One of the things that fascinates me when it comes to the way we talk about baseball is the sheer amount of truisms we employ, mostly uncritically. Sometimes it’s because the truisms are self-evident, or seem to be, and other times it’s just because we either come to believe them reflexively or because people in the game tell us they’re so. For example, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that Rafael Soriano just couldn’t handle not being The Closer last season in the past two months. Is that true? I wouldn’t think so. He did have some nice years as a non-closer back in 2006 and 2007, which you’d almost think would be a truism in its own right because almost all closers get “promoted” to the role after having success in the earlier innings. Off hand, I can’t think of any examples where a middle reliever has stunk and a team has said to themselves, “well, let’s make him The Closer and see if the pressure of the ninth inning focuses him into awesomeness.” And, incidentally, Soriano’s best performance of this season might have come in the eighth inning, preserving a lead against Tampa Bay that David Robertson eventually blew in the ninth inning.
Most of all, I’m sort of mystified by the extent to which so many of these truisms constitute self-fulfilling prophecies. Joe Girardi’s “I had my cleanup hitter bunt in the third inning today because James Shields was on the mound and that means it will probably be a low scoring game” go to standard is one of my “favorites” of this genre, though in broader terms you can probably understand the phenomenon better by considering the mythical ninth inning. Pitching the ninth inning, you see, is different than all other innings. But how? You don’t get double points for runs. The offense doesn’t get to start with a runner on second base. The rulebook strike zone doesn’t get tighter. As a matter of play, the ninth inning is just like all other innings.
Ah, but the pressure. There’s so much pressure when your job is to hold on to a lead for one inning. Of course, pretty much by definition there should be more pressure on the offense than the pitcher in this situation, since they’re the ones who only have one more chance to score some runs and avoid losing the game. And, again, there isn’t any functional difference here between the ninth inning and other innings. It’s not like there’s a rule that says no lead changes can take place in the 7th or 8th innings or something. But there are dozens of theories as to why the ninth inning is different and special and terrifying and the realm of dragon slayers, all of them espoused by relief pitchers, other players, managers, Hall of Famers, and any baseball fan not old enough to remember that time
centuries ago before The Closer was revealed to us by The Baseball Gods Tony LaRussa.
Now, to be clear, I’m not actually saying that this pressure doesn’t exist. I’ve never actually pitched a ninth inning, or any other inning, in a Major League Baseball game, so I don’t have any idea what it’s like. I’m merely saying that there’s no inherent reason for it to exist. What happens instead is that players, managers, broadcasters, and fans internalize all of these theories as to why there’s more pressure there, and once you do that, you create the pressure yourself. If an elite setup man toils in the 7th and 8th inning for years, constantly hearing how the ninth inning is different and more pressure filled, it stands to reason that he’s going to feel the pressure if you stick him in to close out a game. Is that because the ninth inning is inherently different? No, it’s because he thinks it is, and because he goes into the situation expecting to feel more pressure. Voila, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I have more or less the same feeling about the notion that playing in New York, or more specifically for the Yankees, is “different” than playing elsewhere. Now, to be fair, I’ll grant that in this instance I don’t actually disagree with Cashman’s premise. Being the manager of the Yankees is quite different than anywhere else, I would imagine, both because the team’s payroll and mystique creates the impression that you’re supposed to win every year, and because the sheer amount of media dedicated to covering the team is so much greater than anywhere else. That really is a unique set of challenges you don’t get anywhere else, and I don’t really think it’s unreasonable to want to look for someone who has seen that up close when looking around for a new skipper. Of course, since newspaper columns don’t blow saves if you bring them into the wrong situation out of the bullpen, there’s still a limited amount of utility to the value of this qualification.
Beyond that, however, I have very little use for this notion, and frankly find it to be a rather distasteful bit of New York and New York media superiority complex. Again, there is a lot more media focus on the Yankees, and that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Games played at Kaufman Stadium and Tropican Field are still major league games, played by major league players, all of whom have a certain amount of pressure to perform on them. As much as I love most) of them, Yankee fans aren’t actually particularly special by MLB standards either. They don’t know more about baseball on average (especially the ones that go to the Stadium, from what I gather), they aren’t more passionate about their team (excluding the sky-is-always-falling idiots from consideration), and the Stadium itself doesn’t seem to be a particularly foreboding or intimidating place to play for the hometown players, from what I can tell (True story, I was at a game at Great American Ballpark back in the middle of the decade in which we jeered Danny Graves so mercilessly from the point that it was announced that he was warming up that, when he left the game, he honest-to-Gawd flipped us the bird on his way into the dugout after he blew the save. Don’t remember Kyle Farnsworth or Javier Vazquez ever doing that!). Heck, the Yankees don’t even lead MLB in attendance, and as far as I can tell they’re way behind Boston for the title of Fanbase/Media Most Hated by the Team’s Players.
But, by all public indications, the Yankees’ general manager does believe that being a Yankee is different, and so it is. Of course, not necessarily in a good way. For example, when the young pitcher you’ve just traded your best prospect for admits to being overwhelmed by the amount of press in camp, you might think it’d be a good idea to devote some PR resources to either helping him or taking some attention off of him. But if you think that’s just a fact of life, or worse, that it’s part of what makes you special, you leave him to twist in the wind before you throw a five gallon bucket of gasoline on the fire. And then he goes and tears his shoulder trying to throw his fastball harder, and you chalk him up as one more kid who couldn’t handle being a Yankee.
By and large, I think it’s pretty hard to be too critical of the job Brian Cashman has done running the Yankees’ baseball operations. Not so much because of the wins at the big league level, you have to be a special kind of incompetent to put together a bad roster with as much money as Cashman has at his disposal, as for the way he’s managed to develop a very solid farm system despite not having any top draft picks and for avoiding the reactionary instinct to jump on every shiny new toy just because you can. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his problems (I don’t think we needed Cashman to confirm that he loves Freddy Garcia for us, for example), but most of the fierce criticism of Cashman seems to come from people who really do seem to believe that there’s no reason the Yankees should’t win at least 110 games on the way to a World Series victory every single season, and that should probably tell you something.
But contrary to popular belief, I don’t think you can honestly tell me that Brian Cashman’s Yankees do a good job of handling the unique media situation they’re in. That goes for Cashman himself, whose penchant for setting brush fires with his interviews is well known by now, and for the team’s general approach to media relations as well. I don’t know if this has any effects at the margins or not, but if you believe this team is differennt, then it would seem to follow that you should believe it does.