Baseball: Yankees doing not so dandy

By Rupert Cornwell

New York's gods of baseball are facing their toughest test as their ageing stars fail to draw the crowds.

38-year-old Derek Jeter, voted the most marketable player in baseball, faces a long recovery after breaking his ankle while fielding a ground ball. Photo / Paul Sancya
38-year-old Derek Jeter, voted the most marketable player in baseball, faces a long recovery after breaking his ankle while fielding a ground ball. Photo / Paul Sancya

Dynasties die. It happened to the Tudors, it happened to the Bourbons, and it happened to the Romanovs. And now it's happening to the ruling house of American sport: the New York Yankees.

Baseball's post-season is midway through its second round, the championship series of the American League and the National League, whose winners will meet in the World Series that opens next week. The Yankees, like an ageing and mangy dog that was once the terror of the neighbourhood, are hanging in there, 0-3 down against the hungry Detroit Tigers, with the potential series ending game four today. For the proud Yankees, the omens are not good.

For one thing, New York's hitters are in dreadful shape, with Robinson Cano, the fluid young Dominican second baseman who is seen as the cornerstone of any new Yankee dynasty, recently entombed in a 0 for 29 slump, the longest ever by any hitter in a single post-season.

And speak not of Alex Rodriguez, he of the US$275 million ($334 million) 10-year contract and 647 home runs, fifth on the all-time list.

A-Rod's post-season failures are legendary and 2012 has been no exception. So feeble is his output that manager Joe Girardi benched him for the decisive fifth game of the AL division match-up against the Baltimore Orioles. Once that would have been sacrilege, by then it was common sense.

The Yankees scraped through that series thanks to their pitching, capped by a complete game five from their ace CC Sabathia. But in the best-of-seven championship series against the Tigers, they lost the first two games at home and fell to Tigers' ace Justin Verlander back in Detroit in the third.

New York, it should be said, may still wriggle out of their predicament. By no coincidence it was a baseball man, Yankee immortal Yogi Berra, who coined the aphorism that sums up what gives sport its most basic and universal appeal: It ain't over till it's over.

Baseball's post-season is always a spin of the roulette wheel; more often than not the prize goes not to the best team, but to one that gets hot at the right moment. That's why the last 10 World Series have been won by eight different franchises. The Yankees right now may be ice-cold, but A-Rod and Cano, as well as two other hitters also floundering, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, could suddenly catch fire.

And teams have not infrequently come back from losing at home the first two games of a post-season series. The San Francisco Giants did exactly that only last week in their National League division series, remarkably saving themselves by winning three straight games against the Reds in Cincinnati. The Yankees pulled off the feat in 1996, when they won the World Series against the favoured Atlanta Braves.

But that was then and this is now: 1996 was the dawn of a Yankees' golden generation, of a team built around Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte that won five World Series and seven American League pennants. In 2012, a melancholy twilight is settling over the Bronx.

Ultimately, every sports career yields to anno domini, even those of the Yankees great 'Core Four'. Posada, perhaps second only to Berra as a hitting catcher in Yankee history, retired after the 2011 season at the age of 40. Pettitte had retired a year earlier, but came back for the 2012 season as a guest instructor for the Yankees before signing a playing contract in mid-season.

Pettitte has still got what it takes, as proved by a strong no-decision performance in game one against the Tigers, in which he pitched six and two-thirds innings, giving up only two runs. But he is now season-to-season; 2012 could be his last hurrah.

As for Rivera, baseball's all-time saves leader and perhaps its greatest relief pitcher, his season ended in May when he twisted a knee in a pre-game warm-up. I won't go out like this, Rivera declared, vowing a comeback. The reality, though, is that next month he turns 43, on the elderly side even for a relief pitcher who rarely throws more than one inning per game.

Most poignant of all is the case of Jeter who, remarkably in this era of sporting mercenaries, has played his entire career with the Yankees. Jeter is the team's undisputed leader and talisman. Not just thanks to his 3304 career hits - 10th on the all-time list and accumulated while playing at short stop, the game's most demanding field position - but also because of his immaculate professionalism and ability to perform when the pressure is greatest. A glitzy but non-scandalous personal life helps, too. Time and again, he has been voted by the Sports Business Survey poll as the most marketable player in baseball.

But late in game one against the Tigers, time caught up with Jeter. Going to field a ground ball, he fractured an ankle and at 38 his days in Yankee pinstripes are surely numbered. Wincing in agony, Jeter was helped off the field and there wasn't even a full house to watch his wretched exit.

At the last three games at Yankee Stadium, there have been patches of empty seats. The fans, too, sense a dynasty's end.


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