July 28, 2012; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Rafael Soriano (29) pitches against the Boston Red Sox during the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium. Red Sox won 8-6. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE
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The New York Yankees are more Rafael Soriano than Mariano Rivera these days. Soriano has done an admirable job filling in for the legendary closer this season, but part of Rivera's success has been his intimidating, unhittable reputation, where hitters are halfway defeated before they even step into the batter's box. As we saw on Monday night, Soriano doesn't have that quality. A two-run lead in the ninth inning over the Toronto Blue Jays? Gone, just like that. The Blue Jays may be in last place but they're not going to roll up and die for the Yanks. Teams aren't halfway defeated when they come to New York anymore. Even the Minnesota Twins, who the Yankees have completely dominated over the years, came into Yankee Stadium and won a series this season.
The Yankees will most likely win the American League East. But it's always good to heed the sage advice of Oscar Madison -- "There's no such thing as a sure thing." First with the Tampa Bay Rays and now the Baltimore Orioles breathing down their necks, the Yankees are finding themselves in a brand-new divisional dynamic this year. They're still the kings, but there's a revolution taking place in the AL East. The Yankees are the best team in the division, but there's no special aura or mystique around them anymore. Curt Schilling declared those things dead 11 years ago, and it's especially true nowadays. The 1990s/2000 team that scared everyone (not to mention the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s teams) is long gone. They're just another team with a lot of money, and a lot if injuries, which is not surprising with such a thirtysomething-heavy roster. No one is intimidated by them anymore.
While the Rays have crept their way into the top of the division the last five seasons, with the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the Orioles are now joining Tampa Bay as a club that doesn't care about New York's (or Boston's for that matter) money or historical success. Buck Showalter couldn't give a damn about all those pennants waving atop Yankee Stadium. It's not even the real Yankee Stadium anymore anyway. That's been destroyed. The Yankees have one World Championship to their name since 2001, but so do the Los Angeles Angels, Chicago White Sox, Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants, with the St. Louis Cardinals and Red Sox winning twice, more than the Yankees. Yes, the Yankees are still a good bet to win the World Series, but so are the Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds.
But not being the same old Yankees isn't all bad. In fact, it's actually good. Yes, the old intimidation factor of being the NEW YORK YANKEES may have waned a bit, but side-by-side with that quality were a number of negatives that have also disappeared. They still have the brand and YES, but the sometimes crazy, sometimes contentious, sometimes bully George Steinbrenner is gone, replaced by his level-headed son who wants to lower payroll and show fiscal restraint like any normal, clear-thinking, non-bombastic owner around the league. They have peace and tranquility in their clubhouse, like many other normal teams. The Bronx Zoo has headed up north up to Boston, where the Red Sox have taken the George/Billy/Reggie dynamic to new dysfunctional levels. The Los Angeles Dodgers are now the wild spending team, throwing millions of dollars around like it's Monopoly money without a thought for the future. The Orioles and Red Sox are the teams with meddling, egomaniac owners. Other teams have taken on some of the craziness that has usually lived in the Bronx. The Yankees? They're one big happy family.
Sure, Yankee Stadium is gone, replaced by just another overpriced band box. And their first-place status isn't a given, just like every other first-place team, with the new wild card system a scary proposition if one doesn't win their division. But the Yankees can look around the majors, and their own division, and count their lucky stars that it's now other teams who are giant-payrolled disasters with toxic chemistry or have meddlesome ownership or add headcase, overpaid stars to their roster. The Yankees can just go about their business and win. Like they did on Tuesday, with their closer showing no ill effects of his blown save on Monday. Soriano may not be Rivera, but he's pretty darn good.