The rise of the Yankees
The scariest teams, it seems to me, are those teams that get the timing exactly right. Most teams obviously do not. Most teams build a good offense while their best pitching prospects are in the minors, or they develop a dazzling bullpen just as their lineup gets old, or they spend too much on free agency before their young core of players is ready to succeed, or they lose their best players to free agency just when it all seemed to be coming together.
But every now and again, teams get the timing just right. The young players emerge just as the older players have renaissance seasons. Everybody seems to like the role that they’re playing. The hitters and pitchers feed off each other; when one is down the other picks things up and vice versa. The Cubs had that sort of marvelous timing last year.
It’s early, of course. But it sure seems like the Yankees might have that kind of timing this year.
The Yankees, you probably know, have not had a losing record in 25 years. They probably should have stunk the last three or four years when they were saddled with outrageous contracts and were stuck giving creaky veterans way too many at-bats or innings to pitch. But the Yankees somehow never quite stink. In 2015, for instance, they gave about 5,000 plate appearances to 30-somethings, most on dead-end contracts that the Yankees would have happily terminated if they were allowed. The Yankees still finished second in the American League in runs scored and made the playoffs. Last year, it was even worse. The Yankees still won 84 games.
But, even though they didn’t stink, the Yankees the last few years committed the unpardonable New York sin: They were BORING. They were like a rickety daytime soap opera where the actors had been through so much that there was no place for the plot to go. Who cared anymore about A-Rod? Teixeira? Even the Derek Jeter farewell tour felt like a plot line that had gone on too long. The Yankees attendance dwindled to its lowest point in more than 15 years. Their television ratings sagged, then sagged more, and then last year were down a staggering 18%, even as ratings around baseball went up.
All the while, yes, you could see Yankees general manager Brian Cashman biding his time, easing his way through the wreckage of the Yankees’ late 2000s desperation, stockpiling young talent, building for a better future. You know the Yankees would ascend, but most people around the game seemed to think it would not happen for another year or two (in two years, they will probably sign Bryce Harper to a $500 million deal).
And then Friday night happens.
Friday night was just one night, of course. The Yankees-Orioles matchup, no matter how epic, was just one game. But it all felt like more. The Orioles led 9–1 at one point, and led 11–4 at another point. The Orioles did what the Orioles do, they smashed baseballs. Manny Machado hit the longest home run of 2017. Watch this baseball keep going and going and going. This is what you get with 114 mph exit velocity at a 23 degree angle.
You already know the Yankees came back. They came back because somehow this combination of older players and younger players feels just right. They came back because the young BFG Aaron Judge hit two home runs and because the not-so-young Jacoby Ellsbury hit a grand slam. They won because even though starter Sabathia was not good and reliever Bryan Mitchell was worse, the pitching stabilized, a kid with a good reliever name, Jonathan Holder, held and a veteran with a good reliever name, Tyler Clippard, clipped.
In the ninth, up three, the Orioles did not have Zach Britton to do what he does. So they tried to slide by with Brad Brach. He gave up a run. And with one on and Baltimore clinging to a two-run lead, Brach threw a fastball that was way too far inside for Starlin Castro do do much with. WAY too far inside.
Starlin Castro somehow Reggie Jacksoned the ball over the left-field wall (click on the photo to see the homer):
This image of Castro falling to one knee might be the most stirring of the young season.
And then, 10th inning, one of those Yankee veterans, 38-year-old Matt Holliday, secured his “True Yankee” bonafides by hitting an opposite field walk-off home run …
It has been a while since the Yankees were the biggest sports thing in New York. The Mets generally have been more interesting. The Giants generally have been more interesting. Heck, even the Knicks in a perverse way have been more interesting. But this year, the Yankees seem to have their timing down. They’ve got veterans thinking they’re kids, they’ve got kids thinking they’re veterans, they’ve got pitchers throwing a billion miles per hour, they’ve got pitchers throwing smoke and mirrors. They’re winning and the young player everyone was singing about, Gary Sanchez, hasn’t even gotten off the disabled list.
We will see if that Friday night game was just an exciting regular season moment or a watershed moment. The morning after, it certainly feels like the rise of the machines has begun.
This Random Day In Baseball
Let’s go back to, um, 1956 and pick the, oh, Baltimore Orioles!
On April 29, 1956, the Orioles played two against the Washington Senators. Here were the two glorious logos:
The Orioles won the first 8–6, and the key blow was a two-run home run by Tito Francona off the delightfully named reliever “Connie Grob.” Tito Francona was a rookie that year — he finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting to Luis Aparicio — and he was a fine player over a 15-year career. There is something just a little bit sad, I’ve always thought, of a father being a better Major League ballplayer than his son. Maybe that’s just me. But it seems to me that we want our kids to be better than we are.
Tito was clearly a better ballplayer than his son Terry. Tito was an All-Star, he led the league in doubles one year, he was part of the classic “Power Plus” baseball card of 1960 with Rocky Colavito.
Terry was a pinch-hitter and role player. But he’s done OK as a manager.
The Orioles lost the second game 5–4 when Dick Tettlebach hit a walk-off single off of George Zuverink, scoring Jerry Snyder. The names! I could spend the rest of my life just wandering through old box scores from meaningless Major League games.
The end in Kansas City
Here’s the deal: After 20 years of terrible baseball, you get to win two pennants and a World Series. You get to see your city, after years of apathy, transformed into America’s most thrilling baseball town. You get to root for a preposterously likable bunch of kids who play the game with enthusiasm and fire and joy. You get to see them prove the experts wrong again and again and again and again.
But after three or four years, the clock strikes midnight and nothing good happens for a long time.
You take that deal right? You take it and you don’t even think twice about it. Well, of course, Kansas City got that deal, and it was glorious. And now: It stinks. The Royals lost again on Friday, this time blowing a 4–2 lead in the eighth inning, an inning where for two years they NEVER blew leads. Trouble is, this time that was Joakim Soria pitching, not Wade Davis. And this time, Miguel Sano bashed a two run double, and then Joe Mauer bashed a two-run double and that was the end of that. The Royals have lost eight in a row.
The selling off of the former World Champion Kansas City Royals will begin presently.
Well, to be honest, it already began when they broke apart the bullpen. But it will continue. Royals GM Dayton Moore has to know that betting on this team to turn around and compete for a pennant this year is a sucker’s bet. And, with the heart of their team up for free agency at the end of the year, well, this isn’t the time for sucker’s bets.
Where does it end? That’s harder to say. Will manager Ned Yost want to go through another rebuilding process? Will Moore want do it? It’s hard to imagine any of those core players wanting stay in Kansas City when the future is looking smoggy — the Royals do not have a single Top 100 prospect in the minor league system at the moment. This is the sad part of the happy story.
But there should be no sadness. These Royals brought Kansas City baseball back to life. And you would take that deal every moment of every day in your life.