More than a feeling: Celebrating that my Yankees are fun again
Sometimes, you just know.
May 5, I took a trip. On a whim, I decided to get on a 4:35 a.m. train and go to Chicago to see my New York Yankees play at Wrigley Field.
Like all Washington University students, I had a lot going on that week. It was right in the middle of final exams, with the added chaos of moving out of my dorm room and into my new apartment.
But the Yankees were in first place. They were surprising, led by rookie sensation Aaron Judge, who was hitting .330/.433/.818 with 13 home runs. A week earlier, on the night of spring WILD, they had pulled off a miraculous comeback from 9-1 to win 14-11.
And they were going to take on the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs at the historic Friendly Confines. It was everything magical about baseball wrapped into one outing. I just had to go.
So I did, and it was magical. I got there nearly three hours before first pitch, soaking in everything on West Addison Street, even taking a selfie with YES Network clubhouse reporter Meredith Marakovits.
But then the game started, and it wasn’t exactly the ideal baseball experience. The upper deck was blustery and bitter, enveloping me in too much shadow for not enough layers. My unending energy was going unrequited; the Yanks were matching my numb hands with a lifeless showing, getting thrown out on the bases three times in a 2-0 game.
Soon, the Yankees were down to their final strike, with runners on first and second and Brett Gardner at the plate. According to FanGraphs, their win expectancy was just 7.3 percent; according to Baseball Reference, batters hit just .164 after an 0-2 count this season. The sun had peeked out in the later innings, moving slowly towards my row, but now was just one short, symbolically teasing me.
My mind mapped out scenarios that would keep the good guys alive: a blooper over Javier Baez’s head, a gapper into left-center, a ball to extend the at-bat. I settled on a slow dribbler up the middle as the most likely event to give us a chance.
And then Gardy went yard. The Cubbie crowd fell silent, while I, the lone New York fan in section 431, let out an irrepressible cheer. I looked down and for the first time all afternoon, the warm sunlight had blanketed my row. One pitch turned a 2-0 loss into a 3-2 win; one swing turned a memorable day into an unforgettable day.
That’s the moment I knew.
Yankees fans don’t have it very tough. Even during the “down” years from 2013 to 2016, the Bronx Bombers managed to host a playoff game, play deep into September each season and enjoy the last fruits of a dynasty. They’ve now extended their streak of winning seasons to 25, and with the talent level back on the upswing, there’s no end in sight.
I’ve been ingrained in the Yankee pinstripes since 2005. I’ve seen good teams and great teams, legends in their primes and washed up. After 13 years of living and breathing the daily vibrations of the franchise, it’s easy to say that this 2017 team is special.
In reality, it started in 2016. The Yankees, old and uncompetitive, did the unthinkable: The team with the annual World Series or bust mandate bowed out of the playoff race, selling major pieces at the trade deadline. And then the most amazing thing happened—they started winning.
Gary Sanchez came up Aug. 3 and took over the Bronx, bashing 20 bombs in just 52 games down the stretch. That same day, Luis Severino, amid a frustrating season, fired 4.1 dominant innings in relief of Chad Green, who struck out 11 and walked none two weeks later.
But the true page flip into a new era is obvious. The night of Aug. 12, Alex Rodriguez, the poster boy for the late 2000s and early 2010s Yankees, played his final game; I went to Yankee Stadium and shed a tear for my childhood. New York moved on quickly, bringing up two youngsters the next morning: Tyler Austin and Judge.
The two were batting seventh and eighth in the lineup in their debuts. I couldn’t watch the game, but my best friend and I were listening to the radio broadcast in the car. We joked that they would go deep back-to-back in their first at-bats, knowing full well how absurd that would be. Then, one by one, it happened, John Sterling’s voice rising in crescendo twice as we went bananas. Did that really happen?
It was surreal. That’s what this group of Yankees is. A year later, Sanchez is the best catcher in baseball, a franchise superstar of the highest order. Severino has joined the league’s elite arms as a bona fide ace. Green is doing Mariano Rivera-like things out of the bullpen. And Judge is smashing the limits of what is possible on a baseball field as the new face of the sport.
Statistically, you could argue the Yankees were disappointing this season. For over a month of the summer, Judge all but disappeared, the stacked bullpen fell apart and the Yankees played 9-21 ball. Their second-order winning percentage, based on projected runs scored, pegs them as playing an unfathomable 16 wins below their talent level. They’re a 107-win team masquerading as a 91-win team.
But the Yankees weren’t even supposed to contend, not this soon. The plan was 2019, when Bryce Harper or Manny Machado would take them to the next level. Instead, the rebuild lasted about two days, and there’s more coming. They still have the top prospect in the game, Gleyber Torres, and a plethora of talent to fill in the gaps.
Emotionally, it’s impossible not to believe in this team. Time and time again, they bounce back from rough stretches. They play with intensity, they have fun and it’s contagious. They make the fans laugh and the Stadium shake. The signs are there: We saw them again Tuesday night when the Yankees took a disastrous 3-0 deficit in the Wild Card Game and turned it into a thrilling 8-4 victory.
Maybe the Yankees won’t beat the Cleveland Indians, the league’s best team, in the Division Series. But more importantly, they’ve built something fresh and exciting, something that will last long beyond this October.
Sometimes, you just know.