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March 27, 2007

Hope and Faith

How the New York Yankees Can Win the World Series

by Alex Belth

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Will talks with Alex Belth about the Yankees' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

Imagine the Yankees winning it all this year. I know it's a leap of faith, but go ahead and try. Okay, that didn't take long now, did it? The truth is that the Yankees have been the favorites to win the World Series every season for more than a decade, so it's no chore dreaming up a way for them to do it again. On the other hand, they haven't actually won a championship since 2000, and there is plenty that can go wrong, even if they manage to make the playoffs again.

In New York, the post-2001 Yankees have largely been considered a disappointment, and that's in spite of the fact that they have averaged 99 wins a season over that stretch. In the Big Apple, sustained excellence is not enough. If the Yanks don't win the World Series, chalk the season up as a bust. This attitude is partially a reaction to the phenomenal post-season success the Yankees enjoyed from 1996-01. George Steinbrenner always believed that if his team did not win it all they were failures, even embarrassments--he publicly apologized to the city of New York when his team lost to the Dodgers in 1981.

For years, it was easy to dismiss Steinbrenner's crassness. When the Yankees won four titles in six years, Steinbrenner's sense of entitlement was actualized, and this sensibility spread to the fans, particularly the younger ones.

The worst part of this approach is not only that it is unrealistic, but it misses the point of how special that run actually was. The enduring quality of those '90s teams was that they truly seemed to appreciate how hard it is to play the game well, and how hard it is to win consistently. They did both admirably. When they were finally out-Yankeed by the Diamondbacks in 2001, Tom Boswell wrote that no champion had ever relinquished their title more grudgingly or with greater honor.

Talk about a tough act to follow. The burden of those championship years have weighed heavily on subsequent Yankee teams. New York writers have spoken about the "joyless" clubhouse atmosphere for years now. The old Yankees had character, the new ones are soft--never mind post-'01 busts like Jeff Weaver and Jose Contreras suddenly gaining character and World Series rings in St. Louis and Chicago respectively. The old Yankees were characterized by a pair of Paul O'Neill's World Series at-bats, first against John Rocker in Game One of the 1999 Series, and a year later against Armando Benitez in Game One of the 2000 Series--O'Neill was overmatched, yet still managed to do something productive. Fairly or not, the current Yankee team is characterized by Alex Rodriguez grounding out against the Angels in '05, or batting eighth last year in Detroit.

So what is the difference between the two stages of Joe Torre's Yankee career? Dayn Perry argues that it has a lot to do with pitching and defense. Torre himself offered an opinion last October on the day it was announced that he would not be fired:

The interesting part is, when you say it's been six years [since we won a title], if I'm not mistaken, it was 18 years when I got here. And then in '98, it was: "Hey, it's been two years since you won. What happened?" There's a lot of luck involved. I don't want you to think I'm backing off any accountability...but there's a lot of luck.

Yankee fans were lulled into the trap of feeling as if the team had a patent on winning. Of course, the fates shifted, making the Angels the "it" team in 2002, the Red Sox "the team of destiny" in 2004, and then there were the Cards last fall.

The Yankees have made their share of tactical errors, too. By passing up Carlos Beltran several winters back in favor of signing Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, and Tony Womack, they committed the kind of gaffe that can bury an organization for years. However, the Yankees' deep pockets allowed them to absorb these kinds of problems better than any team in the game. This year, for instance, they regrettably signed Doug Mientkiewicz to play first base, but if he's a bust, he'll be gone and replaced before the All-Star break.

The arrival of Johnny Damon, as well as the blossoming of Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera, added some lightness to the normally dour Yankees. But there is a sense of impending loss that surrounds the 2007 Bronx Bombers. Yankee Stadium has only two more seasons left; Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera are free agents at the end of the year, and though they are both likely to return, Posada will turn 36 in August, Rivera 38 in November; Andy Pettitte is back for now, but that's sure not to last too long, not beyond a couple of seasons at the most; the smart money says that Alex Rodriguez walks after this season; lastly, Joe Torre's contract is up at the end of the year. Torre's streak of consecutive years as Yankee manager under Steinbrenner is almost as remarkable as DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Still, you have to wonder whether he'll be around long enough to manage the inaugural season at the new Stadium.

Bernie Williams' career is already over. The Yankees weren't going to offer him a guaranteed contract, and he didn't really want to go play for anybody else. A lot of careers end awkwardly, but this was another example of the awkwardness that's always existed between Yankees and Bernie Williams. Yes, they'll have a day for him and his number will be retired, but it's not a surprise that it ended this way--the Yankees had never been overly gracious with Williams when it comes to business. He never forgave them for simply renewing his contract in 1994 and 1995 instead of negotiating a new salary. The Yankees never treated him like a Grade-A star, though they ended up paying him like one. After the 1998 season, when he became a free agent, the Yankees balked, and then overcompensated to keep Williams, signing him to a seven-year, $87.5 million deal.

Most of all, the sense of pending loss is because George Steinbrenner is a frail old man. He communicates almost strictly through his public relations man, Howard Rubenstein. I'm going to be thirty-six years old this June; the Boss is the only owner I've ever known as a Yankee fan. There's probably no public figure that I've spent more time hating in my life than George, and that includes presidents, rock stars, actors, and sportscasters. And yet the Yankees have won six World Series and ten pennants under George. As the song goes, "I've grown accustomed to your face." Who are we going to curse to hell when he's gone?

As for this year, Alex Rodriguez is one of the few guys on the team who can be reasonably expected to have a better season than he did in '06. You could say the same about Hideki Matsui. Jorge Posada was terrific last year, and the Yankees will be in dire straits if he goes down for any length of time. There have been several articles in the New York papers recently about how underappreciated Posada is. Here, here to that. And of course, it is difficult to fathom the Yankees winning anything without the great Mariano Rivera, who has been as good over the past four seasons as he's been at anytime over the course of his career.

How will the Yanks win it all? They need to stay healthy, that's obvious. Beyond that, hope that Josh Beckett doesn't become a star pitcher for Boston, that Alex Rodriguez has a great season, and that Pettitte, Mussina, and Wang rack up fifteen wins each. Throw in a stronger bullpen than the team has had in recent years, with Rivera posting another sub 2.00 ERA. Oh yeah, count on Phillip Hughes arriving by midseason, just after Roger Clemens signs, helping to insure another 100+ win campaign. Then, once the Yankees reach October, a quartet of Yankee good-luck charms: Frank Torre, Rudy Giuliani, Billy Crystal, and Jeffrey Maier, all singing "With a Little Bit of Luck" before the anthem, to be performed on guitar by Bernie Williams at each home game. There, that's not hard to imagine, is it? Nauseating perhaps, but not inconceivable.


Will talks with Alex Belth about the Yankees' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio.

Click to download mp3

Alex Belth is a regular contributor to SI.com and the author of Stepping Up, a highly-regarded biography of Curt Flood. He can be reached here.
Related Content:  The Streak,  Yankees,  The Who,  Yankees Fans

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