The demise of the New York Yankees can be traced to a conference room at the old Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, where baseball's barons met in 2011 to realign divisions, expand the postseason and approve the $615 million sale of the Houston Astros to Jim Crane, who was awarded the club, at a $65 million discount, on one condition:
That his team becomes a card-carrying member of the American League.
The Astros had spent more than a half century in the National League before moving in 2013, and they trudged off to the AL West lugging with them a most uninspiring past. The Astros had won three playoff series and no World Series titles since they were born, as the Colt .45s, in 1962. The Yankees had won 30 playoff series and eight of their 27 World Series titles in those same 51 years.
In other words, after back-to-back seasons of more than 105 losses, the Astros were nowhere to be found on the House of Steinbrenner's list of top 105 concerns for the balance of the decade. And yet there the Yankees were in Houston on Saturday night, down and out after Jose Altuve's walk-off homer off Aroldis Chapman, eliminated from the MLB playoffs by the Astros for the third time in the last five years.
This six-game American League Championship Series verdict was framed by profound big-picture implications. The Yankees have failed to reach the World Series for the 10th consecutive season, a biblical drought by any Bronx measure. The last time the Yanks had completed a decade without making a single World Series appearance, a man born almost five years before the start of the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson, was sitting in the Oval Office. Meanwhile, the Astros are heading to the Fall Classic for the second time in three years, looking to make the case that they will soon reign as the sport's latest dynasty.
The Process > The Pinstripes.
Here's the thing about this ALCS: The Yankees weren't just beaten by a better team; they were beaten by a better program. Years after making a $15,000 investment in a 5-foot-6 Venezuelan teenager named Jose Altuve, the Astros built their program around first-round draft picks -- George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman -- and their commitment to landing the two available starters, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, who might have made the Yankees unstoppable.
Hal Steinbrenner didn't want to take on Verlander's money in the summer of 2017, and his general manager, Brian Cashman, didn't want to trade Miguel Andujar and Clint Frazier for Cole, the former Yankees draft pick, in January of 2018. Those are two conspicuous reasons why today's Yankees are looking a bit like yesterday's Knicks, the consistent playoff participant that lost all five series it played against Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls between 1989 and 1996. (The Knicks beat the Jordan-less Bulls in 1994.) Jordan eliminated four different Knicks coaches in that period. His dominance of New York, of course, was easy to see coming.
The Astros' dominance of New York? Not so much. They went 51-111 in 2013 to run their loss total to 324 games over three seasons, perfecting the art of tanking before Sam Hinkie could get his process-trusting hands on the Philadelphia 76ers. While torturing their fan base, the Astros drafted and developed enough talent to finally post a winning record in 2015, at 86-76, and to claim that extra wild-card spot added that same 2011 day the team was officially sold to Crane and booked for the AL.
Houston defeated the No. 1 wild card, the Yankees, in Yankee Stadium, with Dallas Keuchel and three relievers combining for the shutout that opened a one-way passion play that continued Saturday night. The Astros have now beaten the Yankees in a sudden-death wild-card game, in a Game 7 of the ALCS after being down 3-2 in the series, and in a Game 6 of the ALCS after being up 3-1 in the series. The Astros have now beaten the Yankees with Keuchel as their ace (2015), with Verlander as their ace (2017) and with Cole as their ace (2019).
The Astros have now beaten two Yankees teams managed by Joe Girardi and one managed by Aaron Boone.
"Damn Yankees" was a Broadway musical and movie. It doesn't matter that "Damn Astros" doesn't have the same ring to it.
The end result in this latest series seemed inevitable a couple of nights ago. After Thursday's Game 4 disaster, shaped by a series of Little League errors and CC Sabathia's grim farewell, the Yankees appeared to be waiting for the local coroner to declare them dead. Inside a home clubhouse about as still as a church at midnight, Aaron Judge quietly addressed reporters under a big-screen TV that relayed a message to players to report the following day at 3:30 p.m. "TRAVEL ATTIRE: TRACK SUITS," the rest of the bulletin read.
Truth is, the Yankees didn't look like they were preparing to play baseball in Houston. They looked like they were preparing to play golf back home.
Out of left field, they smacked two first-inning homers off Verlander in Game 5, sparing themselves the indignity of losing all three ALCS games in the Bronx and breathing life into Boone's post-Game 4 forecast that "stranger things have certainly happened. A lot stranger." Like the 2004 Yankees making history -- a year after Boone's Game 7 dagger against Boston -- by losing four straight ALCS games to the haunted Red Sox, who exorcised more than eight decades' worth of demons and doubts.
But Game 6 brought the 103-win Yankees back to reality in the company of the 107-win Astros. The bullpen game didn't go to the visitors who were said to have the best bullpen in creation. Altuve dramatically beat the Yankees' closer after DJ LeMahieu dramatically beat the Astros' closer, and the same Houston team that defeated New York in the regular season series, 4-3, finished off the postseason series, 4-2.
"I feel like we are on equal footing with them," Boone said when it was over. Not quite.
Maybe someday the Yanks will flip the script on the Astros the way Boston flipped the script on them. Until then, fed-up New Yorkers can blame the former commissioner, Bud Selig, and baseball's owners for forcing Houston to leave the six-team NL Central for the four-team AL West to balance out the leagues. Before the deal was done, Selig tweeted that the move "would create more fairness in baseball." Crane didn't really want to make the switch, nor did many of his employees. Astros fans were angry about the added West Coast start times, and players were concerned about travel. At the time former Astros star Lance Berkman, then with the Cardinals, called the decision a "travesty."
Selig pressed ahead, described the approved realignment as "monumental" and "historic," and reminded people that the change would create -- in the form of the in-state Rangers -- a natural rival for a franchise that didn't have one. As it turned out, Houston would find a natural rival in a ballpark nowhere near Arlington, Texas.
The Yankees are much like the Astros in that they have gifted young stars, and a very good general manager, manager and player development system. But until the Yanks figure out how to beat this juggernaut, Selig's decision to ship the Astros out of the NL will keep hurting New Yorkers more than his decision to cancel the 1994 World Series, during the players' strike, with Buck Showalter's Yankees owning an AL-best 70-43 record.
The Astros are not going back to the National League any time soon. They are, however, going back to the World Series, a place the Yankees haven't visited in a very long time.