Is it still fun to be a Yankees fan?
There were plenty of empty seats at Yankee Stadium last weekend and even more unhappy fans after New York fell behind Detroit 2-games-to-0. The Yankees trail the Tigers 2-games-to-0 in the American League Championship Series, and Detroit's Game 3 starter is the best pitcher in baseball, Justin Verlander. This is when Yankee fans would normally seek divine intervention, but alas, He just broke His ankle. Derek Jeter is out.
Four teams are still standing. The Giants, Cardinals and Tigers have already guaranteed themselves, and their fans, a successful season. The fourth one is the Yankees, who are two losses away from a failed season.
This is the way the Yankees have viewed the world, starting with the last decade of George Steinbrenner's ownership.
As team president Randy Levine told ESPN last year: "We are the Yankees. That is the way The Boss set it up. When you don't win the World Series, it is a bitter disappointment and not a successful year."
When you don't win the World Series, it is a bitter disappointment. No doubt, many Yankee fans feel the same way.
And this makes me wonder: Is it fun to be a Yankees fan?
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Here is the problem with being a Yankees fan: You're cheering for Goldman Sachs. Like the folks at Goldman Sachs, the Yankees go through two cycles: They are either obscenely rich and extremely successful, or extremely rich and not quite as successful as they planned, forcing them to hold a conference call with reporters in which they apologize for "not meeting expectations," and then they resume being obscenely rich and successful.
There are benefits to cheering for Goldman Sachs. You don't feel embarrassed like Clippers fans or hopeless like Pirates fans. But it's a lot harder to fall in love. Whenever the Yankees win, they were supposed to win; they're the Yankees. And when they lose, they were supposed to win.
The Yankees have the highest payroll in the major leagues this year, as they always do. Other teams are creeping up on them, but still, the Yankees are tops, and this is a big reason why, since 1996, they have made the playoffs every year but one. Yankees fans must stick with their team through good times and better times. There is no enjoying the journey. At times, there isn't a journey at all.
This isn't like cheering for the San Antonio Spurs or New England Patriots -- those teams lucked into all-time greats (Tim Duncan, Tom Brady) and their fans are riding the success as long as they can, because they know it will end. With the Yankees, there is no end in sight.
I understand why people cheer for the Yankees. (The usual reasons: They grew up in New York, their parents did, they love the uniforms, etc.) I understand why the Yankees spend so much money. (They have it, and they want to win.)
I just don't understand how anybody gets joy out of it anymore.
And I don't think they are.
Yankees fans are incredibly passionate, but passion is not the same as joy. The difference is best illustrated in their treatment of Alex Rodriguez.
In his nine years with the Yankees, A-Rod has hit .292 with a .387 on-base percentage, .538 slugging percentage, 302 home runs, 960 RBIs, two Most Valuable Player Awards and seven All-Star appearances.
A-Rod's postseason numbers with the Yankees are not as great, of course. But until this season, they certainly weren't bad either, by any reasonable standard. He had a .388 on-base percentage and a .480 slugging percentage. Comparison time: In Derek Jeter's True Yankee postseason career, he has a .374 on-base percentage and a .465 slugging percentage.
And yet: Yankee fans are booing A-Rod like crazy this postseason. The immediate reason is that, as sabermetricians will tell you, he has led all postseason players in sucking. I'm starting to wonder if he goes home at night and measures his good strikeouts against his bad strikeouts. But the sucking is not the only reason they are booing him.
Ever since A-Rod got to New York, Yankees fans have been itching to boo the guy. This started when the Red Sox had the gall to win the World Series in his first season, and A-Rod has given people plenty of reasons to boo him, because let's face it: He can be a thoroughly unlikeable human. He admitted he took steroids. He squeezes outrageous contracts out of owners. He seems like the kind of guy who would make a big show of ordering $500 bottles of champagne, then leave without paying and have his lawyers fight the bill.
But fans of every other major league team would gladly take A-Rod's flaws in exchange for the numbers he has put up as a Yankee. Boston fans embraced Manny Ramirez. San Franciscans revered Barry Bonds.
Yankee fans can't love A-Rod because he isn't there to be loved. They are paying him almost $30 million a year to roll over on command and jump through hoops with a torch in his mouth, and dammit, they don't want to hear that the torch is hot.
It is hard to creep inside the subconscious of millions of people, but it gets easier if you're a sportswriter, so here goes: I think Yankee fans boo A-Rod largely because they just want to feel.
Cheering for him to do really well is not fun; they are paying him too much to settle for really well. So they alternate between booing him and setting ridiculous high standards -- for A-Rod to wow Yankee fans, he has to be even better than he has been, and he has been one of the best players in the history of the game.
(I can see those smug grins in Boston right now, and on behalf of America, let me just say: Get over yourselves. The Red Sox are only an underdog in the context of their rivalry with the Yankees. For most of the last decade the Red Sox have spent wildly, won consistently and set a standard of World Series-or-bust. At this point, Boston fans are just New York fans with slightly larger apartments. This is why the Bobby Valentine disaster, while painful, was actually good for Red Sox fans. They needed to suffer again.)
It wasn't always this way. When the Yankees won the World Series in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000, they were still largely homegrown, or assembled through shrewd front-office moves. Some Yankees fans argue that those teams were special -- tougher, grittier, hungrier than the current group. Maybe, maybe not. But I think the main thing that has changed is the fans. In 1996, the franchise had not won the World Series since 1978, so fans of those teams had really waited a generation for success.
This is why Jeter is so beloved. He did something that A-Rod and Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira never could: He brought the Yankees back to the top.
Let's face it: Investing your soul in a group of professional athletes you have never met can seem a bit silly. But it is worthwhile if it makes you feel loyal, or gives you a sense of community, and makes you angry and sad and euphoric. These days, the Yankees can't make their fans angry or even really sad.
Now every Yankees playoff appearance just feels like gluttony. "Wait till next year" is not a lonely wish in the night for them; it is trash talk. They will come back because they always do.
The old Yankee Stadium was kind of a dump -- after the 1970s renovation it lost much of its charm. But the dumpiness was part of its appeal. It felt like New York: a little dirty, with some visible cracks, but as big and loud and alive as anything anywhere.
The Yankees could have gone in a hundred directions with the new Stadium. They could have built it without luxury suites and still made a fortune. They could have put everybody as close to the field as possible.
Instead, they built the world's largest Automated Teller Machine: Every corner is designed to pull cash out of customers' wallets. The final, distasteful tough was that enormous plaque for George Steinbrenner in Monument Park, as though Steinbrenner was a more important historical figure than Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. This Yankees era is more about bigness than greatness.
Attendance for Game 2 of the American League Championship Series was 47,082, below capacity of 50,291. I'm sure there were a variety of explanations: high ticket prices, NFL Sunday, Jeter's injury Saturday night. But the fact is that an ALCS game in the Bronx feels routine now. I guess that is a sign of success. But those 3,000 seats are not the only thing in Yankee Stadium that feels empty.