The good fortune of the Yankees (no, the other ones)

Al Bello

With every season without a Yankees championship, it's a little easier to appreciate how silly it was for the Yankees to win it almost every year.

Around the turn of the millennium, the idea of parity in baseball was a big deal. Bob Costas wrote a bestseller on the premise that small-market teams couldn't compete. There used to be massive, nasty debates about the need for a salary cap in baseball. You'll still see them pop up every now and again, but back in the day it was one of the hottest topics in the land.

There were a lot of reasons for the perceived lack of parity back then. It was the post-strike era, and the idea of a salary cap didn't seem far-fetched. There were a lot of teams still waiting for their slice of the stadium boom. The Internet money wasn't shooting into the air as if from a broken fire hydrant, and mega cable deals weren't the norm.

But there was one really, really big reason for the perceived lack of parity:

Year Finish Playoffs
2000 1st of 5 Won WS (4-1)
1999 1st of 5 Won WS (4-0)
1998 1st of 5 Won WS (4-0)
1997 2nd of 5 Lost LDS (3-2)
1996 1st of 5 Won WS (4-2)

That's what the Yankees did for five years. The Wild Card was just a year old when the Yankees started that quaint little stretch, so no one really paid attention to it. The Marlins won it all in 1997 as a Wild Card. But that was a fluke, right? Everyone knew the Yankees were going to win the World Series every year. Because they just about did.

As a nascent baseball nerd, I knew there was a problem with that thinking. I knew about small samples and short series, and I knew that there was no way a team could be so good that they'd win the World Series every year.

And then the Yankees would win the World Series again.

It was ludicrous to think that in three separate series, each against teams of comparable talent, the Yankees could win the World Series every year because they were clearly more talented, or they had the Eye of the Yankee, or whatever in the hell reason people were giving.

And then the Yankees would win the World Series again.

The most-cited reason for the Yankees' run, of course, was money. But that might be revisionist history. In 1998, for example, the Yankees didn't have the highest payroll in baseball. They had one of the greatest teams of the modern era, but they had the second-highest payroll. Even that is overstating it, though; the Yankees' payroll was $65.6 million that year, and there were plenty of teams in spitting distance, including the Indians, Padres, and Braves.

It wasn't until 2003 that Yankee spending took off and left the rest of baseball in the dust. Still, that narrative was strong in the late '90s. The Yankees were rich. The Yankees could buy all the good players. The Yankees would win the World Series every season. And then the Yankees would win the World Series again.

We're more than a decade removed from that run. And the Yankees do have another championship since 2000, so it's not like they're working on some decades-long drought. But every time the Yankees lose in the postseason, it should make everyone look at the stretch from 1996 through 2000 and think something like, Hot damn, what was that all about? How was that possible? How did that happen?

Yeah, it happened because the Yankees had good players, and, sure, a good portion of that was because they could pay to dollar for free agents. But it was more than that. It was a confluence of talent and circumstance, of luck and skill. That's all the playoffs are. But the good things kept happening to the same team, over and over again.

It was flukey. We can say that now. Every team in the playoffs is talented. But the team that wins the World Series is often simply a talented team with the most good fortune. The 2000 Yankees won 87 games -- the 10th-best total in baseball. But, well, Gil Heredia didn't have a good outing for the A's in that Game 5, and Arthur Rhodes kind of wet the bed in the ALCS, and that set it up for Jose Vizcaino to hit a walk-off single in Game 1 of the World Series.

Those are just three random names -- you can mix and match for whichever season you like. But it isn't always a matter of the best players making the most money. It isn't often a matter of the best players making the most money.

It's easier to appreciate now. Sometimes the good players don't hit in the playoffs. Sometimes the good pitchers don't have good outings. Sometimes there are injuries, and then there are injuries piled upon other injuries. All of that happened to the Yankees this year. Some combination of that has ended 11 of the Yankees' last 12 seasons.

And that makes the stretch of four championships in five seasons that much more impressive. It's not something we're going to see again in the Wild Card era. It just doesn't happen. There are too many rounds, too many teams, and too many chances to get tripped up by the randomness of a short series.

Every time the Yankees get bounced from the playoffs -- or the Rangers, or Phillies, or whichever powerhouse team is supposed to blow through the postseason -- you can laugh at the Goliath going down. That's your right, as a fan of one of the 29 other teams.

But it's also a good time to look back at the Yankees from 1996 through 2000 and be just a little more amazed. That was more amazing than we could have appreciated at the time. Annoying to most of us! But still amazing.

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