The late George Steinbrenner once said Americans generally fall into two categories — the half that pulls for the New York Yankees and “the half that hates us with a passion.”
If so, the hateful half seems to be near the dawn of a period of happiness, perhaps prolonged happiness.
Sport’s most famous franchise ended its 2012 season on Oct. 18 in such a funk that it’s difficult to imagine a quick recovery is possible.
In a matter of mere days, the Yanks went from being the favorite to win their 41st American League championship and World Series berth to taking on the look of an old, odd, fragmented collection of expensive spare parts.
An unprecedented team batting slump and a deflating injury to team captain Derek Jeter (broken left ankle) combined to reduce the mighty, monolithic Yankees to a post-season piñata for the Detroit Tigers.
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In the midst of a 4-0 series sweep by the Tigers, New York manager Joe Girardi took the radical action of benching former superstar Alex Rodriguez, who at age 37 no longer scares opposing pitchers.
Jeter, 38, had a remarkable regular season and likely will be back on the team’s roster in 2013.
But beyond Jeter, 29-year-old second baseman Robinson Cano and hulking left-handed pitching ace CC Sabathia (32), there are few predictable personnel givens ahead.
The flamboyant but rash Steinbrenner died in 2010 at the age of 80 and had been essentially inactive in the club’s front office network since 2006.
His decision to purchase the team in 1973 for the price of $8.1 million no doubt saved the brand and possibly Major League Baseball itself.
But these are no longer The Boss’ Bombers.
The people in charge of fixing this Yankee problem are his sons and daughters, team president Randy Levine and general manager Brian Cashman.
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On paper, the Yanks still have a number of talented players who should have several productive seasons ahead.
That cluster is led by the usually prolific Cano and includes first baseman Mark Teixeira (age 32), outfielder Curtis Granderson (31) and versatile outfielder Nick Swisher (31).
And it’s important to keep in mind that the team won 95 regular-season games and the American League East title even without the game’s all-time top relief pitcher, 42-year-old Mariano Rivera who suffered a season-ending knee injury in early May.
But there have been clearly marked moments of change throughout the Yankees’ history and the collapse against Detroit almost certainly is the latest. It’s also the first since Steinbrenner’s death, thereby making it the most pivotal.
Dating back the ‘70s, the Yankees have been built and rebuilt through expensive free agent hires. The team’s minor league farm system hasn’t been especially productive for several years, primarily because top young prospects routinely are traded and/or sold to help finance the frequents trips to the free agent buffet.
Entering this off-season, the Yanks are on the annual hook for $30 million to Rodriguez, $24 million to Sabathia, $7.5 million to catcher Russell Martin, $23 million to Teixeira and $11 million to Granderson, all of whom began with other teams.
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It’s all but certain that the Yanks will have trade but still pay millions to move Rodriguez and possibly Teixeira.
It’s also near certain the Yanks are going to have to change a substantial part of the Steinbrenner free agent strategy.
For one thing, the free agent is getting prohibitively expensive, even for the Yanks.
But the sobering lesson of the 2012 post-season is that New York bought too many hitters who are incapable of delivering against the sort of high-quality pitching staffs normally seen in the playoffs.
Baseball’s crackdown on steroid use obviously has created a resurgence of emphasis on pitching. The day is gone when 40 home run hitters are commonplace and in that respect, the Yanks are behind the curve for once.
The team’s personality and playing style is going to have to change. The process will be painful and awkward.
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Mickey Mantle, the star hitter, was 32 years old in 1964 when he played in his last World Series.
Mantle’s Yankee teammates that season included pitcher Whitey Ford (35), outfielder Roger Maris (29), second baseman Bobby Richardson (28), shortstop Tony Kubek (28), third baseman Clete Boyer (27), catcher Elston Howard (35), outfielder Tom Tresh (25), first baseman Joe Pepitone (23) and pitchers Jim Bouton (25), Al Downing (23), Ralph Terry (28) and Mel Stottlemyre (22).
Even after the ’64 team lost the Series to St. Louis, it was generally assumed the Yanks would continue to dominate the sport for years. Then, the ’65 team went 77-85.
“We were a young team that played like we were old. Really old,” Mantle reflected a few years after his eventual retirement in 1969.
“It was like we were a bunch of hungry young guys in 1964 and then turned into a bunch of old, slow, beat-up guys in 1965. No one saw it coming.”
The next Series trip for the team after 1964? It was 1976, three years after Steinbrenner took over — a 12-year drought.
In this era, the Yanks last reached the Series 2009. Odds are they’ll be back in the Series before 2021, but it’s hardly a lock.
Sweeping makeovers aren’t easy in baseball. The Yanks may be the kings of their domain, but even kings can have royal slumps.