Earlier this year I read Ty Cobb's autobiography My Life in Baseball: The True Record. This book is often overlooked because it's perceived as a whitewashed version of Cobb's life, but I still enjoyed it. Despite Cobb's known faults, I came away from it with a greater admiration for him and what he contributed to baseball. You may know the story behind the book, as they made a movie out of it: Cobb enlisted sportswriter Al Stump to help him put his words to paper in his later years, and the final product was published shortly after Cobb's death in 1961.
Several chapters of the book consist of Cobb's advice for ballplayers, as well as his thoughts about the state of the game at the time of writing. One thing that's stuck with me is Cobb's disdain for the home run ball. He argued that baseball was meant to be played within the confines of the field, and that home runs hit into the seats violated that ideal. He also said that the sit-back-and-wait-for-a-homer game (which was common in the 1950's) made baseball boring, and that it was the main reason football was threatening to overtake baseball as the most popular sport. While it's easy to dismiss Cobb's words as those of a crotchety old man who thinks everything was better in his day, he may have had a point worth considering.
Baseball was more intense in the deadball era. Teams usually relied on singles, bunts and stolen bases to score runs. The lower the run-scoring environment the more valuable each tally was. You weren't going to wait for your big boppers to park one. You knew that scoring was most likely going to be a process. Most of the advice Cobb dispensed was about outsmarting the opposition in various situations. Players back then had to use their heads to get any advantage they could, whether it be physical or psychological. It was a battle of brains as much as brawn.
That brings us to this year's Yankees. As you probably know, last night they won the 2009 World Series. I guess all fans of good baseball should be rejoicing. After all, these are the Yankees we're talking about. Winning the World Series is part of their fabric, since no other franchise has the commitment to excellence that they do. You'd be hard-pressed to find a collection of players equal in quality. And yet...their achievement seems empty.
It goes without saying that the richer teams have an advantage over the poorer ones. We could reasonably expect the richest clubs to beat out the others every year, but as the saying goes, that's why they play the games. In the almost-decade we went without the Yankees winning the Series we saw several examples of brainpower beating out financial power. Heck, just last year we had the Rays. They built a pennant-winner through solid draft choices, smart trades and shrewd signings. I loved watching their run to the World Series. It reminded us that every team has a chance if they use their heads and play their cards right, and that sometimes the "little guy" wins. It's the type of story that makes me proud to be a baseball fan. Even though the Rays didn't win the World Series, they had a season to be proud of, as it was the culmination of a well-thought-out process.
When C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett hit the market it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that they'd be snatched up by big-money teams, and the Yankees outdid themselves by landing every single one of them. I know, I know. If they have the cash you can't blame them for using it, right? What did the Yankees prove by winning this World Series though? That they can outspend everyone else? Shoot, we already knew that. It takes no special talent to spend money, and it's not unreasonable to think that most teams in baseball could've done the same thing with the same resources.
In sports, we tend to view the season as a sort of narrative. We look for storylines because it enhances our experience. Can this guy finally win a championship? Can this guy prove he isn't washed up? Can this team win its first title in however-many seasons? Like any story, I want a happy ending. I want to believe that the good guys ultimately win and justice prevails. Watching the Yankees win the World Series is kind of like watching Biff Tannen break George McFly's arm and have his way with Lorraine, thus erasing Marty from existence (OK, no more cheesy pop culture references, even if they are from my favorite movie of all time).
Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining about the Yankees' title being unfair (it is, but that's the nature of the beast). I'm not advocating a salary cap or a return to the reserve clause. I'm just saying that there's nothing about their story that impresses me. Their front office didn't make any ingenious moves I can nod admiringly at. There's no long-suffering fanbase to feel happy for (Nine years? Try being a Cubs fan!). They merely did exactly what a team with such a large advantage would be expected to do: finish on top.
Looking at this Yankee championship, I think I understand how Ty Cobb felt watching the sport in which he took so much pride reduced to a battle of who can outbash whom (at least, in his view). This year's Bronx Bombers proved that monetary brawn and enough brains not to screw things up is a winning formula. No, I'm not making some oversimplified statement that baseball is merely a spending competition. I know there are other clubs whose management could potentially outsmart the Yankees. I also know that the Yankees have an aging core and were lucky enough to get good seasons out of all of them (which is enough to give us Yankee-haters hope for next year). What I am saying is that the significant financial cushion the Yankees have takes the luster off their accomplishment. They may have won it fair and square on the field, but they never gave me any reason to care.