Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Opposite

Game 3 of the new-look Yanks was...about as successful as the first two. In Tampa. In front of George.

You know that in the old days (or maybe right now, if the Boss didn't have Bellamy Road as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby) George Steinbrenner would be brutalizing the franchise. He'd be firing guys, throwing furniture, starting fights with opposing fans, and perhaps even torching the Stadium in pure unadulterated rage.

A start not quite as bad as this got Yogi fired in 1985. Any three game losing streak could get the pitching coach tossed in the '80s. A 33-35 record in 1989 put the Yanks in such a panic that they traded Rickey Henderson to the Oakland A's, for my cousin (Luis Polonia) and a couple of pitchers, and started a chain reaction that saw the Yanks jettison their starting third baseman (Mike Pagliarulo) , starters John Candelaria and Richard Dotson, and DH extraordinaire (well, at least he was until he became a Yankee) Ken Phelps.

So what's going to happen now? Nobody knows. The powers that be are having a lot of fun writing epitaphs for this Yankees team. Here's a typical bit from Mike Lupica's column:

The arrogance of the Yankees and their fans is that they are supposed to be a sure thing every year, because of the money, and the name. They aren't a sure thing this time. This is the way it works everywhere else in sports. Part of sports is overcoming things. Sometimes overcoming things makes you stronger. The Yankees are asked to overcome some things now. So are Cashman and Torre. This will be a good season to see what everybody has left in the tank.

In a prior paragraph, Lupica references the Raul Mondesi trade, which makes me think he's been reading Buster Olney's The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, or at least the free epilogue to the book, which is available at
From the time that Gene Michael took over the team in 1990, club executives had carefully weighed players' personalities when making decisions, but more and more the choices were based on statistics, the soulless numbers. The Yankees had once acquired or developed players not just because of their talents but because their character added a necessary ingredient – Jeter's confidence, O'Neill's intensity, Raines's humor, Girardi's professionalism. They weren't all superstars, but together they were extraordinary. Now the patient, meticulous empire-building of the early '90s was all but gone, and the farm system was close to barren. By 2004, Jeter, Rivera, Williams, and Posada were the last Yankees with consecutive tenure from the championship years.

Judging from this, Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty is a pretty piece of revisionist history: not all the Yanks of 1996-2001 were saints, and not all of the ones since are bastards. When you lose, it's easy to call someone out for their crappy attitude, and when you win, it's much, much easier to let people slide.

Yeah, I know, he was in that clubhouse and I wasn't. But some of what Olney describes here doesn't match what was being said by the folks covering the team at the time -- including him, I would wager. Still, it looks like an interesting book, and one I'll probably have to read, after I read Will Carroll's The Juice, Steven Goldman's Forging Genius, and Alan Schwartz's The Numbers Game. One part of the excerpt, where Steinbrenner is running around yelling at his employees "You're on the bubble!" (i.e., you're close to getting fired) is classic.

It's the kind of thing that makes me wish Seinfeld was still on the air. They'd be building a whole episode around it. (Can't you see it? Steinbrenner announces George is on the bubble, after he's caught enjoying a box of cracker jacks during a Yankee loss; the next day, Cramer shorts the tip at the diner, and is told by George that now he's on the bubble; Cramer puts Jerry on the bubble after Jerry refuses to store two gross of tangerines Cramer picked up at Whole Foods; Jerry tells Elaine she's on the bubble after she convinces him to trade dental appointments with her; Elaine announces that her boyfriend-of-the-week is on the bubble, after he complains about her use of the newly-reissued contraceptive sponge.)

Since October, the Yanks resemble an episode of Seinfeld: "The Opposite", where George becomes a winner by doing the opposite of what he usually does, and, in turn, Elaine becomes a loser to balance out Jerry's life.

You see, what's wrong with the Yankees in 2005 is pretty much the opposite of the "Yanks acquire mercenaries, lose team chemistry" accusation Olney levels in his book. With one exception, the Yanks didn't acquire superstars this off-season. They did the opposite, picking up a bunch of role players coming off of career years--Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, Tony F. Womack. These fellows were billed as "character guys" scrappy Womack, solid Pavano, "intense" Wright.

And the real problem is, as a team, some of these fellas aren't all that good. Womack's below league average in almost every respect. Pavano looks like he might define the league average, alternating good and bad starts. Wright might spend his entire Yankee career on the disabled list. Add that to a bunch of old players who are looking old--Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Jason Friggin' Giambi, Kevin Brown, Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon--and really, what did you expect?

Now, this season ain't over yet. Some of the above-mentioned oldies might round back into form, Hideki Matsui isn't likely to continue as he is. Randy Johnson has room for improvement. And even at this low point, the Yanks are only 5 1/2 games behind the Red Sox (I mean, do you really believe that the Orioles will keep this up). You can make up that gap.

Not that it looks that way right now.

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