Well, that was exhausting. This whole baseball offseason — and by baseball’s historical standards we have barely even started — has been a whirlwind, but Saturday night’s game, Yankees-Tigers, New York, N.Y., that was something else. There’s a difference between epic baseball games. This postseason has proven that. Friday’s elimination game between Washington and St. Louis was a wild series of thrills and spills, a safe lead, a slow comeback, a safer lead, a hard comeback, a city waving red towels about to celebrate, a city in despair. I compared it to Raiders of the Lost Ark and that still feels right to me. It was a wild show, at times even ridiculous, and if you weren’t a Washington Nationals fan you could eat popcorn to it.
Saturday’s game … well, that was different. There was not a game for popcorn. That was a game for a bottle of whiskey with two glasses. Saturday’s game was a Russian novel, intricate, bewildering, filled with heavy human themes, drenched in mortality issues and so labyrinthine you needed to turn to the front of the book just to remember which character was which.
Here’s when I knew: When the game ended, TBS went to their three-expert panel, and the question was asked: What was the biggest story tonight? And my mind detonated. Stories? Wow. A million of them. Well, let’s see.
• There was the public humiliation of Alex Rodriguez. It seemed to me that when Joe Girardi pinch-hit for A-Rod with the Yankees down four runs in the eighth, that was a breaking point. It was strange enough this postseason pinch-hitting for A-Rod twice at the end with the Yankees needing a long ball, but hey, there were righty-lefty match-ups to consider, and Girardi was going deep for a Hail Mary, and A-Rod would have to admit he’s struggling. It was strange enough benching A-Rod for Game 5 of the Orioles series, but again, everyone was expecting a low-scoring game, A-Rod would be available to pinch-hit, it wasn’t exactly a benevolent move, but maybe everyone could work through it.
The pinch-hit move Saturday, though, that was a direct and unequivocal statement to A-Rod: I have lost all faith in you. Maybe Girardi simply wanted to shield A-Rod from more boos. Maybe Girardi had seen enough of A-Rod’s moping around after his awful looking at-bats. Maybe Girardi simply knows that A-Rod is utterly useless now and felt like, even down four runs, he’d seen enough. Whatever the case, that pinch-hit felt like the big move. A-Rod has five years, $114 million left on his contract with the Yankees, and while you can’t worry about such things in the heat of the postseason, it will be waiting there breathing fire when the postseason ends.
• There was the definition of insanity* decision to just keep pitching Jose Valverde. Wow. Jose Valverde. I don’t know, maybe Jim Leyland could have pulled him after the home run to Ichiro. Maybe he could have pulled him after that ridiculous walk to Mark Teixeira where Valverde threw nothing but outside pitches even though the entire Detroit infield was pulled further right than Ayn Rand (or, from the defense’s perspective, further left than Michael Moore). Maybe he could have …
*Most people attribute the quote to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and to expect different results.” Like about 83% of all famous quotes, there’s no proof the famous person ever really said it.
Maybe he could have just realized that Jose Valverde did not have a good year and that sticking with him as a conventional closer against all evidence isn’t exactly leadership. Leyland did not have to fall for the trap in the first place. The Tigers led by four going into the ninth. It wasn’t a save situation.
Leyland could have matched up. He could have started with Valverde but had people warming up just in case — coming off Valverde’s last outing, when he gave up like two million runs and three million hits to the A’s in one-third of an inning, nobody could have blamed him.
One of Leyland’s great attributes is his loyalty to players. It’s an admirable trait, and I have every reason to believe it’s a big part of why players come together for him. But, at some point, you owe it to your player and his teammates to pull the plug.
• There was the latest surreal heroics from baseball’s latest surreal hero, Raul Ibanez, who, if I’m getting this right, is five-foot nothing, 100 and nothing, hardly a speck of athletic ability, he had come out of a field of corn with things to settle, he had studied the way the Italians raced bicycles so he could find his own identity, he had just lost to the Soviets 10-3, he had trained hard running on the beach, trained hard pounding meat in a meat locker, trained hard by washing and waxing cars, he understood non-linear thinking, he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth, he took pride in never going down, and he walked into the poolroom with his leather satchel and just wanted to win for all the small schools that never got a chance to be there, just wanted to abide by what is written, just wanted to score four touchdowns for his little brother, just wanted to say he loved Brian Piccolo, just wanted to bring his racially split community together, just wanted to escape from the camp, and so he never went down, would not accept the intentional walk, he swung away, and he hit the home run against the lights, he hit the shot over the water, he pulled away in the match race, he bent the shot around the goalkeeper, he did not lay off the high one, he …
• There was Derek Jeter, falling awkwardly, shattering his ankle, ending his season, the first serious injury of his remarkable career, the first time the Yankees, as we know them, have to win in the postseason without the Captain.
There was so much happening, so many stories, the one-third-empty and booing Yankee Stadium, the suddenly great defense of Jhonny Peralta, the sudden appearance (and just in the nick of time) of a 23-year-old lefty named Drew Smyly, the travails of manager Jim Leyland quitting smoking, the grand struggles of Nick Swisher, the …
“So what’s the story of the night?” the question went.
“Delmon Young,” panelist and former pitcher David Wells said.
Exactly, see the … I’m sorry, wait a minute, what? Delmon Young? Because he hit a home run? Because he hit the ball that Nick Swisher misplayed? Delmon Young? That’s like saying Johnny Two-Times was the star of “Goodfellas.” That’s like saying Rube Walker was the star of the Giants Win The Pennant game because of his scratch single in the seventh and that he called the pitch Bobby Thomson hit out. Delmon Young? On this night?
Back here on Mother Earth, the talk was Jeter … and the talk was a eulogy. Watching Jeter go down and stay down as he tried to field a ball to his left — the play that has long been his nemesis — was grave television. Yankees manager Joe Girardi was insistent that the shattered ankle was not career threatening, but Jeter is 38 and at that age a mosquito bite, acid indigestion or a particularly violent sneeze can be career threatening.
Still, the thought was not of the end, but of the beginning. Derek Jeter played in his first Yankees postseason game in 1996 — three weeks before the O.J. Simpson civil trial began. He hit ninth in the order, and he went one-for-four (a ground ball single up the middle), and of course nobody had any idea yet what he would become.
People forget, that 1996 Yankees team was a mishmash of old Steinbrenner and new. Tim Raines, Wade Boggs, Darryl Strawberry and Mariano Duncan were all in the lineup that day* — a not-so-subtle reminder of the 1980s and early 1990s when the Yankees acquired every Steve Kemp, Don Baylor, John Montefusco, Jack Clark and Steve Sax in some sort of madcap effort to turn back time, Cher style.
*So was Joe Girardi. Cecil Fielder was in the lineup the next day.
But there were other players in the lineup that day — Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez — and they would be at the heart of a new kind of Yankees dynasty. The next day a 24-year-old lefty, Andy Pettitte started, and a 26-year-old former starter, Mariano Rivera, threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings. The next day, Derek Jeter got three hits.
It all seems preordained now — what with the $200 million payrolls and all — but the Yankees did not have to become the Yankees again. They almost traded away Rivera. Other than Jeter, their drafting was stupefyingly bad — Brien Taylor, Matt Drews, Brian Buchanan, Shea Morenz, these were their first round picks. They were still owned by George Steinbrenner, who was still driven by the same tendencies as always, win now, win at whatever cost — he wanted every David Cone, Dwight Gooden, Kenny Rogers, David Wells, Hard-Hittin’ Mark Whiten, Pete Incaviglia, Chili Davis the Yankees could find.
But now it worked, and while it’s tempting to give Jeter too much credit for that — so tempting we all do it, some with more enthusiasm than others — it also seems true that his timing was impeccable. When the Yankees needed youth, he was young. When the Yankees needed constancy, he was there every day. When the Yankees needed leadership, he was the Captain. And, all along, when the Yankees needed an example, he provided one. Run out every ball. Be shrewd on every play. Talk to reporters after every game (and tell them nothing). There wasn’t a doubt about what it meant to be a New York Yankee — hey, you’re new here, welcome to the Yankees, see No. 2 over there? Go and do likewise.
Of course he wasn’t flawless. His defensive talents were always up for debate. He struck out a lot. He made mistakes, plenty of them, of course he did, nobody, not even DiMaggio, threw to the right base every time. His ability to perform in the clutch was glorified, though in truth he was exactly the same in the clutch as he was the rest of the time.
But, over time, he came to represent his team in a way only a handful of other players ever have — Brooks Robinson and his Orioles teams, Stan Musial and his Cardinals teams, Mickey Mantle and his Yankees teams, Joe DiMaggio and his Yankee teams, Babe Ruth and his Yankees teams. Off the top of the head, any baseball fan can quickly come up a half dozen images of Jeter — the flip play, the dive into the stands, the Mr. November homer, any number of jump throws from short, any numbers of bloops to right field as he fought off an inside fastball. To see him on the ground Saturday night, stretched out, not writhing in pain but instead barely moving at all, it was as if a box of memories opened up, and at the same time that the announcers wondered aloud how the Yankees might go on without Jeter, I tried to imagine how a Yankees team would even LOOK without Derek Jeter at shortstop. It’s been so long, I cannot even remember.