Baseball: Twilight of the New York Yankee Gods

New York have a side full of stars, such as A-Rod who has the game's fattest contract, but they are fading with age. Rupert Cornwell on the end of an era

Dynasties die. It happened to the Tudors, it happened to the Bourbons, and it happened to the Romanovs. And now it's happening to the ruling house of American sport: the New York Yankees.

Baseball's post-season is midway through its second round, the championship series of the American League and the National League, whose winners will meet in the World Series that opens a week from today. The Yankees, like an ageing and mangy dog that was once the terror of the neighbourhood, are still hanging in there. The omens, however, are not good.

For one thing, New York's hitters are in dreadful shape, with Robinson Cano – the fluid young Dominican second baseman who is seen as the cornerstone of any new Yankee dynasty – entombed in a 0 for 26 slump, the longest ever by any hitter, ever, in a single post-season.

And speak not of Alex Rodriguez, he of the $275m 10-year contract and 647 home runs, fifth on the all-time list. A-Rod's post-season failures are legendary, and thus far 2012 has been no exception. So feeble is his output, just three hits in 23 at-bats, that manager Joe Girardi benched him for the decisive fifth game of the AL division match-up against the Baltimore Orioles. Once that would have been sacrilege, by then it was common sense.

The Yankees did scrape through that series thanks to their pitching, capped by a complete Game Five from their ace C C Sabathia. But in the best-of-seven championship series against the Tigers, they lost the first two games at home, and last night were on the road in Detroit, facing Justin Verlander, arguably the most lethal pitcher in the majors.

New York, it should be said, may still wriggle out of their predicament. By no coincidence it was a baseball man, the Yankee immortal Yogi Berra, who coined the aphorism that sums up what gives sport its most basic and universal appeal: "It ain't over till it's over."

Baseball's post-season is always a spin of the roulette wheel; more often than not the prize goes not to the best team, but to one that gets hot at the right moment. That's why the last 10 World Series have been won by eight different franchises. The Yankees right now may be ice-cold, but A-Rod and Cano, as well as two other hitters floundering thus far, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, could suddenly catch fire.

And teams have not infrequently come back from losing at home the first two games of a post-season series – the San Francisco Giants did exactly that only last week in their National League division series, remarkably saving themselves by winning three straight games against the Reds in Cincinnati. The Yankees themselves pulled off the feat in 1996, when they won the World Series against the favoured Atlanta Braves.

But that was then and this is now: 1996 was the dawn of a Yankees golden generation, of a team built around the quartet of Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte that would go on to win five World Series and seven American League pennants. In 2012, a melancholy twilight is settling over the Bronx.

Ultimately, every sports career yields to anno domini, even those of the Yankees' great "Core Four". Posada, perhaps second only to Berra as a hitting catcher in Yankee history, retired after the 2011 season at the age of 40. Pettitte had retired a year earlier, but came back for the 2012 season as a guest instructor for the Yankees before signing a playing contract in mid- season.

Pettitte has still got what it takes, as proved by a strong no-decision performance in Game One against the Tigers, in which he pitched six and two-thirds innings, giving up only two runs. But he is now season-to-season; 2012 could be his last hurrah.

As for Rivera, baseball's all-time saves leader, and perhaps its greatest ever closer, his season ended in May when he twisted a knee in a pre-game warm-up. "I won't go out like this," Rivera declared at the time, vowing a comeback. The reality, though, is that next month he turns 43, on the elderly side even for a closer who rarely throws more than one inning per game.

Most poignant of all is the case of Jeter who, remarkably in this era of sporting mercenaries, has played his entire career with the Yankees. Jeter is the team's undisputed leader and talisman. Not just thanks to his 3,304 career hits – 10th on the all-time list and accumulated while playing at short stop, the game's most demanding field position – but also because of his immaculate professionalism and ability to perform when the pressure is greatest. A glitzy but non-scandalous personal life helps, too. Time and again, he has been voted by the Sports Business Survey poll as "the most marketable player in baseball".

But late in Game One against the Tigers on Saturday, time caught up even with Jeter. Going to field a ground ball, he collapsed and fractured an ankle. Surgery is likely, and at 38 his days in Yankee pinstripes are surely numbered. Wincing in agony, Jeter was helped off the field – and there wasn't even a full house to watch his wretched exit.

At each of the last three games at Yankee Stadium, there have been patches of empty seats. The fans, too, sense a dynasty's end is at hand.

 



Big deals: Top contracts in major sports

Name/Sport/Team/Contract value/Contract length

A Rodriguez Baseball/NY Yankees/$275m/10 years

F Alonso Formula One/Ferrari/$259m/5+2 years

C Ronaldo Football/Real Madrid/$170m/10 years

C Johnson NFL/Detroit Lions/$132m/8 years

A Ovechkin Ice Hockey/Washington Capitals/$124m/13 years

S Chabal Rugby Union/Racing Metro/$3.9m ('09-12)/3 years

M S Dhoni Cricket/Various/$3.5m/This season

G Gambhir Cricket (IPL)/Kolkata/$2.4m/8 weeks

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