Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 22, 2021

Bummers, Not Bombers, In The Bronx

The Yankees suck.  Those are familiar words to a New England based fan of the Bronx Bombers, as they are uttered frequently, like a ritualistic mantra, by followers of the team that makes decrepit old Fenway Park its home.  Of course, over the long rivalry beteen the Yankees and Red Sox, two teams that have shared membership in the American League for nearly six score years, the phrase has more often been screamed by Boston fans as a wish rather than a statement of fact.  But through the first three weeks of MLB’s 2021 season, no doubt to the delight of Red Sox faithful, New York has been shockingly bad, to the point that the Fenway Park crowd can save its collective breath, for the limited number of fans allowed to attend games at the big Stadium in the Bronx are more than ready to make the chant their own.

Ten days into the campaign the Yankees record was 5-5.  While not exactly what supporters of a franchise pundits picked to contend for a World Series berth were expecting, at least it wasn’t abysmal.  Since then, though, New York has dropped six of seven, the most recent a dispiriting 4-1 loss to Atlanta in the final game of a home stand Wednesday night.  The team’s current 6-11 mark is its worst start in thirty years.  The Yankees rank last in the American League in runs scored, and last in the majors for slugging percentage.  Giancarlo Stanton, the $29 million designated hitter, is in the midst of a 3-for-34 batting slump.  Center fielder Aaron Hicks is even worse at 1-for-17.  Shortstop Gleyber Torres, who couldn’t be bothered to run out a ground ball Wednesday night, has just one RBI on the year.  It took starting left fielder Clint Frazier 45 plate appearances to finally match that anemic total, thanks to a 9th inning bloop single that scored New York’s sole run.

Aside from ace Gerrit Cole, the Yankees starting pitching hasn’t been much better, with the rotation consistently failing to go deep into games.  The four starters other than Cole have averaged only 4 1/3 innings per outing while combining for an ERA of 5.50.  That in turn has taxed the bullpen, which has been reliable so far, but can’t be expected to perform at a high level all season if called upon at the current frequency.  To round out the ugly picture, the team’s fielding percentage is better than only five other big league franchises.

For fans in the Bronx, this simmering pot of ineptitude finally boiled over last Friday night, when a shellacking at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays was interrupted by baseballs being tossed on the field by unhappy customers in the cheap seats.  After the 8-2 debacle ended, Lindsey Adler, who provides always excellent Yankees coverage for The Athletic, tweeted “The organization should be embarrassed.  The fans should be embarrassed.  I’m somehow embarrassed.  This was a humiliation exercise for everyone in the ballpark who is not sporting a Rays uniform.”  The replies to Adler’s tweet showed that some fans have already gone much further, writing off the entire season as a lost cause and, in many cases, directing their ire at manager Aaron Boone.

A natural response to such angst – entirely appropriate with the calendar still turned to April – is that such cataclysmic conclusions are premature.  It is, as every fan of the Great Game knows, still early.  For every game that has been played, almost nine remain to be contested.  One need look back no further than the year before last, to the most recent full 162-game season, when the Washington Nationals were an abysmal 19-31 in late May.  Fans in D.C. were busy lamenting that squad’s deficiencies and calls for firing manager Dave Martinez were growing.  All that was forgotten by season’s end when those same fans celebrated a title.

Yet dismissing the growing clamor of complaints from the New York faithful as premature misses two key points.  One is that there has been virtually no isolated bright spot to spark a bit of hope during the team’s current tailspin.  That much was clear even in the one game that wound up in the Yankees’ win column.  While the Gotham media tried to herald New York’s 3-1 victory over Atlanta as the potential start to a turnaround, the 10,017 in attendance witnessed little to justify such optimism.  Starter Jameson Taillon did hold Atlanta to a single run, but he was no model of efficiency and could only make it through five innings.  At the plate, Yankee batters managed just five hits, two of which by Gio Urshela.  His solo home run tied the score at 1-1 in the 5th, and the New York bullpen managed to hold Atlanta there, though not without some tense moments.  But the winning rally in the last of the 8th was gift wrapped by the visitors.  A walk and two singles loaded the bases, then Atlanta reliever Tyler Matzek lost the strike zone.  A wild pitch plated Hicks from third to break the tie, and after an intentional pass to Stanton, a four pitch walk of first baseman Mike Ford forced home the Yankees final tally.  A win is a win, and fans were happy to witness one, but the game wasn’t remotely the breakout performance the team’s offense so desperately needs.

The larger issue in the Bronx is that the fan unrest which produced the ill-advised hooliganism in the Tampa Bay game is not just a reaction to this roster’s current poor play.  Anger among Yankee fans has been building for years.  When their team won its 27th title in 2009, fans knew it was also the 40th time the Yankees had represented the American League in the Fall Classic, which that year was being contested for the 105th time – 40 out of 105, an unmatched record of success.  Since the team’s first World Series appearance in 1921, the Yankees had been back at least once, and usually several times, in every subsequent calendar decade.  But a dozen years, and the entire decade of the 2010s later, New York’s numbers remain at 27 titles and 40 appearances.  Meanwhile the persistent message from the second generation of Steinbrenner ownership is about avoiding luxury taxes and finding hidden value in less expensive players.  It is a familiar refrain across the Great Game, and it is certainly true that a fat checkbook alone doesn’t guarantee a championship.  But expectations are different in New York.  At the Stadium, a dozen years is a lifetime, and many Yankee fans are fed up.

In the middle innings of every game in the Bronx, a video on the jumbotron in center field invites fans to answer a “Yankees Trivia” question.  On Tuesday, the question was which New York manager led his team to 100 or more wins in both of his first two years.  The answer wasn’t Hall of Famers Huggins, McCarthy, Stengel, or Torre.  It was Boone, manager of the 100-win 2018 and 103-win 2019 Yankees.  But that 2018 season ended in the ALDS, and one year later the Stadium’s lights were turned off after the ALCS.  When the answer flashed up on the big screen Tuesday night, the reaction of most of those in attendance was, “so what?”

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