Sunday, October 08, 2006

Yankees' collapse = Must Joe go? Possibly so.

All of a sudden, the Yankees have become the Braves: old, tired, listless, beaten.

From 1991-1999, the Braves ruled the National League. They won five pennants ('91, '92, '95, '96 and '99) and romped through 5 NLDS (1995-99), winning 15 of their 17 first-round games (3-1, 3-0, 3-0, 3-0, 3-1). The warning signs began in 1998, when the should-have-been outmanned Padres whacked the 106-win Braves three times before Atlanta scratched out two wins then fell in the NLCS. Their end began in the 1999 NLCS against the Mess, when the 103-win Bravos honked games 4 and 5, and came within a Kenny Rogers appearance of becoming the first team in baseball history to be stretched to a game 7 after winning games 1-3 of a best-of-seven series. After the war with the Mess, the Yankees cleaned up -- sweeping the Braves in the World Series battle that was to decide the "Team of the '90s" while the Yanks' three righty starters embarrassed the best lineup in the NL (3-0, 21.2 IP, 2 ER).

From 2000-05, the Braves continued to obtain regular season titles but honked in the postseason. They won only one postseason series, in 2001 against their former punching bag Astros, and were drilled in the only NLCS they reached. From October force to seasonal punching bag.

The Yanks became the team of the '90s when the Torre Era started in 1996: an improbable win over the Braves in the '96 World Series, the incredible 125-win (including postseason) 1998 team, the '99 squad that swept out the Braves and the '00 Subway Series win against the Mess made the Yankees' juggernaut. From game 3 of the '96 Series to game 3 of the '00 Series, the Yanks won a record 14-straight World Series games. From game 6 of the '96 Series until game 1 of the '03 Series, the Yanks won a record 10-straight home games in the World Series. And they became the only team in the free agency era to ever win three-consecutive World Series and four-straight pennants.

The Yanks' demise started on one of four days. According to Buster Olney, game 7 of the 2001 World Series, aka The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty. That was the last game that the Yanks' threepeat core (Tino, O'Neill, Williams, Jeter, Brosius, Posada, Rivera, Pettitte) played together. The key losses were Tino and Paul O'Neill -- they set the tone for the clubhouse, exuded the professionalism and determination that was the trademark of the last Yankees' dynasty, and typified the character of the team: good players, good teammates, good men, but not Hall of Fame caliber superstars.

According to others, the Yanks failures began either (a) when they signed Jason Giambi to replace Tino -- eschewing the cog-in-the-wheel solid player for the superstar with the massive contrat; (b) when they made the moronic Jeff Weaver deal, dumping a solid young pitcher (Ted Lilly) for a guy with good ability but questionable make-up who cost much more; (c) in game 4 of the 2003 World Series, when Torre pitched the combustible Weaver instead of the unhittable Rivera and the Yanks suffered a playoff loss on a walk-off homer for the first time in the Torre Era (compared to six walk-off homers at the Stadium).

For The Monk, it's none of the above. The Yanks' comeback in game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against Bawstin disproves the Olney theory. The Weaver deal could be overcome -- and the Yanks' progressed to the '03 Series whilst shelving Weaver for the first two rounds of playoffs.

Instead, the Yankees' franchise took the dive off the deep end in the 2003-04 off-season. That's when the Yanks replaced Clemens with Brown, RF-by-committee with Sheffield, and obtained A-Rod. That made the Yanks merely a moneybag, with no concept of how to put a team together. From the narcissist (A-Rod) to the selfish (Sheff) to the grumpy (Brown). With The Monk HOWLING that the Yanks needed to trade Alfonso Soriano for young power arms, the Yanks swung the A-Rod trade.

The Monk is not an A-Rod hater, and never has been. I didn't blame him for taking the stupid contract that Tom Hicks offered in the 2000-01 offseason. I understood how he honored Cal Ripken at the All-Star Game and how he deferred to Jeter. His talent is remarkable and undeniable. But there's just something missing -- desire, focus, intensity. If Jeter had A-Rod's ability, he'd be 2000-2004 Barry Bonds at the plate (but without the juice) and Ozzie Smith in the field.

The Yanks went from talented and intense pluggers to a team of all-stars. And that hurt. It's no coincidence that the Yanks salvaged their 2005 season when Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang were called up from AAA ball, or that the Yanks took off toward their 9th-straight AL East crown when Cabrera had settled down as a full-time player and Wang had established himself as the ace. Once Sheff and Matsui returned, the Yanks' defense suffered, the team approach at the plate faltered and the team stumbled as it tried to work itself out for the postseason.

Worst of all, it had no fun. Tired, listless, frustrated, inept. The same characteristics that came to the fore in the mindnumbing failure in the '04 ALCS; the same characteristics that cropped up when the Yanks honked in the '05 ALDS. That was the Yanks these last three days.

Now the Yanks have lost three-straight postseason series for the first time ever. They need changes.

No comments: