Is the Ron Guidry commemorative souvenir plastic beer cup half empty or half full? That’s the question of the day in Yankeeland. The good news is obvious. Barring an improbable collapse, the team is destined for its sixth consecutive division championship, the seventh in eight years. Which for a Met fan, or a fan of any other team except the Atlanta Braves, would be a reason for bare chests and face paint.
But look a little deeper, and there are reasons for Bronx cheers. A spring that led the jockritocracy to wonder if the Yankees would win 120 games gave way to a very different scene as summer turned to fall. Only a week ago, the Yanks were in danger of seeing their lead over the pesky Red Sox completely evaporate. Another timely hit from the Bosox or another mini-tremor from the Yankee bullpen, and this might be a story of a different kind: less playoff preview than postmortem.
But don’t order the World Series rings yet. The Yankee starting pitching is old and fragile. By this time next year, Roger Clemens and David Wells are likely to be retired, wearing Quiet Riot T-shirts and watching college football. As for Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte: Are they the greatest mediocre starters in baseball, or the most mediocre great ones? God Squad member Pettitte, a free agent, may already have his bags packed, ready to leave this den of iniquity. The less said about Jeff Weaver the better. This staff doesn’t match up well with the White Sox, much less the Moneyball A’s.
The core group of hitters seems to be in suspended animation as well. Derek Jeter showed his true value when the Yanks went 23-11 in his absence. Bernie Williams has sucked worse than his guitar playing, Jason Giambi has been hitting like his brother, and Aaron Boone hasn’t. And why exactly does Alfonso Soriano look like a Hall of Famer in the first half and Juan Samuel after the All Star break? His total of 10 second-half walks might give you a clue.
The bullpen is in ruins. Chris Hammond is so overpaid he should be playing in Queens. Jeff Nelson has morphed into Armando Benitez with a crew cut. The great Mariano Rivera isn’t so great anymore.
However, you don’t win 90-something games without a few bright spots. Hideki Matsui is no Barry Bonds, but he’s no Shane Spencer either. Nick Johnson has hit like Giambi was supposed to. And José Contreras has shown that he could be more than El Duque Lite.
All of this hasn’t gone unnoticed in the luxury boxes. This summer, George Steinbrenner has been on the warpath in a way that he hadn’t since the Buck Showalter Wars of 1995. It’s one thing to fire a pitching coach or two. It’s entirely another to contemplate replacing Joe Torre with Bobby Valentine. As we well know, Steinbrenner isn’t content with the noble effort and the second-place finish. How’s he going to react when the Yankees lose to the A’s, or even worse, the Red Sox? It won’t be pretty, but it should be amusing in a reality-TV sort of way. Whether half empty or half full, the Bud in that cup is likely to get dumped on someone’s head.