By Neil S. Friedman
Genuine Yankee Fans Knew April Was Just An Anomaly
A week ago the New York Yankees defeated their archrivals, the Boston Red Sox, in a baseball game as exciting as you’re ever gonna see. It was particularly enjoyable for Yankee fans since the Bronx Bombers came out on the winning end, 5-4, of the 13-inning thriller that capped a three-game sweep of the Beantown Bunglers.
Despite being swept by their cross-town rivals the New York Mets — in the most anti-climactic Subway Series to date — last weekend, there’s still lots to be joyful about in Yankeeland. With the All-Star break, which traditionally marks the halfway point of the baseball season, looming, the Yankees own the best record in baseball. (Depending on how they fare this weekend that could still be the case come Monday.)
Losing three straight to the Mets was disappointing (diehards fans always deem losses to the Mets unacceptable), but the blow was tempered by the still fresh memory of last week’s victories against the more despised Bosox. That three-game series surely left the Yankees a bit depleted. Nonetheless, that’s a poor excuse for multimillionaire athletes.
It’s been a striking turnaround for last year’s American League champs, who just two and a half months ago seemed to be floundering after losing six of seven games to Boston in April. Fair-weather Yankee fans, devout Yankee haters and sports commentators lamented how shameful it was for a team with a nearly $200 million payroll to be playing so badly. Even Charles Rogers, editor of this newspaper and a Yankee fan, wrote in his April 29 column, "The Yankees stink!" For crissakes, it was ONLY April.
Remember, the Yankees began the season in Japan in late March against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Three weeks of jet lag was no excuse for poor performing, but it obviously had a lingering negative affect on the Yankees.
You can bet those fans that bemoaned their beloved Yankees then are now adamantly disavowing that assessment. Since that dreadful month, and after being swept by Boston in late April, the Yankees went on a tear, averaging more than five runs per game and dominating the American League.
In between the April and June series, the Yankees were 40-15 while the Red Sox barely played .500 ball at 30-27. When the deflated Red Sox left town last week they were 6 1/2 games behind the Yankees. Even after the Subway Series losses, the Yankees added another notch to their lead as Boston lost two of three to Atlanta. Sorta looks like Boston’s customary summer swoon is beginning earlier than usual.
But, as Yankee great Yogi Berra once said, "It ain’t over ‘til it’s over."
With half a season remaining, the Yankees face a few obstacles before the end of the regular season. Foremost is the aging, aching, veteran starting pitching staff, which has fared well mainly due to a mostly reliable, but overworked, bullpen. The starting rotation was suspect and lame as the season began. Now that the season is half over, the Yankees may still need another strong arm or a rehabilitated, resurgent staff to assure another World Series appearance.
Yankee bats have come alive since the Boston sweep. Back in April several Yankees were barely hitting their weight. Criticism of rookie batting coach and Yankee lifer Don Mattingly was scant — and rightly so. Mattingly was just beginning his coaching career and adjusting to the new job as much as veterans and new Yankees were adjusting to him and the new surroundings. The beloved former captain now deserves some credit for marked improvements of several players’ averages.
When the Yanks beat the Sox in the dramatic final game last week, it wasn’t even their top players who provided the winning heroics. It was a couple of benchwarmers — back-up catcher Mike Flaherty and utility infielder Miguel Cairo. Heck, their combined salaries are minuscule compared to most of their teammates, but they came through when called upon.
Captain Derek Jeter, the team’s primary cheerleader, a career .300 hitter, was hitting under .200 and every baseball armchair analyst had an explanation. As of Wednesday, his average had risen almost ninety points since early May. Jeter loyalists knew his hitting would gradually come around. Even though the worst days of his batting slump, Jeter’s fielding was as steady and stellar as always.
Jeter showed what a truly outstanding player he is in the 12th inning of the final game in the Boston series when his momentum, following a spectacular running catch, forced him to dive head first into the stands, sacrificing his body for what he knew was a decisive, game-saving out that left him with a black eye, a swollen face and seven stitches in his chin. The All-Star shortstop was back in the lineup the next night at Shea Stadium. That’s a ball player! Let’s see Boston’s periodically nonchalant, $20 million-a-year Manny Ramirez even come close to that kind of hustle!
There’s less than three months left until the playoffs begin and it’s almost certain the Yankees will be in the post-season for the tenth consecutive year. Whether they win another World Series is no guarantee, but one thing’s for sure, this Yankee team has been playing — and winning — like it oughta.