By Benjamin Block
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I’ve seen this before. No, not losing in the playoffs.
Future Yankee stars, their prime years still ahead of them, soaking up valuable postseason experience, contributing, yet ultimately tasting bitter playoff defeat.
The date: Oct. 8, 1995.
The scene: Game 5 of the ALDS.
The scenario: The Yankees were three outs away from eliminating the Seattle Mariners, and moving on to the ALCS. Reliever Jack McDowell was on the mound in the bottom of the 11th inning looking to secure a 5-4 Yankees advantage.
What happened: Joey Cora reached base safely with a bunt single to start the inning and then scampered to third on a Ken Griffey Jr. single up the middle. Edgar Martinez roped a double down the left-field line. Cora scored easily, tying the game. But the singular snapshot burned in my brain, as I’m sure with many others, is Griffey running around the bases so fast that it looked like his legs might come unhinged from his body, scoring the winning run ahead of the relay throw home.
The full-throated roar of that Seattle crowd at the now-demolished Kingdome shook the television cameras as it was happening.
The Mariners advanced to the ALCS, and the Yankees’ season ended abruptly on that concrete-like AstroTurf.
At 11 years old — unwilling to see any silver lining, and unable to think about anything beyond that October day — I remember being sure that it was the most devastating sports moment of my young life.
Also, as I recall, the above-the-fold story in the days to follow, besides the fallout of the painstaking loss, was whether or not Don Mattingly would ever wear the pinstripes again. And even though he didn’t officially retire until January of 1997, that fateful day in Seattle would be the last game he ever played.
Mattingly, the prototypical Yankee and victim of being on bad teams most of his career, smacked 10 hits over the five games for a .417 batting average in that ALDS — his first, last and only playoff series of his 14-year career.
But I digress.
Yankees fans always reminisce about how special a year 1996 was, but it can’t be overlooked that if household-name-players-to-be Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada weren’t involved in those 1995 playoffs, 1996 and future seasons could have played out a lot differently.
And while Derek Jeter was left off the roster of that Division Series team in 1995, he was with the club to witness all five games. Plus he had played 15 games in the regular season when shortstop Tony Fernandez went down with an injury.
But for the same reasons that it was important for that young core of Yankees to experience playoff action and defeat in 1995, it was equally impactful that Greg Bird (24), Gary Sanchez (24), Aaron Judge (25), Didi Gregorius (27) and Luis Severino (23), all of whom represent the future nucleus of the 2018 Yankees and beyond, went through it in their first playoffs as well.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi — at least for the time being — echoed that sort of sentiment after the Game 7 loss to Houston.
“I understand, I’ve been through it as a player,” he said. “I’ve been through it as a manager, and how it really needs to be the motivating factor during the winter and spring training to get better.”
While Girardi is in private conversations with Yankees’ brass on whether to agree to a new contract or walk away after 10 seasons as manager, this core of young players must heed his message.
Rather than looking at this postseason run as falling one game short of reaching the World Series, these Baby Bombers gained 13 games of playoff experience.
In baseball terms, that’s light years of maturity and growth in a condensed period of time. And no amount of money or regular season wins can equal that at this point.
Playing and contributing the way they did during these playoffs — timely hits by Gregorius, majestic home runs by Bird, great defense and clutch hits by Judge, Severino’s ability to rebound from adversity and take command — puts them in line with the blueprint that Williams, Rivera, Pettitte, Posada and Jeter established in 1995.
It’s unfair to place World Series expectations on the shoulders of this Bronx youth movement, but with a right balance of veterans and role players, several of whom are are under contract, and coupled with their taste of postseason play, 2018 should make them very formidable.
It’ll be interesting to see if 2017 ends up fueling the 2018 Bombers to greater heights the way that 1995 did for the 1996 team.
The blueprint is there. Will it be replicated?
Follow Ben on Twitter at @benjaminblock21