Twenty-five years ago, as the New York Knicks prepared to face the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals, I was compelled by a previous employer to write the hoariest of pre-playoff columns: Ridicule the opposing city.
Like an idiot, I did as I was told, although to be honest, my heart wasn't really in it. The opening line included the acknowledgment that Houston was, indeed, the first word ever spoken from the surface of the moon.
I had no axe to grind with the city — the people treated me wonderfully, even after local TV stations led their sportscasts with a blowup of my face under the headline “This Place is a Hellhole” — and in truth, neither did the Knicks. There was no rivalry between the teams and no legitimate reason to make fun of the city except that a tabloid editor wanted me to. In the ’90s, the Knicks’ nemesis was the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. That year, the Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, were just very, very good.
This is different, however. The Houston Astros are not just good, or even very, very good. They are far and away the best team in the American League, and probably all of Major League Baseball.
That should make the Yankees very, very mad.
Because there's no getting around it anymore. For three of their past four Octobers, the Yankees championship express has come to a crashing halt in Houston. In 2015, it was Dallas Keuchel slamming the door on them in the wild-card game, before they could even enter the real playoffs. In 2017, it was Keuchel, Justin Verlander and Charlie Morton saying not so fast just one game shy of the World Series.
This year, it was Verlander and Gerrit Cole, the Yank who got away, and Alex Bregman and George Springer and of course, Jose Altuve, snatching away what looked like a dramatic Game 6 victory that turned out to be just a cruel tease.
Forget about the never-ending, played-out Yankees-Boston Red Sox disagreement. The Sox are in disarray, having just fired their GM, rethinking their payroll decisions and on the verge of major reconstruction. This is the new rivalry in town. Yankees-Astros, and for the past five years, it's been a pretty one-sided rivalry at that.
Once again, the Yankees are forced to say, well, we lost to a better team. Whatever happened to the days when the Yankees were the better team?
This is not to say the Yankees are not in the same class as the Astros; the cumulative score of the six games of this year's ALCS was 22-21 in favor of the 'Stros, and had one or two things been done differently in Game 2, we might have had the pleasure of a Game 7 Sunday night in Houston.
Even Game 6 was as close as a series-ending game could be, decided by a great hitter, Altuve, besting a very good closer, Aroldis Chapman, working off a questionable strategy. Namely, why throw a 2-1 slider to Altuve in that situation with two out and the much less-dangerous Jake Marisnick on deck?
On such decisions, games are won and lost, series decided, jobs jeopardized.
But the gulf between the Yankees and Astros, as slim as it may be, is certainly bigger than one poorly conceived and executed pitch at the end of an epic playoff game.
As it stands, there is only one team in the AL that seems totally committed to being the best in baseball for a long period of time. And it's not the Yankees.
After they won the 2017 World Series, and already having a starting staff that boasted Keuchel and Verlander — a trade deadline acquisition that the Yankees could have made — the Astros added Cole in the offseason. And this year, having retained Cole and Verlander after letting Keuchel leave as a free agent, they added Zack Greinke. Every team in baseball likes to say you can never have too much pitching. The Astros act as if they really believe it.
And with the exception of Cole, the prize of the 2020 free-agent crop, every single significant player on their roster is under team control for next year. Altuve is signed through 2024, Springer doesn't hit free agency until 2021, and Bregman not until 2025. Their history tells you the Astros will find a suitable replacement for Cole, and their payroll, $158 million this year, indicates they should be able to keep their core together, if they so desire.
The Yankees, on the other hand, may have more work to do this offseason than they did last year. Lacking a true ace who they can depend on to win games 1, 4 and 7 of a playoff series, they need to be all-in on Cole, which may not be enough if, as reports indicate, Cole really wants to pitch in Los Angeles, where he grew up.
Plus, they have decisions to make regarding Didi Gregorius, Brett Gardner, Dellin Betances and Edwin Encarnacion, all of whom hit free agency this year, and soon, DJ LeMahieu and James Paxtion, who hit it the following year. And Chapman, still an effective closer despite what happened in Game 6, has an opt-out in his contract he may choose to exercise.
Plus, much of the young core they were planning to build around — Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle — is about to become arbitration eligible, so their 2019 payroll of about $226 million, some $20 million over Hal Steinbrenner's decree to stay under the luxury tax threshold, is likely to go up.
And oh yeah, they have eight more years of Giancarlo Stanton to pay for, which will figure in every monetary decision they make between now and 2027.
There are bright spots, of course. LeMahieu and Gio Urshela are keepers, allowing them the flexibility to move Miguel Andujar if the right opportunity presents itself. Maybe next year they let Didi walk, move LeMahieu back to second base, his real position, shift Torres to shortstop and reinstall Luke Voit as their everyday first baseman, hoping he returns to his 2018 form.
Maybe they persuade Cole to become the ace of a rotation that features Paxton, Severino and Tanaka, or maybe Stephen Strasburg opts out of his deal with Washington. Maybe they spring for a stud like the Nationals’ Anthony Rendon. Maybe they stay healthy for much of 2020.
But this is going to be an offseason for bold moves, and even if the owner's first name is Hal, his last name is still Steinbrenner and maybe he'll find the competitive fire to fly something more meaningful than a “Nice Try” flag over Yankee Stadium.
And just maybe the presence of a true rival, a team that not only can beat them on the field but get under the skin of their fans the way the Red Sox once did will spur the Yankees to take the offseason measures they used to, the ones that were routine rather than surprising.
After all, Altuve had already earned his own two-word chant from the Stadium faithful even before he stuck the knife in their hearts Saturday night, and the vituperative directed at Springer, Bregman, Verlander and worst of all, Greinke, were of vintage Boston Sucks quality.
And then there is A.J. Hinch, the manager who after the Yankees beat the Astros in Game 5 to send the series back to Houston, had this to say:
“LeMahieu took a couple big swings, hits the homer and woke up the building. And Judge hit a pitch he hasn't pulled hardly at all this season for the bullet base hit. And then Torres did what Torres has been doing this series, which is pretty good at-bat, snuck a ball inside the line. And then Hicks had a really good at-bat in a mistake slider for a homer off the foul pole 315 feet away.”
Better managers have been hated around here for a lot less than that.
But in the meantime, Hinch and the Astros are going to the World Series. And for the third time in four playoffs, they are sending the Yankees home.
Sounds like the makings of a beautifully vicious rivalry.
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