I never thought I would say this, but as of this week, the Evil Empire is officially in disarray. Not so long ago, in fact only seven years ago, the New York Yankees had won three straight World Series’ and four out of the last five. Led by immortals such as Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, and the postseason heroics of Paul O’Neill and Scott Brosius, the Bronx Bombers were seemingly unbeatable. They were invincible. They were the Damn Yankees.
Even after their World Series run came to an end, the Boss’ burgeoning checkbook and a “win at all costs” attitude forged the path for the team to sign star free agent after star free agent, lifting the Yankees to a record nine straight AL East titles. Even without the world championships, the Evil Empire had recruited the biggest fan base in the world, elevated the net worth of the team above $1 billion and rightfully declared itself the winningest franchise in all of professional sports. They looked like a team which was destined for success ad infinitum.
Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox were cursed. They were the Ying to the Yankee’s Yang. They seemed destined to fail. The egocentric fans of Red Sox nation would wince at every foul ball, curse every error and look at every game with a relentless pessimism. They were haunted by Bucky Dent’s (or as he is better known, Bucky “F—–” Dent’s) unlikely three-run home run in 1978 and Bill Buckner’s unforgettable error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The fans expected the team they loved to lose and were resigned to believing in the Yankees’ innate superiority. To them, it was easier to expect disappointment after 86 long years without a title then to get their hearts broken with every loss.
My, how times have changed.
The once invincible Yankee franchise has been dealt three devastating blows this week which could do the unthinkable: tarnish the reputation of America’s most popular baseball team. In my humble opinion, it appears as if the New York Yankees are in a state of hysteria for the following reasons:
1) The Boston Red Sox won the World Series.
The most obvious injury to the Evil Empire this week was not painful just because of the accomplishment itself, but rather because of how the accomplishment was achieved. Sure the Red Sox have now won two out of the last four World Series while the Yankees haven’t even been to the big show since 2003. But more importantly, the Red Sox did that without ever coming close to matching the Yankees payroll. Ever since a cocky 28-year-old by the name of Theo Epstein became General Manager of the Red Sox in 2002, Boston has embraced sabermetrics and focused on player development in the minor leagues. In other words, while the Yankees, with George Steinbrenner in full control, kept dishing out nine-figure contracts to aging superstars (like a deflated Jason Giambi) and eight-figure contracts to below average players (anyone remember Carl Pavano?), the Red Sox refused to neglect their farm system while continuing to sign undervalued big league players.
As a result, the 2007 Red Sox were the best team in baseball from wire-to-wire while spending $50 million less than the Yankees. It would be one thing if the Red Sox pulled something like the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, where they just sneaked into the postseason and managed to get hot at the right time. But it is completely another thing when the Red Sox were picked to win the Series before the season and then proceeded to lead the division the entire year, hold off a late Yankee run to break an 11-year division title drought, come back from a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS and dominate an inferior team in the World Series with two rookies at the top of the order (for the first time in MLB history). This wasn’t any fluke; it simply represents a changing of the guard atop the MLB pecking order. Red Sox Nation is the new Evil Empire.
2) A-Rod opted out of his contract.
I have to admit that I didn’t expect this bombshell in the slightest. In classic Scott Boras fashion, the super agent stole the spotlight from the World Series by announcing that his client, future Hall of Famer Alex Rodriguez, will opt out of the remaining three years (worth $72 million) of his contract with the Yankees to become a free agent this off-season. First of all, let me say this. I am puzzled why A-Rod would choose to leave the team he has the best chance to win a World Series with to earn an extra $100 million. At this point A-Rod, let’s be honest, you don’t need the money. What’s the difference between a huge mansion and an estate the size of Rhode Island?
And by doing this, the best player in the game might have done irreparable damage to his legacy. Instead of overcoming all obstacles to finally end the Yankee championship drought, he chose to take the easy way out and get out of the New York limelight. I have always defended him as a player, but now I feel like the whispers about his selfishness have been verified. It appears there is a reason why Rodriguez has never played in a World Series game.
Regardless, this move represents a catastrophe for the Yankees. The team thought it had A-Rod locked up for the next three years at a relative bargain, with Rangers owner Tom Hicks paying $21.3 million of his remaining contract. But now that his price tag has exploded, the Yankees have refused to negotiate with him. That means that the best player in baseball (and possibly of all-time) will most likely be playing for a rival AL team (like the Angels, the Rangers, or — sigh — the Red Sox) for the rest of his career. That stings.
3) The Yankees fired Joe Torre and replaced him with Joe Girardi.
Now I don’t mean to rip on Girardi, but this move just doesn’t make any sense. Joe Torre was not only one of the most successful managers in the history of baseball, but the entire team absolutely loved him. Hell, the entire town of New York loved him. The fact of the matter is that Joe Torre was victimized by his own success. After he won four World championships in his first five years as manager, he allowed George Steinbrenner to think that it was possible to win it all every year. Thus the bar was set too high — even for the Yankees.
Managers cannot will their teams to victory in the postseason. Sure they can make lineup changes and take out struggling pitchers, but a manager can never exclusively be blamed for a team’s failure in the postseason. Any team can lose four games out of seven to any other team. What can they be blamed for you might ask? Losing in the regular season, when the tone a manager sets for a team can actually have a significant affect on its performance. And how did Torre do in this regard? There is no debate; he was incredible.
But here is the weirdest part. Soon after the skipper rejected the Yankees’ half-hearted proposal to keep him as their manager, Hank Steinbrenner — son of the George Steinbrenner — had this to say: “I think the most important thing is, whoever we hire, give him a chance,” he said. “Because he’s not getting the ‘96 Yankees. He’s getting a younger team, and for the most part, it’s a transition period, so give him a little while.”
Correct me if I’m wrong Hank, but isn’t part of the Yankee ideology that the team will not accept anything less than a World Series championship? Isn’t that why you just fired Torre? Because — despite 11 consecutive division titles and 12 consecutive postseasons — he hasn’t won the big one since 2000?
Don’t get me wrong, I think Girardi will do a fine job with all of the young stars such as Phil Hughes, Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera and Joba Chamberlain. But to hear from a top Yankee executive that it is important to give the new manager time for a transition period can only mean one thing. It is the end of an era in New York.