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Everything’s coming up roses around “the Nation.” The Red Sox are rampaging and the Yankees are dead. “Who could ask for anything more?” croon the zealots.
They were lucky, to be sure. You have to be lucky to safely traverse the minefield the playoffs have become. They caught the Angels when they were decimated by injury. The Devil Rays could have won that series. They caught the Indians just as their young and inexperienced pitching stalwarts were awakening from a dream world to realize they were perched on a scaffold. Thirty runs in three games! It might have been the most brutal postseason pitching meltdown in baseball history.
Can the Rockies -- a team stocked with players who’ve never been to the prom, that barely broke even this season in a weak league, and are coming off an eight-day layoff -- fare any better? You’ll have a better idea by the time this hits the streets. But their glorious winning streak not withstanding, the Rockies may be the heaviest underdog in World Series history.
Making it all the sweeter is the Yankees’ plight. The Yankees’ misery doubles the Nation’s fun. The Germans have a word for it. ‘‘Schadenfreude.’’ Which means “deriving pleasure from another’s misfortune.” ‘‘Schadenfreude’’ is merry sport hereabouts.
Still, you must give the Yankees credit. They simply refuse to leave the stage.
Driven off by the Indians. Impaled on the horns of their own outrageous expectations. Undone by a bloody swarm of flying midges. The Yankees nonetheless prevail in the battle for the baseball spotlight, which sometimes seems what they value most. They have everyone talking about little old “them,” upstaging the teams that left them in the dust. Amazing! Maybe they aren’t what they used to be but they still have a high sense of theater.
You’ll recall that pot-boiler, “The Bronx is Burning,” depicting the mindless turmoil of the 1977 season. It played all summer on cable and received rave reviews for being brilliantly performed while also verifying with stunning clarity that in 30 years nothing in the House of Steinbrenner has changed.
Anxious to reaffirm all that, old George -- veering on his dotage but still full of vim and vinegar -- seized upon the pretext of another disappointing season to give us the sort of Wagnerian tempest that might appease his raging ego. He merely intended to settle a score with his manager, whom he once loved. In the process, he torched himself, his team, and his hopes for a seamless transition to a personal Valhalla. It was like the final act of Lohengrin, exploding in rhapsodic bombast as half the characters are being hauled off on their shields. Yogi Berra might have termed it “Déjà vu all over again.”
Trying to distinguish between who was right or wrong, or determine winners and losers in this spectacular fiasco is pointless. There are no winners except maybe some of those sneaky little aparatchiks in the Yankee’s front office. Joe Torre, currently taking bows all over town, thinks he’s a winner but we’ll see how he feels next summer when he’s still cleaning out the garage or signing autographs at baseball card shows. Worse still he could be the manager of the Dodgers lingering in fourth place waiting for Nomar to heal.
A huge loser is the team itself. How grave will be determined by how many of the old guard are driven away in horror by the treatment of Torre. Still others -- notably that towering enigma of a third baseman -- will find all that stuff a nice excuse to sashay off into the mist unscathed. Torre’s plight grieves A-Rod not a whit. But he is going to say it does. You just wait and see. As for GM Brian Cashman, the Good Soldier who alone stood by Torre, he too will be gone in another year when his contract runs out and the team lands in fourth place. You just wait and see. Say goodbye to the last remnants of your last dynasty, George.
And it is George, of course, who is the biggest loser. His kids may have been badly bruised too but they don’t count, which hopefully won’t come as crushing news to Prince Hal and Crown Prince Hank. George is the one. It is all about George. A nasty man, yes. But a fabulous character too, in his often obtuse way. It has almost become a cliché to cast the rapidly declining George as another King Lear, baying on the hearth lamenting his failed dreams and the harshness of the gods. Yet life does imitate art. Sometimes.
Torre will remain a puzzle. He’s a tightly-wired fellow; clever, methodical and logical. He matched up well with George. Very few did. But Joe did. In the end, he cleaned George’s clock, out-maneuvering the old bully by making it a public relations battle which George had utterly no chance of winning.
In the end, the Steinbrenners were cavalier with him, no question. There was the unmistakable whiff of insincerity about the little games they played with his contract. They were plainly half-hearted and ham-handed in their antics and making him dangle for a week was clumsy and small-minded, even by their miniscule standards for such nonsense. You didn’t need to be as sensitive as Torre to be offended, or as proud as Torre to find it impossible to compromise if it obliged him to lick their boots.
But don’t tell me Joe is “the victim” here. Nor do I faintly buy the notion that he’s been insulted. In the world we live in, a $5 million salary can never be termed “an insult.” Moreover the bonuses they offered -- upwards to $3 million more for winning the championship -- are unprecedented in the history of sport.
It may be ungracious of the Steinbrenners to snidely assert that they made Joe Torre what he is today but they aren’t entirely wrong. It’s a fact that they gave him his chance at a time when he had no other offers. And they did allow him to rumble 12 years. The Red Sox have had only one manager in their entire history who lasted that long.
More to the point, Torre is not the manager he once was; at least not on the field, not in terms of tactics. Interestingly, he’s slipped since he had Don Zimmer at his side whispering in his ear through all the games. His pitching problems have sharpened since those clever Steinbrenners ran off his favorite pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre. His patience with young players is suspect. He sometimes lacks an ‘‘edge’’ and sometimes seems bewildered. He’s no longer a kid. If none of this justifies the Steinbrenners’ oafish performance in driving him away, it reminds us there are two sides to every story. And yet, is there anyone who can do the job better in that seething cauldron?
Joe should have called their bluff. The heroic pose that he struck -- walking away bloodied but unbowed like Marshall Will Kane at the end of “High Noon” -- has enormous appeal. But one suspects the afterglow could turn chilling. He should have called their bluff, taken their offer, returned next season to lead the Yankees back to the heights behind all their terrific young pitching, and then told George and his kids what they could do with their bloody job.
Can’t you see him flipping his tin badge in the dust and -- after one last baleful glare at his tormentors -- walking off into the sunset? Now, that ...would truly be a Wagnerian finale!
Does any of this move Red Sox Nation? Doubtful! From their newly attained Olympian heights one can sense the zealots being alternately amused and disdainful.
You only hope they are enjoying themselves.