In my 20 years religiously following the Yankees, I have never seen the end of season be so incongruous to the season itself. Watching the Yankees go down meekly to the Tigers in the ALCS, the circus surrounding A-Rod’s in-game flirting and inability to hit right-handed pitching, and the resulting outcry from the fans and the New York media vultures (that’s you, New York Post), you’d have thought the 2012 Yankees were the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. And if you subscribe to the belief that anything less than a World Series championship is a failed season, well then this season was a failure.**
**This school of thought is ludicrous, by the way. Yes, the goal of every team is to win a championship, and in most cases the zenith of being a fan is watching your team win a championship. But if you subscribe to a binary model of fandom where winning a title is a “success” and anything else is a “failure” — well then you’re a masochist and I feel sorry for you.
The avalanche of negativity this week speaks to the absurd proposition of being a Yankee fan, this idea that because we out-spend everybody and make the playoffs seemingly every year, making it to the de facto semifinals of the postseason and getting swept by a superior team somehow qualifies as a catastrophe. Let me be clear: Given the laundry list of injuries to key Yankees, the advancing age of the team, and the expectations of most fans coming into the season, the 2012 New York Yankees season was an unqualified success. In fact, it was an enormous success. After Mariano Rivera tore his ACL in a freak fly-shagging incident in early May (this after Michael Pineda and Brett Gardner were lost for the year before the end of April), what would the average Yankee fan have responded if you told them that the team would win 95 games, fight off the hottest second-half club in baseball to win the division title, and advance further than the 2011 Yankees did in the playoffs? They’d have said you were crazy, right? And yet many of those same fans are now bitching and moaning about A-Rod, or Cano’s putrid postseason, or a team “filled with a bunch of losers,” to quote a family member. Newsflash: Making it to the ALCS is not losing. I’m aware that the Yankees have different standards than most team, but COME ON. Here’s a list of the last time every American League team reached the ALCS.
Red Sox: 2008
White Sox: 2005
Blue Jays: 1993
And even with the heightened expectations for every Yankee season, this year’s club was beset by injuries like no other Yankee team in recent memory. Of the Yankee’ putative offensive players as of mid-March, here’s how many games they played:
Brett Gardner: 16 (suffered elbow injury in April, missed rest of regular season)
Nick Swisher: 148 (no notable injuries)
Curtis Granderson: 160 (no injuries)
Raul Ibanez: 130 (no injuries, but unable to play field regularly)
Andruw Jones: 94 (no injuries, but thank God we got Ichiro to play left field)
Mark Teixeira: 123 (missed a month from late Aug.-late Sept. with a calf injury)
Robinson Cano: 161 (no injuries)
Derek Jeter: 159 (no regular season-injuries)
Alex Rodriguez: 122 (missed six weeks with a broken hand in July/August)
Russell Martin: 133 (no notable injuries)
Eric Chavez: 113 (no injuries BUT couldn’t play more than 3-4 days in a row due to bad back)
Eduardo Nunez: 38 (demoted to minors because he couldn’t field)
Jayson Nix: 74 (no injuries as backup infielder)
Chris Stewart: 55 (no injuries as backup catcher)
On the pitching side, Rivera missed all but a month of the season with the torn ACL, Andy Pettitte missed two months with a broken leg (from a relatively freak line drive-off-the-leg play) and even the indestructible C.C. Sabathia had two stints on the DL, the first time he’d missed a start due to injury since 2006. And Pineda, of course, didn’t pitch a single regular-season inning. An aging team with that level of injuries should significantly underperform expectations — instead, the Yankees finished with the best record in the American League, only two games worse than their 97-65 campaign in 2011. They held the Orioles at bay for five weeks despite never leading them by more than 1.5 games in the standings in the regular season OR the five-game ALDS. Remarkably, not once during that stretch did the Yankees fall into second place, a psychological victory that undoubtedly dampened Baltimore’s spirit over time. After all that tribulation, is it so reprehensible that the Yankees simply ran out of gas after their emotional leader came up lame like a wounded horse in Game 1 of the ALCS?
Jeter’s injury broke the Yankees, but they were never going to beat the Tigers. Detroit matches up incredibly well against the Yankees because they have a strong rotation that gets a lot of strikeouts and gives up few home runs, and because they have a plethora of strong right-handed hitters who can go the other way and threaten Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field. Having Delmon Young, who’s inherited the “Yankee Killer” mantle from Manny Ramirez/Edgar Martinez/et al, doesn’t hurt.
Before the playoffs started, my father and I both picked the Tigers to win the World Series. At no point during the last two weeks did I doubt that prediction. The Yankees won their division, won a playoff series, and produced several unforgettable moments along the way (Game 3 of the ALDS, the win over Boston in Game #161, the four-run comeback against Oakland in the 13th inning in mid-September). I watched almost every game this season, from 10 starts by David Phelps to regular appearances from Steve Pearce and Casey Freakin’ McGehee, and I can tell you that a division title and ALCS appearance is undoubtedly a success. Even after the grisly last six days.