Sports Nut

The $208 Million Question

When will the Yankees start winning?

Johnson isn’t the big unit he used to be

“We’re going to be in first place at the end,”announced veteran New York Yankee Ruben Sierra as his team hit the All-Star break. This is some brave talk from a Yankee, especially one who is hitting .284, and thereby very nearly shooting his age.

First of all, the team begins the second half in third place in the American League East, albeit only two and a half games behind the Boston Red Sox and only a half-game behind the Baltimore Orioles. Secondly, the team has suffered through a febrile 2005, falling off the pace, storming back into the race, and then settling for long stretches of placidity. There were ominous rumblings from the tectonic plates beneath the owner’s office. There was the loss of precious back-page real estate to the suddenly bubbly New York Mets.

At the end of April, the Yankees were four games under .500. At the end of May, three games above. As June came to a close, they were almost dead even at 39-38. Only a late rush—they’ve won seven of their last 10 games—has brought the Yankees as close as they are now, and that was as much a function of the Red Sox and Orioles each losing six of 10 over the same stretch.

Over their long and successful history, the Yankees have been both imperial and rowdy, often at the same time, as in the 1920s and 1930s, when the team pursued pennant after pennant while seeking Babe Ruth in brothel after brothel. Now, though, it seems like the best parts of traditional Yankeedom have been parceled out elsewhere, particularly to Boston, where the Red Sox have eagerly glommed onto the scruffy spirit of the Munson-Jackson crew that so livened up the Carter years.

What’s left is an intriguing mix of underachieving veterans now rounding into form, and the sticks and splinters of a decimated New York farm system who have arrived in the Bronx all at once, like the Joad family gone off to Californny. This is how you wind up with a team sporting both a $208 million payroll and Melky Cabrera in centerfield. This is how you wind up with Randy Johnson outpitched for the nonce by Chien-Ming Wang, and 22-year-old Robinson Cano as firmly established at second base as Bobby Richardson once was. This is how you wind up with only three All-Stars, the fewest Yankees in that annual waste of time since 1996.

Which is not to say that all the veterans have been carried by the young guys. Gary Sheffield is having a marginal MVP season, and he’s having so much fun as a Yankee that he threatened to sabotage any team to which he might be traded. (Now that’s the old Yankee spirit!) And Alex Rodriguez has been even better; his .317-23-72 first half is almost enough to make you forget his embarrassing bitch-slap meltdown against the Red Sox in last year’s ALCS. (Almost.) Nevertheless, the Yankees now seem to have two lineups—one for the card shows and one for the ballpark.

Exhibit A for the card-show nine is Randy Johnson, whose first half ended at a respectable 9-6, but who, with an ERA distressingly stuck above 4.00, struggled visibly for every one of those wins. At least the fact that what Johnson does is no longer effortless may serve to do what has heretofore been impossible—make a crotchety recluse like the Big Unit seem like less of, well, a big unit.

Wang represents the other end of things. The 23-year-old rookie stands at 6-3 with a 3.89 ERA, having won three of his last four starts. Without him, the Yankee rotation may have dissolved entirely. His performance has been matched by Cano and, to a lesser extent, by Cabrera. The young outfielder’s .231 batting average nonetheless was good enough for the Yankees finally to move the iconic Bernie Williams out of centerfield, where he’d increasingly come to resemble the stone monuments in front of whom he’d played for 15 seasons. However, Cabrera hasn’t been so good that the Yankees aren’t desperately trying to cobble together a trade for a veteran centerfielder. The team’s biggest problem is that every young player who might bring New York what it wants is already in the everyday lineup.

That puts general manager Brian Cashman in a difficult place. The AL East likely is going to be won in the front office. The Red Sox, Orioles, and Yankees all have glaring needs, and the Yankees have far fewer options than the other two, particularly the Red Sox, who have a well-stocked farm system and a general manager who is a) nervy, b) brilliant, and c) not employed by an oligarch. That’s an immeasurable advantage, particularly when the oligarch in question is writing checks to the likes of Kevin Brown for the forseeable future. The Yankees may need to resign themselves to spending the season merely as an interesting team. In New York, that’s not always a good thing.