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Yankees’ woe: All that money can’t tame the Detroit Tigers

It turns out that the New York Yankees have a common problem of this economy. Return on investment.

Is this a great country or what? We may be pretty much bankrupt, coast to coast, but we still can find incredible riches in America’s pastime. We also can find great hope for the little guy, the underdog with the bald spot and the blue-collar paycheck.

The scene: Thursday night, Yankees versus Detroit Tigers. The deciding Game 5 of the American League Division Series, or ALDS for you real fans.

The Yankees posted the best record in the American League this season. Now they trail, 3-2, in front of their own fans in Yankee Stadium. It is the bottom of the ninth. The inning before, they have come tantalizingly close to taking a lead that would have almost certainly guaranteed victory and advancement to the American League Championship Series, the ALCS.

Their star shortstop, Derek Jeter, had sent a deep fly to the wall in right field with a runner on base. If it clears the wall, the Yankees lead, 4-3, and their almost untouchable closing pitcher, Mariano Rivera, would likely have come in and been untouchable.

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But instead, the ball settled into the glove of right fielder Don Kelly. Jeter had fallen about five feet short of playoff heroics.

But there is still hope, even confident expectation.

With two out in the ninth, and a tie just one swing away, Mighty Casey comes to bat. He is the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, or A-Rod to his 20 million closest friends. He has hit 629 home runs and is among the few who can possibly catch Barry Bonds and his record 762. This is a moment made for A-Rod; also for those in Yankee management who paid him $32 million this year, a sizable chunk of the team’s $197-million payroll.

Facing him is the Detroit Tigers’ Jose Valverde, their beloved Papa Grande. Before taking the mound in the ninth, Valverde had entered games in save situations 50 times this season and successfully completed all 50 saves. He was the ultimate cork in the bottle. Whenever he was called in from the bullpen, stadium janitorial crews started sweeping up.

Valverde wasn’t always efficient, or neat and clean. Of his 50 saves, only 15 had come in three-up, three-down fashion. In his next life, Papa Grande will be a tightrope walker, or an oil-well capper.

Still, this should have been a mismatch, especially if money is a measure of anything. Valverde, at $7 million annually, was at a $25-million disadvantage. If money spoke, as it does in so many things in our lives, A-Rod would have rattled the seats in left-center field and the Yankees would still be alive.

But Papa Grande lives up to his name. He throws a wonderful pitch and A-Rod strikes out. One can only imagine how many of those millions Rodriguez would have given just to jack one over the fence. But now, there is no joy in Mudville, or New York City.

One of the other stars for the Tigers was Kelly, the right fielder who had gathered in Jeter’s near-miss at the wall. Kelly hit a solo homer, one of two by the Tigers in the first inning. That’s pretty crucial in a 3-2 victory. A comparison of salaries has Jeter at $14.7 million this season and Kelly at $423,000.

The winning pitcher was Doug Fister, whose salary is $436,500. The pitcher who gave up the third, and deciding run, to the Tigers was CC Sabathia, the Yankees ace working in relief for the first time in his career. Sabathia made $24.285 million this year.

The conclusion is obvious, and it should enhance our appreciation of playoff baseball, rather than diminish it. Money can get you close, but it can’t guarantee you the ring. The Yankees and the Phillies currently pay the most, and it usually shows. But some of the other teams making nice runs at the title this year are well down the payroll list. The Diamondbacks are 25th, the Brewers 16th, the Rangers 13th and the Tigers 10th.

Big dollars make sense, but they can’t hit a 90-mph breaking ball with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the ninth.

More chances for the blue-collar teams are among the reasons baseball is considering adding another wild-card team in each league to the playoffs. And why not? Baseball may seem like a drag through the 162-game regular season, but once it gets to October, and every pitch and every broken-bat single and every umpire’s call means everything, it can’t be topped for sports drama.

So, as we watch this all unfold, possibly all the way to a World Series seventh game on Oct. 27, let’s enjoy it. Let’s also not be too hard on the Yankees, the big team that couldn’t.

Be positive. Think of them as the best American League Division Series semifinalist money could buy.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com


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