Back on Track?


Ah, Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. Robert Merrill singing “America the Beautiful” as if he’s got a plane to catch. Bob Sheppard introducing the assistant trainer. And another pennant to hoist in center field. Yawwwwwn. Well, Yankee fans, enjoy it while it lasts. It’s time to turn bearish on the Yankees.

True, on paper the Yankees are the best team in baseball. And in all three dimensions, they’re the best organization. But they won’t win the World Series this year. Why not? Call it fate. Call it karma. Call it payback. Call it the NASDAQ effect. But the bottom line is that Rudy won’t ride a ticker tape parade off into the sunset this fall.

First, let’s dispense with the praise. For the past seven years, from top to bottom the Yankees have been the best organization in baseball. Bar none. Hell, they’re the best organization in sports. Brian Cashman/Mark Newman/Stick Michael, the main threesome of George Steinbrenner’s ubiquitous yet mysterious “baseball people,” have done off the field what A-Rod and Pedro are doing on it. Back when the Boss was in exile, the Yankees adopted an organizational model for what kind of position players (superpatient hitters who are at least above average defensively) and pitchers (guys who throw strikes and eat up innings) succeed. And whether they’re drafting, developing, trading, or signing, the Y-team sticks to the plan. They even closed the Rodriguez gap—with Henry “H-Rod” Rodriguez, nicely splitting the difference between Texas’s A-Rod and I-Rod.

And then there’s the small matter of talent evaluation. Remember the last time the Yankees got fleeced on a trade? Well, the wool in that deal—Jay Buhner—is currently mulling retirement. And the once-barren Yankee farm system has brought up a core of frontline talent that harkens back to the days of Star Search. Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and the hits keep right on coming. The free-agent signings—Jimmy Key, David Wells, and now Mike Mussina—have turned out to be as frugal as Alan Greenspan. Simply put, this is one mother of a front office.

And success hasn’t made them lazy, fat, or stupid. They’ve got the future wrapped up. If they’re willing to bet $17 million that Drew Henson can be the starting third baseman next year, put me down for five bucks, too. Slick-fielding first baseman Nick Johnson lost last season to a freak hand injury, but his numbers at AA in 1999—.345 batting average and a turn-the-game-inside-out .525 on-base percentage—were so gaudy that he seems like the second coming of Don Mattingly. And the middle infielder of the future, Alfonso Soriano, got the opening day nod at second base this year. As long as Mark Michael McCashman’s on the job (and George is content to reinvent himself as a baseball elder statesman) the future’s so bright you gotta wear eyeblack.

But the current team—those nine players on the field and 16 more in the dugout—they should worry you. Yes, these Yankees won the World Series last year. But that wasn’t the same team that won 114 games in 1998. During the regular season they won only 87 games, which in a normal season is good for a close third-place finish. They’ve tanked like a dotcom startup, slipping a whopping—and unprecedented—27 games in two seasons. This slide becomes scarier when you realize that they weren’t confronted with any disasters last year.

OK, David Cone started pitching like a 37-year-old with a repaired aneurysm. Ramiero Mendoza went down with a sore shoulder. Shane Spencer hurt his knee. Chuck Knoblauch forgot how to throw. But the team’s core talent, the go-to guys, were all ready, willing, and able. Bernie was Bernie, Jeter was Jeter, Mariano was Mariano, and Clemens, Pettitte, and El Duque were all more or less healthy and effective. And the Yankees even got the unexpected boost of Jeff Nelson channeling Dennis Eckersley in his free agent year and Jorge Posada proving he’s ready for prime time.

But the supporting players? They chewed the scenery as if they were in a Robert Zemeckis movie. Scott Brosius? Paul O’Neill? Tino Martinez? There was much Sturm und Drang, but the numbers—.257 ba, .321 obp, .406 slugging combined—don’t lie. And with all of them in their mid thirties, no reasonable person, except possibly Joe Torre, expects that they’ll do better this year. If David Cone had lost three more games and the Yankees missed the playoffs, or Terrance Long had caught Tino’s sun-aided triple in Oakland, you might have seen Johnson and Henson in the lineup this opening day. And that, as Martha Stewart might say, would be a good thing. Mike Mussina? He was the smartest free-agent signing this side of A-Rod, but he’s not worth 10 games—much less 27—all by himself.

More troubling is the Thurman Munson factor. During this remarkable run, the Yankees have had their share of TV-movie-of-the-week moments—cancer diagnoses, dads dying, heart transplants—but they’ve been all off the field. Between the lines, the team has been remarkably healthy and harmonious and, well, lucky. Sure, a lot of props have to go to Joe Torre (and for that matter the strength and conditioning coach, Jeff Mangold), but when your number’s up, your number’s up.

Seeing Sid Fernandez in pinstripes this spring should serve as a reminder of the mid-’80s Mets. Remember, they were strong, they were invincible. And then, well, shit happened. So what’s going to happen to the 2001 Yankees? Will Mike Mussina do a Bobby Ojeda and get maimed in a tragic lawn mower accident? Will Andy Pettitte decide to work for Jesus instead of George? Will Derek Jeter take up aviation? Or will some star or another pop an elbow, tweak a shoulder, or blow out a knee? Not only can it happen, it will. After last year’s win-it-with-mirrors run, they’re due.

But, if the Yankees implode, who in the AL East is poised to take advantage? If human cloning were legal, the Red Sox would go 162-0. Or maybe 153-9. But Pedro isn’t Dolly-able, and Nomar might be on the DL until August. The David Wells deal set the Blue Jays back. The Tigers? Please. The Orioles? Yeah, right.

Still, Murphy’s Law says that one of these on-paper underachievers will put it together and win 90-something games and the division. Even if none of them do, and the Yankees manage to make the playoffs, this time around Terrance Long catches that fly ball. One for the thumb? Wait until 2002.