Tuesday, October 18, 2005

1997, The Year That Wasn't

Nineteen hundred and ninety-seven was not a year in which the Yankees would win the World Series. In fact, that year would serve as the only buffer between the Yankees and five straight titles, which would have matched the Dynasty run from ’49 through ’53.

But ifs are ifs and buts are buts. The more I think back to 1997, the more I think that the Indians were just the dominant AL team. In 2005, the Yanks lost because they played like crap in the playoffs. In ’97, they were just a lesser team to those Cleveland Indians, which made sense, since the aforementioned core of players wasn’t exactly set in stone yet.

The formula for the Indian’s success was comparable to the 1996 Yanks (which looks to be variably universal ). Instead of having eight guys over .280 with four or five hovering right around .300, the Indians took more of a bell curve approach. They had three guys hovering around .330 (Manny, Justice, and Sandy Alomar), and were represented on the other end of the bell by three guys between .260 and .270 (Brian Giles, Marquis Grissom, Matt Williams), and three guys right in the middle (Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Tony Fernandez).

Even without revealing their stats for the season, just looking at those nine names makes their dominance apparent. Not only did they start these nine marquee names, but every one was in the prime of their career, save for Fernandez. It would be a surprise they didn’t win the World Series if they actually had some pitching.

Charles Nagy, Orel Hershiser, Chad Ogea, Bartolo Colon, Jaret Wright. Not too shabby for people with selective memory. But during the 1997 season, none of these guys was particularly impressive, the lowest ERA among them belonging to Nagy with 4.28. Ouch.

But they came together in the playoffs, their pitching dominating the Yanks in the ALDS. What was more surprising was that they handed the ball to Wright and Hershiser twice, Nagy once, and that was enough to pummel the Yanks.

The pitching wouldn’t fall apart enough to blow the ALCS against Baltimore, but after a season like they had, it was bound to happen. And not to criticize in hindsight, but wouldn’t it make sense to start Colon once the pitching staff began to break down? Yes, Jaret Wright pitched very well in the Series, but he couldn’t get out of the first inning in his lone ALCS start. You’re telling me Bartolo was too much of a liability to start after that?

But pitching was the defining aspect of that World Series, as the Florida Marlins took the series after a season in which exactly zero of their starters hit .300 (though Gary Sheffield did walk 121 times, placing his OBP at .424).

Like the Indians were defined by their high-powered offense, the Marlins calling card was their pitching, namely veteran ace Kevin Brown and rookie sensation Livan Hernandez. Throw in the solid, forgotten Alex Fernandez and Al Leiter in his prime, and you had a pitching staff that could take a team all the way, kinda like how the 2005 White Sox rotation has panned out.

I would say that I’ve digressed, since neither the Indians or the Marlins were the subject matter for today, but it all seems oddly appropriate. These were two teams that were crafted for Series victory. And, as we’ve seen in the past but refuse to universally concede (mainly because there’s nothing universal in baseball), pitching won this battle.

(Side Note: the two teams both had adequate bullpens, the Marlins anchored by Rob Nen and the Indians by Jose Mesa – or as my buddy Andy calls him, Joe Table. Anyway, they were both knockout closers surrounded by able bodies…except the Indians had Eric Plunk in their bullpen. And to anyone who remembers this flunky, you know what I’m going to say before I even say it.)

The Yankees were merely a footnote in this ’97 season, failing even to capture the AL East title, which went to Baltimore. But this was the Wild Card era, and if your team is blessed with this recently granted opportunity, well, you’d better damn well take care of your sh-t.

We saw good signs in ’97, mainly in the form of returning players. There were little to no changes at catcher (Girardi was still the main guy, but Posada was getting some PT), first base, shortstop, third base (the platoon between Boggs and Hayes was exactly even at 353 ABs, but that’s because Boggs was 39), center field, and right field. And all the while, left field was routinely patrolled by ’96 hero Tim Raines, and the DH role was sometimes filled (literally) by Cecil Fielder.

The pitching staff hadn’t morphed much, either. Pettite, Cone, Rogers, and Gooden remained, while Jimmy Key was swapped one for one with David Wells, a heralded Yankees killer. Maybe it wasn’t apparent right away in ’97, but it would become clear in the anteceding years that Wells’s success against the Yankees was merely his sales pitch to join the team.

Out in the bullpen, things seemed as good if not better than ’96. Mo took Wetteland’s place and did a better job than Johnny Boy ever did for the Yanks (and yes, I realize he was the ’96 World Series MVP, but Mo was just as integral to that team as Wetteland). Mike Stanton, fresh off a solid year split between Boston and Texas, took on the set-up role and performed it beautifully. It was arguably his best year, though Braves fans will immediately point to his role in the ’91 team that lost to the Twins in what was probably the best World Series that I have a vivid memory of (won my first gambling endeavor on that one, a fresh dollar from my buddy Ken).

When I think about the ’97 Yanks, I think about writers and musicians. Great writers read, and read constantly (or at least did at some point in their lives). They sort through all the material that enters their brains via the eyes, and pick out what works and what doesn’t, ultimately adopting a little bit from everything they think works. Musicians are the same way, only using their aural senses rather than optic.

A successful baseball team works in the same manner. They acquire players and dish players, trying to figure out what works. So after the 90s era Yanks won the ’96 World Series, it seems logical that they wouldn’t know exactly what to do with ’97. The obvious answer is to bring everyone back, since that’s the single best thing any championship team can do. But, things tend to even out in baseball, and that must be compensated for.

The difference between writers and baseball general managers is that writers can accept material and discard it perpetually. Never is there a time when a writer is forced to read a certain book, but a baseball GM is forced to stick with a player due to contractual issues. So if a player isn’t working, there aren’t many opportunities to swap him out for someone who might work better in the system.

So because the Yankees didn’t know what was going to work in ’97 and what wasn’t, they didn’t make many changes, and found that some of the ’96 parts just weren’t going to work. So they added Chad Curtis mid-season, and he proved that he “works” in the system. Luis Sojo took over the bulk of the time at second, which sent underdog Mariano Duncan back to the bench.

There really were few unsung heroes for the Yankees in ’97. Maybe that was one of the big reasons they didn’t win it all. Maybe it was a hangover following the ’96 season. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t a good enough one for Steinbrenner, who sent his minions out after the season to locate guys who would bring the Yanks back to glory in ’98.

But that story is for tomorrow. I’ll leave on this note: after two uber-disappointing years in New York, Kenny Rogers would finally prove his worth in ’98.