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.

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