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End of an era?


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Mothers' Day is ludicrously early to be proclaiming anything definitive about the baseball season let alone where teams will finish and how they'll get there. Yet being no stranger to ridiculous premises or ill-advised ventures into the unfathomable, your host will gleefully take the plunge.

Be it declared that in only six weeks such doubt that may have lingered is dissolved. This will decidedly be the year that the too long favored, too much deferred to, and endlessly fawned over Red Sox and Yankees come back to the pack. No longer will they be the pampered pets of the television networks with their drifts from tedium to redundancy absurdly indulged, as if some holy rite. The axis is snapped. The spell is ended. See how you like being out of the money by Labor Day, lads.

Well, maybe it won't quite come to that degree of finality this season. One or the other and maybe even both could still be rumbling -- at least cursedly in the wings -- come September. One hardly expects them to expire without a whimper, even if the Red Sox came close to doing so just last September. There may be gasps left. But the inevitability of a change in the tide governing the AL East so dominated by these ageless dreadnoughts for a full baseball generation is beyond dispute.

For sure, it was fun while it lasted -- at least in the Back Bay and Bronx -- beginning with the retooling of the Yankees in the early '90s, cresting with the Red Sox transcendental moment in 2004, and only gradually ebbing the last couple of years. But as something largely bought, it was never as grand or vital as the deeply spoiled legions of these two highly aggrandizing outfits kept insisting as their boundless pretensions were being compounded by the raves of the glitterati who variously rode both bandwagons. To the rest of the Republic all of that became a bore. Few west of the Appalachians or south of the Poconos will now weep.

It's not merely how they have been performing these first six weeks that drives this issue. Despite a number of moments bordering on the pathetic the Red Sox on Mothers' Day sit only six and a half games out and four games under .500; a condition that hardly qualifies as terminal so early in the season. Moreover, their start last season was even more woeful, although given how last season ended that notion won't console the beloved Nation this season.

As for the Yankees -- now four games over .500 and two off the top -- they're actually ahead of their pace of a year ago when they were but 20-19 in the middle of May and still struggling to paste together a starting rotation while also contending with internal disorder. A 77-46 burst the rest of the way allowed them to coast into the playoffs where they, of course, swiftly expired which has been a too familiar scenario in recent years. Yankee teams of the Torre-Girardi epoch have been consistently slow starters. In 2009, their only championship year in the last decade, they were merely 38-32 approaching July.

All of which gives rise to the notion that these two eternal adversaries -- especially New York -- can turn it on at will once they snap from a lethargy largely deriving from an acute sense of their own sheer inevitability. That may have been annoyingly so in the past. But it's no longer possible. And that's precisely the point.

Neither team is as strong as it has been. Neither is as deep. Both are older, frayed, and blighted by injury. Both are out of step with the new-wave game increasingly in vogue that emphasizes a lighter, swifter, more athletic offense specializing in manufacturing runs rather than relying on the almighty long-ball while also glorifying pitching, especially relief-pitching. Both have front-office problems. Both have grievously blundered recently with mistakes that will be hard to rectify. Both have ownerships that have lost tenacity or, if you will, squandered their precious "edge." Both no longer have the enormous advantage of a near unlimited budget and uncapped payroll. In the end, that last issue will be the croaker; especially in New York. Both are increasingly stifled by the subtle influences of "parity," which Major League Baseball belatedly seeks to intensify in the pursuit of the competitive balance other games have happily discovered is so very good for business.

Times have suddenly changed, lads. It is really rather quite that simple. The Age of the Dynasties is over!

It's more a matter of the decline of the behemoths than the rise of the upstarts but the fact that the three other teams in the division have at last arisen is also huge. The uppity Rays with their appalling financial circumstances being trumped by brilliant leadership have been nipping at the heels of the Big-shots the last four years. Now suddenly the Orioles and Blue Jays are in the hunt too. And if it's unlikely either has yet attained championship caliber it's even clearer they are no longer doormats, let alone willing to play that dubious role. There is anger in their acts and who can blame them.

A snapshot of each:

Baltimore

Nice story developing there as Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter -- a couple of Biblical baseball characters each seeking redemption in his own lonely way -- begin to restore the honor of one of the great baseball towns. Awesome relief pitching by a five man cadre of kids sporting a cumulative ERA near one run per game accounts for their fine start. Wear and tear of the schedule certain to catch up to them but they are in every game and have regained much pride sorely missing since end of Earl Weaver era.

Toronto

They don't have a regular batting .300 and resident superstar Jose Bautista is hitting .199 with only 18 ribbies. But Edwin Encarnacion is emerging as another thunderstick while the promise is apparently boundless for young Brett Lawrie. Pitching isn't deep but Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero form a terrific one-two. After slow start, John Farrell is fast-learning tricks of managing trade.

Tampa

Hardly needs introduction. Not even extended loss of Evan Longoria, their only true star, ruffles them. Lineup remains thin but Joe Maddon always finds a way. They overplayed their hand with young lefty Matt Moore who continues to get pounded and might benefit from more time in the minors. But there seems no end to their torrent of fine young pitching. Flame-throwing reliever Fernando Rodney may be off-season's best pick-up and he cost them relative peanuts. Hard to believe they can go the distance without adding more offense. But Maddon always finds a way.

Contrast these upbeat scenarios with the gathering gloom in Boston and growing apprehension in New York. Mothers' Day finds the Red Sox riding a three-game win streak courtesy of the mighty Indians. We'll see how long that lasts. In the meantime, long-time observers of Manager Bobby Valentine are perplexed. "He looks like a beaten man right now, out of answers and seemingly defused of all his characteristic fire and sass," writes shrewd observer Bill Madden of the NY Daily News. Maybe a longer win-streak changes that and maybe it doesn't.

Yet in some ways, the Yankees' scene is more complex and ominous. It's impossible to overstate the terrible blow the Pineda for Montero deal has thus far been. It might yet work out but in the good old days of King George, GM Brian Cashman would never have gotten the chance to find out. A-Rod sustains his batting average but has only three extra-base hits in his last 15 games. Fading even faster is Mark Teixeira, hitting .221 while managing the impossible feat of delivering only 17 runs in 35 games in the middle of the world's allegedly mightiest lineup. The problems mount. It's a team in trouble!

The pick here is for neither of them to make the playoffs this year. For the "Sawx" and "Bombers," the party is over. But I'll save this column, just in case I'm obliged to eat it.

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