Ben Jacobs has an excellent look at how the American League is shaping up for 2004 (and it's not even Christmas yet). Last Friday, on the eve of the winter meetings, Jacobs—a Red Sox loyalist—made some fine points about the New York Yankees:
This isn't a team that most Yankees fans are going to get all warm and fuzzy about right away. Also, for the first time in a long time, most Yankees fans don't seem to be confident about the team. In the past, even when the Yankees struggled, their fans wouldn't worry because they could tell themselves things like, "We're the Yankees, we've got players who know how to win and they'll put it together."
I'm not saying that helps the team or hurts it, but if this Yankees team starts off slowly, they are not going to get a break from the fans or the media. And while I don't believe in chemistry or anything like that, things can snowball if an entire city gets down on a team and there are a whole bunch of new players who don't mesh really well.
I definitely think the Yankees are still the team to beat in the American League, but they are more vulnerable than they have been in the past. The team is very old and there are (or will be before too much longer) a lot of players who have never played in New York before. Also, the team doesn't seem to have the full support of the city behind it yet. Finally, it certainly seems like George Steinbrenner is running the show, and he hasn't always made the best decisions in the past.
...Within the next five years, the Yankees will either collapse or have a payroll in the $300-million range...
The Boss George of old was back last year and there is every reason to believe that he'll be more of a force in 2004. (If the Yankees start out 5-15, how long do you think Joe Torre will last?) I think Jacobs is right on when he suggests that this Yankee team doesn't have the universal support of Yankee fans. He's also correct when he states that the media coverage in New York will be inflammatory and shrill. It isn't enough that the Yankees have been great, but the '96-'01 teams were famous for their collective 'character,' and 'integrity.' They were the connoisseur's team, like the old Knicks were in the early 1970s.
But for veteran Yankee fans, we've been here before. We've seen Rome fall, only to have it rise again. Let's not forget what a motley crew of s.o.b.'s the 1977-'78 champs were. I'm reminded of what Roger Angell once wrote about Steinbrenner in his Bronx Zoo heyday. The Boss, Angell wrote:
Didn't really want to let his ballplayers play the games. He didn't want to put them out on the field and wait and see what happens, which is what you have to do in the end. He wanted to impose his will and in doing that he got between us and the players. I always had the feeling at Yankee Stadium when he was there that he was standing up in front of me and I was looking at George Steinbrenner and I wanted to see the Yankees, instead.
Since 1996, Joe Torre has helped shield us from George, the raging bull of bombast. So, of course, have players like Jeter, and Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera. But next year, we might be screaming like Uecker, "Down in Front!" Lofton will throw tantrums, Wells will sulk, and Sheffield will pop off on a regular basis (perhaps even Ruben Ruben Sierra will revert to his old ways). Yankee fans will role their eyes, frustrated that these guys aren't more like the stand up Yankees: Tino and Paulie O and David Cone. (After all, it's one thing to stomach rooting for a team with the highest payroll in the game, and another thing to actually dislike that team.) At the same time, Yankee-haters everywhere will rejoice and delight in the turmoil and mishegoss as it envelops the team. But then again, the Yanks might go ahead and foil everybody, win 105 games, and go to another World Serious. (Lofton and Sheffield may even don black eye patches like the true pirates they are.) What then?