Okay, okay, the Yankees are the greatest team in the history of baseball. But like the Roman Empire and 49-cent Big Macs, all good things must come to an end. But how soon before the cosmic bartender calls last round? As the last of the ticker tape flows through Tribeca’s sewers, let’s take a look at some of the forces that just might conspire to bring the Yankees down to earth next season.
AGE: As Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, “Youth’s a stuff will not endure.” The regulars, with the exception of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and left-fielder-in-waiting Rickey Ledee, are at or past their primes. The near-term problem isn’t gradual, predictable decline. It’s the fact that thirtysomething stars like Paul O’Neill, Chili Davis, and Tino Martinez are more susceptible to pulled hamstrings, torn rotator cuffs, and other things that can land you on the DL for half a season. Age is a special concern for the pitching staff. The top three season starters are over 30–no way is El Duque 29–and Gen Xer Andy Pettitte is a walking question mark. In 1998, Mel Stottlemyre’s staff was remarkably healthy. Odds are that Mel won’t be so lucky next time around. Which is why the Yankee to watch for in 1999 may be Ramiro Mendoza. His numbers–5-0, 2.16 ERA after the All Star break–suggest he’s ready for prime time.
THE COMPETITION: It’s a corollary to what baseball guru Bill James calls the law of competitive balance: the idea that good teams decline because they tend to ignore their weaknesses, and that bad teams get better because they look for ways to improve. By most standards, the Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Orioles were pretty decent. But finishing 20-odd games behind makes you scrutinize your club long and hard. Tweaking isn’t going to cut it in the AL East. So look for the Yankees’ division rivals to land a few key free agents.
ECONOMICS: There’s one nagging problem with good teams in baseball’s postfeudal era: Their good players eventually ask for big raises. The bad news is that the the Yankees’ free agent World Series MVP veteran third baseman (this sound familiar, Mets fans?) is in his walk year. The worst news is that Scott Brosius is the least of the Yankees’ problems. The team’s best player and its only 20-game winner are both free agents, and the one guy who you can virtually guarantee will be better next year can demand a trade. For the moment, let’s just hope that David Cone wants to retire a Yankee and Chuck Knoblauch feels he’s got something to prove. But don’t underestimate the Bernie Williams crisis. Follow this scenario: The Arizona Diamondbacks pay Bernie $63 million over five years. On the same day that deal goes down, Brian Cashman gets a call from Seattle GM Woody Woodward, desperately seeking relief help. The trade: Mike Stanton for Ken Griffey Jr. Sure, it’s the baseball equivalent of winning Powerball. But if it did happen, would the Yankees be better next year? No. With his .422 on-base percentage, his .575 slugging percentage, and Gold Glove work in center, Bernie Williams is probably the best player in the American League. He won’t be easily replaced. Maybe Rudy Giuliani just ought to take some of the money that he’s stashed away for building a new stadium and use it for maintaining this team.
LUCK: You don’t win 114 games without being lucky. Sure, luck is the residue of design–the groundwork for Knoblauch’s Game 1 dinger was laid through six innings of deep counts. But sometimes luck is the residue of luck–in the ALCS, Chad Ogea accidentally deflected a sure 6-4-3 double play into an infield single. Major League Baseball doesn’t keep stats on bloop singles and bobbled grounders, but the fact that the Yankees were baseball’s best in one-run and extra-inning games makes you suspect that a few key breaks might go the other way in ’99.
HISTORY: All these factors suggest that it’s not going to be quite the cakewalk for the Yankees next season. And history bears this out. Of the 11 teams this century that won more than 106 games, all of them declined the next season, with an average drop-off of 12 games. And nearly half of them slipped so badly that they didn’t make the postseason the next year. With a few key injuries, a few missing stars, and better competition, the Yankees could conceivably slide by 20 games or more next year and have a real dogfight just to retain their AL East crown. The bottom line? Enjoy it while you can.