Going into the last year of the House that Ruth Built, an inescapable feeling of loss and new beginnings engulfed the Yankees. Joe Torre, the figurehead of the Dynasty Years of the late ’90s, was finally gone, and so, for all intents and purposes, was George Steinbrenner, the senior-ranking owner in the game who lorded over the Yankees and the rest of baseball with a force and celebrity rarely, if ever, matched by any owner in modern sports.
Steinbrenner has faded gradually for the past three or four years, and this offseason his two sons, the blustery Hank and the pragmatic, level-headed Hal, assumed control of the team. Brian Cashman, who has been the general manager of the team far longer than anyone since George Weiss, is in the final year of his contract, and the club is seven years removed from its last championship.
Despite their gaudy payroll, still by far the fattest in the sport, this season felt like a transition year even though the Yanks were expected to win and make the playoffs. While nobody announced that this was a rebuilding year—certainly the most costly re-building year in baseball history—I think the change in expectations was signaled when the Yankees didn’t trade for Johan Santana (though right about now, nobody in the Bronx would blink an eye over having lost Ian Kennedy or Melky Cabrera as part of a deal). Had the Yankees made the move, it would have been clear they wanted to win at all costs. That they didn’t suggested a larger plan was at work and that the George Steinbrenner era was over.
On top of that, the spectacle of the Final Year of Yankee Stadium has overshadowed the action on the field. While the public relations push has been crushing, it has to be considered a success for the organization: getting seats for the remaining games has turned into something that you only find for a hit Broadway show in a limited run. In a sense, this was the year that the Yankees became the Cubs (though not the 2008 Cubs) because whether they won big or not, people were going to cram the Stadium to say goodbye—just like they’ll jam the new park over the next couple of years.
On the field, this season has proven to be a comedy of errors, underachieving and misfortune. The Yanks have outrun early-season slumps in recent years but have been dealt a harsh blow this year, losing Jorge Posada, Chien-Ming Wang, Hideki Matsui and Phillip Hughes for a majority of the season. Kennedy has been hurt most of the time, too, and he’s been a disaster when he has pitched, smirking his way to the minors on two occasions.
The failure to get anything substantial out of Hughes and Kennedy can’t be overemphasized, as it helped put the team in an early-season hole from which it has not been able to recover. Joba Chamberlain began the year in the bullpen, and made a smooth transition to the starting rotation—he’s the most impressive Yankee pitcher in some time—but how much did the delayed move cost the team?
Moreover, Johnny Damon was put on the DL for the first time in his career and has missed significant time, Alex Rodriguez was out for three weeks with a leg injury, and Chamberlain is hurt. On top of that Derek Jeter is having the worst season in his career, Robinson Cano has been a colossal disappointment, and Cabrera has been even worse.
Everything has gone wrong, and the blame can spread around liberally. As longtime Yankee analyst Steven Goldman has noted, it’s not just one thing, the Yankees have suffered a death of a thousand little cuts. It’s the injuries, sure, but it is also the fact that the Yankees have been a horrible team with runners in scoring position. The hitting just is not as strong as it was last season. How do you figure that Rodriguez and Jason Giambi, both enjoying good seasons, have been so bad in the clutch? Talk about bum luck.
“You can also point the finger at the collapse of their advantage up the middle,” says Goldman. “What was the secret of this dynasty? Posada, Jeter, second basemen like Knoblauch and Soriano, Bernie Williams in center. What’s happening up the middle now? Dead Posada, Jeter looking sluggish, Cano with a .303 OBP, and Melky is one of the worst offensive players in the game.”
Joe Girardi was in a tough spot replacing Torre. I always thought you’d never want to be the guy who replaced Torre; you’d want to be the guy who replaced the guy who replaced Torre. But Girardi was a part of the championship years and that has bought him some leeway. Oddly, given his experience in broadcasting, Girardi has made some elementary mistakes with the media, not always being entirely forthcoming about player injuries. But he has done a decent job of managing the bullpen and hasn’t been afraid to be tough with his young pitchers, Kennedy in particular. YES announcer Michael Kay compared Girardi to Billy Martin early this season, in that he looks physically drawn when the team loses. It’s amazing that he’s got any color left.
The two brightest spots for the team have been Mike Mussina, who is enjoying one of his best years in New York, and Mariano Rivera, who is still one of the top five closers in the league. Mussina was all but given up for dead, so his resurgence has been especially rewarding. Unlike Tim Wakefield or Jamie Moyer, Mussina doesn’t have one off-speed pitch that he relies on; instead, he’s got five or six decent pitches. His control has been excellent and he’s been able to change speeds, going slow and even slower still, far better than ever before. While he might not win 20 games—he’s currently at 15—he might return again next year, something that wasn’t on anyone’s mind when the season began.
Rivera is a marvel, both physically and aesthetically. His motion is so beautiful, so simple. He still essentially throws one pitch, the fastball, and his control is still impeccable (in 52 innings, he’s walked just six batters, while striking out 61). Beyond that, Rivera still gives Yankee fans a peaceful, easy feeling when he’s on the mound, even when he’s not perfect, even when he loses. It is not a sensation that will last forever, which has made savoring every performance crucial. It’s not as if Yankee fans don’t appreciate what they’ve got in Rivera. Most of us know he’s not going to last forever. It’s on us if we don’t appreciate and admire him in his final years—and it’s remarkable that he’s still able to perform so well.
It is the middle of August now and the Yankees are nine games out of first place and six games back in the wild card standings. They went 3-7 against Texas, Anaheim and Minnesota, in what Yankee beat writer Pete Abraham aptly called a “stumble across America.” It’s not so much that they are losing that is frustrating—it is how they are losing. The team often looks uninspired, and worse, sloppy. Cano has been one of the prime offenders. It’s hard to imagine that he would be playing this carelessly, both at the plate and in the field, if third base coach Larry Bowa were still around. (I don’t know what that says about a major leaguer, that he’d really need a coach to keep him in line, but it sure ain’t good.)
That said, there is still time for them to get back into the playoff race. They have plenty of games left against the Red Sox and even the Rays. Stranger things have happened, but I don’t know that anyone is holding their breath. The team simply isn’t showing enough signs of life. Two days ago, Hank Steinbrenner ostensibly conceded the season, a very un-Boss-like maneuver that indicates just how far things changed within the organization.
Through it all, the injuries and lackluster play, I’ve enjoyed this season. Perhaps I’m just getting caught up in the emotions of the last year of the Stadium. I’ve also been waiting for some time for the year that they finally miss the postseason. Now, that it is here, it isn’t the worst thing in the world if they don’t play in October. Seems like a reasonable hand to be dealt by the baseball fates.
The one thing that I can’t get out of my mind, though, is that the last game at Yankee Stadium occurs a week before the end of the regular season. It’s hard to fathom the place being shut for good while the team plays out the string on the road. Just goes to show that most things in life don’t end with a bang but with a whimper.