By Ernie Palladino
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They said farewell to the season last night at Yankee Stadium. It was the last time they'll ever see Mariano Rivera in pinstripes, and the last time for this year they saw this battered and bruised team limping off into the September sunset.
October exists for someone else now. For the Yankees, they'll call it a season Sunday in Houston.
What the packed Yankee Stadium house Thursday night might or might not have known is this: not only did they witness the exit of their great closer and this home edition of the fallen New York idols, but also an entrance.
And it wasn't an entrance door anyone would particularly want to walk through. The Yankees, in front of all their patrons, may have left the stadium of 2013 to enter a darker, harder, and less competitive 2014. It is entirely possible that those who paid for one, last look at this team -- at Rivera, perhaps even at free agent-in-waiting Robbie Cano -- saw the window of success close. Unless something drastic happens over the offseason, now stretched at least a couple of weeks by the Yanks' inability to land a playoff berth, Joe Girardi and this whole franchise could be entering an extended Dark Age of Yankees baseball.
It may not last as long as the 1965-1974 decade of nothingness, or the 1982-1994 drought that succeeded The Bronx Zoo years. But those fans might have seen the dawn of a three, four, or five-year span where they can clear space from the baseball viewing to sneak in quick, October afternoon nine holes. There may not be much to do besides that if this franchise fails to address a bunch of holes.
Cano, for one thing, might be gone. It's not because he refuses to run out grounders, either. His agents have started to make noises about landing a record-setting $305 million, 10-year deal, and that just isn't going to come from this budgetary born-again franchise. So they will need a veteran second baseman.
They'll also have to find a closer to replace the retiring Rivera. Though Rivera actually looked human toward the end, fans are going to have to understand that regardless of his replacement, they're not going to get the automatic production the best closer baseball ever had would give them.
If you think Rivera spoiled the fans with his bat-busting wizardry, imagine how they're going to feel next year when David Robertson or some alien veteran walks the tightrope three out of every five appearances, as most effective relievers do.
Will Derek Jeter ever come back to full strength, and if so then for how long? Certainly the Yankees could use an upgrade over Brendan Ryan or Eduardo Nunez. Problem is, who is below? If the Yanks ever expect to stay close to that $189 million salary ceiling they've been talking about, they can afford to bring in only so much outside help. And there's not a lot below. For all the immediate gratification of the play-for-this-year mentality -- and that philosophy has paid off tremendously the past 19 seasons -- it just doesn't leave a gold-standard minor league system.
So the Yanks may be in for a bit of a ride. In truth, they overachieved in a 2013 filled with injury and PED scandal. Most teams wouldn't have hit .500 if they lost a key player seemingly every week. The Yanks head into Friday's game at 82-77. Not great, but Girardi kept that sinking ship together far longer than he had any right to.
Those days may be over now. It may be getting dark early at Yankee Stadium in 2014, and perhaps beyond.
Unless something dramatic happens this winter, those folks with the ticket vouchers from the Mariano Rivera bobblehead fiasco might just use them to spark up the fireplace kindling.
In other words, the Pinstripers may not be much fun to watch for a while.
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