Individual commitment to a group effort, that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.–Vince Lombardi
‘Tis October, a month that in years past filled me with panic and dread, as it signals the opening shot of “The Holidays.” Since I became a baseball fan, however, October means something entirely different to me: it means the post-season, when the Boys of Summer play for higher stakes. And this year my Yankees are on fire.
As of today, the only playoff berths still undecided are the National League Wild Card and the American League Central Division. The first looks like it’ll be the Colorado Rockies, while in the AL Central it’s either the Detroit Tigers or Minnesota Twins. I am personally rooting for Minnesota, because I dread a remake of the 2006 AL Division Series, in which Detroit’s pitchers decimated New York, despite one of “the best lineups in baseball history.” I really don’t want to see them have to face the formidable Justin Verlander again. As for the rest: in the American League playoffs it’s the LA Angels and the Boston Red Sox so far; in the National it’s the Phillies, Dodgers, and Cardinals.
One disappointment this year was the SF Giants. They duked it out right up until yesterday, when Colorado knocked them out of the Wild Card race. I was hoping to see a Yankee-Giant World Series, so I could watch three innings of each SF game from the hole in the Giants’ fence—by now a tradition, and perfectly legal.
The Mets were another sad story. Their best players started accumulating injuries back in June, and kept dropping like flies, until they were playing with a skeleton crew. Those poor Mets fans, the hardiest loyalists in all of baseball, were muttering “Next season” in August rather than the more usual month of September.
Without SF in the picture, I lust for a Yankee-Dodger face-off. Not only would the series be drenched in nostalgia—once upon a time every WS featured the NY Yankees versus the Brooklyn Dodgers—but Joe Torre, booted out of New York two seasons ago, is responsible for LA’s stunning season. I love baseball when it’s packed with dramatic narrative, and a Dodger-Yankee WS will be nothing if not dramatic.
The Yankees are more solid this year then they’ve been in almost a decade. Back then the team played sensationally and were a real band of brothers. This season they’re again playing well–and are again solidly bonded with one another. Finally, after five years, the dust beneath A-Rod’s cleats appears to be settling down. Out for surgery at the start of the season, his return was marked by a huge boost in team productivity, along with genuine and frequent expressions of appreciation by his fellow Yanks, something he noticed. “I can’t say enough about these 25 guys,” he told a reporter. “I’ve never been around a group of guys that have been so close and love each other so much.” He seems to have dropped his snotty airs and acts more like a regular guy: he doesn’t spend quite so much time admiring his own hits, and he even comes through in the clutch now and then—one sportswriter dubbed him, tongue-in-cheek, “Clutch Rodriguez.” The adorable Kate Hudson might be a positive influence on him.
Then there was the addition to the team of Nick Swisher and Mark Texeira. Unlike some players who freak out in New York, both these guys slipped into pinstripes as easily as Cinderella’s foot slid into the glass slipper. Texeira and A-Rod make for a one-two punch reminiscent of the long-ago Mantle-Maris magic. And Swisher, arguably one of the most amiable guys in baseball, came out of Oakland with his big heart and sense of humor intact; I’ll bet Swish is somewhat responsible for lightening the mood in the Bronx locker room. “You have to give these guys a lot of credit,” Swisher said, “for the way they have welcomed in guys.”
Like regular buddies, the guys went on outings to concerts and other fun stuff together. According to pitcher CC Sabathia, “We have a lot of fun on and off the field. It’s a lot of fun when you can go out and play with guys that you really enjoy playing with.”
It just goes to show that group vibes have an affect on success or failure on the field. It’s almost self-evident, but it’s something that doesn’t seem to get talked about much. The Yankees are living proof that when guys care about one another, they watch each other’s backs. Another thing that happens on a solid team—if everyone’s playing well, no one individual feels the pressure to carry the whole team. If A-Rod strikes out with bases loaded, he knows Texeira’s coming up behind him.
The principle works the other way too: when players fail to bond, their game suffers. We need only look to the Oakland A’s, coming in close to last place this season, for proof. I’ve ranted many times about Billy Beane’s management style, which is to trade off players as soon as they get too good, i.e., too expensive for Oakland’s budget. With the team constantly changing, fans like me become alienated–but more important, so do players. How can they form close friendships when every month someone disappears and a new guy takes his place? Interestingly, during this season the A’s remained pretty much intact—with the result that now, at the very end, they’re starting to win games. If somebody in that outfit would just restrain the Beanester during the off-season, the A’s might have a chance in 2010.
In the meantime…Go Yankees!