In the Year 2000: Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

I recently watched House of Steinbrenner, one of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries, which covers the last year at the old Yankee Stadium, the first year at the new one, and the legacy of the man known simply as The Boss. The film opens with footage of the Yankees' parade down the Canyon of Heroes after winning the 2009 World Series. The camera shows tons of jubilant fans huddling behind police lines, waving banners, shouting with glee as the Yankees wave back from their papier mache caravan. One of the first people the camera zeroes in on is a man who screams, "Alright Yankees! Let's do it again!"

I was blown away by this. Keep in mind, this parade happened two days after the Yankees won the Series. During this parade, there were fans who were talking about winning the next World Series.

It seemed to exemplify the worst type of Yankee fan, the kind for whom there seems to be no joy, no love for the game itself unless his favorite team executes complete and utter domination. (Like many sick people, those who defend this kind of sociopathy would pervert such insanity into a virtue.) But I also thought to myself, as I watched it, "It was definitely not always like this. When did it change?"

As I've written these In the Year 2000 recaps, I've tried to refrain from editorializing about the events contained therein. I wanted them to be time capsules of those particular moment, and my opinions 10 years after the fact would ruin that conceit. However, it's always bothered me that the Mets were considered a failure because they lost a World Series where the biggest margin of victory was two runs. To understand why this view seems to me not only insane but also historically inaccurate, I believe it's important to see the Series as it was seen at the time--particularly in regard to the Yankees.

The 1996-2000 Yankees are often lumped into the same boat, as if they were exactly the same team each year. Despite having some of the same players, they weren't--both in personnel and in attitude--and being aware of this is essential to understanding exactly how the 2000 World Series was seen as it unfolded.

My own pet theory is the Yankees' personality--both on the field and organizationally--changed drastically during the course of their 1990s dynasty. The team that won the 1996 World Series was vastly different from the 2000 team. Over that time, they transformed from a team that delighted in winning from one that was expected to. It is this change, more than anything else, that made what we now talk about when we talk about the Yankees.*

* I shouldn't say this theory is mine alone. It's informed by Buster Olney's The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, plus re-reading many contemporary accounts, and also actually remembering how things happened rather than swallowing revisionist history wholesale.

Common knowledge says this "demand of excellence" was always a part of the Yankees. Anyone who thinks that completely forgets (or is too young to remember) the fallow 1980s of Yankees baseball. George Steinbrenner inked one big ticket free agent after another, including two Hall of Famers (Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson), but none of whom achieved anything higher than a second place finish. After missing out on the playoffs for 13 long seasons (1982-1994), in 1995 and 1996, there was no talk of majesty and pride and aura. The talk was more like, Hooray! We're playing in October again!

The 1996 Yankees weren't a team jam packed full of superstars. At the plate, they had good but not monstrous numbers. (In the midst of a league-wide offensive explosion, Bernie Williams led the team with 29 home runs, while Tino Martinez had the most RBIs with 117.) However, they did have a lineup that knew how to work walks whenever possible. Though the Moneyball philosophy of avoiding outs and getting men on base had yet to be articulated in book form, the Yankees had already perfected it.

The Yankees had a great deal of depth, due in large part to being able to afford pricey veterans (Tim Raines, Cecil Fielder, Charlie Hayes) and use them as platoon or role players to complement their younger talent that was still developing at the major league level. They also had a great bullpen, at a time when bullpen specialization (and building your team around it) was still in its infancy.

In short, they seemed to have learned from their mistakes in the 1980s, when they threw good money after bad with no appreciable gain. Thanks to Steinbrenner being banned from the game in the early 90s, then taking a back seat (usually) when he returned, the Yankees were able to have actual baseball men make decisions again.

The 1996 Yankees also had the added bonus of being seen as "scrappy." That was a tad innacurate at best, but they were definitely not the favorite when they matched up against the defending world champion Atlanta Braves. When they fell behind 0-2 in the World Series at home, while being outscored 16-1 in the process, it seemed all over but the shouting. Somehow, they battled back to win the next four games and the Series, it became a thrilling, come-from-behind, against-all-odds-type story--the kind of story they would assiduously avoid repeating in the years to come.

1998 is when things started to change. They still had many of the same position and bench players, and the relief corps was largely unchanged, but their pitching rotation was bolstered by the high profile additions of David Wells (big free agent signing) and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez (the superstar Cuban refugee rescued from Costa Rican exile by a $6.6 million contract). 125 wins later, the Yankees had set a new standard for dominance. There was no struggle, no come-from-behind tales, no thrilling postseason wins, just total destruction of the rest of the league.

However, when you win more games than any other team ever, there's nowhere to go but down--unless you insist that improving is not only possible, but a necessity. Unless you insist that such utter crushing of the competition is not to be savored, but expected. And if 1998 was made possible by getting big name players, then obviously maintaining (or surpassing) that standard would have to be done by getting even more big name players.

That's why before the 1999 season, the Yankees made the biggest, most franchise-changing transaction since signing Reggie Jackson: they traded for Roger Clemens. And they did it by exchanging him for David Wells, a pitcher who made many public pronouncements about how much he loved being a Yankee.

In wrestling, this would be called a Heel Move. That's when, to renew audience interest, the good guy suddenly turns bad.

This move was so pivotal not because of how it changed the Yankees' on-field performance (at best, it was a lateral move), but how it changed their personality. They changed from a team that could get any player they wanted to a team that did get any player they wanted--often simply because that was the Big Player available at the time. Careful roster construction had already been replaced with the truckloads-of-cash philosophy. The Yankees' pitching staff was the least of their worries going into 1999, but that didn't stop them from dealing David Wells--a guy who almost literally worshiped Babe Ruth--to get a pitcher who was just a tiny bit better.

This new philosophy did not immediately pan out for both parties, despite continued success. When the Yankees steamrolled their way to another World Series title in 1999, it seemed despite Clemens, not because of him. He pitched to a 4.60 ERA, won "only" 14 games, and, most importantly, could not beat the teams every Yankee pitcher was expected to defeat. The Mets clubbed him twice that year (both at Shea and Yankee Stadium), and the only loss the team had the entire postseason came when he lasted just 2+ innings against the Red Sox in the ALCS.

I believe this is when the ridiculous phrase True Yankee was coined. (Though the earliest use I could dig up came from Steinbrenner himself, who used it in 2005 at a particularly cranky moment.) Prior to then, there was no need for such a term. But with more and more players just passing through the Bronx on their way to a title, fans felt the need to distinguish who was a True Yankee and who was not, based on some highly mutable criteria that shifted from user to user, day to day. Clemens, as yet, was not.

In 2000, the entire team seemed to tire of the regular season altogether. If all that mattered was winning a World Series, as their play seemed to indicate, why give too much of an effort from April to September? At least this was the theory put forth by most of the New York sports scribes, particularly when the Yankees went on a September skid that put the Mets' late season woes to shame.

The Yankees were not unfamiliar with struggling late in the season. In recent years, they often coasted to the finish line, resting players and lining up their pitching for the playoffs. But that was when they had dominated the rest of the regular season so thoroughly, some post-clinching time off was well earned. This was something else altogether. They went 13-18 in September (plus one game in October), with losing streaks of six and seven games apiece. Even with injuries to players like Chuck Knoblauch and Paul O'Neill, it was a baffling state of affairs. The Yankees simply did not go on losing skids like this. The press began to panic and point fingers.

Their situation was exacerbated by a newly meddlesome George Steinbrenner, who never missed an opportunity to question Joe Torre's decision-making skills (such as blasting him for continuing to start a struggling David Cone) or influence personnel decisions (like promoting Knoblauch from a rehab assignment without consulting his manager or GM, mostly because he suspected the second baseman wasn't truly injured). It was reminiscent of his public pronouncements during the Bad Old Days of the 1980s--whenever the Yankees hit a rough patch, Steinbrenner could be counted on to pour gasoline on the fire.

The big difference was, those 80s squads had won nothing, while this Yankees team had just won the last two World Series. Was nothing good enough, for the press, for Steinbrenner, for the fans?

So if the Yankees looked listless and disinterested for much of the year, it was at the very least understandable. In the end, they were saved by a weak AL East and won the division with 87 wins, seven games poorer than their crosstown rivals. Fittingly, they clinched on September 29 while getting thumped by the lowly Orioles (10 runs against Andy Pettite in the second inning) because at the same time, Boston was defeated by Tampa Bay.

In an article typical of those published at the time, Jack Curry of The New York Times wrote:

...the Yankees have not looked like the Yankees usually do as this season grinds through a revealing September to a merciless conclusion. The Yankees have been complacent, a team plodding toward the postseason while the regular season unfolds and they unravel. Did anyone ever speculate that Joe Torre would want to switch places with Bobby Valentine in late September? Yesterday afternoon, Torre would have.

In years past, no matter how the regular season ended, the Yankees got rolling once the playoffs began. It took a bit longer in 2000. Their late-season slide meant they'd ceded home field advantage in the division series to Oakland. After Clemens took the loss in game one, they rebounded to win games two and three. With a chance to wrap up the series in the Bronx, they were pounded 11-1 (with most of the damage again coming against Clemens), which necessitated a red-eye trip back to Oakland for game five.

Disaster seemed to loom. And yet, they pounded Felix Heredia for six runs in 1/3 of an inning, putting the game seemingly out of reach. For the rest of the game, the A's chipped away slowly, but the Yankees finally held on for a 7-5 series-clinching win.

The ALCS brought more of the same. In game one, they were shut down by the Mariners' Freddy Garcia, 2-0. In game two, they trailed 1-0 as late as the eighth inning, until a seven-run outburst kept them from falling 0-2 in the series (at home, no less). After winning games three and four in Seattle (the latter a 15-K Clemens one-hitter, one of the best games he ever pitched in pinstripes), they were thumped in game five to bring the series back to the Bronx. In game six, they trailed 4-0 early, but scored 3 in the fourth and 6 in the seventh, then held on for dear life as the Mariners mounted a desperate comeback. In the end, they had a 9-7 win and another trip to the World Series.

The Yankees' entry into the Fall Classic immediately sent sportswriters' pens all aflutter with memories of Subway Series past. But much like the historic two-stadium doubleheader in July, the Yankees found the trappings of this moment more of an annoyance than an attraction. That is why, if you scan the New York papers from this time, you'll find very little ink spent on their reactions, their feelings, their predictions.

Most of the Yankee player profiles went to new arrivals like David Justice and bit players like Jose Vizcaino. The big names--Jeter, O'Neill, Pettite, Clemens--maintained radio silence. The vast majority of the column space went to the Mets, who, as a franchise and for the most part individually, were new to this whole thing. They seemed eager to talk about the Subway Series (sometimes to their detriment), and the Yankees seemed eager to avoid it.

For all the history and tradition they lay claim to, the Yankees had become a team with virtually no interest in the past. A Subway Series meant nothing more to them than any other matchup. All that mattered was winning this World Series. And once that was done, on to the next World Series. Their existence had become almost Sisyphean.

If you watch any Yankeeography, or even watch the 2000 World Series film (which, as an MLB production, was meant to be impartial), you will not hear about any of this. You will simply hear about the Yankees barreling their way to a third world championship. Why isn't this struggle part of the Yankees' story?

Because in the narrative post-1996 Yankees narrative. there is no room for struggle. They do not overcome obstacles, they plow through them. That is why, when the history of this era was written, the 2000 Mets became another bug on their windshield, rather than a team that simply lost to them. Despite five closely contested games, and a Mets team that (apart from game one) made few mistakes--unless you consider not punching Roger Clemens in the face a mistake--there was no room for any other interpretation.

As difficult as it might be, remember how the Yankees saw the world--and were seen by the world--as the 2000 World Series began. The way things unfolded won't sting any less, but they might make a little more sense.

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