The Yankees Are Now Like Everyone Else, and That’s Great
The New York Yankees had just signed every player in baseball.
It was February of 2003, and the Onion article popped up in my AOL browser on my Windows desktop. There was a photoshopped image of Mike Piazza, Randy Johnson, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez wearing pinstripes and grinning behind a podium.
“By noon, Yankees GM Brian Cashman had signed the entire National League and most of the American League to multi-year contracts,” the Onion reported. “Some 10 hours later, the final opposing player, Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez, had been acquired by the Yankees, who bought out the remainder of his $252 million contract for $300 million.”
Satire skewers real life, but if we’ve learned anything in the 21st century, it’s that satire presages reality. Rodriguez became a Yankee in 2004. Johnson became a Yankee in 2005. They were each paid an enormous amount of money for their services.
The Yankees of 2003 were coming off a 103-win season and a disappointing ALDS loss to the then-Anaheim Angels, the eventual World Series winner. They were two years removed from winning their fourth consecutive pennant, three from their last World Series title and boasted a $125 million payroll, by far the highest in baseball. That offseason, they signed Japanese sensation Hideki Matsui. They were the unquestioned juggernaut of the sport.
As a young teen rooting on this armada of baseball talent, I grew conflicted. I always saw myself as something of an underdog, small for my age and underrated on a baseball diamond. My political sympathies, trending leftward, taught me to embrace the unprivileged and the downtrodden. The Yankees were capitalistic excess, the Walmart of baseball driving mom-and- pop Twins and Expos out of business.
But my allegiance, hardened in the gorgeous crucible of the 1990s dynasty, was unshakable, and I stuck with them through an impressive, if chaotic, 2000s run. From 2002–2008, the Yankees, always equipped with that year’s elite free agent, fought in the shadow of that 90s dynasty. They fielded the best teams in baseball that would, for a variety of reasons (often poor pitching), fall short in October, and won by outspending everyone. The regular season was an often joyless exercise because winning the American League East was a formality; if the veteran-heavy Yankees, under a fading George Steinbrenner, couldn’t even make the playoffs (never mind how hard it is to do this), they were all but worthless.
This set up excruciating postseasons. Blowing a 3–0 lead to the Red Sox. Bubba Crosby and Gary Sheffield colliding in game 5 of the 2005 ALDS. Kenny Rogers blanking the Yankees in 2006, A-Rod inexplicably batting eighth. Joba’s midges in 2007.
I have fond memories of the players of that era — Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina and A-Rod, of course — but there was always a lingering anxiety to being a Yankees fan, having to fend off critics who attributed all of their success to a swollen payroll. I prayed that another dominant regular season could give way to a title, and cried when it didn’t. I was a fretting fan and a guilty one: wouldn’t it be nice to root for a team like the scrappy Angels or Marlins, and revel in wholly unforeseen brilliance?
Today’s Yankees are giving me that chance. After a 2015 season that, for a brief moment, reminded me of the flawed 1996 winner, the Yankees of 2016 have morphed into one of the more compelling franchises in baseball, a coming power that promises celebration without guilt. They rightfully gave up on the season in July, trading away their two best relief pitchers and top slugger, and called up a trio of prospects to see what they had on their hands. Instead of collapsing, they’ve transformed from colorless mediocrity into a dynamic winner, averting the worst sin any New York baseball franchise can commit, other than losing: they aren’t boring.
A few weeks ago, I was contemplating writing a “Why the Yankees Need Clint Frazier” piece to argue, tongue-slightly-in-cheek, that the Yankees should immediately call up the 21-year-old outfielder they acquired for reliever Andrew Miller because he’s a red-headed dynamo who uses Twitter to ask models out on dates and, more importantly, promises to entertain me. The Yankees were staring down a desultory August and September, bereft of any A-Rod drama. Then Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, and Tyler Austin showed up, and infielder Ronald Torreyes, who is claims to be five-ten but is probably two inches shorter, started killing the ball.
Austin and Judge, who hit back-to-back homeruns in their first big league at bats, have slowed down. But Sanchez has emerged as the most thrilling home-grown Yankees product since Robinson Cano, the team’s best argument for watching their games as they sit 3.5 games out of a wild card spot with too many teams ahead. He is hitting like Roy Hobbs, were Hobbs a 23-year-old catcher who never suffered a bullet wound: through 77 at bats, he’s cracked 10 homeruns, as many as Rodriguez hit all of this year. His .403/.459/.883 line is unreal. His throwing arm is drawing comparisons to Ivan Rodriguez’s, perhaps the best ever. He has the second highest WAR on the Yankees, which is absurd when you consider it’s a cumulative stat.
The Yankees suddenly have a young core, something they’ve lacked for more than a decade. They no longer have the highest payroll in baseball (number two, now) and are likely to miss the playoffs this year, a scenario nothing short of apocalyptic a decade ago. Since more teams than ever are flush with cash, thanks to revenue-sharing, and usually retain their best players, the Yankees can’t find many easy fixes in free agency, at least until Bryce Harper leaves Washington. The era of the super-teams is long passed.
Which means that Brian Cashman, an astute general manager who has never assembled a losing team, will keep getting creative. The Yankees are mortal now. Mortality translates to less postseason memories for this latest generation of fans, but it also means the next World Series, whenever it comes, will linger longer in memory. It will be defined against relative hardship (the Yankees don’t know real hardship) and unexpected promise. It may be something like what Yankees fans experienced in 1996, when an overlooked hodgepodge squad overcame an imposing Atlanta Braves franchise to win their first title in 18 years. Wade Boggs rode a horse around Yankee Stadium, Derek Jeter mastered the fist pump, and a raucous ticker tape parade down Broadway enthralled a 7-year-old me.
Does Chase Headley know how to ride a horse?