The 2001 Yankees is Sports’ Greatest Tragedy Story

On November 4th 2001, I was lying in bed listening to game 7 of the 2001 World Series on radio. My father wouldn’t let me watch past a certain time because I had school the next day. I forget when, but at some point he came into my room and invited me into his to watch. I’ll never forget that.

My team was coming off three consecutive World Series wins and on the verge of number four. As an 11 year old, I  had only seen success. Four World Series championships watered down by my spoiled subconscious telling me, “Of course the Yankees will win.” I had never seen anything different.

And then this happened.

In that moment, shock, confusion, and disbelief showed me sports are never scripted. It’s the ultimate reality television. My team is mortal.

But wasn’t it supposed to be the perfect storm?

The Capital of the World, ravaged by arguably the worst terrorist attack in recordable history, overcomes all odds to win the championship of America’s Pastime, odds that included:

– A month earlier: Derek Jeter’s game-saving flip to Jorge Posada against the Athletics helped the Yankees rally from two games down to win the ALDS
– Four days prior: A ninth-inning, two-run, game-tying home run preceded an extra-inning walk-off win at Yankee Stadium
– Three days prior: The same thing, off the same pitcher

(According to baseball reference, entering the ninth inning, the Yankees had a 10% chance to win those games. One in 100 to win both)

It’s tough to paint the Yankees as the victim in sports’ greatest tragedy, but that’s what gives this story the added dimension – everyone hates the Yankees. September 11th temporarily changed that, and never again will the Evil Empire have more likeability than they did that postseason.

My thesis statement here is the headline of this article. The pieces were in place for a perfect story.

Until the last chapter, it was.

The goat of that last chapter, Mariano Rivera will retire at the end of the 2013 season. The greatest closer of all time will no longer throw his golden pitch. The number 42 will never again make the red carpet jog from the Yankee Stadium bullpen to its mound. Enter Sandman will be retired.

Yes, players of all sports post tangible numbers, but different fans assign different weight to different stats, thus rarely is one player unanimously rendered “The Greatest”.

Can you make the argument why Mariano Rivera isn’t the greatest closer of all time?

*Arguing a “closer” needs to throw more than an inning, ala Goose Gossage or Dennis Eckersley, is the sole sound argument I’ve heard against Rivera, but I think that argument is lame when stacked up against Rivera’s consistent numbers.*

His career’s only beauty mark  came November 4th, 2001.

On baseball’s biggest stage, in the world’s biggest city, facing the world’s worst terroist attack in recent memory, a country came together as the tattered American flag from the North Tower waved bravely above Yankee Stadium, where 13 miles away the fire still burned. Instead, a small market team from Arizona celebrated.

What sports tragedy compares? For argument’s sake, I don’t count stories like the Marshall University tragedy or similar others that transcend sports. If you can think of others, I want to hear. I don’t want my bias as a Yankees fan to influence my opinion. I simply couldn’t think of another sports tragedy equal.

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Why Granderson’s Injury May Be a Positive For the Yankees

It took less than an inning. Picking up right where the Yankees left off in last year’s ALDS, a broken forearm will sideline all-star outfielder Curtis Granderson until May. The knee-jerk reaction is “here we go again,” “that sucks,” and other one-liners emanating negativity and pessimism.

But nothing against Granderson, and I don’t wish injury upon anybody, but it wouldn’t bother me if he was out for the year.

Since the Yankees’ scrappy dynasty of the late 90’s, the Steinbrenner wallet has headed the forefront of the New York Yankees product – cashmere-quality athletes who, on paper, should give the Yankees a World Series every two or three years.

About 12 years have gone by since the subjective start of this philosophy and the trend has been anything but what the Evil Empire expected – while borderline unfair, one championship in 12 years isn’t acceptable in the Bronx.

Personally, I want to see young guns get a chance to showcase their skills for the team who’s scouts handpicked them. There’s something different about cheering for a Robinson Cano vs. Alex Rodriguez, Brett Gardner vs. Mark Teixeira.

I’m not hating on A-Rod nor Teixeira, but the majesty of, for instance,  the ’98 Yankees came partially due to the homegrown talent that together created the perfect jigsaw puzzle: Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, David Cone, Mariano Rivera.

As a die-hard Yankee fan it seems my team today is kind of…. artificial.

It’s why I don’t mind watching Cashman wiggle his way out of paying a cent in luxury tax. Give your homegrown talent a chance to shine. The big bully free agency strategy is nice in theory, but has not shown the results we’ve come to expect out of the Bronx Bombers.

Remember Tony Womack? In 2005 the Yankees signed the veteran second baseman to a deal, only to forfeit that position to a young Robinson Cano that May due to Womack’s inability to do anything.

I don’t expect a home run like this to come from Granderson’s strike of bad luck, but there are Jeremy Lins out there waiting for their time.

Take as much time as you need Curtis. We want you healthy… but hopefully more good will come out of this than bad, and I hope a 22-year old Joe Schmo will have the chance to cash in.

Digging Deeper – Mariano’s Injury

Rivera gets carried off the field after tearing his ACL in Kansas City May 3rd

Despite Rafael Soriano’s strong performance so far in 2012, Mariano Rivera’s absence has hurt the Yankees in more ways than the surface conveys.

This year, Soriano has thrown to a 2.10 ERA and has beautifully patched up Rivera’s absence. His 42 saves through 152 games have already surpassed Rivera’s average of 40 over the last three seasons. Soriano has blown four saves in 2012, identical to Rivera’s annual average over those same three years.

On May 3rd, Rivera tried to track down a Jayson Nix fly ball during batting practice in Kansas City, but tore his ACL near the warning track at Kauffman Stadium, ending his season and wreaking havoc in New York.

Enter Rafael Soriano – Rays closer from two years ago. Instead of Yankees management pushing 2011’s eighth-inning man David Robertson one inning up the totem pole, Joe Girardi pops Soriano from the seventh inning to the ninth.

As a side note, I thought it was the correct move at the time. From 2009-11, both Soriano and Rivera struck out just over a batter per nine innings, both sported an above average K/BB ratio, and while Rivera’s ERA was better, Soriano’s experience translated into the closer role better than the talented, but young Robertson.

But to say the Yankees have not been hurt by Rivera’s absence is wrong.

This year, the Yankees have thrown to a 3.32 ERA in the seventh inning (source here). By filling Rivera’s gap, Soriano simply borrows from Peter to pay Paul. The seventh inning role is left unfilled by a solid, trustworthy arm and is instead patched together with a hopeful concoction of unproven or young arms (Clay Rapada, David Phelps, Boone Logan, Cody Eppely, etc.)

NUMBER CRUNCHING: Soriano has pitched in 66 games this year. For argument’s sake, let’s say all those games came in “close” ballgames in the seventh inning, the inning he would pitch if Rivera were healthy.

Ignoring the fallacy of the predetermined outcome, let’s say Mariano is himself and Soriano still throws to a 2.10 ERA, allowing all 15 earned runs in the seventh inning. Taking the 3.32 ERA of Yankees seventh-inning pitching in 2012, opponents would score about nine less runs than if Mariano was healthy.

While this ignores many variables and requires multiple assumptions, you can’t ignore the big picture: The Yankees would average more wins, and have a greater chance to win the World Series, if Mariano Rivera was healthy, despite Soriano’s excellent season.

To look at it from a different angle, Rivera has averaged about three wins after replacement over the last three years according to Say average seventh-inning pitchers are replacing Soriano, the Yankees would have a four-game lead over Baltimore with 10 games to play, not one.

In the first year with added emphasis on a division title, a four game lead would allow Girardi to relax and set up his pitching rotation for a likely ALDS appearance.

The game has changed over time. One hundred years ago, starters threw complete games every outing and the bullpen was reserved for starting pitchers that just weren’t good enough.

Slowly, a closer was in demand, then an eighth inning reliever, and in today’s game, a seventh-inning pitcher.

Since 2004, no pitcher has thrown over 255 innings in one season. In 1993, six hurled more than 255 innings. In 1963, six pitchers threw at least 275 innings, three over 300.

For the cherry on top, Will White threw 680 innings in 1879, and all 75 of his starts were complete games.

(For this reason I think Cy Young’s record of 511 wins is the most unbreakable record in sports, but that’s for another day.)

Since 2008, starting pitchers average a tad under six innings per start (141,878.1 innings pitched in 24,010 MLB starts since 2008 averages to 5.92 innings per start), so for a championship team, a seventh-inning man is vital.

With Rivera back in 2013, the Yankees have the best back end of the bullpen on paper. For a perennial offensive juggernaut, a trio of Soriano, Robertson, and Rivera will give the Yankees’ starters the confidence to relax and focus on just six strong innings, while the offense knows a late deficit is always within reach.

As for this season, are the Yankees a championship team without Mariano Rivera? No, but they are capable of winning the World Series. There’s a difference.