The New York Yankees won the 2009 World Series, reached the ALCS three times and won a total of 390 regular-season games since missing the postseason in 2008.
By most any other team's measure, that sentence would be deemed a rousing success and one of the best runs in franchise history. But when it comes to the Yankees, the main question will always be why any other qualifiers past that first comma were necessary. The line between boom and bust in the Bronx is perhaps not a fair one, but it has always been clear. Nothing less than a World Series title can provide a satisfactory to a year in the life of the Yankees and so the 2012 season — which ended in a humbling ALCS sweep to the Detroit Tigers on Thursday — will be labeled a disappointment by those in pinstripes.
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Or will it be? While the late George Steinbrenner would've been breathing fire before the Yankees team plane ever came to Detroit for Games 3 and 4, manager Joe Girardi said his post-elimination remarks to his team were not of the tongue-lashing variety.
"There is only one team that's going to be happy when the year ends," Girardi told reporters when they asked what he said to his team after the 8-1 loss in Game 4. "They did a lot of good things and they overcame a lot of good things this year. We know we fell short. We understand that.
"But how do we get better? I mean, that's my message. How do we all, including myself, how do we all get better next year so we don't have this feeling?"
It's hard to imagine the Boss putting the offseason's challenge in such touchy-feely, self-help workshop terms, isn't it? Heck, it's hard to imagine anyone saying something like that if the possibility still existed that Steinbrenner was lurking around a corner.
For those of you missing the reassuring everything-will-be-better bite of George, here's the good news: While the one son the Steinbrenner family still lets out in public probably won't come close to barking out any demands over the next week — not when there's a game of luxury tax threshold limbo to play — George Streinbrenner's rigid expectations still live on in the impatient suggestions and outsized dreams from New York's media and fans. They'll be present as they call for Alex Rodriguez's contract to be traded to a discount-minded team at the winter meetings (a long shot), Curtis Granderson to be shopped one year before free agency (a decent chance) and Nick Swisher instructed to seek Jayson Werth-type money elsewhere (the best bet out there).
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Meanwhile, they'll want the team to pursue Robinson Cano for a long-term contract extension to lock him up past 2013 and make him a franchise cornerstone. So long as the MVP-caliber second baseman agrees that his days of 3 for 40 postseasons are behind him, of course. They'll want to look for more pitching to put behind CC Sabathia, a search that would have been made much easier had Michael Pineda not shredded his shoulder or if any of the team's top crop of minor-league pitchers had made a decent-sized jump in 2012. Finally, they'll welcome Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter back from injury, answering two questions that have rarely needed mind over the past 15 or so seasons.
There's admittedly a game plan in those suggestions, but strip away all the hyperbole and knee-jerk reactions and Girardi is right in how he approaches this. Going forward, the team's main challenge will again be to reconcile the success of another 95-win regular season with another postseason flameout. Just what is the right amount of reaction to a bad October week at the plate that would have been forgotten with the next three-game winning streak had it happened during the regular season?
Whether or not there's an exact prescription is the riddle and curse of the expanded postseason, a random crapshoot whose odds never mattered to those four title teams of the early Core Four years but have lately turned these Yankees into the next edition of the Atlanta Braves dynasty that had severe trouble closing.
New York GM Brian Cashman shouldn't overreact to this outcome, nor will he. But just as if this run had ended with a World Series ring, he should be aiming toward a younger and more flexible future instead of the roster's current march to AARP-eligibility. And no matter what the outcry is over these next few days, Cashman can't lose sight of this paradoxical truth: The only way the Yankees can truly disappoint is if they stop putting themselves in the position to be disappointing each postseason.
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