That said, the standard of excellence the Yankees set does leave room for another kind of feel-good story: an underdog who emerges within the team’s own ranks, a low-profile player who defies the odds to become a crucial part of a star-studded roster.
In the summer of 2005, Yankees fans were fortunate enough to be treated to a pair of such stories: the unlikely — and timely — performances of Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon.
Just two seasons removed from a World Series appearance, the 2005 Yankees roster was still loaded with marquee names: Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, and Randy Johnson, to name a few.
Yet the Yankees began July mired at .500, a full six games out of the American League East lead. After a brief mid-month surge, they had climbed back into a tight duel for the division crown with the rival Red Sox. Enter Small and Chacon.
Aaron Small was a minor-league journeyman who had found little success in his occasional trips to the majors. He landed in the Yankees’ organization in 2005, and was summoned from Columbus to work as a spot starter, supplementing an injured and underwhelming staff that included *gulp* Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, an aging Mike Mussina, and a pre-breakout Chien-Ming Wang.
Expectations were modest: eat a few innings while the rotation hopefully righted itself. What followed instead was a fairytale run. Small went 10-0 in 15 starts, beginning with a complete game shutout in his debut, and posted a 3.20 ERA. He proved crucial to the Yankees’ late push for the division title, winning five games in September alone.
The sheer inexplicability of it all was part of the magic. Small’s stuff was far from spectacular; of the 316 batters he faced with the Bombers that season, he struck out just 37. He thrived by hitting his spots, mixing up his location, and savoring every drop of luck the Baseball Gods had showered upon him.
Chacon took his own unique path to magic that summer. Unlike Small, Chacon had spent considerable time in the majors, throwing over 500 big-league innings before the Yankees acquired him from the Rockies (thanks for another one, Colorado!) in exchange for two prospects.
Chacon brought a spotty record to the Bronx. Though he had enjoyed an All-Star season with the Rockies back in 2003, his play had deteriorated. He joined the Yankees carrying a 1-7 record and an uninspiring 4.09 ERA, after finishing the previous season 1-9 with a 7.11 ERA.
Despite the woeful state of the Yankees’ rotation at the time, few expected Chacon’s arrival would make much difference. Yet he, too, found something special in the heat of the playoff race. Chacon went 7-3 with the Bombers, producing a sparkling 2.85 ERA along the way.
Unfortunately, even the underdog stories of Small and Chacon couldn’t salvage the Yankees’ October hopes. In Game Three of the ALDS, the Angels knocked starter Randy Johnson out with five runs in three innings.
Small came on in the top of the fourth, and for a moment it appeared his charmed season would continue. The Yankees scored four in the bottom of the frame, and reclaimed the lead with another two in the fifth.
But after a near-perfect few months Small finally wavered. He conceded two runs before leaving with two out in the sixth, and was eventually saddled with the loss.
With the Yankees staring down elimination in Game Four, Joe Torre called on Chacon to start. In the final act of his special season, he delivered yet again, yielding just two runs on four hits in 6.1 innings, keeping the Bombers in the game until they could squeeze out a narrow 3-2 victory.
But Game Five spelled the end of the Cinderella streaks of Small and Chacon. The Angels sent the Yankees packing, and though both pitchers returned in 2006, whatever alchemy had propelled them the season before had evaporated.
Injury and poor performance landed Small back in the minors, and he retired soon after. Chacon was traded to Pittsburgh for a couple seasons, after which he landed in Houston. His time there went sideways after a physical confrontation with the Astros GM, an incident that essentially ended his time as a big leaguer.
The achievements of both men in 2005, however, will stand the test of time with Yankees fans. Seeing two relative unknowns etch their names into the annals of the most storied franchise in baseball was a privilege. Especially during a year in which the team fell short of October glory.
Amid the historic moments, huge contracts, and postseason memories that define the legacy of the Yankees, it’s easy to forget that every major league career is a miraculous, monumental achievement. Thanks to the twin improbabilities of the 2005 seasons of Small and Chacon, we were fortunate enough to see that kind of lightning strike twice.