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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: July 14, 2024 1:45 pm PDT

Tick. Tock.

BY DEB SEYMOUR

Is simply getting into the playoffs enough for the New York Yankees? This question has plagued the team’s fan base on and off for over a century — a team with a lengthy history and the most championships of any team in American sports.

Back during the 1995 MLB season, prior to social media and when Buck Showalter was managing the Yankees, the fan base was pretty critical of Buck’s management style.

How did we know this? Well, there were reports in the newspapers, of course. And radio call-in shows. And student conversations in school. And water cooler conversations at work. And lots of impromptu conversations in the city with people we didn’t even know — while waiting in line for our bagel and coffee in the morning, or on the subway platform on our way to work or school.

And yet, at the end of the day, Buck snuck his Yankee team into the playoffs. This was the first year of the MLB Wild Card, and the Yankees were the first ever American League Wild Card team. They went on to play a now storied, five-game ALDS against the Seattle Mariners, in which they won the first two games at home at Yankee Stadium and then couldn’t manage to win one final game, for a series win, at the Seattle Kingdome.

Alex Rodriguez was a rookie Mariner at the time. Tino Martinez was the Mariners’ first baseman. Randy Johnson, the HOF southpaw, was the Mariners’ ace. And Edgar Martinez was the Mariners’ notorious Yankee killer.

The Yankee record in the strike shortened, 144-game, 1995 season was 79-65. And the Tampa Bay Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks didn’t yet even exist.

North American baseball’s come a long way since those days. MLB has expanded to 30 teams from 28, the Montreal Expos are now the Washington Nationals, the Milwaukee Brewers have moved to the National League, the Houston Astros have moved to the American League, the minor leagues have been contracted and realigned, and to go along with all that — there have been rule changes galore.

One other notable change over the past several years has been in the postseason format: first there was a move to two Wild Card teams in each of the AL and NL; and now there are three Wild Card teams in each league, with the leading AL Wild Card teams as of Monday night being the Tampa Bay Rays, the Houston Astros, and the Toronto Blue Jays.

Standing in front of the Yankees for the Wild Card as of Monday were also the Seattle Mariners. Leading the Yankees’ division is the Baltimore Orioles, and the Yankees are so far back of the O’s that a run for their spot seems near impossible.

Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella (L) greets New York Yankees manager Buck Showalter prior to their baseball playoff game in Seattle, Washington in October, 1995. Piniella was named American League Manager of the Year for 1995 after leading the Mariners to the AL West title. Showalter, who placed fourth in the voting, won the honor in 1994. (Vince Bucci/AFP via Getty Images)

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But this is a story that’s almost independent of which teams have won or lost the AL Wild Card Series over the past 28 years. This is a story about a proud, old baseball franchise with “27 rings,” as fans are quick to point out. It’s a story about a franchise that in recent, modern history has never been satisfied finishing a season with a .500 record or even simply a winning record; the Yankees have to make the postseason or the entire season’s been a failure.

The real question on the fan base’s mind, then, is this one: has the Yankees’ season been a failure even if they actually make the playoffs, but don’t win the World Series?

“Twenty-seven rings” has a great “ring” to it — if it’s 2010. But for the past 13 years, fans have been impatient for that 28th ring, which would continue the Yankees’ tradition of being the winningest franchise in modern American sports history.

But to really tell the Yankees’ story, we have to go back in time. The current New York Yankees team began its history as the Baltimore Orioles, in 1901. In 1903, the club was bought and moved to New York City, and renamed the New York Highlanders. The Highlanders were officially renamed the New York Yankees in 1913. From 1903-1912, the Highlanders played at Hilltop Park, between 165th and 168th Streets in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood.

This is the neighborhood in which I grew up, and it’s also one of the highest points in Manhattan. And as is well documented, the New York Yankees then moved to the Polo Grounds (still in the borough of Manhattan); and, eventually, in 1923, moved to their new stadium in the Bronx: Yankee Stadium.

(Original Caption) 4/3/1923- Bronx, NYC, NY- View of the outside wall of Yankee Stadium, construction nearly completed.

The Stadium itself was modified and upgraded several times till “new Yankee Stadium” opened in 2009; but the teams that resided and played there included the likes of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, and Phil Rizzuto as well as some more latter day fan favorites such as Bobby Murcer, Thurman Munson, Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly, and the host of players who won four World Series from 1996-2000.

It’s no coincidence that many of the fan favorites listed above went to the World Series multiple times. Among them are several HOFers; some of the best to ever play the game. It’s also the case that some of them won the World Series multiple times.

It’s of course a bit of a chicken and egg problem to say that players only become fan favorites because they win high stakes games — for is it instead the case that fan favorites are the great players; and thus they tend to be the ones who have the most success?

Either way, the winning tradition for the Yankees became an expectation over the past century — and it is, indeed, what the team’s fans have come to anticipate on an annual basis.

Former New York Yankees and Hall of Famers Phil Rizzuto (left) and Whitey Ford throw out the ceremonial first pitch of Game 2 of the 2000 World Series between the Yankees and the New York Mets at Yankee Stadium. The Yanks beat the Mets, 6-5, to take a 2-0 lead in the Subway Series. (Photo by Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

*****

Over the past 13 MLB seasons, the Yankees have made the playoffs ten times. In no year since 2009 have they gotten past the ALCS, meaning it’s been 14 seasons since a World Series appearance. There have been cheating scandals, luxury tax levies, and a pandemic intermixed into this recent history, which are also part of the story.

But this period also represents a tie for the second longest World Series drought in Yankee history, since the team became the Yankees (and was no longer the Highlanders). It’s easy enough to assess blame and scapegoat individuals for the drought — but the longer it stretches, the less it becomes about any one individual player, manager, coach, or front office employee.

The danger, as far as Yankee fans are concerned, is that it becomes part of the heart of the team. The expectation of winning a World Series every year wanes, some mediocrity starts to become acceptable, and, in short, the Yankees are no longer “the Yankees.”

And so we return to the original question: is simply getting into the playoffs enough for the New York Yankees?

I think by now every reader has in mind some kind of answer to this question. Yankee fans will tell you, “we expect to win” — and by “win,” Yankee fans do not mean anything less than “win a World Series.”

But recent years have mutated this question into a slightly different version: is simply getting into the playoffs enough for the New York Yankees’ ownership and front office?

And herein is where the gap between the team and the fan base may lie. There are more reasons for why the Yankees haven’t been to the World Series since 2009 than anyone can count; but for team ownership and general management, the real question is — how much does that actually matter?

Here is why it matters: Who could ever tell Yankee fans to settle for less than what they’ve come to expect, with over a century of generations loyally following their team?

That’s a question majority owner Hal Steinbrenner, team president Randy Levine, and general manager Brian Cashman need to take to bed with them every single night.

Because without its fan base, there is no Yankees.

The clock is ticking, Hal, Randy, and Brian.

BallNine's fearless editor. Sports addict who's lived on both coasts (though loyal to her hometown New York City teams). Writer of many articles on education. Speaker of little bits of many languages.

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