Tuesday, October 16, 2012

How Long It's Been: The Yankees Won a Pennant Without the "Core Four"

Jorge Posada has retired.  Mariano Rivera missed most of the season.  Derek Jeter is out for the rest of the postseason.  The only one of the 1996-2003 "Core Four" who has made any real contribution in the first 2 games of the 2012 American League Championship Series is Andy Pettitte -- ironic, since he's already left the Yankees twice (2003-04 and 2010-11), and come back.

With them, the Yankees won AL Pennants in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2009.  Something they almost certainly will not do in 2012.

Without them, the Yankees haven't won a Pennant since October 15, 1981.  On that night, they completed a 3-game sweep of the Oakland Athletics, managed by once-and-future Yankee manager Billy Martin, at the Oakland Coliseum.  The clincher was a 4-0 Yankee win, but was only 1-0 going into the 9th inning, so Dave Righetti, that night's Yankee starter, needed to pitch well, and he did.  Willie Randolph hit a home run, and also caught a looper for the final out behind 2nd base.

October 15, 1981: 32 years and 1 day.  How long has that been?


We didn't know it yet, but the Yankees were at the end of the first George Steinbrenner dynasty that began to be built in 1973, won the Pennant in 1976, won the World Series in 1977 and 1978, and won the AL Eastern Division in 1980.

From the 1976-78 teams, Thurman Munson was already dead.  Catfish Hunter and Roy White were retired.  Chris Chambliss, Mickey Rivers, Ed Figueroa and Sparky Lyle had been traded.  So had Fred "Chicken" Stanley, who was across the field in the A's dugout with Billy.  Oscar Gamble, Rudy May, and manager Bob Lemon had left and returned.  So had Bobby Murcer, if you want to extend it back to 1974.  Randolph, Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, Lou Piniella, Bucky Dent, Ron Guidry and Rich "Goose" Gossage remained. Righetti, Tommy John, Ron Davis, Rick Cerone, Bob Watson and Jerry Mumphrey had been added.

In spite of the Pennant, the Yankees averaged only 15,804 fans per home game at the original Yankee Stadium.  This was partly due to the South Bronx having deteriorated into an urban nightmare -- the Paul Newman cop drama Fort Apache, The Bronx was released in February of that year.  Nobody wanted to go to The Bronx -- unless that's where your drug dealer wanted to meet and you really, really needed a fix.  It had been an awful regression for New York City, and it could be seen in film: From the style and sophistication of Breakfast at Tiffany's in 1961, to the funky seediness of Midnight Cowboy in 1969, to the desolation of Taxi Driver in 1976, to Fort Apache, The Bronx in 1981.  Two recent period pieces, the TV show Life On Mars (set in 1973) and the miniseries The Bronx Is Burning (about 1976-77 in New York, including the Yankees, the Mayoral election and the hunt for the Son of Sam), did not exaggerate.  I remember: It really was that bad, no matter how much Mayor Ed Koch and Governor Hugh Carey tried to talk the City up, no matter how much people in tourism commercials sang, "I Love New York."

But the low attendance was also partly due to the baseball strike, which split the season into 2 halves.  The teams that were in first place in their Divisions when the strike began -- the Yankees, the A's in the AL West,  the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the AL West -- were guaranteed spots in the Playoffs, and thus had nothing to play for when the season resumed.  So none of them won the 2nd half Division titles: These were won by the Milwaukee Brewers, the Kansas City Royals, the Montreal Expos and the Houston Astros.

Thus began the first-ever Division Series, and those wouldn't happen again until the 3-divisions-and-wild-card setup began in 1995 (after meaning for it to begin in 1994, but another strike wiped that out).  The Yankees won the first 2 games in Milwaukee, but the Brewers took the next 2 in The Bronx, and after Game 4, Steinbrenner barged into the locker room and went on a tirade, yelling at the players, saying they were disgracing the Yankee uniform, the Yankee tradition, the City of New York and Yankee Fans everywhere.  Murcer tried to tell him, "Now is not the time, George." George yelled, "It IS the time, goddamn it!" and went on, until finally Cerone stood up, and, like a Newark boss, pointed his finger at THE Boss, and said, "Fuck you, George!" and walked out.  The Yankees won Game 5, sparked by back-to-back home runs by Reggie and Gamble, and another homer by, of course, Cerone.

The A's beat the Royals, the Expos beat the Phils, and the Dodgers beat the Astros.  In the NLCS, Rick Monday's 9th-inning homer won the decisive Game 5 in Montreal, and the Dodgers won the Pennant.  The Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals franchise hasn't been that close to a Pennant since.

Then came the World Series.  A banner hung at Yankee Stadium during Game 1 emphasized the fact that the Yankees had beaten the Dodgers in '77 and '78: "DON'T THE DODGERS EVER LEARN?" They did: Although the Yankees won Games 1 and 2 in New York, the Dodgers took the next 4, and won their first World Championship since 1963.  I was nearly 12 years old, and this Yankee postseason defeat still sticks in my craw more than most of the 2001-12 October losses.

Rivera was 11 years old, Posada 10, Pettitte 9, Jeter 7, Alex Rodriguez and R.A. Dickey 6, Albert Pujols nearly 2, and Robinson Cano, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander weren't born yet.

There was an NFL team in Baltimore, but it was the Colts, not the Ravens.  There was one in St. Louis, but it was the Cardinals, not the Rams.  There was one in Houston, but it was the Oilers, not the Texans.  The NFL was still a League where the high-profile teams were the Oakland Raiders, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Miami Dolphins and the Dallas Cowboys, but the San Francisco 49ers were about to begin their dynasty.

The Boston Celtics were defending NBA Champions, having beaten the Houston Rockets in the Finals.  The Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers would be back, however.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Julius "Dr. J" Erving were the big names.  Michael Jordan was about to play his first game at the University of North Carolina.  The Knicks and Nets were both nondescript teams.  The New York Islanders were in the middle of their Stanley Cup dynasty (stop laughing), and the Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier hadn't won any yet. The Rangers were an aging team in transition, and the Devils were still the NHL version of the Colorado Rockies.  The heavyweight champion of the world was Larry Holmes.

The President of the United States was Ronald Reagan.  George H.W. Bush was his Vice President.  Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, their wives, and the widows of Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were all still alive.  Bill Clinton was out of office, having been defeated for re-election as Governor of Arkansas the year before -- but was already planning one of his occasional comebacks.  George W. Bush was running Arbusto Energy -- running it into the ground.  Barack Obama had just transferred from Occidental College in Los Angeles to Columbia University in New York.  Mitt Romney was a vice president with Bain Capital.

James Clavell published Noble House, Frank Herbert God Emperor of Dune, John Irving The Hotel New Hampshire, Gabriel Garcia Marquez Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Toni Morrison Tar Baby, Martin Cruz Smith Gorky Park, Paul Theroux The Mosquito Coast, and Joseph Wambaugh The Glitter Dome.  John Gardner restarted the James Bond novels, which had been exhausted following the last unpublished stories of the character's creator Ian Fleming, with Licence Renewed.  Thomas Harris published Red Dragon, which introduced the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

In television, the previous spring's Dallas cliffhanger was resolved: J.R. Ewing had not gotten revenge on his sister-in-law/former mistress/baby mama Kristin Shepard for shooting him a year earlier -- he didn't push her over the railing and into the pool to her death, she fell because she had a drug overdose.  Luke Spencer and Laura Webber were about to get married on General Hospital.  Chuck Woolery was about to leave his post as host of Wheel of Fortune, handing it over to Pat Sajak.  Entertainment Tonight, Lee Majors' post-Six Million Dollar Man series The Fall Guy, Tony Randall's post-Odd Couple series Love, Sidney, Nell Carter's Gimme a Break, Simon & Simon and Falcon Crest all debuted, or soon would, in the TV season that had just begun.  So did the U.S. version of the cartoon The Smurfs, and new cartoons featuring comic book characters Captain Marvel (a.k.a. "Shazam!") and Spider-Man.  Charlie's Angels, The Waltons and Eight Is Enough had recently aired their final first-run episodes.

MTV had gone on the air for the first time.  Were they actually airing music at the time? Yes.  Was it good music? For the most part, no.  Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel had a reunion concert in front of half a million people in Central Park.  Prince released his album Controversy.  In the course of 1981, The Buzzcocks, Steely Dan and the Bay City Rollers broke up.  10,000 Maniacs, Anthrax, The Bangles, The Blow Monkeys, The Beastie Boys, The Butthole Surfers, Culture Club (these last two definitely not to be confused with each other), Katrina and the Waves, Metallica, Ministry, Mötley Crüe, Pet Shop Boys, Queensrÿche, Patti Smyth's band Scandal, Slayer, Sonic Youth and Suicidal Tendencies all formed.

The Prime Minister of Canada was Pierre Trudeau, and of Britain, Margaret Thatcher.  Aston Villa of Birmingham, the West Midlands, had won the Football League for the first time in 71 years (still their only title in the last 112 years).  Liverpool FC had won the European Cup, but Villa were about to take it away.  Tottenham Hotspur were in the middle of back-to-back FA Cup wins -- this was a rare period when they were definitively better than the real team in North London, Arsenal.

Desktop computers and mobile telephones had been developed, but they were still very bulky and very slow.  There was not much of an Internet.  The first space shuttle, Columbia, had been launched earlier in the year.

In the early fall of 1981, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic militants, beginning the 31-year dictatorship of the man who had been his Vice President, Hosni Mubarak.  For a long time, Mubarak seemed like an enlightened leader and an ally to America, but eventually the truth came out.  France abolished capital punishment and developed their first high-speed rail system, the TGV.  The Central American colony of British Honduras gained its independence, becoming the independent nation of Belize, remaining in the British Commonwealth.  In America, Sandra Day O'Connor was confirmed and sworn in as the first female Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  And the Boeing 767 went into service.

In the early fall of 1981, songwriter Harry Warren, and actor Robert Montgomery, and legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly died.  Alexis Bledel, and Nicole Richie, and Serena Williams were born.

October 16, 1981.  The New York Yankees won a Pennant.  And Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada had nothing to do with it.

From here on out, the 2012 postseason will only involve Pettitte -- and then only if the Yankees can somehow get this series to a Game 5.

I'm not optimistic.  The Yankees' record without Numbers 2, 20, 42 and 46 has not been good since the fall of '81.

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