The decline and fall of the Yankees -- I mean, the A's

Ancient arrogance beats the youthful variety -- this time.

Published October 17, 2001 7:14PM (EDT)

How does a writer deal with a case of divided loyalties, when his two favorite teams play each other in a crucial series? There's only one way: with divided writing. The first half of this column was written last Thursday night, with the Oakland A's leading in the American League Division Series two games to none. The second was written Tuesday morning.

Somewhere in his monumental "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" Edward Gibbon wrote of the effect arrogance has on the decline of great powers. I can't actually tell you where, but the work is monumental so it's got to be in there somewhere. If someone wrote a similar book on baseball, there would be a long chapter on the decline and collapse of the Yankees. What happened over the last two days? What happened is that the Yankees suddenly got old.

It didn't have to happen. For all the talk of how the Yankees buy championships, the same basic core of talent, all of it homegrown, has been with the Yankees through their last three World Series victories: Jorge Posada at catcher, Derek Jeter at short, Bernie Williams in center, and Andy Pettite and Mariano Rivera on the mound. How hard is it to keep a young, fit team together around that kind of base?

And yet, owner George Steinbrenner, general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Torre have, in their arrogance, allowed this team to age and deteriorate at the edges to a point where the Yankees haven't so much lost as simply withered away. Before signing off Thursday's 2-0 blank of the defending champs at Yankee Stadium, Tim McCarver remarked that the Oakland A's domination of the Yanks in the first two games -- and domination may seem like an odd choice of words for two games whose scores were 5-3 and 2-0, but I don't know another word for it -- was the result of "Good young pitching," but to me it looked as if what was going out there was more the result of bad old hitting.

The Yankees' pitching matched the A's out for out, but when the A's weren't striking out or popping up with runners on base they were hitting solo homers while the Yankees were scoring just three runs in two games, waving at fastballs and lunging helplessly after sliders in the dirt. Little ball is great, but somewhere along the line it must be backed up with some pop, and the Yankees have let themselves become one of the lightest hitting teams in baseball.

When they swept the boards in '98 with perhaps the best team in baseball history, the Yankees averaged six runs per game. That figure has declined steadily, to 5.6 in '99 to 5.4 in 2000 to a mediocre 5.0 this season. Not only was the drop widely noticed, it was anticipated before the season, with endless debates on whether the Yankees could continue to support deadwood like 39-year-old Paul O'Neill (a .267 hitter with 19 home runs, who costs the team almost as much in ground-into-double-plays as he produces), Scott Brosius, Shane Spencer, and Chuck Knoblauch, who had gone in four seasons from an infielder with a .320 average and 18 home runs per year to a left fielder scraping to hit .250 with less than half as many home runs. Over the last two seasons the Yankees have produced fewer runs from the corner outfield spots than any team in baseball, which most people would take as a warning. The Yankees used to look for signs of weakness and address them before they grew and festered. Now, in its arrogance the Yankee brass has come to believe that anyone they put out their in stripes is simply going to become a better man because he's a Yankee.

What constitutes arrogance in a baseball team? Not cockiness; there's never been anything wrong with showing a little swagger if you back it up. Overconfidence, perhaps? Ask yourself: Is there a dumber word in all of sports? How can you be "too" confident? Is a manager or coach supposed to go to his team and say "Boys, I think you've been looking a little too confident lately. I want you to play with a little less confidence"?

You can't be too confident; you can only be too arrogant. Arrogance means being over-convinced of one's own importance or abilities. That's what the Oakland A's became this season. You'd have thought last year's brutal playoff loss to the Yankees would have cured that, but that's arrogance for you. The A's, with youth, speed, power, pitching and a huge home-field advantage going for them, had the Yankees down two games to none in a best-of-five series with two games coming up in Oakland. It did not seem possible that they could lose. They were, after all, the better team; their record in the regular season and their head-to-head meeting with the Yankees -- including a three-game sweep in Oakland just a couple of weeks ago -- had proven that beyond argument.

But then, they lost two straight and came back to New York to find in their biggest game of the year that when their power was shut down they simply didn't know how to play little ball. The A's couldn't hold on to a third strike, couldn't finish off a pickoff move after the runner was trapped, take third base from second on a fly ball on which the runner from third scored, or keep their eyes on a routine ground ball that a baserunner had just hopped over. What else couldn't they do? Well, their staff ace couldn't get a fastball past David Justice, who has been in a slump since February, and they couldn't hit a pop fly far enough into the stands that Derek Jeter couldn't catch it.

For two years now many of us have been tagging the A's as the team of the future. But a future team of the future always manifests itself through competent execution of basic fundamentals and an ability to keep from losing the big game because of its own mistakes. After the shock of the last three games it must be dawning on the A's that they can't always rely on power, that they have to go back to school and learn little ball, and that their future as baseball's team of the future is in serious danger. To paraphrase Clemenceau on Brazil, the A's are the team of the future -- and, apparently, always will be.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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