Yankees Belt-Tightening, Part I—A Cranky Fanbase Grows Crankier

To gauge the short-term, “what have you done for me lately,” nature of sports fandom, you need only look at the absurd demands of fans of the New York Giants football team calling for the firing of coach Tom Coughlin and replacing quarterback Eli Manning less than eleven months after they won their second Super Bowl with Coughlin and Manning. Not only have they won two Super Bowls, but in both games they beat the Patriots with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, supposedly the best quarterback/coach combination since the 49ers had Joe Montana and Bill Walsh.

But the Giants are 8-7 and suffering through a second half slump that has left them on the outside looking in at a playoff spot, needing a win on Sunday against the Eagles and significant help from other teams to squeak into the playoffs. It has also put Coughlin and Manning in the crosshairs of angry fans’ venting.

Of course they’re greedy, but what’s happening now with the Giants pales in comparison to what’s going to happen with the Yankees in 2013 if their ancient veterans aren’t able to conjure one last run and make the playoffs with a legitimate chance at a World Series win. The same fanbase that booed Derek Jeter and referred to him as “Captain Double Play” among other, worse epithets, now reacts like a mother bear when one of her cubs is in danger should anyone say one negative word about Jeter, even if it’s true. His performance since he notched his 3000th hit has been a renaissance to the player he was a decade ago; that’s why he’s back to “untouchable” status.

It’s a fleeting loyalty especially with the nouveau Yankees fan who began rooting for the team at some point between their 1996 World Series win and their 1998 114 win claim to being one of the best teams in history. Like the newly rich, there’s a gaucheness combined with a lack of comprehension as to the reality of how difficult it is to win and maintain as the Yankees have. They want the team to just “buy stuff” and fill the house with gaudy showpieces and expect to find themselves admired and respected for their taste. But it’s not taste to buy a Picasso just because it’s a Picasso. It helps to understand the significance of the piece and it doesn’t have to be expensive to be of value. The same holds true with players. Fans wanted the Yankees to buy the most expensive pieces on the market and since 2000, that’s what they’ve done to maintain this level of play. Their cohesiveness and home built charm has suffered as they transformed into little more than a band of mercenaries without the on-field camaraderie that was a subtle and imperative portion of the four championships between 1996 and 2000. The pieces that once fit together no longer do.

What happened with the Yankees and Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Joe Torre and the other foundational members of the dynasty is an extreme rarity. A club showing the ability to make it through three rounds of short-series playoffs and win a championship is far more difficult to accomplish than it was when the Yankees were seemingly in the World Series every year from the 1920s to the 1960s.

That dynasty came undone as the stars got old and weren’t replaced. The draft had been implemented and the Yankees were unfamiliar with having to wait their turn and battle with other clubs for the right to get players—no longer could they offer the most money in a bonus for a kid who wanted to join them because of Mickey Mantle and that they won every year.

They were a dilapidated afterthought from 1966 through 1976 when they made it back to the Fall Classic and that was three years after George Steinbrenner purchased the team and set about doing what it was the Yankees always did—spend money and demand results now. Sometimes it worked and sometimes Steinbrenner’s immediate success of returning the club to its prior glory within 5 years after buying it set them on the path they took in the 1980s with dysfunction, rampant managerial and front office changes, money spent on trash and an eventual decline to last place. It was when Steinbrenner was suspended that Gene Michael and Buck Showalter were able to rebuild, develop, keep their youngsters and do something novel in Yankeeland: let the young players play for the Yankees.

It worked.

Success demanded more success, however, and any thought of stepping back and shunning the biggest free agent names/trade targets was dismissed out of hand. Money spent can’t guarantee a championship and the Yankees have won one since 2000. It’s the way the game is played now. It takes a certain amount of good fortune to win multiple titles in a short timeframe. The San Francisco Giants are considered something of a dynasty now with two titles in three years, but that too was circumstantial rather than the result of a new template or dominance.

The Yankees’ situation is different. Faced with the demands of a fanbase that doesn’t accept anything short of a World Series forces decisions that wouldn’t normally be made. When they tried to scale back on paying ludicrous amounts of money for other team’s stars by building their own pitchers Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, they were rewarded with a missed playoff spot in 2008 and their strange and paranoid restrictions on the above pitchers resulted in all being disappointments.

They responded by reversion to what was with big free agent signings of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira. That worked in 2009 as they won the World Series, but the contracts were expensive and long-term. Burnett in particular was dumped after he pitched as he has in his entire career with customary mediocrity sprinkled in with flashes of teasing brilliance. The Yankees were somehow surprised by this. The belief that by sheer act of a player putting on a Yankees uniform, he’ll somehow evolve into something different than what he is has doomed the club before.

Teixeira is declining; Sabathia has a lot of wear on his tires at age 32 and is signed through 2016. That’s before getting to the other contracts such as that of Alex Rodriguez along with this new austerity that has culminated in a strange and unusual off-season for the 21st Century Yankees.

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