Early Exits Getting Old

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, October 9, 2007


Say goodnight to Joe Torre's Yankees, baseball's core team -- win or go down in October flames -- for the last dozen years.

Those vividly memorable days, with Torre sipping his soothing hot tea in the Yankees' dugout and calming the annual Bronx madness all around him, are now at an end, in all likelihood. He sees it, all but says it and prepares for the ax. For the third straight season, his Yanks were blasted from the playoffs in the first round, this time in just four games by the Cleveland Indians.

"Whatever the hell happens, I'll look back on these 12 years with great, great pleasure. . . . The 12 years felt like they were 10 minutes long," Torre said with resigned finality after Monday night's 6-4 defeat in which New York was a no-show, trailing by the third pitch of the game and never coming closer than the final margin.

The world knows that the Boss, 77-year-old George Steinbrenner, was quoted two days ago saying that he would fire Torre if the Yanks didn't win this series, at the least. That's three straight years of rumbling from the volcano, but now the lava looks real and Torre knows it. "I would appreciate it if we had no vigil sitting outside my home, like we've had the last couple of years," said Torre, wryly, to the carnivorous New York media that, mostly, amuses or amazes him, but never raises his pulse.

Will he manage again somewhere some time? "Not in the next three days," he said. "Let's see what happens. Whatever comes next, if I have options, I'll look at it. I'm certainly not ready to move somewhere and not do anything, I can tell you that."

All the worse for Torre's fate, he may actually have had a hand in this final outcome, picking a starting pitcher -- 19-game-winner Chien-Ming Wang -- on just three days' rest who was knocked out without retiring a batter in the second inning. Meanwhile, aging star Mike Mussina, the hurler Torre bypassed on normal rest, was fairly effective in 4 2/3 innings of relief, allowing two runs. Subtract Wang's four runs, substitute Mussina's effort, factor in three Yankees homers and, to any second-guesser, maybe there is a Game 5.

However, the true reason that this period in Yankees history must almost certainly end is the cumulative disappointment of the last seven Octobers on the Yanks, including the mountainous pressure on several key players who have endured it all. As Derek Jeter lined out to end the fourth, grounded into a double play to kill a crucial two-on rally in the sixth, then popped up to open the ninth, you wondered if even the most imperially impervious Yankee could finally feel the Big Apple thumb screws.

To ownership, a seven-year itch without a World Series win is more than merely galling; it's mortifying. And that's what the truly rich, walled by their wealth, find intolerable, no matter how foolish their subsequent decisions. This season, the Yankees paid more than $210 million in payroll, poor babies. Once again, the Yanks were the best team money can buy. Luckily, in baseball, money apparently can't beat the best. Not anymore. Not, at least, under the Boss's ludicrous edict that anything less than a World Series win is a failure. In baseball, the gap between teams, no matter the gulf in salaries, isn't great enough to bear such demands.

So, since '00, Steinbrenner has forked over $1.3 billion in salary for an assortment of Miss Congeniality consolation prizes. These Indians, like the Diamondbacks and Rockies who will play for the National League pennant, all have payrolls of about $70 million. That is about one-third of the Yankees', or, for reference, barely more than the '06 Washington Nationals.

Now, the fuse will presumably reach the dynamite at last and the Yanks can hire a manager, probably Don Mattingly or Joe Girardi, perhaps even Tony La Russa, who is not half so well suited to managing this complex, flawed and idiosyncratic team as the man he already has. Who but Torre, after a 21-29 start, could have rallied the Yanks to the game's best record after that nadir?

Remember those dry Yankees years from '85 through '95 when all Steinbrenner's millions couldn't buy him an ounce of October pleasure? Those days may be returning, and fast, with an aging team and several key players, including Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte, who may not choose to return to a team that does not have a wise, charming and strong leader in the dugout. The difference now is that Steinbrenner seems to feel his window for gratification is closing and measures must be taken. Besides, Joe always gets the public's roses, George the thorns. That's so annoying when you can make it stop by saying, "You're fired."

In a way, you can't blame Steinbrenner, no matter how much you believe Torre was the perfect manager for this particular maelstrom of a franchise. Torre is a master of motivation, ego balancing and long-season team chemistry. But his in-game tactics can raise as many eyebrows as most mangers. And, perhaps, a whip and chair is what the Yankees need. It once worked, briefly, for Billy Martin.

Ballgames that feel like they could be the end of an age don't come around often. Nor would we want them to. Eras should be treasured, scrapped with great caution. Even if the epoch in question is the 34-year reign of George III. For more than a third of a century, the Boss and his obscenely paid teams have defined baseball more than any other single feature. From the battles of the late sociopath Martin with Reggie Jackson in the '70's to the four utterly complete world champs of Torre, the Yankees have outraged, amused and often awed us. As if to square the circle, Mr. October himself, Jackson, threw out the first pitch of Game 4.

Yet this game, from the first batter, felt like a night-long vigil around a sick bed. The Yankees, from top to bottom, are the aging patient, inexpressibly rich but ultimately unable to defeat time, the enemy of dynasties.

Yankee Stadium itself is terminally old. In two years, it will be gone, replaced by a new Yankee Stadium next door. Steinbrenner now seldom appears in public and almost never speaks when he does. His pride won't allow it. Torre, 67, limps on his trips to the mound. Even Roger Clemens, 45, who signed an $18 million half-season contract but managed only a 6-6 record, may have thrown his last big league pitch. On Sunday, the Rocket lasted only 2 1/3 innings, leaving with a bad hamstring.

Before the crowd of 56,315 in the Big Ballpark could muster its rhythmic chant of "De-rek Je-ter," Grady Sizemore of the Indians had already hit the third pitch of the game from Wang into the right-center field bleachers for a leadoff homer. Before the Yanks could come to bat, Jhonny Peralta -- no relation to Jhonny Mize or Jhoe DiMaggio -- had singled home a second run.

For a dozen years, the Yankees have seemed like an October baseball fixture, sometimes fabulous, always fascinating. Next year, if Torre does not return as ring master to the circus, the forces of baseball madness may rule. To those who hate the Yankees on principle, the taste may be sweet. But, for many of the rest of us, the loss will far outweigh the brief joys of gloating.

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