Looking back at the 52 times the Yankees and Red Sox have played each other in the last two years, fans of either team may now recall profound thrills, disappointments, and pleasures. Each team beat the other in more than one emotional, fiercely contested game. One tiresome aspect of the super-sized rivalry, though, has been the way many sports media people, some fans, and a couple of players were constantly trying attribute moral superiority to whichever team had won the last game. Last year’s result insulated us from the nonsense; this year’s brings it crushing down upon our heads.
So as Yankee fans, we must endure the insults graceless winner Curt Schilling tossed at Alex Rodriguez. We must live with Bob Klapisch’s postmortem, in which he wrote, “…the images of the Yankees’ lack of heart were everywhere…” in game 7. These are just the wages of fandom; you take the lows with the highs. But the larger question remains, does blowing a 3-0 lead in the ALCS confirm the thesis, put forth best by Buster Olney in his fine book The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, that the 2002-2004 Yankees have lost their way by replacing winning players with soulless mercenaries?
When it comes to character and attitude issues in sports, moderate is appropriate. It is naïve to assume, as some extremists do, that all players, by dint of having reached the major leagues, must be similarly dedicated and mentally tough. A bad attitude or lack of group confidence can ruin a season. I mean, I doubt you would want to share a foxhole with the Chicago Cubs. But writers’ observations about the Yankees’ alleged character problem lack credibility when you know from experience that they were perfectly ready to write it the other way. If Mariano Rivera, whom we generally agree is not a gutless loser, has a better inning in game 4, then the Yankees would have been gritty pros, and the Red Sox would have been underachievers who talk too much. The sports media present a world in which only one team in thirty has heart, and they’ll let you know which one it is right after the last out of the World Series.
Those of us who watched the team day-in, day-out, need not buy this ex post facto characterization. All those come-from-behind wins don’t necessarily indicate great moral resiliency, but they aren’t consistent with a gutless team either. To judge by what I remember from comments posted here at Bronx Banter, all year we regarded Gary Sheffield as a fearless clutch hitter demolishing a reputation for selfishness. All year, we saw Alex Rodriguez do everything he could to subordinate himself to the team mission. We had overworked relievers who never complained about being overworked. We had veteran stars moved up and down in the batting order without squawking. We had the clearly ill Giambi staggering up there, trying to eke out a walk, because that was the only thing he could do to help the team.
Until the recent vilification of A-Rod, no one’s reputation has suffered more from the Yankees’ lack of 21st century championships than Jason Giambi’s. It may be that in 2004 he was a bad investment, but no matter, he was already the poster boy for the Soulless Yankees in 2002, when he was an MVP candidate and hit well in the playoffs, and in 2003, when he played hurt all year and hit two homers in game 7 of the ALCS. Connoisseurs were unmoved; they still preferred their Tino.
I wouldn’t deny that the Tino-Brosius-O’Neill Yankees had a special group confidence, but, hey: that was the greatest team of all time. And its immediate successors. I don’t want to argue the point right now. Let’s say it’s on the short list. If you are going to treat every departure from the greatest team ever as a tragic little betrayal of what made it all so special, well, you may find yourself unhappy with the team for a very long time. I submit that the 2002-2004 Yankees largely preserved the professionalism and hitting of their better ‘90s championship clubs, and had sufficient courage or testosterone or whatever, to win a title. They did not match the championship teams in pitching or fielding.
To say the Yankees don’t have a character problem is not to say they have constructed a team in the optimal way. To compete with Boston over the long haul, New York needs to develop some of its own players again. A pitcher, for instance. The Yankees haven’t deployed a pitching staff this bad in over a decade. Group confidence was only one asset of the late 90s Yankees. They also had Mariano Rivera throwing 95 mph rather than 92. They had Orlando Hernandez giving them fifteen innings in a series rather than five in a postseason. And those two were the good news in 2004: the Yankees would have lost the division without either Mo or El Duque. Mussina tuned in his fastball once in a while, like a fading radio signal, and Gordon had a good year. The rest was one disaster after another. And, frankly, the pitching staff is not entirely clear of the character problem. We had one guy self-inflict an injury, and no one willing to discomfort the Red Sox hitters when their pitchers threw at A-Rod with impunity.
That’s not good, but remember, even the title teams had some malcontents, some owner-interventions no one wanted, and a second baseman who forgot how to throw to first base. You loved that team, I loved that team, but the team that it morphed into won 305 games over the last three years. No, it wasn’t as great, but it wasn’t some tragically flawed, hollow shell of its former self either. It was, in fact, generally a pleasure to watch. It went 3-3 in postseason series. So did Babe Ruth’s Yankees in the 1920s. It was disappointing, but playoff baseball is not primarily a matter of willpower, and these guys do not deserve reputations as losers. Perhaps they can take comfort in the knowledge that all aspersions cast on their character can be vaporized by a single good postseason run. Just ask the Red Sox.