Friday, August 19, 2016

Photo of the Day: Catching the "New" New York Yankees

What could be more beautiful than a blue sky and a green field at the House That Ruth Built (or, to put it more accurately: The New House That the Steinbrenners Built)? This was the scene on Wednesday afternoon, when I snapped this picture as part of my company’s summer outing.

I was thrilled to spend the afternoon in a non-office environment where I could get to know my colleagues/friends a bit better. I just wish my New York Yankees had given me more opportunities to cheer—although I suspect that, for the next couple of years, that will be an off-and-on thing.

It was only my second time visiting Yankee Stadium since the new structure opened in 2009. This game was quite different from my last one nearly two years ago.

At that time, I went to an evening game in September; this time it was an afternoon game in August. Then, temperatures were comfortable, with the worst heat of summer safely past; this time, though not the remorseless, dangerous heat and humidity of this past Saturday, it was warm enough, with temperatures climbing into the high 80s. By the end of the second inning, feeling like a baked Irish potato, I moved closer to the refreshment stand, out of the sun. (Perhaps the most popular at the stand was bottled water, despite the fact that it was selling for a dollar outside the stadium--four dollars less, the outside vendors claimed, than its price inside.) Then, the team was playing the Chicago White Sox, a team on its way to a 73-89 record that the Yankees handled pretty easily; this time it was the Toronto Blue Jays, who,  only the night before, had come from a 6-0 deficit after a 40-minute rain delay to score 12 unanswered runs and win the game.

The biggest difference was on the field. September 2014 marked the last month before Derek Jeter retired, and every at-bat, every jog he made out to shortstop felt like a love feast between the fans and the legend. But, even though the rest of the “Core Four”—Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera—had already retired, there were plenty of other veterans in the Yankee clubhouse that night, including Mark Teixeira, Ichiro Suzuki, Carlos Beltran, and C.C. Sabathia. 

One veteran not on the field that day—or anywhere near the clubhouse—was Alex Rodriguez, MIA because of his season-long suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. A-Rod was nowhere on the premises earlier this week, either, as his abysmal batting average and inability to play defense had rendered him a high-priced drag on the club—and, despite his astronomical salary, suddenly expendable.

A-Rod’s long-term decline paralleled the club’s over the last few years. In retrospect, it’s easy to see now that last year’s wild-card appearance was an aberration, with two veterans—A-Rod and Teixeira —enjoying comeback seasons. As their fortunes went south in the second half of the year (Tex’s, following a season-ending injury; A-Rod, through seeming exhaustion as soon as he hit 40), so did the team’s.

Then, this season, came the deluge, a reckoning—and the youth movement. And so, on Wednesday, A-Rod, Beltran, Ivan Nova, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman had departed; the oft-injured Tex, batting only .196 after Tuesday night’s game, was not at first with his superb glovework; and Brian McCann, with an anemic .231 batting average (more than 30 points below his career average), was not catching. Instead, longtime fans like me saw the likes of Tyler Austin at first, Aaron Judge in right field—and batting in A-Rod’s longtime cleanup spot, McCann’s heir apparent behind the plate, Gary Sanchez.

Right now, the New New York Yankees are in larval form. Sabathia, the principal remaining holdover of the old crew—including the 2009 World Series team—remained the same erratic, aggravating performer he’s been all year, as well as the last few.

He only gave up one walk, and his 12 strikeouts were the most he’s notched this whole season. But he also yielded the most runs he’s given up all year—seven—all that the Blue Jays needed for a 7-4 victory. No longer a power pitcher, he also hasn’t transitioned into quite the finesse pitcher that the Yankees had hoped.

He is also no longer good enough to overcome his defense’s mistakes—including the damage that Chase Headley inflicted at third base, first with an unsuccessful attempt to catch a lead runner at second, then with an errant throw to first base. That paved the way for Melvin Upton’s crushing three-run homer off Sabathia in the fifth.

Veterans such as Sabathia and Headley are no longer at a point when they can exceed or even meet already meager expectations. So now fans get to watch Enter the Youth Brigade. There’s a lot of upside to this latter game: young bodies less prone to injury, hungry spirits less liable to jadedness, more payroll flexibility due to low-cost contracts, the satisfaction that comes with not having to hear so much about buying a pennant.

But a world of uncertainty is involved in these youth movements, too. Bronx Bomber fans only have to look out to Queens, where the Mets—preseason division favorites because of the Young Guns on their pitching staff—have suffered from devastating injuries that have left them in a dogfight just for the second wild card spot.

Yankee fans with even average memories can recall their 2009 versions of today’s Mets: Phil Hughes, who was going to become the next Roger Clemens; Ian Kennedy, who would assume the mantle of Mike Mussina; and Joba Chamberlain, who, if he didn’t enter the starting rotation, would take over seamlessly from Mariano Rivera as the team’s closer. Subsequently, all three had their moments, but—now in their early 30s—they are journeymen rather than Bronx mainstays.

But hope is always born again, even in the middle of a season seemingly going nowhere, and rookies Judge and Sanchez provided it with two hits apiece. In particular, the torrid pace of Sanchez—five homers in 15 games—got sportswriters looking through archives to find another young Yankee who’d made a similar impact. The answer: Shelley Duncan in 2007 and Steve Whitaker in 1966. Neither went on to make a lasting imprint in pinstripes (or, for that matter, much elsewhere).

In other words: Stay hopeful, but just remember--sometimes, can’t-miss prospects really do miss.

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