"Championship or Bust" has long defined the New York Yankees, but this season's team simply made baseball fun.
As a lifelong Yankees fan, born and raised among Yankees fans, I can tell you that every negative perception you hold against us is pretty much true. We are spoiled, smug, and unrealistic. We celebrate our club’s history to a hilarious degree. As much as it pains me to admit it, I can quote from the official 1998 World Series program without a hint of irony:
“If they ask for our star, give them 25 names. And if they forget our names, just tell them ‘we were Yankees.’”
That line is county-fair corn, and it’ll still bring tears to the eyes of any Yankees fan, including those far too young to remember the ’98 team.
Given that posture, we, the pinstriped faithful, haven’t exactly bathed ourselves in happy glory these past few weeks (especially this guy). When compared to the raucous crowds in Toronto and even across town at Citi Field — where teams are preparing their own postseason paths — the atmosphere at recent Yankees home games has felt downright funereal.
That shouldn’t be surprising. From the beginning, this season was set up to be a dutifully solemn wake. Following two years of over-the-top valedictions for Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, management deigned to dedicate 2015 to celebrating the recent, bygone past. Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada each had their own ceremony and received a plaque in Monument Park. Fans were cordially invited to the tacky, second-rate knockoff of their old beloved baseball cathedral to bid farewell to their heroes, a glorious generation we’ll most certainly never see again.
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Then something strange and wonderful happened. The 2015 Yankees — these canonical afterthoughts — decided to complicate everything by playing some pretty darn good baseball.
Barring some Cinderella postseason run (doubtful, given an injury-depleted roster), this team won’t figure too prominently in pinstriped lore. Real Yankees don’t celebrate wild-card berths, after all. But this club has given fans a different kind of gift — the rare opportunity to toss away the constantly batty expectations and simply enjoy a season of baseball.
In other words, it’s been an opportunity to stop thinking like Yankees fans.
“I am deeply disappointed at our being eliminated so early in the playoffs. This result is absolutely not acceptable to me nor to our great and loyal Yankee fans. I want to congratulate the Detroit Tigers organization and wish them well. Rest assured, we will go back to work immediately and try to right this sad failure and provide a championship for the Yankees, as is our goal every year.”
Not surprisingly, this sadsack statement was delivered by owner George Steinbrenner following the Yankees’ defeat in the 2006 ALDS. That team won 97 games before running into a Tigers club that rode a hot streak all the way to the World Series, where they in turn fell to a Cardinals team that won 83 games, fewest ever for an MLB champion. Such is life in the Wild Card Era, where a 162-game season boils down to a handful of games in three different series in a sport where even the greatest teams can be neutralized by a hot pitcher or two. Calling a 97-win a “sad failure” is downright cruel, the kind of cruelty which partially defined Steinbrenner’s incredibly complex legacy.
That “championship or bust” mentality still haunts Yankees fans to this day. You could feel it most potently right around this season’s trade deadline, when the front office mostly stood pat and George’s chorus rose in unison, drowning out the promise and progress that had already been made: “If the Boss were here ...”
As in ...
“If the Boss were here, he wouldn’t have stood by and watch the Blue Jays land Troy Tulowitzki and David Price.”
“If the Boss were here, he would have emptied the farm for Price.”
Once you start down the ‘Big Stein’ rabbit hole, there’s no telling where you might end up. Maybe the Yankees do top the Blue Jays’ package and land Price, but that could have cost them prospects like Greg Bird and Luis Severino, both of whom have excelled for New York over the past few weeks. Would that even have guaranteed an AL East title, let alone a trip to the World Series?
Toronto had the far superior run differential even before acquiring Tulowitzki and Price, so it could have still won the division. Toronto also had a deeper farm system and the pressure of a league-worst playoff drought looming over the team, further justifying going all-in. And what kind of championship odds hath this Canadian juggernaut wrought? According to FanGraphs, they have a 16.3% chance of winning it all.
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Toronto wasn’t wrong for going big at the deadline; far from it. But no franchise can afford to approach every single season as if anything less than a title is a failure. It’s not healthy for the organization, and it’s not healthy for the fans.
This group of Yankees was a joy to follow all summer long. Old-timers like Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran rediscovered their games. Promising youngsters contributed in big ways. Brett Gardner finally made his first All-Star Team. Didi Gregorius handled the burdensome role of replacing Jeter with style and grace. And Alex Rodriguez took on the baseball establishment and came out on top. This was a great season, no matter what happens in a one-game Wild Card playoff.
Does this mean the Yankees are back? How would we even define ‘back’? A new Core Four isn’t arriving door anytime soon. For better or worse, it’s gone forever — up to the heaven of ceremonies and souvenirs. But even the most arrogant, oblivious Yankees fans can learn a lesson from the 2015 Bronx Bombers: There is life after dynasty, and it’s one where baseball — even less-than-dominant baseball — can be fun again.