Friday, October 13, 2006

Prof. Justice: Damn Yankees

This being October and me being over stimulated on pervert teachers, predator politicians, pathetic psychopathic child-killers and, oh yes, Pyongyang’s Kim Jong-mentally-Il, I’ve focused on something of far greater significance: the cataclysmic collapse of my New York Yankees - the mightiest sports franchise on the face of the earth. Well, far be it for me to not maintain a proper perspective of my life priorities, but I am beyond devastated. In fact, it has now been (gasp) six whole years since they last won the baseball world’s famed fall classic. Desperation and despondency have engulfed every fiber of my being. It’s just more than I can bear.

The New York tabloids, for their part, have fueled my depression. Losing to a team which, during the regular season was forty games over five hundred and had the best team earned-run average in all of baseball, was embarrassing enough. But they thought it necessary to reopen the flesh wounds inflicted by the perpetual season-ending losses since 2000. You remember: the 2001 and 2003 World Series losses, the 2004 American League Championship Series historical collapse to the dreaded Boston Red Sox and, the 2002 and 2005 Division Series losses to the Los Angeles Angels. Geez, it’s a good thing my sixth-floor office widows are hermetically sealed.

Of course, New York’s talking heads screamed for the trading of A-Rod, the dumping of Gary Sheffield and the firing of Joe Torre. “Outta Here” headlined The Daily News. “No Mo Joe” read another. One writer stated, “Opportunity knocked, louder even than Alex Rodriguez gets knocked,” but he didn’t answer. Why? Because “with the bases loaded and two outs in the first inning of their Game Two loss, he swung and missed at a Justin Verlander ninety-eight mile an hour fastball for strike one, then swung again at a one-hundred and one mile an hour pitch and fouled it back.” Such incompetence. I suppose it would have understandable had Verlander been throwing really hard, like one-hundred and five miles per hour. Another insightful writer offered this epiphany, “Yet after committing an error and going 0-for-3 in Detroit’s 8-3 ousting of the Yankees, He was 1-for-14 in this series, and in his post season career he remains hitless in sixteen at-bats with eight strikeouts in situations of two outs and runners in scoring position. This is not some insignificant player achieving this infamy. This is a player good enough to be part of an all-time 25-man team just assembled by Sports Illustrated.”

To be fair, the pundits didn’t unleash their wrath exclusively at Alex Rodriguez. Some conceded that it wasn’t only A-Rod’s failure to notch one run-batted-in throughout eleven consecutive playoff games that caused their demise. And several of the sharpest writers offered a few keen insights into the obvious. One wrote, “[The team was] a staggering one for thirty-two with men on base in two straight losses . . . [and] Jason Giambi and Robinson Cano have been particularly pungent.” Another said, “A mind-boggling twenty innings the Yankees went without scoring on the way to yesterday’s 8-3 humiliation that bounced them out of the first round on their wrinkled butts for a second straight October.” Yet another whined, “Until Derek Jeter led off the seventh with a single, the captain had only two hits since his five in Game One. Johnny Damon had not reached base since his homer. Finicky Bobby Abreu was on an 0-for-9 slide.” And finally, AARP member Randy Johnson was trashed for being “touched up for three runs in a second inning of ground balls and a bloop hit helped by a poor jump by right fielder Bobby Abreu, plus a botched pickoff by double-clutching first baseman Jason Giambi. Johnson then put up three more innings of zeroes.”

They didn’t spare Joe Torre either. If you believe them, he managed (pun intended) to go from Hall of Fame genius to a moron because of his “gambit to bench Gary Sheffield, start Bernie Williams as the designated hitter, and play Giambi at first base failed.” Sheffield, who had never played first base in his career, played there because of Giambi’s bad wrist. When that didn’t work out so well, Torre made the rash decision to return Giambi to first base where he promptly committed an error and cost the Yanks a run. And let’s not forget that Bernie Williams going hitless with two strikeouts was very predictable considering that throughout his career, he had enjoyed unprecedented success against Tiger’s pitcher Kenny Rogers.

“And it didn’t happen just because Alex Rodriguez failed so miserably for the second straight fall that keeping him a Yankee may no longer be viable, or because Jason Giambi’s wrist was crippled, or because Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui couldn’t make up for all that lost time after all.” Nah, I’m sure that had nothing to do with it. It must have been because Torre failing to get them to perform better. Or maybe it was because Torre “overused” the relief pitchers that, during the regular season, protected leads, saved games and significantly contributed to the sweeping and burying of the rival Red Sox. Hmm, I suppose that might explain Torre’s remarkable ninth consecutive division championship and eleventh consecutive playoff berth. So now the best manager in baseball who, during his eleven-year tenure, has distinguished himself through his trademark calm and steady stewardship of massive egos, is suddenly a dunce and should be run out of town because he failed to get A-Rod perform better?

Well, at least the critics all agreed on the solution. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner should fire Joe Torre and hire former Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Devil Rays manager, Lou Piniella. Piniella, who despite winning a championship with Cincinnati in 1990, had A-Rod and Randy Johnson along with a host of other talent in Seattle and failed to get to the World Series even after achieving an American league record one-hundred and nineteen regular season wins. Yeah, he’s the ticket.

Look, the New York Yankees are arguably the most successful franchise in baseball and perhaps in all of sports. Their accomplishments throughout history and most recently since 1996 are impressive. And it shouldn’t go unnoticed that Rodriguez hit the ball hard three times in Game One. Two years ago, the Yankees may not have beaten Minnesota without him. In the 2004 American League Championship Series against Boston, nobody else did much offensively. And, in the post season, Rodriguez has a .294 career hitting average with six home runs and sixteen RBIs in one-hundred and twenty-six at-bats. By the way, you may not have noticed that with the exception of last year, the Yankees since 2000 have been bounced into “humiliation” by the team that would become World Champions.

Listening to the sportswriters buying into Steinbrenner’s shtick, one would think that it is the Yankees’ birthright to win the World Series in perpetuity. And if, heaven forbid, they don’t, the baseball universe is awry. Amazingly, escaping these writers is the possibility that (gasp) the Tigers performed better. I know. That’s blasphemous. It must be that the Yankees bombed (actually, that was their problem - they didn’t hit any bombs), flopped and collapsed. Has anyone considered that maybe, just maybe, the Tigers are a better team? Okay, maybe they are and maybe they’re not. Who cares? The fact is they outplayed the Yankees. So before the theorists jump to the conclusion that the Yankees woefully contributed to their doom, I’d point out that eleven of the first nineteen Yankees batters took strike one off Jeremy Bonderman on the way to getting five soft hits off him. It was Bonderman who got the first fifteen batters out before Robinson Cano snuck a bouncing grounder through the middle of the infield to break up a perfect game. Even Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson acknowledged that the Tigers’ pitching should be given credit for “making their pitches.” Everyone, including New York’s sportswriters, knows darn well that good pitching will beat good hitting every time. The fact of the matter is the Tigers had it and the Yankees didn’t.

If the pundits were more intellectually honest, and there were some who indeed were, they would place the blame for the Yankees “failure” squarely on the shoulders of their domineering Boss, George Steinbrenner. His incessant desire for high profile “proven” players (read: aging and breaking down players who are offered more money than they could ever expect from anyone else) incites his eagerness to give away young stud prospects to obtain what he perceives as a certain championship. After all, he “deeply want[s] a championship. It’s about time.” Tell that to the Cubbies. My eight-year-old son deeply wants a lot of things also, but like most people he doesn’t get most of them.

Admittedly, since returning from his baseball suspension for dealing with a convicted felon, Howard Spira, he appears to be relenting to the wiser organizational gurus who resist such “quick fixes.” The Yankees have been better about retaining and cultivating their young players such as Chien Ming Wang, Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera. And they have a giant prospect in pitcher Philip Hughes who is reportedly close to be ready for the major league. If George’s petulance doesn’t get in the way, perhaps the Yankees will have a tremendous one-two punch for many years in Wang and Hughes. That’s precisely how the Tigers built their staff, by drafting Verlander and trading for Robertson and Bonderman.

Steinbrenner, for all his ills, does put his profits into the team instead of his pocket like Minnesota owner Carl Pohlad. And consequently, he always gives the team a chance to win every year. But it’s just that: a chance. Like it or not, the reality is that the chances of a team reaching and winning the World Series are slim at best in any year, much less every year. Unless the Yankees change the way they acquire talent, especially pitchers, those chances will become remote. It’s not the Yankees’ birthright to win. And when another team does, it might actually be because they’re better. Go Tigers!