End of the dynastic cycle

October is upon us tomorrow and it brings the promise of a federal government shutdown and me being furloughed from work. There are things to look forward to, though, like autumn colors (if any; it was a very dry summer) and postseason baseball.

The Yankees didn’t make into the playoffs this year. They tied for third place in a tough division, and actually won 85 games despite an it-would-be-funny-if-it-wasn’t-so-serious epidemic of injuries that wiped out the core of their lineup, some of their backups, and a handful of pitchers.

Their record might give the illusion that the Yankees pulled off something of a moral victory with a makeshift roster of castoffs and spare parts a la Major League or Moneyball. In fact, they were quite bad much of the year. They owe their winning record to a strong start wherein everybody was firing on all eight pistons before the prolonged summer collapse, to the relocation of the 111-game losing Houston Astros to the American League, and Yankees’ repeated thrashings of the hapless Toronto Blue Jays (last in the American League despite an expensive retooling last winter). The Yankees simply did not win games against good teams and played even worse down the stretch. Even the Jays played the Yankees tough in September. Had they squeaked into the playoffs I can’t imagine them getting very far.

The season ended on a sort of warm note. Two of our favorites, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, retired at the end. Rivera had a season-long send-off, with each city they visited celebrating his storied career. Following his appearance at Yankee Stadium,  he declined to pitch during the last three games in Houston, letting the heartfelt hometown farewell be his last game. Throughout all that, he put together another all-star season, performing indistinguishably from any of his other 18 seasons.

This leaves Derek Jeter as the last connection to the late dynasty. He didn’t play most of the year, frustrated by slow rehabilitation and repeated injuries. He will probably return next year, but part of me wishes he’ll retire so the Yankees can move on, because the Yankees have become victims of their own successes. They expect themselves to contend every year, so rather than take chances on promising young players, they staff themselves  with high-priced free agent mercenaries. The young players never get a chance to fail.

Phil Hughes is a case in point. Joe Girardi yanks him from the mound every time he gets in trouble and replaces him with a revolving door of middle relievers visiting from Scranton. After seven years Hughes has no confidence, shows no improvement. And it’s possible he’s just not a good pitcher or will never recover fully from the injuries he’s had but I think he’s never really learned how to pitch. He’d be better off on some lousy team that’s happy to have him throw six or seven innings once a week, no matter the outcome.

So I hope the Yankees don’t go out and try to buy another championship like they did in 2009 (it sounds like they won’t; the owner is trying to keep the payroll from inflating further). Maybe they can develop some exciting home-grown players that we’ll actually care about when they take the field.

 

Will Shortz

Maybe I’ll file this under “stuff white people like” but we went to see Will Shortz at the Englert Theater this evening. Lore serendipitously won two tickets for the lecture a couple of days ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect… well, no, I did. When I used to work early on Sundays I listened to his puzzle segment on NPR. He’s a lot of fun. He talked a little bit about what a crossword puzzle editor does (people send him crosswords they made, he chooses them and edits things like the clues, and publishes them in the New York Times; a Sunday crossword is worth $1,000), the history of crosswords, answered some questions, and then played a word game with the audience. I answered one: “Awash (Tacoma, Washington; a word made from the last letters of a city and the first letters of its state),” but a lot of other people got it too.