Eight years ago, the Yankees were playing the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. They were leading three games to none, and had humiliated Boston in the third game, breaking a 6-6 third-inning tie and going on to win 19-8. After that, though, an odd thing happened: the Yankees stopped being the Yankees, stopped taking pitches, stopped walking, and tried to hit Boston's pitches. In what has gone down in baseball history as, depending on your point of view, one of the great comebacks or one of the great collapses, the Red Sox won four straight games and headed on to the World Series and their appointment with destiny. The Yankees slunk home to trade for a 41-year-old Randy Johnson.
The Yankees' perseverance in this postseason now depends on the Tigers committing seppuku in the same way they did all those years ago. That seems unlikely, just as it was unlikely then. Still, it ain't over etc, and I don't want to make this a premature post-mortem and risk an Edgar Allan Poe-style dénouement. Still, things are in a dire place and may continue to be for some time, given that the latest news is that Derek Jeter will require surgery and might not be ready to start spring training.
I know it's a million years ago and part of the adventures of a 19th century near-dwarf instead of a 6'3" specimen of athletic perfection, but I keep thinking of Rabbit Maranville, the three-decade gloveman of the 1910s through the 1930s. He was coasting along at 41, if you can call hitting a powerless .212 coasting, when he broke his ankle during spring training, 1933, suffering a compound complex fracture on a play at the plate against the Yankees. He missed all of that season, attempted to come back at 43, and found he just couldn't move around the same way again.
Now, before anyone accuses me of making an inapt comparison between Rabbit Maranville and Derek Jeter, I fully admit I am making an inapt comparison between Rabbit Maranville and Derek Jeter:
- It was a long time ago and sports medicine is vastly different now.
- No one is saying Jeter will miss a year, just four or five months, most of them winter.
- As far as we know, Jeter has a minor fracture; his foot wasn't half off like Maranville's.
- He's going to be 39, not 43.
- He's 6'3" and in great shape, not a dissipated 5'5" alcoholic.
Fortunately, my point is not that Rabbit's destiny equals Jeter's destiny, but a more general truth: in all athletes, but in older athletes in particular, injuries can be debilitating, particularly those that affect mobility. The injuries heal, but the spring that was heretofore in the athlete's step no longer has the same snap. The high jump is not quite as high, the initial burst of speed is not quite as fast, the first step is slower in coming. That is not necessarily going to be the case with Jeter, but it could be, and we might not know until late March, 2013.
If you want an example of the way injuries can diminish even a great player, look no further than Mr. Alex Rodriguez. He's the one on the bench next to Chris Stewart.
This is a concern for the long term. In the short term, there is only the hope of one more game, of the Yankees somehow scoring more runs than CC Sabathia allows. That wasn't a problem for most of the season, and it's not clear why it's a problem now, why, if a few players have slumped, others can't carry the load. The only suggestion I can offer is the same idea I have believed all along-not the one about Maranville, thanks-that the team is old and therefore tired, injured, or both. The Yankees were a .550 team in the second half. That's still a good team, but it's not a 95- or 100-win team, it's an 89-win team. In other words, they've been playing like a wild card team for quite awhile, and you wouldn't be surprised if a wild card team got swept in the second round, or lost in five, or just lost.
The only quizzical thing is that the second-half slowdown wasn't that dramatic. It's just a few games of difference, and if I had to guess at a cause, I probably would have pointed the finger at the pitching staff in general and perhaps Ivan Nova in particular. The offense was doing roughly what it had done all along. In fact, it got a little better. There was no predicting that it would fall off completely, which is why the Yankees still have a chance-the laws of nature insist they will run into some hits sometime, if only by accident.
Unfortunately, if it doesn't happen tonight, it will have to happen next spring-when the team's chances of even getting to this point seem likely to have been significantly reduced. At least we can hope for another good game out of Eduardo Nunez, given that we might be seeing more of him next spring than we had previously anticipated.