another, people started to sour on the Bronx Bombers. For reporters, I think it got boring writing the same story year after year--the Yanks win; they're a professional bunch of guys; they're all great, even though none of them except Wells ever says anything interesting in interviews; they'll be in the hunt to get X All Star this winter; of course, they'll get him. For fans, Bud Selig's PR machine had established as a key to success making the next labor conflict about the "competitive-balance destroying Yankees."

As if folks didn't already have enough reasons to hate the Yankees, already.

The signing of Mike Mussina was the breaking point. The Yanks had acquired big players every off-season, and dished out big money every year of their run to re-sign their own players. But Mussina was the first big free-agent signing. His six-year, $84MM contract might not have been the biggest payout ever to a starting pitcher (future Yankee Kevin Brown had signed a bigger contract two years earlier), but it was a change in direction. After 2000, every off-season has featured big free agent signings: Jason Giambi in 2001, Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras in 2002, Gary Sheffield in 2003, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright this winter.

At the same time, after 2000, the last remaining blue-chip prospects in the system came up--Soriano and Nick Johnson. The cubbard was now bare, and it hasn't been replenished over the last four years. The progress the Yankees made during George's exile was spent, and all that carried the franchise now was momentum, and big money.

I know I promised this would be the end, but I'm going to give this one more part, and try to end the wrap up before January ends...

to be continued

Friday, January 21, 2005

Flotsam & Jetsam

Before I finally finish the year-end wrapup, a few odd items:

Yanks Owe City Dough (Steve Zipay, Newsday)

Damnit, Newsday doesn't rhyme their headlines like a real city tabloid should, but I'll do it for them! The Yanks apparently underreported their Stadium income to the City, and will now pay $3.6MM to make things right.

Not much to talk about, here, although the mention of underreported income might be of intertest to the Commissioner's office, which collects revenue sharing money from the team.

Now That's An Arbitration Demand! (

Roger Clemens is making Randy Johnson feel bad. Just after the Big Unit got his heavy-duty extension from the Yanks, the Rocket put in a request for A-Rod dollars--$22MM--in arbitration with the team.

The result has been that the Astros have made Clemens the Majors' highest-priced pitcher, at $18MM on a one-year deal. It makes me feel better, so long as the Rocket has bailed on New York, that at least he's not pitching for ridiculously discounted prices.

Can a Reality Series be Far Behind? (Michael Morrisey, NY Post)

With Alex Rodriguez and Curt Schilling bickering in the press like Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, is there any doubt that someday ESPN is going to stick these two in an apartment, and make a reality show out of it ("Next season on 'Strange Roomies': Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield!")? I mean, this is almost as pitiful as the Orel Hershiser/Matt Williams feud some years back. Why don't these boys just kiss and make up?

Admittedly, that would make for a very different reality show. On pay cable, I think.

Mets Lead Exciting Lives

This one's a catch-all, since the cross-town rivals have definitely set the pace this off-season. First, Pedro, then Beltran. Now, Mike Piazza's getting married to a Playmate of the Year, rendering the Anna--er, Kris Benson signing somewhat redundant. That is, unless Wilpon's goal is to collect hot player spouses. Maybe the new Mets network will have a Spice Channel component? Anyway, you have to wonder if maybe the Mets would've outbid the Yanks for Carl Pavano, if only he'd popped the question to Alyssa Milano.

(BTW, when the Mets have Benson pitching to Piazza, would that be the all-time hot wife battery? I originally wrote "all-time spousal battery" but that's more Ike Turner than Hugh Hefner.)

Now, the Mets' protracted pursuit of Carlos Delgado begs the question: are the Mets soon to be the baseball team in town. This is something I'll have to look at in greater detail (probably once Spring Training rolls around, given how many unfinished projects I have right now).

Right now, I'll leave things with the comment I made on Alex Belth's Bronx Banter website:

The Mets are serious contenders, with or without Delgado--they've already picked up the best starter and the best position player on the free agent market this winter. They better contend after spending those kinds of dollars.

If the Yanks stumble (meaning 2nd place, with or without the Wild Card), and the Mets get going (meaning playing meaningful games in mid-September), there are lots and lots of people in this town who will jump bandwagons, and declare the Mets New York's team. Since I never liked the bandwagon Yankee fans all that much (I think they're the ones that keep demanding "Cotton Eye Joe" during the 7th inning stretch) I won't shed many tears if that happens.
Two notes on this. First, I think Omar Minaya's done a great job getting Pedro and Beltran, even though he arguably overpaid for both players. Omar's M.O. (say that a few times fast...) is to make a big splash when he starts out with a club, and these guys are the right answers, at least for the next 2 years.

Second, let me clarify about bandwagon jumpers. I don't really hate them. Every time a New York team gets hot, lots of people will suddenly jump on the bandwagon, non-fans and more casual fans alike. And some of those folks actually become serious baseball fans, lifelong fans, after the fad dies down. That's a good thing.

But if you're going to come into Yankee Stadium to heckle the Yankees, you better not still have the price tags on your new team's jersey or cap. And I better not have seen you a couple of seasons ago, cheering for the Yankees. Flip flops of that sort just make you a punk.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

2004 In Review Part III: A Little Context

See Part I and Part II

In the last section of the 2004 Year in Review (which I heartily hope to complete before 2005 is over) I talked about the Yankees' "unhappy" streak of division titles and playoff losses. While I wrote that, the one phrase that kept repeating through my mind was "It wasn't always like this."

The way I reckon it, there have been five eras of Yankee baseball in the time that I’ve been a fan.

From 1974 through1980 was the Thurman Munson Era. George Steinbrenner was at the helm, and big money was flying to free agents from the minute the market first opened. The players were wild and rebellious, closer to a travelling band of Hell's Angels than the current MLB stock of jet-setting millionaires. This era culminated with three straight pennants from 1976-1978, back-to-back championships in the latter two years. After a decade-long championship drought (the “Stottlemyre Era”) Munson’s Yankee teams brought winning back to the Bronx.

I hardly remember this time. My first clear memory of being a Yankee fan was Munson’s death in 1979. Aside from that, there are snippets—an outfield strewn with Reggie bars, Bucky Dent going deep over the Monster, Dick Howser getting fired after a 100 win season—but no coherent memories. Still, looking back, it's striking that these Yankee teams were not products of the farm system: of the core players of these teams, only three--Munson, Roy White, and Ron Guidry--were home-grown.

The next era, the Dave Winfield Era, started when the Yanks inked Dave Winfield to a then-unprecedented 10 year, $10 Million deal, in 1981. The Yanks lost the FernandoMania World Series that year, and then entered baseball purgatory. Throughout the 80’s,the Yankees were a team that was good, but not quite championship caliber. Sometimes, it felt like the myth of Tantalus—the fruit was always just out of reach, but the team always kept their heads above water. Second or third place was the norm: a winning season, the like of which most teams would envy, but not a championship season. For the most part, even second place didn’t mean much excitement, as the pennant races often died out pretty early in September.

(Author’s Note: For any poor souls out there who don’t recall the pre-Wild Card days, once upon a time in baseball, finishing in second place meant you go home, with no post-season snacks.)

What made things difficult was that by the mid-80’s, the Mets had home-grown a good team, and were heralded as the new dynasty of the National League. That dynasty never quite materialized—the franchise was good for two division titles and one championship from 1984-1996, although they did contend in 1984, 1985, 1987, and 1990.

Still, you couldn’t get Mets fans over the reversal of the natural order of things, and as the 80’s wore on, their crowing over the Yankees’ championship drought grew. In 1986, when the Red Sox met the Mets in the World Series, the whole thing was quite intolerable—Yankees fans were mocked at all turns. I remember the day after Dave Henderson hit the shot off of Donnie Moore, I asked Brother Joe what we could root for in a Mets/Red Sox World Series. His reply was, “a couple of airplane crashes.”

If Yankee fans were like Tantalus, starving for a championship, at least it was clear who had cursed us. The Boss. It was like living in an Eastern European dictatorship. We couldn’t vote him out of office, and we couldn’t make him leave, no matter how hard we protested. You just hoped that some crazy rich guy (the fantasy was usually Donald Trump, in a suit of white armor) would buy the Yanks, or else that the Boss would die.

The problem was that George was too competitive to ever let the team build a farm system, while at the same time, collusion meant that the Yankees couldn’t pick up premier free agents unless their owners wanted to let them go. So if you got excited about Doug Drabek, or Fred McGriff, or Jay Buhner, you were SOL, because George was going to trade them (and many others) away for “proven veteran talent” to make sure the Yankees never had a losing season. At the same time, the Yankees couldn't simply sign a Jack Morris, or a Tim Raines to supplement the talent the farm system was hemorrhaging.

From 1981 to 1988, when you talk about home-grown talent, you had Don Mattingly, who came up from the minors to become one of the inner circle Monument Park Yankees...and you had Guidry, from back in the 70's. Aside from that, the only other contributor drafted by the Yanks may well be third baseman Mike Pagliarulo. (The Yanks might get credit for developing Dave Righetti, but in fact he was drafted by the Rangers before being traded after the 1978 season.)

The Winfield Era ended in 1988, when, after a career season, Big Dave suffered a back injury that would cost him the 1989 season. The team tumbled to its worst record in over 20 years, 74-87. In 1990, things got worse, as the team plummeted to 95 losses, Winfield was traded to the Angels, and Don Mattingly was put on the DL with the back problem that would plague him for the rest of his career.

However, it seems that every cloud, no matter how dark, has its silver lining. At some point, George Steinbrenner had the great idea of siccing a degenerate gambler on Winfield to "dig up dirt" on the ballplayer's charities. When the Commissioner's Office got wind of this, George was in big trouble. One magic day at the end of July, 1990, Faye Vincent banned the Boss from baseball. For life.

It was terrific. You knew the "lifetime" part of the ban wasn't going to stick, but for years, Yankee fans had been praying for someone to save us from George. And with one incredibly stupid move, George obliged. By the time the Boss was reinstated, in the Spring of 1993, everything had changed.

I call the period from 1989-1995 the Exile Era. It was the time when I came into my own as a fan. Showing an impecable sense of timing, I became a Yankees ticket plan holder just as the franchise started to tank, so I was at the Stadium every other Sunday of the baseball season, watching my team sink into the mire. Although 1990 was the low point, the next two years were pretty hard, also, as the farm system spit out the eventual gold nugget (Bernie Williams) a few semi-precious stones (Roberto Kelly, Jim Leyritz, Pat Kelly, Scott Kamieniecki) and loads of pyrite (including, but not limited to: Dave Eiland, Jeff Johnson, Oscar Azocar, Hensley Meulens, Sam Militello, and the immortal Kevin Maas).

Still, there was something hopeful in the air, the feeling that the Yanks were finally rebuilding, rather than just treading water by trying to be competitive every year. Gene Michael, who'd been put in charge of the baseball operation, had a target of being able to really compete by the time Steinbrenner was reinstated in 1993. From time to time you had a Steinbrennerish move--such as signing Danny Tartabull in January, 1992--but for each one of those, you had great transactions like the Steve Sax deal, in which the Yanks picked up young pitchers (Melido Perez, Bob Wickman) for an about-to-implode second baseman.

When Steinbrenner came back, he was looking at a much different ballclub, but he was also a much different Boss. He actually seemed to listen to his baseball people this time around. He wasn't quite so bombastic with the press. During the '92/'93 off-season, it looked like the team might be back to its old ways: expensive veterans Jimmy Key, Wade Boggs, and Spike Owen were brought aboard. But Michaels also brought in a young pitcher, Jim Abbott, and in what was a controversial trade at the time, traded Roberto Kelly for a lefthanded slugger coming off a horrible season, who was 18 months older than Kelly and had a reputation as a headcase and a crybaby, to boot.

That would be the now-sainted Paul O'Neill, ladies and gentlemen.

The Yanks finished in second place to the repeating World Champs in 1993. But the same core of players came back strong in '94, taking first place sometime in May, and staying in first place through August 11, when the players went on strike...and never came back to finish the season.

That was painful. The Yanks had the best record in the American League, the second best record in baseball when the strike hit, we all thought it would just be a short work stoppage, and it just went on and on. The season was pulled away from us piecemeal.

It's hard to complain about this, considering how much worse things turned out for the Montreal franchise, the guys who had the best record in baseball at the time of the strike. Immediately after the strike, the Expos were dismantled, with one of the choicest pieces--closer John Wetteland--coming to the Yankees.

When the 1995 season finally got underway, things just weren't the same. The Red Sox were in control of the Division, and it took the Bombers until early September just to get over .500. Still, because of that new invention, the Wild Card, the Yanks weren't out of the running. The Yanks won 19 of their last 23 games to finish as the AL's first Wild Card, in second place behind Boston. When the Yanks won the first two games of their best of five series against Seattle (and the Sox got swept by the Cleveland Indians in their Division Series) it looked like this was The Year.

And then the Yanks lost three straight. Foiled again.

Now, if you've read this far down the page, you're probably wondering. At the top, this says "2004 In Review", and this guy's talking about Oscar Azocar and the 1995 season. What gives?

The one thing that was missing, looking at 2004, was some context. After seven straight division titles, lord knows how many years with the top payroll in the game, the illusion sets in that it has always been like this, the Damn Yankees always win.

It hasn't always been like this. Between 1981 and 1995 the Yankees never once won their division. In 1981 and 1994, strikes intervened, delivering the Yankees into the playoffs the first time (they weren't the best team in their division that year, just the team with the best pre-strike record) and robbing them of the playoffs the second time around. About a third of the time during that streak, the Yankees finished in the "second division"--the bottom half of the divisional standings.

Right now, that's unimaginable to some people, both Yankee fans and detractors. They figure the team's a Frankenstein's monster, an unkillable beast. They thought that back in the '70s, too.

I think you can't really appreciate what it is to be a Yankee fan now, if you don't consider what it was like to be a Yankee fan back in the 80's or early 90's. Everything requires a little context. So the next time, I'll wrap up by talking (briefly, I promise) about the Golden Era, and the as-yet-unnamed period of the present day.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Triple Play Time

Another Prospectus Triple Play is up and out (link above).

Read it, and come back here. It's OK, I'll wait.

This features my first really visible flub. (At BP, that is. My editors are great there--whereas here, editing myself, you're lucky that what you're reading is in English.) I somehow omitted the word "six" with regard to the number of franchises who haven't had a 250 strikeout guy in their history. You can get the meaning of the sentence, since it refers to the actual franchises themselves, but it's still confusing. My bad.

[UPDATE: It's been fixed! As I said, my editors rock...]

Still, I thought it was an interesting phenomenon. Either the Yanks, despite enjoying a huge market advantage over the years, haven't until invested in big strikeout pitchers until recent decades, or perhaps there is a strikeout-reducing environment in the Bronx that has suppressed the team's K numbers. Anyone have any ideas about this?

Friday, January 14, 2005

Paper Tiger

MLB and the Players' Association got together to toughen up the league's performance enhancing drugs policy. The changes are largely cosmetic: a one-year ban is now on the 4th offense rather than the 5th offense; a first offense is now 10 days' suspension, up from confidential counseling and no suspension under the old policy; HGH has been added to the list of banned substances--even though they don't test for it. The biggest addition is random year-round testing, although the devil is in the details regarding its implementation.

It's easy to make too much of this "tougher" policy. The media's the biggest winner in this thing, since you know they had to hate the idea that anyone could test positive for 'roids, and that they might not hear anything about it until the second offense. You're bound to hear lots of nice things from the press about this new steroid policy, even though the penalties aren't much stronger.

As Mike Lupica points out in the Daily News, the suspensions aren't really what will prevent PED usage in the majors--what will accomplish this goal is shame. Jason Giambi doesn't need a suspension to be punished for his PED abuse (which, by the way, wasn't against MLB rules at the time), fans' reactions at stadiums around the country should do the job.

The thing to keep in mind is how much the self-interest of all parties involved drove this new agreement. Public opinion about steroids had gotten to the point where it probably looked like Baseball might take a hit at the gate and in the ratings. Like it or not, the Commissioner's office and the MLBPA are partners when something stands to hurt the bottom line.

The owners get John McCain off their backs. The Union gets to stop looking like a bunch of drug pushers. The press gets to villify the abusers. Ain't it grand?

Buried in all this is the fact that MLB has apparently won its fight against the government regarding the urine samples MLB collected in 2003, which the Justice Department seized last year as part of the BALCO investigation. It's the right decision, particularly given the leaky nature of all things BALCO.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Extra Extra Long

I promised I wouldn't report this one 'til it was done...and now it's official.

Sure, we had to get past Jerry Colangelo, Paul Depodesta, Bud Selig, a small army of doctors and one slightly-ruffled CBS cameraman to get here, but Randy Johnson is finally a Yankee.

The deal? Javy Vazquez, Dioner Navarro, Brad Halsey and $19 Million, plus $36 Million more to sign the Unit for 2006 and 2007.

Leaving the money aside, it's fair. Vazquez was perhaps the most coveted pitcher the Yanks have ever acquired...and he suffered a meteoric loss of standing, from being the stud that's going to carry the Yanks for the next four years, to the dud who couldn't stop Game 7 of the ALCS from becoming a laugher. More on him in another post. Dioner's an undersized catcher with one really good minor league season under his belt. We wish him well. Halsey's a relatively unheralded lefty who deserved better than he got last season.

Lets get all of the negatives out of the way now: he's old (41), he's whiny crotchety (see cameramen, above), one of his knees is practically bone-on-bone (see Synvisc), his back's not much better, and the money ($55 Million over the next three years) could've gone a long ways to getting Beltran.

On the other hand, Randy Johnson is unique. Hall of Fame type talents are rare enough in themselves, but in Johnson, you're talking about someone who bloomed into a HOF talent at the age of 29. People just don't do that. He's the real Yankee-killer, a guy who pitched 10 innings in about 48 hours against the Yanks in 1995, and then threw in back-to-back games to beat the Yanks in 2001, each time collecting matching W's for his team. Pitchers just don't do that anymore. Since 1998, he's missed the 240 innings mark...once. Pitchers don't do that anymore, either.

Yeah, he's 41, and sure, the whole thing could blow up in the Yanks' face. But he's a 41 year old who was the best pitcher in his league last year. He's a much-needed strikeout pitcher (since heaven knows the Yankees aren't going to win on defense this year). A guy who, when he can pitch, won't give you "six and out" like the 2004 starting staff did. An Ace.

Sure, it cost the Yanks plenty to make this move. Javy and Halsey may flourish with a non-Mel Stottlemyre pitching coach, and Beltran may bring a pennant to Shea. But it's hard to be unenthusiastic when the team's finally gotten a guy I've wanted in pinstripes for the past decade-plus.


Ruben (Ain't Nothin' But a Sammich) Sierra signed one-year, $1.5M deal. That's a lot of cheddar for a pinch-hitter, one of those "for luxury's sake" features like a marble tray table on a private jet. Keep him under 200 AB's, and things should be OK.

Has another team's GM ever dominated a Yankee off-season like Omar Minaya? It was like Omar pursued Pedro and Beltran just so that Cashman wouldn't have to.

It's appropriate that Wade Boggs will have a Red Sox cap on his Hall of Fame plaque. But seriously, would Red Sox fans have given a damn otherwise? I was living in Boston at the time, and I can tell you--I've never seen fans distance themselves from a star player as fast as New Englanders ran away from Boggs in '92 (all but chased out by calls of "Give us Scott Cooper!"). Boggs went from being the team's bragging point, to being just some bum you hadda get out of town in about 20 minutes.

The funniest thing was, when he reached the Bronx, Boggs wasn't the "25 guys, 25 cabs" type that everyone expected. He suddenly became a team player--heck, a team leader--and he got to do his horseback victory lap for the World Champs in 1996. A nice second career Boggsie had in New York, a second career that got him into the Hall of Fame.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

2004 in Review, Part II: An Odd Season, Indeed

One of the big things that I've tried to do in this space over the past year is to give a perspective on what being a Yankee fan was like for the 2004 season. I'd like to put in one last word on that topic.

Last season, for the seventh season in a row, the Yankees finished first in the AL East. For the third straight season, they both won over 100 games, and finished with the best record in the American League. And for the fourth season in a row, they were beat in the playoffs by the eventual World Champions.

Coming into 2004, the Yankees had already revamped their entire pitching staff, trading for Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown to replace Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, expanding the roles of Jon Lieber and Jose Contreras to plug into the spots vacated by Jeff Weaver and David Wells, and signing Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill to shore up the bullpen. By the end of 2003, the Yanks had also picked up Gary Sheffield as a free agent, to play right field.

That is to say, the 2004 Yankees looked like they were a complete team on January 1, 2004. Every starting position was accounted for, the pitching rotation was set, only the last few bench spots were in question.

Then Aaron Boone busted his knee shooting hoops, and the Yankees, who were already guaranteed to have the Major's highest payroll, pulled an incredible, luxurious feat: they got A-Rod.

Surely, some thought, this made the Yankees unbeatable. They reached the World Series in 2003, and yet they had added the most coveted young pitcher in the National League, another pitcher who was second in the NL in ERA, one of the best outfielders in baseball, and finally, the reigning AL MVP shortstop.

Thankfully, they still play the games. The literal fantasies of "unbeatability" came to an end in March, when they dropped the opener to the Devil Rays in the Tokyo Dome, and the figurative ones were doomed in April, when the Red Sox crushed the Pinstripers two weekend series, winning six of seven games, the last three a sweep at Yankee Stadium.

Still, the team didn't curl up and die. Standing at 8-11 after the Red Sox left the Stadium, the Yanks won 8 straight, caught up with the Sox by early June, and by July 2, had left them rather decisively in the dust. At one magical moment in time, the Red Sox were broken, their fans fit to surrender, and the Devil Rays, of all people, were looking like they were headed for the #2 slot in the AL East.

Still, the sailing wasn't too smooth. The Sox surged back in mid-August, to make everything interesting. The pitching got terribly thin, with Brown and Mussina blinking in and out of effectiveness, with injuries (self-inflicted and otherwise), and Javy and Paul Quantrill taking massive spills in the second half.

We all remember how it ended: the Sox got the Wild Card, both they and the Yanks tore through their Division Series partners, and then the two teams met for what has to be the biggest debacle in Yankees history--up 3-0, then down 4-3, done in by Curt Schilling's stigmata-ankle, among other sorrows.

So, coming within a game of the World Series would be satifying for some. Heck, reaching the World Series in 2003 would've been a jamboree for some franchises. It doesn't feel that way in Yankeeland. Not at all.

To be continued...

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

A Short Break for Housekeeping...

A few notes while trying to say something coherent about the 2004 season:

Tino In The Fold

Tino Martinez, after a three year exile to St. Louis and Tampa Bay, has returned to the Bronx on a one-year, $2.75MM deal, with a $3MM option for 2006.

After two sub-par seasons with the Cards, Tino posted a .262./.362/.461 mark for Lou Piniella's Devil Rays in 2004. Still, Constantino's 37 years old, and prior to last year (a bad year for AL first basemen) hadn't been above league average since 1998. Expectations should not be high.

I didn't comment on the Mike Stanton/Felix Heredia swap last month--it was kind of hard to get worked up about. If money's no object (and there's a good bit of debate about that) getting rid of a lefty who was so ineffective that he had to be sent down to the minors, so Billy Connors could hold his hand, is hardly controversial. There are several dozen lefty relievers I'd rather have come out of the Stadium bullpen next summer, and Mike Stanton isn't the worst of them.

But he isn't the best, or the cheapest, either.

Like Tino, you have to feel that the reason for the Stanton acquisition goes beyond on-the-field baseball. Whether it's an attempt to bring that 1998 chemistry back to the Bronx, or to appeal to fans that think the team has lost its "soul," these are not pure baseball moves.

Still, at $3MM for a one-year commitment, Tino's not a horrible insurance policy, given that we don't know what, if anything, Jason Giambi will bring to Legends Field in a few weeks. Tino's a good enough gloveman that he could be a (relatively) low-offense first baseman if Giambi can't play the field, or a 300 AB fill-in if Jason miraculously comes back from the tumors and parasites and potions that have made him persona non grata in the Bronx.

Boggs and Ryno in the Hall, the Goose Abides

Congrats to former Yankee Wade Boggs, and to Ryne Sandberg, the BWAA's picks for the Hall of Fame class of 2005.

Boggs and Ryno are similar players--infielders who dominated their positions in the 80's, but who were also regarded as selfish players during their time.

I've discussed before why I think both players were well worthy of admission, so I'm not going to belabor that point. Really, the story of this election is the guys who are left on the outside, looking in. Goose Gossage gained 79 votes, and broke the all-important 50% barrier. The bad news is he's still mired behind a couple of guys who are--in my humble opinion--less-worthy candidates. Fellow closer Bruce Sutter is well ahead of Goose, at 66% of the electorate, only 43 votes shy of admission. He could get in next year, at Gossage's expense. Jim Rice is 80 votes away from admission.

It all comes down to a showdown on next year's ballot, before the likely Hall of Famers start coming hot-and-heavy again. The remaining likely candidates--Sutter, Rice, Goose, Andre Dawson (52%), Bert Blyleven (41%), Lee Smith (39%), and Jack Morris (33%)--all have their best chance next year.

My personal theory is that Rice's increase was due to increased Boston attention, due to Boggs (look at Bill Simmons' column if you want to see what I mean). Maybe that disappears next year, leaving room for the voters to put both Sutter and/or Gossage in the Hall (most likely both, as a "very special relievers episode" of the HOF induction ceremony). But if he doesn't get in next year, Gossage will probably be at the tender mercies of the Veteran's Committee, in whatever form it might exist when Goose makes that ballot.

2004 In Review, Part I: Happy Anniversary

This is not only the beginning of a New Year here at the Weblog That Derek Built, but also the (slightly belated) anniversary of my opening up shop to publish my not-so-deep thoughts online.

Last New Year's Eve, after Brother Joe and I traded off baseball tomes as Christmas gifts, he needled me about how I should write more. At that time, I wrote an extremely small circulation newsletter--just an email with cc:'s to a few friends, really--entitled "To All My Yankee Fan Brothers (And a Few Others)". This was where I'd complain about trades, discuss the 2001 gut-punch in Arizona, and argue baseball economics with my pals (well, there, the ballpark, the pool table, and whatever bar I could drag my baseball-loving friends to).

The problem was, I didn't write all that often. Often, when I did, the emails were rather massive and unwieldy. Joe wanted more, and wanted more people to see it. Since one of my annual New Year's resolutions was to write more often, I was intrigued.

I'd obtained a high-speed earthlink account some months earlier, but I hadn't really had much time to look at the "free webspace" that came with the account. New Year's day, I began eyeing earthlink's web tools. By January 2, I was playing about with layouts and graphics. On January 3 I published my first post, about David Wells signing with the Padres. That's the link above.

Including that one, there've been 193 posts to the WTDB, between the old site, and the Blogger website you're reading right now. Between some posts for the Page O' Stuff (which has been inactive for the off-season) and my work at BP, I think I've fulfilled my pledge to write more in 2004.

Looking at my year's output, I started hot and heavy, with short entries about everything under the sun. I've calmed down a bit to write 2-3 times per week. Not good enough, by my count. I miss the multiple-posts-per-day days, and I hope they return soon.

Top three things blogging taught me in 2004 (in no particular order):

1. You need to check if the assertion you're making is factually correct. This sounds kind of basic, but it's the #1 reason that Internet geeks beat up on mainstream media folks. When you talk about baseball all the time, you wind up continuously making assertions based upon experience, memory or common sense. Sometimes, experience, memory or common sense turn out to be just plain wrong.

I've never been so aware of this phenomenon as I am when I'm blogging. In this age of freely-available online information, it's simply unforgiveable to say something like "Jim Rice could never have hit 400 homers if he hadn't played in Fenway" without actually checking Rice's splits on Retrosheet to see if Rice actually hit for better power at home.

I've had dozens of articles that I've started to write, then had to scrap after I learned that a premise, or a vital factoid or anecdote I'd thrown in, was totally wrong. It's frustrating, but it makes you a better writer.

2. You never know who's reading you. When you don't exactly have the highest readership rate online, it's easy to forget that the people whose work you're critiquing can and sometimes do read what you've written. Generally speaking, I have no regrets--I'm sincere about the things I write--but it's a good reminder that when you're upset or outraged about someone's work, you should treat it as though you've written them a letter. Expect a response, and don't say anything about someone you wouldn't tell them to their face.

3. The world doesn't stop turning, even when your fingers are away from the keyboard. This is the flip side of lesson 1. All the contemplation it takes to try to make sure everything is fresh and well-researched is constantly at battle with the need to keep up with the news. Take too long to publish a game story, and who's interested anymore? Take too long to write up a nice gag about the Penny/LoDuca trade, and one of the principals might come up lame, already. Sometimes it's better to rush headlong into the fray, rather than wait for the perfect turn of phrase that comes too late.

I'm writing these things down more as a reminder to myself than as advice to the blogging public or the world at large. Hopefully, 2005 will teach me a lot more.

I have more people to thank for this site's success in 2004 than I could possibly name. I'd like to thank everyone that's linked to the WTDB, or who simply read what I've been writing for the past year. I'd really like to thank everyone who's posted comments, and I encourage you to keep up the good work. Hopefully, you'll all stick with me in 2005.