From Ruth to Rivera, Those Yankees Spikes Hard to Fill

Peter AlfanoContributor IIFebruary 25, 2012

From Ruth to Rivera, Those Yankees Spikes Hard to Fill

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    Ever since he arrived in Tampa for spring training, Mariano Rivera has dropped hints that 2012 may be the year of Exit Sandman. In 17 seasons with the Yankees, Rivera has saved a major league record 603 games and added another 42 in postseason play.

    He is the best closer in history, and the Yankees won't be replacing him as much as looking for someone to fill the closer's role. For an analogy, think about Ray Perkins, the fair-haired All-American at Alabama who left as the New York Giants head coach to succeed the Bear in Tuscaloosa.

    Perkins was 32-15-1 In four seasons and took the Tide to three bowl games. But it wasn't good enough for fans and boosters who have measured every Alabama coach by the standard for winning set by Bryant.

    Knicks fans have never warmed to any of the centers who followed Willis Reed, the captain, who led the franchise to its only two NBA championships. Now, it's Tyson Chandler's turn.

    And good luck to Andrew Luck who will be trying to pick up where Peyton Manning left off in Indianapolis.

    If Rivera indeed calls it a career after this season, speculation will begin about the heir to the throne. Will the Yankees trade for a closer or pursue a free agent, if any are available?

    Will it be David Robertson who was lights out as the setup man last season with a 4-0 record, 1.08 ERA and 40 holds?

    Or will the Yankees finally decide to convert Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain (coming off arm surgery) into the closer's role?

    Perhaps, it will be better to be the closer who follows the closer who replaces Rivera.

    For a franchise with the long and glorious history of the Yankees, being an heir apparent is a challenge. You play in the sometimes harsh spotlight of New York and are expected to do as well as your predecessor. Look at all those numbers the Yankees have retired.

    Here's a look at a few of the "replacements" for Yankee icons:   

There Was Only One Babe

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    You don't replace the best baseball player of all time; you just fill his position.

    Ruth used to hit more home runs than most teams and lost several years and perhaps another 100 homers or more because he was winning 20 games for the Red Sox.

    When Ruth, who was larger than life and made Joe Namath look like a choir boy, was sent packing to the Boston Braves in 1935, a young Canadian George Selkirk became the Yankees right-fielder.

    Selkirk batted .312 with 11 home runs and 94 RBI that season. He went on to a a good career and won five World Series rings with the Yankees.

    But the one thing he could never do was make fans forget the Babe.

The Mantle of Greatness

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    It was an imposing task for a country boy from Oklahoma.

    Mickey Mantle was asked to be the Yankees center fielder after Joe DiMaggio. It turned out that Mantle followed Joe D right into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

    He was extraordinarily gifted with great speed and awesome power, playing in an era when the three best center fielders were in New York—Mantle, Willie Mays of the Giants and Duke Snider of the Dodgers.

    Mantle had 536 home runs in 18 years with the Yankees and might have had more if he hadn't played so hard off the field.

    But after DiMaggio and Mantle, the spoiled Yankees had difficulty finding a centerfielder with a potential for greatness. Three years after Mantle retired in 1968, along came another Oklahoman, Bobby Murcer, who had the unenviable task of becoming the new Mickey Mantle.

    Murcer was a good player who finished with a career average of .277 and 245 home runs. But he could never measure up to Joe D and the Mick. 

The Iron Horse Who Pulled the Yankees

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    The story is part of baseball lore: Yankee first-baseman Wally Pipp missed a game on June 2, 1925, and was replaced by Lou Gehrig.

    What happened next wouldn't happen to a Broadway theater understudy. Gehrig went on to play 2,130 consecutive games and was considered the heart and soul of the Yankees. Pipp became the answer to a trivia question.

    Gehrig had a career average of .340 with 493 home runs, but his value to the Yankees far exceeded his lofty statistics. When he finally removed himself from the lineup early in the 1939 season to end his consecutive-game run, Gehrig was said to be in tears.

    He was felled by an insidious disease that now bears his name and was the subject of the classic movie Pride of the Yankees

    But who replaced Gehrig the day he sat out? It was Babe Dahlgren, who although hitting a home run and double that day, won't be compared to Gehrig or that other Babe who played for the Yankees.

    Dahlgren batted .284 that season with 15 home runs. He hit .264 with 12 homers in 1940 and then was sent away. Buddy Hasset and Nick Etten were the next Yankee first basemen, but if Gehrig was the Iron Horse, his successors were more like a caboose.

The Most Famous Yogi of Them All

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    Yogi Berra hardly looked the part of an athlete. He was built like a fire hydrant, only maybe not as tall. But for almost two decades, Berra was the backbone of the Yankees, building a Hall of Fame career behind the plate and one of the best-hitting catchers in history.

    On a franchise that was considered aloof and arrogant, Berra endeared himself to baseball fans who otherwise couldn't stand the Yankees. He hit 358 home runs in his career and batted .285, remarkable numbers for a player who takes the pounding a catcher does. 

    Yogi's last season as a full-time catcher was 1959, and it wasn't until 1961 that Elston Howard—the first African-American to wear a Yankee uniform—assumed the bulk of the catching duties. Howard was already 32 years old but put together four good years before age caught up to him.

    Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada are also part of the Yankees catching fraternity, but it's unlikely the Yankees will ever see another Yogi behind the plate. 

Drawing Straws to Replace Derek Jeter

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    It may not happen for another year or two, but who will the Yankees pick to replace Derek Jeter?

    That task will be as difficult as it will be replacing Mariano River.

    The Yankees could go the free agent or trade route, or perhaps, hand the job to a player in their farm system. Eduardo Nunez played short when Jeter was injured in 2011 and acquitted himself well, batting .265 with five homers and 30 RBI. He's only 24.

    But as is the case with so many Yankee greats, it's not just about the numbers. The leadership and intangibles that Jeter has brought to the Yankees are rare and can never be measured by statistics.

    It's never easy putting on those Yankee pinstripes with so many legends watching.