The mood leading up to Opening Day was uneasy. The offseason had been full of second-guessing and unorthodox moves. The all-star catcher had been allowed to walk in favor of a light-hitting backstop. A former slugger looking to prove he had something in the tank was the left field experiment. A former hated rival was still at the hot corner. And the homegrown face of the franchise wasn’t manning his position for the first time in over a decade.
Six months later, they were World Champions.
The 1996 New York Yankees have become something of a fixture in baseball lore. Their curious mix of reclamation projects paying dividends and a little bit of lightning-in-a-bottle luck led to four championships in five years and a stretch of 16 playoff appearances in the next 17 years. But to say that their success was unexpected would be an understatement.
The approach was certainly unusual. To attempt to build on the momentum of 1995, which saw the Yankees make the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, the front office shook things up. Career Yankee Pat Kelly was replaced at second base by National League journeyman Mariano Duncan, who hadn’t seen his OPS climb above .720 in six years. Former Mets teammates, outfielder Darryl Strawberry and pitcher Dwight Gooden, both heavy with the baggage of substance abuse struggles and time wasted, were brought aboard on the hunch that something was left. A skinny kid from Michigan had been handed the starting shortstop job after 51 major league plate appearances. And Tino Martinez, fresh off an all-star season with the Mariners, was faced with the daunting task of replacing Don Mattingly.
Up and down the roster, the Yankees trusted the leadership and baseball savvy of GM Bob Watson and VP of scouting Gene Michael. And little by little, their faith paid dividends. With contributions from unexpected sources–Duncan, for example, ended the year with an .852 OPS–and some deft maneuvering by new manager Joe Torre to draw the best from his veterans, the Yankees kept winning. Former perennial all-star Tim Raines thrived in a limited left field role, reaching base at a near .400 clip. An unlikely hero named Mariano Rivera struck out 130 in 107 innings. And Gooden threw a no-hitter on May 14th.
Much has been made about the aura and mystique of the Yankees. Truthfully, the unpredictable and exceptional happen all over baseball, every year. But in a city where underachievement is on par with mortal sin, it’s hard to fault the Yankees for embracing the unexpected victories.
And, now, it’s happening again. True, the payroll still sits over $200 million, and there are superstars on their way back, but what the 2013 Yankees have managed to craft in this early season has been nothing short of remarkable.
The mood leading up to Opening Day this year was uneasy. The front office had let fan favorite Nick Swisher walk without a contract offer, opting to slot mid-season acquisition Ichiro Suzuki into right field instead. They had replaced all-star catcher Russell Martin with an unproven catching tandem sporting a career OPS of under .650. They had traded for left fielder Vernon Wells, once a fearsome slugger but now better known for being the recipient of one of the most disappointing contracts in recent memory. And their homegrown face of the franchise (along with their first baseman, third baseman, and centerfielder) wouldn’t be suiting up for weeks. With 100 home runs sitting on the DL and another 94 lost to free agency, the Bronx Bombers were suddenly facing a power outage–and no foreseeable solution.
And yet, improbably, they’re winning.
Heading into play on Monday, the Yankees are 15-9 (and 13-5 since April 8th), good for second in the division. Seven of those wins came when they were once trailing. Four were in one-run contests (in which they are still undefeated). The bullpen has a 2.96 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 69 innings. That left fielder with the terrible contract is slugging .580. And the Yankees lead the American League in home runs.
All told, this patchwork version of the Yankees is coming through. Manager Joe Girardi–once that light-hitting backstop who replaced all-star Mike Stanley–has tinkered with the lineup on a near-daily basis, and his offense has paid him back for his faith. The replacements to the superstars either gone or hobbled have combined for 24 of the team’s 35 homers–seeming to scatter them in moments when the team needs them the most. The starting rotation–always expected to carry the team–has been solid. And the bullpen, a product of Girardi’s strength, has been masterful.
Whether or not this version of unlikely Yankees can maintain the clutch hitting and shutdown pitching needed to hold their own until reinforcements arrive remains to be seen, but precedent would indicate it’s not impossible. If veterans like Wells, former Blue Jay teammate Lyle Overbay, and current team leader in late game heroics, Travis Hafner, can continue their apparent rejuvenation as a complement to Robinson Cano and his sweet swing, the steady pitching staff will do the rest.
Because if 1996 is any indication, a combination of second chances, skilled maneuvering, and a little bit of luck can pick up the slack of lowered expectations. And, just like when Joe Torre was handed a team full of uncertainties, the improbable quickly becomes believable.