Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 22, 2017

Failure And Success, Measured By Expectations

The 2017 season ended for the New York Yankees Saturday night. Unable to muster any offense against a pair of Houston pitchers not named either Keuchel or Verlander, the Yankees dropped Game 7 of the ALCS to the Astros by the score of 4-0. Nine days earlier, the Washington Nationals’ 2017 campaign also came to an end, when the Nats wound up on the 9-8 short end of a wild Game 5 in their NL Division Series against the Chicago Cubs. Like twenty-six other clubs, the Nationals and Yankees are now spectators, as the Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers prepare for the Great Game’s final act, the World Series.

At one level it can be said that the just concluded seasons of all those clubs, and eventually for the team that loses the World Series as well, should be judged as failures. If the goal of every franchise at the start of Spring Training is to win a championship, then twenty-eight teams have already fallen short, and a twenty-ninth will join them, perhaps as early as next Saturday and at the latest by the middle of next week. The longest season always ends with only one parade.

The late George Steinbrenner certainly subscribed to this theory. Were he still alive the Yankees would have already issued a statement in his name, apologizing to the team’s fans for the collective failure of players, coaches, and management in coming up short of a World Series title. But sports, like life, is more nuanced; something that fans have always understood, even diehard Yankee faithful back when their bombastic late owner was in charge. The results of a season are measured not just in absolute terms, but also against expectations. It is that kind of measure that has prompted very different beginnings to the offseason in Washington and the Bronx.

The Nationals won 97 regular season games, two better than the previous year. Washington was the first team to clinch a playoff spot and won the NL East for the second year in a row and fourth in the last six. When the final regular season out was recorded the Nats were twenty games ahead of the second place Marlins. But as was the case in 2012, 2014 and 2016, that regular season dominance turned to dust once the playoffs began. As was the case in each of those previous years, Washington again failed to get out of the Division Series.

On Friday, a week and a day after the Cubs celebrated on the infield at Nationals Park, the Nationals announced that the contracts of manager Dusty Baker and his entire coaching staff were not being renewed for 2018. That evening, several hours after the public announcement, fans of the team received an email signed by all eight members of the Lerner family ownership group. The “letter from the Lerner family” made it clear that in Washington, winning the division is no longer good enough.

It read in part, “More than anything, we want to share with you the elation of the final out going in our favor, when we can finally bring a championship home to Washington. That “One Pursuit” is the core driving force behind everything we do, from the first day of Spring Training to the last out of the final game.” The message then described the decision to fire Baker as “incredibly difficult,” adding that he “led the team to the first back-to-back division titles in our history and represented our club with class on and off the field.” Just to make clear the expectations of ownership, the Lerner’s added a promise that “one day soon we will all line the streets of our great city together as we celebrate reaching our ultimate goal.”

Washington was a popular World Series pick by many pundits from the earliest days of Spring Training, so the expectations for greater success weren’t limited to the team’s owners. Given the generous words for Baker, the message from the Lerner’s calls to mind the adage that sometimes managers get fired because it’s impossible to fire the entire team. Still if the managerial change in Washington was meant to send a message, it was delivered at a significant cost.

Baker has succeeded at every stop in his managerial career, taking all four franchises he’s led to the postseason. As the Lerner’s noted, he guided the Nationals to back-to-back division titles for the first time in the team’s history. Critics note that he’s never won a World Series, but that says as much about the often random nature of the postseason as it does about Baker’s ability. Along with the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts, who is also part Japanese, he was one of just two African-American managers in the big leagues. For baseball in general and for a city in which African-Americans remain the largest demographic group, that’s no small deal.

Even more worrisome for Nationals fans is that Baker’s dismissal continues a disturbing trend for their team. Not counting the three games skippered by John McLaren on an interim basis in 2011 after Jim Riggleman quit in midseason, Washington is now looking for its seventh manager since the team arrived in D.C. from Montreal in 2005. Over that time Manny Acta holds the longevity record at three years. Baker was hired only after Bud Black turned down what he felt was a lowball offer from the club. With history like that, it’s not clear that Washington looks all that appealing to managerial prospects, despite the club’s glittering roster.

Meanwhile in New York the Yankees have had just two skippers over that same time, Joe Torre and, since 2008, Joe Girardi. Barring a decision by Girardi to walk away, there’s no indication that’s about to change. The contracts of both the Yankees manager and GM Brian Cashman are up, but an announcement from the Stadium in the Bronx such as came from Nationals Park on Friday about either Girardi or Cashman would be stunning news. Far more likely is that in the next several weeks the team will announce that both have agreed to new deals.

That’s because while Yankee fans are of course disappointed that their team isn’t getting ready to face the Dodgers in what would have been the twelfth renewal of the most frequent World Series matchup, the season that ended Saturday night was unexpectedly successful. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, with the new young core of the team offering promise and potential, but likely needing another year or two of seasoning before those players came into their own. At the same time, the starting rotation was filled with question marks as Spring Training ended.

Instead the Bombers won 91 games, finishing just two back of Boston in the AL East and easily winning the first American League Wild Card. Aaron Judge became a national star, smashing 52 home runs and making circus catches in the outfield. Slick-fielding Didi Gregorius set a new team record for homers by a shortstop, breaking the mark of a certain former team captain and future Hall of Famer. Gary Sanchez backed up the promise he showed in his abbreviated 2016 rookie campaign with 33 homers and 90 runs batted in. On the mound Luis Severino went from being demoted first to the bullpen then to the minors in 2016 to making the All-Star team this season, and Masahiro Tanaka found his groove down the stretch, when the Yankees needed him most. “It’s been a wild and fun ride,” Cashman said, after the Game 7 loss to the Astros ended the Yankees run. That was true for those in the stands as well, but having taken that ride next year will be a different story.

Even as fans of the Dodgers and Astros gird themselves for the Series, the faithful of all the other teams look ahead to another season, with its preparatory work commencing less than four months hence. The Nationals will assemble in West Palm Beach, with great expectations, a new skipper, and a fair measure of doubt. The Yankees will be on Florida’s Gulf Coast. They will gather in Tampa, fresh off an exhilarating run, but now facing far higher and decidedly more traditionally Yankee-like expectations.

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