Break Up the Yankees? No, Just Tinker.


In 1951, the New York Giants had a .624 won-lost percentage, won the pennant on a miracle home run by Bobby Thomson in a playoff game, went to the World Series, took a two-games-to-one lead, then lost in six. In 2003, the New York Yankees had a .623 regular-season won-lost percentage, won the pennant on a miracle home run by Aaron Boone in a playoff game, went to the World Series, took a two-games-to-one lead, then lost in six. The Giants’ season was considered a success; the Yankees’ season is seen as something of a failure. It just goes to show that the standard of success is different for the Yankees than for everyone else.

Let’s not pretend that the tint of failure that now pervades the Yankee season can be pinned solely on George Steinbrenner. A simple glance at the New York-area sports pages the day after the World Series confirms that the local press is as negative in its take on the season as Steinbrenner himself. The truth is that when the Yankees don’t win it all, everyone regards the season as a failure. We’ve all been Steinbrennerized.

We’ve also been post-seasonized. Fans, writers, everyone who watches baseball these days seems to judge a player’s capabilities by what he did in the last handful of post-season games—witness the plethora of “Dump Aaron Boone” letters in the fans-speak-out columns. To judge from the fans’ reactions, heads should be rolling faster than Steinbrenner is chopping them off.

But let’s not be too quick to react. Was the firing of hitting coach Rick Down really so unjustified? Is he really, as an unidentified Yankee source (to the Daily News) said, “a sacrificial lamb to George”? The last time we checked, sacrificial lambs were innocent. If Down should take no responsibility for the epidemic of bad hitting that has plagued the Yankees all season long, who should? The Yankees’ failure to hit with men on base in the Series was, contrary to much comment, far from a new development, as those who watched the team all season can testify. (Things got so bad by August that after yet another instance in which the Yanks failed to score with the bags full, radio announcer John Sterling commented that the Yankees were “allergic to bases loaded.”) If Down was not supposed to correct the Yankee hitters’ baffling tactic of taking two called strikes with runners on base, then who was?

It’s unfair to nail Down for the Yankees’ failure to “work the count” against Josh Beckett; you can’t work the count when every first pitch is a strike. But what happened to the Yankees’ talent for making contact in key situations and going to the opposite field with two strikes? Or stated another way, if Down wasn’t the problem, what was he contributing to the solution? Goodbye, Rick Down. Hello, Don Mattingly or Tim Raines.

All of this being said, there are very good reasons why the Yankees are favorites on the current Las Vegas boards to win next year. If the Yankees re-sign Andy Pettitte—and they will—they will retain one of the best right-left tandems in baseball. The bullpen already has the best reliever, Steve Karsay is due back, and Felix Heredia and Gabe White (if the latter two are back) should be better with a season under their belts. Either Jose Contreras or Jon Lieber or both will fill out the starting rotation. That leaves the Yankees in need of just one strong young arm—choose between Bartolo Colón, Kevin Millwood, or Javier Vazquez.

As for what to do with second base and the outfield, there’s a simple and obvious solution. The only problems with Alfonso Soriano are that he is batting and fielding out of position. With his speed and power, he is a natural center fielder and No. 5 hitter. Bernie Williams should move to left field. The Yankees need a fundamentally sound second baseman with a good batting eye who can make contact in key situations and bat either leadoff or second. Sounds to us like a Stats Inc. printout on Montreal’s José Vidro. What to do about Aaron Boone? Nothing at all. He’s the best that’s available, and all the Yankees have to do is hold on to him.

There are a couple more important changes that need to be made, and Yankee fans shouldn’t shrink from them. No one who followed the team in the second half of the season and endured the slack, sloppy, unfocused baseball the Yankees produced can argue that Joe Torre and his staff don’t deserve to be shaken up.

Add it all up, and it’s simply a question of the Yankees making the moves after losing the World Series that they would have had to make had they won the World Series.

This marks the final appearance of a separate sports page in the Voice. Thanks for reading.