COMMENTARY | With apologies to Carly Simon’s “Anticipation,” these may not be the good old days for the New York Yankees.
Since free agency became a regular part of the baseball landscape in 1976, no team has availed itself of the free market more than the Bronx Bombers. Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield and Goose Gossage are just three of the Hall of Famers who made their way to Yankee Stadium because New York was the highest bidder.
So it’s been a jolting sight for fans the past two offseasons as the Yankees sat out the free-agent wars.
This winter, the team’s highest-profile new face is former Boston Red Sox All-Star Kevin Youkilis, a player whose production hasn’t so much declined the past two seasons so much as it has fallen off the edge of a very high cliff.
Once upon a time, when the Yankees invited a guy to spring training on a minor-league contract, that player was fighting to maybe be the 25th man on the roster. This spring, non-roster invitees Matt Diaz and Juan Rivera may end up getting a significant number of at-bats.
What in the name of the Miami Marlins is going on here, anyway?
But enough of sounding like “that fan,” the stereotypical, entitled Yankee fan who believes World Series championships are a birthright.
It’s not as if the Yankees are suddenly the Pittsburgh Pirates-although they did lose a free agent to the Steel City this winter when catcher Russell Martin took a two-year deal to head to the Buccos.
It’s not like the Yankees are feeling the financial pinch of the Cleveland Indians-although, come to think of it, free-agent outfielder Nick Swisher will be suiting up along the banks of Lake Erie this summer.
Some fans are acting like New York has suddenly turned into Seattle, a small-market club doing what it can to scrape by. Except wasn’t it the Seattle Mariners who ponied up sufficient scratch to sign playoff hero Raul Ibanez to a free-agent deal?
What’s going on, of course, is the dreaded period of transition that many fans have been seeing as a dark speck on the horizon for several years now. Longtime center fielder Bernie Williams wasn’t brought back after the 2006 season. Catcher Jorge Posada opted to retire after the 2011 season rather than face the prospect of donning another uniform.
Three players are still in pinstripes who were wearing them during the championship years of the late 1990s-shortstop Derek Jeter, closer Mariano Rivera and left-hander Andy Pettitte, and Pettitte has had time to leave for Houston, come back, retire and come back again.
I suppose one positive to being a fan of the Yankees at my age-in my mid-40s-is that this is a team that I can relate to … primarily because way too many of them are way too close to my own age.
Rivera’s 43. Pettitte is almost 41. Jeter will be 39 on my next birthday. Ichiro Suzuki is already 39. Alex Rodriguez might already be 38 by the time he comes back from hip surgery (his birthday is July 27).
It’s almost like every day at Yankee Stadium is Old Timers’ Day.
Having veteran leadership is one thing. Having nurses carrying juice around the clubhouse is quite another.
It might be different if there were some kids-any kids-with a legitimate shot at infusing the club with some youthful vigor in 2013.
Of the projected regulars in 2013, only Francisco Cervelli (27 by Opening Day) and Brett Gardner (29) are on the shy side of 30. The franchise’s very best prospects are all still toiling at the lower levels of the organization, at least two years away from making a difference for the big-league club.
Spring is the time to be optimistic. It is the time every team is 0-0 and tied for first place, a time when World Series dreams can run rampant.
But for the life of me, I can’t escape a feeling of impending doom as I watch the Yankees play their Grapefruit League schedule and the injury reports keep stacking up.
I’m not quite old enough to remember the crash that happened in 1965, when the Yankees went from winning five straight American League pennants to 77 wins and sixth place.
My worst nightmare is that I’m about to get the chance to experience a modern-day version of it first-hand. Too much age plus not enough youth is the same recipe they used nearly a half-century ago.
But as Apollo Creed said at the end of “Rocky III,” “It’s too bad we’ve got to get old.”
Phil Watson is a freelance journalist and commentator currently based in upper Michigan who has followed the Yankees since his days as a kid in New Jersey, more years ago than he can count on his fingers and toes combined.