Thursday, October 12, 2006

$200 million dollar failure? Not quite...

by Scott Silversten

Many fans of the New York Yankees wanted Joe Torre fired for his failure to have a team that achieved tremendous regular season success accomplish anything in October. In his place they want Lou Piniella.

This is the same Pineilla who skippered the Seattle Mariners to a record 116 regular-season victories in 2001, only to flame out in five games against the Yankees, who had won 21 fewer games, in the American League Championship Series.

Yeah, that makes sense.

But I digress …

Let’s pause for a brief moment as I call your attention to the Baseball For Thought columns of October 3 and 4 in which yours truly not only picked the Detroit Tigers to beat the New York Yankees in four games, but also said the boys from Motown will win the World Series.

Stay tuned on that second prognostication, but I must admit that I was shocked – SHOCKED! – at the way people who think they know baseball were so quick to overlook the Tigers based on their struggles over the last two months of the regular season. Here was a team that won 95 games, led the major leagues in ERA and featured a lineup whose Nos. 7, 8 and 9 hitters combined for 81 home runs.

Why did I pick the Tigers? Not for the reasons mentioned above or the fact that they were baseball’s best team for a majority of the year. But rather because when it comes to the postseason, all things being equal, always go with the team that features the best pitching from top to bottom. And that was the Tigers.

Of course, it doesn’t always work this way. And I know Billy Beane will tell you that it’s impossible to build a team for the postseason. But there is no doubt that October is different than April through September. The game does change, and in the age of inflated biceps, ERAs and home run totals, the change is even more drastic.

To begin with, it becomes much harder to hit once the leaves start turning brown. Not only do afternoon shadows play some role, but the weather gets colder and the ball doesn’t fly as far. Plus, batters will be faced with beating only the best pitchers of their opponents. There are no No. 5 starters or weak underbellies of bullpens making their appearance in October.

But with all this being said, there is one HUGE reason the Yankees lost to the Tigers … It’s baseball, stupid.

In the days following the American League Division Series, many cried out “How could the Yankees’ lineup struggle so much at such an important time?”

Baseball just doesn’t work that way. The Yankees struggled to score runs on numerous occasions throughout the season. It seemed like every other week they were being shut down by some unknown rookie or journeyman veteran. If a team knew how to prevent a shutdown in October, isn’t it safe to assume they would apply the same theories to the rest of the schedule?

The fact is baseball teams lose baseball games, no matter how good they are. The payroll could be $200 BILLION and that would assure nothing once the postseason arrives. What the Yankees buy, year in and year out, is the opportunity to contend for the playoffs. Nothing beyond that is guaranteed, even given the fact that 11 straight postseason appearances are amazing no matter where the payroll stands.

What is amazing about the Yankees organization is that they find it necessary to build a team of superstars even though their success of 1996-2001 featured numerous role players supporting borderline All-Stars. In the last decade, only one Yankee has taken home one of the major individual awards (Roger Clemens won the Cy Young in 2001).

World Series winners under Torre featured key players such as Jim Leyritz, Ricky Ledee, Chad Curtis, Scott Brosius, Ramiro Mendoza, etc. It’s not that the current roster of superstars can’t win because it lacks heart or chemistry. The fact is that other teams have had success without loading up on All-Stars, but for some reason, the Yankees feel they can’t win without a Hall of Fame-loaded lineup.

And please don’t get me started on this notion that the Yankees lack heart.

When did we reach the point in sports in which only the ultimate champion was the one with heart? No matter what their salary, all players want to win, most work incredibly hard at their craft and they all will fight hard for the ultimate price in any sport … the ring.

Are we to assume a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers lack heart because they were swept out of the NL Division Series? And if we assume that, does it mean they somehow lost their heart over the course of a couple of days following the conclusion of the regular season.

The worst thing that has happened to the Yankees and Yankees fans is the fact that the team has played October baseball every year since 1995. It has rendered the remainder of the year as meaningless to many, when in fact, it’s the postseason that should carry less meaning.

And I’m sure George Steinbrenner would agree with that …

Scott Silversten's column, "Age of Reason", appears every Thursday


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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine