Thursday, February 24, 2005

2004 In Review Part V: At Last, the Conclusion

You might remember this series, which I started in mid-January. If you want to review those long-ago postings, you can find them through the following Roman-numeraled links: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

What was the delay, you might wonder? Why bother posting a 2004 In Review once 2005 Spring Training is already underway? Why should anyone care now? Let me explain.

When I started my 2004 In Review series, it was a much less ambitious project. One thing that I was aware of, as I wrote the piece, was that 2004 had been one of the worst years to be a Yankee fan, in a long time. Why? There is a stench of negativity that hangs around the franchise these days. Last year featured many both inside and outside of the blogosphere not simply raging against the Yankees, with their big city ways and bottomless pockets, but challenging Yankee fans: how can you support this franchise? Don't you know that the Yankees represent everything that's wrong with baseball?

In an election year, being a Yankee fan felt like a political choice. Indeed, to this baseball fan, it felt like there was more debate about morally justifying support for the Yankees than there was on any of the genuine issues of the Presidential campaign.

But it was easy to blame outside factors, like the owners' anti-marketing campaign prior to the 2002 Collective Bargaining negotiations, to explain the franchise's fall from grace. Something had changed about the team. To look at what had changed about the Yankees, I felt the need to look at the past, at the Yankees throughout the time I've been a fan.

When it came time for me to write up a conclusion, I must admit that my longish look at the past left me in a powerful state of nostalgia. The Yankees weren't just soulful at one time, they were plucky underdogs, fighting to stave off a more than decade long postseason drought. They were an easy team to root for, compared to the 2004 edition.

So when I tried to write up a final word on the 2004 season, it was a total failure. I found that my main analogy, that the Yankees were now like a "straight A student..y'know, the one you thought would get beaten by his parents if he brought home a B" was not only a bit sour, but it had already been used--by the redoubtable Batgirl, as a throw-off line in an email exchange with Alex Belth, recorded at All-Baseball.com.

I'm not a great writer or anything, but I do believe that if you have a piece that doesn't work, you don't publish it for the hell of it. You shelve the thing until you have something to say that's worth saying.

I think I have it now. The 2004 Yankees were like Jerome Eugene Morrow.

Don't go over to Baseball Reference to look up Morrow's stats--he's a character from the much-overlooked 1997 movie Gattaca. If you haven't seen it, go rent it and view it right now. I'm serious. I know it takes a while to get to Blockbuster, or update your Netflix waiting list and actually receive the DVD, but that's OK. I'll wait.

***

Wasn't that good? OK, so you probably didn't bother to go rent a film just in order to finish a lousy blog entry, so for those of you who didn't take my advice, I'll sum up Gattaca for you. The movie imagines a future in which genetic engineering has gotten to the point where most parents who can afford it have their children genetically modified in vitro--to eliminate unwanted traits, like a tendency toward disease or criminal behavior, and to improve the child's IQ and physical attributes. In this future, your genetic profile is your ID card and your resume; a job interview is simply a blood test where they determine how perfect (or imperfect) your DNA is.

The movie's protagonist is Vincent (Ethan Hawke), a "love child" naturally conceived and born with common genetic deficiencies. As a natural-born human, he's a member of an underclass, fit for nothing better than janitorial work. Vincent, however, has dreams of being an astronaut, so he enlists the aid Jerome "Eugene" Morrow (Jude Law), a top-shelf genetic specimen who's now a paraplegic. Vincent assumes Morrow's identity in order to get into the eponymous space agency, and land a spot on a manned probe of Saturn.

While the movie's about Vincent, I've always been more fascinated by Eugene. You see, Eugene's "perfect" genetics didn't guarantee him success--before he was disabled, he was a world-class swimmer, living down the "disgrace" of a Silver Medal at the Olympics. A "perfect" person isn't ever supposed to finish in second place.

This was the 2004 Yankees. They featured seven recent All-Stars in the lineup--basically, at all positions except second base and DH. The starting rotation had three recent All-Stars (surprisingly, Jon Lieber was an NL All Star in 2001, but Javy Vazquez only made his first All-Star team with the Yankees in 2004), and two more in the bullpen. They'd acquired the best shortstop in baseball, reigning AL MVP Alex Rodriguez, to play third base. It was readily assumed by most commentators that if the Yanks ran into any trouble during the season, they'd simply pick up an All-Star second baseman (the Expos' Jose Vidro) or another All-Star starter (current Yankee Randy Johnson) for the stretch drive.

This was the best team that money could buy, a $184MM juggernaut, considered by some to be undefeatable. Sure, the team had some flaws--no depth in the middle infield, old, injury prone players throughout the roster, bad outfield defense--but it everyone figured that the Yanks' giant wallet could overcome any such adversity.

At the same time, Yankee fans became like the genetically enhanced citizens of the movie world--obsessed with their perceived deficiencies. (Think I'm joking? At one point in the movie, a doctor who administers regular urine tests to Gattaca's employees comments on Vincent's "big unit": "Beautiful piece of equipment you've got there Jerome...Don't know why my folks didn't order one like that for me." Substitute "starting pitcher" for the veiled reference to a penis in that conversation, and you have every Yankee fan call to WFAN last season.)

Of course, the 2004 Yankees weren't invincible. Most of their hitters (with the notable exceptions of the Incredible Inflateable Firstbaseman and the reigning MVP) performed up to or exceeded expectations, but the starting pitching turned to crap. Still, they were good enough to finish in first place, before the Worst Nightmare Imaginable occurred. The "perfect" team with an "insurmountable" lead lost to their worst enemies--and the world cheered.

Surprisingly, the Yankees hadn't reloaded with more All-Stars at the 2004 trading deadline. Paradoxically, their division rivals had done the exact opposite, sending off their All-Star shortstop with the eight figure salary in exchange for a couple of Not-Quite-Stars, Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz.

Both of those Not-Quite-Stars have World Series rings coming in the mail. Dougie Spelling Error owns a World Series game ball. What gives?

The Yankees' reaction to failure has been even greater obsession with their "genetic" failings. "Not enough starting pitching! Brown and El Duque were too old! Get the best on the market, and make a couple of them not too old!" Enter Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, and Randy Johnson.

What's disappointing about this approach isn't the well-documented questions about Pavano and Wright's performance, or Johnson's age. It's the "sure thing" approach that they embody. The Yankees take no chances--not by trying to fix Javy Vazquez, rather than dealing him away for a more accomplished pitcher, not by handing the fifth starter spot over to a prospect rather than a guy that was waiver fodder a couple of years ago.

In Gattaca, society is in decay because a person's genetics are considered their destiny, the same way that some in baseball consider a team's payroll to be their destiny. If you know your destiny, if it can be read on a genetic sequencer or in USA Today's Salary Database, what's the point of any contest? Vincent's success in that society is that he shrugs off his destiny and takes risks--he could be found out as an impostor at any moment, but that doesn't deter him.

The Yankees used to take risks. In 1996, the year they finally won it all, the Yanks reluctantly handed the shortstop position over to an unproven 22 year old. It looks like a sure thing in retrospect, but Derek Jeter could've fallen on his face, he could've had an April and May like he did in 2004--lookin' up at the Mendoza line with no relief in sight--and the brass in Tampa probably would've sent him back to Columbus, or shipped him off to Anaheim for Gary DiSarcina. Luckily, he hit from the beginning--a homer on Opening Day, in Cleveland--and the rest is history. The Yanks got similarly lucky with Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada. But they deserve credit for taking some risks, rather than burying these prospects under an avalanche of "sure things."

Developing prospects is risky. Think about all the highly-touted guys the Yanks developed in the Exile Era that didn't quite pan out--guys like Ricky Ledee and Sterling Hitchcock are the good ones. Think about Brien Taylor, the Yanks' #1 overall pick in 1991. His career went down the tubes in the blink of an eye, in an off-season scuffle that wrecked his shoulder. Think about Ruben Rivera, top prospect turned memorabilia thief.

Is there a Ruben Rivera in the Yankee farm system right now? A Brien Taylor? Sure, they fell on their faces, but they were something to look forward to.

The bromide is that you have to court failure to achieve success. That's what the Red Sox did when they traded Garciaparra. I still think Boston's good results cloud the fact that it wasn't a good trade, but you have to give them props for having the cojones to take a chance.

I'm frustrated because the Yanks didn't court failure in 2004, and likely won't in 2005. I cheered for this team last year, and I'll do so again this year. They're not a bad bunch of guys. But somewhere inside I yearn for the time when the Yankees are willing to court failure again.

I really want to see that Yankee team.

4 comments:

Chris said...

Wow. Good stuff: it's not every day you glean an original thought from a blog, let alone one worth considering. BTW, any Sox fan with a soul (roughly 30 percent of a typical Fenway crowd, by my count) feels, deep down, the same way you do about the 1996-2000 Yanks. Well, in a purely objective way. And for us the disgust set in the second Klemens arrived. But before then, you had our grudging respect and admiration. That was a t-e-a-m. And since we mostly double as Pats fans, that means a lot.

cinthree said...

This is true, but part of the problem is awful drafting(see Parrish, David), the Yankees just do not have the players to put in the majors and let them take their lumps. They did do it with Nick Johnson, but he could not stay healthy. The problem isn't that they won't put guys in, it is they dont have the skilled guys to put in. Though Colter Bean needs to be given a shot, and their flat refusal to put in anyone who has any flaws is annoying.

DJ said...

cinthree:

I'm with you as to the lack of blue-chip prospects, but that's two ends of the same rope. When you sign sure-thing free agents, you surrender draft picks. When you pick up a Tony Womack, you block Robinson Cano and Andy Phillips.

For a team that prides itself (and rightfully so) as accepting nothing less than the best when it comes to recruiting free agents and trading for star players, the Yanks have accepted failure in their player development system. Part of that failure has been impatience, and the unwillingness to keep some of the promising players the Yanks have in the system.

cinthree said...

Well, Phillips is probably a util player and should be on the team instead of Ruben, but that isn't happening. Womack signing was awful in just about every way, but i'm not so sure Cano would outproduce Womack. It's almost as if the Yankees are waiting for the perfect prospect to come along, and will trade anyone else.