In the lost golden age of Yankees past—from 1926 to '64—New York never had a losing record and won 26 American League pennants and 19 world championships. "Winning breeds tradition," says another Yankee announcer, Phil Rizzuto, who played in nine World Series during his 13 years in pinstripes. Under Steinbrenner, the only tradition has been turmoil and turnover. "George talked a lot about tradition, but it was all phony," says Kubek. "It was just him trying to be part of the tradition. You can't manufacture tradition in a plastic way. You have to have a certain class to go with it."
Tradition alone used to be good for 10 wins a year. The crowd and the stadium, the ghosts and the legends inspired uncertainty in the opposition and game-winning hits from the Yankees. "When we crossed the white line, we didn't think anyone could beat us," says Bill Stafford, who won 14 games for New York in 1961.
Though the Yankees still drew more than two million at home last year, New Yorkers have come to view the team the way they view their city—with a sort of morbid fascination with its decomposition. "As far as Yankee pride goes, I haven't felt a whole lot of it," says rightfielder Jesse Barfield, a Yank since 1989. "I think you're only going to feel that when you win."
Steinbrenner's successor as managing general partner of these damned Yankees comes, appropriately enough, from the Broadway stage: Robert Nederlander is a theater impresario. The casting almost guarantees a flop. The Yankee lineup is short on lefthanded power in a ballpark where the rightfield porch has immortalized those who hit lefty and long. New York's pitching consists mostly of memories, the most recent being that of Dave Righetti, who saved 36 games last season and then escaped to San Francisco. The Yanks' best third baseman may still be Graig Nettles, their 46-year-old first base coach. The four guys who have hung out at third this year had totaled, through Sunday, one home run, four RBIs and a .152 batting average.
Hampered by a chronically bad back, Don Mattingly, who used to hit about .340 every year, now hovers around .280. He used to poke 30 homers; if he keeps up his present pace, he'll hit 10 this season. Mattingly at least still plays a creditable first base, Roberto Kelly flashes brilliant in center, and Kevin Maas is an acceptable designated hitter. Maas averages better than a walk a game. If he continues his pace, he'll break Babe Ruth's single-season major league record of 170. That passes for big excitement in the Bronx these days, considering that last year's Yankee record-breaker was Barfield, who set the club strikeout mark of 150.
In an off-season move, second baseman Steve Sax—the Yankees' best trade bait—was signed to a four-year, $12.4 million contract extension despite the fact that New York's top young prospect, Pat Kelly, plays the same position. Kelly was called up from the minors on Sunday; now Sax will take a fling at playing third.
Back in 1961, the defense was nearly as good as the offense. The '91 infield is anchored by Alvaro Espinoza, a ukulele-hitting shortstop with quicksilver hands and lead feet. "What other shortstop in the majors gets pinch-run for in the seventh inning?" asks Kubek, who never was.
Does Espinoza compare favorably to Joe DeMaestri, Kubek's 1961 backup?
"Not really," says Kubek. "DeMaestri was a better fielder."
Kubek, in fact, contends that not a single 1991 Yankee would have cracked the '61 starting lineup, with the possible exception of the Mattingly of a few years ago. In his current condition, though, Mattingly "would have been a late-inning defensive replacement" for Skowron, Kubek says.