Yanks: Three-peat or De-feat?


Attention fashionistas, come October Pat Riley might be in the market for a few new Armani double-breasteds, or maybe even something a little more risqué—say, a Gaultier? The guy who trademarked the three-peat (even if his team couldn’t pull it off) stands to make some nice coin as the Yankees try to crack one of the toughest nuts in sports.

The last baseball team to win it all three times in a row? Here’s a hint: Richard Nixon had just quit the White House. Yup, it was those Charley Finley-owned, yellow-double-knit-clad, mustachioed ’72-’74 Oakland A’s. To put the A’s’ feat—and the ’00 Yankees’ challenge—in perspective, remember that only two other teams—the ’49-’53 Yankees and the ’36-’39 Yankees—have been able to win the Fall Classic at least three years in a row.

Why is it so tough to repeat? Well, baseball scholar Bill James explains it with something called the “law of competitive balance.” Essentially that means that bad (and disappointing) teams tend to get better, and good (and successful) teams tend to get worse. Part of this phenomenon can be chalked up to probability theory. Things like lots of one-run or extra-inning wins, and guys having career years tend to even out over time. And of course, economic forces—the-everyone-wants-a-raise syndrome—can help dismantle a dynasty (see the Chicago Bulls), as can simple aging.

But mostly, it’s about human nature. Successful teams don’t want to mess with success. The thought balloon reads something like this: “If we could win the World Series with Ricky Ledee and Shane Spencer in left field, then why shouldn’t we be able to do it again this year?” A GM who’s spent the winter picking up awards on the rubber-chicken circuit is simply much less likely to pull the trigger on a big deal that could fill one of his team’s needs—or blow up like a Saturday night special.

Disappointing teams—and this applies as much to the Cleveland Indians as to the Minnesota Twins—feel the need to change. The Twins will try to alter their fortunes by playing lots of rookies and hoping that one of them turns out to be Kirby Puckett. The perpetual bridesmaid Indians fired a manager who took them to the World Series twice.

While this frustration-induced risk taking sometimes backfires, it often pays off big. Let’s take a quick look back at the last three teams to go back-to-back and belly to belly. Before they became the Big Red Machine, the ’75-’76 Reds endured their share of disappointment—losing to the Orioles and the A’s in the World Series (and yes, Mets fans, to the Amazins in the ’73 NLCS). In response, they solidified their bull pen and found room for a bunch of young sluggers, including George Foster and Ken Griffey Sr.

The ’77-’78 Yankees were still smarting from that four-straight spanking administered by the Reds in the ’76 Series. Steinbrenner’s response was to go out and get Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Tommy John, and yes, even Bucky Dent.

And before their back-to-back titles in ’92-’93, the Blue Jays were the king of close-but-no-cigar, finishing no more than two games out for six of seven years, but never making the Fall Classic. Among the New Jays who led Toronto to the promised land: Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, David Cone, and Rickey Henderson.

But why didn’t these teams three-peat? The law of competitive balances again: the combination of a moderate backslide—the ’77 Reds and ’79 Yankees won 88 and 89 games respectively—coupled with the emergence of teams (the Dodgers and the Orioles) that took the risks needed to compete with a juggernaut. The ’94 Jays get a small asterisk, but they were 16 games behind Buck Showalter’s Yankees when the season was called.

So where does that leave the 2000 Yankees? On the one hand, the Yankees were uncharacteristically passive this off-season, more concerned with trimming payroll than with improving the team. This stands in marked contrast to the last two off-seasons, in which the Yankees—still smarting from that ’97 first-round loss to the Tribe—brought in Orlando Hernandez, Hideki Irabu, Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Brosius, and Roger Clemens. This year the sting is gone and we’ll have to settle for Felix Jose.

The smart money says that the Yankees will slip a little, say from 98 wins to 94. Players like Tino Martinez and Paul O’Neill are aging, the pitching staff is downright old, and an injury to, say, Derek Jeter or Bernie Williams could turn the Yanks mortal in a big hurry.

But if they do backslide, it’s not clear who’ll rise up to catch them. The Orioles will get better with Mike Hargrove, but they’ve got a 20-game deficit to overcome, and the Tigers, the Devil Rays, and a Blue Jays team that traded its best player two winters in a row simply aren’t ready for prime time. The Yankees’ nearest pursuer, the Red Sox, are an enigma. They added Carl Everett, an underrated player to be sure, but hardly Ken Griffey Jr.

And that’s it. It seems that Sports Illustrated‘s cover story nailed Dan Duquette’s blueprint. Forget about the division. Just win the wild card, let Pedro Martinez dominate three times in a short series, and hope that Bret Saberhagen or Tim Wakefield can steal one. Right.

While the Yankees simply have too many horses not to win the East, maybe Mr. Riley should hold off on spending that royalty money. For the ’00 Yankees to win it all, they will have to take three more playoff series—that would run their total to nine in a row. The record is eight consecutive series, held by the Yankees between 1927 and ’41, and keep in mind that those were all best-of-seven. Remember that the Indians have bolstered their pitching with Yankee killer Chuck Finley (a/k/a Mr. Tawny Kitaen), while the Rangers may have actually improved by trading away a future Hall of Famer. And if last season proved anything, it’s that Pedro Martinez, who’s unhittable even when he stays in the strike zone, is the one pitcher who has the Yankees’ number.

As the grass greens up and the lines get painted, the Yankees—older and more vulnerable though they may be—still seem like the best team in the majors. But although they romped through the playoffs the last two years, that’s where the land mines lie. In October, a bad bounce, a bad call, an untimely slump can mean the difference between a seat in the dugout and a seat in a La-Z-Boy. So maybe Jostens should hold off on designing those World Series pinkie rings for just a little longer.

It’s Up to You NY, NY: Mets

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