"Will somebody please beat the New York Yankees?"
You can hear it in the bleachers all across America, in the dugouts and front offices, almost everywhere except, of course, the Bronx.
The Yankees have won three World Series in a row, another in 1996, and over the past five years their post-season record is 46-15. That's a .754 winning percentage. They've been so dominant, swept so many teams, they make the playoffs boring.
"Everybody is extremely sick of the Yankees," says Will George, a scout for the Colorado Rockies. "You dislike them, you root against them. But deep down, it's envy. They don't just have talented guys, they have the guys who do the little things every night to help you win."
Well, guess what? When the playoffs begin next week, the Yankees will once again be the team to beat.
The American League may be fielding its most impressive group of playoff teams in recent memory, and the Yankees may be hampered by injuries, but the graying men in pinstripes seem most likely to prevail. Then they should crush whoever happens to emerge from the very average National League.
The Seattle Mariners have certainly dominated the regular season, and they could win the most games in AL history, but they're a team "built for the long haul, not the playoffs," says an American League coach. That means they lack the top three starting pitchers who can match up with the Yankees top arms: Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, and Andy Pettite.
The Mariners will probably use a rotation of Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, and Aaron Sele, who are a combined 0-3 in the post-season, with an earned-run average over 5. Clemens, Mussina, and Pettite are 11-6 with an ERA under 4.
The Mariners do, however, bring Ichiro Suzuki, their star right fielder, to the table, part of a potent lineup. With tremendous base-running skills and a rocket arm, Ichiro could be invaluable in a tight playoff game, in which the result could be determined by an extra base here or a drag bunt there. But Seattle is struggling with injuries to the left side of its infield, and the bottom line is this: It is untested in big playoff games.
Another team to watch for is the Oakland Athletics. They started the season in an 8-18 skid and were on the brink of dismantling their team (or at least dealing slugger Jason Giambi) before the trading deadline. Instead, they added right-fielder Jermaine Dye, and since June 27 have the best record in baseball, 62-20. Again, the issue for the A's is starting pitching. Their top three - Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito - have been inconsistent; only Zito has emerged as a late-season ace.
If Oakland is to make a playoff run, it will have to gallop through the Yankees, who will have home-field advantage in the best-of-five series. To win, however, the A's will have to rely on their bats - always a dicey proposition in the playoffs.
To counter, the Yanks will need the return of hitters Paul O'Neill and Chuck Knoblauch, along with pitcher Pettite, closer Mariano Rivera, and No. 4 starter Orlando Hernandez - all of whom have been struggling with nagging injuries.
Meanwhile, few baseball people see any team from the National League making a serious run at the three AL powers. In this, the age of offense, most of the hardest-hitting teams are in the AL.
"The AL has been an offensive league since they got the designated hitter" in 1973, says George, the Colorado Rockies scout. "And baseball has emerged now as an offensive sport."
In the East, the Atlanta Braves are struggling to hold off the Philadelphia Phillies. In the West, the Arizona Diamondbacks have a slim lead over the San Francisco Giants. Houston and St. Louis, in the Central Division, were in a close battle, but the runner-up should make the playoffs as a wild card.
Perhaps the most tantalizing of the group is the Diamondbacks, who feature two 21-game winners, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, as well as emerging slugger Luis Gonzalez. "Those two [pitchers] from Arizona will be tough, and can give any team problems," says Dana Brown, a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "But the real question is, 'Who's their third and fourth guy?' There's a big drop-off."
If the Yankees do win it all, it will be historic - a feat that in the past has only been equaled by, well, the Yankees. They won five world championships in a row from 1949 to '53, and won four straight from '36 to '39. Doing it now would be even more impressive, partially because of free agency, which stirs up the talent pool every year and allows middle-of-the-road teams to quickly upgrade if they have enough cash.
"It's much tougher to keep a team together today," says Ken Hirdt of the Alias Sports Bureau, which keeps statistics for Major League Baseball. "Back then, you could keep talent for life. What the Yankees have done is incredible."