Where was George?

The Yankees ended the season with a swan dive for the ages, and all their once-cantankerous owner could muster was a shrug.

Topics: Baseball, George Steinbrenner,

What can happen to transform a team that has won the last two World Series — a team that was favored to win a third straight World Series just three weeks ago — into the grieving, pathetic mess that the New York Yankees are as I write this?

I don’t know about you, but what I saw was just about the ugliest 19 games of baseball in a row (I’m counting the first playoff game against the Oakland A’s) that I’ve ever seen. They may be the 19 ugliest games I’ve ever seen, period. I’m really not old enough to have vivid memories of the ’62 Mets, but I know that that team can at least plead that it didn’t have Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. Some hustling statistician has come up with the information that no team has played so poorly for such a span since the Cleveland Spiders in 1898. This gives the Yankees the distinction of playing the worst baseball in three centuries.

The Yankees aren’t “sluggish,” as Dave Anderson suggested in the New York Times, they’re slugged out. They didn’t “slump,” they dumped. This team hasn’t been coasting, it’s been drifting. This isn’t about the collapse of the starting pitching, but the collapse of a team, from the bullpen to the dugout. What happened to the 2000 Yankees is that they quit; they took off three weeks with pay. All year long the Yankees complained about injuries, and when they finally got the team together physically it was gone mentally. Down the stretch, they didn’t stretch. They played without pride or guts. They played like a team that was satisfied with what it had done in the past.

The 2000 Yankees gave a clinic on how to turn yourself from a winner to a loser. First, they slacked off in the race for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, as if being the best team in the league was no longer a big deal. They started to feel complacent, and the men who run the team allowed them to feel that way. Complacency is great for dairy cows, poison for ballplayers. After deciding they didn’t care that much about being the best, the Yankees then seemed to collectively decide that starting off the playoffs at home was nothing worth breaking a sweat for. Before you knew it, they were looking back on the astonishing possibility that the only thing that kept them from the greatest collapse in baseball history was that time ran out on them.



Who, we are entitled to ask, is going to snap this team out of its sleepwalk? Not Joe Torre, who doesn’t have it in him to tell David Cone that a 4-14 record and an ERA of 6.91 might be an indicator that he’s slipping, or to tell Paul O’Neill, who hasn’t had an extra base hit in four weeks, that he can no longer cut it hitting in the same spot in the batting order as Babe Ruth. Not any of the players, apparently, who appear incapable of motivating themselves.

Excuse me, did I say “motivate”? That’s not quite the word for what this team can’t do. Chuck Knoblauch, the first second baseman ever to start as a designated hitter because he can’t field or throw, said on Monday that he doubted if his team were capable of turning around in the playoffs. “That scares me a lot,” he said.

I tell you what scares me: that a neurotic whiner like Knoblauch could say something publicly about his team’s chances without someone coming down on him. But Torre won’t make needed changes for fear, he said, of “hurting our confidence.” A team that just went 3-16 has confidence?

And the most appalling part of all this is that George Steinbrenner doesn’t see anything wrong with it. “Hey, man, we’re the New York Yankees,” he said in an interview last week. “We don’t have to win. No team has to win.” A player doubts if his team can win again? The owner says his team “doesn’t have to win”? What in the world has happened here? Uh, yes, George, this is the New York Yankees, the team that won one out of every four championships last century. If you don’t intend to field a team that really, really wants to win this year — if you’re a little tired of winning — simply let us know so we can make plans to see the Newark Bears. Or, at least, knock a couple of bucks off Yankee ticket prices.

This kind of thinking had best be nipped in the bud before it spreads. You don’t have to be a Yankees fan to agree with me. Trust me: If this can happen to the Yankees, it can happen to anybody.

Oh, my predictions. Andy Pettitte has just done his usual playoff thing and the series is tied 1-1. First, the Giants will beat the Mets in four, the Braves, now down 2-0, will storm back to win, then lose to the Giants in four. The Yankees will win on Friday night and wrap up the first round against Oakland on Saturday. After that, they’ll win a tough seven-game series with Seattle for the American League pennant. Hey, man, these are the New York Yankees.

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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