Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 13, 2012

Yanks And Sox On Different Paths, In More Ways Than One

It was a fine late summer’s eve in New England on Wednesday, and fans crowded into the venerable ballpark in downtown Boston, a few steps from Kenmore Square. Over the years few if any sports rivalries have been as intense as that between the Yankees and the Red Sox, and at Fenway Park the two teams were preparing to square off for one more time. But for all of the history and drama that is conjured up by simply uttering the names of the two franchises together, this September renewal of the great rivalry lacked the intensity of past contests.

As I made my way into the park as the guest of two good friends who are as devoted to their Red Sox as I am to my Yankees, the first thing that I noticed was a smattering of empty seats. Not many, to be sure; after all any game between these two teams is still a big deal. But clearly not quite as life-defining as in past seasons. Earlier on Wednesday a message from the Red Sox had dropped into my email inbox, informing me that “limited numbers” of tickets were still available for both Wednesday and Thursday, despite the fact that those were the dates of New York’s final appearances at Fenway this season. While the game was officially a sellout, it was clear that at least some season ticket holders had decided they had better things to do.

Part of the reason for the empty red chairs and generally reduced intensity is of course the state of the Red Sox season. The team currently sits dead last in the AL East, virtually assured of its first losing season in fifteen years. This after averaging more than 93 wins a year in the decade of John Henry’s ownership, a period which has also seen a pair of World Series championship parades wind through the streets of Boston. Even in 2011, when the team’s current slide began with a calamitous collapse in September, the Red Sox ended with 90 victories. Given that recent history, a campaign in which the Sox are on track to finish nine or ten games under .500 will understandably dampen enthusiasm.

But it isn’t just the team’s record that has soured some fans. Many were alienated not just by last year’s September swoon, but also by the way a number of star players seemed passionless about it. Still others were and remain angry over the post-season actions of management, when popular manager Terry Francona was first let go, and then treated to death by a thousand leaks as various unnamed sources sought to besmirch his reputation.

Still fans of many teams wind up unhappy when a season ends badly; but fans are a surprisingly resilient bunch. Whatever anger or discord existed in Red Sox Nation would have been largely washed away with a fast start last April. Instead the 2012 Red Sox under new manager Bobby Valentine stumbled out of the gate, and the daily melodrama of last fall not only carried over to the new season but actually managed to intensify. Much of that has focused on Valentine. Even though he has yet to throw a pitch or swing a bat, Valentine loves to be the center of attention; and dating to his days as manager of the Mets more than a decade ago, he seems forever willing to call attention to himself by publicly upbraiding players. Early in the season he called into question the commitment of slugging infielder Kevin Youkilis. Valentine’s comments seemed bizarre to Red Sox fans who loved the hard charging “Youk,” and more public relations damage was done when the rift between player and manager was settled by Youkilis being traded to Chicago in late June.

From there the Red Sox season spiraled out of control, climaxing in a meeting between ownership and a group of players who may or may not, depending on which rumor one wants to believe, have demanded Valentine’s firing. But despite the losses piling up and constant rumors that the manager was about to get the axe, it was a batch of complaining players that were sent packing to the west coast in late August. The trade of hero turned pariah Josh Beckett, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, outfielder Carl Crawford, and infielder Nick Punto to the Dodgers for light-hitting James Loney and some minor leaguers was a clear admission that the 2012 season was lost; but it also cleared the locker room of bad influences and opened up enormous space in Boston’s 2013 budget. Whether or not Valentine is retained, and Red Sox fans hoping for a good deal less melodrama should hope that he is not, GM Ben Cherington will go into the off-season with enormous flexibility to build a team for the future.

Which means that as sorry as this season has been for Boston, come October Red Sox fans may actually have more to look forward to Yankee diehards. For while New York’s season has obviously been more successful than Boston’s, the Yankees have no guarantee of a spot in the playoffs, aren’t built for a run deep into October if they do make it, and, if Hal Steinbrenner sticks to his guns, are about to be financially hamstrung.

On the day in late June when a line drive back up the middle fractured Andy Pettitte’s leg, the Yankees went on to win the contest and climb 18 games above .500. That’s where they remain, having been no better than a .500 club since. A one-time ten game division lead has dwindled to nothing; not in a dramatic collapse such as Boston had last September, but rather through a sustained period of middling play. Meanwhile Baltimore and Tampa Bay, the latter unsurprisingly and the former against absolutely all statistical logic, have piled up wins and caught the Yankees. Along the way New York’s weak starting pitching has been exposed. Earlier in the season the flaw was hidden behind the offense’s propensity for power. It’s easy to ignore the fact that your starter just allowed five runs in five innings if your batters are bashing the ball and tallying eight. But when batters slump as Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher have, or are injured as Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez have been, a weak rotation becomes impossible to ignore. With CC Sabathia pitching poorly enough since his return from a second stint on the disabled list to cause the media to wonder aloud if he is still hurt, the Yankees at present have no real ace. In the midst of a tight race for the post-season, that reality is not welcome news to fans in the Bronx.

New York still has experience and plenty of star power, and the Yankees may yet find a way to make it to the post-season. At Fenway on Wednesday they won in typical 2012 Yankees fashion. They went an alarming 0-13 with runners in scoring position, but Granderson smashed two home runs and Robinson Cano lofted a third over the Green Monster; then they held on for dear life, surviving an attempted Red Sox comeback, 5-4. But relying on the long ball is generally a poor prescription for post-season success, when most teams feature strong rotations and, with short series, one of the opponent’s top pitchers takes the mound every night.

Beyond this season, while the Red Sox have freed up space to deal, the Yankees are in a quandary. Unlike his late father, who would famously spend whatever it took to win a championship, Hal Steinbrenner believes in budgets. He’s made it clear to GM Brian Cashman that he wants the payroll reduced below its current level so the Yankees won’t face the severe luxury tax built into the game’s new collective bargaining agreement. That hard-line explains why other than the trade for the admirable but swiftly declining Ichiro, the Yankees deadline moves to “bolster” their roster involved guys named McGahee and Pearce.

To be sure, plenty of teams have won championships lately with payrolls coming nowhere near the luxury tax ceiling, and every budget-busting free agent signing or trade doesn’t produce the hoped-for results. The problem for the Yankees is the suddenness of the swerve into fiscal responsibility. The team is locked into multi-year deals with a handful of players that quickly eat up a huge portion of Cashman’s new budget. Pay A-Rod, Sabathia, Teixeira, and Jeter their 2013 salaries and one is over halfway to the ceiling with a majority of a starting lineup and rotation, plus a bullpen and dugout to fill. Not to mention that of that group only the remarkable Jeter is truly earning his pay, and next season he’ll turn 39.  Add in Cano and Granderson, both of whose contracts expire at the end of this year and both of whom are likely to be retained at significant cost (Cano understandably, Granderson considerably less so), and the crunch gets even tighter.

On Wednesday night it was the not insignificant number of Yankee fans who left Fenway Park in a cheerful mood. But given Ben Cherington’s dramatic trade and Hal Steinbrenner’s commitment to quick frugality, the mood of the two team’s fans may be very different in the not too distant future. One can debate whether it’s in heaven or hell, but somewhere Old Man George is not happy.

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Responses

  1. I feel the evening would have been much more enjoyable had the Red Sox won the game! Love the blog Mike!


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