Thursday, May 05, 2005

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

It's 10 O'Clock; do you know where your baseball team is headed? If you're a Yankee fan, that's a question whose answer is readily, and unfortunately, obvious.

In 1995, a variety of young players were populating the Yankee system, not merely at the big league level but in the three levels (AAA, AA and Single-A) of their minor league teams. Some of those players -- Bernie Williams, Andy Pettite, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera -- were gaining experience and preparing for greatness. In what would be then-captain Don Mattingly's final season, the Yankees marched into the postseason and challenged (and lost) to Seattle.

The next season, Mattingly's replacement, former Seattle 1B Tino Martinez, joined other first-time Yankees like Derek Jeter to propel the team, with a phenomenon resembling inertia, to the postseasonm under the tutelage of Joe Torre, a nondescript replacement of Buck Showalter. They survived a first-round challenge from the Baltimore Orioles, beat the Cleveland Indians, and earned the chance to meet the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. The first two games were played in New York, and both games were soundly won by the Braves. So heading back to Atlanta, the Braves were up 2-0 and in complete command.

Three games in Atlanta later, the Yankees had won three straight and, incredibly, on an October night, the Yankees won a fourth consecutive game and won the World Series.

Since that night in 1996, the Yankees had been on a magical ride: their shortstop, phenom Derek Jeter, grew to national prominence; their pitching staff was among the finest ever assembled in the modern era; their closer, Mariano Rivera, was nearly perfect -- if the Yankees had a lead with him on the mound in the 9th Inning, it was all but over. Their hitting, defense, baserunning and efficiency were the best in baseball, and their pitching -- from their starters to middle relievers to their closers -- dominated other teams' hitters.

Including 1996, the Yankees won four World Series to date. Last season, they were yet again on an almost destiny-like trip to the World Series after taking a 3-0 lead against their long-time rival, the Boston Red Sox, when the unthinkable happened -- they collapsed and Boston went on to win four straight (and four more consecutive games to sweep the Cardinals in the World Series). Since then, things haven't been quite right.

Baseball players and baseball fans are an observant, superstitious lot. We know enough to step over but not onto the foul lines extending to first and third base from home plate. We never mess with a streak. We stick with rituals. And when things aren't working, life doesn't get much worse.

Tonight's third loss in four games against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (among the worst teams in the league) put the Yankees in last place in the American League East. Tonight sealed this season as the worst start to a Yankee season since 1975. The pitching is ineffective (and incompetent), the defense is porous, the offense is anemic, the baserunning is moronic, the proclivity to move the runner over into scoring position is almost non-existent, and the team is as low as it can get. So where are the Yankees headed?

If no new capable pitchers are acquired or called up from the minor leagues, the Yankees will continue to lose two of three or three or four; and if their hitters continues to slump and not get on base via the walk and steal bases and move the runners along, they will continue to lose. And their problems will get worse, not better.

So while, on this supposedly happy Cinco de Mayo, the Yankees, and their fans, are feeling as low as they can get. I expect that Joe Torre will be fired by mid-June if this continues (and it will get better, but even then, I'd be surprised if he survives the season). The only positive thing about this season is that it will force the Yankees to infuse their team with young talent and a few established players. But their continued success over the past nine years virtually guaranteed a down season, and if this is one awful season, many Yankee fans can tolerate it. If this is the start of a dark period for the Yankees, fans like me won't be too happy. But the pendulum swings both ways, so I am hoping the team pulls out of this funk they're in in time for the important games to be played.

I'll be giving some occasional Yankee updates herein, but the truth is unless the team starts winning, the bottom line is that the only updates will be the promised and/or expected changes that will start come June 1st and beyond. And if you're a fellow Yankee fan, expect to be a little sour after reading my take on things. I've had about enough of Cashman and Steinbrenner mortgaging the future of the francise for the chance at a big name like Randy Johnson or Gary Sheffield; I would prefer they keep the yoots and build from below rather than buy from above. So this is, and it will continue to be, a long, long season.

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