Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 23, 2022


With one dramatic swing of his bat, Bryce Harper sent the Philadelphia Phillies to the World Series, the team’s first trip to the Fall Classic since 2009.  While Phillies fans everywhere celebrate that sentence, it is also of great significance to supporters of the New York Yankees, for two reasons.  First, because Harper and Manny Machado were the two superstar free agents who owner Hal Steinbrenner and GM Brian Cashman wanted no part of prior to the 2019 season, preferring to rely on the Yankees’ minor league system to produce the next generation of Bronx heroes.  And second, of course, because the Yankees represented the American League in that World Series, and just like the Phillies, New York has not played in the final game of an MLB season since Hideki Matsui brought joy to the Bronx with six RBI’s in 2009’s Game 6 to claim the franchise’s 27th championship.  

As this is written, it remains possible that the Yankees and Phillies will reprise that matchup, in which case Game 1 will be Friday evening at the big Stadium on the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue.  It is also possible that in the days before the scheduled start of this year’s Series, a rogue asteroid will crash into the earth and obliterate all life on the planet.  Having witnessed firsthand New York’s insipid play during Saturday’s shutout loss to Houston that left the Yankees down three games to none in the ALCS, the thinking here is that while both are admittedly longshots, the latter event surely has shorter odds.

New York’s season has not officially ended as this is written, though it may have by the time many readers peruse these words, depending on the outcome of ALCS Game 4.  That result won’t be known until late tonight, with rain delaying the start of the contest.  Even if the Yankees manage to put one contest in the win column, fans of the Great Game are well aware that since the League Championship Series was expanded to its current best-of-seven format in 1985, only one club has triumphed and advanced to the World Series after losing the first three games of the LCS.  Incredibly, it was widely reported that earlier today a team staffer was playing clips of that 2004 comeback in the Yankees’ clubhouse in an attempt to inspire and motivate New York players.  The idea is incredible – as in incredibly stupid – since as most fans will also quickly recall, the franchise that was victimized by the 2004 ALCS comeback of the Boston Red Sox was the New York Yankees. 

The news that someone in the franchise thought such a dimwitted move was a good idea made it easier to write the obituary for this year’s Bronx ballclub, even though the subject is technically still alive.  If by midweek these words call to mind the old yarn about Mark Twain’s misreported demise – a story that over the decades has itself been greatly exaggerated – On Sports and Life will happily eat crow.  But for that to happen, problems that have been apparent not just during the ALCS but throughout the season, would have to be magically fixed.

At the plate, Yankee hitters have been especially anemic throughout the postseason.  Some of that is the nature of the playoffs, when lineups face the best pitching they have seen all year on a game after game, inning after inning, basis.  But fans have been concerned all year about the inconsistent efforts of everyone in New York’s lineup not named Aaron Judge.  While the Yankees’ superstar had a season for the ages, far too often the offense rested on Judge’s shoulders.  His one prolonged batting slump of the regular season closely overlapped with the team’s downward spiral after the All-Star break.

Baseball is about managing failure, and every player goes through hot and cold streaks.  Judge has been cold during the postseason, but Houston’s Jose Altuve has been frozen, batting .036 for the playoffs going into ALCS Game 4.  And Yordan Alvarez, the star for the Astros against Seattle in the ALDS, is 1-for-10 against the Yankees.  There are no cries of alarm about these Astros stars because the team’s lineup is deeper, and other players have stepped up.  In contrast the Yankees, with a batting order that is decidedly not deep, rise and fall on a single player.

New York has also struggled on the mound at crucial times, with Game 3 being a prime example.  Gerrit Cole, the team’s ace, pitched a game that mirrored his performance since he signed for nine years and $324 million in 2020.  He recorded a lot of strikeouts, but also gave up a crucial home run.  This season Cole led the league in strikeouts with 257, breaking Ron Guidry’s longstanding team record.  But he also led the league in home runs allowed, with 33.  Then in the 6th inning, when Houston loaded the bases, New York manager Aaron Boone opted to trust his injury-depleted bullpen over his $324 million ace.  Maybe the homer-prone Cole would have given up a grand slam had Boone left him in.  But that would have only been one more run than was allowed by reliever Lou Trivino.

The bullpen failure can at least be partially blamed on the loss of multiple top relief pitchers who in a different timeline would have been available in that situation.  But Boone’s poor decisions are an ongoing story, as is the overall construction of the roster.  That is why emotions among Yankee fans, as yet one more season approaches a premature end, are different this year.  Disappointment has been replaced by anger, directed squarely at Steinbrenner, Cashman, and Boone.

Which brings us back to the months before the start of the 2019 season, when Harper and Machado were the top free agents.  Both had long expressed an interest in playing for the Yankees, but other than a token interview with Machado, New York’s front office didn’t engage with either star.  The team was instead committed to the Baby Bombers, young prospects who showed great promise, some products of the team’s farm system and others acquired at the 2016 trade deadline. 

But of that group, only Judge has become a superstar, with Luis Severino and Gleyber Torres the only other “babies” still on the roster.  The former has battled through injuries to be a serviceable, and perhaps still promising starting pitcher, and the latter is a decent second baseman who blows hot and cold at the plate.  Gone are Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Clint Frazier, the latter two no longer on any major league roster.  Perhaps in reaction to that failure, this season the Yankees front office resisted calling up promising prospects, instead relying on an aging and expensive Josh Donaldson at third base and an out of position Isiah Kiner-Falefa at shortstop, with predictably dismal results.

Whether tonight or in the next day or two, a season ends short of the goal set by fans, but one wonders if Steinbrenner or Cashman really feel all that bad.  They will, of course, say the right words when the final out has been recorded.  But the seats are still mostly filled, and the brand is still considered elite, both of which contribute to the ever so important bottom line.  As long as that remains true, it seems to be only fans who care when winter comes early to the Bronx.

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