08 October 2007

A Sad End to Two Careers?

The Yankees pulled out a win last night.

No thanks to Roger Clemens, who lasted less than three innings before giving up the ghost, but not before giving up three runs to the Cleveland Indians.

For his part, if that was the last time that Roger Clemens ever pitches on a major league ballfield,

1) The man who struck out more batters than anyone in major league history this side of Nolan Ryan went out on his own terms, striking out Victor Martinez before he walked off the field forever.

B) He didn't take the loss.


iii) He has perhaps stored up enough good deeds in his 24-year career that he didn't necessarily need to be thanked for last night's performance, one way or the other.

His efforts last night reminded me a little of his start in Florida in Game 4 of the 2003 World Series, when he threw nine pitches to Luis Castillo in an effort to whiff him in what was (he threatened) his last major league game. For a guy with more Cy Young Awards than anyone, more wins than any pitcher since World War II, it's hard to begrudge him the chance to go out the way he wants. He's earned that much, and more.

But Clemens may not be the most significant Yankee whose career is coming to an abrupt end.

Manager Joe Torre, as you likely know by now, has been threatened with losing his job if the Yankees don't advance to the AL Championship Series. My initial thought, when I read that yesterday, was something like "Wow, he doesn't have to win the World Series? Steinbrenner's going soft!" But of course, there's more to it than that. I'm not sure I agree with Rob Neyer's assessment that anything King George says is, "little more than the ravings of an old man with little real power and just an occasional grasp of the reality around him. "

Frankly, whether he's got any grasp of reality at all is completely immaterial. Last I checked, George M. Steinbrenner III still owned controlling interest in the New York Yankees, Inc., which means that even if he's gone completely batshit crazy, he can still hire and fire anyone he chooses. Including the manager who brought him four World Series titles and has kept his team in the playoffs every season for 12 straight years.

If this is the end of his Yankee career, I would expect that this also would mark the end of his major league career. He's been threatening to retire for years anyway. With four World Championships, a certain Hall of Fame plaque waiting for him, more money than he could ever spend, and 67 summers under his belt, I doubt that he'll be pounding the pavement this winter looking for other employ. Mark my words: If Torre's fired, then this is it. He's done.

Most knowledgeable fans would suggest that Torre does not deserve to be fired (not that it matters), even if the Yankees do lose.

Game 1: He went with his "ace" pitcher to start the Division Series, Chien Ming Wang, a 19-game winner who came apart at the seams. The offense chipped away at the opposing ace, getting him out of the game after five innings, but they couldn't string together enough hits to compensate for the 8 runs allowed by Wang, much less the other four that the bullpen gave up.

Game 2: The sensible choice to start the game, Andy Pettitte, proved to be a good one, this time. Pettitte gave them 6.1 shutout innings and left with a 1-0 lead and everyone in the bullpen well rested to protect it. Little did he know though that the Indians would sone have several thousand more players on their team, in the form of mosquitoes who happened to be at their worst when Yanks rookie Joba Chamberlain was trying to protect that lead. Torre couldn't have done much about that. Clemens says he would have pulled the team, if the choice were his, but does the manager even have that option? I don't think so.

Later in that game, with the score tied at 1-1 going into the 9th inning, Torre actually brought in Mariano Rivera, in a non-save situation, apparently having learned from the mistake that cost him Game 4 of the 2003 World Series. Unfortunately, he followed up Rivera's two shutout innings by bringing in Luis Vizcaino, who made about as much sense as anyone, given that they didn't have a lefty in the bullpen to face Grady Sizemore and/or Travis Hafner. And who promptly lost the game for them. I guess you could blame Torre for that.

Or you could blame Clemens, if you wanted. It was Clemens who told Torre he would be able to start on Sunday, and so Torre was forced to put Clemens on the postseason roster and leave Ron Villone off. But of course, Steinbrenner doesn't get to exercise some form of power by blaming a departing, retiring free agent for his misfortune.

Game 3: Torre starts Clemens, of course, who told him he'd be able to pitch, but apparently pushed the envelope a bit too much and couldn't get the job done. Rookie Phil Hughes, however, capablypicked up the slack and gave them the bullpen help they needed to come back and win one. A lot has been made of this win, as though the Yankees had been asleep at the wheel for the first two games of the ALDS and their bats finally "woke up" in game 3.

In reality, they just had the good fortune of facing a pitcher who wasn't so darn good as C.C. Sabathia or Fausto Carmona. There's a reason that those two guys each won 19 games and Jake Westbrook won six. Well, OK, there are several reasons, but the biggest one is that he's not that good a pitcher. After he left, they did score two more runs, but they were unearned, thanks to a Trot Nixon error. As I write this, the Yankee bats have yet to score an earned run off the Cleveland bullpen, in 10.1 innings. (Update: Of course, literally as I typed the period on that sentence, I looked up to see Alex Rodriguez hit a homer off Rafael Perez to put the Yankees within three runs.) But still, you get the point. Westbrook, and only Westbrook, was the reason the Yanks won last night.

Game 4: Torre's choice to start Wang on three days' rest instead of Mike Mussina (who had not pitched in 10 days) was a curious one, but again, with the old (if not necessarily accurate) adage about sinker-ball pitchers being better on short rest, and Wang's remarkable superior performance at Yankee Stadium vs. on the road over the course of his career, you could see the logic in it. Unfortunately, logic soon gave way to reality, and the reality was pretty ugly. Wang's sinker didn't, and everybody in the Stadium knw it pretty quickly. Taking him out in the second inning to bring in Mike Mussina made Torre look like he realized his own error and wanted to stop the bleeding as soon as possible, so that even if it wasn't appropriate to blame him for the decision before the game, it looked like it was afterwards.

If they lose this game tonight (and as I write this the Tribe needs to get only six more outs without giving up three runs to eliminate the Yankees) then Torre will have gone out in much the same way that Clemens did: with a sputter and a slow, quiet walk off the field, instead of the glory and granduer you would expect for such an icon.

We'll miss you, Joe.

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