Kill the Empire!


All of a sudden, within the space of little more than two years, the New York baseball press has become socialist in its bent. Not regarding any other aspect of American life, and certainly not regarding distribution of income or medical care or anything that actually matters—just baseball, as in New York Yankee baseball. The New York Times, which seems to write more about Yankee spending than about Yankee winning, opined on August 5 that “certainly the new system of revenue sharing and luxury taxes has not been a panacea to small-market teams everywhere.”

No, it hasn’t. Nor has it helped the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, or even the New York Mets all that much. Or at least no more or less than the San Francisco Giants, Oakland A’s, Minnesota Twins, or Houston Astros. In fact, the Yankees are the only team that will be paying the luxury tax for surpassing the $117 million threshold; as Doug Pappas wrote in the Society for American Baseball Research newsletter Outside the Lines, “The Yankees are almost certainly the only club which will ever owe the luxury tax.”

Which means that no matter how much the Yankees share their wealth with the relative have-nots, they’re apparently still going to be blamed, even when they lose. Last year the Times ran a photo of a Pittsburgh Pirate fan with a bedsheet sign that read “Stop Yankee Oppression.” Yankee oppression? The Pirates are in the National League, and the last time the Yankees played them, the Pirates won on Bill Mazeroski’s homer.

At this rate, it’s just a matter of time before the Yankees become the reason the Mets suck.

A couple of short weeks ago it appeared that the Yankees were limping into the playoffs despite having the best record in the American League.

Though taking a winning percentage of over .600 into the last month of the regular season, the team appeared to be rudderless. If the Yankees had displayed one consistent trait since the All-Star game, it was a penchant for getting the absolute crap beat out of them in the first two games of a series only to eke out an ugly nail-biter in the third game to narrowly avoid a sweep.

Have they straightened themselves out? That’s not an easy question to answer when your toughest foe over a four-series span is the Baltimore Orioles, and your two other opponents, Detroit and Tampa Bay, might not extend the Brooklyn Cyclones.

It could be argued, of course, that without the injuries to, or lengthy physical afflictions of, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, and Jason Giambi, the Yanks would almost certainly have the best record in baseball. The injuries and ailments, though, don’t get at the real question, which is why this year’s Yankees were playing such dreary, spiritless ball at a time when they should have been at their sharpest and most aggressive.

Many of the faces are different from the team that won 103 games last year but got stuffed by the Angels in the first round of the playoffs. But the lack of desire and focus has remained the same, and, sad as it is to have to admit, it all starts with Joe Torre, whose management style has become an odd combination of the lazy and the stubborn. Both traits are manifested in his baffling refusal to recognize the obvious fact that Alfonso Soriano—who hears the words “ball three” about as often as a Westchester resident hears the words “Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers”—isn’t and never will be a leadoff man.

Then again, what if, in spite of themselves, the Yankees do win it all? (Which wouldn’t, after all, demand any more than a simple reversion to their natural form.) Given the extreme Yankee-hating climate of not only the national press, but, increasingly, the New York area press, what would they have to look forward to? A ticker-tape parade or an inquest from the media on how they ruined the baseball season?

Make no mistake, there is no way for the Yankees to win this year. If they fail to win the World Series, they’re pampered, spoiled, and gutless. If they do win, it was rigged in the first place.

The Yankees’ strange road to no-where started practically the day after the World Series in 2001, when Commissioner Bud Selig and his advisers began to gird themselves for another war with the Players Association. Major League Baseball, claimed the commissioner’s office, needed increased revenue sharing to redress the “competitive imbalance”—the phrase was used over and over again—that had found its way into the game in the past couple of decades. Never mind that baseball was more competitively balanced than it had ever been (for the first time ever, in the 2000 season, not a single team finished above .600 in won-lost percentage or below .400) or that baseball was the most competitively balanced of all major sports (between 1981 and last year, MLB saw 21 different teams in the World Series to the NFL’s 19 different teams in the Super Bowl—and that’s with baseball having one less post-season due to a strike). Never mind, even, that the obvious goal of the baseball owners wasn’t to achieve more competitive balance, but simply to lower players’ salaries.

From September 11 to the end of the World Series, the Yankees were, for a brief shining period, “America’s team,” a symbol of New York’s indomitable will and resilience. As negotiations with the Players Association heated, the Yankees were gradually transformed by the Boston Red Sox management—a group, by the way, that could buy and sell George Steinbrenner several times over—into the “Evil Empire.” The New York area press, for some curious reason, has chosen to see things the Red Sox way.

Seven weeks ago, for instance, the Yankees made one of the more brilliant deals of the Brian Cashman era: They dumped an aging former All-Star third baseman, 37-year-old Robin Ventura, and picked up a current All-Star third baseman, 30-year-old Aaron Boone. To read the New York papers the next day, you’d have sworn that a cold, wet corpse, instead of one of the best third basemen in baseball, had been dumped at the clubhouse entrance of Yankee Stadium.

“New 3B Can’t Carry Yanks” said the headline in George King’s story in the New York Post. Well, who said that he would? Was Ventura carrying the Yanks?

The shrillest reaction, predictably, was from Mike Lupica in the Daily News. The Yankees, he wrote, “were simply out to win at any cost. It is the real business of the Yankees, and it sucks the joy out of the season.” Out of whose season, exactly? And why, we’re entitled to ask, shouldn’t Steinbrenner and Cashman be out to “win at any cost”? If the fans are willing to pay the price for the tickets and beer, what exactly is Steinbrenner supposed to do with that money? Pocket it as pure profit, as so many of those teams getting that fat luxury tax from the Yankees do? Or try to improve his team the best way he and his front office see fit?

If teams such as the Cincinnati Reds leave players like Aaron Boone and Gabe White (the real steal in the deal) out on the doorstep, is it less of a case of the Yankees “sucking the joy” out of the game or of the Reds spitting it out?

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