The New York Yankees Are Back, and It's Good for Baseball
Eight wins in a row, heading into today's game. Back on top of the AL East. Old-timers hitting like it's 1998. Shopping-spree free agents blazing a trail toward the pennant they were bought to win.
It's maddening. It's infuriating. It's bad for Boston, where Bucky Dent's middle name is alive and well. It's bad for the rest of the American League.
It's good for baseball.
Before I go on, I'll come clean: I own a Yankees cap.
It's one of two things I have in common with LeBron James, right alongside my ability to get dunked on by Jordan Crawford.
I got it when I was a kid. My two legitimate rooting interests—the Cubs and the Twins—were effectively unwatchable through the mid-to-late 90s, so I cut my teeth on a club that could deliver the goods.
I liked the classy, confident core—Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, and Tino Martinez. I liked Orlando Hernandez and the story of his defection.
I also liked a line-up that could knock the cover off the ball in Nintendo 64's pitching-challenged baseball romp, Mike Piazza's Strike Zone. The Bombers fit the bill.
In any case, I was more of an admirer than a fan. When Martinez drilled a grand slam in Game One of the '98 series, I was jazzed up. When Rivera blew Game Seven in 2001, I was more bemused than let down.
By that point, I was old enough to recognize that if you didn't live in Gotham, cheering for the Yankees was like cheering for the meteor in Armageddon. I wised up to Steinbrenner, the Evil Empire, and the buy-a-ring mentality reared its head after the dynasty years.
The Yankees' hex over the AL East (and over the Twins—a dynamic that survives today) got old. I pulled for Florida in 2003, and for Boston in 2004.
The $200 million investments that netted divisional series exits in return were easy to mock. The collection of mercenaries, malcontents, and has-beens Brian Cashman assembled—Sheffield, Giambi, Kevin Brown, A-Rod—was easy to hate.
It was healthy, really. The Yankees came to town, and you jeered. Rodriguez launched a bomb, and you jeered. Rogers Clemens announced his return from the press box, and you jeered. Your hometown heroes rose up against the Dollar-Sign Frankensteins, and it felt fantastic.
That's the way it should be. Like all forms of entertainment, sport thrives on villains. Cheering for the little guy as he takes on the corporate establishment is one of the fundamental thrills of fan-dom.
In terms of high drama, it doesn't get much better than a 23-year-old kid in a Marlins jersey marching into The House That Ruth Built, taking the mound, and sticking it to The Man.
But in order for the story to be any good, The Man needs to be worth sticking.
As New York's dominance gave way to stagnation, and then to outright decline last season, it became disheartening to watch one of the cornerstone franchises in American sports devolve into a bad joke.
Watching Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and the remnants of those title teams playing out their days for a runner-up—a wild-card team one year, out of the playoffs the next—was a sad sight. Watching Phil Hughes, Robinson Cano, and the rest of the "wave of the future" flail helplessly was downright pathetic.
The Yankees weren't a team to loathe anymore. They were a team to pity. They looked like any other one-time contender: Aging, slipping, flawed. They'd gone from Darth Vader to Darth Fader.
That's bad for baseball.
Jeter, Posada, and Johnny Damon found the fountain of youth. Cano found his swagger. Hughes found the strike zone.
Mark Teixiera owns an OPS of .975 since May 1. A-Rod is making the case that he's off the juice by going deep once every 12 at-bats. CC Sabathia is making a push to lead the majors in innings pitched for the third straight season. New York is 21-5 since June 24.
The Red Sox are floundering. The Rays are an afterthought. The Blue Jays are done. The Yankees can't lose.
They're smug. They're despicable. They're eminently hate-able.
They're New York Effin' Yankees again.
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