A year ago, I wrote about how weird it was to have the New York Yankees, the historical power and biggest spender in Major League Baseball, playing the role of seller at the trade deadline. They seemed poised for a rebuild, and I was confident Brian Cashman was smart enough to see that through, but it did not feel right. 2016 was a weird year, and the Yankees bracing to rebuild does not even come close to the top fifty strangest things that happened last year, but 2017 appears to be reverting to what we know as normal, at least in a baseball sense. The Yankees are back, and for some reason, I’m okay with it.
After dealing Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians and Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs, setting up the crucial late inning match-ups the World Series, there was the rise of Gary Sanchez. Sanchez, a catcher, batted .299 and hit 20 home runs in just 53 games, and finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Two great months from a rookie catcher do not immediately make a team a contender, and the expectations for New York were still that of a team building through the farm system to be great in a couple years heading into 2017. Then Aaron Judge happened.
If you told me the next great Yankee was an outfielder as big as Rob Gronkowski, who hits the ball harder than Giancarlo Stanton, and who is so humble he’s more likable than Derek Jeter and Mariano River combined, I would have thought you were crazy. There could not be a human like that. Aaron Judge is such human. Last year, he was a strikeout machine, and this year he has transformed himself into a baseball crushing machine who is quickly becoming one of the faces of baseball. It was only a matter of time before the Yankees had another transcendent icon of the game. They always land on their feet in that regard, but who would have thought it would be one like this? Baseball players aren’t supposed to be that big, and if they are, they become pitchers. All I can do is sit back and be amazed.
With their rebuild fast-tracked by a baseball unicorn, the Yankees resumed their normal role of buyers at the trade deadline, and they bought, and bought, and bought. They acquired third baseman Todd Frazier, starting pitcher Tommy Kahnle, and relief pitcher David Robertson from the Chicago White Sox, relief pitcher Jaime Garcia from the Minnesota Twins, and capped it all off by acquiring right handed ace Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics. The Yankees did not get the biggest names that moved this trade season, as the Texas Rangers sent Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the White Sox sent Jose Quintana across town to the Cubs, but they acquired quality in volume and filled the most needs of any postseason contender. It also helped their cause that they made trades to bolster third base and the bullpen, taking players off the market in the most glaring places of need for their forever rival Boston Red Sox.
These are the Yankees I remember.
As much as I hate to admit, the Yankees being good is good for baseball. They are the lightning rod for the hate of the other 29 fan bases. The villain role in sports is something that should be embraced. As a Patriots fan, I embrace it. The Yankees are better at being the bad guy than anyone else in Major League Baseball. In the years since they last won the World Series in 2009, several teams have had the chance to take the Iron Throne of Evil from the Yankees, but the fit has never been quite right. The Red Sox, in spite of their three World Series titles since they last met the Yankees in the postseason, cannot get out of their own way year to year. The San Francisco Giants won three World Series titles in five years, but were irrelevant in the off years. The Dodgers, for all their regular season success and high payroll, have not won the National League Pennant since 1988. The Cubs only got good in the last two years and before 2016, the last president to be alive for a Cubs championship team was Lyndon Johnson, who was born two months earlier in 1908. They are not ready for that kind of role. The Red Sox are 13 years removed from becoming winners, and they aren’t even ready for it.
The team that came the closest was the St. Louis Cardinals. They have won the most titles of any team in the National League, they rub other fan bases the wrong way with their “best fans in baseball” mentality, and their was an actual FBI investigation into front office members hacking the Houston Astros (and somehow Deflategate got more coverage?). They should have become the most hated team in baseball, but animosity towards the Cardinals translated more into Cardinal fatigue more than Cardinal hate for me. It just wasn’t the same.
The Yankees are the Alabama football or Duke basketball of Major League Baseball. Nobody is indifferent to these teams. If you follow that respective sport, you have strong feelings one way or the other, and that keeps you engaged even if your own team is not a contender. I should be upset that the Yankees were not bad for a longer period of time, but hating a middling team or a team with a losing record is just not as much fun.
I have lived in New England my entire life, and always took for granted that Red Sox Nation was as staunch a region for baseball fandom as you will find anywhere in North America. The 86 year stretch without winning the World Series gave Red Sox fans an identity, a shared suffering that was passed from one generation to the next. Another city had longer title droughts, but Chicago’s baseball misery was diluted by having two teams (the White Sox won the World Series in 2005 for the first time since 1917 but that was never talked about nearly as much as the Red Sox, let alone the Cubs who still have not won since 1908), and the fact that they ChiSox and Cubs never came as close nearly as many times as Boston did. Winning it all in 2004 was great. For me, that first World Series win will always be the highlight of my sports fandom. Nothing will ever top that American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Red Sox. Nothing. Boston teams can win as many championships as they want, and nothing will top 2004, especially anything the Red Sox do, and that’s a problem for baseball.
That last paragraph serves as a warning to Cubs fans and Indians fans, and Mariners fans, and Rangers fans, and Astros fans that your baseball team will never matter as much as it did before your long awaited championship, because it’s not just a Boston problem. The Red Sox have won the World Series two more times since 2004, and the Patriots have won two more Super Bowls, and the Bruins and Celtics each won championships of their own. Boston has done an absurd amount of winning this century. The Red Sox have, along with the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, been one of the models for how to win in modern baseball, so when they’re not winning, instead of getting angry, fans just change the channel. If the Red Sox can’t be relevant, the Pats will be starting back up soon enough and the NBA and NHL have done a great job (the NBA more than the NHL, but still) of turning their 82 game season followed by a two month, sixteen team tournament into a 365 day cycle of relevance with their respective drafts and hot stove cycles. Football and basketball are juggernauts, with football dominating the narrative on national sports radio and TV shows most of the year, and basketball having a real chance to catch football in the United States and catch soccer internationally in the next 20 years. Hockey has a problem in that it’s a regional sport. It’s a niche sport because it matters more than most things in Canada and in certain American cities (like Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh), but in those cities, there will still be interest in the Stanley Cup Final even if their team is not in it. While baseball matters in more American cities than hockey does, it’s relevance is much more localized.
If the Red Sox miss the playoffs, the playoffs do not matter in New England. I know this because I follow baseball more closely than most people in their mid-20s, and while all my friends were in on the Red Sox title run in 2013, it was really hard to get people to talk about all the compelling stories in the baseball postseason last fall, even that super fun New York Mets team, and even with one of my closest friends literally being named Daniel Murphy. The Red Sox have a likeable young team this year, with their top prospects finally living up to the hype we have been sold from the beat writers for years. The offense has been incredible, and longtime designated hitter David Ortiz has been the rare case of a player on a farewell tour, still playing like has always has. The problem is that the pitching is not good enough to keep up with their excellent hitting, and all of this offensive production could be wasted. If things go south, David Ortiz, one of the greatest playoff performers the game has ever seen, could play out the string in August and September in meaningless games, with the fanbase focusing on Patriots training camp and the potential Tom Brady vs. Jimmy G quarterback controversy. If you’re not in a fantasy baseball league (which I have not been in a few years), it is incredibly easy to lose touch with the rest of Major League Baseball. Baseball should be doing a better job of marketing itself. They have as much good, exciting talent under the age of 27 as basketball and hockey, and all three sports are doing better than football in that regard, but the excitement is localized. Red Sox fans are thrilled about Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr., and we see more of Baltimore’s Manny Machado than fans in other divisions, but a star like Bogaerts, or Betts, or JBJ, or Machado, or Mike Trout in Anaheim, or Bryce Harper in Washington, Marcus Stroman in Toronto, or Trevor Story in Colorado, or Noah Syndergaard in New York, or Kris Bryant in Chicago, or Joc Pederson in Los Angeles, or Carlos Correa in Houston does not get the same kind of national buzz (with the possible exceptions of Harper in Trout) as Karl-Anthony Towns, or Anthony Davis, or Russell Westbrook, or Connor McDavid. The pieces are there to generate interest beyond one’s local baseball club. They just haven’t figured it out.
Baseball, in a lot of ways, is trapped in centuries past. It’s a game without time limits, for the most part, that adopted instant replay long after the other three sports, that feels content to cater to older fans rather than actively cultivate new ones. Some of that is a good thing. The idea of following the same team that my grandparents followed as children is kinda cool. My grandfather died in 2000 and never got to see the Red Sox win the World Series, but I got to see them win it twice while I was in high school. Red Sox baseball is a tradition older than any of the other Boston teams, having played their first season in 1901. The Bruins played their first season in 1924 (making them the oldest current American NHL team), the Celtics played their first season in 1946, and the Patriots have been around since 1960. History can only get you so far in modern sports, though. It was the Patriots, not the Red Sox, that first turned Boston’s championship fortunes around in 2002, and it was the Cavaliers, not the Browns or Indians that broke through first for Cleveland, a team that was rarely if ever relevant without LeBron James on their roster. Kids today do not care about Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, or Sandy Koufax. Why should they? Baseball’s history will always be there, but baseball’s present should be what we’re celebrating.
Baseball needs to lighten up a bit. Cool things happen in any baseball game, but there are unwritten rules that prevent players to act like they’re having fun compared to the other sports. Jose Bautista flips a bat after a dynamite home run in the playoffs last year for the Toronto Blue Jays and old school baseball people lose their minds over it. What could be celebrated as a trending .gif the way fans would celebrate a Rob Gronkowski end zone celebration or a menacing Dirk Nowitzki fist pump or a Jaromir Jagr goal salute is condemned as being bad for the game in baseball. A guy like Bryce Harper plays with the kind of swagger people are used to seeing on a basketball court and people call for him to get off their lawn, so to speak.
I want baseball to do well. I want it to stand the test of time, and I want it to still matter in 40 years. For that to happen, baseball is going to need to adapt to the 21st century. Things could be more fun than they are. The powers that be just need to let it happen.