Last Century's Champions
Last Century’s Champions
By Neal Zagarella
They are the favorites again this year. The presumptive American League Champions, the pick of most experts to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. Many predict they’ll win it all again. They are the New York Yankees. They always win. Don’t they?
No, they don’t.
These are not your father’s Yankees pulling up in that Oldsmobile, or your grandfather’s. These Yankees don’t win it all every year. In fact, they almost never do anymore.
They are last century’s champions.
Please remember, my Yankeephobic brothers and sisters, New York has won only one of its (yuh, we know) twenty-seven championships in the 21st century. January 1, 2001 was the first day of the new century, (google it), so New York’s 2000 World Series triumph over the Mets is part of the 1900’s. That leaves their 2009 triumph over the Philadelphia Phillies as their only championship this century! Boston has won four World Series in that time. San Francisco has three trophies. Both Chicago teams, the White Sox and the Cubs, have won one, and they never win. Congratulations New York, you are now the Cubs.
And consider the eleven year old baseball fan, my Pinstripe-menaced friends, he or she knows nothing of your irrational fear. That youngster has lived a life completely free of Yankee dominance. The Bronx Bombers have secured no championships during that kid’s lifetime. That kid has not had to endure even the appearance of New York’s American League entry in the World Series.
Yea, though the trumpets have been blowing for years now over that new house in the Bronx that Derek Jeter built, the mighty Yankee dynasty has yet to reappear. High expectations and hundred win seasons are no substitute for clutch wins and championships. The former, and not the latter, have been the Bronx’s chief export lately.
Baseball-wise, the real first day of the new century, the genesis of a new world really, was October 20, 2004, the day the Red Sox thrashed the Yankees in the House That Ruth Built, forever ending the real or imagined Curse of the Bambino. The Sox epic comeback from a three games to none deficit had never been done by any baseball team in the history of the game, and has yet to be duplicated. The epic ending of eighty six years of Yankee dominance was atomic in scope, knocking the rivalry from its axis. Nothing was left unchanged.
I would never equate the fate of the devoted Red Sox fan during the club’s eighty-six year championship drought to that of a slave, but I will say that that October day in the Bronx was a kind of emancipation. The hangdog expressions and disbelieving stares, the utter blankness assuming the faces of Yankee fans in their home park that evening, was spark to a bonfire of long overdue schadenfreude for the Red Sox fan. No longer could the Yankee fan smugly laugh at the Boston rooter. The mantra of famed sports talk show caller Butch from the Cape, “New York is a stage. Boston is an audience,” expired on that very date.
Still the horns hoot over New York’s new Yankee Stadium hailing some new return to baseball power. The tooting began in earnest in 2017 with the arrival of behemoth right fielder Aaron Judge. The young slugger stood 6’7” in the batter's box and looked like Goliath staring down any little David that dared take the pitcher’s mound. His rookie year he smashed 52 home runs and powered New York to a second place finish in the American League East, just two games behind the Red Sox.
That Yankees team got all the way to the American League Championship Series, losing in seven games to the eventual World Series winner, the Houston Astros. The Red Sox were knocked out of the playoffs that year in the first round and the baseball world prophesied a new era of Yankee supremacy. New York’s General Manager Brian Cashman dealt for Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning MVP of the National League and thumper extraordinaire, during the offseason. The baseball world marveled at what the combination of Stanton and Judge might do, a duo responsible for a combined 111 homers in 2017. Start the parade through the Bronx!
Not so fast my Pinstripe praising sycophants!
The Yankees won 100 games in 2018, but again that was only good for second place, 8 games behind the Sox. Still, New York was arrogant. They busted Oakland 7-2 in the Wild Card game and then knocked Boston starter David Price from the second game of the Division series in the second inning. The 6-2 victory tied the best of five set, with the next two games scheduled for Yankee Stadium.
Prognosticators said the Sox season was over. Judge, who had smashed a first inning homer off the shaky Price, boogalooed past the Red Sox clubhouse after the game, boombox on shoulder blaring Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York, the signature tune that rings out over Yankee Stadium after each Bronx Bomber victory.
That song would not play again in 2018. Boston swept the two games in New York and put the Yankees to bed. The Red Sox then marched through Houston and Los Angeles, piling up a total of 119 victories and another World Series Championship. The Yankees watched on TV.
New York amassed 103 regular season victories in 2019, eclipsing the scuffling Red Sox and winning the A. L. East. Surely this would be the Yankees’ year. They returned again to the ALCS, facing Houston for the second time in three seasons. The Astros prevailed again, this time in six games. The final blow came with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and the score tied. Jose Altuve, Houston’s spark plug second baseman and himself a diminutive boom box, ripped a home run to left centerfield off Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees flame throwing closer. Chapman, a dumbfounded half-smile frozen on his face, stood statue still on the mound for what seemed a half hour as the city of Houston fell apart in joy all around him.
Chapman was on the mound again a year later when the Yankees 2020 season ended. This time it was Tampa Bay’s Mike Brosseau launching a left field bomb over the Yankees bewildered reliever. Even signing Gerritt Cole prior to the season, perhaps the best starting pitcher in baseball, was not enough to return glory to the once great franchise.
The disappointing post-seasons are starting to add up in the Bronx. Four playoff departures without a trip to the World Series has left a residue of failure that only a championship can erase. The pressure is mounting.
It reminds me of another team I used to know. Remember how great the Red Sox were in 1978, 1986 and 2003? No, you don’t. You remember Bucky Dent’s pop fly home run, the ball rolling through Bill Buckner’s legs, Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez in the game after he was spent.
The Yankees are no longer the team that beat Boston in game seven in 2003, the night Derek Jeter assured his teammates, “The ghosts will eventually show up.” They are now the 2004 Yankees. Their fans remember Dave Roberts’ stolen base, Altuve’s home run, and Brousseau’s blast. They are the Bronx Bridesmaids, last century’s champions.
Only in the wilderness years between the early eighties and the mid-nineties did the Yankees go longer without appearing in a World Series. Last year the current team put itself in unsavory company with its playoff elimination, tying the eleven year stretch of futility of the Horace Clark All-stars. Clarke was a second baseman who had the misfortune of beginning his career in New York in 1965, a year after the Yankees played in their fifth straight Fall Classic and fourteenth in sixteen years. Clarke went on to play 1230 games in pinstripes, rapping out almost a hit a game and stealing 151 bases. Still, the ubiquitous infielder became a symbol of a club that averaged seventy-eight wins per season. Clarke was exiled to San Diego in the second year of George Steinbrenner’s ownership, two years before The Boss’s largess led to two World Championships.
The “Yankees Suck” chant that became popular in the 1990’s began as sour grapes from the mouths of a discouraged and defeated Boston fan base. It was never true. I was lucky enough to grow up during the Clarke years when the Yankees did truly stink. Now, I get to witness something even more incredible.
This edition of the Yankees neither sucks nor stinks. They are well managed and sport a well paid and extraordinarily talented roster. That’s what makes their postseason failures all the more heartbreaking for Yankee nation. One more playoff flop and Aaron Judge and his mates will surpass the desert of the Clarke years. The ghosts of Yankee Stadium no longer haunt the Red Sox, they haunt the Yankees themselves.
It’s very likely that New York will overcome their historically slow start this year. That won’t change who they now are. They have become, I’ll say it, the old Red Sox.