The Yankees remind me of a furniture store in my neighborhood when I was growing up that posted "Going out of business sale!" signs on all its windows. They were still there, as was the store, five years later. Apparently they were truly in the process of going out of business. Very, very slowly. This year's Yankees have been like that. From ownership's offseason austerity pledge to the endless elegy for Rivera, the team's 2013 focus has been on anything but winning, and the club's frantic, helter-skelter patching with players from Vernon Wells to Lyle Overbay to David Huff represents the spasmodic twitching of an organism that has been given a cognitively dissonant imperative to win and economize in the absence of quality young players.
With Mariano Rivera's retirement ceremony on Sunday and Andy Pettitte announcing Retirement II, there has been much talk of an era ending. Typically, such labels are overblown, and even in the case of these venerable Yankees lacks nuance -- though a few players have spanned a good chunk of the years from the late 1990s to the present, the period is not of one piece. You can draw a line after 2001, when Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius retired, and another after 2003, when another World Series was lost and four-fifths of the rotation left, giving way to Javier Vazquez, Jon Lieber, and Kevin Brown in a moment not unlike the original cast of "Saturday Night Live" departing to be replaced by the likes of Denny Dillon, Gilbert Gottfried, and Charles Rocket.
And yet, when it comes to a select group of Yankees now fading from the scene, the "end of an era" rubric might have some truth to it -- it's just a few years too late.
Pettitte, Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada made their major-league debuts with the 1995 Yankees. Eighteen years later, three of the four are still on the major league scene with their original club. The more one thinks about that, the more unlikely, or even downright impossible, it seems. Eighteen years is forever in the life of a ballclub, or even a nation. Eighteen years ago, Bill Clinton was President and Barack Obama was a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, Mexico needed bailing out rather than Detroit, Yahoo was a start-up, O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder, and a Republican Congress shut down the government for the first time. Eighteen years ago, the Twin Towers were still standing.
Given how rapidly things have evolved (or, in some cases, stayed violently the same), the longevity of these players is hard to absorb. Go back just half that distance and look at the most valuable players in the majors in 2004. The list includes Mets would have any players in common with the 1968 Mets? With Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan still on the scene it was possible, but it didn't happen. The great 1998 Yankees shared no players with their unjustly forgotten 1980 forebears, an edition that won 103 games. The closest they came was a tenuous connection with that team's first baseman Bob Watson, who had been deposed as general manager that February., , , , , , and Orlando Hudson. Think of 18 years in the life of any ballclub. How likely does it seem, to name one example, that the 1986
Eighteen years before Babe Ruth became a Yankee, there were no Yankees; the franchise was then playing as the Baltimore Orioles under John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson.
We could keep going: Wouldn't it have been poignant if the 2004 Red Sox who broke the so-called Curse of the Bambino had shared a player or three with the 1986 team that lost to the aforementioned Mets? Again, it could have happened -- Roger Clemens was pitching for Houston that year -- but the youngest position player on that team, Mike Greenwell, had been retired for eight years by the time the Red Sox broke through.
Jeter may yet stretch things to a 19th season with the same club, which will start him pushing into Stan Musial, who was with the Cardinals for 22 years aside from a one-year hiatus for service in World War II. He was the first baseman on the 1946 champions and missed by one year also playing on the 1964 sequel. He was a grandfather and couldn't hit anymore, so it was perhaps better that the Cards did without that lifeline to the past. It certainly profited the Reds little to have links to the 1960s and early 1970s such as Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Dave Concepcion still plugging away in the mid-'80s, when they had four straight second-place finishes. In 1986, Reds' first basemen (primarily Rose, Perez, and Nick Esasky) hit .233/.323/.347, the worst mark in the National League. Rose got to extend his record, and Reds fans got a daily Old Timer's Day, but they didn't get any postseason action until all the remnants of the Big Red Machine were swept away.
Mariano Rivera and one of those Steinbrenner guys. (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)
Pettitte has finished strongly, as if imminent retirement has focused him to a savage new intensity, but his strikeout rate has continued to fall nonetheless. As good as Rivera has been this year, he hasn't been himself. His strikeout rate is down, his home-run rate is tied for the worst of his career -- he's allowed more long balls in 62⅔ innings this year than he did in his last three seasons combined, a span of 134 games and 129⅔ innings. He'll retire just in time for him to get old. Jeter won't, unfortunately. Like Rose, he's going to leave kicking and screaming.
In short, the supposedly unsentimental Yankees have taken a strongly sentimental fealty to a glorious past and run about as far as they can with it, which is to say all the way to 80-some wins and a probable finish out of the postseason. They've been so focused on getting every last ounce of value from the dregs of the Joe Torre years that they've continually botched finding the next generation of stars, the players who will be the subject of the next grand send-off now that Rivera's is over -- the one after Jeter's, which might in fact be one send-off too many. Rather than emphasize winning, there will just be more tearful goodbyes, singing "Auld Lang Syne," and selling lots and lots of T-shirts. It's an easier way to sell tickets than being competitive, but you can do it for only so long before it, like the players, gets old. As it turns out, the real last hurrah was in 2009.
Given that the Yankees have yet to acquire those quality young players, given that Jeter will attempt to come back, 2014 promises to be more of the same: another greatest-hits tour by an artist grown creatively inert. Yes, yes, an era is over. Good. It should have ended long ago. Eighteen years is forever in baseball terms. For god's sake, turn the page already.