Monday, May 28, 2007

Rock Bottom

To state the relevant facts: The Yankees close May 27, 2007 at 21-27, 12.5 games behind the best team in baseball in the American League East, and eight games behind Detroit in the AL Wild Card. As noted many times, the Yankees have a record well below what's expected based on the numbers of runs they score and allow. Yet after losing 4-3 to The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California, Joe Torre's team is 2-9 in one-run games. The only two wins: deficit-erasing walk-off homers by Alex Rodriguez back in April. Injuries, an ineffective bullpen and an inconsistent offense have all contributed to a season on the brink of complete irrelevance. Indeed, projects probabilities of teams winning against their remaining schedules- and if the Yankees continue their level of play, fans can expect just a 15% chance of making the playoffs.

Many Yankees fans my age (born 1984) or younger will often have an accusation of bandwagonism thrown at them, given that the Yankees have been a consistent winning team since 1994. Most people, when learning I am a Yankees fan, give me a disgusted look and probably assume I'm one of those frontrunners. When I explain I'm from New Jersey the look of disgust only gets worse ("Why not the Mets, then?"), and for some people even "Well, my Dad is a Yankees fan and I watched games with him since I was in diapers," as an explanation does not satisfy. So, this is a time for Yankees fans to make their true allegiances known.

No longer can a Yankee fan hang on every pitch as if it were the ninth inning of a World Serious game. No longer can a players' poor performance be acceptable because he is a "clutch post-season performer" or whatever. Instead, true Yankees fans must make an adjustment, and show characteristics that separate us from the sheep. I call them the Three Pees: Patience, Persistence, and Perspective. Viewed through this lens, there is lots to look forward to in 2007 for the Yankees:

1. Roger Clemens. Sure, the best pitcher of my lifetime has just become the most highly paid Deck Chair Realigner in history, but it does not change his status as the best pitcher of my lifetime. Odds are he'll still have at least some of the magic he had with the Astros the past two seasons, and that will be fun to watch.

2. Phil Hughes. Though a mild ankle injury has set back his rehab a bit, expect Phil Phranchise to return to the mound for the big league team this summer. For those fans who have come to be dissatisfied with the "spend more!" theory of team building, a young dominating pitcher is the cure. Relatedly, the emergence of young players like Robinson Cano (now on a 11 game hitting streak following a dreadful slump) and Chien-Ming Wang (back killing worms like only he can) give the team a much different look.

3. The Yankees as sellers. This could get exciting- Bobby Abreu, Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Myers, Ron Villone, and possibly even Jason Giambi are players that could fill needs for teams with playoff dreams. While no team will be willing to give up too much to the Yankees, it will be refreshing to see other teams fall over themselves to deal for aging veterans.

4. Rooting against the Red Sox. Ah, my second favorite baseball team: whoever is playing Boston. Sure, the best record in the land right now, but they have their own ranks of the old (Schilling, Wakefield, Varitek) and perennially injured (Beckett, Drew). While the dream of overtaking the Red Sox may be far-fetched, rooting for Boston to lose is as rewarding as rooting for a T-lymphocite to knock out some flesh-eating Stapholococcus aureus.

5. Stat Padding! Hey, with the team out of the race, who cares whether A-Rod's home runs come in close games or not? I want to see him heat up again and challenge the AL single-season home run record. I want to see Jeter and Posada battle for a batting title. It managed to keep Yankees fans interested in 1985 when the Mattingly/Winfield batting race came down to the final day; 2007 would be no different.

Of course, knowing the NY Media we'll probably get a steady dose of daily updates on the contract situations of Posada, Rivera, and especially A-Rod. There's always the chance that orders come from up high and Hughes and Clippard and Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain are all traded for some crappy aging veteran to try to get the team on track. With a team out of the race, the Yankees should avoid a lame-duck situation and fire Torre before the end of the season, replacing him with the man for the future: Joe Girardi (Sorry Donnie Baseball, but you're too much like Torre and you're not ready). Brian Cashman, meanwhile, needs to show that he has the ability to make deals that will build a team for the long term: the Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson trades were refreshing but so far an abysmal failure.

In the meantime, there is plenty to like about the 2007 baseball season outside of the Bronx. On the backs of a shaky, fly-ball heavy rotation, the team across town is looking to end a 20-year World Serious drought. Barry Bonds is about to put his asterisk-free name next to the words "All Time Home Runs Leader." In Milwaukee, the Brewers look to prove, once again, that small-market teams can compete without the need for a salary cap. Likewise in the American League, the Indians appear to finally be approaching their potential, while the Angels lead the AL West despite having only one respectable hitter.

So while the Yankees continue their free-fall to rock bottom, it's a time to realize how great a sport baseball is, and that passion can be directed at other targets besides "Win, at all costs."

(P.S. This post seems eerily familiar...)

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