- Last Updated: 2:33 AM, May 23, 2012
- Posted: 1:30 AM, May 23, 2012
One of my favorite perks of this job came at the old Stadium, sitting next to now-retired Newsday columnist Steve Jacobson, a world-class storyteller who covered the Yankees as a beat in his younger days.
Jacobson’s tenure included the 1965 club, which fascinated me because its collapse ended a four-decades-long run of Yankees greatness. Since I was covering a sustained period of Yankee success, I was curious when folks knew ’65 would be different, that history and famous names would not save a franchise that had played in the past five World Series and nine of the previous 10?
A few months into that season, Jacobson posed the “is-it-over” question to then-GM Ralph Houk, who responded tersely: “Do you really think [Mickey] Mantle won’t hit, that [Elston] Howard won’t hit, that [Roger] Maris won’t hit?” The answer was “no” as those older players faded in health and/or performance, and the Yanks went 77-85.
Now this is not the first time I have thought about that story. The recent-vintage Yankees have endured many halting starts raising the possibility that the party might be over. Yet every year, sans 2008, their talent and toughness carried them to the playoffs.
They were, for example, just 23-20 after 43 games last year and had seemingly squandered a chance to capitalize on the Red Sox’s poor start. Of course, the Yankees won 97 games and the AL East while Boston did not even make the playoffs.
With all of the offensive malfeasance of late — even in last night’s 3-2 victory over the Royals — the Yanks are just one game worse after 43 games this year, at 22-21.
“I keep hearing that [the Yanks are too old] every [bleeping] year,” Brian Cashman said. “It’s déjà vu. It has come upon us so many times. We are bad right now and we will be better.”
Still, there was something in Joe Girardi’s pre-game response yesterday that stirred the echoes of Houk when he all but asked: “Do you really think [Mark] Teixeira won’t hit, that [Alex] Rodriguez won’t hit?” He said of the veteran core, “These are the guys that have to get it done for us. ... We’re committed to them and they have to find a way to get it done.”
This is the cost of a relentless championship-or-bust culture: The Yankees are locked into a roster with less flexibility than the Washington Monument. Maybe Girardi can try to work at the margins, like he did in dropping Teixeira to seventh in the order. But Teixeira is in the lineup. This is not the struggling, low-paid Ike Davis with minor league options.
There are not a bunch of talented understudies who can make a difference. Jesus Montero was sacrificed to Seattle for Michael Pineda. Eduardo Nunez’s defensive ineptitude sent him back to Triple-A, where he is now on the DL with a finger injury. Maybe Brett Gardner’s speed can help at some point if he gets off the DL.
But to honor expectations, the Yanks are tied to their current group. The Yanks have too many other troubles — Mariano Rivera’s absence, an underperforming rotation, age, injuries — to survive the competitive AL East without their lineup being its familiar sledgehammer self. Over the previous 10 years the Yankees have finished in the top two in runs eight times and fourth once. The one year they were worse (10th in 2008), the Yanks didn’t make the playoffs. They are tied for eighth in runs in 2012. And, even in victory last night, the offense was miserable.
Luke Hochevar came in with a 7.02 ERA and a .365 average against with men on base. The Yankees went 2-for-13 with runners on and one was a bunt single that did not score a run. They won hanging on desperately against a bad team, yet uniformly spoke of better days to come. This is their script now — been-there-done-that confidence amid the storm.
No rancor. In fact, Girardi acknowledged he is not one to go menacing Billy Martin or inspiring Knute Rockne; not that either form of “motivation” would work. Cashman does not believe in firing managers or coaches during the season.
This is not about satisfying the bloodlust of dismayed fans. This isn’t the movies. A turnaround will not come with speeches or threats. There is no magical rookie waiting at Triple-A. The onus is on the locked-in current group. Do you think Teixeira won’t hit? Do you think A-Rod won’t hit? Do you think this lineup will suffer a yearlong flameout with runners in scoring position? Yes or no? Only the Yankee season hinges on the answers.