During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt railed against the “Nine Old Men” on the Supreme Court who ruled against his New Deal ideas. The phrase lives in the lore of American history but may now have a new application: The New York Yankees have become baseball’s Nine Old Men.
Every day they rage against the injustice of injuries and insults. With Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda and many others on the disabled list, the Yankees have counted on a cast of unknowns, washed-up stars from other teams and patch-the-boat pickups to lead the American League East with a 28-16 record.
For perspective, the oldest Washington National is Jayson Werth, who turned 34 on Monday. Eight Yankees who’ve helped hold the fort until Jeter (38) and A-Rod (37) get back are all older than Werth: Mariano Rivera (43), Andy Pettitte (40), Ichiro Suzuki (39), Hiroki Kuroda (38), Lyle Overbay (36), Travis Hafner (36), Vernon Wells (34) and Kevin Youkilis (34).
“It’s a different guy picking us up every night,” Brett Gardner said.
But it’s usually a guy who’s so old his wife won’t let him lift the lawn furniture anymore. Honey, you remember what happened last time you did that.
On Sunday, the Yankees got a reprieve: game called on account of rain. For once, no Yank was injured. Usually, the tally is about two a night. That didn’t keep Andy Pettitte from joining the crew on the disabled list because of a back injury he’d suffered three nights earlier. Backup catcher Chris Stewart, replacing injured catcher Francisco Cervelli, announced his groin won’t be healed for a few days. What now? The Yanks plan to put the batting-practice screen in front of the home plate ump to stop pitches and hope for the best.
Being a Yankee now means saying, “Sure, I’ve landed a 747 in the Himalayas before. Just show me which one is the brake.” Last week, they asked a rookie pitcher in his debut to absorb a 108-pitch shelling to “save the bullpen,” then sent him back to Class AAA. Don’t worry, son, you fit right into our plans. They got ex-Nat Alberto Gonzalez to move from shortstop to pitcher to get the last out of a 10-run loss. Beggars can’t be choosers. And the Yanks are begging, but with great panache and $100 tips if you give them a hand with the luggage. Got a horrific contract but a few games left on your odometer? Join up now.
Wells, so unwanted that the Blue Jays and Angels are paying two-thirds of his $21-million salary just to be rid of him, has discovered the enthusiasm of the forsaken: Volunteer! Even though he’s smashed 10 homers this spring, he raised his hand last week to play both second and third base for the first time in his life. Overbay, a free agent unwanted at any price in March, is now sometimes the Yankees’ cleanup hitter.
The Yanks arrived in Baltimore on Monday for a three-game series with a cast of reprobates that even pinstripe fans would have a hard time identifying. Their new shortstop was just-purchased Colorado reject Reid Brignac. When they sign you for “cash,” that means you’re not even worth a player. Next to him at third is utility man Jayson Nix. Why? Because Youkilis, who signed to sub for A-Rod, is on the DL, too. They replaced Pettitte in their rotation with Vidal Nuno — a right-hander, not a hair product — and added Dellin Betances to the bullpen. It’s all right; you’re not supposed to know them. Jeter maybe can’t name enough Yankees to make a lineup card.
A week ago, in the first game of a doubleheader, the Yankee lineup included Nix, Ben Francisco, Corban Joseph, Gonzalez at shortstop (because even Jeter’s replacement, Edwin Nunez was hurt), and catcher Austin Romine. The save went not to Rivera but someone named Adam Warren.
The moral of the story: For generations, the Yanks never make excuses. As soon as you put on the uniform, you swell up to be part of the tradition of Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle and Jeter. But you also know everyone, except your own Bronx fans, hates your guts. That comes with the contract. There’s crushing New York pressure, savvy criticism and every cabbie could be a GM. So what? Show up, just win and stop whining. The target-on-our-back Nats and refs-are-out-to-get-us Caps could take a lesson.
Manager “Joe [Girardi] has been around here, and he realizes that there are no excuses,” General Manager Brian Cashman said. “No matter what bad stuff happens, we’re supposed to find a way.”
Cashman himself actually had the team’s most gruesome injury: a broken fibula and dislocated ankle after a skydiving accident with the Army’s Golden Knights in early March. He took the first tandem jump to help raise awareness of the Wounded Warrior Project. The second one, for fun, got him. He had surgery that night and, typical of the Yanks, showed up at spring training in a hip-to-toe cast the next day to be accountable.
If Preston Claiborne, Brett Marshall, Brennan Bosch, Chris Nelson and David Phelps can be Yanks already this year, then it’s obviously open enrollment. The Yanks are remarkable not just for everybody that got hurt, but all the free agents that didn’t come back from last season’s 95-win team. Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones combined for 75 homers last year. And Rafael Soriano took his 42 saves to the Nats.
The famous rightful Yanks have just started to trickle back. Granderson (43 homers in 2012) returned last week, and Teixeira’s right wrist may allow him to return in early June. Pettitte shouldn’t be gone long. Youkilis’s return is just around the corner. Do the Yanks even want what’s left of aging insubstantial A-Rod? Jeter will be out until late July at least. His ankle was snapped so badly he may never be himself again.
Perhaps for the first time in their history, the Yankees now epitomize exactly the kind of team that always used to try to beat them: a group of inspired-by-adversity, too-old-or-too-young, one-last-chance players who band together to prove that baseball is a team game, not just an aggregation of talent and fat contracts.
Put a few all-star seasons, such as Cano’s 31 RBI, Kiroda’s 1.99 ERA and Rivera’s 16 saves and 1.56 ERA, at the center of a truly inspired group effort, and you can get shocking results for quite a long time. But the Yankees’ current 102-win pace, with nine victories in their past 12 games, is simply not possible for a full season. At some point, the real Yankees have to return.
Until then, if it’s novelty you want, root for the Nine Old Men, and all the unknown kids who are helping them. Just once in a lifetime, everybody should be able to say they cheered for the Yankees.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/