How many times have we seen this movie play out before? The Yankees make a supersized move over the offseason that vaults them back into first place in the AL East, and back into the Fall Classic in all the preseason media predictions, and in the minds of fans nationwide.
With Johnny Damon supplanting Bernie Williams in center, this team simply can't lose. This lineup is the new Murderer's Row. World Series number 27 is simply on layaway, guaranteed to be delivered in late October. Fans of baseball parity everywhere are outraged yet again. Another title bought by George Steinbrenner's greed.
Funny the critics said all those things last year when the Bombers acquired lefty starter Randy Johnson. Johnson was last seen in the Bronx coughing up Game 3 of the ALDS to the tune of an early, ugly 5-0 deficit. The Yankee bats responded to seemingly bail out their aging ace, but the Angels had already sunk their teeth in, and would not relent until they had the game and the series.
In '04, the Yankees surely were on their way to title number 27. With the acquisitions of Gary Sheffield, and the game's ultimate five-tool player, Alex Rodriguez, how could they lose? Their hated rivals, the then-cursed Red Sox, were left fuming as the Yankees swooped in and stole A-Rod from right under their nose, as the Sox had tried and failed all winter to lock up Rodriguez. Yet the Yankees ultimately stole the star shortstop's heart on that Valentine's Day, and Boston was left with more questions of The Curse. Curt Schilling to Boston seemed like a footnote compared to this signing, many seemed to think. Eight months later, on a Yankee Stadium uncharacteristically engulfed in fans and players all wearing red, I think we all remember how that turned out.
2003 saw the Yankees import their star talent, but still with the same buzz. Highly-coveted Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras, and the Japanese star known as Godzilla, Hideki Matsui, had both signed with the Yankees. Adding Contreras to a rotation that already had Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, and David Wells would spell doom for American League hitters, while Matsui in an already overwhelmingly powerful lineup would provide an endless barrage of home runs with which to dominate the game of baseball. As it turned out, they held their breath and hung on for dear life against Boston in the ALCS in what may have been Babe Ruth's final masterpiece from the great beyond. Then a staggering, exhausted Yankee team was swallowed up by The Little Marlins Team That Could in the '03 Fall Classic.
In 2002, Jason Giambi said goodbye to his home and newfound fame and popularity in Oakland to shave the facial hair (and with it, his personality). The-Yankees-are-bad-for-baseball bandwagon was in full swing. How could any other team win a championship if the Yankees had such a monopoly on big-name free agents? How could it be right to so blatantly buy another title in this manner?
Giambi's right field pull swing at Yankee Stadium surely spelled murder to any team that opposed them. Especially when they were putting their postseason leads in the hands of such reliable veterans as Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, (back-to-back home runs by Garrett Anderson and Troy Glaus in the eighth inning of Game 2 at home), Mike Mussina, (a 6-1 lead turning into a 9-6 loss in Game 3), and David Wells (serving up 8 runs in the fifth inning of Game 4). And yes, this loss came to an Angels team that was pre-Vlad Guerrero. Giambi batted .357 in the four-game series with 1 HR and 3 RBIs. Few fans can actually remember any of those hits.
Finally, what could have been more certain than 2001? The core of the Yankee dynasty was still intact, and in addition, the hot new acquisition was Mike Mussina to their already solid pitching rotation. To add that to the team of Chuck Knoblauch, Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Tino Martinez, Mike Stanton, and all the other beloved "true Yankees" of the past, the dynasty seemed headed for a fourth consecutive title ring.
Yet the team was nearly knocked out in the first round by a quick left-right combination from surprise contender Oakland before reaching the World Series where Arizona's Schilling and Johnson traded blows with ninth-inning Yankee rallies in what Baseball Tonight's Peter Gammons referred to as "the most implausible World Series of all-time." The ending certainly ensured that, as Mariano Rivera, who is commonly referred to as "the Hammer of God," gave up the tying and winning runs in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series. Mussina's postseason was solid throughout, never suffering a loss, and even memorable, winning a brilliant 1-0 duel over Barry Zito in an elimination Game 3 of the ALDS. Yet he could not save them from their fate, and the dynasty has been in shambles ever since.
All of these blockbuster acquisitions, with the exception of Jose Contreras, who was last seen winning championships with his new friends by the south side of Chicago, have remained together on the Yankees. They simply add a new star every year, only to see what little difference it ultimately makes in the month of October. And with a legion of Yankee-hating baseball fans who believe that Brian Cashman and George Steinbrenner are the root of all evil (after all, they are the "Evil Empire," aren't they?) and unfairly buying championships, many forget that Major League Baseball has now had six different World Series champions over the past six years.
Between the Yankees, Diamondbacks, Angels, Marlins, Red Sox, and White Sox, the formula for winning in October has been written and expressed very differently from year to year. In fact, one may argue that a specific formula for such a task simply does not exist.
The White Sox won with superior pitching and minimal but timely hitting. The Angels of 2002 won almost entirely with a lineup that got hot at the right time and innings filled with six-, seven-, and eight-run rallies to overcome mediocre pitching. The Marlins won with a young, unproven pitching staff and a lineup of hitters who were strangers to the extra-base hit, but compensated with tons of aggression on the basepaths. Arizona won their rings almost entirely on the backs of their two-headed monster of Schilling and Johnson leading the pitching staff ... and one clutch ninth-inning rally.
There is also that elusive, inexplicable elixir known as team chemistry. It isn't entirely necessary to win, as the '70s Yankees once proved, and sometimes winning creates the illusion of chemistry. Yet since 2002, many have claimed that all of these all-stars the Yankees have accumulated have not, and will not mesh well together. Who knows what level or how much of an impact that will continue to have? But one thing is certain: there are no longer any guarantees for a Yankee team in October, regardless of what names show up on the opening day roster.