“Man,” tweeted a Yankee fan of my acquaintance after Friday night’s arms race between the Yankees and the Rays ended. “So sad. Every. single. year.”
Did you ever think you’d see the day when Yankee fans finally tasted what baseball’s hardest of hard luck franchise fans tasted for about as long as the Yankees once ruled the earth? Neither did I.
Did you ever think you’d hear Yankee fans talking the way Chicago Cub and Boston Red Sox fans spoke for decades before the 21st century arrived? Never mind the Red Sox—the Red Sox—owning more 21st century Series rings than the Yankees?
The team that owned most of the 20th century is finding the 21st century impossible to navigate. If it comforts Yankee fans any, their 20th century ancestors found the first two decades of that century tough to navigate, too.
From the birth of the American League through the end of 1919, the franchise finished as high as second place three times. The closest they got to a World Series then was finishing a game and a half behind (imagine that!) the Red Sox, then known as the Americans. When, you ask? The same year New York experienced a pair of firsts: its first underground subway, and its first New Year’s Eve blowout in Times Square.
The 21st century Yankees are actually a little more fortunate. They’ve been to sixteen postseasons, two World Series, and won one Series. Their ancestors of a century ago would have killed to take that kind of jacket into 1920.
Telling that to today’s Yankee fan might amount to wasted energy. There are more cliches attached to the Yankees for better or worse than to any other major league team, and the truest of those are 1) they don’t like to lose; and, 2) they define failure as any season in which they don’t win the World Series.
In most of the 20th century, once they got their bearings for keeps, it was a lot easier for the Yankees to live up to those type of self-imposed pressures. They owned the bulk of the reserve era, when they scouted the deepest of the deep bushes, traded or sold from strength, and plucked jewels suspected and unsuspected alike from the mere mortals.
The free agency era hasn’t been as kind to them as their adversaries thought at first. Turns out that buying pennants—which the Yankees haven’t been the only ones to accomplish, no matter what their riches and resources and Joe and Jane Fan lead you to believe—wasn’t going to be an annual Yankee accomplishment.
Since the Messersmith decision at the end of calendar 1975, the Yankees have been to 27 postseasons, won eleven pennants, and won seven World Series. That’s not exactly the same as their dynastic reserve era, but even the Yankees know there are 29 other major league franchises who’d sell their mothers and grandmothers to show even half that kind of success.
I haven’t heard of any groups of Yankee fans gathering yet to burn Aaron Boone or Aroldis Chapman in effigy after Game Five of the division series freshly lost. But any to come wouldn’t shock. If the truest cliche about the Yankees is that they don’t like to lose, the truest cliche about their fans this century is, “To err is human, to forgive is not Yankee fan policy.”
They’re not even burning longtime general manager Brian Cashman in effigy just yet. Not even if they’re fuming wrongly that Cashman invited too much analytics into the Yankee mindset. The only wonder about that might be what took the Yankees so long to dip into those waters in the first place.
Too much analytics? They just got shoved out of the postseason by a Rays team that lives on analytics. Analytics and assembling competitive teams out of painfully average players on annual budgets that don’t equal a third of Gerrit Cole’s entire nine-year Yankee contract.
Too much dependence on the home run? Well, now. They didn’t become the Bronx Bombers in the first place because they established a tradition of slap-hitting, scratch-hitting basepath pests. The Hitless Wonders, the Gas House Gang, the Go-Go Sox, and the Runnin’ Redbirds they ain’t.
News flash: When pitching doesn’t win postseasons, home runs do, more often than not. The Yankees lived and died by the bomb on the irregular season and hit fourteen more than the Rays. They just hit one fewer than the Rays in Game Five. (And, one fewer than the Rays all ALDS long, incidentally.)
Until Mike Brosseau ended a ten-pitch wrestling match with Chapman with a dramatic one-out home run in the bottom of the eighth Friday night, the Yankees and the Rays were enjoying and wrestling with their own Night of the Pitchers.
A game like that was the most appropriate way to honour the memory of Whitey Ford, the Yankees’ witty and popular Hall of Fame lefthander, who died at his Long Island home Thursday night while watching the Yankees and the Rays tangle.
Cole did exactly what the Yankees are paying him $324 million for nine years to do. The Rays’ and the Yankees’ bullpens did what top of the line bullpens are supposed to do, even though the key Yankee relievers weren’t quite as rested as the key Rays’ bulls.
Until the eighth those pitching staffs had only one run each torn out of them, both solo bombs. The pitching on both sides even shook off a few scattered defensive miscues on both sides.
What the Yankees missed all year—aside from a near-repeat injured list performance akin to 2019’s making the New England Journal of Medicine into the Yankee yearbook—was pitching depth.
They chugged, slugged, and bulled their way to second place in the AL East, blasted the Cleveland Indians to one side in the wild card round, but bumped into the AL East champion Rays. Discovering the Rays could take everything they could dish out from the comfort of their better-rounded bullpen depth and deployment.
The Yankees missed Luis Severino recovering from Tommy John surgery, they lost James Paxton to a flexor strain, and they lost Domingo German to a domestic violence suspension. They worked around Adam Ottavino’s fall from what’s considered the Yankees’ inner circle of bullpen trust.
And it blew up in their faces in Game Two, when Boone deciding to try out-Raying the Rays with an opener and a bullpen game blew up in the Yankees’ faces. That was the first of Boone’s two most egregious series mistakes.
The second was pinch hitting for Kyle Higashioka—establishing himself as the best Yankee option behind the plate—with slumping Mike Ford to open the top of the eighth, then sending Gary Sanchez out to catch the rest of the game. Sanchez’s bat was faltering and his plate work more so.
It was Sanchez who didn’t think that maybe Chapman should have served Brosseau a tenth-pitch splitter instead of a down-and-in fastball. It was Sanchez who may have forgotten that Chapman’s vaunted speed-of-light fastballs get more hittable the longer he works because they don’t climb the ladders or go out on the limbs as well as when he works his first few hitters.
And it was Sanchez and Boone who forgot Chapman nearly let that Game Seven thriller in the 2016 World Series get away from those Cubs with an RBI double and a game re-tying two-run homer. Not to mention failing to put Houston’s Jose Altuve aboard with two outs, George Springer on base, and a spaghetti bat on deck, the better to finish pushing last year’s ALCS to a seventh game.
Sanchez and Boone’s memory vapours disappeared over the left field fence. The only Yankee manager ever to lead his charges to back-to-back 100-plus win seasons in his first two seasons on the Yankee bridge has become Sisyphus in pinstripes.
Sooner or later, the jubilant Rays trolling the Yankees by singing along with Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York” had to call it a night after a hard-earned hearty party. The questions around this Yankee edition won’t call it a night, or a day, too soon this winter.
Neither will the continuing humbling of Yankee fans, who are seen only too often, with too much justification, as among baseball’s most singularly arrogant. Their absolute lowest of the low might have been the subset who trolled Astros pitcher Zack Greinke over his longtime battle with clinical depression last October.
Their forebears were spoiled rotten by all those 20th century decades of Yankee imperialism but never that disgraceful. Now the sons and daughters of those old imperial Yankee fans have to learn, little by little, to live with the idea that the Yankees may be only human, after all.