My friend Tim, whose New York sensibilities have long outlived his residency there, reveals himself as a true Gothamite whenever the conversation turns to his favorite baseball team, which he habitually refers to as the “Yank Mes.”
Over the years, Tim has learned to temper his enthusiasm for the club by means of a healthy skepticism. Even though the Yankees are the most vaunted, successful franchise in baseball, Tim harbors a paranoid notion that, without notice, his team will unfailingly sputter and choke; at the most inopportune moment, he’s convinced, they’ll revert to their true Yank Me nature.
New York’s eyebrow-raising World Series whomp of Atlantaduring which Tim preserved his fragile emotional equilibrium only by switching channels whenever the Yank Mes took the fielddid not alter his opinion of the team. To him, victory now means only that the inevitable collapse has been saved for a later, even more gut-wrenching moment.
Rooters for Atlanta (a city that likes to strut around with New Yorky airs these days) might do well to adopt Tim’s Bronx cheeriness. To steel themselves against future playoff disappointments, like those they’ve faced in all but one of the past five seasons, Braves fans could begin by redubbing their team with a more Yank Me-ish appellation.
The Atlanta Knaves has a nice ring. Or you could christen them the Waves to memorialize both their recent glove work and their batting prowess against the New York bullpen. The Strangegloves is apt too, although the reference would doubtless be lost on many fans. My other friend Dee, an Atlantan whose most painful memories of the Series are gastric, plans to go with “Mylanta Braves.”
Utterly dominating the first two games against New York, the Braves climaxed an unprecedented five-game playoff run in which they outscored opponents 48-4. At that point, all but the most gin-fizzed media geniuses were preparing to enshrine Atlanta among The Greatest Teams of All Time. The Yankees, it was presumed, would have the eminent good grace to request surrender terms.
Instead, more rapidly perhaps than in any other recent Series, the two roles reversed. Suddenly, as if the Flubber finally arrived in the New York dugout, the Braves became stumblebums and the Yankees swept four consecutive games.
This week, as Richard Jewell was officially un-fingered by the FBI, a new manhunt began in Atlanta. How in the hayul, wondered the pundits along Peachtree, could the Braves’ dreadnought have capsized so quickly? It didn’t take long to round up several of the usual suspectswho, like Jewell, may have been judged prematurely.
For one, there was the Braves’ tragicomic middle relief corps, which manager Bobby Cox may hereafter summon by hoisting his middle finger. Just as the operators of the equally invincible Titanic realized too late that a few more lifeboats might have been a good idea, it finally became clear to Atlanta’s management that the team’s one chink lay between its starting pitchers and its flame-throwing closer, Mark Wohlers.
In Game Three and even more in Game Four, the Braves’ bullpen failed to hold the Yankees at bayso miserably so that many Atlanta fans can’t even view pictures of Greg McMichael or Steve Avery without breaking out in hives. Yet the Braves’ relievers, except in one game, didn’t pitch so badly. It’s just that New York’s bullpen was almost flawless. Compared to the Yankees, who lost only five times all year when leading after six innings, almost any relief staff would look like gumbies.
Cox also has been dragged into the suspect lineup, charged with dunderheadedness in the dugout. Among the most damning prosecution evidence was Cox’s decision, late in the fateful fourth game, to insert the klutzy Ryan Klesko as a defensive replacementa choice that proved about as advisable as enlisting Dean Martin to enforce a tavern curfew.
Klesko, for whom playing defense isn’t just a job but an adventure, promptly lost an easy pop-up in the lights, allowing a crucial run to score. As Casey Stengel used to say, “So much for stragety.”
There’s little question that Cox was outmanaged, outmaneuvered, and out-thunk by the Yankees’ masterful Joe Torre. On the other hand, even when Cox made the right moves, they went wrong.
In Game Three, Cox waited one inning too late to bring on Wohlers. In Game Four, he wised up and called for Wohlers in the eighth to protect a 6-3 lead. Wohlers surrendered a three-run homer to Jim Leyritz (Jim Leyritz!?), and the Yankees won in extra innings.
At times, the Series had a TV cartoon quality: Torre, like the Roadrunner, could magically run through tunnels he’d just drawn on a rock face; whenever Cox, in the role of Wile E. Coyote, followed suit, he’d be flattened by a train. In Game Five, Torre successfully defied baseball’s hoary textbook when he ordered an intentional walk to the potential winning run. One game earlier, when Cox instructed Steve Avery to walk the bases full, the stratagem came back to hit him like an Acme boomerang: Avery (not on Cox’s orders) walked in the winning run. All too often, it seemed, Cox was reduced to doing Homer Simpson takes (Doh!) when his grand ideas blew up in his face.
Still, it’s hard to attribute the Braves’ losses to any of the above contributors alone. Here instead are several eminently plausible, if less explored, theories to explain Atlanta’s seemingly inexplicable collapse.
The Single-Bullet Theory. In a six-game series that encompasses more than 1,800 pitches, it seems implausible that one delivery can ordain the outcome. But it happens sometimes. Think back to 1988, when Kirk Gibson’s miraculous pinch home run completely discombobulated the heavily favored Oakland A’s, who lost the Series in five games. Likewise, the 1996 Series turned on one pitchWohler’s hanging slider to Leyritz (Jim Leyritz!?)from which the Braves never recovered.
The No Eck Theory. For the Braves, a hare-and-tortoise dynamic has prevailed all year. As a team, they’ve suffered from collective attention deficit disorder. They sprint to a lead, then lolligag around.
In the League Championship Series against St. Louis, the Braves were somnambulating near the precipice until the Cards’ Dennis Eckersley stupidly woke them with a fist-pumping taunt. In the next three games, Atlanta outscored St. Louis 32-1. In the World Series, the Yankees scrupulously avoided the Eck’s mistake, and after Game Two, the Braves’ bats dozed quietly back to sleep.
The Yogi Theory. “Good pitching beats good hitting, and vice versa,” old Yoge used to say. “It ain’t over till it’s over. Baseball is 90 percent mental; the other half is physical.”
Everybody laughs at him, but Yogi-isms contain more truth than most folks allow, and they’re as good an explanation as any for Atlanta’s freefall. Three times, the Braves were beaten by good pitching; once, they lost to good hitting. Most of their most egregious mistakes were mentalexcept for the many that were physical. With all their luminous talent, the Braves would have won. Except that they didn’t.
That’s my pet theory, anyhow. If nothing else, it will give me and my friends some hash to rechew this winter. Meanwhile, Tim will be waiting fatalistically for the Yank Mes to trade away their best players before spring, and Dee is stocking up now on Mylanta.