Damn (Good) Yankees
The New York Yankees lost three times last week. You could look it up.
But the rest of the picture remained pretty grim. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter was still hitting .320 and keeping company with singer Mariah Carey. David Wells, the huge, unkempt moose of a Yankees pitcher who paid $25,000 for a musty old Babe Ruth cap and wore it on the mound, still had a perfect game on the books. Paul O'Neill, the Yankees stoic, overachieving left fielder, had a .315 average and 74 runs batted in. And Chuck Knoblauch, a chunky second baseman the Minnesota Twins considered dispensable, had stolen 23 bases--good for seventh place on the American League list.
Yankees starter David Cone, an ex-Royal and ex-Met plagued in other years by arm trouble, was leading the league with a 13-3 record, and Andy Pettitte wasn't far behind at 12-6. Mr. Perfect Game, Wells, had won 11 and ace Yankees stopper Mariano Rivera had rolled up 26 saves.
By the way, that's ex-Rockies coach Don Zimmer lolling in the Yanks' dugout. And ex-Rockies catcher Joe Girardi squatting behind the plate.
Oh, and centerfielder Bernie Williams has just returned from five weeks on the disabled list. Complete with his .354 batting average. In his first game back, a 10-3 win over Toronto, he lashed out three hits, including his eleventh home run of the season. That gave everybody a lift. Bernie, you see, is considered the heart and soul of the Yankees. They play much better with him in the lineup.
The New York Yankees lost three times last week. It was in all the papers and on ESPN.
But for the Yankee-haters of this world, that was small consolation. Because the Bronx Bombers, who were the Bronx Bombers for three generations before the Blake Street Bombers turned into duds, are tearing major league baseball up again this season. Their 73 wins and 26 losses put them on a pace to break the single season win record of 116--set way back in 1906 by none other than the Chicago Cubs.
Meanwhile, the extraordinarily talented and long-suffering Boston Red Sox, whose performance this year would lead either of the American League's other two divisions, trail East-leading New York by a seemingly insurmountable 15 games and find themselves scuffling for a wild card berth in the playoffs. Little matter that the Yankees once stole Babe Ruth from the Bosox. Another World Series appearance seems inevitable for the Yanks, along with another fat cigar for imperious owner George Steinbrenner.
Would anyone be surprised if the Boss now snaked unhappy flamethrower Randy Johnson away from the Seattle Mariners? Or if Mark McGwire, the St. Louis slugger in hot pursuit of Yankee Roger Maris's single-season home run record, suddenly showed up in the Bronx, begging to be refitted in pinstripes? Should we be shocked if Lou Gehrig himself suddenly materializes, ready to go?
Even absent all that, the New York Yankees have reassumed their role in the natural order of things. They are winning with shocking ease. They have inflamed the fans of New York--not a modest or quiet multitude to begin with--to roaring forest fire proportions. They have once more demolished the Red Sox and, come October, have a damn good chance of winning their 24th World Series in the past 75 years.
By the way, the faithful are not all carrying revolvers and eating anchovy pizza in the Bronx. In places like Keokuk, Albany, Honolulu and Moscow, countless other Yankee fans will also be gloating.
We Yankee-haters will just have to stew in our juices. Juices commingled of contempt, awe and envy for the most successful franchise in the history of sport. We stewed in 1923, when Ruth bopped three home runs in the Yanks' World Series win over the New York Giants. We boiled in 1927, the year the Bambino hit 60 and the Yanks laughed off Pittsburgh four games to zip in the Series. Gehrig hit .308 in that one, Ruth .400 and forgotten shortstop Mark Koenig--let's see here--.500. In 1928, Frankie Frisch and the Cardinals also failed to win a World Series game against New York: Ruth hit .625, Gehrig .545.
Babe Ruth's "called shot" in the 1932 Series against the Cubs? Never happened, they say. But this did: Chicago scored exactly six runs off Yankee pitching and was swept, like its two predecessors, four games to none.
Looking for the longer view? In the 29 World Series played between 1936 (the year a fellow by the name of Joe DiMaggio joined the club) and 1964, a period encompassing a Depression, a world war, a cold war and five presidential administrations, the Yankees made 22 appearances and won the title 16 times. Little wonder that baseball fans from Tiger Stadium to Fenway Park to Jacobs Field still revile them with a passion unequaled this side of Lourdes.
Wall Street's team, swaggering winners led by icons named Crosetti, Dickey, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Ford, Martin, Rizzuto, Maris and a dozen others, turned the American League into its own private domain, slamming the gate behind it. When his playing days were done and he'd taken a job as a substance-abuse counselor, legendary Yankees fireballer Ryne Duren, as unruly off the field as he was on the mound, said he could look at his old team picture and spot at least thirteen full-throttle alcoholics. But neither that, nor the fondest dreams of Philadelphians, could keep the Yankees from winning everything in sight.
In the days when American men wore suits and hats to the ballpark, every Yankee-hater's heart had a bit of Brooklyn Dodger in it. Between 1941 and 1953, the Yankees beat the Dodgers in five out of five "Subway Series," casting over the borough of Brooklyn a pall of second-class citizenship from which it never recovered. As any narrow-eyed, duck-tailed kid from Flatbush could tell you, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and the Dodgers finally overcame the Yankees in 1955 behind great pitching by Johnny Podres. But the celebration was, by definition and fate, short-lived. The next season, Mantle and company beat Dem Bums four games to three, pounding the message home on the afternoon of October 8, 1956, when the Yanks' Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history.
Do we need now chronicle the antics of later Yankee dynasties? Should we speak of "The Bronx Zoo," inhabited by strutting "Mr. October," Reggie Jackson, by Ron Guidry, Thurman Munson, Sweet Lou Piniella and the like? The less said the better. Should we remind ourselves that the aforementioned Mr. Steinbrenner, who changes managers like other men change their socks and believes that he is Caesar, is now threatening to shut down The House That Ruth Built and move the team elsewhere? Probably not.
Must we recall the twelve-year-old boy in the right field bleachers who helped hand New York its 34th American League pennant in 1996 by transforming a Yankee fly ball into a home run? Do you want to hear the amazing tale of Hideki Irabu, the pitcher transformed in one season from overpriced Japanese import to golden boy? Maybe not.
But how about this? Because they are short on power--in the year of the home run, no Yankee has hit more than fifteen dingers--and their pitching was thought to be spotty, many pre-season prophets figured the Yankees as also-rans this season. Bill Mazeroski's Baseball, a leading annual, said they would finish ahead of only the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the A.L. East. Instead, they are now 24 1/2 games ahead of third-place Toronto, Baseball's pick to win the division.
Jeter, Williams and Pettitte are all products of the Yankees farm system, for years judged to be one of the weaker ones in baseball. Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez, aka "El Duque," is having a better year on the mound than his more famous brother, Livan, who helped the Florida Marlins win the World Series last year.
This edition of the Yankees, some people are saying, is the best of all time. Better than Ruth and Gehrig's 1927 Yanks. Better than the Mantle-Berra-Martin-Ford Bombers of 1956. Better than 1961. Or 1978. Even the testiest dyed-in-the-wool Yankee-hater must admit, in a season when new talent and ancient nostalgia are giving the grand old game a much-needed booster shot, that these are, well, uncharacteristically appealing Yankees. Jeter is a gem. Pettitte is an admirable workhorse. Bernie Williams plays great centerfield and gives good interview.
Manager Joe Torre? How do you resist a plain-spoken, blue-collar guy who dedicated the 1996 Series to his brother Frank, another ex-major leaguer, who was lying at death's door following a heart transplant?
If the damn Yankees win the pennant and the World Series . . . again, even those of us with vestigial Brooklyn Dodger blood coursing through our veins, will probably have to tip our caps and nod.
Meanwhile (wouldn't you know it!), another dynasty seems to be abuilding in the Bronx. A glance at Baseball Weekly reveals that five of the Yankees' six farm clubs have winning records this year. Down in Class-A Tampa, righthander Ryan Bradley threw a no-hitter on June 22. He followed that on June 27 with a twelve-strikeout, four-hit performance and on July 8 fanned ten while shutting out the opposition and walking no one. Steinbrenner, you suspect, will be delighted when Bradley's ready for the big trip north.
The New York Yankees lost three games last week. Or so they say. But things could be worse. The Yankees could be the Nazis playing a road series in Poland. Or the ebola virus. And as far as we know, no one's cloned David Cone.
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