The best line of the World Series was uttered by its star. Josh Beckett, the young Marlins pitcher, had just toured the shrine out in centerfield of Yankee Stadium and gazed upon the plaques of Ruth, Gehrig, and Mantle when he was asked if that made him nervous about starting game six.
“Why should it?” he said. “I’m not pitching against those guys.”
Right then, you knew the Yankees were finished. And Beckett, indeed, went out and pitched one of the most resolute closeouts in series history; a five-hit, complete-game shutout that was more dominant than the numbers indicate. The signature Yankee comeback never happened and in the 9th, Beckett made Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter look foolish striking out. Then he handled a weak grounder from Jorge Posada and made the tag himself. The Yankees looked as feeble as the many teams they have enfeebled in their history of baseball supremacy.
There was joy on the field, among the Marlins, who had come back to beat the San Francisco Giants in five. The Giants had the best record and the best player (Bonds) in baseball. Next, the Marlins came back to beat the Cubs who had the best young pitching duo in baseball, Sammy Sosa, and the adoration of millions. Finally, they came back to beat the Yankees and their best money pitcher in “the Stadium” (there is only one) on Saturday night in primetime.
The Marlins, then, are a pretty good baseball team. If you lose to them, you don’t have to go dig a hole, jump in, and pull the dirt in over your sorry self. Not, that is, unless you are the Yankees.
The players, of course, seemed to get it. They have been playing ball a long time and know that when two good teams play, it can go either way. You win ‘em and you lose ‘em and life goes on. Jeter said so, in a dignified post-game interview. Like a lot of his teammates, he is an enormously appealing player and man. It is impossible not to like Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera and a lot of the other Yankees. But the boss-hog Yankee is another thing. And he is the one you always seem to hear about.
So George Steinbrenner will now do his “I won’t stand for losing” tirade and war dance. People will be ranted at and humiliated and fired. Free agents will be avidly pursued and lavished with money. Players who are kept on will be put on notice. Likewise managers, coaches, front-office personnel, and–who knows–maybe even the groundskeepers and locker-room attendants. George runs his baseball team the way old “Chainsaw Al Dunlop” ran corporations. He craves the spotlight like Norma Desmond and he rules by crude applications of fear, like Lyndon Johnson who liked to bring subordinates in to talk business while he sat on the toilet.
Steinbrenner is the new kind of owner who makes it hard for the Old-Fashioned Fan (OFF) to sustain his love for sports. These owners are creatures of the age of celebrity where an indecently sized ego and a little money will always get you in the news. Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, is Steinbrenner’s coeval in professional football. Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, was doing the act before Snyder came along, once firing a coach who had won consecutive Super Bowls. Jones thought the coach was getting too much of the credit that should have been his. The Cowboys had several miserable seasons and went through a couple of coaches before Jones finally got religion and hired Bill Parcells and told him to do what he thought it took. The Cowboys are winning again.
Snyder, in Washington, fired a couple of coaches, too. Fired all kinds of people, in fact. Fired just about everyone who might be responsible for the team’s failures except the owner–himself. His most recent hire as head coach was Steve Spurrier, college genius from Florida. Spurrier got a huge contract–biggest ever for a coach, at the time–but things are not going well. The Redskins have lost their last four in a row.
To give Steinbrenner his due, his Yankee teams have been winners. But it all seems old, now, and maybe even counterproductive. The Yankees payroll was more than three times that of the Marlins. They had the best starting rotation and, hands down, the best closer in baseball. They out-hit and outscored the Marlins in the series. But the Marlins had that sense of inevitability and spirit you see in some teams and that you cannot command from high up in your private box. So a 23-year-old kid who had never thrown a big-league complete game took on El Supremo of the Bronx and he showed no fear. The Boss is dead–for now, anyway. It is enough to make the OFF love baseball again.
–Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.