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February 17, 2005

by Larry Mahnken

I've been pretty detached from the baseball world since my apartment burned down a month ago, but it's time to get back on the saddle and write baseball again, especially with Spring Training finally underway. Huzzah!

The Yanks are looking to be, once again, a very good team in 2005, though it's obvious that the mainstream is once again overestimating them, and perhaps the analytical community is underestimating them. They certainly have an enormous amount of upside, but there are a lot of problems with this team. There have certainly been a number of unfathomably idiotic decisions made in the past couple of months, the biggest one being that they've decided to put Bernie Williams in center yet again, even though he's been one of the very worst defensive players in the game for the past three seasons.

The Bernie Williams situation should be evidence enough that the Yankees don't understand how to evaluate defense, and that they moved Alex Rodriguez because they're ignorant enough to believe that Derek Jeter is really worthy of that Gold Glove. We need to accept this fact, because if we keep giving the Yankees too much credit we fail to understand how far we have yet to go in spreading rational analysis.

The fact that the Yankees have, for the third straight offseason, failed to do anything to improve their defense, which has been a major cause for their postseason defeats since 2001, that they have been so adamant about improving their pitching the last two offseasons without even coming to grips with the simple concept that much of what is considered pitching is actually defense, it speaks volumes about how far they have to go. The fact that the Yankees are entrusting an important role -- that of the fourth outfielder -- to either Bubba Crosby or Doug Glanville -- shows how poorly this team is currently being run at the top. Throwing money at names is not a sign of intelligent management, that's the easy way to run a team. Intelligent management determines how much the players themselves are worth in dollars, and pays them appropriately. If those players can not be had at the appropriate price, then they find that production elsewhere.

If the A's were run like the Yankees they'd finish dead last, if the Yankees were run like the A's they still might not win in the postseason, but 100 wins would be the likely bottom of their potential. The best record in baseball would almost be assured every year.

Thank goodness the Yankees aren't run like the A's. As much as I love this team, I know that an unstoppable juggernaut would not be good for the game. Dynasties are good for a sport, but when there's almost no chance of an upset, it's gone too far.

And I know that a lot of people are starting to complain about the makeup of this Yankees team, that they're not the Yankees they fell in love with, the homegrown players are all veterans now, and all well-paid. The mercenaries don't seem to fit right in like Paul O'Neill and David Cone seemed to. The "something" that the '96-'01 Yanks had isn't there anymore.

Well, that's how it goes. The alternative, to be realistic, is to have a bad baseball team. The Yankees had to give up on some young talent to maximize their success in the late 90's, and at the same time, they couldn't afford to give some other guys time to get their feet wet at the expense of winning. When the window closed on that core of the 90's teams, the Yankees could either sink into mediocrity or bring in outsiders, and what team would choose to go backwards when they had the millions at their disposal that the Yankees did.

The crucial difference between this team and the mid-90's team is not the players, it's the expectation. Even a mercenary team in the mid-90's, built of comparable players to the ones they have today, would have brought a thrill that this team cannot possibly match, because back then it was new. Obviously the Yankees had won before, but they hadn't won recently, and until you see a team win a title, you don't completely expect it. With this team, you do expect it, and anything less than first place, anything less than a World title, is a disappointment. That's a terrible burden for a team to carry, and a huge loss for the fans, sort of the trade-off for winning titles.

Of course it's still lots of fun, winning always is. It just feels different than it once did.

* * *

I'm sure you've all seen "It's a Wonderful Life". For those of you that still haven't (hey, I never saw it until my early 20's), it's about a man named George Bailey who has passed up the chance for personal success several times to help the people around him in his lifetime, and when his absent-minded uncle misplaces George's business's money at the bank, he's completely ruined and on the verge of going to prison. His only remaining asset is a life insurance policy, making him worth more dead than alive. He resolves to kill himself and wishes he'd never been born, at which point an angel, Clarence, comes and shows him what the world would have been like had he never been born -- substantially worse for the people he knows and loves. He decides to not kill himself after all, and when he arrives home (and the police are there to arrest him), all the people in the town show up and give him all the money they can to help him, and he's not ruined after all. At movie's end, he recieves a card from Clarence, that says:
"Remember, George, no man is a failure who has friends."
It's been a tough month for me. I lost my home, got a new job and lost it (it was physical labor which I was simply incapable of doing satisfactorily), and have had more than my fair share of stress from my personal affairs. But I know that I have hundreds of friends, even though I've never met most of you.

I'm the richest man in town.