Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 10, 2013

Homegrown Heroes, In The Bronx Of All Places

There will be time, come this fall at the other end of the longest season when he actually retires, to consider the greatness of Mariano Rivera. There will be time then to celebrate his Hall of Fame career, to count the record number of saves and to contemplate the utter improbability of his miniscule postseason ERA. When that time comes, even as we honor his achievements we will also praise his grace and humility in times of failure. At its heart the Great Game is about finding a way to limit failure, and on those rare nights when Rivera’s signature cutter hasn’t cut, he has never scurried from the clubhouse but instead has quietly answered every question from every waiting reporter.

But Rivera still has another full season to play, and so it would seem odd to list his career numbers now when the record is yet incomplete. But his announcement Saturday morning that 2013 will be his final season in pinstripes reminded Yankee fans that in the Bronx an era is passing; a time of great New York teams that were defined not just by who was on them but also by how they were put together.

Jerry Seinfeld’s old joke is that in the age of free agency, with professional athletes in every team sport moving from one franchise to another in pursuit of ever larger paychecks, fans are left rooting for laundry. The only constants on many teams are the uniforms, not the individuals wearing them. The Yankees are known by all and reviled by many as the team more willing than any other, irrespective of the sport, to lure top free agents with fat contracts. From Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson to CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, some of those signings have paid big dividends. But free agency also brought the likes of Kenny Rogers, Kei Igawa and Carl Pavano to the Stadium, proving that on the diamond as in the stock market past performance is no guarantee of future success.

Over the years the Yankees like every team have also used trades to build each year’s roster. The deals that brought Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez to New York were crucial to assembling the squads that won four championships in five years. But there were also those trades that saw the Yankees ship talent out of town in order to acquire the likes of Randy Johnson and Javier Vazquez. As successful as they had been elsewhere, Johnson was never comfortable under the intense spotlight of the Gotham media, and Vazquez was an unmitigated disaster.

As important as free agency and trades can be, and as risky as both always are, Rivera’s announcement reminds us that the critical factor in New York’s success since the mid-90’s has been the team’s good fortune in getting tremendous production from home-grown talent. It began with Bernie Williams, discovered by a Yankees scout in Puerto Rico in 1985. On his 17th birthday in September of that year, the first day he could sign a professional contract, Williams was inked by New York. He made it to the big club in 1991, beginning a sixteen year career in pinstripes; most of it spent patrolling center field. Williams was a five-time All Star, won the AL batting title in 1999, and was a mainstay in the middle of the lineup for most of his career. It was Williams who hauled in Mike Piazza’s fly ball to center at Shea Stadium to end the 2000 Subway Series, clinching the Yankees third championship in a row and fourth in five years.

But Williams was but a precursor to the talent that was about to come out of the Yankees farm system. During Spring Training in 1995 a 22-year old left hander named Andy Pettitte lost out on a competition for the last spot in New York’s starting rotation to Sterling Hitchcock. But Pettitte made the big club and came north with a spot in the bullpen. He made his big league debut on the next to last day of April. A little more than three weeks later it was Rivera, then being groomed as a starter, who made his first appearance on the mound as a Yankee. Just six days later, a 20-year old shortstop who the Yankees had taken with the sixth overall pick in the draft just three years earlier was called up from AAA. Batting ninth in his first big league game, Derek Jeter went 0 for 5. Later in the 1995 season, Jorge Posada relieved Jim Leyritz behind the plate for a single game. While fans could scarcely know it at the time, the Core Four of the Yankees had arrived.

But for three years that Pettitte spent in Houston from 2004 through 2006, the four products of the Yankees farm system who first wore a big league uniform in 1995 have all, like Williams, spent their entire careers with the Yankees. Along with the championships that they shared with Williams, the Core Four were together for the Yankees 27th title in 2009. Between them they have thirty-three selections as All-Stars over the course of individual careers that will forever be part of Yankees lore. Rivera and Jeter are clearly headed for Cooperstown, and all four seem certain to eventually find a spot in Monument Park at the Stadium.

Still there is no escaping the fact, as Mo reminded us on Saturday, that this era in Yankees history is coming to an end. The team wouldn’t guarantee Williams a spot on the 2007 roster, and he chose not to come to camp. But while he still believed he could be an everyday player, he opted not to seek an opportunity with another club. Posada retired after the 2011 season. Pettitte had done the same a year earlier, and then came out of retirement last year. Happily for Yankees fans, he pitched like the Andy of old rather than just an old Andy; but his season was interrupted by a freak injury in June. He’s in camp again, readying for a new season; but playing on a one-year contract. Jeter is about to start the final year of the deal he signed prior to the 2011 season, with an option for 2014. Now the peerless Rivera has set the end date for his career.

The page is turning, as it must. But before it does, consider the San Francisco Giants. Out west by the Bay, they’ve won two championships in three years. Yet even in that short period of time, the team underwent vast changes. Among the eight position players on the field, the Giants’ starting lineup in Game 1 of last fall’s World Series featured exactly one constant from the starting lineup for the first game of the 2010 Fall Classic, catcher Buster Posey. Meanwhile in 2010 in New York, Rivera, Jeter and Posada became the first trio in any of the four major North American team sports to play together on the same team for sixteen consecutive seasons. But for his brief detour to the Astros, Pettitte would have made it a foursome.

To many the team in the Bronx will always be viewed as the mercenaries of sport, a group of talent for hire. Without a doubt even as they seek to bring their total payroll down, the Yankees’ deep pockets mean they will always be part of the conversation when it comes to free agent signings or major trades. But it’s worth noting that as the Core Four era approaches its end, the best player on the team is the four-time All-Star who plays second base. Robinson Cano is slated to become a free agent next fall, and super-agent Scott Boras usually likes to let his players test the waters. But in a departure from their own policy the Yankees have already made Cano an offer. Whether now or later, if GM Brian Cashman and Boras can come to terms, once the page turns Cano will become the face of the franchise. And having been signed by them in 2001 as an amateur free agent, he will also become the next Yankee for life.

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Responses

  1. I’ve always had a great deal of respect for the Core Four. It’s not just that they were great players, it’s how they conducted themselves personally and professionally. All of baseball must realize on some level how unique and amazing that group was. Hopefully, like Posada, (and now Rivera), the other two will know when it is time to call it quits, so they can retire with dignity.
    Nicely done,
    Bill

    • Thanks Bill. As a fan it’s been a great joy to sit in the stands and watch them over the years. And yes, one hopes that they all have good sense about when it’s time to leave the stage.
      Mike


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