In every town they visit, the Yankees are baseball's mystery team of the season. They may be potential champs who simply haven't yet hit their stride. Or something fundamental may be wrong with the current Yanks. Both are plausible. Six A.L. teams began Tuesday night's games with records as good or better than the Yanks' 25-18. Are George Steinbrenner's millionaires drifting back toward the pack? Or, in a few weeks, will we glance up to see that, once again, they've pulled away?
Team captain Derek Jeter is a perfect example of this Yankee ambivalence. Is he a Hall of Famer about to break out of one of the worst and longest slumps any superstar has ever endured? Or, after eight fabulous seasons, has the league found a flaw? Are Jeter and his Yankees quite what they used to be? The conventional wisdom is a resounding "yes." But don't be too sure.
It's the last week of May and Jeter is hitting .189. That doesn't sound unredeemable. True, after an 0-for-32 nightmare in April he came into Tuesday night's game at Camden Yards in a 5-for-44 funk. But as he says, "Don't write the story for the whole season because there's four months left."
Yet, if you want to know the depth of Jeter's slump, consider this: If the Yankee captain duplicates Joe DiMaggio's statistics in his 56-game hitting streak (91 for 223), Jeter still won't be able to get his average this season up to his career batting average.
That's not a slump. It's three or four normal slumps rolled into one.
Jeter's (public) attitude is that it's all no big deal. At every Yankee stop, Jeter says some variation of the following: "I feel good, comfortable. I'm just not getting hits. When you're scuffling, everything you hit, they catch. When you're going good, you can check a swing and get a hit."
How does he feel when they put his batting average on the scoreboard?
"I try not to look," he says.
However, Jeter's problem, like the Yankees' flaws in general, may not be so easily dismissed -- because they have tangible causes. In Jeter's case, he swings at everything. More so now than in the past because, as Manager Joe Torre says, "he's overanxious." But Jeter has always been impatient. Roughly 40 percent of his at-bats this season have ended within two pitches. On Tuesday night, Jeter swung at the first two pitches of the game and flew out weakly on the second. Can a hitter completely reverse a characteristic so basic? And once pitchers have recognized it, will they forget?
"The question I get asked most is, 'Do you think it's A-Rod being here that bothers Jeter?' " Torre said, referring to the offseason acquisition of all-star shortstop turned third baseman Alex Rodriguez. "Derek would have to be awfully shallow if that is what bothers him."
Perhaps Jeter is simply human. Many believe that Jeter should move to second base and give shortstop to the more gifted Rodriguez. How incredibly unjust that must feel to Jeter? A Yankees captain with six pennants and four World Series titles by his name may feel like an interloper at his own position. If injured Nomar Garciaparra, who seems in no hurry whatsoever to play his first game of the year for the Red Sox, has been rendered a head case by all of last winter's A-Rod courtships, then why not Jeter, too?
Of course, the Yankees' problems may solve themselves in time. Maybe Nomar will sit out the whole season, sign with the Yankees as a free agent, play second base in New York next season and the Yankees can win the next five pennants.
However, at least for this year, Yankee life is more complex, and thus interesting, than simply buying another crown. Oh, the Boss has laid down $180 million in payroll. There's never any attempt to play fair in the Bronx. But what has he bought?
As his team lost six of seven meetings with the Red Sox in April, Torre had his worries. Now, he's feeling better, thanks. "We've played well since then," said Torre. "We're better equipped to play the Red Sox now. We were not ready emotionally to play them [in April]. We were still forming as a team. I didn't feel that way then. But I see it in retrospect. A-Rod was trying so hard he couldn't see and [Gary Sheffield] was trying to pick him up."
In June, July and again in September, we'll see if the Yankees are "better equipped" against Boston. What can't be disputed is that their equipment is extremely lopsided. Since they built a House for Babe Ruth, the Yankees have built their teams to suit their asymmetrical ballpark where left-handed power hitters thrive and right-handed pitchers begin at a disadvantage.
So what have the '04 Yankees done? They've constructed, partly out of offseason desperation, a rotation with five right-handed pitchers. "Lack of left-handed starting pitching is not a problem in itself as long as you have enough quality right-handed pitching," said Torre, who has gotten little quality from Jose Contreras' six starts (7.56 ERA).
"Of course," he adds a little wistfully, "I've had [left-hander Andy] Pettitte the whole eight years I've been here."
More significant is the long-term impact of Yankee Stadium on A-Rod and Sheffield. Over the past six seasons, Rodriguez averaged 47 homers. How many right-handed batting Yankees have ever hit 47 homers?
DiMaggio had 46 homers. Once. In 1937. He's the only right-handed Yank ever to hit 40 homers. Only two other right-handed Yankees ever hit more than 32 homers: Dave Winfield (37) and Alfonso Soriano (38). Those are staggering stats. In history, 162 right-handed hitters have hit 40 homers. Only one (DiMaggio) was a Yankee. They call it Death Valley for a reason.
Rodriguez has been hot for weeks, reaching base in 32 straight games, but he's "only" on a pace for 38 homers. Were his Texas totals -- an average of 52 homers a year -- a bit of a fluke? Was his five-season Seattle average (37) more realistic?
"That [Texas] park was so forgiving that sometimes you'd be rewarded when you shouldn't have been," said Rodriguez in Texas last weekend. "In New York, you have to become a more refined hitter."
Refined? Is that a euphemism for about 15 less homers a year than he had in Arlington?
As for Sheffield, who's playing with numerous nagging injuries, he's averaged over 35 homers a year for the past five seasons. "No park can hold me," he's said. But, so far, Yankee Stadium has contradicted him. Sheffield has a tiny three homers in 43 games and only one of them in Yankee Stadium. Big home parks change power hitters' swings. And that's seldom good.
So, as the season turns to summer, we have the perfect Yankee conundrum. What more could we ask? A year without the Yankees in the center of the pennant conversation is a bore. But a year in which they might conceivably have the biggest payroll in history yet miss the playoffs entirely is even more riveting. At the moment, both are perfectly plausible. And that's delicious.