September 29, 2009
Sharpen those No. 2 pencils and start brewing your cram coffee, because it's exam time here on Big League Stew. Between now and the start of the postseason, we'll be giving essay-style tests to a blogger from each of the eight teams lucky enough to earn a playoff ticket. Next to take a seat in the classroom is Rob Iracane of Walkoff Walk. His Yankees clinched the AL East title on Sunday afternoon.
Team name: The New York Yankees
GPA/school rank 101-56, American League East champions
Accomplishments 26-time world champion; 39-time American League champion; 16-time AL East champion including 11 times in the past 14 years; considered by many to be the greatest organization in professional sports history.
Special skills Power, patience, and pop (lead the majors in HRs with 233 tater tots, walks with 642 free passes and runs scored at 879). Our pitchers will embarrass opposing hitters and will not give up leads late in the game (lead the AL in strikeouts with 1,207, saves with 50, and their .253 batting average allowed is second in the league).
References John Henry, owner of Boston Red Sox who joked about the existence of a Mark Teixeira curse after his team won eight straight to start the season against us. Since that date, the Yankees went 66-30 including 9-1 against the hapless Sox to take the division crown. ESPN's so-called experts who picked the team to finish third, including Jim Caple, Jerry Crasnick, Orel Hershiser, Eric Karabell, Amy Nelson, Buster Olney, someone named Nate Ravitz, and Gene Wojciechowski. Tim Marchman of the since-deceased New York Sun who buried the 2009 Yankees a full eight months before the season even started. How's your dying medium now, Marchman?
Financial aid: $208,097,414, down $1 million from 2008. The economic downturn is killing everyone!
Personal statement: To dismiss the 2009 New York Yankees' success as being just a result of financial excess and the wild, free-spending ways of the Steinbrenner family is to ignore the accomplishments of a select group of hard-working individuals. This team is not simply a loose-knit group of mercenaries showing up for business each day and collecting a paycheck. Rather, this is a collection of human beings whose success has been bred by inhouse teamwork.
In fact, very few teams can match the Yankees' high percentage of home-grown talent. From Andy Pettitte(notes) to Joba Chamberlain(notes), from Derek Jeter(notes) to Robinson Cano(notes), from Jorge Posada(notes) to Mariano Rivera(notes), from Brett Gardner(notes) to Melky Cabrera(notes), and six other strong pitchers in the bullpen, over 60 percent of the postseason roster will be products of a healthy farm system.
And A.J. Burnett(notes) aside, the Yankees brought in some genuinely likable free agents during the offseason. You can't find a better crop of affable players than CC Sabathia(notes), Mark Teixeira(notes) and Nick Swisher(notes). Even Alex Rodriguez(notes) has become a sympathetic figure after recovering from hip surgery and the slings and arrows of yellow journalists; his power numbers have decreased for the second straight year but with Teixeira and Hideki Matsui(notes) protecting him in the lineup, the burden on A-Rod has been lifted.
The late novelist Kurt Vonnegut once gave this advice as one of the basic tenets for creative writing in fiction: "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water." Perhaps this is part of the reason so many folks have difficulty cheering for the New York Yankees. They see a historically successful group of highly paid millionaires and wonder what they could possibly ever want more than what they have. To them, the Yankees are not sympathetic characters and the story is not believable; it is not interesting.
But to feel that way about Derek Jeter, or Alex Rodriguez, or Mark Teixeira is to give them a great disservice. If these guys didn't have a passion for the job they do and if they didn't positively want to win, they wouldn't be performing at such a high level. When you watch the Yankees play this postseason, consider their games as The Great American Novel and don't forget that the World Series ring is their collective glass of water. Yes, even for Derek Jeter who has four gold-plated glasses of water in his trophy case at home.
What are your biggest strengths? The best innings-eating, strikeout-throwing front line pitcher in the playoffs in CC Sabathia could possibly bring his 'A' game up to eight times in the 19 possible postseason games for the Yanks. Three days of rest? No problem, CC eats three days of rest for breakfast, with a side of melon. Oh, there's also the best offense in baseball, a tidy home-field advantage and the Panamanian Prophet himself, Mariano Rivera.
What's your biggest weakness? The rest of the rotation from Andy Pettitte to A.J. Burnett to Joba Chamberlain have had their issues but really, the Yankees' biggest weakness is the same as every other team: Small Sample Size! The five-game ALDS format is enough to produce a giant-killer out of even the lowliest division winner. One hundred wins or not, there can be no sure favorites when a series can turn on something as simple as a swarm of bugs.
How have you changed over the year? We picked up our best bench in years. Gone are the days of relying on the Andy Phillipses or Cody Ransoms of the world. We acquired a super-utility man and a member of a great baseball family in Jerry Hairston Jr.(notes) More importantly, in one of our monthly trades with the Pittsburgh Pirates, we picked up three-time AL East Champion Eric Hinske(notes), he of the 2007 Boston Red Sox and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. Dude simply knows how to win division titles! The most underrated trade was fifth starter Chad Gaudin(notes) who has proved to be perfectly mediocre, but the Yankees have won his last five starts.
When did you first start believing in yourself? In early August, the Yankees swept the Red Sox over four games at The Stadium and turned a 2.5-game lead to a 6.5-game lead. I was in a Jersey Shore bar for the first game and I saw Melky Cabrera hit a home run to the second tier in right field and I spotted the ball land a few seats away from my dad. There's no better feeling than hanging out with Jersey Shore jamooks and spotting your dad in the crowd when your favorite team is crushing it.
Can you tell us about a time you faced adversity and overcame it? On June 24, GM Brian Cashman paid an emergency visit to Atlanta, where the Yankees had just been shut out the night before as part of a 1-5 skid to teams from the NL East. At that point, the Yankees were six games over .500 and five games out of first, but once Cashman arrived and the team had a private meeting to rally their spirits, the team went on a 62-24 tear that brought them to 100 wins on Sunday. So, thanks for that, 2009 Atlanta Braves.
In one month, where do you see yourself? There are no guarantees in life and, with the exception of the 1998 Yankees, the current format of the baseball postseason follows that cliche absolutely. Still, the Yankees are playing at the highest level they can at the exact right time. These guys will win the World Series not just because they are the best dancer on the floor, but because they're all thirsty and they want that glass of water.
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Previous exams: St. Louis Cardinals (NL Central)