Sports Nut

Yanks in the Tank

How the pinstripes could blow the pennant.

The 2002 baseball season belongs to the New York Yankees. They purchased it over the winter. Not just by signing Jason Giambi, although that is a big part of it. They are simply better in every single department than even their record-smashing 1998 club, which carried dead weight like Chad Curtis, a .243-hitting starting left fielder, and good-field, no-hit catcher Joe Girardi. In addition to established stars Giambi, Derek Jeter, and Bernie Williams, the 2002 team has at least two players, second baseman Alfonso Soriano and catcher Jorge Posada, primed for breakout years, as well as a front-runner for rookie of the year, designated hitter Nick Johnson. Their pitching staff, which carried them last year, was shored up with the acquisition of excellent setup man Steve Karsay. If either David Wells or El Duque still has a live arm (and it looks like they both might), their starting pitching is better through and through than even the Oakland A’s extraordinary young staff.

The situation is not scary so much as it is boring. What can stop this juggernaut? The biggest threat is the Yankees themselves. After decades of turmoil, the Yankees have enjoyed five years of peace. Could this be the year it all comes unglued? Could the stunning collapse in Arizona last fall possibly have karmic carryover? Herewith, a plausible, if not entirely likely, schedule for the greatest choke of all time.

April: The First Tiny Fissures
Jason Giambi told the press the other day that “this is Jeter’s team.” The more you hear this line repeated throughout the season, the more trouble the Yankees are in. Inevitably, there will be a power shift in the clubhouse. Jeter is accustomed to being the sole shining light in a room full of low-wattage personalities. He will not enjoy seeing the media throng around Giambi’s locker become a little larger than the throng around his own. Factions will begin to develop. Winning will mask it, but what happens when the team hits a slump?

May: The Oh-So-Subtle Agitation
The team hits a slump, and in the midst of it, Giambi blows a game with a late-inning defensive blunder. By the time this happens, people have begun to notice that in the one game a week that he replaces Giambi in the field at first, rookie Nick Johnson looks sharper and more focused at the plate. Everybody knows he’s a superior fielder, but when Giambi signed his huge deal, he sought a guarantee that he wouldn’t be forced to DH. Now pressure is building for Giambi to do what’s best for the team and let the rookie take his spot in the field. One of the main forces working behind the scenes to make it happen? Jeter, who is eager to reduce Giambi’s status in the clubhouse and who has manager Joe Torre’s ear.

June: The Big Disruption
In baseball, as in the Old West, there are certain people who get run out of every town they enter. David Wells is one of those people. He had a glorious first run as a Yankee—he threw a perfect game, he expressed his love for the city and its countless drinking establishments in soggy, unconditional terms—and still he was set packing to Toronto. Why? Well, we don’t really know; it’s fair, though, to guess that the Yankees’ tight, unified clubhouse managed to keep his cruder exploits under wraps. Imagine that this time Wells starts more trouble and word of these misdeeds leaks to the media. Maybe it comes from Jeter’s faction because Wells and Giambi have set up their own little Motorcycle and Heavy Metal Appreciation Society in the clubhouse. So Wells establishes permanent residency on the back page of the tabloids, and the attention of the whole organization shifts to damage control.

July: The Crash
Roger Clemens is an oxymoron, a 39-year-old power pitcher. It can’t go on forever, and midseason looks as propitious a moment as any for the Rocket to come plummeting back to earth. Because he has become such a leader on the team, his demise could blow apart the whole rotation. Mike Mussina, though brilliant on the mound, has never shown himself to be a leader, and the rest of the pitchers will sorely need one. Andy Pettitte, for one, has had amazing success over the last five years, but he is oddly fragile and has come to depend on Clemens. Where will he be without the Rocket? Will Sterling Hitchcock step forward? Will El Duque be revealed to be a full decade older than we thought?

August: The Quit
Undone by the pressure of rebuilding the rotation in midseason, General Manager Brian Cashman pulls a Van Gundy and bails on the team. This is a devastating blow. Though Joe Torre generally gets the credit for sheltering the team from owner George Steinbrenner, it is really Cashman who keeps George from being George. It is Cashman who lies awake at night worrying about middle relief and backup catching, and because he does it, Steinbrenner doesn’t have to. Without Cashman, though, George is thrown back on his own instincts.

September: The Surrender
The Boss is back in all his Paleozoic splendor. With the Yankees battling the resurgent Red Sox, he badmouths his players every day in the tabs. It takes every sentient being in the Yankee organization to talk Steinbrenner out of bringing back Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden for the stretch run. Torre hints at, then talks openly of, retirement. The manager, who really trusts only a handful of his players, tightens his circle. He overworks closer Mariano Rivera, often using him for two innings. That deadly cut fastball starts to drift over the middle of the plate. Pedro Martinez pulls the Red Sox past the limping Yanks.

October: The End
There is no October in the Bronx, and there is a long, cold winter coming. The Enron-like cable TV deal falls apart, sapping Steinbrenner of one of his main sources of revenue. For the first time ever, the Yankees spend the offseason dumping salaries. The dynasty is over, the Wicked Witch is dead, the munchkins of baseball land rejoice.