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


Anonymous said...

I believe Mussina was signed after the 2000 season, not in December 1997

DJ said...

My bad on the typo. It's been fixed.

DJ said...

Oh, and thanks, both for posting a comment and for being a better proofreader than me :)

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