Tuesday, October 9, 2007

THE GOLDEN AGE OF JOE

"The past is never dead. It's not even past." --William Faulkner

Twelve years of stability, prosperity, and concord. Twelve years of optimism, pride and grandeur. Twelve years of regular season excellence and post-season drama. Twelve years in which excitement reigned on the field and normalcy prevailed in the clubhouse. Twelve years in which Yankee fans could delude themselves that the insanity, the meddling, the bluster and the farce that characterized the Dark Ages had faded forever into oblivion.

How easily we deceive ourselves! A few inopportune and gratuitous threats in the newspaper. Unrealistic expectations. Misdirected blame. Ingratitude, pettiness, and churlishness abounding. A dangling, scapegoated manager. Lust for, and flirtation with, the latest glamorous name......

And in a blink of the eye, memories of the dark, ignoble past come flooding back: the 13 years without a playoff birth; the six consecutive seasons of 4th place or worse finishes; the annual clubhouse turmoil and the revolving managerial door.

In case you didn't live through, or conveniently have forgotten, the decade B.T.E (Before the Torre Era), let me refresh your recollection. The Before Torre Era was the worst of times.

It was the epoch of dugout altercations and barroom brawls and front-office vendettas. It was the age of the three-ring media circus. Managers criticized players in the press, players publicly villified the front-office, the front-office decried ownership, and ownership reviled just about everyone. (One time, even going so far as to hire felons to besmirch a player's reputation and to sully his name.)

It was the period when ownership drove away Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, Goose Gossage, Mickey Rivers and countless other players responsible for World Series championships. It was the span when baseball GM's could exploit the Madness of King George to bilk the Yankees of Al Leiter for Jesse Barfield, Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps, Doug Drabek for Rick Rhoden, and an entire farm-system for Rickie Henderson. It was the years when The Boss would banish a callow shortstop to AAA for an untimely error. It was the Springs of Andy Hawkins, Dennis Rasmussen, and Ed Whiston. It was the Summers of Dallas Green, Bucky Dent, and Stump Merrill. It was the Winters, cold, bleak, and stove-less when incumbent players fled, Yankee Greats were estranged, and free-agents shunned New York.

The dark tyrannous pall over Yankeeland only began to lift when in 6 B.T.E., Commisioner Fay Vincent exiled King George.

For in the ensuing three years Gene Michael managed to re-build the Yankees foundation by drafting Derek Jeter, signing Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, acquiring Paul O'Neil, and refusing to trade Bernie Williams.

Alas, the reprieve wasn't to last. Vincent allowed King George to resume the throne. And soon enough tyrrany, madness, and fiat reigned yet again as King George, in spite of the Yankees' first playoff birth in fourteen years, dismissed the two architects responsible.

Only this time just when King George appeared poised to cast the Yankees yet again into perdition, the Baseball Gods, working in their ever mysterious and unfathomable ways, decided to favor the Bronx with an unexpected and unearned gift. Out of Hannibal Mo (or St. Louis, anyway), they brought the Damned Yankees "Clueless Joe"-- the ominous New York Post headline that fate would charge with a rich, mordant irony which only years later would Yankees fans fully appreciate.

Because just as the mythic "Shoeless Joe" would damn the Yankees, the real-life "Clueless Joe" would redeem them and usher in The Yankees Renaissance. A Golden Era dawned, reminiscent of the 1950's when Pinstripes ruled. And over the succeding twelve years, the Dark Ages indeed receded into oblivion. Or so we thought.

No, of course, Joe wasn't alone, or perhaps even preponderantly, responsible for it. After all, he inherited the foundation Gene Michael built, Bob Watson refurbished, and Brian Cashman solidified.

However, it was through Joe's stewardship, the Yankees won with those players, and won and won and won: four World Series rings in six years, six AL pennants in nine years, and ten AL East division titles in twelve, and finally, an unprecedented twelve consecutive post-season births.

But more importantly, Joe stamped the franchise with his personality. He imparted his patience, his maganimity, his sang-froid. He restored to the Yankees the class, the nobility, the dignity Joe DiMaggio once symbolized and King George, long ago, had squandered. Even its fiercest rivals begrudgingly respected and admired the team in the Bronx.

How could they not? Their stars no longer publicly feuded, brawled in bars, or taunted each other in the press. Manager and GM no longer blamed each other for losses. Tampa and New York's antagonistic factions maintained an uneasy but workable detente. In the clubhouse, an esprit de corps reigned that enabled the team to absorb malcontents, misfits, and libertines and still manage to harness their talent. Indeed, Torre inspired such loyalty and affection in his players that free-agents not only wanted to play in New York again but specifically for its manager himself, with Joe often sealing the deal with a well-placed recruiting call.

And then of course the team won and won and won. Which really is the only reason why Torre remained long enough to carve out the first and only autonomous fiefdom in the history of King George's reign. Winning had granted the vassal power, prestige, influence-- the unbridled love and adulation of the people-- that the King couldn't deny. Albeit, througout, he resented it.

You see, a tyrrant can compel the people's respect. He can purchase their allegiance. He can even, through success occasionally, earn their admiration. But he never can win their love. And he fears and loathes anyone who can.

Thus the reason why Steinbrenner, for years, has yearned for the occasion to sack Torre. Torre's popularity threatens King George's unbridled hold on power. Were it not for the people's outcry and for the public backlash every tyrrant most fears, King George would have dispatched his imagined rival long ago.

Alas, now with Torre's contract expiring and the Yankees having lost three straight divisional series, it appears King George has seen his best opportunity. And so, the King has retired to his Tampa castle to convene with his advisors and evidently, to name a new vassal to manage the Empire.

Meanwhile, the King basks in the reclaimed limelight. He feeds the speculation; he prolongs the agonizing Limbo. The Sword of Damocles hangs over Joe's head and King George cherishes the moment. The vassal's anguishing wait to learn of his fate and the people's clamor to hear it confirms for the King that he still wears the Crown.

True, only time will tell if the King casts Yankeeland back into the Dark Ages. But the omens of the past-- the public ultimatums, the leaked reports, the tacit and unwarranted blame of his manager, the seeming indifference to public opinion or player sentiment, the intimations of wholesale dismissals -- thus far bode ill.

Torre's presence might not have been able to advance the Yankees past the last three divisional series because his management couldn't overcome wretched starting pitching that over the last seventeen post-season games has plagued the team. A period during which Yankee starters have gone 2-8 with a 6.36 ERA, and in elimination games since Game 7 of the '04 ALCS, are 0-4 with 12.22 ERA, averaging 2.8 innings per start. (See also "How to Fix the Yankees", Pitching, Pitching, Pitching: Why the Yankees Lost, August Archive)

No, Torre's presence might not secure for the Yankees a championship over the next few years. His absence, however, could very well prevent them from contending for one anytime soon.

And lest you think progress is inevitable and a return to the Dark Ages impossible, consider that how King George treats Joe and who he selects to manage will weigh heavily in whether four cornerstone players, Posada, Rivera, Pettitte, and A-Rod, return. Cornerstones the Empire cannot and will not rise again without. For however much promise a rotation of Joba, Hughes, Wang and IPK holds for advancing in October, lose any one of the Four Pillars and the Yankees risk not even qualifying for the tournament. Lose two or more and the Empire's foundation might not simply teeter, it might very well crumble. And in the ensuing chaos, another Dark Age could loom.

So you Yankee fans clamoring for a new manager, heed the past or one day you may awaken to a new Dark Age that you yourself have invited and discover yourself lamenting your ingratitude and yearning for the Golden Age of Joe.

6 comments:

Milton said...

Excellent article. I'm glad Adam sent me the link. I check it every week in hopes that a you'll have a new post up.

Milton

Matthew S Schweber said...

Thanks Milton. I also hope to post my annual "Why the Yankees Lost" analysis sometime in the week.

Rebecca said...

That was a brilliant post.

I'm too young to have known a manager other than Joe Torre, having only started following the Yankees at 10, in 1996, but I love history and I'm well aware that the Torre era is one of the best in Yankees history.

Just wish that so many others of my generation could see it the same way...

Wolf In Pinstripes said...

Matthew - if I hadn't seen the link that was put up at Pete Abe's Lohud Blog, I would have never gotten the chance to read such a wonderful piece of writing. It was a tremendous read - especially for one who knows all too well what you are talking about. I started following the Yanks as a kid in Jersey during the early 70's, enjoyed the success of 77/78, endured the horrible 80's, and then rejoiced when the organization turned around and was reborn in the 90's.

Your blog has been added to my must-read list and will be linked to from my own site. Thanks again for the excellent synopsis.

Danny said...

I came across your blog from PeteAbe's as well. That was really an amazing piece of writing, really well thought out. I have lived through all you have talked about being a Yankee fan since the 70's. I do think Torre will come back for another year or two, I also think Gene Michael will set George straight. Looking forward to your next post.

Matthew S Schweber said...

Thank you all for the comments and the praise. I welcome all of you to include me in your blog rolls and/or to disseminate the site's address.

I doubt fan's opinions have any direct influence on the Yankee hierarchy, but the little Steinbrenners, it appears, fear public opprobrium much more than their father ever did.

I'll try to post once a week during the next month or so as the Yankees' off-season drama unfolds.

Look for my next two posts in the forthcoming weeks. I plan one titled "Scapegoating Torre: Why the Yankees Didn't Lose" followed by another the following week titled "Pitching, Pitching, Pitching: Why the Yankees Did Lose."