More than any other season in recent memory, this version of the New York Yankees was built on the anticipation of future improvement and change. This process began in earnest nearly one year ago when the Giants defeated the Rangers in the World Series. Despite turning a howitzer-sized spotlight on Cliff Lee, they watched him go to Philadelphia instead, and then found that the market beyond him was quite unattractive. The team headed into Spring Training with one known quantity in CC Sabathia, two quantities thought to be known in Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett, and a slew of unknowns in Nova, Garcia, Colon and more. “Wait til the season starts, let the pitching trade market develop” was the refrain. “Something will pop up”.
Several things popped up, but for various reasons they were never a great fit for the Yankees. Ubaldo Jimenez’s price was sky high, and he wasn’t exactly a savior for the Indians once they acquired him. Other targets like John Danks and Gavin Floyd never materialized as expected. Hiroki Kuroda ruled himself out despite his team’s interest in trading him and the Yankees’ interest in acquiring him. It was simply a bad market. It still wasn’t over on July 31st, though. While it appeared unlikely, the Yankees still had the chance to obtain someone to bolster the pitching staff via the waivers system. Wandy Rodriguez was considered, but nothing came of it. As far as pitchers went, the team was rolling with what they started with.
The Yankees still had one ace up their sleeve, one final shot in the arm. It was the baby-faced kid from Venezuela, Jesus Montero: the big-time prospect, much anticipated, long-awaited and sick of being bored. In September he made his debut for the big league club and exceeded even the highest expectations we had placed on him. Montero was really the one and only big change to the team’s composition, though. As changes go, it was quite small.
This team has been stable and calm for awhile now. In a lot of ways, it feels like they’ve been playing September baseball for months. September baseball is by and large a languid affair. For a lot of teams the games are played by AAA players – prospects or organizational filler- as bigger and older names get some rest after a long season. Many of the games are played in half-empty stadiums now that kids are back in school and going to bed on time. Many of the games have little to no import in the grand scheme of the season. September baseball is a time for unwinding, for reflection on the season drawing to a close. It’s slow and peaceful, and it couldn’t be any different from the violence of October.
This violence was on full display Wednesday night when two teams had their seasons snuffed out right before their very eyes. This was particularly brutal for Red Sox fans, who went from expecting a victory and a Rays’ loss to realizing it was all over in the course of no more than five minutes. With two outs and Papelbon on the hill, one has to imagine many of the fans had already started thinking about Game 163, perhaps debating different potential starters. Maybe some of them were even looking past it to the ALDS rotation, considering which opponent they preferred to face. And then it was all gone.
It’s enough to make one nostalgic for September baseball, where everything is safe, where the games don’t matter and you watch for nothing more than the love of the game. In September other teams may look better than yours, but there’s always tomorrow. There’s always that next lineup, that next pitcher, that next game. There’s always time for trying new tactics, testing new players, tinkering with the lineup or the roster or hoping for a bounceback from under-performers. September ends tonight. There’s no savior on the horizon, no improvements to be made, no reinforcements coming. The Yankees are dancing with the ones that brung ‘em.
With that in mind, and knowing that nothing risked will always mean nothing gained, there’s really nothing left to do but leave the safety of September. All that is left is to embrace the whirlwind with clear eyes and anticipatory hearts and hope for the best. There is no escape hatch, no way out, no Plan B now. There is only Plan A, and it’s the plan that germinates and sprouts deep down in the heart of every fan the moment they see those first photos of pitchers and catchers stretching on the green grass in February. It’s the same plan that motivates fans to stick with the team through the ups and the downs, through the dumb losses and the frustration. It’s the same plan that calls for the biggest payoff possible. It’s the same plan every year. It’s Plan A, and Plan A is to win eleven games and dance in the streets of lower Manhattan.