By Jason Keidel
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As a Yankees fan I’m filled with the hubris of my five-borough brethren, imbued with the haughty lust to buy the best player at every position. And for years I dreamed of Ichiro Suzuki in pinstripes – just not the year he gets his AARP card.
It’s surprising to see the Yankees go Jim Dolan and buy an ancient star, like Jason Kidd. (Assuming Kidd remembers he’s a Knick after drinking and driving into a telephone pole.)
But since the Yankees surrendered so little to get Ichiro, maybe we can retroactively salute perhaps the most underrated player of my lifetime. Many people want to debate Ichiro’s bona fides for the Hall of Fame. What is there to debate? Indeed, if he didn’t play on that outpost on the upper left corner of the map, there would be bronze statues galore sculpted in Ichiro’s likeness
Most sports fans have an ethereal athletic moment, a hypnotic deed that makes your jaw thud against the ground. April 11, 2001 doesn’t beam too brightly from the archives. But I know exactly where I was sitting when I saw Ichiro scoop a single in right field and hurl a lightning bolt to third base, gunning down a stunned Terrence Long, whose cleats tapped the awaiting glove. The ball hummed like a rifle shot, never soaring six feet above the grass. Cliff Lee couldn’t have placed it any better had he thrown to third from the mound.
You know the rest. Ichiro led the league in hits, steals, and batting average. He was 27, which begs the question: how good could he have been, how deep a dent could he have made in the record books had he a normal career?
Had Ichiro started in the majors at 22 and averaged 200 hits per season – a very reasonable assumption – he would have well over 3,500 hits and perhaps a crack at Pete Rose’s record.
But no matter the aging icon’s contributions to the Yankees, it’s all gratuitous for a team that is pummeling the American League.
On May 18, I wrote a column declaring the Yankees dead, asserting that there was no way they could win or even reach the World Series. Then, of course, they went 37-17, making me look rather obtuse. I stick by my argument, even if it looks tenuous now. And while the Yankees have the best record in the sport, they might be wise to lose a few more games than Texas and Washington.
Since 1995, the team with the best record has won the World Series just three times. That could be an anomaly, but the next stat isn’t, which speaks directly to the Bombers’ template for winning baseball. In the same, 17-year span, only one team with the most home runs has won the World Series. Yes, it was the 2009 Yankees, but that doesn’t change the fact that you can’t swat your way to a title.
With the exception of that team, the dynastic Yankees won with pitching and clutch hitting. In their five-year run of four World Series titles, only one player hit 30 homers. But their staff was deeper than Warren Buffet’s wallet. Wells. Cone. Key. Clemens. El Duque. Add a bullpen from heaven (or hell if you rooted for the opponent) and that’s how you rack up trophies. This year will be no different.
Truth is, Andy Pettitte is the variable on which this season swings. CC Sabathia needs a wingman in October, and Ivan Nova and Hiroki Kuroda don’t exactly remind you of Schilling and Johnson. Phil Hughes, though quite impressive lately, still hasn’t won a road playoff game. So they need our generation’s Whitey Ford to fortify the fall rotation while they moonwalk to the AL East crown. Who better to save the season than the southpaw with more postseason wins than anyone?
A lot of people called me an idiot when I made my case against the Yankees, and it’s the rare time I’d love to be wrong. How could I have known that losing the greatest closer in history wouldn’t kill the season? Of course, if Mo doesn’t make it back this year, Rafael Soriano will need to prove that he’s capable of big deeds under brown leaves, something that separates good closers from great closers. No number of regular-season saves can presage the postseason.
But the rest will rest on Pettitte. And Andy has shown us that no weight is too great for a pitcher of his gravitas. If Pettitte does not heal properly or return to proper form for any reason, there’s no reason to think the season won’t end in Texas, as it seems to every year.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.Jason@gmail.com