It’s impossible to track the Phillies’ dash to the World Series without two salient questions about their October black magic.
First, how is an 87-win wild-card club still standing when the three NL powerhouses that out-performed them, the 111-win Dodgers, the defending champion Braves and the 101-win Mets, are grieving at home?
And second, how much does Hal Steinbrenner regret not pursuing Bryce Harper as a free agent in 2019?
The answer to the former is simple: That’s baseball, Suzyn.
To the latter, we can only say: It’s complicated.
The topic is front and center, given the Phillies’ status as NL pennant winners, as opposed to the Yankees, who are nowhere today.
It’s Harper who catapulted the Phillies to the Series with a stunning eighth-inning home run in Game 5 of the NLCS against the Padres. He’s batting .340 with five home runs this postseason. Harper is unstoppable.
Aaron Judge, by contrast, failed to deliver as the Yankees were being swept by the Astros. He batted .139 in the playoffs, including a 1-for-16 (.063) disappearance against Houston.
Obviously, the Bombers’ embarrassment wasn’t solely Judge’s fault. He was exhausted by mid-October, both physically and mentally. The problem is that the lineup failed to produce a Plan B.
Harper would’ve been perfect wing man for Judge. And he could have been, had Steinbrenner not settled on two choices that have come back to haunt the Yankees.
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Acquiring Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins after the 2017 season was choice No. 1, and not just because the Yankees were assuming the 10 years that remained on his $325 million deal.
There was no room for Harper in the Yankees’ outfield – a box-out that was finalized in 2019 with choice No. 2 when the Yankees extended Aaron Hicks’ contract for seven years for $70 million.
Throw in Clint Frazier and Brett Gardner as the fourth and fifth pieces in the outfield and Steinbrenner had every excuse to pass on Harper.
Even so, the owner could’ve simply instructed GM Brian Cashman to clear the decks. It would’ve been a move straight out of George Steinbrenner’s playbook.
After all, when had the Boss ever not gobbled up talent?
He traded for Roger Clemens in 1999, after their historic run in ’98. And after Joe Torre’s crew lost the 2001 World Series, Steinbrenner immediately picked up MVP first baseman Jason Giambi.
And even after dropping the 2003 World Series to the Marlins, as the dynasty was clearly aging out, Steinbrenner was still swinging for the fences, this time by acquiring Alex Rodriguez from the Rangers.
If the George era taught us anything, it’s that no impulse was left indulged. Anything and everything was possible.
So what was the real reason the Yankees let both Harper and Manny Machado slip away in 2019?
Because Hal Steinbrenner is not his father; the business model had changed from one generation to the next. Hal had gone corporate and had no appetite for writing another big check, not after taking on Stanton’s contract. In fact, neither Harper nor Machado even got the courtesy of a phone call.
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I recall the words of one MLB executive who, like the Yankees, passed on the two mega stars. And it wasn’t just the money that turned him off.
“I don’t like his act – at all,” he said of one of them. Of the other, he jeered, “he takes games off. You can tell in the first at-bat if he’s showed up.”
The exec didn’t specify which indictment was meant for which player. It didn’t matter, really. If the industry was whispering about Harper and Machado being moody and immature, that would’ve been enough to scare teams away. The Yankees were one of them.
It was, in retrospect, the wrong call. No one questions Harper’s work ethics these days. Clearly he would’ve been the upgrade the Yankees needed in the ALCS. Instead they’re still playing for the butterfly effect of their initial mistake.
The commitment to Hicks has failed, Gardner hung around for two years longer than he should have, Stanton has been explosive but only at times, and DJ LeMahieu stopped hitting like a machine after 2020.
Give Steinbrenner credit for splurging on Gerrit Cole, then ask yourself about the arc of the Yankees’ success since passing on Harper. They’ve flat-lined to the point where October flame-outs don’t sting anymore. Not like they used to.
After losing to the Astros in the 2019 ALCS, I saw Judge quietly weep at his locker. Three years and three setbacks later, Judge and the rest of the Yankees spoke more clinically about not getting the job done. They were disappointed but not torn up.
That’s one reason I believe Judge could be heading out of town. He may have decided there’s no championship on the horizon in the Bronx.
Think of it another way, especially if you saw the Phillies’ berserk celebration after Harper’s home run took down the Padres.
When was the last time the Yankees went that crazy in October? When was the last time anything was that much fun in the Bronx? Now compare that to the Phillies’ on-going street party.
Ok, maybe you think the Phillies are in for the same glove slap as the Bombers in the World Series. It’s possible, if not likely. The Astros are the perfect war machine. They could easily swallow up the Phillies like a shark devouring plankton.
But that won’t stop Phillies fans from believing in the miracle that’s transpired this month. Their ball club has already had the run of a lifetime, fueled by the slugger who’s out-performed the Yankees – every single one of them.
Think the Bombers aren’t playing the Bryce Harper what-if game today?
Better question: how could they not?
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Bob Klapisch may be reached at email@example.com.