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Cooperstown Confidential
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

October 31,2000

Delivering A New Dynasty

Two years ago, I wrote a book called Baseball’s Last Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s. Thanks to the New York Yankees of the new millennium, that title is now obsolete and the book will have to be renamed at a later date. By winning their third consecutive world championship, the Yankees did something that most fans and writers considered impossible in this era of free agency, arbitration, roster turnover, expansion, thinning talent, and extra tiers of playoffs. If not impossible, then at least highly unlikely. The Yankees’ accomplishment becomes even more stunning given that the franchise lost only one World Series game during its most recent three-year reign of supremacy. A record of 12-1 against the best the National League had to offer, including an uncanny ability to win tight one-run games, makes the Yankee dynasty that much more remarkable. Many observers, including yours truly, had doubted that the Yankees could attach a third championship to the previous two. In the spring, the Yankees appeared to lack the offensive firepower to repeat as American League East champions, reducing them to wild card status. Yet, general manager Brian Cashman nimbly filled offensive holes in mid-stride by sending a disappointing Ricky Ledee and two average prospects to the Indians for David Justice (who was the in the midst of a career season) and two borderline prospects to the Cubs for a home-run hitting machine named Glenallen Hill. From July through the end of August, Justice and Hill ranked as the Yankees’ two most valuable players. Without them, the Yankees’ two-game margin over the Red Sox at season’s end might well have been washed away. A one-game playoff, or worse (a second-place finish), might just have resulted. Although the Yankees did repeat as AL East titlists, their horrid stretch at the tail end of the regular season offered little hope of an eventual world championship. It was a stretch of play that saw them lose seven straight games (most of them coming via embarrassing blowouts), allowing them to total a mere 87 wins during the 162-game schedule. Among the eight teams to qualify for the post-season, the Yankees had compiled the worst of won-loss records. Few teams—the 1987 Twins come to mind—had gone on to win the World Series with such a mediocre compilation of victories. While the notion of momentum heading into the post-season is often overblown and overrated, the Yankees seemed to be playing so tensely that their collective confidence was likely shaken. They couldn’t have felt much more confident after the first Division Series game against the A’s, in which they coughed up a 2-0 lead and went on to lose, putting them in a near must-win situation in Game Two. Yet, Andy Pettitte turned in one of his typically hearty post-season efforts, Hill delivered a timely hit in the middle innings, and the Yankees emerged from Oakland with a necessary split. The Yankees started to build on that victory with a gut-wrenching win in Game Three, as Orlando Hernandez barely outdueled a somewhat unfortunate Tim Hudson. In many ways, that victory in Game Three typified the Yankees’ post-season success over the last two Octobers: good starting pitching, inconsistent offense and a tendency to leave runners on base, one or two particularly clutch hits, a bit of fortune sprinkled in, and a lethal dose of Mariano Rivera (for more than one inning) at game’s end. Some writers on the internet, in trying to explain the results of this year’s (and past year’s) post-season games, have harped on the "random" nature of short series, insisting that "chance" and "luck" play major roles in determining which team will win the world championship. Whether intended or not, such proclamations unfairly demean the accomplishments of this Yankee team, a team that may be the greatest dynasty of our lifetime. A team does not win 12 of 13 World Series games by relying primarily on luck; superior pitching, smart mistake-free play in the field and on the basepaths, and an ability to dominate opponents in the late innings—whether by posting comebacks from the seventh inning on or continually holding leads through the fortress of Rivera—have far more to do with the Yankees’ continuing stranglehold on the Fall Classic. Besides, if the Yankees were supposedly so dependent on luck and chance, then how does one explain or characterize some of the many setbacks that have assaulted them over the past season? Prior to the season, their most advanced prospect—D’Angelo Jimenez—whom the Yankees had tabbed as their No. 1 utilityman and had targeted to take some at-bats from a declining Scott Brosius at third base, suffered major injuries in a car crash and did not play for most of the summer. New York’s star second baseman and leadoff man, Chuck Knoblauch, continued to have a mysterious problem making routine throws to first base, a rare malady among major league infielders. One of their most important and versatile pitchers—Ramiro Mendoza—developed arm problems and couldn’t pitch for most of the second half of the season. Their regular left fielder and top backup outfielder—Shane Spencer and Roberto Kelly, respectively—both went down with season-ending ailments. One of the league’s best starting pitchers in 1999—David Cone—suffered a freefall this summer, almost instantly becoming one of the league’s worst pitchers. Could any of the aforementioned developments, some of which came without forewarning, be considered "lucky?" Make no mistake about it; this Yankee team overcame its fair share of difficulties in mounting a third consecutive world championship run. And while some critics will attempt to deflate Yankee accomplishments by citing the team’s extravagant payroll and limitless funding, let’s keep in mind that other teams have similarly bottomless resources—such as the Orioles and Dodgers—but have not come close to matching the Yankees’ success. Furthermore, let’s remind ourselves that the core of this Yankee team was assembled through means that have little to do with economics. The team’s best players throughout most of the past five seasons—Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Orlando Hernandez, and Mariano Rivera—are all original Yankee products, either drafted or signed at relatively low wages. Even Hernandez’ contract, which seemed exorbitant at the time ($6 million over four years), ranks as a bargain in the context of his Herculean post-season efforts. Almost any team in baseball could have afforded to give Hernandez that kind of contract back in 1997, but few teams had the foresight to envision the kind of talent that the former Cuban would bring to the states. For that, and other personnel moves (like acquiring Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson for two overrated prospects, or trading an unserviceable Kenny Rogers for a useful Scott Brosius, or finding Dwight Gooden and Luis Sojo through waiver wire transactions), the Yankees deserve credit and respect, not ridicule and contempt. Perhaps full appreciation of this Yankee dynasty will not come for another 25 years, when the next great team manages to win three consecutive titles. Or maybe it will take longer than that. After all, we might not see another team like these Yankees for the rest of our lives.

Tying Up Loose Ends On The Series

The Yankees’ last two world championships have illustrated the cliched but real importance of pitching, defense, and baserunning (yes, the little things) in the post-season. While run production is a pre-requisite to winning in the regular season (generally speaking, if your team doesn’t rank among the top five teams in the league in runs scored, you’re not going to the post-season), winning in the post-season requires a different formula. The pitching is better, what with managers using only their top three, or sometimes top four starters, and avoiding their 10th and 11th pitchers unless the game is one sided. The weather is colder (most hitters hate lower temperatures), which likely reduces the flight of fly balls, as we saw in the fifth game of the Series at Shea Stadium. In addition, the scouting is so in-depth during the post-season that fielders are rarely placed out of position. The post-season is just different, something that the Yankees fully understand… A few days before he picked up the game-winning hit of the World Series, an internet writer labeled Luis Sojo a terrible hitter. Terrible? Mediocre, perhaps, but terrible, no. During the regular season, Sojo batted .286 with seven home runs in 301 at-bats and compiled a tidy on-base percentage of .360 with runners in scoring position. All hitters should be so "terrible"… Virtually no analysts on television or in print saw fit to discuss it, but Mike Piazza badly misplayed Jay Payton’s throw on Sojo’s Series-clinching hit in Game Five. As a rule, a catcher should do everything in his power to prevent a ball from hitting an oncoming runner; otherwise he has no chance of making a tag play. For some reason, Piazza set up on the foul side of the third base line, thus allowing Payton’s throw to hit Jorge Posada and carom into the dugout, which enabled the Yankees to bring home a second run on the play. Piazza should have taken a position slightly toward the fair side of the third base line, while straddling the line with his left foot. That way, Piazza would have been sure to catch the ball, and by using his left foot to hold up the runner, still might have had a chance to tag Posada. At the very least, Piazza would have been able to corral the throw, preventing the Yankees from scoring a second run. The Mets then could have approached the bottom of the ninth by trying to manufacture a run, rather than try to get someone on base and hope for a home run against Mariano Rivera.

The Latest On The Clemente Plaque

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan will serve as the Master of Ceremonies for the Roberto Clemente Walker Grand Gala, which will take place on November 14 at the Wyndham El San Juan Hotel and Casino in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Clemente’s newly revised and created Hall of Fame plaque (which corrects his full name from "Roberto Walker Clemente to Roberto Clemente Walker") will be displayed as part of several days of festivities on the island before it is finally brought back to its permanent resting place in Cooperstown. Tickets for the historic gala are on sale now. For more information, contact Nancy Navarro at (787) 750-2100.

Happy Halloween

Since Halloween is celebrated so fervently in the Markusen household, we’d like to present the All-Halloween team, courtesy of the public relations and research staffs of the National Baseball Hall of Fame:

First base: Pat "The Bat" Burrell Second base: Julian "The Phantom" Javier Shortstop: Frank "Creepy" Crespi Third base: Oliver "Ghost" Marcelle (played in the Negro Leagues) Outfielder: Nick Goulish Outfielder: Bris "The Human Eyeball" Lord Outfielder: Marvin "The Creeper" Stroud Catcher: Ralph "Wig" Weigel DH: Candy Maldonado Pitcher: Jim "Terror" Devlin Pitcher: John "The Count" Montefusco Pitcher: John "Blue Moon" Odom Reliever: Pedro "Dracula" Borbon Reliever: Dick "The Monster" Radatz Manager: Charlie Grimm

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