Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 09, 2001
BASEBALL: 2001 World Series Wrapup

Originally posted on

Did the Yankees choke? They came into the World Series heavily favored. They entered the weekend with a 3-2 lead after two victories so totally demoralizing that one would scarcely expect any opponent to revive, much less against a 3-time defending champion. Saturday, Andy Pettitte -- the Yankee with the most big postseason starts to his credit -- came out with nothing, the offense was flat, and they lost 15-2. Sunday, they played their first Game 7 in a 7-game series in the modern Yankee era (i.e., since Steinbrenner bought the team), and even after the Yankees came from behind to take a 2-1 lead into the ninth, it wound up a lot like the last one, the 1964 defeat that ended the Yankee dynasty of 1947-64. Should we regard this as a simple defeat, or one of the big choke jobs in postseason history?

It really all depends how you look at the postseason. There are those, like me, who believe that baseball games are basically determined by four things: (1) talent, including not just physical talent and skill but the collection of abilities ranging from concentration to judgment of the strike zone and on the basepaths that separate good players from bad ones; (2) strategy; (3) matchups, i.e. the fact that the righthanded-swinging 1953 Dodgers would fare much better against Randy Johnson than would the 1927 Yankees; and (4) timing or luck, which may or may not be the same thing. The first is paramount over the long regular season, provided that the strategy isn't so totally awful that a team squanders its ability to put the best talent on the field. In the postseason, though, the other three factors loom much larger because the games are closer, they're head-to-head rather than against a cross-section of the league, and with fewer games a single blunder can turn the tide.

The Yankees were far and away the best team in baseball in 1998, and in 1999 you have to give them the same respect for outlasting the 3 comparably talented teams - the Indians, Mets, and Braves. In 2000 and 2001, though, the Yankees were beating teams that they couldn't keep up with in the regular season. You tip your cap to them, and recognize that they won the Series in 2000 and the pennant in 2001 fair and square. Still, also recognize that this team would have finished third in the AL West.

But there are also those, most prominently among pro-Yankees sportswriters, who view the postseason as a sort of mythical proving ground where true champs are separated from "phony" stars who don't really "have what it takes" (you know, like Randy Johnson). Thus, winning in the postseason becomes proof of a form of moral superiority, or is seen as somehow revealing who is truly the better team. The media loved, for example, revelling in how the Mariners' 116 wins "don't mean anything now" once they lost to the Yankees -- as if the entire regular season was an illusion and in 6 games the shadows had now been cast off to reveal, with Platonic insight, the actual form of the best team in the American League. We heard variations on this line for three years, but the problem with the argument is that it provides no room for the best team to lose - if you lose, by definition, you are no longer "a champion."

Did they choke? Sometimes you put your best pitcher on the mound, and he gets beat. Happens to everybody. Except the Yankees, we were told. We were told wrong.

* * *

One thing I disagreed with was the post-game questioning of Joe Torre for pulling in the infield in the ninth inning. There are two choices in that situation: draw in the infield and hope to get the lead runner at the plate on a weak grounder while risking missing an inning-ending GIDP or allowing a flare to fall for a game winning hit, or pull the infield back, prevent a line drive from falling and hope for the DP. There are two factors at work here. First, the pitcher: you might draw the infield back for a guy like Ramiro Mendoza or John Franco who gets a lot of sharply hit ground balls, but Rivera tends to get a lot of weak dribblers, and do you really want one of them to cost you the World Series? Second, the fielders. Derek Jeter was hobbling like Bill Buckner out there by the ninth inning, and I was starting to wonder why Torre didn't pull him from the game when he had a 1-run lead to protect. Regardless of what you think of Jeter's defense when he's healthy, we've seen what can happen when you let loyalty get in the way of putting your best defensive team on the field with the Series on the line. The only real answer is that the Yankees don't have a backup shortstop Torre can trust -- a sad comment on a team carrying so many reserve infielders on the postseason roster. Anyway, with the infield drawn back, it would have been very difficult for Jeter to reach a slow rolling ground ball.

Like I said, sometimes you make the right call, put the best players you have out there, and you still lose. The Yankees have reacted by firing their batting coach.

* * *

New York Daily News headline Tuesday morning: JASON WHO? The article said that team sources say the Yanks were sticking with Tino and not interested in buying Jason Giambi. The New York Post headline the same day: GET GIAMBI! George orders team to bring in A's slugger. I love New York.

* * *

I can't let this one pass before he retires: am I the only one who thinks
Paul O'Neill looks like the Man in the Yellow Hat?

* * *

A minor thing, but it surprised me a bit: Tim McCarver hammering Bob Brenly for leaving in Curt Schilling to hit in the seventh. Now, I know the parallel isn't perfect, since a lot of McCarver's point was that the D-Backs needed runs. But I thought ironic for McCarver to give Brenly no credit for wanting to stand or fall with his horse. When McCarver was a Mets broadcaster, his all-time favorite story to tell was about how he was catching the 7th game of the 1964 World Series, and Bob Gibson was on the mound, and he was visibly exhausted, and Johnny Keane came out to the mound, and Gibson essentially refused to come out of the game, and Keane said afterwords that he left Gibson in to finish the thing because he "had a commitment to his heart." McCarver always told this story with unmixed admiration for both Gibson and Keane - yet he didn't even consider that there might be a good reason for Brenly to feel the same way about Curt Schilling.

Now, Brenly probably should have tried to get an extra bat in there, and there's no question he was managing scared, afraid of his own relief pitchers. But who can blame him for that after Byun-Hyung Kim had a worse trip to the Bronx than Sherman McCoy? Brenly wanted to stick with Curt Schilling unless he absolutely had to take him out. I can't fault the logic.

* * *

Some people around the country were rooting for the Yankees to help the city heal. OK, I can understand that, but for a substantial number of us baseball fans here in NY, watching another Yankee championship would have been about as much fun as that plotline on "ER" last week with the guy who tried to circumcise himself with a pair of scissors. And sure the Phoenix fans haven't really earned a championship, but a lot of them are basketball fans too, and certainly the Suns have paid their dues over the years with two gut-wrenching losses in the NBA Finals. Plus, they've got Bill Bidwell, which should be penance enough for any town. Thank you, Arizona.

* * *

I don't have the stomach for all the financial stuff right now, but as the owners prepare to party like it's 1899, consider this: the last time the baseball owners approved a contraction plan, another major league was formed within two years.

It's appalling that a 100-year-old franchise that's won 6 pennants and 3 World Championships is being targeted for extinction. The Twins (then the Senators) produced the greatest pitcher in baseball history - they are the only franchise to see a pitcher win 400 games in the same uniform. The Hall of Fame is littered with men who earned some or all their way to Cooperstown with the Senators/Twins: Walter Johnson, Clark Griffith, Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, Joe Cronin, Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett, Dave Winfield, Stan Coveleski, Heine Manush, Bucky Harris, Rick Ferrell, Early Wynn, Al Simmons and Ed Delahanty; the list may yet be joined by Paul Molitor, Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat, Luis Tiant, Jack Morris, or Tony Oliva.

Legally, the government can always take private property for public use as long as it's willing to pay for it. In these days of tight budgets and a slow economy, that's a daunting task, and taking over private businesses to prevent them from leaving town is an awful precedent. But I personally think it would be hilarious if Jesse Ventura decided to seize the Twins, run them like the Green Bay Packers, and force Carl Pohlad, after years of crying that his team is losing money, to come into court and argue that the state underpaid him for the team's real economic value.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:25 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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