By Jason Keidel
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The good news is that the Yankees are just 3 1/2 games out of first place. The troubling news is that they’re just four games out of last. And the two teams that are ahead of the Yanks (Boston and Baltimore) don’t look like they’re about to fold.
Tampa Bay and Toronto, who trail the Yankees in the American League East, certainly have the talent to torment the Bronx Bombers. The Rays always have a regal rotation, and the Blue Jays have won eight straight games, perhaps shrugging off the Dream Team curse that followed them before the season.
After another appalling performance on Wednesday night, Joe Girardi said he’s not pondering Phil Hughes’ place in the rotation, and will neither nudge him back to the bullpen or to the minors.
At some point the expectations expire for Hughes, who was touted as an ace-in-waiting back when he no-hit the Rangers for six innings in his first start. Indeed, Hughes (3-6, 5.06 ERA) was the face of a three-headed pitching Ghidorah who would usher the Bronx Bombers into the 21st century.
We know what happened to Joba Chamberlain, who crumbled between Brian Cashman’s bungling and a lack of personal discipline (often overweight with an infamous DUI). And the third member of the young triumvirate, Ian Kennedy — remember him? — was jettisoned to Arizona, where he went 21-4 (2.88 ERA) in 2011. For whatever reason, the Yankees and young pitching make a poisonous cocktail.
It doesn’t take Billy Beane to know that pitching is the first priority on any team. But it takes at least a modicum of muscle to win a World Series, and the Yankees are looking pretty anemic. And their rotation, while good enough to make the playoffs, is more about quantity than quality. It’s a long line of nimble limbs who are ready to give you six innings and three runs, but not anything close to vintage Justin Verlander.
If Hiroki Kuroda is your ace, the chances are that you’re not a buzz saw that’s ready to run through October. On a championship team, your top pitcher generally isn’t a few months short of 40, while the Yanks’ third-best pitcher, Andy Pettitte, just breached 41.
And then there’s the hitting. For a team with their wallet, talent and temerity, the Yankees have an oddly thin lineup. Mark Teixeira is in serious physical peril, and may need season-ending wrist surgery. Derek Jeter hasn’t played this year and who knows how the 39-year-old shortstop will play when he returns in July. Kevin Youkilis is a $12 million failure. And the man he replaced, A-Rod, the most polarizing player on the planet, has recently engaged in baseball activities. But his off-field activities hang like a symbolic guillotine over his gold-plated neck.
If the Anthony Bosch story weren’t squalid enough, there’s a report that A-Rod summoned Bosch to Detroit during last year’s ALCS looking for assistance while mired in a 1-for-9 muck. Riding the cliche about smoke and fire, there are just too many dirty deeds that are attached to lucky No. 13 for some of the stench not to stick.
Yankees fans tolerated the tangential nonsense when A-Rod was winning MVP awards and leading the Yanks to the 2009 title. But now he’s just an old, expensive, arrogant star who flamed out sometime between 2009 and today, somewhere between his truth and the truth.
Hal Steinbrenner made a serious splash upon taking the helm. After assuming his dad’s bejeweled crown, he spent a quarter-billion dollars on A.J. Burnett, Teixeira, and CC Sabathia, and there was an instant dividend. Since then, the self-styled “numbers geek” has become particularly penurious, his newfound frugality aimed directly at the salary cap. He wants the Yankees to duck the $189 million threshold.
But he’s not giving you a break on ticket prices. He’s not relabeling the $10 beer, the $5 water or the $6 hot dog. George Steinbrenner knew that winning was expensive, but also profitable. The old man would not have tolerated the sagging ticket sales and television ratings without a missive and a mission to spend his way out of their current stupor.
The swaths of empty seats are emblematic of several things.
1) Many fans who were spawned by the Joe Torre dynasty are frontrunners, unlike those of us who fell in love with the Bombers in the ’70s and ate copious chunks of humble pie in the ’80s, which tested and proved our pinstriped devotion. The infantile “Got Rings?” T-shirt-wearing fool who’s never known anything but the playoffs isn’t going to a game unless he’s 90 percent sure of a deep playoff run.
2) The Yankees, rather old-man Steinbrenner, made an implicit pact with us that while we would spend a little extra at the gate, we knew that he’d funnel the profit back into his payroll.
3) It doesn’t take Ted Williams to see that the new ballpark attracts the red wine and wind chimes crowd, who spend seven innings on their iPhones, waving like baboons at the nearest camera. The Abercrombie crowd who mistake an appletini for Americana are nowhere to be found when Jayson Nix takes the field.
I remember the old place, or at least I prefer to. There was an old man named Freddy who roamed the stands in a stooped posture with a weathered frying pan. He passed a spoon around to the fans, with which we banged the pan as a siren call for a few runs. There was a resonant charm to the old place that attracted the blue-collar fan and his or her family, and not the aloof, Lacoste bunch.
Freddy died not too long ago, and, perhaps not coincidentally, it happened after the “House that Ruth Built” was buried, along with the ghosts and great stories that the over-40 crowd only know. But we’re not the key demographic anymore, but rather just some middle-aged has-beens stuck in the Atari era.
The old Yankee Stadium felt like home. And even though the new edifice is just across the street, it feels like home games are really road games.
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