The Yankees, Hubris, and the Killing Joke

General manager Brian Cashman of the New York Yankees looks on during batting practice prior to the game against the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Brian Cashman has mocked the Gods of Baseball and the Joker, and now doom awaits. Maybe.

At the conclusion of "The Killing Joke," the classic Batman graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (spoilers) the Joker explains why his future holds nothing but more murder and mayhem:

See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum... and one night, one night they decide they don't like living in an asylum any more. They decide they're going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light... stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend didn't dare make the leap. Y'see... Y'see, he's afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea... He says "Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I'll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!" B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says... He says "Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You'd turn it off when I was half way across!

In trying to win with their bank account behind their backs, the Yankees have cut off their own flashlight. It's better to be lucky than good, goes the old saying. The Yankees haven't been good, which is to say smart, and they haven't been lucky either, they've just been expensive. General manager Brian Cashman has often mocked those who have worried about the team's age, but the reckoning is finally here, and if not now than in the spring.

For years, the Yankees chose to outspend their offseason mistakes, reloading in-season when necessary. Think back to 2000: the AL East had an off year. The Yankees won the division with a record of only 87-74 (.540), slipping in 2½ games ahead of the Red Sox. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams were great, but the rest of the offense was mediocre at best. The starting rotation was unremarkable except for Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. The bullpen was solid, but other than the usual excellence from Mariano Rivera and a solid set-up turn from Jeff Nelson, it was not a unit for the time capsule.

For neither the first nor the last time, Cashman acted to bring in high-salaried veterans at midseason, acquiring outfielders David Justice and Glenallen Hill and starting pitcher Denny Neagle in June and July. Neagle was a bust in pinstripes, but the hitters played some of the best baseball of their careers and proved to be decisive.

This year, with the team having the avowed goal of resetting the luxury tax's penalty clock, Cashman lacked the financial flexibility to import expensive players. Further hampered by a scouting crew and farm system that has been good at identifying pitchers but have found it seemingly abhorrent to deliver prospects to the majors (Cito Culver, Andrew Brackman, et al, thanks for the memories; good luck in the NFL, Brandon Weeden), he lacked the pile of prospects (among them Jackson Melian, Drew Henson, Ed Yarnall, Ricky Ledee, Jake Westbrook) at his disposal in 2000.

Instead, needing a boost, this year's team got the desiccated remains of Ichiro Suzuki, 38. Towards the end of his long life, at the age of 82, Groucho Marx toured with a one-man show. I well remember Rolling Stone's one-line review of the concert album: "A genius maligned, this." You can say the same of Ichiro in a Yankees uniform: a genius maligned, this.

For 40 games, a quarter of the season, the Yankees have been a losing team. From July 22 to present, the Yankees have gone 19-21. Back the calendar up to 50 games and they're 25-25. Go back another 10 games and they're 30-30. It is only when you go back further from there, to the club's torrid late-May/June stretch, during which they went 25-7, that you find the overall record is over .500. Before that, they were 21-21.

I know I'm playing with some fairly artificial markers here, but take another look:

Games

Days

Record

1-42

April 6-May 21

21-21

43-74

May 22-June 27

25-7

75-134

June 28-September 3

30-30

Interleague play was very, very good to the Yankees (they went 12-3), caught the A's and Rays before their second-half turnarounds, and played well against three AL Central opponents. Only the Angels held them at bay during this time. Then the Yankees slowly played their way back into early-season .500 form.

As the Red Sox and Phillies have demonstrated this year, a payroll and a winning track-record provide nothing in the way of guarantees. Teams do get old, sometimes right in the middle of a season, though the Yankees' fall-off is in no way that much of a surprise. Curtis Granderson's transformation into Hank Aaron at 30 turns out to be impermanent? Mark Teixeira disappointing at 32? Well, he'd been declining for years. A-Rod falling off at 36? Andruw Jones slumping event against lefties at 35? Raul Ibanez about the same as he was last year at 40? What else did you expect? Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, both 40-something, on the DL? Sure, they were fluke injuries they received, but there was a good chance they wouldn't have stayed healthy anyway. Those weren't bad breaks, that's the nature of being 40-something (trust me).

If Derek Jeter has the best year ever by a 38-year-old shortstop since Honus Wagner, if Eric Chavez crawls out of the infirmary and revises his career, if Hiroki Kuroda does better than an aging pitcher coming over from the NL might be expected to, you're lucky, not good. Someone up there loves you. Don't ask Him to provide for the rest of the roster; that would be hubris. Yes, Brett Gardner. Yes, Michael Pineda. The Great God Abner giveth and he taketh away. You've been more than fairly compensated.

As the 2000 Yankees showed, sometimes even a mediocre team can win the World Series. The Yankees could easily shrug off their current doldrums, flick Mr. Oriole off their shoulder (Zip-a-dee-thwack!) and romp through the postseason. They had one fluke month this season, they can surely have another. There is legitimate reason to be fearful, though, and it's not just for this fall, but for next season. The Yankees aren't spending, but there isn't much on the coming free agent market to spend on even if they did, their best pitching prospects have gone backwards, there are no ready position players in the system. The last time Cashman was in this position, he signed Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright.

After all, a guy's gotta sign something.

The gods have been angered. The flashlight is off. Free-fall to follow, exact timing TBD.

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