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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Varsity Ain't What It Used to Be

The Yankees went into this weekend's series against the Phillies on a 9-game win streak, only to drop two out of three to the defending World Champions. The two losses came despite two straight blown saves by the best closer in baseball last season, Brad Lidge (the Yankees were 1-1 in blown saves by Lidge). In dropping 2 out of 3 to the Phillies, the Bronx Bombers looked more like a team playing paint ball than being a serious contender for the World Series.

Look, I know that's harsh, but I reacted to the buzz about the Yankees' win streak the way I did to the hype behind the Marlins after their 11-1 start (with all of the senior cognoscenti on ESPN touting the Marlins as a force to be reckoned with in the NL East). Well, after that start, the fish have gone 9-25 and sent last year's pitching star Ricky Nolasco to AAA after he got bombed in last night's outing. It's not that the Yankees are a bad team -- far from it. It's just that you can't spend over $400 million in contracts and then have yourself declared as the team to beat. Not when the strong, young Rays are in your division, not when the Red Sox are your archrivals and when the Blue Jays seemingly demonstrate the chemisty that you've lacked during your 9-year World Series victory drought.

I recall in 2006 when Mike Francesa arrogantly dismissed the Tigers as wannabes in the AL playoffs by saying that Detroit had beaten up on lesser teams and now it was time to play "the varsity" -- the New York Yankees. The Tigers promply popped the Yankees upside the head and sent them packing. Yes, Detroit lost to the worst team to win the World Series in a long time -- the St. Louis Cardinals -- but that loss only underscored the problems the Yankees were having, to wit: they spend money to draw over 4 million fans, but not necessarily to win a title.

Fast forward to this weekend. They spent over $400 million on A.J. Burnett, who pitched more like Adam Eaton (just released by Baltimore) than, well, Jake Peavy, on Friday night, Mark Teixeira, an outstanding player if not, to borrow an analogy, the straw that stirs the drink, and CC Sabathia. One-time stalwart catcher Jorge Posada is hurt, and his backups might forever remain unknown. Centerfielder Bret Gardner is not that good, Hideki Matsui's bat looks slow, Baseball Prospectus doubts how much Derek Jeter has left in the tank, Robinson Cano seemingly still misses Larry Bowa, and you're not going to win much with an outfield of Johnny Damon, Gardner and Melky Cabrera. But that's not why I wrote this post.

Remembrances of Francesa's boast and his upbeat mood on the air during this past week combined to bug me, as did the Yankees' celebration after they came from behind and beat the Phillies in the bottom of the ninth on Saturday. This wasn't a come-to-home-plate-and-mob-the-guy-who-scored-the-winning-run celebration. That would have been okay. What made it worse was that the team ran out past home plate and onto the middle of the infield, as if -- and here's the thing that should get Yankee fans -- this was a huge surprise that doesn't happen to them that often. Look, the Yankees beat the Phillies coming from behind, fair and square. But the celebration belied a team that has veterans and that's supposed to be a contender. It was the celebration of an also-ran team that did almost the impossible, and it suggested to me that perhaps deep down this group hasn't totally figured out who they are and how fare they can go. Put differently, it looked bush league in the sense that minor leaguers upsetting the WBC American team might have celebrated this way.

But it's not the celebration that a varsity team has, that the Yankees have. A true Yankee team would have been happy, but it wouldn't have acted as if this were the biggest win of the year. Worse, Alex Rodriguez was interviewed after the game, and he talked as though his teammates were his brothers. Gag me, please. World Series champions have great chemistry and are populated with players like Jamie Moyer and Chase Utley, David Eckstein and Albert Pujols, but not necessarily guys like A-Rod.

Yes, the Yankees could win 90+ games and make the playoffs, and with the money they're spending they should. But that doesn't mean they'll get out of the first round, not until they get healthy, play with more confidence, and add to their depth.

Because while $400 million can purchase great talent, it doesn't buy chemistry.

And just because you think your team is the varsity to everyone else's Little League doesn't make it so.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The road to the World Series is very much like finger prints. No two are exactly alike.

I had the same thoughts while watching the Phillies and the Yankies series over the last few days. It no doubt had the feel of an October classic.

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