“I just want to say one word to you . . . just one word.”
“Are you listening?”
“Yes, sir, I am.”
To a casual baseball fan, patience isn’t sexy. But every real aficionado knows that it’s the game’s answer to foreplay. Each sultry click of the pitch counter is like a glimpse of navel between the tank top and the blue jeans. Each teasing 3-0 count is a nibble on the earlobe, each walk a purposeful stroke of the thigh, moving ever closer to consummation. And make no mistake, this Yankee dynasty has been built, sustained, and now rebuilt on the P-word. The theory is simple: In the tango between pitcher and hitter, between ball and bat, patience is the art of letting the other guy give in first. Every time a hitter takes a pitch that’s two inches outside, he’s sending the pitcher a message. “OK, meat, if you think I’m gonna fall for that kind of flirting, you’ve got another think coming. Ball two’s gonna turn into ball three, and ball three’s going to turn into ball four. And if you keep nibbling, me and my crew are going to run your pitch count to 120 by the sixth inning, and your arm’s going to be dragging on the ground like one of Jane Goodall’s gorillas. So let’s cut out the horseshit, and just give it up. Let’s see if you can blow it past me in the strike zone. Let’s dance.”
It works because this come-on is aimed at the Nuke La Loosh buried deep in every major league pitcher, the knuckleheaded fireballer who wants to announce his presence with authority. And it dovetails with baseball’s dirtiest little statistical secret. Every major league pitcher—even Pedro Martinez—is hittable if you make him come into the strike zone. (Last year the league batted .455 with a .920 slugging percentage against Pedro when the count got to 3-0.)
The problem, of course, is that hitters are human, too. They crave instant gratification, and thus most at-bats are more Ron Jeremy than Daniel Day Lewis. Over the past couple of seasons, even the once Job-like Yankees have been more porn house than art house: wham, bam, back to the dugout, ma’am. In 1998, their on-base percentage was a league-leading .368. Last year it fell to .334, sixth in the AL. Hitters like the now retired Paul O’Neill and Scott Brosius and the now departed Tino Martinez couldn’t pounce on that late-count fastball even with a bat corked with Viagra. So they became anxious and swung at the first thing that was close enough. And young ‘uns like Alfonso Soriano, Shane Spencer, and the otherwise estimable Derek Jeter showed their inexperience with far too many premature hacks.
But that’s all over. This year the Yankee attack promises to assimilate these hard-won lessons about temptation and temperance, and fashion them into a summer-long series of three-run rallies. In pursuit of that elusive 3-0 count, every team needs a guy who sets the tone, who leads by example. For the mid-’90s Yankees, it was Wade Boggs.
This season it’s going to be superstud Jason Giambi. If ever there was a match made in baseball heaven, this is it. Get past that Harley-riding, practical-joking exterior, and you have one of the most disciplined baseball players since Ted Williams. In his spring training profile, Jack Curry dwelled on Giambi’s Teddy Ballgame-like 20/18 eyesight. But spotting the pitch two inches out of the pitcher’s hand is only half the story. (Do you really think that Giambi’s eyesight has gotten better since 1997, when he drew only 55 walks?)
At the plate, Giambi is positively tantric. He’s willing to wait . . . and wait . . . and wait for the kind of sweet fastball he can put the good wood on. If not, he’ll simply trot to first base, and wait until his next at-bat . . . or next week, if that’s what it takes. Last season he saw a heady 4.08 pitches per plate appearance, more than even all-time walkmeister Barry Bonds. That, simply, is why Giambi is the best hitter in the American League, the guy who led the league in the game’s most important stat—on-base percentage—two years in a row.
More importantly, Giambi will be the Jason Kidd of this team, a star who’ll make the rest of the team better. After watching Giambi go for days at a time without hacking at a single bad pitch, and batting .330 in the process, his free-swinging new teammates like Soriano and Jeter will also become masters of their domain—that domain being the strike zone. And his more patient brethren—Jorge Posada and young DH Nick Johnson—will see their forbearance vindicated.
Which brings us to a patience of a different sort: front-office patience. Tabloid readers will remember that Giambi could have been a Yankee in August. The A’s dangled him before the trading deadline, and would have been happy to give him up—for Soriano, Johnson, and Ramiro Mendoza.
But general manager Brian Cashman has also quietly become master of his domain. Maybe it’s the suits, but he gets remarkably little respect for a GM with four World Series rings. When other GMs come calling, he nods and listens politely, but keeps the family jewels where they belong. Remember when Dan Duquette was going to give him Rondell White for Alfonso Soriano? Now BC’s got both. And he’s still got Ramiro Mendoza, Andy Pettitte, and Johnson, who could blossom into a junior Giambi. The A.C. Green of the front office, he’s come to understand the value of abstinence, that sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make.
And while Giambi is the big prize, Cashman’s new supporting cast will show its value as the summer wears on. The ever patient Robin Ventura will be the perfect placeholder until Drew Henson is ready, and he’ll remind Mets fans that you don’t need Mike Schmidt to win a World Series. John Van Der Wal will draw some BBs, play a decent outfield, and give Michael Kay ample pun-making opportunities. And while Yankee fans may spend the summer wondering why the team overpaid for Steve Karsay, Cashman knows the truth. If the Yankees had re-signed Jeff Nelson, giving Joe Torre a reliable setup man and sparing Mariano Rivera a few of those six-out saves, they Yankees might be seeking a five-peat this season.
Given the money at his disposal, Cashman’s rebuilding job sounds easy. It wasn’t. Jimmy Neutron Boy GM does a better job of managing up than Dick Cheney. Whatever he tells George Steinbrenner during those midnight calls, it’s got to be better phone work than the girls at 970-LUST. It’s gotten short shrift, but Steinbrenner is a changed man. His baseball jones once demanded running the Columbus Shuttle a couple times a month, but now his appetite is satisfied by firing the odd hitting coach. Patience will do that to a man.
Are there black clouds on the Yankee horizon? A couple. While the position players are young—Ventura and Bernie Williams are the only regulars on the long side of 30—the pitching is a tad long in the tooth. With Roger Clemens, David Wells, and El Duque in the season-opening rotation, they’ve got three starters pushing 40. If Andy Pettitte’s tender elbow goes south, Sterling Hitchcock’s back doesn’t come around, the toll of all those innings that Mike Mussina’s thrown over the years catches up with him, or the magic disappears from Mariano Rivera’s skinny right arm . . . well, let’s not think about it.
With the addition of Johnny Damon, Rickey Henderson (who led the majors, watching 4.39 pitches per plate appearance), and a new skipper, the Red Sox got a better off-season face-lift than Greta Van Susteren. With Pedro healthy, Nomar Garciaparra likewise, and Jeff Lowe in the rotation where he belongs, the BoSos will likely provide, um, stiffer competition for the Yanks. But assuming the Yanks make the playoffs—and 13 and a half games is a lot for the Beanos to make up—the post-season road looks easier. The A’s and Indians will be shadows of their former selves, and the aging Mariners are unlikely to repeat their 116-win heroics. Waiting for another trip to the World Series, Yankee fans? Just be patient.