Politics & Policy

It’s Still Early

There's hope for the Yankees yet.

The New York Yankees lost three in a row to the Boston Red Sox last weekend. They were playing in New York, where Yankee fans expected to see their team bounce back after losing three out of four in Boston a week earlier. When the dust settled and it turned out the Yankees had lost 6 of 7 to their detested rival–a team which they had been accustomed to humiliating for almost a century now–some fans began to panic. Maybe, after all those other years, this was the year.

It seemed a little early for that kind of thinking. There was still frost on the grass when they started some games. But, then, this was a week when columnists were starting to write off John Kerry–and he hadn’t even been nominated yet.

When the Yankees bought Alex Rogriguez in the recent off-season, a lot of fans–and not just Yankee fans–figured that pretty much tied a ribbon around this year’s baseball season. The Yankees now had, easily, the best team that money could buy. They would toy with the Red Sox–who’d made a run at Arod but couldn’t close the deal (to the surprise of no Sox fan)–and then brush them aside the way they always did. And this time, in the World Series (no question they would get there) the Yankees would win, as the gods had ordained. No more losing to the Marlins or the Diamondbacks. Enough of that stuff. Steinbrenner and a few million exceedingly spoiled fans wouldn’t tolerate it.

Then, in Yankee Stadium, on the last Sunday in April, under a ponderous gray sky, some 55,000 of those fans booed their team as it lost to the Red Sox. In losing, the Yankees managed four hits (Arod got two of them) and no runs. They had scored two in each of the previous losses. They were outscored, then, 15-4 in the three-game series. Derek Jeter, their splendid shortstop, did not get a single hit in the series and on Sunday struck out three times and made two egregious mistakes in the field. Neither cost the Yankees a run but still … Derek Jeter.

Asked about the booing, Jeter said he understood. His parents, whom he hadn’t seen because they had to duck out to avoid the disgruntled fans, were probably booing him too.

Maybe it’s a good sign that he hasn’t yet lost his sense of humor. But for sure, George Steinbrenner isn’t laughing. The Yankees hadn’t lost six of seven to the Red Sox since 1913.

Various theories have been floated to account for the Yankee’s woes. Arod had to be tight, coming into New York on the big contract. He had started slow but by the second series with Boston, he was hitting. In game two, he stroked an opposite-field homer that showed just how much power he truly has. He had played shortstop until the trade but is now at third, keeping Jeter, the team captain, at short. Playing the unfamiliar position in game two of the series, Arod made a wonderful run-saving stop behind the bag, in foul territory, and then fired a hot, flat throw all the way across the diamond to catch the runner. In a few more games, he may be the best defensive third baseman in the league.

So the Arod trade wasn’t hurting the Yankees except, perhaps, psychologically. Could it be that Jeter, for all his good humor, hadn’t adjusted to the presence of this greater talent? Clearly, he was not playing like Jeter. He was deep in a slump and couldn’t buy a hit with Steinbrenner’s money.

Other Yankee bats were also cold. Jason Giambi’s mind might have been on the lingering steroid scandal. Bernie Williams looked tentative. Sheffield wasn’t hitting. Maybe the Yankee hitters missed the spark of Alfonso Soriano who’d left in the Arod deal.

Maybe pitching was the problem. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte were gone. But the Yankees got some new arms, and on Sunday Javier Vasquez looked like he could carry the load. He did hang one curve, which Manny Ramirez nailed for the only two runs the Red Sox needed. But except for that pitch, Vasquez was in command.

It was only April and other Yankee teams had started this slowly. But fans wondered if this might be a collection of great players but not a great team. This is the third time Arod has been traded. Seattle got better after he left. Texas, his team last year, has won more games this season than the Yankees and is in first place in their division. Like Flannery O’Conner said on the feelings of any Southern writer on being compared to William Faulkner: “Nobody wants to have his mule and wagon stalled on the same tracks the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”

Could Arod be taking up all the oxygen in the room? This was one theory but it seemed like a reach. These are not merely professional athletes; they are New York Yankees. Some other fairly celebrated ball players have worn those pin stripes. Arod isn’t the first Hall-of-Famer they’ve seen in that locker room.

After the Red Sox had finished burning the crops and salting the earth in the Bronx, the Athletics were due to arrive. And the demoralized Yankees would be facing the heart of their rotation, one of the best in baseball. So in April you heard people talking about “must-win” games.

In a turnaround, the Yankees went out and won ‘em all. Blew through the firm of Hudson, Mulder, and Zito like Congress goes through money. In the third game of the series, Jeter led off with a homer off Zito. It was his first hit in 32 at bats. The Yankees got to Zito for four homeruns that night, one of them by Arod, who looks like he may be worth every million they’re paying him. Kevin Brown, another off-season pickup, started and won for the Yankees, running his record to 4-0. In a strong career, Brown had never done that before. This made the injury of losing Clemens–who is 4-0 with his new team–easier to bear.

So the Yankees had climbed back to .500 (11-11) with the last place Royals coming to town. Meanwhile, up in Boston, the Red Sox swept Tampa and improved to 15-6, the best record in baseball. They are 4 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees and travel to Texas to play Arod’s old team.

So, going into May, it looks like the season may not be finished after all.

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