Monday, October 08, 2007

The Madness of Boss George
The first round of the baseball playoffs is complete, with dismal results in all local precincts. The 2007 Phillies are no more, as are my wife's cherished Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. (Okay, she could generally care less about the Halos, but adores Mike Scioscia more than anyone really should.) The Cubs went down even more meekly than the Phils, setting up a National League Championship Series between Colorado and Arizona that promises to be about as compelling as televised Boggle. And, as of an hour or so ago, the New York Yankees were eliminated by the Cleveland Indians.

Short playoff series are the definition of "crapshoot," and the Tribe knocking off the Bombers was the only one I predicted correctly. (I really would have enjoyed that Cubs-Phillies NLCS... ) Cleveland's pitching was too good, and the Yankees' too suspect, for me to pick the local guys. But that the Yankees made it at all is fairly incredible. They mirrored the Phillies in many respects, coming back from a slow start--which lasted a full 50 games in their case--to reach the playoffs on the strength of a relentless and powerful offense. New York's pitching took as bad or worse a beating from injuries as the Phils'. And through it all, legendary manager Joe Torre kept his cool, never complained, supported his young GM Brian Cashman in not trading homegrown talent for veteran fixes... and led his club to a 73-39 record over their last 112 games, for a .651 winning percentage that's almost unfathomable in a baseball season of (I think) unprecedented parity. As his veteran arms faded, Torre and pitching coach Ron Guidry integrated a new cohort of Yankee pitchers that, always provided they stay healthy, seem all but certain to lead the team back to the title within a few years.

But if they do, it won't be Joe Torre who gets another championship ring. In a dick move reminiscent of what he did in the '70s and '80s to become arguably the most reviled sports owner since the O'Malleys took the Dodgers west, Big Stein recently stated, "I don't think we'd take him back if we don't win this series."

At the time he said this, the Yankees trailed two games to none. They'd gotten blown out in the opener when starter Chien-Ming Wang couldn't handle the Cleveland bats, but very nearly seized homefield advantage before squandering a 1-0 lead late in Game Two and ultimately losing 2-1 in 11 innings. Though I didn't see most of that game, I haven't heard anyone suggesting that Torre's decisions were to blame. (Joba Chamberlain, perhaps the most talented of the Yankees' kid pitchers, lost the lead with a wild pitch in the 8th inning, Mariano Rivera threw two scoreless, and Luis Vizcaino--clearly the third-best arm in the New York bullpen, after the two guys who already had pitched, took the loss in the 11th.) But even if Torre had done the managerial equivalent of pooping on the lineup card, without him you're almost certainly not in the playoffs to start with--and he's as beloved in the city as Steinbrenner is detested. A similar state of affairs seems to hold in the clubhouse; if Torre is fired, it's probably less likely that Rivera, star catcher Jorge Posada and the certain MVP, Alex Rodriguez, choose to come back for 2008.

As self-defeating as it seems--and as unseemly as it is for a 77 year-old billionaire to act with a four year-old's petulant need for instant gratification--this is in keeping with Steinbrenner's nature, and the public response from Torre and his players acknowledges as much. But Nate Silver at Baseball Prospectus thinks the old guy might just be off his nut.

What it suggests to me, though, is that most of us are lucky not to have our professional fates controlled by possibly unhinged nut jobs like Steinbrenner. Six hundred years ago, that guy probably could have had you put to death; now he mostly just hurts himself unless Brian Cashman, Stick Michael or whoever else is in the Yankee brain trust these days can talk him down.

I don't hate the Yankees as so many of my friends and family do. Baseball is more fun when they're good, and when they're good for the right reasons--as is the case now with Cashman's emphasis on building from within and being opportunistic in trades--the whole game improves because other organizations look to the replicable aspects of Yankee success. But Steinbrenner's such a miserable, tyrannical prick--and always has been--that I do derive a certain pleasure from knowing that he's unhappy. When one expects the near-impossible--in Big Stein's case, championships every single year--it's inevitable that the disappointment of defeat dwarfs the joy of victory.

Though it also might have to do with this curse-as if New Yorkers weren't likely to support the Dem anyway--I'll go out on a limb and predict that the first year after Steinbrenner dies, the Yankees will win their 27th championship.


Feral said...

I’m happy as a Yankees fan to have lived in New York for all 12 years of the Torre Era. His short-series management decisions can be called into question at times, but there was absolutely nobody better who could handle the team through the ups and downs of a long season. To the people who think that a Billy Martin/ Lou Pinella style rage-fest management is best suited for NY, he proved the value of acting like an adult in a child’s game.

Now bring on the Girardi Era! Mattingly can be his bench coach (provided that he cuts those damn sideburns).

David said...

I can't think of any manager in my lifetime who's won adulation for his "short-series management decisions." I guess maybe LaRussa or Bobby Valentine, but then, those guys are dicks. Even those universally regarded as great managers--Torre and Bobby Cox--take all kinds of crap for their roster construction, bullpen or pinch-hitting choices and what have you. In almost every single case--Grady Little comes to mind--it's the players' fault.

Girardi/Mattingly/whoever will be perfectly fine as long as Joba, Hughes, Kennedy and the rest of the kid pitchers stay healthy. These "end of the dynasty" stories are much overstated. The style might change, but Cashman really knows what he's doing here.

Feral said...

I meant to include an addendum like "as with most managers" when it comes to questioning Torre in short series. It seems that guys who manage with guts rather than stats (less stats, more sass?) do well over the long run, but their mistakes become more glaring when they lose in the short run (starting 5 lefties against C.C.; pitching Pettitte second when it's clear that Wang does not have the mentality of a number 1 starter, even if he has 19 wins; not bunting with Melky with first and third, nobody out, etc.). Valentine is a good example of the anti-Torre (more stats, also a fair amount of sass, but unrelated to baseball acumen and more towards the Groucho nose-glasses-mustache prop brilliance).

I agree that the dynasty is not over; it's just the changing of the guard. And once the mighty Pavano gets healthy, we'll be unstoppable.

the Navigator said...

You know, I think you're right that a Cub/Phils series would'be been much more compelling than the NLCS we have - but why, exactly? (For us, it's partly NLDS bitterness and dislike of Xtian supremacism, but the feeling extends to lots of other, differently-minded bball fans.) I suspect the real reason that I, and you, and lots of others feel that way, is because of the history of the franchises - Cubs/Phils seems like an epic clash of two teams playing since the 19th century, whereas Rox/Dbacks are 2 teams that have only played since the [first] Clinton presidency. But take a step back - both teams have some great young players. Webb, Helton, Holliday, all that young Dback talent. One team on a fairly incredible roll right now. Why does franchise history, which is essentially unrelated to the present roster, affect how compelling a present-day playoff series will be? Because of that uncomfortable Seinfeldian fact that I try not to remind myself of too often - we're really just rooting for laundry.