September baseball has always fascinated me. I'm not talking about the pennant races, which everyone takes an interest in, but the side stories--which team has a September call-up who may play a critical role next year; which managers or general managers may be in trouble; what teams that aren't in contention have--nonetheless--made real progress. There's more time than usual to pay attention to those stories this year since the pennant races--wild cards aside--are all but over even with almost four weeks left to play.
On Monday, as I noted here yesterday, the Pittsburgh Pirates clinched a record-breaking 17th straight losing season. Last night, in Boston, the Baltimore Orioles, another once proud franchise, clinched a 12th straight losing season. The Kansas City Royals continue to be awful year in and year out which makes Zack Greinke's performance all the more remarkable. If Greinke was with any kind of decent team he would either have 20 wins by now or be closing in on 20 wins. Except for one brief stretch in the summer, he has been brilliant almost every time out. He's 13-8 with a 2.22 ERA which means if he was pitching in The National League his ERA might very well be under two runs a game. It will be interesting to see if Greinke (who is only 25) wins The Cy Young Award with 15 or 16 wins or if Mariano Rivera, who has also been amazing all year, wins it. Anyone else winning it would be a crime.
There's more: the complete demise of the Mets. Yes, injuries have played a huge role, but it isn't that simple. Omar Minaya has made one mistake after another and it’s pretty clear the players don't have a lot of respect for Jerry Manuel. Often they don't play hard and more often they just play dumb. A couple of Saturdays ago a potential big inning was broken up in Chicago when Fernando Tatis tried to score from third--after initially stopping--when a ball thrown from the outfield rolled loose for a moment. He was out by 10 feet with NO ONE out. Tim McCarver, doing the game on Fox, made the point that a play like that has nothing to do with injuries. Plays like that happen to the Mets all the time.
The Cardinals are having a superb season; the Cubs have collapsed meaning their fans don't have to watch them collapse in October this year; the Phillies have lots of power but pitching that looks too shaky (especially Brad Lidge) to win it all again and Ozzie Guillen says the White Sox' mediocrity is his fault. The Rays made a run but have dropped back and the Rangers have been a pleasant surprise. The Orioles and Nationals are both building future hopes around young pitching although the Orioles kids look a lot more solid than the Nationals kids right now although Stephen Strasburg's arrival could change that equation.
And then there are the Yankees. Since the All-Star break they have been virtually unbeatable. Night after night they find a different way to win. A.J. Burnett went more than a month without a win and it didn't matter. C.C. Sabbathia has earned his millions the last couple of months and Andy Pettite has looked more like 27 than 37. Rivera is simply the eighth wonder of the world and both Derek Jeter and Mark Texeira have had MVP-like seasons.
Even so, none of it is going to matter if they don't win--and I don't mean the division series--in October. They haven't won a World Series since 2000 or a pennant since 2003. In fact, they haven't won a postseason SERIES since the Collapse of '04. To say that memories of that disaster linger in New York is like saying The French remember Waterloo. Jeter is going to pass Lou Gehrig on the career hits list very shortly--isn't it amazing the Yankees have NEVER had a guy with 3,000 hits?--and Alex Rodriguez has managed to stay out of headlines since his spring outings as a steroids user. The new Yankee Stadium has been full most of the summer after being half empty for much of the spring.
All good. But if the Red Sox show up for the ALCS, there are going to be some seriously frayed nerves in New York. The irony in this is inescapable. For years, all Red Sox fans cringed every time a team with "NY," on the uniform showed up. The Red Sox were the coyote and the Yankees were the roadrunner. Sooner or later the anvil came down on the Red Sox head. That all changed during those four remarkable evenings in '04 and now the anvil is on the other head. Oh sure, the Yankees won the division in '05 and '06--the Red Sox not making the playoffs--but the Red Sox added a second World Series title in '07 and almost won another pennant last year. In postseason series the last five seasons the Yankees are 1-4, the Red Sox are 7-2.
As someone who grew up a Mets fan I am supposed to hate the Yankees. I don't. A lot of people criticize them for spending so much money but the owners I think are really evil are the ones who spend NO money and leave their fans to live through one losing season after another. The Yankees--love them or hate them---are good for baseball. They sell out ballparks and drive TV ratings up. Yes, I get tired of all the Yankees-Red Sox hype (thank you once again four letter network for leading that charge) and SOMEONE ought to make John Sterling cool it with the corny home run calls, especially the "A-bomb from A-Rod." A-bombs are not a topic that should be brought up as part of sports. Too many people died because of them.
But you can't NOT respect Jeter, Rivera and Jorge Posada or the demeanor in that clubhouse most of the time. I hate the way Joe Torre was treated but he brought class and dignity to the team for 12 years. Torre gets it like few people get it in sports. A couple of years ago I was interviewing him during spring training while researching, "Living on the Black." My cell phone began ringing. I started to turn it off, then saw it was my son, who I had been trying to reach. "Joe, can you give me one second," I said. "It's my son and I need to talk to him."
Torre just smiled. "I know how that feels," he said. "I've done this long enough that I can pick up in mid-anecdote." Which is exactly what he did.
I may not like the Yankees but I respect them. I wish there was a salary cap in baseball--and a salary floor--so the Yankees couldn't spend more than $125 million on payroll and the Rays and Pirates had to spend at least $75 million. THAT'S the problem, not the Yankees.
Having said all of that, even being as sick and tired as I sometimes get of Yankees-Red Sox, I'd love to see them play in October if only to see all my friends who are Yankees fans walking around looking a little green while the series is going on. Because believe me, if they somehow get up 3-0, they won't feel comfortable.
A number of people wrote in responding to my Washington Post column on the wonders of ACC football Monday, commenting that it was unfair of me to lump The Big East with the ACC. Upon further review, they're right. I think The Big East was down last year and isn't that good this year, but its record the last several years is far better than the ACC's--especially in BCS bowls, most notably the West Virginia win over Georgia and Louisville's victory in The Fiesta Bowl. So, I stand corrected--the ACC stands alone when it comes to true mediocrity in the BCS conferences no matter how entertaining the Miami-Florida State game was on Monday night.