The Yankees have become George.
Not George Steinbrenner. Their George. Their lovable little buddy loser who always seems close to breaking free of his lot in life as the little brother who can’t quite get it right. The Mets. To make matters worse for the Yankees as they continue this death spiral is that the inherent egomania among the organization, the media that covers them, and their fanbase (the last two are interchangeable) will spur the retaliatory ridicule from fans of other clubs—specifically the Mets and Red Sox—who have had to endure the condescending taunts and “we’re better than you” undertones of their run over the past two decades following a long lull of mediocrity and embarrassment.
They’re still wearing the pinstripes, but they’re not fulfilling their end of the ridiculous notion of “class,” “dignity,” and “professionalism” that had been instilled by the manager in the opposite dugout last night, Buck Showalter, his successor Joe Torre, and the players who were the foundation for the dynasty Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Bernie Williams. It was always a bit silly that a team that carried such players as David Wells was considered “classy”, but they won. Whatever device that was necessary to push the story forward was used in the telling of the tale, real or not.
When current manager Joe Girardi picked up the phone in the first inning to call for Derek Lowe to warm up in back of an overmatched David Phelps, I halfway expected his face to turn paler and thinner than it already is as the strain of the team’s stumble takes its toll on him because on the other end of the phone, from beyond the grave, was George Steinbrenner, shouting like a raving lunatic and threatening to fire him and replace him with Billy Martin, looming next to the Boss from the netherworld. (Are they in heaven or hell? Discuss.)
Jeter said earlier this week that he’s not panicking. And he’s not. But how about the rest of the team? Was it the vaunted “Yankees way”—supposedly better than yours or mine—when Phelps gestured toward left field on Matt Wieters’s home run as if he felt that left fielder Raul Ibanez should’ve caught it? Phelps can claim that he thought a fan interfered, but we all know the truth. Was it the “Yankees way” when they authored a stirring comeback and handed the lead right back with an Orioles display of thunder that the Yankees can no longer muster using the compromised, mediocre, and slumping lineup they’re trotting out on a nightly basis?
I had the sound turned down on the game, but as embedded in my brain as he unfortunately is, I could still hear Michael Kay shrieking like a maniac thinking gumdrop thoughts of “Yankees magic” when they tied the score just as well as I could hear his crestfallen devastation when the Orioles snatched the game right back.
Fans are looking for someone to blame. So accustomed to an easy ride that they don’t know how to deal with adversity such as this; to handle teams like the Orioles, a longtime punching bag, suddenly hitting them back and having not just the audacity to do it, but to hurt them as well(!!) that they’re reverting to the Steinbrenner years of wanting to fire people (Kevin Long is a popular target) or to alter the strategy of hitting the ball out of the park in favor of bunting and small-ball.
Reliance on hitting home runs wasn’t a “problem” as it was implied at mid-season; the idea that they have to find a method of manufacturing runs was absurd as long as they had deep starting pitching, a well-organized bullpen, and mashers who hit a lot of home runs. Now they have none of that and they’re losing because of it.
It’s a matter of perception. Had the Yankees been hovering around first place or behind all season and found themselves tied for first place on September 7th, it would be seen as a positive. But they’re losing, losing, and losing more and the disappearing division lead, competition, and pressure is overwhelming them. Yes, they’re injured; yes, they’re slumping, but much of the Yankees’ dominance over the years has been their ruthlessness against teams that didn’t have the manpower to compete with them and bashing them brutally. Expecting sympathy on and off the field is indicative of an arrogance that has sparked this downfall in the first place. “We’re the Yankees!!! How dare you?!?!”
But teams are daring and exploiting the weakness and disarray.
The Yankees still have time to right their ship, but they’re in very serious danger of falling out of the playoffs entirely—something unacceptable given their expectations, payroll, and that they’d accumulated enough of a cushion that this shouldn’t be happening.
They have to win a few games and not worry about what their competition is doing, but humanity inevitably intervenes. Watching the scoreboard, tightening up with every run scored and win accumulated by the younger and fresher Rays; the star-studded and finally playing up to their capabilities Angels; the loaded Rangers; the upstart Athletics; and the determined Orioles—it all factors in to what’s happening to the Yankees.
I’ve seen this movie before and know how it ends. It’s formulaic, but not in the manner Yankees’ fans have come to expect. The underdogs are ganging up on them, smell blood, and have an opportunity at comeuppance.
They’ve become George. And once you become George, there’s really nowhere to go from there but down.