Flipping over from the encore presentation of perhaps the best episode ever of Mad Men and glimpsing the Yankees' ninth-inning rally in Game Four — the one that has all but buried the Phillies' hopes of successfully defending their 2008 championship — I thought of Luis Castillo…or “Luis Castillo”. If I say “Luis Castillo,” you know what I mean. The vignette that leaps (or drops) to mind is so identified with the player, that's it's not even synonymous; it's eponymous.
I thought of “Luis Castillo” a little after Johnny Damon stole second and zipped to third when he noticed and processed that a Delgado-like overshift left the base uncovered. I thought of “Luis Castillo” a little more when Brad Lidge hit Mark Teixeira. And I thought of “Luis Castillo” a whole lot when Alex Rodriguez doubled Damon home. But what really brought “Luis Castillo” front and center was Jorge Posada singling in both Teixeira and Rodriguez. The Yankees were by no means dead before this chain of events, just tied. But the momentum, built on homers from Chase Utley in the seventh and Pedro Feliz in the eighth — clearly belonged to the Phillies. There was no reason to think, when nobody was on and two were out, that this game was the Yankees' to win.
But it was and they did. It's not so much that they didn't give up (though they didn't and never do). It's that they took advantage. Damon singled and saw an opening from there. The rest was a “Luis Castillo” of a half-inning, right through to A-Rod hustling home with that third run to put his team up 7-4. For a sec, I wondered if he'd be held or if he'd hold up himself. Then I remembered the aspect of “Luis Castillo” that made “Luis Castillo” so chilling.
To return as briefly as possible to the horrors of June 12, there was the dropped Rodriguez popup with two out in the bottom of the ninth, to be sure, and there was the upsetting realization that the runner on second, Derek Jeter, was going to dash home and tie the game at eight. As legendary hard-luck hurler Charles Brown himself would say, “Rats.” But the true dagger to the heart that Friday night was Teixeira never stopping running.
• Castillo couldn't quite settle under the popup; Teixeira ran.
• Castillo got a glove on it; Teixeira ran.
• Castillo failed to ensnare the ball; Teixeira ran.
• Castillo picked it up; Teixeira ran.
• Instead of firing it home, Castillo tossed it foggily and lamely to second. And because Teixeira had been running the whole time, Teixeira scored…from first.
That was the knife, the wound and the blood right there. That was the proof that, certainly in that game and, more broadly, in ways that transcended any one game, the Yankees were better than the Mets. They were better at playing baseball than us. They weren't better because of 26 rings or $210 million in payroll or whatever arrogance we wish to assign their personality profile. They were better because they compounded others' mistakes, while our team simply made and compounded its own mistakes.
They knew how to play the game and they played it. It was an eye-opener — it honestly was. I had been peripherally watching the Yankees hustle from home to first and from first to third and all that for the better part of a baseball generation, but at no time since the 2000 World Series did I really get just how well they do their jobs.
While all through 2009, I was reminded how badly we do ours.
As I considered how this World Series was landing as squarely in the Yankees' column as that A-Rod popup in June had landed on the outfield grass next to Castillo, I noted who executed the go-ahead run: Damon, Teixeira and Rodriguez. I thought back to how each of them put on a fancy suit and stood in front of a top hat logo pledging fealty to all things Steinbrenner. They were the boys of various big-spending winters past. The Yankees assumed a huge contract with Rodriguez. When they didn't win a World Series the next five chances they conceivably had, we all had five good laughs. The Yankees waved a ton of money at Red Sock For Life Damon and it didn't help them get back where they thought they belonged. We laughed some more. When they threw a Federal Reserve's worth of loot at Teixeira and CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett this past winter, it looked like more of the same.
Not anymore it isn't. Those fancy suits became players and those players became, in concert with the those who have been there all along, a team. We've seen the Mets hold similar grip 'n' grins and hand out extra-large novelty checks to their share of free agents, but we have yet to see a payoff on this level. We never saw our collection of high-priced imports coalesce and take a 3-1 lead in a World Series. We never saw them in a World Series at all.
The Yankees, it has been said, can outspend their mistakes. They've made their share of them, most of them more expensive than some teams' entire payrolls. Now it appears almost irrefutably that several of their extravagant investments have yielded long-term payouts. I don't do their books. I don't know if dedicating however many zillion dollars to Alex Rodriguez since 2004 for one championship in 2009 has been worth it…if Matsui's been worth it since 2003 or Damon's been worth it since 2006. But they and the most recent class of lavishees and all those who received ever more significant raises as enticements to stick around this entire decade…they're about to win a World Series.
When the Yankees took that 7-4 lead in the top of the ninth, I knew I could flip back to AMC and Mad Men without suspense. Mariano Rivera was coming in. Of course it was over. Rivera blew key saves three postseason series: 1997 to Cleveland, 2001 to Arizona, 2004 to Boston. Those were lovely nights to be a Yankee Hater. They were also isolated incidents. Mets management didn't take time out of its busy schedule to rip the rubber off the Citi Field mound and send it to the Bronx as a keepsake because Rivera didn't save 500 games, which doesn't even include playoffs and World Series.
The Phillies went down 1-2-3; Jimmy Rollins, popped to first for the second out. Teixeira used both hands to make the catch.
The Fox cameras kept finding dejected Phillie fan faces, all of which appeared to register the same realization that winter was fast closing in on Citizens Bank Park, I actually felt a twinge of simpatico with them. It's no fun realizing your team is about to stop being champion of its sport. Sure, we'd all love to have that problem, but it is jarring to comprehend that everything that made you feel special for the previous year is about to dissipate. It felt instantly familiar to me because that's how I felt in January when the Giants were about to be dismissed from the NFL playoffs not quite a year after winning the Super Bowl. The sensation was less acute than that which I experienced in early October of 1987 as it sunk in that the Mets were ceding the N.L. East to St. Louis, but it was definitely its own kind of bummer. It was no longer “we are the champions,” but rather “we were the champions” and we have no idea when we're going to be again.
It took me about three seconds to abandon the empathy tic once I remembered a) the Giants were eliminated by the Eagles; b) Phillies fans are generally Eagles fans; c) I hate the Phillies; and d) Phillies fans are a pretty accurate reflection of their increasingly unappealing team — increasingly unappealing for the Phillies, which is a perversely impressive feat considering it's November and you'd figure they'd have revealed their character for all it was worth by Halloween.
The Phillies had played like champions for the balance of 2009, until Burnett outpitched Pedro Martinez in Game Two. Game Three, when A-Rod homered off that oddly positioned camera, recalled 1996 Game Four and Jim Leyritz effectively ending Mark Wohlers' usefulness (as well as the last scrap of my residual N.L. West affinity for Atlanta). When Leyritz homered, you pretty much knew the Braves, that year's version of Not The Yankees, were en route to finished. Thirteen years later, strange batfellows are letting us down again, which is unfortunate. What makes the Phillies newly unappealing, however, is not the not beating the Yankees, but reminding us what jerks they can be when things aren't breaking their way. Consider David Lennon's impressions regarding the Phillie stars' attitude toward reporters working their clubhouse on the off day prior to Game Three:
Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth were conspicuous by their absence. Ryan Howard loudly proclaimed that he was not talking. Shane Victorino, after some persistent prodding, gave an interview in which he greeted reporters with a string of expletives and then dismissed most of the questions.
Gosh, what sweethearts.
After losing Game Four, Charlie Manuel, who has received overwhelmingly favorable coverage since last October, snarled at a question about whether he regretted not starting Cliff Lee on three days' rest. Granted, he couldn't have been in a good mood and the issue had already been beaten into the ground, but c'mon. You're a World Series manager, and your players are World Series players. You're all defending champions. If you can't play like it, act like it.
Except when I wanted Dwight Gooden to achieve his no-hitter, I've never actively rooted for a Yankee victory, and I'm not about to start. But the Phillies showing their less than sunny sides when things begin to grow cloudy reminded me of a couple of the Dodgers — Davey Lopes and Bill Russell — blaming their misfortunes in the 1978 World Series on all the “animals” in New York. Not that I'd disagree with that assessment of Yankee Stadium crowds, particularly in those days, but I found their complaints to be alibis. The Dodgers were letting a 2-0 lead slip away as if it wasn't their fault, as if it was the city of New York's. I surely did not root for the Yankees to win that World Series, but I wasn't terribly sorry when Los Angeles lost it.
The Yankee players, not necessarily among the most press-accessible in the sport, have been cooperative and then some with the assembled multitudes, according to Lennon. They've gone beyond the usual Jetertronic Q&A. Maybe it's the winning. Maybe it's an extension of the professionalism they've shown on the field, the way they keep running and keep playing. Maybe, uniforms notwithstanding, they're not such bad sorts. At those prices, there's no reason for them to be anything but charming.
Nevertheless, it's encouraging to read about good behavior. It's more encouraging to see heads-up baseball. I'm a baseball fan. The Yankees have been playing it better than anyone. I've always respected it even as I've begrudged it. I'm on the cusp of admiring it. When they receive their inevitable trophy sometime this week, maybe I won't be as reflexively dismayed by it as I've been before.
What the hell — at least they're Not The Phillies.