It couldn’t look darker for the Yankees with the American League Championship Series on the line. Down two games to none, they head into Detroit tonight to face stopper Justin Verlander (17-8 record in the regular season and a 2.64 ERA). The Tigers’ ace breezed through the Oakland A’s in the first round of the playoffs, striking out 22 over the course of his two wins with an ERA of 0.56. Worse yet, the Yankees are without their best player, Derek Jeter (.316 BA, 15 HRs, 58 RBIs), who broke his left ankle Saturday night ranging for a grounder up the middle.
The 38-year-old Jeter’s revival this year was a central part of the Bronx ballclub’s success, and its chances in the postseason are considerably slimmer without him. Over seventeen years in the majors, the Hall of Fame-bound shortstop has put together a postseason career that, with 158 games logged, amounts to a full extra season of baseball. In the postseason, Jeter is the career leader in several offensive categories—runs scored (111), total bases (302), hits (200), singles (143), doubles (32), triples (5)—and near the top in almost every other. Starting in his rookie year, 1996, the Yanks have won five World Series. The last time they won the fall classic without Jeter was in 1978, when another Yankee All-Star middle infielder went down with an injury.
That October second baseman Willie Randolph was scratched from the World Series roster, and his replacement was Brian Doyle, a scrappy middle-infielder from Kentucky who weighed 160 lbs only with a mouth full of chewing tobacco. His older brother Denny helped get the Red Sox to the World Series in 1975, which the Boston club lost to Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. Brian, however, led the Yankees to victory over the Dodgers in six games, during which he hit .438, going 7 for 16, with four runs scored and two RBIs. His unlikely post-season heroics turned him into the most cherished of champions, the triumphant yet still modest underdog.
That winter, my brother Matthew and I, then high school students, traveled from New York City to Winter Haven, Florida, in order to attend the Doyle Brothers’ Baseball Academy. The Doyles, Denny, Brian and his twin brother Blake, at the time an Orioles farmhand, were anything but absentee owners looking to make a quick buck on the basis of Brian’s newly found star appeal. Rather they were our ever-present tutors and role models. They rotated between the several different diamonds full of young ballplayers, anywhere between 10 and 21, teaching us the finer points in comradely heckling as they threw batting practice, coached the baselines, hit fungos and most importantly, given that all three were professional infielders, instructed us in the fine art of infield play, from slow rollers and rundowns to jumping after making the double-play relay to avoid an onrushing baserunner. I think it was Denny who likened my brother to the young Rico Petrocelli—a comparison perhaps inevitable since my slick-fielding sibling had just broken his nose a few months before and his profile had indeed come to resemble the noble Roman bearing of the Sox third-baseman. The last time we saw Brian was in 1981 when he came back to the Bronx in an A’s uniform, and he shouted a quick hello after finishing batting practice and before descending into the visitor’s dugout.
Now, with Jeter down, I needed to speak to him again. “Wow, I am getting old,” he said after I managed to track him down on the phone. “You guys were at the baseball school and now you’re working for THE WEEKLY STANDARD, which by the way is just an awesome publication.”
I asked him what he thought about Jeter’s injury. “It was heartbreaking,” Doyle said. “You hate to see anyone get hurt like that. Then I thought about the guys that could take his place, like Jayson Nix. I guarantee you that Jayson was thinking every day, if someone gets hurt I got to be ready. I know that’s what I was doing.”
What’s the key to being ready in the postseason? “It’s not about being concerned about your performance, but being focused and trying to slow down the game. Everything is magnified. A lot of people don’t know how to handle pressure. But pressure is not knowing how you are going to pay your bills. And in ’78 I was thinking, I am going to make more money from this than I’m used to, no matter what. Pressure is about being away from your family. But all my family was going to be there. So, the minute you walk through the gate, you can focus on who you’re playing, who’s pitching, and not let all the ancillary things bother you.”