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Sunday, March 31, 2013
Updated: April 1, 3:36 AM ET
Grab your peanuts & Cracker Jacks

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

At the top, before assessing the odds of the New York Yankees reliving their version of the Dark Ages, it is important to understand that period -- 1965 through 1975 -- was not quite as grim as it might appear.

For those old enough to remember, the first three seasons were painful to watch and almost impossible to believe after the Yankees had reached the World Series in 15 of the previous 18 seasons. But if even one wild card were awarded from '65 through '75, never mind two, the Yankees would've made the playoffs in 1970 (a 93-win season) and 1974.

In 1973, the year George Steinbrenner purchased them, the Yankees were among the favorites to win the American League and were right there with Baltimore in the middle of August before an endless road trip west wiped them out. As it turned out, the Yanks had six winning records in the final eight years of their Dark Ages before Steinbrenner's free-agent fury drove his team to two titles, four trips to the World Series and five postseason appearances in six years.

Yankees
While the Yankees' outlook isn't promising, Derek Jeter and Joe Girardi could still be smiling in October.

Only now the game's signature team -- a playoff team 17 times in the past 18 years and a champion five times in that span -- is expected to look as bad as Alex Rodriguez's contract by season's end. This empire isn't supposed to strike back; it's just supposed to implode into a heap at the bottom of the new and improved American League East.

So butter your popcorn, pull up a comfortable chair, and get ready to watch the most fascinating season in the Bronx in a long, long time. All of baseball wants to see age and injury conspire to ruin those damn Yankees, a prospect more delicious to the rest of the sport than a fat new TV deal. Every competing owner and fan base would love to take in a season, and an era, that would make Horace Clarke's time in pinstripes feel like the good ol' days.

I don't think it's going to happen. I don't think a two wild-card system will allow the Yankees to devolve into the Kansas City Royals, even if Hal Steinbrenner insists on downsizing to a $189 million payroll next year and avoiding the kind of luxury-tax penalties his father would've paid in his sleep.

But I also didn't think last year's Red Sox would fail to win 70 games.

Rodriguez is down and out for who knows how long. Same goes for Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Derek Jeter, who suddenly finds himself cast in the 1965 role of Mickey Mantle, a declining icon (allegedly) about to discover how the lesser half lives.

"Everyone wrote us off last year after Mariano Rivera tore up his knee, and said the season was over," general manager Brian Cashman said recently by phone. "And they were all wrong. We still won 95 games and got to the ALCS.

"We've been pretty good the last 15 years of finding a way of overcoming the obstacles in front of us. My job is to put together a team that can reach the postseason so we have a chance to win the World Series once we get there. I still think we can do that."

Before his previously fractured ankle betrayed him and cost him a spot in Monday's Opening Day lineup, Jeter made a good point about all the sluggers the Yankees had lost from their 2012 roster. "We didn't win with the home runs," he said. In fact, they lost because they fell in love with the home runs, or so many observers thought.

These Yankees will have to win with pitching, defense, and some small-ball ingenuity, something they usually keep in short supply. Can they pull it off? Can CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda and Rivera stay healthy and productive long enough for the Yankees to remain in contention until they get their injured position players back?

In a division defined by the brilliance of Buck Showalter and Joe Maddon, and by the win-now approach of the Blue Jays, the Yanks will get no breaks from the competition and no sympathy from those who have cursed their ability over the years to absorb mistake contracts and pay setup guys the kind of money small-market teams wouldn't pay closers.

Payback is a pitch -- and one everybody's ace wants to fire at the Yankees, who were desperate enough to turn to the likes of Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay, Ben Francisco and Brennan Boesch. Joe Girardi can't feel too comfortable entering the final year of his contract with this roster and with his old position, catcher, manned by Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart.

Hal Steinbrenner's budget-conscious Yankees didn't want to pay $17 million over two seasons for a much better option, Russell Martin, whose contract needs were met by the Pittsburgh Pirates, of all teams. On the night his Game 1 homer off Jim Johnson gave his team the ALDS lead over Baltimore, Martin, son of Canada, declared he wanted to be a Yank for life. "Playing for the Yankees," he said, "is like playing for the Montreal Canadiens."

The Canadiens last won the Stanley Cup in 1993, their 24th title. Enemies of the Yankee state wouldn't mind a 20-year drought between Championship Nos. 27 and 28.

Of course, a losing year ripped from the 1965 playbook would allow Mariano Rivera a definite goodbye at the close of the regular season rather than an awkward one at some uncertain point in the playoffs. Just like the old Yankee Stadium, a beneficiary of the home team's failure to qualify for the postseason in 2008, Rivera deserves a final night all his own.

The closer said he plans on making his last pitch the last one thrown in the World Series, a scenario that can't be ruled out. If nothing else, Rivera, Jeter and Pettitte have a lot of muscle memory working in their favor.

But the Yankees are old enough and injured enough for smart baseball people to predict their demise. Is Opening Day against Boston really opening day for another Dark Ages, or will the Stadium be up and running in October one more time?

Either way, with so much at stake, this Yankee season should be a fun and fascinating ride to who knows where.