As the playoffs began this year, I felt that the only way the Yankees could become interesting was by losing. They were so loaded with talent they were going to ruin the entire postseason. The only suspense would come in seeing who would hit that day's three-run homer. And then they lost and became a compelling story.
Joel Lovell, GQ's features editor, assessed the team, following its ALDS loss to Detroit, as follows: "They're just one slugger away…" It's a funny remark, given George Steinbrenner's propensity for overcompensating (in the Detroit series, the lineup couldn't even accommodate all of the club's big hitters). Now there's talk of blowing the team up; until late last week, Joe Torre's job was apparently in jeopardy. How do you improve on what some people regard as the greatest offense of all time?
The answer is that you don't. The outcome of a five-game series is ridiculously difficult to predict (how many times during a 162-game season do good teams lose 3 of 5 games to lesser ones? Lots), as are the postseason performances of great players:
Willie Mays: .302 career batting average; .247 postseason batting average
Joe Morgan: .271 career B.A.; .182 postseason B.A.
Frank Robinson: .294 career B.A.; .238 postseason B.A.
Mickey Mantle: .298 career B.A.; .257 postseason B.A.
Joe DiMaggio: .325 career B.A.; .271 postseason B.A.
Stan Musial: .331 career B.A.; .256 postseason B.A.
Ted Williams: .344 career B.A.; .200 postseason B.A.
Jackie Robinson: .311 career B.A.; .234 postseason B.A.
Of course, Derek Jeter has performed well in the postseason—a .314 batting average—but under the expanded playoff system he's had nearly a season's worth of at-bats (478, versus, say, Babe Ruth, who had 129), which makes his stats reasonably reflective of his talent and obscures the occasions on which he flopped (the 1998 ALCS, the 2001 World Series, the 2004 ALCS, etc.).
The Yankees' loss to Detroit does lead us to two conclusions, though:
1. What the Yankees need to do during the offseason is sign or trade for some high-priced pitching talent. Hitting will get you into the playoffs, but pitching wins the World Series.
2. It turns out that Jeter, New York's captain, isn't much of an emotional leader—he's no Paul O'Neill. For one reason or another, his Yankees tend to lose momentum in the postseason. This, I think, may account in large measure for fans' intense hostility to Alex Rodriguez: His failures, against huge expectations, are consonant with his team's. Which brings us to last September's Sports Illustrated piece in which Jeter failed to support the beleaguered A-Rod—surely the bare-minimum obligation of a team captain. If A-Rod is indeed traded during the offseason, it will be for that reason, I think: because Jeter doesn't want him in New York. It's shockingly petty. Jeter must know how psychologically fragile A-Rod is, yet he knowingly undermines him, and thus the entire team. A month ago, I thought Jeter deserved to win the AL MVP award. I don't believe that any more. If that Sports Illustrated article is accurate, Jeter didn't come through for his team when it needed him. He choked.