Failure is an Option

The Yankees and Atlanta Braves suddenly have much in common, don’t they?

Because for the fifth straight season, the greatest franchise in sports history, owners of 26 World Championships, blew another lead in October to fall short of its own lofty expectations of Championship #27. Like 2002, the Angels were the team that New York fans and its media overlooked, beating the Yanks in Game 5, 5-3, to win the division series.

Of the Yanks five latest October underachieving moments, this one might have been the toughest to swallow. After all, the Halos had lost their ace, Bartolo Colon, to a shoulder injury after the first inning in Game 5, leaving the $205 million All-Stars to feast on a 22-year-old rookie who hadn’t pitched in relief all season. All they did against someone named Ervin Santana was score three runs over 5 1/3 innings, while the Yankees’ pseudo-ace Mike Mussina was knocked out in 3 1/3 innings, rocked for five runs and six hits.

Yankee fans love to talk about A-Rod, Jeter, Giambi, Sheffied and Matsui as being the next Murderers Row at the plate, but they fail to mention the aspect that, as the old saying goes, wins championships: Defense. In this series it proved to be the difference maker, playing a key role in Games 2 and 5…both Angel victories.

The Bombers could have put a stranglehold on this series by winning Game 2…a game they had a 2-0 lead and were cruising in going into the sixth, but three unearned runs given up in the next two innings, including a Bill Buckner moment by Alex Rodriguez, opened the flood gates in a 5-3 Angel victory.

Game 5 ended with the same result and in very much in the same fashion. Again, the Yankees held a 2-0 lead, but once again defense played a key role: This time by a game-changing play—a replay that you may have seen 100 times by now—of Gary Sheffield and Bubba Crosby colliding in right centerfield chasing a fly ball that likely would have been caught if there was any communication between the two. By the time the two untangled after the crash, the scoreboard read 3-2 for the home team.

Down 5-3 in the ninth, Joe Torre’s club did have a chance to tie or take the lead with two on and two out, but Hideki Matsui’s hot smash to first was snared by Darin Erstad—a play Jason Giambi couldn’t make 99 out of 100 times—and the game, the series and the 167-game season was over in an instant.

While I’m clearly enjoying this moment, I do think that the team itself is a very likable bunch. Jeter is all class and is the only player on the team besides Posada that knows how to aggressively and intelligently run the bases. The humble Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer you will ever see in your lifetime. A-Rod is a freak at the plate (in the regular season, anyway) and never poses after hitting a home run. Matsui is a consummant professional, as is Posada. And while players come and go, Bernie Williams has been with the organization for a now-unheard of fifteen years. He will be missed.

So why are so many people like me thrilled with the Yankees again heading to a golf course near you?

Three reasons come to mind:

The announcers: For an organization that outspends every team in the majors by a two-to-one, three-to-one and even as much as a six-to-one margin, George Steinbrenner refuses to get a real play-by-play man in the TV or radio booth. Instead, he assigned the prestigious honor of being “the voice of the Yankees” to a former newspaper reporter named Michael Kay.

Besides being the biggest homer in the business (he defended the Yankees last season after the team blew a 3-0 lead to the Red Sox in the ALCS by stating that the team “had a season to be proud of”), Kay has zero ability to get away from his play-by-play-playbook. Every home run call (“…looking up…See Ya!”) is exactly the same in tone and inflection, whether it is spring training or a September game against the Red Sox. Just try to find a classic call from Kay for the broadcasting Hall of Fame from the YES Network archives.

Double dare you…

The same goes for John Sterling, the radio play-by-play assclown for WCBS. Every Yankee home run is “high, it is far, it is gone!” The ball in question could be a line drive inside the foul pole or a 500-foot moon shot…nothing changes in the name of self-indulgent catch phrases.

Memo to Mr. Steinbrenner: Please, please hire Jon Miller or Gary Thorne now!

The print media is no better. Classic example: Going into the Angel series, the New York Post and Daily News focused on what a matchup with the Red Sox might look like in the ALCS. Forget the fact that L.A. had home field advantage in the ALDS or the White Sox had the best record in the AL…the Red Sox and Yankees are a royalty rivalry, and any other teams participating in the big dance be damned if they have the nerve of getting in the way.

Even going into Game 5 against the Angels, the Daily News interviewed fans about how badly the Yanks would beat up on the White Sox, who only just SWEPT the World Champs from Boston two days earlier.

The fans are the best in baseball, but also the most myopic. Ask almost any of them who Garrett Anderson, Francisco Rodriguez or Adam Kennedy was going into the Angel series and watch the blank stares begin. With most Yankee faithful, unless the opponent is the Red Sox, the opposition is completely irrelevant. This aspect is maddening to those who love the game and appreciate all of the skilled players the Yankees haven’t signed yet.

For anyone who isn’t drinking the Pinstripe Kool Aid, this kind of coverage is borderline sickening. To watch the Yankees lose to those no names from Anaheim, the happy thought process wasn’t to witness the Jeters and A-Rods leave the dugout in disbelief, but to see how the papers would spin this impossible loss to a team that only embarrassed them in the same series three years ago.

Most Yankee fans are failing to accept that their heroes are quickly becoming the Braves of the American League. It’s not as if the team is simply losing in October, but it’s the bone-in-the-throat way it has been occurring.

For those with selective amnesia, here’s a quick review course:

2001 World Series: New York blows a 3-2 series lead and 2-1 ninth inning lead in Game 7. The great Mariano Rivera only records one out, hits a batter and commits a throwing error to single-handedly lose the series.

2002 ALDS: Yanks have a 1-0 series lead and 5-4 lead in Game 2 going into the eighth until the Angels touch up the bullpen for three runs. Anaheim would never trail in the series in any inning again, winning in four.

2003 World Series: Heavily favored New York takes a 2-1 series lead over Florida when Joe Torre inexplicitly leaves now-departed Jeff Weaver in for two innings in relief. Predictably, Weaver gives up a game winning home run and the Marlins go on to win Games 5 and 6, including a humiliating shutout in the series-clincher in the Bronx.

2004 ALCS: Boston trails its hated rival 3-0 in the series but accomplishes the greatest comeback in sports history that includes two extra inning victories in Games 4 and 5 and a 9-2 thumping in Game 7 in the Bronx.

2005: See above.

So who will be the goats this year?

Mike Mussina: Comes up small in another playoff game. An $88 million contract makes him an easy target for the press and fans alike, but not as big a bulls-eye is on his forehead as…

Alex Rodriguez: The curse continues. Whereever A-Rod goes, championships simply do not follow. Here’s why the Yankee third baseman is not known as the next Mr. October: In his last two playoff series (Boston ’04 and LA ’05), Rodriguez has 4 hits in 32 at bats and no RBIs in twelve games. For those in the ADD category, A-Rod hit into a rally-killing double play in the ninth of Game 5 Monday night…a fitting end for a player who will never be accepted as a true Yankee until he does something spectacular against a team other than the Twins or Devil Rays.

Joe Torre: Since no one else dared to bring it up a week ago, why again did Torre sit all of his starters in the final game of the season with home-field advantage against the Angels on the line?

So now the panic begins in the tri-state area. The questions will dominate sports radio for months to come: What All-Stars will they sign in the offseason to replace Bernie Williams, Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown and Jeret Wright? Middle relief is also a big problem. And Gary Sheffield is a cancer in the clubhouse. Do we have a suitable backup for Bubba Crosby?

Wow, is a $300 million payroll right around the corner?

Or will the Yanks take the track of other recently successful teams and try to win with, I don’t know, homegrown talent? That strategy helped them win all of those championships in the 90s (Jeter, Williams, Rivera and Posada all came up through the farm system), so maybe its time to get back to basics and stop the madness of outspending its opponents.

Will that happen?

I wouldn’t bet on it.

Because failure is not an option in Yankeeland…

But it sure is in style lately.