By Jason Keidel
The New York Yankees have been lamented by the media and MLB masses for being monetary marauders who flexed their wallets and poached your club’s best players every winter. The Yankees, like the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, were a mutation of a Super-team, the sports iteration of the IRS, impossible to root for.
Once the Yankees morphed into monsters — branded by Larry Lucchino as the Evil Empire when they signed Jose Contreras in 2003 — they’ve won just one World Series title (2009). Every other year was a pricey epitaph about how the Yanks buy championships as we’d buy tomatoes, even if they never really did. They kept gilding a baseball lily, always more skilled at cash and cachet than victory.
Thus it was quite easy for baseball fans west of the Hudson to hate the Yankees. But at least in the ’90s, it felt like they played on fair footing. Then, after Y2K, the Yanks became something grotesque, distorted beyond our old-school sensibilities. And though the business model certainly made money, it didn’t work in October, which is the only metric that mattered to George Steinbrenner.
So as the Yankees choked on their own coin, doubling-down on the splurges that never worked, more adroitly designed clubs like the White Sox, Red Sox and Giants, won, many of them breaking biblical World Series droughts.
And now the Cubs, the eternally lovable losers, have finally turned the hex into a hoax, and forever ripped the saddle and symbolism off that darn goat. Through their GM and resident baseball savant, Theo Epstein, Chicago has done it the right way. It’s quite a contrast for the Cubs, not the Yanks, to the win the World Series and enter the next season as the favorite to return to the Fall Classic.
But as The Boss, the powerful, polarizing Steinbrenner, slowly lost his grip on the Yankee wheel, GM Brian Cashman slowly remolded the team into his likeness, and something more likable.
Gone were the addictive, 12-step spending sprees, with Cashman parachuting into your town and gutting your team. Jason Giambi. Mike Mussina. Mark Teixeira. A.J. Burnett. CC Sabathia. A-Rod. Their reach went well beyond our shores, of course. Contreras. Hideki Matsui. All great players, but too often pricey squares in round holes.
Now, the Yanks are coming back. Despite their recent, rugged road trip (six straight losses), they are still atop the AL East, and are doing it in a proper, respectable way, from the farm up. According to an exhaustive study by Bleacher Report, the Yankees entered 2017 with the most fertile farm system in the sport. Over 15 years, they hatched one star: Robinson Cano.
But with the cinematic entrance of Gary Sanchez last year, it seemed the Yanks finally had someone of their own, a Yankee from birth to death. Sanchez was someone they developed, upon whom they could hang their hats (and perhaps a few pennants). Then Aaron Judge rumbles in, the Bunyan-esque slugger who comically stretches his XXXL jerseys and whose mammoth fly balls have again made “tape measure” an essential part of baseball parlance.
Now that the Yankees are back to being the Bronx Bombers, it begs a couple questions.
Are the good Yankees good for baseball? We say no, but mean yes.
Can you earnestly and honestly hate these new Yankees? We say yes, but mean no.
Since 2002, you could toss a dart at a team photo and hit someone you hate — A-Rod or Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens. But which Bronx Bomber dons the black hat these days? Judge? Sanchez? Brett Gardner? Luis Severino? Aaron Hicks? Didi Gregorious?
Not even their pricey purchases are loathsome. Their most opulent foreign import, pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, is easily their worst starter this season. The only questionable — make that objectionable — signing was Aroldis Chapman, the smug, unrepentant relief pitcher who, wrapped in domestic violence allegations, never flashed the slightest contrition.
Other than Chapman, these Yankees are rather hard to hate. While Joe Girardi is not overly kind or candid with the media, he’s earned his pinstripes, even before he became skipper. Girardi swatted the most celebrated triple in Yankees history — off Greg Maddux, no less — in Game 6 of the 1996 World Series, which propelled the Yankees to their first World Series title since the ’70s and launched the Joe Torre era. That club, spawned by the Core Four and seasoned by key veterans, was the perfect hybrid of young and old, of energy and wisdom.
Maybe these Yankees aren’t quite those Yankees, but this club is on the rise, and it just feels right — right on time and right on point — sans the Star Wars music and Darth Vader masks.
Surely the Yanks will do something impulsive and repulsive, like make it rain on Bryce Harper in 2019, crack open a suitcase filled with $450 million in cash and contracts. At their core, the Yankees are a business entity, an empire, equal parts great and grandiose. So they will find something financially grotesque soon enough. And you will despise them again.
For now, however, it’s just hard to hate those Damn Yanks.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.