Yanks' 3-team Johnson trade unravels

Yankees will keep buying stars, but championships aren't for sale

December 22, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

THE NEW YORK Yankees are negotiating to get Randy Johnson and talking to Carlos Beltran. I'm betting both will end up wearing pinstripes in 2005. The Yankees always get what they want, at least in the offseason.

I'm also betting they won't win the World Series in 2005 despite having an estimated $210 million payroll. That would make five years in a row without a title in the Bronx.

You'll hear cries of "unfair" from fans, observers and some in the game if Johnson and Beltran are locked up. But the same cries sounded when the Yankees traded for Alex Rodriguez before the 2004 season and signed Hideki Matsui before the 2003 season and Jason Giambi before the 2002 season.

If the Yankees' habit of hoarding the best available players is so unfair, why haven't they won a World Series since the last months of the Clinton administration?

Because baseball doesn't work that way.

Talent obviously is a huge determinant, but teams that win it all generally also have intangible qualities such as camaraderie and heart, as well as parts that work well together.

Having the most toys (i.e., the most big-name players) doesn't assure a team any of that.

Amazingly, even at the sport's pinnacle, with millions of dollars at stake, Little League qualities make a huge difference.

Even with the best players in the majors starting at every position, a team could lack essential components. The Yankees did when they lost in October to recent World Series winners such as the 2004 Boston Red Sox, 2003 Florida Marlins and 2002 Anaheim Angels.

Those Yankees had plenty of talent, but they were just a cold assemblage of personnel, a collection of hired guns with no shared history, no core. That's not going to change if Johnson and Beltran come aboard.

The opposite was true when owner George Steinbrenner's team was piling up Series titles starting in the mid-'90s, winning four in five years at one point.

Those Yankees weren't as talented, but they were tough, smart, cohesive, intensely competitive - and just about impossible to beat in October.

Talk about a core. Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera had grown up mostly together in the Yankees' farm system. They blended brilliantly with acquired guys such as Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez and Joe Girardi, team-first guys who filled an assortment of roles.

They came together so well that you couldn't hate them even though they were the Yankees. You had to applaud the game played right.

The current Yankees are a different story. They're like a metropolis going around annexing suburbs. The RBI machine at first base? Pay him. The smooth, all-world infielder? Acquired. The tall left-handed strikeout king? Coming.

They're unbeatable as a fantasy team, but who is going to bunt runners over in real life? Who is going to work the walk instead of swinging for the fences? And who is going to burn inside when the team is up against it in October?

Obviously not enough guys to satisfy Jeter, who constitutes what's left of the championship core; the disgust on his face was evident as the Red Sox came back to win the American League Championship Series last fall.

Steinbrenner has responded to that epic defeat not by spontaneously combusting, as many expected, but by going out and viciously acquiring more high-priced personnel. I expect the Yankees to win 100-plus games again this season and probably blow away the Red Sox, who have used up all their good karma and lost Pedro Martinez.

But there's a difference between buying a winner, which the Yankees have done, and buying a World Series winner, which is much harder to do.

Look at the sport's recent champions. The 2002 Angels also exuded an upbeat, collective personality, a solid core. So did the 2004 Red Sox, the self-proclaimed "idiots" who actually were similar to the inspiring '90s Yankees.

With 29 other major league organizations out there, the odds are good that at least one a year puts together a team representing the perfect storm of talent, player development, chemistry and momentum - a team capable of toppling the Yankees.

Meanwhile, there's almost a desperate quality to the Yankees this offseason. They seem like wealthy parents who don't know what to do about a wayward child other than to write checks to try to make things better. They're showering money on all potential solutions, praying something will work.

But what they really need is a core, a shared history among their players, a collective personality - the building blocks of a real team, as opposed to a collection of mercenary All-Stars.

And you can't buy that.

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