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The Yankees and the Curse of Empire

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The late Joe Strummer of the Clash assured us that "the Future is not written," but sometimes I have my doubts.

In the National League Championship Series, the favored Phillies are now down to the Giants, three games to two, going back to Philadelphia for Game 6 and -- the spirits of Robin Roberts, Johnny Callison and Richie Ashburn willing -- Game 7.

Similarly, in the ALCS, the favored Yankees are going to Texas Friday night, also down 3-2, but there is a difference.

The Phillies have the Giants right where they want them. The Yankees are doomed. The only question is who will finish them off, Colby Lewis in game 6, or Cliff "The Executioner" Lee in game 7.

If the answer is the latter it will be interesting to see how it plays out, especially if Texas goes on to play the Phillies in the World Series.

As I'm only half done writing the screenplay I don't want to divulge the details of what's going to happen, only that the thinly fictionalized story of Cliff Lee's-revenge-on-the-Phillies-and-GM-Ruben-Amaro Jr.-for dumping-him-to-Seattle is tentatively entitled "Payback is a Bitch." Needless to say I'm also adding a completely fictionalized sub plot where the Lee character is pursued by a baseball crazed country and western singer played by either Reese Witherspoon or Beyonce Knowles, depending.

But that's not the best part of the story. That would be where Yankees GM Brian Cashman runs onto the field at Citizens Bank Park and in the middle of the Rangers victory celebration, signs Lee under the goal posts (an admittedly cinematic embellishment) to a six year, 160 million dollar contract to pitch for the Yankees.

In the movie it will sort of be a happy ending -- if you ignore the part where Philadelphia fans run down Cashman, rip his body to shreds and feed the bloody hunks of flesh to a chained up Sarah Palin -- but in truth, Lee will never again pitch in a World Series after signing with the Yankees.

The Yankees mega-million bucks signing of Lee will turn out badly, and Joe Strummer aside, how do we know this? Because with the exception of Mike Messina, CC Sabathia -- so far -- and the lovable Roger Clemens, the Yankees multi million dollar free agent signings of pitchers almost always turn out badly.

For lack of a better term, you can call it the Curse of Empire.

Talk to people in New York and they are invariably of two minds about the late George Steinbrenner. Yes, they say, he was a liar, a bully and a jerk, but he did what the rest of baseball should be doing: maximizing the natural advantages of his market to make his team great theatre and their financial success, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You can see their point but there is a darker side to the story.

When Steinbrenner bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973, they hadn't been a good team for the better part of the previous decade, and what's more, Steinbrenner wasn't even the driving force in his ownership group.

Though it was Steinbrenner who, characteristically, took credit, it was his President and General Manager, Gabe Paul who took advantage of the advent of baseball free agency in 1976, signing ex Oakland A's Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson, then making a series of savvy trades for Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, Mickey Rivers, and Willie Randolph among others that turned the team's fortunes around.

Steinbrenner forced Paul out after the '77 season but the momentum of the latter's deal making carried the Yankees to World Series wins in 1977, 1978 and an appearance again in 1981.

However, the success of the club left George literally drunk with power and his overweening presence in the Front office became the main impediment to Yankees winning again, no matter how much money he spent on the team.

It wasn't until George was suspended from baseball in 1990 for hiring a gambler to "dig up dirt" on Dave Winfield, that then General Manager Gene Michael was free to develop the farm system and not trade away all the Yankees prospects for established stars. That change in philosophy eventually produced players like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Petitte who would become the core of the Yankees great late 90's team.

George, of course, came to believe that Yankees great run from 1996 to 2001 was about him, and that a place in the World Series was a Yankee birthright. But when the Yankees lost the World Series in 2001, George was back to his old 80's ways, signing another former Oakland A's MVP, Jason Giambi, to a mega contract in 2002. Then there was Alex Rodriguez in 2004, and Randy Johnson in 2005.

George kept figuring he was one superstar away from winning the World Series again, but until his dying day, I don't think he ever figured out the problem.

George Steinbrenner never really got baseball and in truth, he's not the only one.

All season long, the talk in baseball was of attendance being down, even in places where teams were contending like Atlanta, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and San Diego.

Aside from the playoffs, which generate a maelstrom of municipal emotion, where your team is your town, baseball has trouble holding the attention of people these days, especially if they've never played the game.

The thing about baseball is that it balances athleticism with skill. You can succeed in baseball if you're not a great athlete. You cannot succeed without great skill. That's a great thing about the game, but it means that results are not direct.

Steinbrenner treated baseball more like football, where if you get the biggest, fastest, most athletic guys, you can usually win. He also assumed that big results elsewhere meant continued big results, and that just goes against the track record of most baseball players over time.

You can strategize for success in baseball and hope for the best, but you can't mandate it.

You can try of course, but as long as the Yankees continue to try and buy championships, they will not win many.

That is the curse of the Empire.

And I bet Joe Strummer, wherever he is, might agree.

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