For my column on the Yankees today, I reached out to dynasty architect Gene Michael, in the hopes of sharing a laugh over how an in-his-prime George Steinbrenner would have reacted to Sunday's loss.
Stick insisted that I was overdramatizing, that George didn't actually go so crazy this early in the season. I laughed as I asked him, "What about 1985?" during which, after the Yankees dropped the first season's two games at Fenway Park, Steinbrenner described the series finale as "a crucial game." And, of course, The Boss proceeded to fire manager Yogi Berra after a mere 16 games (and 6-10 record), setting off a cold war that lasted for nearly 14 years.
"Call Yogi," Michael said, chortling.
(By the way, not for nothing, but Yogi had one of baseball's more interesting managerial careers. After getting fired despite winning the AL pennant in 1964, he waited eight years for his second job, and then nine more years for his third job. He had a decent overall record of 484-444. Just sayin').
Anyway, Stick noted that, "We have a history of not playing well the first few weeks," and that is indeed true in recent years. Each of the prior six seasons, and eight of the prior nine, the Yankees have played worse in the season's first month than in the overall campaign. Here are the Yankees' March/April records vs. their season records:
2009: 12-10 (.545) vs. 103-59 (.636)
2008: 14-15 (.483) vs. 89-73 (.549)
2007: 9-14 (.391) vs. 94-68 (.580)
2006: 13-10 (.565) vs. 97-65 (.599)
2005: 10-14 (.417) vs. 95-67 (.586)
2004: 12-11 (.522) vs. 101-61 (.623)
2003: 21-6 (.778) vs. 101-61 (.623)
2002: 17-10 (.630) vs. 103-58 (.640)
2001: 14-12 (.538) vs. 95-65 (.594)
I wondered whether Stick was referring to even earlier to his time with the Yankees. After all, he has been around the club since 1968 (five years before Steinbrenner's arrival), taking a quick break to manage the Cubs in the mid-'80s. So I looked further back:
2000: 15-8 (.652) vs. 87-74 (.540)
1999: 14-7 (.667) vs. 98-64 (.605)
1998: 17-6 (.739) vs. 114-48 (.704)
1997: 14-13 (.519) vs. 96-66 (.593)
1996: 13-10 (.565) vs. 92-70 (.568)
1995: 3-1 (.750) vs. 79-65 (.549)
1994: 15-8 (.652) vs. 70-43 (.619)
1993: 12-9 (.571) vs. 88-74 (.543)
1992: 13-8 (.619) vs. 76-86 (.469)
1991: 6-11 (.353) vs. 71-91 (.438)
1990: 7-10 (.412) vs. 67-95 (.414)
1989: 12-12 (.500) vs. 74-87 (.460)
1988: 16-7 (.696) vs. 85-76 (.528)
1987: 14-7 (.667) vs. 89-73 (.549)
1986: 14-6 (.700) vs. 90-72 (556)
1985: 6-12 (.333) vs. 97-64 (.602)
1984: 8-13 (.381) vs. 87-75 (.537)
1983: 9-11 (.450) vs. 91-71 (.562)
1982: 7-11 (.389) vs. 79-83 (.488)
1981: 11-6 (.647) vs. 59-48 (.551)
1980: 9-9 (.500) vs. 103-59 (.636)
(Thanks to baseball-reference.com for the info.)
I started to draw some conclusions in my mind: Did the Yankees' slow starts in Joe Torre's later years match the perception that Torre wasn't hard enough on his players? Or, twisting the same data around a similar theme, was Torre smart enough to appreciate the season's marathon-esque pace and not sweat the small stuff early on?
Definitely not, to the latter question. Torre certainly appeared peaved when the team got off to slow starts, and if anything, he received justified criticism for thinking too small-picture, like when he brought in Andy Pettitte in relief in this game and summoned Rivera in the eighth inning of this game, after vowing (in spring training) to limit Rivera's usage to the ninth.
What about the first question? Torre did seem to ease up in the later years. But then again, he always steered the ship right, into the playoffs.
What about the 1980s? You could wonder whether Yogi, relatively easygoing like Torre, should take the blame for the slow starts of '84 and '85, whereas the hard-charging Lou Piniella, Billy Martin and even Dallas Green pushed the teams to fast starts from '86 through '89.
Maybe there's a grain of truth to all of that. But what's the biggest change since 2001? The unbalanced schedule. With 18 games against the Red Sox, instead of 12, the Yankees are considerably more likely to play their rivals in April now than when the schedule was balanced. The Yankees and Red Sox didn't play each other in April of 1998. 1999 and 2000 - and, notably, 2003 (and also 2006, the one season since '03 that Boston missed the playoffs).
After all, Joe Girardi seems to be more in the Martin/Piniella mode than Torre/Berra, when it comes to intensity. But he has experienced the same slow starts. Thanks, in part, to five games against the Sawx in '08 and three last year.
--Erik Boland advanced A.J. Burnett's season debut tonight, and there's no doubt that we'll be scrutinizing the rapport between Burnett and Jorge Posada. I agree with John Harper that Posada's bat will keep him in the lineup as the team's starting catcher, for now, but his defense, like his relationship with Burnett, will be watched closely.
--Not surprisingly, many people watched Sunday night's opener.
--Plenty of coverage from yesterday's Mets opener. I agree with Anthony Rieber that Jerry Manuel got lucky for the day regarding his bullpen. You know what could be an interesting statistic for this Mets team? Quality starts vs. blown quality starts. Quality starts, as you know, are starts in which the pitcher lasts at least six innings and allowed three or fewer runs.
Blown quality starts, as defined by Baseball Prospectus, occur when a pitcher has a quality start - when he allows three or fewer runs through six innings - but then he remains in the game and winds up giving up four or more runs.
The stat can be a reflection on whether the manager has a good feel for when to go to his bullpen. It's absolutely not perfect - for example, if your team is leading, 9-1, and your bullpen is tired, you dont' mind your starter giving up a fourth run in return for pitching a seventh inning - but it's an interesting tool.
So far, then, the Mets have one quality start.
--Darryl Strawberry threw out the first pitch. The ceremonial first pitch is, of course, one of the highlights of Opening Day. Pedro Martinez was great in Boston Sunday night, while I enjoyed seeing Hank Aaron in Atlanta, Roger Stauback in Texas and Kurt Warner in Arizona. Barack Obama sure seems to enjoy the honor, and he sure isn't good at it.
--Gary Matthews Jr. had a good day.
--I admit, I felt like a proud New Yorker upon reading that Mets fans booed the team's trainers during the pre-game introductions. Would any other city's fans exhibit such savvy, chutzpah and humor? Call me biased, but I think not.
--Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui both enjoyed successful debuts with their new teams. Gosh, it was weird seeing Matsui in that pinkish-red helmet. His reception at next week's Yankees home opener figures to be epic.
--Live chat at 11 this morning. We'll draw huge conclusions from tiny sample sizes.