Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Saga

Every game since Tuesday in Tampa Bay has been absolute torture. Here were the Yanks, the perennial AL East champs, running down a playoff dream in the final three weeks rather than fending off their coveted seat in first place. As I’ve said before, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Surely I’m not the first person to point out likeness of baseball to a soap opera or a movie (one of those dramatic comedies that hits the genre on the head, which is a rarity in Hollywood). The past three seasons have been the climax in the epic that commenced in 1996.

2003 was the Yanks’s year. We hadn’t won a World Series since 2000 (yeah, I know, boo hoo). There was absolute heartbreak in 2001, when until-then invincible Mariano Rivera surrendered two in the bottom of the ninth to morph sure victory into sullen defeat. I was listening to the game in my car, which was thankfully parked at the time, lest I might have wrapped it around a telephone pole.

Thanks to the four championships from ’96 to 2000, the heartache didn’t last too long. Soon enough, Yankees fans everywhere were gearing up for 2002, ready to come jolting back from such a painful loss. They had it won, and they lost it, so the only logical thing to do is go back and win the whole fucking thing, right?

Steinbrenner had the same thing in mind, effortlessly (putting a ridiculously inflated dollar amount on a piece of paper doesn’t require much effort, does it?) signing 2000 AL MVP Jason Giambi to take over for the aging Tino Martinez at first. Tino was an integral part of those four championship teams, and seeing him depart was like seeing your roommate move out because he was getting married. But it was time, and though many fans had a difficult time grasping that, there was nothing they could do about it.

Paul O’Neill, the most intense hitter possibly in the history of the game, decided to hang them up. This was a guy who threw his helmet, a bat, a Gatorade jug, anything in sight after every at bat in which he didn’t get a hit. And since he failed to hit .300 for the first time in his career in 2000 and repeated in ’01, it could have been the constant need for a new helmet or bat that caused him to retire.

Gone was Scott Brosius, the guy brought over for peanuts because, well, we needed a warm body at third base, and we chose a solid vet from Oakland rather than a scrub from the farm system. And while Brosius’s only big year at the plate was ’98, he still provided those clutch hits in the playoffs, and earned himself three rings in the process. A role player, a positive clubhouse presence, retired like his buddy O’Neill.

Gone was David Justice, who helped immeasurably since coming over from Cleveland. Hell, I don’t mind to this day that we dealt them Jake Westbrook for Justice, because Justice meant so much to the Yanks at the time.

Gone was Chuck Knoblauch, who despite his inexplicable throwing difficulties (all in his head), was a huge part of the championship run. And, inadvertently, we discovered Alfonso Soriano after moving Knobs to left field.

We’ve already established that Giambi was to replace Tino at first, which was a significant upgrade, all considered. The replacements for Brosius and Justice, Robin Ventura and Nick Johnson, were both positives. Brosius left graciously, retiring after attaining three rings rather than try his act in another circus. Justice headed to Oak Town, but there was no ill will there. Enter Ventura, a seasoned vet who had playoff experience in his days with the Mets. He wasn’t an overpriced superstar, nor a clubhouse cancer to be wary of. If he could hit clutch down the stretch, he’d bring the same value to the table Brosius did.

And swapping Justice out for Nick Johnson was an inevitable move, since lil Nicky was a mere 23 years old at the time and swung a red hot bat. Once tabbed as Tino’s successor, the Giambi signing relegated Johnson to part time 1B, most time DH status. Deep down, Yankees fans knew this kid was something special, which we knew meant he’d be shown the door once we got a reasonable offer for him.

Then there were the outfield replacements: Rondell White and Raul Mondesi. Jigga what?!? We lost Chuck Knoblauch and Paul O’Neill, and all we could finagle for replacements were White and Mondesi? Both were brought in with inexplicably high expectations that neither could possibly attain. Plus, it was a well documented fact that Mondesi was a clubhouse killer, exactly what the Yanks DIDN’T need following the 2001 World Series loss.

What I never understood is why Shane Spencer didn’t get the spot in right. I’m was never the biggest Spencer fan, even as he had that monster rookie September, but Raul Mondesi? Come on, guys, ya gotta do better than that. The lines for both players:

Mondesi: 270 AB, .241/.315/.430, 11 HR, 43 RBI, 28 BB, 46 K
Spencer: 288 AB, .247/.324/.375, 6 HR, 34 RBI, 31 BB, 62 K

Okay, so Spencer struck out a bit more and hit for less power. And I guess that was the reasoning for using Mondesi, since there seems to be no other evidence of his supremacy. But personally, I’d start Spencer every day rather than deal with a piece of shit like Mondesi.

And don’t even get me on Rondell White, whose season was so downright detrimental (.240/.288/.378) that he was ridden out of town following the season. Just another guy who couldn’t survive under the bright lights of Yankee Stadium. The signing made enough sense: he had hit .300 or better every year since ’98 and had a sparkle of power. And he was replacing Chuck Knoblauch, who despite early success in New York, had his average dwindle to .247 by 2001. Sometimes you just can’t see things like Rondell coming, but at least the Yanks were able to bail out after a year.

I remember being in New York at my sister’s dorm at Parsons School of Design the night the Yanks lost to the Angels in the ALDS. We were headed to some party in Brooklyn, and the news broke right before we headed out. I was rendered speechless and motionless for at least the next 20 minutes, letting the feeling that revenge wouldn’t be ours sink in. It was rough at the time, but looking back, how much could I have really expected from this team?

Maybe the All-Star pitching staff did it for me. Maybe I had too much faith in Mussina, Wells, Clemens, Pettite and El Duque. But look at that cast! How can you not win with those studs? Even with a dwindled one through nine and a clubhouse cancer like Mondesi, the five guys in the staff and Mo should have been able to slam the door on opponents. Alas, not even they could overcome the obstacle that was the 2002 season.

And I continued to watch in agony as the Angels cruised through the World Series. I can’t even think of a word to describe my hatred for the Rally Monkey, which is the single stupidest idea ever concocted. Rally Monkey? Are you friggin’ serious? I couldn’t understand how fans could use a Rally Monkey to support their team until I read Bill Simmons’s book and read accounts of how ridiculously retarded Angels fans are.

So the epic would continue into 2003. Lots of big talk heading into the off-season, like Clemens’s retirement and the possible departure of Andy Pettite. But this guy was true blue, a rare Yankee that made it all the way through the farm system. We had nothing to worry about, right? George would throw a few dollar signs on a piece of paper, and we’d have our prized lefty back and ready to go for ’03.

The saga continues tomorrow.