The biggest surprise of all about the Yankees-Angels series is that it wasn't the biggest upset in the first round. In fact, it wasn't even the second biggest upset in the first round. In fact, it came within one game -- the fifth game between the Braves and Giants -- of not being the third biggest upset in the first round. Imagine a Cardinals-Twins World Series, or even an Angels-Giants matchup. If either of those possibilities had occurred last year, what ammunition would Bud Selig have had to use against the players in this year's negotiations? Competitive balance?
The Angels, who haven't won a post-season series in their existence, and the Cardinals, a small-market franchise who were facing the greatest one-two pitching combination in baseball history, won, between them, six out of seven games from the two league defending champions. And the Minnesota Twins, whom the commissioner wanted to eliminate because the team's multibillionaire owner couldn't blackmail a free stadium out of Minnesota taxpayers, may have pulled the biggest upset of all.
It's almost as if the teams that won this year's playoff spots got together beforehand and planned it this way just to show how utterly ridiculous the owners' arguments have been.
To read the New York area papers, of course, you'd think that the only newsworthy occurrence in the playoffs was the Yankees' demise. As someone who picked Oakland to go all the way back in March -- and I certainly was far from the only one on that count -- I'd have to say that nothing surprised me more than seeing Oakland get clobbered by a weaker team -- let's face it -- and on their own home field. After all, it was the A's who overcame the Seattle Mariners -- the team that the year before tied a major league record for most regular-season wins, the team that seemed to be best re-created in the recent Yankee mode of patient hitters and layered bullpens. In other words, the team most likely to dethrone the Yankees. How could Oakland lose Jason Giambi and beat the Mariners? Some of us figured that the A's would beat out the Mariners for the AL West the old-fashioned way -- with youth, power and the best trio of young starting pitchers in baseball, but we certainly figured that if the A's didn't win it all that the Mariners would.
Well, the A's did beat out Seattle for the division title, and did it in convincing fashion. Not only did they seem, at year's end, to be the best all-around team in baseball, they seemed like the team of the future. Now, they're not even the team of the present.
Neither, of course, are the gallant Twins, the gritty Cardinals, or the gutsy Angels. The American League -- the National League, too, for that matter -- may not have a team of the future. To listen to most of the local sports commentators, the Yankees' era of domination is certainly at an end. How did it come about so quickly? How did the Yankees go from the winningest team in baseball to an ex-dynasty in four games? In the 9th inning of Game 4 at Anaheim, Tim McCarver said that he didn't think the series represented "a step back for the Yankees so much as a giant step forward by the Angels." Well, McCarver could be right, but no one is really going to think so if Anaheim doesn't go on to win the World Series. If they don't, it's just an amazing statistical fluke.
I mean fluke, of course, in the best possible sense. Branch Rickey once defined luck as "the residue of design," and in this case that certainly applies. The Angels are merely the latest and best team to be redesigned in the Yankees' image: Almost their entire team strength is in their patient hitters (6 out of 9 starting players with an on-base average of .345 or better), good fielding and a deep bullpen. In this, they were not only the opposite of the Oakland A's they battled throughout the season but of this year's Yankees as well.
Everyone in and around New York with an opinion is now saying that the Yankees made a mistake in opting for free agent sluggers such as Jason Giambi (41 home runs), Robin Ventura (27 home runs) and Raul Mondesi (26 home runs) rather than "team players" like Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius and Paul O'Neill. They forget that a little more than a year ago they were complaining that the Yankees lost the World Series to Arizona because the team hitting was so bad. (And they were right, too -- the Yankees were a bad hitting team.) They also forget that Scott Brosius and Paul O'Neill were not options because they retired.
The Yankees did not lose the division series to the Angels because Jason Giambi hit 41 home runs and drove in 122 runs, and the St. Louis Cardinals did not win the NL Central because the man Giambi replaced, Tino Martinez, hit 21 home runs and drove in 75 runs. The Yankees lost the division series because every one of their starting pitchers and every one of their relief pitchers --except Mariano Rivera, who pitched one scoreless inning in his only chance -- got bombed.
Unless you knew this was going to happen beforehand and said so, you shouldn't be joining the popular chorus of "Too many old arms out there." In front of me is last week's USA Today Sports Weekly, with its normally astute statistical analysis of each playoff team. Under the comparison of the two teams' starting pitching, the comment is "A couple of New York's long relievers could make Anaheim's starting rotation." And the comment for the comparison of the two bullpens is: "With (Mariano) Rivera healthy, Yankees get the edge." I submit to you that if you didn't know that Andy Pettitte (pitching at home, for God's sake), Mike Mussina, and David Wells were going to give up 16 runs in 11 2/3 innings while Steve Karsay, Mike Stanton, and Ramiro Mendoza were going to give up 14 hits and seven runs in 6 2/3 innings, then you have to admit that evaluation seemed pretty sound.
What's funny about the Yankees' defeat is that the most obvious candidate for criticism went unscathed. All season long the media had absurdly overrated Alfonso Soriano (just watch him finish either first or second in the MVP balloting) when what they should have been observing was a very rough diamond in need of a great deal of polishing. The last third of the season, while the Yankee hitters went into a listless funk, the sports media trilled about Soriano's chances of joining the "40-40 Club" (i.e., 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases in the same season), which is about the silliest combination of 2 completely unrelated statistics to surface in modern sports pages. Why home runs and stolen bases? Why not, say, home runs and doubles?
The Yankees would have been much better off if Soriano had concentrated on accumulating 40 walks. Soriano's regular-season on-base average of .332 was equaled or surpassed by all but two players in the Angels' lineup, and yet, to my knowledge, no one in either the local or national media criticized Joe Torre for batting Soriano in the leadoff position. Soriano did drive in 102 runs, but no one seemed to notice how many runs he was costing the team by failing to reach base more often and piling up a huge number of absolutely unproductive outs. In the field, he was, for all practical purposes, the return of Chuck Knoblauch, leading the league in errors and in general creating chaos all over the place with his bull-like charges into plays where he didn't belong. You saw it in the fourth Yankees-Angels game, where he muffed a double play by making the bush-league boner of not keeping his glove on the ground, and you saw it a short time later when he recklessly pursued a pop fly into Bernie Williams' territory in center field. The first play went down as an error; the second one went down as a hit, even though it should have been caught. Combine this with the fact that he hit .118 in the series, leaving 11 runners stranded, and you might conclude that Soriano is the biggest single reason the Yankees aren't playing the Angels in the division championship series on the Monday night I am writing this.
Well, if luck is the residue of design, then maybe we should have seen this coming after all. But when teams start gathering under the grapefruit league sun next spring, the Yankees will have, at least, Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and, yes, an older and presumably less mistake-prone Alfonso Soriano, as well as a couple of the most desirable free agents around regardless of cost. I can't name anywhere near as impressive a group of names for the Angels, Twins or A's, or, for that matter, the Cardinals, D'Backs, or Braves, so come to think of it, maybe baseball has a team of the future after all. By the way, I'm taking the Braves -- who will beat the Giants in the deciding fifth game Monday night -- to beat the Angels in six games.