Friday, September 23, 2005

Finale, Kind Of

Oh yeah, that whole part about Pettite…I don’t particularly want to discuss that issue at the moment. That one was personal. Sure, O’Neill and Brosius had to retire. And they let Knoblauch try his luck in Kansas City while Tino was discarded in favor of the 2000 AL MVP. But those were acceptable moves. Knoblauch had been ineffective and Tino was aging. But there was absolutely no excuse to let Andy Pettite walk in the prime of his career.

And I’m arguing it like it happened two days ago. That’s how bitter I am. It breaks my heart to see him killing out in Houston, because he should be killing in the Bronx. And yes, I do kinda follow the Astros now. Well, at least once every five days. Twice if you count me jeering at Fat Roger.

17-9, 2.45 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, .234 BAA. Even if you adjust for the American League, he’s still a No. 2 starter. I know, I know, I shouldn’t be harping on this kinda stuff amidst a pennant race.

And just for the record, I don’t care that he had injured his elbow last year, or if the Yanks saw that one coming. If they saw it coming, they could have taken preemptive measures upon re-signing him. But they (i.e. Steinbrenner) largely ignored Pettite during the off-season, prompting him to accept an offer from Houston, leaving most fans aghast. There he was, the only pitcher left from the ’96 team, gone without a fight. Remember December 16, 2003.

Mind you, Pettitte’s stated reason for accepting Houston’s bid was because of the lack of attention he was receiving from The Boss. This feeling of neglect was surely amplified by the events of December 13, when Cashman turned one of the most ill advised trades since Jay Buhner was swapped for Ken Phelps. I just can’t see the logic in acquiring Kevin Brown. Sure, his back held up for a stellar 2003 season, but what were the chances that it wouldn’t go out two years in a row? I’d say they’re along the same lines as a director’s cut of The Godfather being released in which Sonny doesn’t get gunned down at the tollbooth.

Sure, we were desperate to unload Jeff Weaver. But the Dodgers were more than likely desperate to unload Brown and his ginormous deal. They got what they wanted out of him in ’03. And what do you do when you have a mammoth contract you need to unburden yourself of? That’s right, place a call to George Steinbrenner. (Aside: this seems to be a New York affliction, considering that’s how Isaiah Thomas rolls).

I still think we could have gotten more value elsewhere for Weaver. But, George wanted a marquee pitcher, and Brown presented that with his 2003 season. Lack for foresight further killed this deal, as we included Yhency Brazoban. Sure, he collapsed after being promoted to the closer role, but the kid still shows promise. And quality bullpen help can’t be overrated.

That would prove to be the starting point in what might be one of the most active seven days in Yankees history. Three days after acquiring Brown, they inked Tom Gordon as Mo’s set-up man, and pulled the deal – as they thought – of the year, dishing Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera (Randy Choate, too, but who counts him?) to Montreal for Javier Vazquez, once again vanquishing the Red Sox for a prized player.

For what Vazquez was worth at the time, the deal didn’t seem shoddy at all. Sure, we gave up Nick Johnson, a young stud who is frequently injured. But with Giambi wrapped up in his seven-year deal, Johnson was expendable to an extent. Coincidentally, this deal happened on the day Pettitte officially became an Astro, but we already knew he was gone by then. Plus, the Vazquez deal was ready to go, pending his contract extension, for a few days.

The very next day, we signed the final piece of the three-headed monster, putting Paul Quantrill in pinstripes and adding a bit more depth to the bullpen. This was much needed, considering the average age of our starters was 72.

December 18, dished the more than disappointing Chris Hammond to Oakland for Eduardo Sierra. I only mention this because Sierra ended up nabbing us Chacon in July. See, the little things do matter.

December 19. After weeks of negotiations, then the negotiations being terminated, then money being offered to Vladdy Daddy, Steinbrenner finally got his guy and inked Gary Sheffield to a three year deal. Not to nit-pick or anything here, but did anyone else think that we should have made a play for him after the ’01 season? You’re telling me we couldn’t offer a more competitive package than Odalis Perez and Brian Jordan? Who knows, maybe we made a run and failed. But I have no recollection of Sheffield ever being talked about as O’Neill’s replacement.

This was also the day we’d ink Miguel Cairo as ‘Fonso’s backup at second. Oh, the little things that we didn’t notice at the time. No one gave two shits about Cairo at the time, especially since the Sheffield signging was announced the same day. But wow, did that guy provide a spark that the 2004 Yanks desperately needed.

We then proceeded to ink Kenny Lofton, which led to the following exchange:
“We need a backup center fielder. Bernie turns 35 this year.”
“Oh, didn’t you hear? We got Kenny Lofton.”
“Kenny….Lofton? The same guy from the Indians team in ’97?”
“Right-o.”
“What is he, 50?”
“37”
And if you heard a sonic boom at that moment, it was me screaming at a decibel level never previously attained in human history. True story.

We fast forward to early February, 2004. Pitchers and catchers were about to report, which is always an exciting time of the year for me. Just a month and a half till baseball, baby! I was still living in the frat house at the time, which had one distinct advantage: I’d never miss a beat with sports. If something significant happened, the entire house would know within a half-hour. And if you weren’t home, you were more than likely to get a call from someone raving about Player X holding out, or Player Y being shipped out of town.

I strolled in from the gym, and heard Joe, who lived across the hall, muttering, “Holy shit. This is unreal. It can’t be true. But it’s on ESPN, so it must be.” Now, I don’t know if he knew it was me coming down the hall (we were the only Yankees fans living there at the time), but before I could unlock my door, his head popped out as he somehow composed himself to relay this message: “The Yanks got A-Rod.”

What? Naw! Why would we get A-Rod? We have Jeter at short. Why would you tease me like this, especially after Boone had gone down with a torn ACL?

“I’m dead serious, dude. It’s not official yet, but both sides agreed and they’re just waiting for the commissioner to approve it.”
“Who are we giving up?”
“Soriano.”
“That’s it?”
“That’s it.”

I had to sit down and breathe for a minute. We were receiving arguably the best player in baseball in exchange for a free-swinging second baseman who doesn’t hustle plays out and has an attitude problem? This can’t be right. It just makes no sense.

Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to get up from the silence of my room and sit down in Joe’s. He had ESPN News on, which was the A-Rod 24/7 channel for the next few days. This was cause for celebration. Not only did we just get the best player in baseball, not only do we not have to pay his entire salary, not only did we merely give up a guy I didn’t particularly care for anyway, but we trumped the Red Sox. They thought they had A-Rod. Thought they had dumped Manny’s contract and attitude and had agreed in principle with the White Sox to swap Nomar for Magglio Ordonez. But that deal fell through, and now we were the winners of the Unofficial A-Rod Sweepstakes.

We trumped them for Vazquez, for Contreras (though that was more of a burden than an achievement), for Mussina, for Bernie, and now for A-Rod. Okay, so they got Curt Schilling, but whoop dee freakin’ doo. Not like he was co-MVP of a team that beat us in the World Series, right?

The Yanks started the ’04 season shaky, actually trailing the Red Sox for much of April. Oh, but how things have a tendency to level out. By the end of June, the Yanks were solidly atop the AL East, with Boston wondering how the hell they were going to pull this one off. And then came The Game.

Yeah, you know what I mean by The Game. Jeter diving into the stands, nearly shattering his precious face. If that was the defining moment of the year, the Yanks would have easily won the Series. But it ended up just being a demoralizing loss for the Red Sox, especially considering Nomar was sulking on the bench throughout. Didn’t come in as a pinch hitter, just sat there, seemingly disinterested. No, this didn’t spark his trade at all.

Then, on the same day the Yanks found out that there was no way Randy Johnson was coming to town (which would have sent Cano packing), the Sox swapped their coveted shortstop for a pair of solid yet below Nomar level players. They received Orlando Cabrera to replace Nomar at short, and Doug Mientkiewicz (I’ve typed his name nearly 50 times this season, and I still need to look up the spelling every time) to beef up the D at first.

Ostensibly, this made no sense, considering the kind of player Nomar is/was. But considering the off-season in which he was thrown under a train on the T and his subsequent reaction, it was the smart move. With free agency looming combined with his lack of production, Theo Epstein should have been glad to have received that much for Nomar. I’m not saying this deal was the one that vaulted them over the top, but there’s plenty of evidence to support that case.

And so the Yanks entered September with a nine game lead, seemingly insurmountable. But then we lost a few, and Boston won a few, and all the sudden, we have seven games head to head with them and we’re only six up. I’d describe the tension for you, but I was in a state of denial at the time. “No way they can catch us,” I thought. Of course, this was just a front, and I was fretting just like the next guy. But my beloved Yankees proved that all was right with the world, and we took the division, leaving the scraps (i.e. Wild Card) for Boston.

As most Yanks die-hards, I wrote off Minnesota in the first round as a mere obstacle before we played Boston in the ALCS. Just a formality at this point, I was telling friends. And so I didn’t think much of missing the bulk of Game One to write a paper due the next day. Of course, I had it on ESPN GameCast in the computer lab as I plugged away at a paper on civil rights.

I must have been smoking crack at that time, because I didn’t take into consideration that Johan Santana was on the mound. Oops. Minor oversight on my part. I kept glancing at the GameCast, and I kept seeing zeros on the board for the Yanks.

Well, in the runs column, at least. We managed nine friggin’ hits off Johan, and couldn’t plate a single runner. Are you kidding me? This was actually the game that spawned the Double Play Machine moniker for Bernie, as he grounded into two in critical situations. Five double plays in all, and that was the killer. Twins 2, Yanks zip.

I wasn’t going to have any more of that crap for Game Two. Saddled into the best seat on our enormous leather couch, I think I went through 12 beers that night, all of which were provided by my roommates. No, I didn’t win a bet or anything. I just didn’t want to get up, so I waited until someone else was getting up to get me a beer. Asshole-ish, yes. Practical, also yes.

As we found out through the rest of the series, Minnesota just isn’t that good without Johan on the mound. After the pressure-filled Game Two, Game Three was in our column, and Mr. Santana could only last five in Game Four (hey, it was on three days rest. Even Johan Santana, though he may not seem it at times, is human).

So bring on the Red Sox, who made similar work of the Angels. I’ll be honest here. I was terrified heading into Game One. Curt Schilling, bad ankle or not, absolutely kills in the postseason. Want proof? Games One and Seven in 2001. Shut us down, completely. And now he has a new motivation, the only reason he came to Boston: to help a tortured franchise win a Championship.

And then we got news of the ankle. “Sweet, so he won’t be able to push off with force,” I optimistically quipped. “Dude, it’s Curt Schilling,” replied my buddy Andy. Touché.

Even though we hammered on him, the game was a lot closer than it needed to be. I’m not going into details here, because 1) you all remember it and D) I’m running way long here. I’ll fast forward to Games Four through Six.

I didn’t do any assignments those days. Yes, I went to class, but I mostly jotted down notes about the Yankees. I was a nervous wreck. Well, at least after we blew Game Four. I made up scenarios. I attempted to fathom who would start each game, and when I found that we didn’t have enough starters to go to Seven, I panicked even more.

Game Seven coincided with one of those tragically superb events. My good friend Ashley had finally broken things off with her ex-boyfriend Ray. I always liked Ray, but he was downright abusive towards Ashley. I don’t know if anyone’s been in that kind of situation, but it’s no fun. Not at all. So Ashley, wanting to get away from Rutgers for a night, tagged along as I drove back hom to my buddy Jon’s place. We, uh, calmed our nerves (yeah, that’s it) before the game, sat down, and watched history.

I know Red Sox fans say it took them forever to grasp the fact that they had beaten the Yankees. Not me, not Jon. No, we had that figured out at the precise second that Johnny Damon’s grand slam landed in the right field seats. It was over. Sure, we watched until the final out was made, but we knew it. Hell, I even faked some excitement when Bernie and Matsui banged up Pedro a bit, but I knew it was all for naught. We had been vanquished. I hung my head in shame, and actually vowed not to wear my Yankees hat until next season (I reneged on that deal and wore it the next week).

Now, there is a point to me retelling this story, but I’m going to wait for tomorrow to post it. I’ve already typed way too much, and I’m actually about to head out the door to catch the Yanks-Blue Jays game tonight. Free tickets rock.