An era ended Monday night when Joe Torre’s Yankees went down to a hungry young Cleveland Indians club, making it the seventh year in a row the Yankees failed to win the World Series.
Frankly, I’m not disappointed. The Torre Era, which began in 1996, tracked perfectly with New York’s revival under Rudy Giuliani. But the last seven years have been a reprise. Instead of rolling on to the next thing, New Yorkers — led by George Steinbrenner — have desperately tried to maintain the status quo by buying marquee players from other teams. It was only fitting that the Yanks lost this time because 45-year-old Roger Clemens couldn’t make it through the second inning and because the late-season collapse of 40-year-old Mike Mussina left them without a fourth game starter. Instead, Torre was forced to rush his best pitcher, young Chien-Ming Wang, back into the fray on only three days rest — always a death rattle for a team about to be eliminated in the post-season.
There’s a lesson here for everyone — you can’t live forever on past successes. At some point you have to start anew.
I’ve been a baseball fan all my life but I’ve never experienced anything as transcendent as the rebirth of the Yankees in the 1990s. I was raising three boys in Brooklyn during the 1980s and we suffered through the Mel Hall-Bob Geren-Danny Tartabull Era. In those days you got excited if the Yanks won two games in a row. I remember sitting in the Bond Buyer one afternoon around 1992 and saying to my younger colleagues, “You know, it’s really strange trying to convince your children that the Yankees were once a great team.”
Things got so bad that Sports Illustrated finally ran a 1993 cover story, “What Ever Happened to the Yankees?” It compared the team to the Roman Empire, with its past glories and long decline. Then toward the end it tried to be upbeat. “The team now has a new center fielder, Roberto Kelly, who made the All-Star team plus a few other players who look promising. Who knows? In a couple of years they may be able to put something back together. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
It didn’t take that long. As often happens, a sobriquet from Sports Illustrated turned into a boomerang. (The magazine was once famous for ruining players’ careers by putting them on the cover.) Kelly didn’t work out but that winter Yanks traded him to Cincinnati to make room for another promising rookie, Bernie Williams. In exchange they got Paul O’Neill, a journeyman who turned out to be a warrior. By July 1994 the Yankees were leading the league until the season was ruined by a strike.
In 1995 the Yankees made the wild card — the first year this was instituted — and played a rising Seattle Mariner team led by Ken Griffey, Jr. and Randy Johnson. I took my kids to the first two games at Yankee Stadium, the second a 13-inning affair won on a home run by Leyritz at one o’clock in the morning. People celebrated in the streets outside Yankee Stadium for another two hours.
NEW YORKERS WERE BEGINNING to realize something extraordinary was happening in their city. Giuliani had been elected mayor in 1993 and things were already transforming. For years people had been afraid to come to Yankee Stadium because of the crime. Motorists struggling through traffic to get back to New Jersey were accosted by Bronx teenagers “selling” beer at $10 a can. Say good-bye to your windows if you didn’t cooperate. The Yankees were sixth in the league in attendance and Steinbrenner was talking about moving the team to New Jersey. Then all at once the streets were becoming safe and people filled the stadium every night.
After winning the first two in New York, however, the Yankees went out to Seattle and disaster struck. The Mariners won the next three. In the fifth and deciding game, manager Buck Showalter squandered a lead by sticking with an exhausted David Cone and letting him walk in the tying run. In the bullpen he had a young phenom named Mariano Rivera but was afraid to bring him in. (It was at this point I understood the genius of Casey Stengel, who was always willing to throw in some unknown who came through for him.) Twelve years later I still agonize over that game, but so does everyone else. Yankee announcers John Sterling and Susan Walman were just reminiscing about it the other night — “If Buck Showalter had only known what he had in the bullpen!”
Showalter was gone the next spring — mainly because of his tactical errors — and Steinbrenner brought in Joe Torre, whose baseball savvy matched his ability to lead his players. Rivera was back, Andy Pettitte had become the new ace, and the Yankees had a promising rookie shortstop named Derek Jeter who proved to be one of the greatest competitors of all time. They breezed through the American League championship, only to face what everyone considered the Team of the 1990s, the powerful Atlanta Braves.
Once again I was able to get my three boys into the Stadium. Pettitte was bombed in the Saturday opener, but it rained Sunday and I figured someone’s plans might get messed up for the make-up on Monday. We went up to the Stadium looking for scalpers. Nothing developed but around the second inning a young man walked up and said, “See that usher taking tickets? He’s my uncle. Give me $200 and I’ll give you fake tickets. He’ll let you in.”
Sure enough, it worked. In a few minutes we were inside the Stadium milling around with hundreds of others who had obviously made it in on the same scam. The ushers knew something was up and were checking everyone’s tickets. In desperation, I took the boys to the upper deck, picked a row and climbed to the top. There in the next-to-last row, as if by magic, were four empty seats.
The owners showed up in the fifth inning. They were from New Jersey. When one of their party couldn’t make it, they had tried to sell his ticket outside the Stadium — at face value! — and been arrested for scalping by an undercover cop. They had spent the first four innings at the police station. Like a true New Yorker, I figured that was their tough luck and refused to give up the seats. (New Yorkers think these things are deserved by people from New Jersey.) Somehow we all squeezed in and watched the rest of the game.
That was a different story. Greg Maddux was at his masterful best that night and the Yankees looked pathetic. (In a recap I saw later, batter after batter taps back to the pitcher.) Meanwhile the Braves threatened in every inning. By the seventh we were happy the score was only 5-0. Then something transcendent happened. The Yankees had lost the first two games in their home park, they seemed completely overmatched, yet the fans refused to accept it. Around the seventh inning the entire stadium started imitating the Braves’ famous tomahawk chant with an obscene variation: “F— the Braves! F— the Braves!” As I sat there wondering what this must sound like on national television, I was struck by what seemed like a cosmic premonition. “I don’t think this series is over,” I thought. “People in New York play by different rules.”
Sure enough, the Yankees rallied in Atlanta and swept the next four games.
SO BEGAN THE Great Torre Era. Except for one slip-up in 1997 (Rivera giving up a playoff home run), the Yankees won three more championships, setting a record for winning 13 World Series games in a row. The 1998 team was arguably one of the best of all time. The only thing anyone regrets is that the Mets somehow managed to win one game of the 2000 World Series.
Then came September 11th and the Yankee efforts became even more heroic. They struggled into the World Series of 2001 with a weakened team (O’Neill had retired) and carried the Diamondbacks into the ninth inning of the seventh game. (If only Torre hadn’t had to use Rivera for two outs in the eighth!)
After that, however, it was all downhill. Somehow the Yankees stopped developing their own players and started buying the franchise players of other small-market teams. Jason Giambi from Oakland, Alex Rodriguez from Texas, Bobby Abreu from the Phillies — every year it was someone new. All winter the sportswriters and talk-show call-ins would speculate on who we should buy next. It was as if the whole City of New York could splurge on George Steinbrenner’s money.
For me it all ended the night Jim Kaat, the Yankee’s announcer, was admiring the talents of Shawn Green, then a rising start with the Toronto Blue Jays. “You can’t help but ask yourself,” he said, “wouldn’t this guy look good in a Yankee uniform?” It wasn’t baseball anymore, it was shopping.
So it was nice to see it all come to an end Monday night. Once again, the Yankees’ big names and overpaid free agents were beaten by a hungry young team that could play fundamental baseball. It was only fitting that Alex Rodriguez, after leaving runners on base for the last three playoffs, should hit a meaningless solo homer in the seventh inning. It will look good in the statistics, but the game was long gone by then.
In five years, the Yankees will be probably trying to buy the talents of C. C. Sabathia and Grady Sizemore. But by that time they will have lost their fire and other young players will be challenging them.
Somehow there’s a lesson for everyone else in all this. You can’t live forever on past glory. At some point you have to forsake the past and start anew. And don’t expect it to happen quickly. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.