NEW YORK — George Steinbrenner would have issued a public apology.
After leading the league in wins this year, the New York Yankees didn’t just lose to Detroit in the AL championship series. They got swept in one of the more humiliating moments in the team’s history.
The four-game wipeout made headlines — A-Rod’s benching, Derek Jeter’s injury, Robinson Cano’s slump. But it also revealed serious cracks in the foundation, showing a team full of aging All-Stars at the plate, in the field and on the mound that suddenly seems a long, long way from championship caliber.
“Obviously, we’re all getting older,” Andy Pettitte said Thursday night after the season-ending 8-1 loss to the Tigers.
Jeter broke an ankle near the end. Mariano Rivera busted a knee in the spring. The Yanks transformed baseball’s bruisers into the Bashed Bombers, closer to AARP years than MVP seasons. Alex Rodriguez was so bad, the $275 million man was benched in three of nine postseason games and pinch hit for in three others, a possible prelude to a forced departure from pinstripes.
Six key players didn’t hit their weight, with Rodriguez joined by Cano, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, Russell Martin and Eric Chavez.
His life already a soap opera off the field, A-Rod turned into daily fodder for on-field intrigue.
“It wasn’t just one guy struggling,” Rodriguez said. “It was a collective group, and it was a very unique situation.”
Not quite. They floundered for two months, nearly blowing a 10-game lead in the heat of summer before holding off Baltimore on the final night for the AL East title.
Easily the oldest big league team at the season’s start, they’re on track to start next year with a 38-year-old shortstop with limited range coming off ankle surgery (Jeter), a 43-year-old closer returning from knee surgery (Rivera), a 37-year-old third baseman overpowered by right-handed pitchers (A-Rod), a 40-year-old left-hander who missed nearly three months because of a broken ankle (Pettitte) and a 38-year-old right-hander who topped the team in starts and innings (Hiroki Kuroda).
Their postseason star was a 40-year-old outfielder (Raul Ibanez), their center fielder struck out 195 times (Granderson), their left fielder played just 17 regular season games because of an elbow injury (Brett Gardner) and their catcher hit .211 (Martin).
“It’s difficult. It’s disappointing. It’s not where we want to be,” GM Brian Cashman said. “I’m very surprised.”
Their .188 postseason batting average was the lowest ever for a team that played at least seven games. Rodriguez took the brunt of the blame.
Owed $114 million over the next five seasons, Rodriguez became the world’s most expensive pinch hitter during the ALCS, a platoon player against left-handed pitchers on a team facing four righty starters.
Yankees president Randy Levine joked in April with Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria about the possibility of dealing A-Rod to his hometown team.
“Take him. Tell me what you’re willing to do,” Levine said before the pair laughed.
After this debacle, talk could turn serious.
Back in 1981, after the Yankees took a 2-0 Series lead against the Dodgers and lost four in a row, George Steinbrenner issued one of his most famous statements, saying: “I want to sincerely apologize to the people of New York and to the fans of the New York Yankees everywhere for the performance of the Yankee team.”
Hal Steinbrenner, who succeeded his father as controlling owner, is less impetuous. He wants to get the team under the $189 million luxury tax threshold in 2014.
Sending one of their lineup’s senior citizens to finish his career in Florida would be a start.
Proud of his accomplishments and in constant need of admiration, Rodriguez may hold his postseason putdown against manager Joe Girardi.
“As far as I know, we’re OK,” Girardi said. “It’s not something I wanted to do. All of you know that. But I don’t have any signals that he’s mad at me.”
A-Rod, as always, tried to say the right thing.
“If I do what I’m supposed to be doing, neither Joe or Cashman can bench me,” he explained.
His stay in New York always was a marriage of money.
After giving A-Rod a record $252 million contract, Texas traded him to the Yankees after three seasons and even agreed to pay $67 million of the $179 million remaining — an amount reduced by $21 million when A-Rod opted out of that deal following the 2007 season. Then the Yankees re-signed him to an even more massive megadeal, as much a weight on their payroll as his bat has become in the batting order.
After failing to win the World Series for the third straight year, there will be a slew of decisions. Exercising $15 million options on Cano and Granderson are a given, as is signing Rivera for 2013. They’ll likely try to persuade Pettitte to pitch another year and attempt to re-sign Kuroda and possibly Ichiro Suzuki, whose bat was among the few with a sign of life.
Swisher seems set to depart and Ibanez could be one older player too many. Rafael Soriano, who filled in for Rivera, could turn down a $14 million salary for next year, terminate his contract and become a free agent.
“Every year the roster changes,” Cashman said.
By now, the front office knows it needs an injection of youth. The wipeout may speed the turnover.
“We got a team of Hall of Famers, superstars,” Cano said.
And by the time a player is almost certain of enshrinement in Cooperstown, it means the end is a lot closer than the beginning.