For me however the defining moment of recent Yankees history, the watershed that heralded all the malaise to follow, and underscored the singular, overriding deficiency that has plagued this ball club ever since is Johnny Damon's grand slam. Not good, clean-shaven, Johnny Yank. No, heaven's forbid, not him. The other Johnny Damon, I mean. The evil double with the full, unkempt, beard; the long flowing locks; and the scarlet letter on his head-- Johnny Reb.
The moment's significance for our purposes, of course, arises not from whom hit the ball anyway but rather from whom pitched it. Or more accurately, the two starters who threw that ill-fated day in immediate succession-- the one who pitched Johnny Reb's coup de grace and his predecessor, the one who tossed Osama Bin Papi's bomb one frame earlier. In case you've forgotten their identities, the pitchers of that Game-- the game that is taboo, the game about which we shall not speak, the Game of Infamy--- were Kevin ("Harper's Ferry") Brown and Javier ("I'm Your Daddy") Vasquez.
Yes but, you object, how is that possible? After all, "Vasquez didn't return in 2005 and Kevin Brown retired that year mid-season." Indeed. They did. But Vasquez and Brown begat Cursed Carl and the Wall Unit and the scourge that afflicts them still.
In the off-season following That Game, the reeling, dejected Yankees, you will recall, traded Vasquez for the Wall Unit, and signed Carl "The Curse" Pavano to a four year $40 million dollar contract. An expenditure that, for the Yankees, has become synonymous with Ronald Reagan's three favorite words about government largesse, "waste, fraud, and abuse."
Indeed, when his expires at the end of 2008, Carl Pavano's total number of starts over four years, 19, will furnish the word futility new dramatic illustration in Yankee lore aside Ed Whitson, Britt Burns, and Pascual Perez.
To place the Pavano boondoggle in a modern perspective, compare him with another notable free-agent signings that followed in That Game's wake. While the New York Yankees signed 29-year old Carl Pavano for 4 years and $40 million dollars, the Los Angeles Dodgers, following That Game, signed That Game's winning pitcher, 31-year-old Derek Lowe, for 4 years and $36 million. The comparison: since 2005, Carl Pavano has started 19 games and thrown 111.3 inning and made 19 starts; Derek Lowe has started 109 games and thrown 673.6 innings.
Now, understood literally, curses and hexes are superstitious twaddle fit for guilt-ridden, Puritan Nation and fodder for a vacuous, sensationalist media. Yankees fans don't believe in curses. So allow me this exercise instead in ominous coincidences and contagions.
Since signing Carl Pavano on December 20, 2005, key Yankees players seem to have suffered an aberrant rash of serious injuries-- serious, defined as sidelining a player for 4 weeks or more-over the last three-plus seasons. To recount,
- Accursed Carl, 07/07/05, rotator cuff, DL- duration of season
- Jared Wright, 04/24/05, shoulder injury, DL-- 4 months
- Wang, 07/14/05, shoulder tendinitis, DL-- 2 months
- Kevin Brown, 06/16/05, 07/28/05, back, DL-- forever
- Accursed Carl, 04/01/06, back, tuchus, forearm, shoulder, ribs, DL-- entire season
- Gary Sheffield, 04/30/06, wrist, DL- 5 months
- Hideki Matusi, 05/11/06, wrist, DL- 4 months
- Mariano Rivera, 08/31/06, elbow/forearm, DL 1 month
- Tanyon Sturtze, 05/19/06, rotator cuff, DL- season
- Cory Lidle, 10/12/06- RIP
Total Number of Starters Used for 2006 = 12
- Accursed Carl, 04/13/07, forearm, DL--season
- Jeff Karstens, 04/29/07, leg, DL-- 3.5 months
- Phil Hughes, 05/01/07, hamstring, DL-- 3 months
- Daryl Rasner, 05/20/07, finger, DL -- season
- Clemens, 09/03/07, elbow, DL- 1 month
- Jason Giambi, 05/29/07, foot, DL- 2.5 months
- Minky, 06/03/07, wrist-- 3 months
- Phillips, 09/03/07 wrist-- 1 month
Total Number of Starters Used Through 2007 season = 14
- Accursed Carl, 04/13/07- forearm, DL- season
- Jorge Posada, 04/27/08- shoulder, DL- 1 month or more
- Phil Hughes, 05/01/08- ribs, DL - 6 to 8 weeks
POST-TRAUMATIC PAVANO DISORDER
I don't cite the above list, of course, to ascribe to Carl Pavano some nefarious supernatural power to afflict other players with his tender constitution and susceptibility to injury or to blame him for the remarkably high number of starting pitcher the Yankees have had to resort to the last three seasons. (Although I do often wonder whether a sudden rash of injuries can beset a team because the outbreak can make healthy players anxious, self-conscious, or taut and therefore more injury-prone or alternatively, propels them to be inordinately aggressive in running bases, chasing hits, or throwing ball, to compensate for another teammate's lost productivity.)
No, the Pavano Plague has been as its most pernicious not in afflicting Yankees players' bodies but rather in traumatizing the Front-Office's mind, distorting its perceptions and blighting its judgment, ever since.
The Yankees 2004 debacle, as the GM's office right recognized, stemmed, above all, from a deficient starting rotation that by season's end had two reliable starters: Mike Mussina and John Lieber. So the Yankees' proceeded that off-season, as they always have, to fortify their weakness through acquisition. I acquire; therefore, I am. They spent bountiful sums for the free-agent market's then most coveted pitching commodity, Carlapalooza Pavano, and they traded their prize pitching acquisition of the previous year, 28-yr-old Javier Vasquez, for their old (very old) nemesis, 41-yr-old Randy Johnson. As George always advocated, If you can't beat 'em, acquire 'em.
Well, Yankees fans, by now, know how the 2004 Improvement Plan fared. Carl Pavano pitched one-half of one contract year before dissolving into an absent punch-line synoymous with malingering and waste. Meanwhile, The Big Unit, waited until he donned Pinstripes to show his autumnal age. Come October, he degenerated into the stiff, immobile Wall Unit formidable only in size.
In fact, as one might expect, the Yankees, steeped in tradition and memory, like no other franchise, drew from this ignoble history what seemed two obvious axioms: the first from Accursed Carl, the second from the Wall Unit.
Only applied to distinctive circumstances, as we all know, axioms become fallacies. Ergo,
Rule 1: The Carla Commandment or "The Contract Canard": Thou shall not sign to large, multi-year contracts starters whose temperament the NY pitching crucible has not forged.
Rule 2: The Randy Rule or "The Farm Fallacy": Thou shall not trade "Your Youth" for "Acquired Age".
ILLLOGIC & BLIGHT: THE GHOST OF OFF-SEASONS PAST
Cut to the Winter Meetings 2007. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
Three years have elapsed. But little has changed. Yet again, the Yankees' odious, arch-rival has won the World Series. While the Yankees, yet again, have endured another ignominious early October exit-- an exit deriving from the same Achilles Heel, incidentally, an aging and ace-less pitching staff.
And the parallells proliferate: Yet again, there looms on the market in the off-season an elite lefty-- the kind of premiere starter available once a decade-- who promises in one salutary swoop to cure the Yankees of their chronic deficiency.
The problem, of course, is that he happens to evoke, not one, but both of the 2004 Commandments. First, the Minnesota Marvel stipulates he will sign for no less than 6-years and $120 million. He thus triggers Axiom 1, The Contract Canard. Long-Term Contract. Large Sums of Money. Starter Un-tested in the crucible of New York.
Worse, because the Minnesota Marvel isn't a free-agent, his acquisition would require the Yankees to cede Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera, Jeff Marquez, and Mitch Hilligoss-- thus violating Axiom 2, The Farm Fallacy. Prospects Sought: four homegrown players. All four ripe and under 24. By contrast, the Minnesota Marvel is 29, 8 years older than the trades's plum sacrifice, Phil Hughes.
Bad enough to violate Axiom 1, but to violate Axiom 2, as well, the Yankees front-office cannot abide. So applying the lessons of history, or more accurately, misapplying them, the Yankees forsake the opportunity to acquire Johan Santana and one month into the season the youthful, homegrown pitcher they jealously hoarded ends up where, but for 2006, he has, for prolonged stints, every season since the Yankees drafted him-- on the Disabled List. (Hmmn, that sounds vaguely familiar, doesn't it? Are you fearing what I'm fearing?)
How, Why could the lessons of history steer the organization wrong? Well, primarily because both baseball and the Yankees' franchise in particular have changed so dramatically as to render the lessons of 2004 obsolete.
First, the 2007 Yankees, thanks to Brian Cashman (more ironies) abound in young pitching talent. Back in '04, by contrast, the farm was fallow. Javier Vasquez was the one and only young pitcher the Yankees possessed of any trade value. Trading him for a pitcher then 13 years his senior not only exchanged youth for age but stripped the franchise bare. In trading Phil Hughes, on the other hand, the Yankees still would have retained a riches of starter prospects: Joba, IPK, Brackman, Horne, and McCutchen.
What's more, the all-star, starting lefty they'd have acquired for 2008 was 29 on Opening Day not the 41 Randy Johnson was for April 1 three years earlier. The difference: acquiring the pitcher who is among the best pitchers in baseball, instead of acquiring the pitcher who was among them.
Finally, Johan Santana is sui generis. Pitchers of his caliber are so rare, and rarer still are they available that no rules apply, other than the obvious: Get him if you can.
More instructively, Santana differed so profoundly in talent, constitution, record, and prior performance from Axiom 1's example, Pavano, that he precluded comparison, let alone applied wisdom. Pavano had had one good year, 2004 and had acquitted himself well in one post-season. Santana, in contrast, had proven the best pitcher in baseball for five consecutive years and had thrived in multiple post-seasons. Johan Santana suggested a constitution of steel. Carl Pavano intimated a cast of plaster.
Why do I belabor the moot, you might ask? After all, Santana is an opportunity long since foreclosed. Indeed, he is. But the Pox of Pavano lives still. That is, there still exists the danger that "The Contract Canard" and "The Farm Fallacy" reside like vestigial phantoms in the deep recesses of Yankees' psyche haunting them indefinitely, obscuring future perception of an Oswald and/or distorting tomorrow's judgment of a Sabathia.
So let the exorcism begin.
 Of course, the irony of the Yankees, for the first time in recent memory, forsaking the chance to acquire the very pitcher who just had thwarted them in the post-season will not be lost on many Yankee fans. Oh, but for the days of Tommy John and Luis Tiant.