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Sadly, Yankees Go Home

Dan-nie Baseball

By Daniel G. Habib

Everybody has freshman skeletons in the closet.

Some of us took copious notes in Justice lectures, some of us wandered the Yard for hours, looking for "that party in Greenough, or maybe Stoughton, I'm not sure," some of us even ate the Kung Pao chicken in Annenberg. Mine was introducing myself as a Yankees fan(atic) to someone from Atlanta.

It was an easy mistake to make--after all, the playoffs were months away--and he seemed normal enough. Little did I know he would end up in my common room six weeks later to watch Game 4 of the World Series.

No sooner had Jimmy Leyritz hit Mark Wohlers's hanging slider somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon line than did I hear an unearthly scream from Georgia-boy, and see my roommate's lawn ornament chicken take flight, straight into a Canaday concrete wall. A couple of days later, Frank Torre had a new heart and the World Series trophy was back in the Big Apple.

Ah, 1996. Those were the days. I gladly forked over hundreds of dollars for scalped tickets to Game 6, missed sections by the bushel and watched as the baseball world fell in love with a team whose spirit was bigger than the Bronx's right-field power alley.

Of course, those of us in the know weren't the least bit surprised when Leyritz went deep. There had been that none-too-small matter of a 15th-inning shot into the Yankee Stadium bleachers to put the Bombers up two games to nothing over the Seattle Mariners in perhaps the greatest postseason series of the decade, one whose conclusion I've long since repressed.

So what happened? Is 1995 really so far away that the two most charismatic, star-studded teams in the American League couldn't last past the first round? And when we might have seen Randy Johnson duel David Cone in the opener last night, what have we done to deserve Chad Ogea versus Scott Erickson? Roberto Alomar and Jose Mesa? Peter Angelos?

Baseball conventional wisdom says that the Yankees-Mariners series saved the game, that it took the bad taste of a strike still bitterly remembered out of the fans' mouths. Indeed, those five gritty games rekindled the spark that greed and intransigence had almost extinguished. We revived our passion for mammoth home runs, for blown saves and tenth-inning comebacks.

Apparently, we'll have no such luck this time around. The Mariners bowed meekly to Mike Mussina, the Yankees to Jaret Wright and baseball is left with the leftovers of a fall classic that might have been.

What's infuriating about the denouement of the Divisional Playoffs isn't that Seattle and New York were gypped (That is, if you really believe that Sandy Alomar slid across home plate without leaving any dirt on it). Both went down to teams that, over the course of four and five-game series, proved their mettle with clearly superior starting pitching and clutch hitting, and wholly deserve their spots in the Championship Series.

Then why do we feel cheated out of a coast-to-coast rematch for bragging rights in the AL? Maybe it has something to do with the conspicuous absence of the superstars now munching popcorn and watching Tim McCarver make a fool of himself on Fox.

Cases in point: Ken Griffey, Jr. and Bernie Williams, the junior circuit's centerfield heirs to the throne. Griffey, who managed 56 home runs and 147 RBI, could only squeak out two hits and a .133 batting average against the Birds. And his vaunted gold glove came up a bit short when Roberto Alomar, predictably enough, welcomed Bobby Ayala from the chamber-of-horrors Seattle bullpen with a shot to the centerfield wall that Junior couldn't quite handle.

Williams, who still managed 117 RBI after two stints on the disabled list led Yankee impotence at the plate, going 2-for-17 while staring like a deer in the headlights at pitches comfortably in his "red-hot zone."

Let's not forget Johnson and Andy Pettitte, all year long the AL's most feared left-handers, a combined 0-4, with a better than 7.00 ERA. And while Seattle's bullpen was typically awful, even the mighty Mariano Rivera, purveyor of the awe-inspiring "easy gas" high-90s fastball, succeeded in blowing his tenth save by serving up Alomar's backbreaking Game 4 blast.

Granted, there were the Paul O'Neills, David Wellses, Jeff Fasseros and Jamie Moyers of the postseason--players who rose to the October moment and shone, very nearly carrying their respective squads further than they should have gone. But the inexplicable vanishing standouts sapped the Mariners and the Yankees of any chance to recreate what was so powerful two short seasons ago.

So farewell to the AL's also-rans, once more linked by October karma, this time considerably less auspicious than the last, and Godspeed to the survivors; may Omar Vizquel drag-bunt his way into our hearts and minds (now that Chad Curtis isn't around to come barging into second base standing up), may Roberto Alomar keep his well-travelled salivary glands in check, and may Greg Maddux and Kevin Brown pitch a 22-inning scoreless tie.

But Orioles and Indians fans take heed: the gods of the diamond are as fickle as they are fantastic, word is Jeff Maier has right-field box seats for all the LCS games and Richie Garcia is calling both foul lines.

And to our counterparts cooling their heels in Microsoft country: don't fret, we'll meet again someday. Maybe next time, we'll both remember that playoff complacency is the hobgoblin of 90-win seasons, and that October is still the best time of year for drama.

Maybe now I'll get to that response paper.

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