The Boston Red Sox began their years in the wilderness by trading away a player --- Babe Ruth. They ended them by trading away another --- Nomar Garciaparra. In between came 86 years of painful futility. And what made it more painful was what happened after that trade in 1918, when the formerly undistinguished New York franchise became the most dominant team in American professional sports --- led, of course, by Ruth, who more or less invented the idea of hitting for power.
The glory of New York cast its shadows in Boston. The endless, painful defeats shaped the whole local sports scene into what failed Celtics coach Rick Pitino famously derided as "the Fellowship of the Miserable". (Pitino was a pretty miserable character himself while in Boston, but that's another story). And while most of the defeats came at hands other than the Yankees', the New York dominance of both the sport and national media gave the misery here a focus. Folks here would laughably deny the excellence of the Yankees for pure spite. There were "Yankees Suck" t-shirts. Even when the Sox were playing Baltimore --- at Baltimore --- Sox fans in the stands would still start up the chant: "Yankees Suck. Yankees Suck."
The Yankees had many strengths, but not the least was money --- the huge sums of money available from the New York market. In good years, at least, whatever problem of the day they had could be solved with a quick trade for another team's highest-priced star (or, more recently, free-agent signings). They took so many good players from the Kansas City Royals, perpetual poor step-children of the American League, that people started to call the Royals the Yankees' AAAA farm team. Or, if you were a Yankee detractor, you'd look at the money machine and wonder about their fans. Wasn't it more like rooting for General Motors?
This year, though, the Yankee payroll --- over $200 million --- is straining even their own financial resources. Needing help in the outfield, they couldn't afford to engineer a trade for the best player available, Carlos Beltran, who even hobbled by injury, is still embarassing the Yankees in their head-to-head series with the Mets.
So, what is their money buying them? Overpriced contracts with once-great players, now shadows of their former selves, fading gracelessly under the stadium lights. Players like the formerly superb Bernie Williams, who no longer has the range to reach fly balls that ought to be easy in center field, or the arm to keep baserunners from advancing at will once he has the ball. He's only playing in the field because the Yankees are short of outfield help. But why? Because another aging player --- Hideki Matsui, a star from Japan, fading in New York --- is too banged-up at the moment to play the field at all. All because when negotiating their deals with Williams and Matsui, they favored sentiment over sense.
The Yankees, as I write, are playing .500 ball --- 37 wins, 37 losses. Which wouldn't be bad for, say, the Oakland A's, a team whose payroll, at $55 million, is very roughly twice what the Yankees are playing third baseman Alex Rodriguez. For the Yankees themselves... can I say it's a disappointment?
Earlier this week, there was talk that a big inning they scored might spark some kind of resurgence. They were playing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a team so messed up that merely calling them the worst in the league, while accurate, does not properly do them justice. The new majority owners of the Devil Rays are trying to get rid of managing partner Vince Naimoli, by starving the team of funds --- and in the process, breaking solemn promises to manager Lou Piniella that they'd raise the payroll. Piniella has threated to quit, though he's since announced, grudgingly, that he'd honor his contract. This is the team that, last Tuesday, took a four-run lead against the New York Yankees into the bottom of the eighth, before the Yankees scored 13 runs in that inning to win it. And some folks said the Yankees were finding their form. It looked a bit different to me. If the Devil Dogs chase your starting pitcher --- quondam ace Randy Johnson --- in the third inning, and the only way you can win a game against them is by beating up on their mopup relief pitching, you've got a problem. And this was the only way the 2005 Yankees can win a game with Tampa Bay --- there were two more games in the series, and they lost both in humiliating fashion. (Is there another way to lose a game to the Devil Rays?)
Last Friday, the guys on Boston sports talk radio were looking forward to the weekend's action. The Sox had a potentially tricky interleague series coming up in Philly, but the Fellowship of the Miserable had more than that on its mind. Erstwhile Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez was pitching for the Mets that evening against the Yankees. And that's what drew the attention of Pete Sheppard --- who may or may not be a true member of the Fellowship, but certainly plays one on the air. He made a point of saying that for spite against Martinez, he certainly hoped the Yankees won the game. Presented with the obvious objection to his desired outcome, he replied something like this:
- Who cares about the Yankees? They won't do anything. They're flat. They can't play anymore. They're going noplace.
- They suck! We've been saying it for years and it's finally true!
And so we are shaped by our desires.
It should be noted, by the way, that Yankee management seems to have taken up habits that have lately been mercifully banned in Boston, at least for the baseball franchise. It was management favoring sentiment over sense, more than any curse, that kept the Red Sox down all those years. Not always pretty sentiments either. Racism was definitely one. After Jackie Robinson entered the big leagues, the Red Sox made a show of sending scouts to evaluate a token black guy from the Negro Leagues --- and then announced that their careful evaluation had determined that Willie Mays had no future in Major League Baseball. Red Sox player evaluation lately has had a much harder edge --- as in the trade of Garciaparra, a local fan favorite ("Cherry Garciaprra" ice cream isn't yet wiped entirely off the menu at J.P. Lick's), because they thought he was no longer the great shortstop he still considered himself to be. So, in a move that would have got them tarred and feathered if it hadn't worked, Red Sox management fobbed him off on the even more woebegone Chicago Cubs. For them, this year, he's so far done nothing. Almost literally nothing --- after 14 games in April, with his batting average a dismal .157, he was banished to Arizona for rehab....
Note: this post has gotten more than the usual editing since its initial appearance, including a slightly more balanced assessment of the Beltran non-deal...