From 1949 to 1964, the New York Yankees won a remarkable 14 American League pennants in 16 seasons, a dynasty that reached across generations, from Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra, to Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, to Jim Bouton and Tom Tresh.
After that dominant stretch -- which really dated back to 1920 and the acquisition of Babe Ruth -- the demise came suddenly, from 99 wins in 1964, to 77 wins in 1965, to 70 wins and last place in 1966.
The Yankees in last place? It was unfathomable to baseball fans of the 1960s.
At some point, the Yankees will fall again. Many expect that fall to be as quick and as painful as it was after the Yankees lost the 1964 World Series, and many expected that fall to happen in 2013. From 95 wins and the best record in the AL to last place in the AL East? With Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira on the disabled list to start the season, and the free agent departures of Nick Swisher and Russell Martin, it not only seemed fathomable, but appeared likely.
Not so fast, my baseball friends. The Yankees' lineup in Sunday's 4-2 win over the Royals included Vernon Wells, a punchline with the Angels a year ago, hitting third; Ichiro Suzuki, a guy Mariners fans were happy to get rid of, hitting fifth; Jayson Nix, let go through the years by the Rockies, White Sox, Indians and Blue Jays, hitting sixth; Lyle Overbay, who granted was a .300 hitter seven years ago, batting seventh; Chris Nelson, obtained on May 1 from the Rockies after he was designated for assignment, batting eighth; and, batting ninth, catcher Chris Stewart, who has been let go by the Rangers and Yankees, re-acquired by the Yankees from the White Sox, let go again by the Yankees, let go by the Padres, and re-acquired by the Yankees from the Giants.
As former Indians and White Sox manager Al Lopez once said, "Everybody says we hated the Yankees. We didn't hate the Yankees. We just hated the way they beat us."
It's one thing to lose to Robinson Cano and a lineup of All-Stars; it's something more frustrating to lose to a lineup of Cano and a patchwork team of has-beens and never-weres. Ask the Royals, who entered at 18-13, riding high with their best stretch of baseball in a decade. The Yankees won 11-6, 3-2 and rode Hiroki Kuroda's strong performance to the sweep on Sunday.
The Yankees are 23-13, tied for the second-best record in the majors behind the Rangers. They are doing it with that lineup mostly filled with freely available talent -- heck, throw in designated hitter Travis Hafner in that group if you want. It's a remarkable achievement, considering offense is half of the equation. Do we credit Brian Cashman and his staff for astute moves and finding the right needle and thread to patch things together? Or did they merely find the needle in the haystack?
Maybe it's time to give Cashman credit as more than a guy who just spends a lot of money (not that that hasn't helped through the years).
As A's general manager Billy Beane recently told ESPNNewYork.com:
"I think he sort of gets penalized many times, in a sense, because of the payroll people take for granted all the success he has accomplished. It is not that easy. I always kid him. It is a shame that he hasn't been the executive of the year. Many times he probably deserves it.
Once all the injuries set in, Cashman knew the pitching would have to carry the team early on, and so far it's been superb, trailing only the Rangers in the AL in runs allowed per game.
The defense has been solid, ranking tied for 12th in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved, not bad considering the Yankees are essentially playing their third-string shorstop (Nix) and third-string third baseman (Nelson) right now.
That offense? Good enough, ninth in the AL in runs per game. It's not that all the fill-in guys have excelled -- although Wells ranks 17th in the AL in OPS and Hafner would rank 11th if he had enough plate appearances to qualify -- but none of them are killing the team. Ichiro is mostly a singles hitter without enough singles right now, but at least he's playing good defense. Overbay has a .290 on-base percentage but has six homers and 20 RBIs. Nix isn't doing much at .242/.311/.305, but at least he's replacement level and not below replacement level.
And the Yankees don't need these guys to get better; they just needed them to help hold things together until everyone starts getting healthy. Granderson will return this week to help manager Joe Girardi have flexibility in the outfield -- he can start sitting Ichiro against left-handers, for example, or using Wells at DH against lefties. Kevin Youkilis should return soon after that. Teixeira will hopefully be back in early June.
Girardi will happily write those names down on his lineup card (and give him credit for moving Cano up to second in the ordering, resisting the urge to bat him third or fourth simply because that's where a team's best hitter is "supposed" to hit). One strike of good fortune for the Yankees has been the schedule. The only AL East team they've played more than one series against so far has been the struggling Blue Jays. They've played just three games each against the Orioles, Red Sox and Rays, meaning they have 48 games left against those three opponents -- 38 percent of their remaining schedule.
The most remarkable thing about this team, however: Once they get the lead, they win. They've lost just one game all year after they've taken the lead. Look at their record when leading at the start of each inning:
That late-inning record, of course, is a testament to the great Mariano Rivera, who recorded his 15th save already on Sunday, and setup man David Robertson -- but also credit to the starting rotation for battling through those middle innings to get the ball to Robertson and Rivera. The Yankees are 11-6 in games in which they score three or four runs. It's a team that doesn't beat itself.
Maybe it's not sustainable. This lineup will have to hold its own a few more weeks. The rotation is still counting on 38-year-old Kuroda and 41-in-June Andy Pettitte to remain healthy. Rivera might eventually blow a game or two, although I wouldn't necessarily count on it.
"You kind of took it for granted around the Yankees that there was always going to be baseball in October," Ford once said.
We've only had one such October since 1995, back in 2008. Most of us believed we'd see another Yankee-less October this upcoming fall. But maybe Ford's statement is true; you join the Yankees and you just start playing better because you're playing for the Yankees.
I'm still not betting on the Yankees -- I think the grind of the AL East schedule and the age on the roster will eventually catch up to them -- but I've also learned not to bet against them.