October 9, 2009

In the Game: The Evil Empire strikes back

They’re like the Los Angeles Lakers or Pittsburgh Steelers, except much, much more. They boast a singular stranglehold on the Northeastern sports landscape, with a following that extends beyond the United States into, most notably, Latin America and Asia. Their power to polarize rivals that of mass political movements. Whether you call them the Bronx Bombers or the Bronx Zoo, the Pinstripes or the Evil Empire, you either love to hate them, or you pledge your year-round, whole-hearted, quasi-religious devotion to their cause: There simply is no in-between…and they know it.

These are the New York Yankees, baseball’s belovedly bemoaned, once more surging to the top of a mountain they’ve climbed many times before, the chase for the World Series. Entering Wednesday’s first-round playoff with the Twins, they boasted the top seed in the majors, by virtue of amassing the best record in baseball, and a swagger reminiscent of their 2000-stride. It has been nine years since they won that crown—an unbearable nine years for a starved New York fan base and a dictatorial team owner.

First, it was the heart-wrenching, walk-off upset in game seven of the championship round against a worthy Diamondback squad. Then it was the six-game shocker versus the young, small-market Marlins. And in 2004, marking the single greatest meltdown in sports history, it was the horrid loss to the nemesis Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, dropping four straight to the eventual champs after leading 3–0 in the series. Finally, in an all-time low of lows, 2008 had the team missing the postseason for the first time in 14 years, ousted by the Sox once again.

The decade of blunders is made all the worse by the team’s winning history, unrivaled in North American sports: The Yankees have won 26 titles in 39 championship appearances, more than double the total of the second-place Cardinals (10). The franchise’s leading man, owner George Steinbrenner, shelled out an estimated $1.8 billion in team payroll over the past nine years, acting under the “win-at-all-costs” philosophy that the team has seemingly patented.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that in returning to postseason play and dominating 2009 competition, the Yankees are favored to win it all because they have everything going for them. For starters, they dusted off AL East competition in impressive fashion, running away with the toughest division while going 9–1 in their final 10 meetings with the hated Sox.

Consider too that New York led the league in runs scored, home runs, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, extra-base hits, walks, team ERA, and second-half ERA, as concrete as any sports statistics can get. They seem to have no weaknesses, averaging almost the same number of runs at home (5.7) as on the road (5.6), while punishing both left-handed and right-handed pitchers at the same rate.

In 2009, they gutted out 15 walk-off victories, second in the franchise’s illustrious history, while crushing the league’s bottom four teams (29–12) and handling baseball’s big boys too (27–17 against the Sox, Tigers, Twins, Angels, and Phillies). Their roster reads like a cross between an All-Star lineup and a Hall of Fame induction ceremony, boasting proven talent and veteran experience.

In projecting the team’s playoff showing, it is important to look beyond baseball’s highest payroll, gaudy regular season statistics, and roster brilliance to get at the only palpable uncertainty in the team’s quest for the crown. The Yankee pitching staff, headlined by the off-season’s most prized free-agent gem Sabathia, frightened opposing hitters all season. Yet these are the playoffs, prone to revealing chinks in every armor: Sabathia’s horrid 2–3 postseason record (7.92 ERA) prior to Wednesday’s win at home, Burnett’s shakiness down the stretch, Chamberlain’s unpredictability, and Pettitte’s age.

At the plate, the aforementioned Rodriguez, who only hit 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in a subpar 2009 season (by his lofty standard), has been a postseason question mark throughout his career. While his .152 batting playoff batting average since 2004 is real, so is his promising Wednesday showing, going 2–4 while driving in two runs against the Twins.

It is rarely appropriate to crown a champion before competition has ended. October baseball, especially, has a way of upending meaningless, premature speculation. And yet, the 2009 Yankees are undeniably compelling, and the World Series seems to be their’s to lose. The sports gods must always, in due time, restore order, regardless of the fairness of that order. After a decade-long championship drought, the Evil Empire is set to rule once again.