mattmedia perspective

Case of heinous hype: Unpremeditated roster, Devil Rays submit Yankees to early field trials

by Matt Lorenz

ESPN put the Yankees on trial April 8, 2004.

That Harvard lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, befriended the suddenly salary-cap-happy Boston Nine by leading prosecution of The Empire Team from The Empire State. Bruce Cutler stood up for George Steinbrenner Inc. the way he used to defend the equally popular John Gotti. The result of the three-hour legal slugfest was a 10-2 ruling in favor of the proposition that big spending by the New York American League Baseball Club does not diminish the national pastime.

Our local listings carried the proceedings’ grandiose name: “Break Up the Bombers: The Yankees on Trial.” Yet the case was frivolous. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays already had put the Yankees on trial twice, for two days each time.

Working 14 hours ahead, the first Rays-tainted jury played to a tie in Tokyo, upholding the finest traditions of Japanese baseball.

“I fear that all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve,” said Lou Piniella, former Yankees championship outfielder and current Rays manager, between an 8-3 opening win March 30 and a 12-1 loss in Game 2. Or maybe that was Yamamoto, contemplating other empires as the sun rose in Tora! Tora! Tora!

Regardless, the Yankees wound up needing just the right bounce to avoid losing three of four to the have-nots from The Spring Break State. After unsuccessfully fighting extradition, they faced American justice from Venezuelan Victor Zambrano, Puerto Rican Jose Cruz Jr., Dominican Julio Lugo, Houstonian Carl Crawford and relief enforcers from Bradenton, New Orleans and Cuba, losing 9-4 in St. Petersburg on nine unanswered runs. They then were no-hit by ex-Mariner Paul Abbott until the sixth inning, rallying with help from a Rays infield actively crosstraining. Tampa Bay cut the deficit to 3-2 in the ninth with three successive one-out hits off Mariano Rivera.

With the bases loaded and the winning run at second, Brook Fordyce happened to hop a ball right to Alex Rodriguez’s new post, a step inside third base. A sidearm fling — shortstop-like, floating at that distance — completed a 5-5-3 double play. A little more jolt, or a little less pull, and the Rays beat the Joe Torre Dynasty’s most imposing force to drop New York two games behind them at 1-3.

Even without completing a comeback as they did against Baltimore April 9, the Devil Rays deadlocked the defendants. No acquittal came when New Yankee Kevin Brown beat Tampa Bay for the third time, 5-1 April 14 in a series shortened to a game by rain at Venue 3, the Bronx. Twelve angry jurors still stand and scream at each other in a small room, emerging occasionally to pass notes or make mysterious hand signals to starving painters.

The case for the Yankees’ having bought out the competition focuses on Rodriguez, rivaled only by Ernie Banks as a slugging shortstop. Banks moved to first base at 31, after reaching 40 homers in five of eight full seasons with the Cubs. Yielding to the more spectacular but slightly more erratic Captain Jeter, A-Rod moved to third to facilitate a move to New York at 28, after reaching 40 homers in six of eight full seasons with the Mariners and Rangers.

Contrary to popular belief and most George Steinbrenner history, the Yankees did not add Rodriguez as a free agent. They obtained him in a trade for a player who for much of 2003 appeared to be eclipsing Derek Jeter and becoming the team’s premier non-pitching superstar. Second baseman Alfonso Soriano, 2 1/2 years younger than Rodriguez, had 87 doubles, 77 homers, 242 runs and 193 RBI over the past two seasons and 119 steals over the past three.

Sustaining the pattern that pushed him toward New York, A-Rod watched the ’03 postseason from afar. He undoubtedly noticed Soriano’s fascination with pitches a foot outside. But against Arizona two years before, Soriano put the Yankees up three games to two with a 12th-inning single off ex-Ray Albie Lopez and put them ahead in Game 7 with an eighth-inning home run off Curt Schilling. Soriano would have been World Series MVP had Rivera not thrown a screwball to the limping Jeter at second base, had Scott Brosius looked for two on a subsequent bunt, had Torre played the infield at fist-pop depth.

While less smooth and seasoned than Rodriguez afield, Texas’ new second baseman has an arm and up-the-middle range Todd Walkers only dream about. He reputedly was moving to center in New York, but that probably would have been less an adjustment than A-Rod’s switch from shortstop to third.

Regardless of positioning, adding A-Rod to Soriano would have been far more impressive than substituting the former for the latter. Based on 2003 statistics, the net gain is nothing to toss our top hats about .

A-Rod Advantage

Rodriguez hit 52 and 57 home runs in 2001 and 2002 yet had only 30 more extra-base hits (256-226) in Soriano’s first three full major-league seasons. Only 2,000 at-bats in, Soriano should improve, despite Texas’ downward pull. After eight spectacular years of 502 or more at-bats, Rodriguez has little rising room.

The distinction parallels — though is less pronounced than — that between the Yankees and the Devil Rays. For Tampa Bay, the cellar’s no longer the limit. For New York, celebrity is here and now, but teamwork and titles may show only on Old Timers’ Day.

Enrique Wilson — .253, 16 homers, 110 RBI and 13 steals in seven seasons — replaces Soriano at second base. His throws presumably will reach first better from there than they did from third last postseason. The ex-backup’s backup, Miguel Cairo, still ranks as the Devil Rays’ all-time second baseman and has produced more: .269, 19 homers, 189 RBI and 76 steals in eight seasons; .455 in three postseason series with St. Louis.

Ruben Sierra was the Yankees’ Opening Day DH. Brown is the new No. 2 starter. Each was instrumental in a rally that ruined Chuck Cary’s shutout and beat New York 5-4 in 10 innings at Texas July 23, 1989.

At 39, Brown is the dean of a staff that averages 35.8 years of age. Three-fifths of the rotation is new, though the departed Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and David Wells averaged 38 years of life experience as of Opening Day 2004. For set-up, the Yankees bank on the checkered veteranships of Paul Quantrill (on an upward trend at 35), Tom Gordon (36, averaging 45 innings the past four seasons) and Donovan Osborne (34, with 17 games and 45 1/3 innings total the past two seasons).

Maybe Steinbrenner’s 2004 pitchers will not bail out with the gout after an inning of a pivotal game. Maybe they will not subject us to bogus farewell tours. But the empire’s armed force has many new parts and much to prove.

The defendants’ best net profit stands in the outfield, where Gary Sheffield arrived as a free agent to replace Karim Garcia and friends. Sheffield, a Tampa native whose career has long since surpassed that of Uncle Dwight Gooden, gave Atlanta his sixth .300-30-100 season in 2003. He may have more monster numbers left in him, but the big numbers may have flown for fellow 35ers Bernie Williams (.263, 15 and 64 in a sore-kneed ’03) and Kenny Lofton, neither of whom can go for the gold in center as he once did.

Tony Clark reached 30 homers in three successive years with Detroit a half-decade ago but now bears the stigma of a Mets season. Helping at first base, he does pick it better than Jason Giambi, but so does your average union organizer. Neither matches new Ray and ex-Yankee Tino Martinez with a glove on. Neither matches Nick Johnson. Ex-Ray Travis Lee left the disabled list April 18, and adding his defense to the offense of Giambi or Clark yields one outstanding, balanced player.

Balance and consistency are undervalued in sports. Offense and stage flair are overrated. The first two drove the Yankees to 125 wins in 1998 but yielded no ESPN specials. The second two characterize the demonized Yankees of 2004.

These old Yankees do conjure the Yankees of old. The 1965 Yankees, aged and in the lower half of the league after a pennant. The 1975 Yankees, 83-77 after A-Roddish hype and hysteria over new (and productive) stars Bobby Bonds and Catfish Hunter. The 1985 Yankees, second with an overwhelming lineup and starting pitchers spotty enough to make a deep bullpen sweat. Yogi, Billy, the adventure that was Ed Whitson. Then as now, a pitching deficit and citable construction problems.

Eighty wins is a reasonable expectation for Piniella’s Devil Rays. And with the right blend of inexperience and age, close losses, timely injuries and career-low years, 80 wins is not unreasonable for these Yankees.

That’s the legal opinion of this lifetime follower of the old empire and adopted citizen of the new Rays republic.

Matt Lorenz grew up a Yankee fan in Connecticut but served as the Devil Rays’ assistant director and director of publications from 1998 to 2002. Before and after that venture into Major League Baseball, he totaled 18 years as an editor in the sports departments of the News World/New York Tribune, Bergen Record, St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune.


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