No title for Yanks, but 2003 not a bust

This can only be the product of the highest possible expectations. Only the Yankees can win 101 games, reach the World Series, and still consider their season a wash. Only in New York can Joe Torre and Brian Cashman collaborate for five pennants in six years and have to wonder where their next paycheck is going to come from.

Since Torre’s first season in 1996, the Yankees have only considered seasons ending with championships to be successful. Basically, it’s either a parade through the Canyon of Heroes or bust.

With that said, this wasn’t such a bad year for the Yankees, considering that for the first time in years they never really looked like a championship team. That’s right. The Yanks won 101 games and never looked great doing it.

The Yankees were plagued with injuries throughout the year. The tone for the season may have been set on opening day when the Yanks lost Derek Jeter to a separated shoulder for six weeks. Mariano Rivera was on the disabled list before the season-opening pitch and didn’t make an appearance until the season was a month old. In mid-May, the Yankees lost Bernie Williams until the week before the All-Star Break and Nick Johnson until the end of July. Jason Giambi was playing hurt or just plain couldn’t see for much of the season.

Meanwhile, the team spawned gaping flaws that made their championship hopes look dim. First, with the exception of a hot 20-4 start in April, the Yankees never hit well in 2003. Certainly, the injuries didn’t help. Williams and Giambi were perennial .300 hitters before this season, but they only managed averages of .263 and .250, respectively. Jeter and Johnson had great performances, but they missed a ton of games.

Also, neither Robin Ventura (.251) nor his replacement Aaron Boone (.254) provided much offense at third base. Alfonso Soriano’s final numbers look great with a batting average of .290, 38 homers, and 91 RBIs. But Soriano did almost all his damage in April and September, winning AL Player of the Month twice, and had very little effect during the middle of the season.

The Yankee bullpen was harder to keep track of than the field of Democratic presidential candidates. The initial setup crew for Mariano Rivera — Juan Acevedo, Chris Hammond and Antonio Osuna — never made it to the end of the season. Armando Benitez was the bullpen savior for three weeks. Then, reality struck. The final group of Gabe White, Felix Heredia and Jeff Nelson wasn’t assembled until early September.

In October, it looked like the Yankees had finally overcome their struggles. The biggest boon to the team was the Weaver-less starting pitching, which was phenomenal in the regular season and even better in postseason play. Bad hitting and a weak bullpen can be overlooked when Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens or David Wells can throw seven strong innings and hand the ball over to Rivera.

The Yankees knocked off a Twins team eerily similar to the 2002 Angels and then miraculously survived a seven-game marathon with the Red Sox. The team was poised for its first championship in three seasons — that’s 36 seasons in Steinbrenner Years.

Then, they ran into a team that’s only been around for 10 years. The Yankees were clearly the better team, but they just didn’t seem to have enough juice after the Sox series.

Even after a flat Yankees team lost Game 1, New York was still ready to celebrate after wins in Games 2 and 3. The Series really turned in one at-bat. In Game 4, Aaron Boone struck out with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the 11th inning. If Boone had put the ball in play and scored the runner from third, Rivera would have come in and the Yankees would have taken a 3-1 series lead.

Finally, the season ended with a Game 6 loss that painfully mirrored the flaws of the 2003 Yankees. In the 2-0 loss, both runs were scored through weak Yankee defense. Gonzalez scored in the fifth because Jorge Posada didn’t block the plate, and Jeff Conine tacked on another run on a Jeter error. Meanwhile, the Yankees could never advance runners, going 0-12 with runners on base. In the end, the Yankees lost a postseason series at home for the first time since 1981.

Honestly, this one is going to hurt for a while. I was tied to this team. I probably watched 140 to 150 games this season. And then, a team with teal uniforms and no legitimate fans older than 11 won the championship.

So, when winning championships is the measure of success, what can the Yankee fans take from this season? My dad called me with the answer roughly 15 seconds after Josh Beckett tagged out Posada to end the season.

“At least we beat the Red Sox.”

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