Tonight’s game took the team into extra innings again, but this time the Orioles found a moment at the bottom of the 10th for a walk-off homer. Starting pitcher Phil Hughes actually had a pretty strong showing tonight, his only runs were scored off two solo home runs by former Yankee Chris Dickerson. Hughes and the other 5 pitchers from the bullpen kept Baltimore scoreless outside of those pesky Dickerson homers.
But tonight the Yankees relied on Travis Hafner for 2 RBI singles in the 1st and 5th innings to plate Gardner and Wells, respectively. Hafner continues what many are calling his “revitalization” as a consistent hitter and ballplayer. I don’t know why I’m not more surprised by this. Well, maybe I do. There is something about being on a team that has a history of encouragement, development, and training that focuses on individual potential and talent combined with a high standard of excellence and integrity that brings something out of players that other teams seem to have written off as a lost cause. We’ve seen this in Vernon Wells (and to some extent Kevin Youkilis) this year, as well key players from last year’s team like Eric Chavez (now with the Diamondbacks) and Raul Ibanez (spearheading the Mariner’s offense this year).
Perhaps that is why the Yankees tend toward the older age range of players. They often have. I think back to when we first got introduced to the Core Four, Pettitte, Posada, Jeter, and Rivera were 24, 24, 22, and 26 respectively. But other key members of the 1996 team were David Cone (33), Darryl Strawberry (34), Luis Sojo (30), Wade Boggs (38), Paul O’Neill (33), and Joe Girardi (31). In the days where the goal is to get the young guys in play soon like Mike Trout (Angels, 21), Bryce Harper (Nationals, 20), and Manny Machado (Orioles, 20), it continues to amaze statisticians and analysts why an “older” team seems to produce a winning season. It seems odd now when you have a player who reaches 40 (like Chipper Jones last year) and is still actively playing, a rarity in the sport. But the Yankees currently have 2 strong pitchers on their regular roster over 40 (Pettitte and Rivera).
So much is made of age in a world where youth is seen as the goal. I wonder if this was one of many contributing factors as to why there was so much pressure for players to use illegal enhancers — to regain the strength they had (or sometimes wanted) in their youth. I think of the biggest offenders of PED usage, and I always think of guys who were older or at the end of their careers (Sosa, Palmeiro, Canseco, and McGwire, for example). I guess being a Yankees fan I am constantly reminded by everyone else in the business of the presumed rarity of a “good team” of “old guys”. Since when does a 20-year-old automatically qualify a player as a better player than a 30-year-old or even 40-year-old player? I’ve seen some 20 year olds that will never make it to being a 40-year-old player and I’ve seen some 40 year olds that should have stopped playing ball 10 years previously.
There are three standards I use to measure a player’s excellence and overall quality as a ball player: ability, teamwork, and integrity. This covers physical and relational aspects of the sport, as well as the substance of that player. We all know of players who are really good but won’t work as a team and are all flash and diva-like. This doesn’t show me he’s a quality player. He can hit a ball 600 feet or throw 100 mph, but so what if he can’t play as part of a team or have the personal character to carry him through a career longer than he spent in high school.
Bottom line is age is a very important number. It recognizes the choices you’ve made and the moments you’ve created along the way to reach that magical number of years. So why do we fear the higher numbers if they serve as a reminder of experiences and greatness not only we have witnessed but yet to come? Let’s celebrate those who are still pushing the envelope for greatness in a sport that they love to play and we love to watch.
And congratulations to former Yankee Nick Swisher, his wife Joanna, and their families on the birth of their baby girl today! She may be a baby Cleveland Indian now, but she will always have a little Yankee blood in her!!