Opening Day Butterflies

This column was originally published on on March 31, 2010.

Something about this spring training coming to an end just doesn’t feel right. This spring has that feeling you get when you leave your house and feel like you forgot something, but you convince yourself you didn’t, and then when you are too far away from your house to go back, you remember what you forgot. I have figured out what has been missing from this spring training, and it’s the distress of the last eight springs.

From 2001-2008, no matter what situation the Yankees faced, I believed they would prevail in the end. But that was me being spoiled and stupid as a Yankees fan, trying to hold onto the magic from 1996-2000. Up until Luis Gonzalez fought off a cutter into shallow right field, I honestly thought the Yankees would never lose again. Winning had become routine and losing wasn’t even considered an option anymore. It’s hard for anyone who is not a Yankees fan to understand this, and trying to explain the concept to non-Yankees fans is like Ron Washington trying to explain to the Rangers front office why he failed a drug test. However, it wasn’t until they hit rock bottom in 2004 that I was able to admit that I was unsure of the next time the Yankees would be world champions.

In 2004, I didn’t even care that the Red Sox won Game 4 because I knew the series would end in Game 5. But when I left Fenway devastated after having wasted nearly all my spending money for the semester on a ticket to Game 5 with my friend Jim, thinking we were going to see the Yankees clinch the pennant in Boston, I still believed the Yankees would finish the Red Sox off in Game 6. And if not, they would certainly get the job done in Game 7.

The Yankees failed in every imaginable way from 2001-2008, and with each year removed from 2000, the offseasons lasted longer and the anxiety for another title grew larger. The Yankees slowly evolved into what the Patriots have become in the NFL, and it wasn’t until November that they were able to rid themselves of their fading image.

Every spring for the last eight springs, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out where the holes on the team were and how Brian Cashman could fill them in order to bring the team back to glory. But this season, there are virtually no holes. The No. 4 starter had a 2.87 ERA in the National League in 2009, and the No. 7 hitter hit 30 home runs a year ago. The only thing to complain about right now is why the Yankees are opening and closing the season in Fenway Park. Aside from that, the team has an answer for everything, or at least it appears that way.

There might not be much to worry about with this team, but there is always something to worry about with every team. Any fan who is completely content with their team is lying to you and lying to themselves. To me, there are two crucial components to the success of the 2010 Yankees. While I’m not all that worried about them, there is still a cause for concern since the margin for error in the AL East is zero, and the difference between these two things working out and not working out is the difference between championship No. 28 and a third-place finish.

1. The production from 2, 20 and 42
The same way I don’t want to believe that Eric Taylor of Friday Night Lights isn’t really a high school football coach at East Dillon, I don’t want to believe that Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera will one day be bad at baseball.

Jeter is going to be 36 in June, Jorge will be 39 in August and Mariano turned 40 in November. At some point these three won’t be the same players they are going to be remembered as being. Let’s hope that never happens, but more importantly, let’s hope it doesn’t happen this year.

The Yankees are in a position in which the success of these three will likely dictate the success of the team. Since 1996, the team has made the playoffs in 13 of a possible 14 seasons. The only season they didn’t was the year when Posada appeared in only 51 games. When they are healthy the Yankees win, and it’s as simple as that.

Eventually Father Time is going to catch up with the trio, but their demise has been falsely predicted each season for the last few seasons. This year, many analysts and “experts” are jumping on the bandwagons of the Red Sox and Rays, banking on old age finally catching up with the old guard. But the “experts” have been wrong before and will likely be wrong again.

I don’t think we are at the end of the road with these three, but eventually we will be and no one knows for sure when that will be. Not only does that deeply sadden me, but it also scares me since a decline in production from Jeter, Posada and Rivera will mean the end of an era and a year without postseason baseball.

2. The bridge to Mariano
The first time I saw Joba Chamberlain fail in person was May 6, 2008. Aside from the midges in Cleveland, it was the first time Joba had every failed in the majors. Joba allowed a go-ahead three-run home run to David Dellucci at the Stadium, and then leaned over on the mound in disbelief, appearing as though he was going to throw up on his spikes after what happened. The entire stadium felt the same way. Joba had been untouchable in his career up to that point, and seeing him blow a lead was like seeing Brian Bruney hold a lead.

In 2007, the only run he allowed in the regular season was a solo home run to Mike Lowell. When Ron Guidry went to the mound to check on him following the homer, Joba reversed roles with the pitching coach. Joba patted the Gator on the back and sent him back to the dugout, assuring him that he was fine and that it wouldn’t happen again. That was the personality of Joba Chamberlain before he became a starter and before the Joba Rules were created.

Joba wants to be a starting pitcher, and he has made that very clear. Why wouldn’t he want to? That is where the glory and glamour is, and the big money as well. But will knowing that he lost his starting spot after the team tinkered with his career and arm for a year and a half cause him to be a different reliever than we know him to be? Will he still possess the personality that meant a 1-2-3 inning and an emotional outburst?

When Joba returned to the bullpen during the postseason, the aura from 2007 and the beginning of 2008 was back, and so was his fastball. It was like watching the guy get the girl at the end of a movie. Everything was the way it was supposed to be, and the result was a happy ending in the form of a championship.

The world now knows two Jobas: Reliever Joba and Starter Joba. Joba might be a reliever now, but that doesn’t necessarily make him Reliever Joba. No one knows what to expect from him as he returns to his original role with the team.

This offseason seemed to go by a lot faster than years past, which is partially due to the Yankees playing until Nov. 4 and partially due to not longing for another championship. Eight springs as the hunter and not as the hunted have made me value championships more than I did the last time the Yankees won, when I took the Subway Series win for granted.

Fans of the other 29 teams will credit the 2009 World Series to the Yankees spending $429 million last offseason, but that was just part of the process. The thousands of breaks, the vast amount of luck and the tens of injuries the team dodged made up for more than half of the pieces to the 2009 World Series puzzle.

If CC Sabathia had actually been hurt when he left in the second inning of a game against the Marlins on June 21, the new Yankee Stadium would have opened the same way the old one closed. If Phil Cuzzi doesn’t call Joe Mauer’s ground-rule double foul in Game 2 of the ALDS, and if Mike Scioscia intentionally walks A-Rod in the bottom of the ninth in Game 2 of the ALCS, maybe the Canyon of Heroes goes unused for another fall.

I have tried to cherish the 2009 season as much and as long as possible because after Josh Beckett delivers his first pitch to Derek Jeter on Sunday night, the Yankees will no longer be world champions. They will be defending world champions. And the only thing harder than winning a championship is winning back-to-back championships.