Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 26, 2013

Lights Out In The Bronx

Ultimately the moment will come for all but one of the Great Game’s franchises. For most players and their fans it has already arrived, that moment of irretrievable emptiness accompanying the final certainty that this will not be a championship season. The record will reflect that for the Yankees the precipitating event occurred not in the Bronx, but in Cleveland. Based on the updates on the out-of-town scoreboard in right field, the game between New York and Tampa Bay had been running about an inning ahead of the contest between the White Sox and Indians for most of Wednesday evening. But that changed when the Rays made two pitching changes in the bottom of the 8th while the Yankees sent seven men to the plate. So it was that the hands on the big Armitron clock high in left field were at 10:16, with the last of the 9th still to be played, when Cleveland’s 7-2 advantage over Chicago switched from a lead to a final score. With that New York’s long-shot pursuit of a Wild Card berth was officially over.

While only one team will be able to lay claim to the World Series trophy late next month, the nature and degree of disappointment for all of the other franchises will vary greatly. Fans in Houston or Miami no doubt resigned themselves to a season of futility months ago. At the other end of the spectrum, Pittsburgh’s return to postseason play after an absence of more than two decades surely makes 2013 a successful season for the Pirates even if they should wind up making an early exit from the National League playoffs. Even teams whose drive for the playoffs fell just short can find reason to cheer. A couple of hours after the final out was recorded in the Bronx, the Kansas City Royals lost in Seattle, ending their slim hopes of playing in October. But for those hopes to have remained alive into the longest season’s final days is a symbolic victory itself for long-suffering fans in the nation’s heartland.

For nearly two decades the Yankees and their fans have eschewed symbolic victories in favor of real ones. Beginning in 1995 New York made the playoffs thirteen straight years and advanced to six World Series, winning four. When that streak ended in 2008, New York promptly committed more than $400 million to sign pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira. One year later they and the rest of the Yankees were showered in ticker tape as they rode in a victory parade up the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan. Though New York hasn’t been back to the Series since 2009 the team has once again been a constant in the playoffs, the requisite first step toward another championship.

All of us who sat in the stands on Wednesday night and watched a young and determined Tampa Bay squad post an easy victory for the second night in a row were acutely aware that there will be no awarding of multiple triple-digit contracts this off-season. Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner has made clear his determination that the payroll for next season’s team will be under the $189 million salary cap. The financial logic of Steinbrenner’s goal is unassailable. If the Yankees can get back under the cap for even one year, their luxury tax rate for any subsequent year that they exceed the cap will reset back to 17% from its current 50% level. That’s a potential savings of tens of millions of future dollars.

But this season made plain the near term cost of the sudden application of this new frugality to a roster built under a vastly different business model. The Yankees were non-players in last year’s free agent market, because general manager Brian Cashman couldn’t commit to multi-year contracts. When the team was riddled by injuries both early and often, no phone calls were made to the best available free agent or to the GM of the team with the most tantalizing trade prospect. Instead help was sought in the form of cast-offs and aging veterans willing to sign at relative bargain rates. There was some false hope early on when the team started well and climbed to twelve games over .500 in late May. But that proved to be the high water mark of a season that gradually receded into an unfamiliar and unwelcome mediocrity. Injuries forced the Yankees to field 57 different players this year, just shy of the major league record. But the fact that so many of them were scarcely recognizable to even passionate fans of the Great Game was the real measure of the impact of Steinbrenner’s budget edict.

This off-season the salaries of the retiring Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte will come off the books; and in a month or two the Yankees will learn whether and if so how much of A-Rod’s 2014 salary will count toward the cap. But even with that relief, they will still be hard-pressed to make second baseman Robinson Cano, the premier free agent on this year’s market, a Yankee for life. Assuming they are successful at keeping Cano, that signing is likely to be the only news of note coming out of the Bronx this winter. Just as Nick Swisher and Russell Martin did last year, center fielder Curtis Granderson may well find other teams more willing to meet his free agent salary demands this off-season. Meanwhile Sabathia and Teixeira will be a year older, and after a season lost to injury, no one knows what Derek Jeter will be able to contribute as he approaches his 40th birthday. By this time next season, Yankee fans may be impersonating Royals fans. They may well look back at 2013 and see in the way this team stayed in the race until the final week a symbolic victory. And symbolic victories may no longer seem so meaningless in the Bronx.

After this week one-third of the 30 teams will play on into October, though two of those will find that their ticket to the postseason is good for but a single additional game. Thus the ten will quickly be reduced to eight, and then more gradually to four, to two, and finally to one championship squad and its deliriously happy fan base. The faithful of the 29 other franchises will be left to ponder what might have been. For those of us at The Stadium on Wednesday night, that painful process began shortly after 10 p.m. Though in truth, we’ve known the moment was likely coming from the season’s first pitch. What’s a lot less clear is how long this new reality lasts. Because while symbolic victories have their merits, they’re not nearly as fun as real ones.

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