If you are of a certain age, maybe 35 or older, you almost certainly have a powerful memory of Mike Tyson fumbling for his mouthpiece at the end of his fight with Buster Douglas. It remains -- and always will, I suspect -- one of the most compelling things I have ever seen in sports.
The reason it was so compelling, I think, is because it was so FINAL. There was no going back after that moment. The past had been broken. The future was uncertain. Mike Tyson was the baddest man in the world before that fight. He wore no robe, he wore black, he unloaded lethal blows at unreasonable speeds. He was so terrifying that boxing champions and former champions and men nicknamed "Bonecrusher" entered the ring trembling.
And then, he fought a journeyman named Buster who, for various fascinating but at the time unknown reasons, had come into the ring that day inspired and without fear. Douglas pummeled Tyson all night. And when Tyson landed the inevitable knockout blow, Douglas got back up and returned to the pummeling. It was hypnotizing. Tyson simply losing to Buster Douglas would have been an upset for the ages.
But the end provided an unforgettable image. Douglas unloaded a savage uppercut that snapped Tyson's head back. Then, a glancing left, a glancing right, and a ferocious left as Tyson was falling, and Tyson was on the canvas. Mike Tyson, the baddest man on earth, groggily rolled to his side, saw his mouthpiece, reached for it, reached for it again, tried to put it into his mouth and was counted out … and watching that scene you knew, just knew, as you so rarely know anything in sports, that something had ended. Sure, we all knew, Tyson would fight again. He might win again. He might even be champion again. But Mike Tyson, after that, would never be the same again. Boxing would never be the same either.
This Detroit-New York series … yes, it was like watching that Tyson mouthpiece scene all over again for four games, like watching Buster Douglas pummel Mike Tyson all over again over six jaw-dropping days. It wasn't just the Tigers sweep -- those things happen. It wasn't just Detroit's dominance -- the Tigers are playing very well and with Verlander, Scherzer, Fister and the middle of that lineup they could sweep any team in baseball over four games. No, it's something bigger. The Yankees still have money, and they still have talent, and they still have history. Derek Jeter will come back, so will some other stars, and others will be found. I have little doubt that the Yankees can still win.
But they will never be the same. Rome has fallen.
* * *
The JEOYB -- the Jeter Era of Yankee baseball -- lasted 18 years, which, by coincidence is exactly how long the greatest era of Yankees baseball lasted. It might be instructive to compare the two:
New York Yankees from 1947 to 1964
Period: 18 years.
Overall record: 1,748-1,052 (.624 win pct.)
Hardware: 10 World Series wins, 5 AL Pennants.
Managers: Bucky Harris, Casey Stengel, Ralph Houk, Yogi Berra.
The all-time stars: Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford.
New York Yankees from 1995-2012
Period: 18 years
Overall record: 1731-1163 (.598 win pct.)
Hardware: Five World Series wins, 2 AL Pennants, 10 other postseason appearances.
Managers: Buck Showalter, Joe Torre, Joe Girardi.
The all-time stars: Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera.
These two eras when the Yankees ruled the world were very different, of course. The Stengel Era of Yankee baseball (which, like the Jeter Era, actually includes time when the era's namesake wasn't part of the team) came when there were only eight teams in the American League, and these generally included the St. Louis Browns and Washington Senators and Kansas City Athletics, who were always terrible. It was a time when you didn't have to re-sign Mickey Mantle or Whitey Ford or Yogi Berra -- they, like Richard Gere, had no place else to go. It was a time when only one team in each league made the postseason, and a time when World Series money was almost as much as some of the Yankees made in the entire season. Winning wasn't just habit for the New York Yankees … it was actually figured into players' contracts.
The Jeter Yankees, meanwhile, have played in our time … a time of expansion, when there aren't just many more teams but many more GOOD teams*. Players have the freedom to leave for more money and opportunity. Ambitious billionaires can stock their teams with stars. Mostly, though, expectations are different now. The 2012 Yankees, before they spent a week fumbling for the mouthpiece, finished with the best record in the league. No one cares. Ultimate success is no longer judged over 162 games. Your grade will be determined by the final exam. Success is assessed during the first three weeks of October, when a hot pitcher, a zoned-in hitter, a series of double play balls or a favorable call from the umpire can make all the difference.
*Every single team in the American League, save the Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays, made the postseason during the Jeter Era. The Blue Jays won the last World Series before the JE.
Yes, they are different times, and the Yankees utterly dominated them both -- the first era with their sheer baseball supremacy, the second era by unfailingly showing up. The Jeter Yankees changed all the time. Think of their seven pennants. In 1996, their best pitcher was probably Andy Pettitte. In 1998, it was David Wells. In 1999, it was David Cone. In 2000, it was Roger Clemens. In 2001 and 2003, it was Mike Mussina. In 2009, it was CC Sabathia.
Seven pennants … six different aces. The Yankees were like that. Think of the second basemen of the Jeter Era. You’ve got Mariano Duncan, Chuck Knoblauch, Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Cairo and Robbie Cano. The left fielders? Before Raul Ibanez, before Johnny Damon, before Hideki Matsui, there was Rondell White and Knoblauch and Ricky Ledee and Chad Curtis and Tim Raines. In right, it was Paul O'Neill for a long time, then Raul Mondesi and Gary Sheffield and Bobby Abreu and Nick Swisher.
Well, the names changed all the time. The Stengel Yankees from 1960-1962 had the EXACT SAME eight every day players (From 2-9 on your scorecard: Elston Howard, Moose Skowron, Bobby Richardson, Clete Boyer, Tony Kubek, Hector Lopez, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris with Yogi Berra filling in when he could). The Jeter Yankees switched and flopped and signed and traded and hoped and often seemed on the brink of becoming that most dreaded New York thing: ordinary. One year, Darrell Rasner got 20 starts. Another, 22-year-old Melky Cabrera was the every day center fielder. For a while there, the Yankees could not buy -- literally, could not buy -- a decent first baseman, and so they tried Tony Clark and Andy Phillips and Doug Mientkiewicz and even brought back the old bones of Tino Martinez. They brought in a 41-year-old Randy Johnson (got one good year out of him but pitched him two) and tried Jeff Weaver for a couple of rather disastrous seasons and tried to milk the very life out of old warhorses like David Cone and Mike Mussina and David Wells and Bartolo Colon and Kevin Brown.
But they always won, or at least they always won enough. Seventeen postseason appearances in 18 years. Extraordinary. The complaint around America was that they bought their success, and they did spend a lot more money than any team (then again, they earned a lot more than anyone). But there was something sturdy about the Yankees, something that Derek Jeter personified. Stuff changed around him, but Derek Jeter was good every single year. And he wasn't alone. Mariano Rivera was good every single year. For much of the era, Jorge Posada was consistently good, Andy Pettitte was consistently good, Bernie Williams was consistently good. The stuff that happened around them, the turmoil, the great signings, the mega-busts, the New York Post back covers, all that was white noise. As long as Jeter was out there at short and Posada was behind the plate and Pettitte was somehow getting people out and the Great Rivera was closing the door, well, the Yankees were still the Yankees. Or, at least, they were close enough.
* * *
This gets to the heart of what made this series so shocking. The Yankees aren't the Yankees anymore. Oh, they might win again. They might, like the Six Million Dollar Man, rebuild faster, stronger and more powerful. They have the money. They have the clout. But this is the point: It won't be this Yankees team.
First, it's worth reliving just how overmatched Yankees hitters were in their four-game disaster against the Tigers.
• Curtis Granderson was 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts.* So, in desperation, manager Joe Girardi put Brett Gardner in there. Gardner went 0-for-8 without a walk.
*Consider Granderson for a moment. Here are six seasons:
.236, 40 homers, 100 RBIs, 164 strikeouts
.267, 38 homers, 105 RBIs, 177 strikeouts
.266, 46 homers, 102 RBIS, 195 strikeouts
.262, 41 homers, 119 RBIs, 169 strikeouts
.234, 40 homers, 92 RBIs, 194 strikeouts
.232, 43 homers, 106 RBIs, 195 strikeouts.
Now, four of those are Adam Dunn seasons. Two of them are the last two seasons of Curtis Granderson with the Yankees. See if you can pick the Granderson seasons out of there (hat-tip to the great Michael Schur for pointing this out). Granderson has become a kind of one-trick magician -- home runs on demand -- and while it's a pretty good trick, as mentioned, he did not manage a hit in the ALCS. (Incidentally, the fourth and sixth season listed at Graderson's).
• Alex Rodriguez was so bad (1-for-9), Girardi benched him. His replacement, Eric Chavez, went 0-for-8 with four strikeouts.
• Robinson Cano went 1-for-18. Repeat: Robinson Cano went 1-for-18. The one hit actually busted up a 29-at-bat postseason hitless streak. It does not seem possible that Robbie Cano, with that astonishingly beautiful swing, could go 29 at-bats without a hit. But it's all part of the story of a crazy season.*
*It really was a crazy season for Cano … remember the Home Run Derby insanity, when the Kansas City crowd booed him mercilessly and he failed to hit a single home run, a flailing that included a couple of fouls back (who fouls back batting practice pitching?). Then he was absolutely crushing the ball, and the Yankees were running away with the division, when suddenly he went into a nasty downward spiral -- for about a month and a half, early August into mid-September, he hit .218 as the Yankees lost their lead to the Orioles. Then, last nine games of the season, he went absolutely bonkers. He got multiple hits every game -- he hit .615 with seven doubles, three homers, 11 runs, 14 RBIs in those nine games. It was ridiculous. He was Roy Hobbs. Then, first game of the playoffs, he ripped a double off Orioles closer Jim Johnson in a devastating rally in the ninth. Next day, first inning, he crushed a run scoring double off Wei-Yin Chen. And, well, that was it. Cano completely disintegrated. He didn't hit the ball out of the infield the rest of the day (though he was intentionally walked). Next game: Groundout, pop out, strikeout, bloop-out. Next game: Fly out, pop out, weak groundout, weak groundout, pop out, line out. Next game: Groundout, strikeout, strikeout, double play groundout. Next game: Lineout, lineout, groundout, squib out, strikeout, fly out. Next game: Groundout, groundout, groundout, groundout. Next game: Groundout, groundout, strikeouts, single to left(!) Last game: Strikeouts, flyout, groundout, groundout.
He looked utterly helpless. How could that happen to Robinson Cano? Sure, everyone goes through rough patches, even the best hitters. But this seemed epic. This whole season seemed epic, in good ways and bad.
• Mark Teixeira hit .200 and did not hit a home run. In fact, though he did get six hits in the Baltimore series, they were all singles. And he hit .167 without a homer in last year's playoffs. And he went hitless in 14 at-bats without a homer in the ALCS two years ago.
It was a staggering offensive collapse for a team that finished second in the league in runs scored. But it wasn't just a team going into a slump. It is a team at war with itself. Girardi decided he'd had enough of Alex Rodriguez -- many people cheered Girardi on -- and now everyone is convinced that the Yankees will get rid of him. Maybe they will. But let's be realistic: dropping a five-year, $114 million contract for a player you've lost all faith isn't exactly the easiest financial trick in the world. I'm thinking the best the Yankees can hope for is that the U.S. Government will declare them too big to fail.
Meanwhile, Granderson got benched, and now you have to wonder if the Yankees will pick up his $13 million option. Nick Swisher got his feelings hurt by the booing fans … Swisher is a free agent and it seems all but certain that he's gone.
The seemingly indestructible CC Sabathia got hurt for the first time in years this season, and though he pitched brilliantly against the Orioles, he gave up 11 hits in less than four innings against the Tigers, and he's 32 with more than 2,500 hard-fought innings in his elbow and shoulder, and he's got four years and $100 million left on his deal (not including the $25 million vesting option he has at the end).
Suddenly, you see questions and concerns everywhere and no sure things anywhere ... but, really, it isn't sudden at all. Everyone could see that the Yankees were getting old. Everyone could see that sooner or later the bill was going to come due on their huge win-now, pay later contracts. But Mel Brooks said it took 25 years for him to become an overnight success. And it took an ankle-shattering tumble by Derek Jeter to see that it's just over for the Yankees. That's what made this series, like Tyson's end, so grotesquely fascinating.
* * *
It was a ground ball to Derek Jeter's left. He gloved it. He fell to the ground. He shouted out in agony. He stayed on the ground. Then he was all but carried off the field. It was a daunting moment. Jeter has been the enduring star of baseball for so long that if you are in college now, you don't remember baseball without him.
And it was a defining moment. When Derek Jeter was helped off the field, this Yankees era ended. Sure, he will come back after rehabilitating. And Jeter's high average season in 2012 suggest that he might still have a few surprises left. And the Yankees might sign Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn and Zack Greinke and Dan Haren and blow everybody out of the water.
But when Jeter was carried off, you looked around and saw … nobody. Joe Torre was somewhere explaining an umpire mistake. Bernie Williams was playing his guitar. Jorge Posada was writing children's books, and living the life. Mariano Rivera was plotting his comeback at 43. Andy Pettitte hasn't known for two years if he's retired or not. A-Rod never earned “true Yankee” status from most New York fans despite being the only Yankees of the era to win an MVP award (he won two), and now his New York future's in doubt. Mark Teixeira turns 33, the witching hour for many ballplayers. Curtis Granderson ... Nick Swisher ... suddenly even Robbie Cano ... where is the Yankees future?
The most amazing part of this team, I think, is not that they collapsed at the end, but that they managed to squeeze one more great season out of this team first. Jeter hit .300 again. Hiroki Kuroda had a huge year. The Yankees bombed a lot of home runs. Toss in a few Ichiro slash hits, a dash of Raul magic, a Ponce de Leon visit from Andy Pettitte, reliable closeouts from Rafael Soriano, and the Yankees made it to the ALCS again. But then it ended, and it ended hard, it ended with the Yankees fumbling for their mouthpiece. And now, for the first time in almost two decades, the New York Yankees have no idea what happens next. Just like the rest of us.