Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera all made their Major League debuts in 1995. Save for Pettitte’s three-year detour in Houston, all three have been with the New York Yankees ever since.
And for better or – as seems more likely – for worse, it will continue to be that way for at least one more year.
Last week, the Yankees re-signed Rivera to a one-year contract, ensuring he will remain in pinstripes for an amazing 19th season.
Over those nearly two decades, Rivera has progressed from starting pitcher to set-up man, and from closer to inarguably the greatest of of all-time.
He has also aged, considerably. Today, Mariano Rivera is 43 years old, and recovering from a torn ACL injury. An ACL tear is an uncommon enough injury for any pitcher, let alone one in his fifth decade of life.
For Rivera, the path to recovery runs through uncharted territory.
48 hours prior to re-upping one aging legend, the Yankees decided to bring back another key contributor to championships past. On November 30th, Andy Pettitte signed on for what is almost certainly one last hurrah.
After temporarily retiring for the 2011 season, Pettitte pitched well in an injury-and-age shortened 2012, tossing up a 2.87 ERA in just 12 starts.
Yet, over the last 36 months, Andy Pettitte has pitched in just 37 games. By the time the Yankees were bounced from the postseason by the Detroit Tigers, his biological clock had struck forty.
A few thousand miles south, Derek Jeter continues his march back from an ankle injury suffered in a playoff game against those same Tigers.
By all accounts, the Captain will be ready for Opening Day.
If all of those accounts can be believed, the Yankees will have a 39 year-old leading off and playing shortstop next season.
For any Major League club – let alone for one with World Series aspirations – this would be unprecedented.
Yet, most of us would have it no other way. Jeter is OUR guy, the Yankee legend who, for members of my generation, seems as much of a role model as he does a childhood friend.
To me, and certainly to many much older than I, the Yankees are something foreign without number two manning the hole between second and third.
Without Andy Pettitte starting every fifth day, and without Mariano Rivera emerging from the bullpen to energize the ballpark and euthanize the other team, the New York Yankees are but an assemblage of ordinary faces with extra-ordinary conracts.
In the 19 years since our guys arrived on the scene – after just as long of a stint at the bottom of the standings – the Yankees have reemerged as the city and the league’s preeminent franchise. Together, Rivera, Jeter and Pettitte have won five World Series, countless individual accolades, and the eternal affection of every Yankee fan, many of whom were not interested or even alive when they made their Major League debuts.
Without our guys, this team is not ours. We’ve rooted along for too long to fathom anything else.
And now, as all three stand on the precipice of The End, and as all three have as much on their shoulders as at any other point in their Hall-of-Fame worthy careers, the Evil Empire might be in for a reality check.
Considering the injuries to Rivera and Jeter, and to 37-year old Alex Rodruguez – as well as the fact that, if the season started tomorrow, noted immortals Chris Dickerson and Frankie Cervelli would be playing rightfield and catcher, respectively – it’s hard to see how the Yankees make it through the 2013 season unscathed.
There are simply too many question marks, and not enough talent ready to step up and answer any sudden, belated assertions of father time.
But, let’s be optimistic and say the Yankees do survive 2013. Let’s say Jeter comes back and picks up where he left off a season ago. Let’s say Rivera is who he has always been, and that Rodriguez regains his stroke after a second hip surgery, and that Mark Teixeira finally shows us he’s actually a top-tier offensive first baseman. Let’s suppose Curtis Granderson remembers how to hit anything but homeruns, and that CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda all give the Yankees the pitching contributions they can’t do without.
Even then, the end will still be nigh. In 2014, Jeter will be 40, and – assuming he exercises his player option – in the last year of his contract, as well as almost certainly the last of his career. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which either Rivera or Pettitte stick around for one last final season, or in which Rodriguez and Teixeira don’t continue their regressions towards a frustrating mean.
Who can the Yankees rely on two years from now? Who can they even guarantee will still be on the roster?
Not Phil Hughes, who despite winning 16 games a season ago, is – at best – a number three in a competitive rotation.
Not Brett Gardner, who missed almost all of 2012 due to injury, and not the aforementioned Granderson, whose contract is up at the end of 2013.
Not even Robinson Cano, whose agreement also expires a year from now, and who will likely command the type of deal that the Yankees have already fallen victim to too many times. (See: Rodriguez, Alex; Giambi, Jason; Burnett, AJ, et al.)
Even in the most optimistic scenario, the Yankees are on the verge of starting over. And any reasonable evaluation of their farm system yields little hope of patching holes with internal resources.
Of course, the Yankees could end up doing what they do best – throwing money at whatever problems end up popping up.
In any event, it’s time to start getting concerned about the future.
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. It causes us to look upon the past with a fondness not warranted, and it causes us to make decisions in the name of history and emotion, rather than reason, the present or the future.
That’s what the Yankees have been doing for far too long, leaning on legends they currently have without much regard for who’s coming next.
If only they had gazed further into their storied history, and remembered the Yankees teams of Mantle, Ford and Berra – all of whom stuck around into their late thirties, and all of whom left a talent-stripped roster in their wake once their baseball careers finally died merciful deaths.
In 1965, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle were all holding on to their careers for dear life. By ’67, only Ford and Mantle remained in the big leagues; and by the end of 1968, all three had rode off into their respective sunsets. The Yankees wouldn’t win a division title or make a World Series appearance at any point over the next seven seasons.
By the end of 2013, all three of our guys could be gone, and all at the same time. Soon, three cornerstones of a dynasty will disintegrate, and leave an alarmingly bare foundation behind. The Yankees and their fans have had 19 years to prepare for this moment. And somehow, we all seem to have been caught by surprise.