It shouldn’t have ended this way. In a stadium with a fucking swimming pool to baseball’s answer to the Toronto Raptors, managed by a guy who makes Joe Altobelli (the numskull who inherited a great Oriole team from Earl Weaver and won a World Series) seem like Joe McCarthy.
No, it should have ended three weeks ago in Oakland, with Jeremy Giambi sliding in under a Jorge Posada tag, rendering Derek Jeter’s shovel pass nothing more than a spectacular but futile Play of the Day. Hell, it should have ended in last year’s division series against Oakland with Terrance Long reeling in Tino’s sun-glare triple.
But it ended the way it ended. And it sucked. It was bad enough seeing Bob “I know I’m on the air” Brenly go out there to yank Curt Schilling and tell his spin doctor of a starter, “You’re my hero.” Why not break into song, too? “You are the wind beneath my wings.” But to have his horseshit prophecy of a come-from-behind victory come true? That was too much to bear.
How much do right-thinking baseball fans hate the Diamondbacks? Let me count the ways. First there’s Jerry Colangelo, who’s nothing more than this year’s model of Wayne Huizinga, paying Todd Stottlemyre and Jay Bell a combined $66.5 million. Then there’s Schilling, who spews disinformation better than Ari Fleischer. (Did or didn’t Schilling want to come out of Game Four? He spun different answers to his manager and the press.) And Brenly, who treated his 22-year-old closer like Jay Witascik. Craig Counsell, for just existing. And whoever designed those goddamn purple Ghost of Flo Jo uniforms. For these and a thousand other reasons, the archaeologists of some future civilization will find the shards of my decapitated Bernie Williams bobblehead doll buried in the ruins of my backyard.
I’m done venting now, are you? Good. Listen up, Yankee fans, it’ll get better. Not only better than now, but better than it would have been had Mo gotten two more outs. Really. Nietzsche said that that which does not kill you makes you stronger. Sunday night was the ultimate character builder. The first step toward recovery is getting out of denial. Repeat after me: The Yankees suck.
Excellent. Top-drawer starting pitching, all-but-perfect relief work, and Houdini-act clutch hitting (or more to the point, with plenty of help from a passel of deer-in-the-headlights relief pitchers) concealed this team’s true mediocrity.
They couldn’t hit the side of the proverbial barn. Sure, Schilling and Johnson got cheese. But the Yankees made even Brian Anderson and Miguel Batista look like the second coming of Koufax and Drysdale. If you discount Aaron Sele’s two starts and the mop-up stint by the Seattle bullpen—for some reason, this team treats the Seattle starter like a rented mule—they had exactly one homer-free big inning this postseason. And that was against Oakland’s legendary No. 4 starter, Corey Lidle.
It was agonizing to watch Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius, and David Justice swing as though they were warding off gnats. But it was even more painful to watch Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada hacking away cluelessly, suffering from some kind of collective vapor lock, the offensive equivalent of Chuck Knoblauch’s throwing woes.
Rewind to, oh, 1999, and the Yankees would drive starting pitchers to distraction, running pitch counts on studs like Kevin Millwood and Tom Glavine into triple digits by the fifth inning, drawing walks in clumps and then cashing in with the bases-clearing double.
Now it’s all upside down. Most of the time, these Yankees are remarkably impatient. They flailed away at Batista, who threw about three strikes all night, like he was Pedro Martinez. It’s a legitimate cause for celebration when someone draws a base on balls—they had a grand total of 16 walks in the World Series. But when they do somehow get a runner into scoring position, the Yankees suddenly turn passive, taking first-pitch strikes, getting behind in the count.
And don’t think that their .183 Series batting average didn’t cost them. In baseball, everything is a domino effect. If the Yankees score a few more runs, maybe Mariano has a couple less two-inning saves, and who knows how this season ends. The good news is that you’re not the only one who watched this team turn into a pumpkin on Sunday. Thanks to this final excruciating collapse, the team’s off-season decision making won’t be clouded by sentimentality. The old Brosius-was-good-enough-to-win-the-Series arguments won’t haunt this franchise’s personnel decisions.
The first order of business for Mr. Steinbrenner is getting Joe Torre and Brian Cashman signed. Torre has proven that he can occasionally guess wrong—or, more to the point, have a bad move come back to bite him on the ass. But he’s got the experience and the proven leadership skills to guide us during the tough task of rebuilding.
Then there’s Cashman, the Rodney Dangerfield of GMs. It’s easy to underestimate a guy who looks—and dresses—like an intern, but face facts. Getting to the World Series is every GM’s goal, and he’s done it four years in a row. Yes, he’s got a $100 million payroll. But Cashman’s best decisions are the trades he hasn’t made. If he caves in to the win-now pressure from Steinbrenner, and trades (a) Andy Pettitte, (b) Ramiro Mendoza, (c) Alfonso Soriano, then he and rest of the Yankees are probably watching the ALCS from home.
So what do these guys have to do? For Torre, this has to be a different kind of spring training. How about teaching these guys to, as they say, handle the bat a little? Time and time again, another mini-rally died because, say, Jorge Posada or Bernie Williams or whoever couldn’t get a bunt down or otherwise advance a runner. If Bernie Williams gets a bunt down in the sixth inning, that Tino Martinez single probably scores two runs, and this might be a happy recap. Bunting’s hard, you say? Hell, if Andy Pettitte can get down a bunt against Randy Johnson, as he did in Game Two, you would think that All-Star sluggers could figure it out, too.
And Torre needs a setup guy. No, Mariano Rivera’s not going to do a Donnie Moore. Given his blessed lack of self-awareness, I probably lost more sleep over the loss than he did. But because of Rivera and Byung-Hyun Kim, the six-out save will probably be about as common as a three-hour game. Which means that the Yankees need a guy who can do in the eighth inning more or less what Mariano did in 1996, when he was Wetteland’s Luca Brasi. Mike Stanton? I don’t think so. The logical choice is Mendoza, who, believe it or not, this postseason was more unhittable than Rivera.
Cashman’s challenge is even more profound than Torre’s. All four corner positions are up for grabs, and how he fills them will determine the team’s destiny. First base? Unless Tino’s willing to re-up for, say, two years—and why would he?—the Yankees have to hand the job to Nick Johnson. He’s a potential Gold Glover, he’s got a career on-base percentage of .448, and he’ll work cheap, freeing up cash. Cashman should spend that cash on DH Jason Giambi, who is simply the best hitter in the American League (.342, .477, .660) and could post Exorcist-scary numbers at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees have proven over the years that you can’t overpay for greatness, and Giambi is great and more. Third base? Bye-bye, Brosius. Once a Gold Glover, Scott provided the Series’ best moment with his bat and its worst moments afield. Bill Mueller of the Cubs could be a fit. Right field? As Clemenza said to Sonny, “Paulie? You ain’t gonna see him no more.” The conservative choice is David Justice and Shane the Scab Spencer. More enticing is Cliff Floyd, who’s every bit as good as Bobby Valentine thinks he is, or Moises Alou, who’s posted an on-base percentage over .406 during the past three seasons.
Left field? Barry Bonds is probably a dream. Johnny Damon is a nightmare: a leadoff hitter who doesn’t hit for power, hit average, draw walks, steal bases effectively, or catch the ball. In other words, he’s Chuck Knoblauch redux. Floyd or Alou would plug the gap nicely, but prospect Juan Rivera couldn’t be any worse than ol’ Knobbie.
In short, even Yogi will tell you it’s really over for the Yankees. Sunday marked the worst on-field moment for a Yankee fan in two generations. But let’s look not behind, but ahead. The core of a championship team will remain intact—Jeter, Bernie, Soriano, Posada, Mariano, and the starters —but the supporting cast, thankfully, will have more turnover than Law and Order. If you remember what happened after the last time the Yankees lost in the playoffs—114 wins—it’s not unreasonable to assume that this isn’t the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. So let’s hold hands and say it together: The Yankees are dead. Long live the Yankees.