“As of now, the Yankees are officially the Atlanta Braves. They have a nice little season. They qualify for the playoffs. And then bad stuff happens to them.”
That was two flameouts ago in Detroit. Watching a beleaguered city, given hope from the federal investment in the auto industry, celebrate a rare victory in anything, it is hard to keep a straight face, if you love underdogs.
As for what has befallen the Yankees, it seems to be the predestination of an old-fashioned children’s nursery tale — the prince or princess haunted by a fatal prediction:
If you sip from the magic potion, you may enjoy the bloom of youth. But never forget that someday the dark angel will return and claim his percentage.
The curse, if you will, of the Yankees, has been the rush to sign Alex Rodriguez from Texas for the 2004 season, a continuation of the Steinbrenner Fatal Flaw — the Yankees cannot stop overpaying for aging sluggers and pitchers.
This flameout has been coming on a long time. A-Rod was clearly on the make in Seattle, although he insisted his departure to Texas was not about money. This led one sainted sports columnist of that epoch to nickname him Pay-Rod, a nickname he, oddly enough, has never much cared for.
In his perambulations, Rodriguez has been able to live large. His current mansion in Miami is listed for $38 million.
But now the curse has come due. Rodriguez is 37, and cannot hit righties. Come to think of it, he can’t hit lefties, either. Original Sin is catching up to the Yankees. They reaped one championship with him, in 2009 — and yes it was a joyous time and yes he contributed.
Are A-Rod’s chemical adventures catching up with him? This is no 0-for-21 slump suffered by Gil Hodges of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952. Hodges was still only 28 when he started going oh-fer against the Yankees, but Manager Chuck Dressen started him in all seven games.
That was a different age. For one thing, Hodges was already a Brooklyn icon, and fans sent religious objects to him. (Joan Hodges’s home in Brooklyn still has a trunk full of Mass cards and rosary beads.) Nowadays, fans tweet vile or spurious comments rather than pray. Also, Hodges also did not have a huge salary across his shoulder blades as do A-Rod and all the other becalmed Yankees sluggers.
Besides, the World Series was a sun-spangled event, with no wild-card rounds or division rounds or championship rounds, and there was hardly time for a pattern to develop. Good pitching and solid role players have usually come to the fore in the postseason. With all due respect to Joe Girardi, his mass benching of key players may have looked like panic within the Yankees clubhouse.
Still, all dynasties fade, by definition. Players fall apart. Derek Jeter’s ankle snapped making a play he has made a zillion times. Mariano Rivera fell apart jogging for a fly before a game. Willie Mays was hired to be a mascot, Mr. Met, and found himself stumbling on the bases in the 1973 World Series.
This A-Rod inevitability has been a long time coming. Now he has a contract for five more years and is owed $114 million.
This impasse is straight out of mythology. The Yankees ignored the warning signs, the one fact the organization should have known, but there is no guaranteeing institutional memory. Somebody always has a better idea.
It could be argued that the golden age of the entire Yankees franchise was from 1995 through 2000, when they won four World Series and just missed twice — as deep and home-built and fundamentally sound as this organization has ever been.
The five cornerstones were Rivera, Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte, and they stayed together because wicked King George was banished to the tower at a crucial time, allowing Gene Michael to hold on to the prizes the organization had wisely cultivated. No prodigal sons in the grand era, at least until Pettitte was shunned for a while.
What separated the Yankees from the eminently respectable Atlanta Braves and other challengers was huge New York cable money — put in the hands of a terrific baseball executive, Michael, who was unencumbered by the Boss and his Kooky Kollege of Kollaborators.
Brian Cashman, the team’s current general manager, referred Thursday to Michael’s “big, hairy monster” theory: go after lefty hitters with patience and power.
Once the Yankees pursued A-Rod for the 2004 season, they became the flawed suitor in some old nursery tale. These stories always have three wishes or three chances or three-strikes-you’re-out. The funny part is that the curse struck symmetrically three times in the same ballpark within seven seasons.
In 2006, Rodriguez was in such a slump that Manager Joe Torre dropped him to eighth in the lineup. I can remember the shock of the Yankees’ going down so early; Torre was close to tears. At that point, it seemed that one of them had to go, but Torre soldiered on, and so did A-Rod.
And with its own not-insubstantial cable money, the Tigers organization has accumulated a team with Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander, and invaluable role players who recall the era of Girardi, Scott Brosius and Paul O’Neill.
Don’t believe in spells? The Yankees have won exactly one World Series in nine seasons with A-Rod. They are not a dynasty anymore. But maybe there are no dynasties. Since Luis Sojo — little guys tend to do huge things in the World Series (see: Martin, Billy) — dribbled a hit up the middle in the fifth and final game of 2000, there have been nine different champions in the past 11 Series.
I don’t know about you, but I revel in reciting this litany from 2001 and onward — Arizona, Anaheim, Florida, Boston, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis, Boston, Philadelphia, Yankees, San Francisco, St. Louis. A lot of happy people in a lot of different towns.
True, the four teams in the league championship series this year ranged from the highest payroll (Yankees) to fifth (Tigers) to eighth (Giants) to ninth (Cardinals). But what makes this postseason so delightful is that the Galácticos (the soccer term for expensive all-stars) of Philadelphia, Boston and the Los Angeles Angels failed to make the postseason at all. They couldn’t even slip into the little wild-card gimmick initiated this year, which, as some wordsmith said in a different context, was “a sketchy deal.”
Meantime, heartwarming things were happening in Oakland and Baltimore, although both outsiders eventually lost in authentic best-of-five series.
All this democracy is good. And seems to be a trend. As Tyler Kepner pointed out recently, sound management still counts, particularly in the know-thyself regime of the DeWitt family and the smart folks hired to run the Cardinals.
The real disgrace is the Yankees — with their payroll of $197 million — flopping around like 42-year-old Willie Mays. Just like in the nursery tales, the Yankees made their deal with the Fates. Inevitably, that deal has turned out to be, as the fella said, sketchy.