Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 10, 2021

Season After Season, Still Waiting For Joy

“Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light, and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout.”  One need not be a fan of the Great Game to recognize those lines from the final stanza of Ernest Thayer’s comic ballad “Casey at the Bat,” and most who read them can add the final line of the poem without further prompting – the one about the absence of happiness in a certain fictional town after mighty Casey failed to deliver a winning blow for the local nine. 

Asked to pick out a likely Mudville on a map, very few would point to the spot in the South Bronx where three New York subway lines – the B, D and 4 – converge at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue.  After all, Yankee Stadium sits on the one corner of that intersection that doesn’t have stairs either going up to the overhead platform for the 4 train, or down to the underground station shared by the B and D, and the Yankees have an unmatched history of success, not just in baseball but in all of sport.  Forty times the Bronx has been the scene of games in a World Series, and in twenty-seven of those annual best-of-seven showdowns, the Yankees have come out on top.  Those numbers dwarf the participation and the success of all other MLB franchises.

But there is no joy for Yankee fans – the Great Game’s mightiest franchise has once again struck out.  With this year’s playoffs still far from over, New York is already in offseason mode, having quietly exited the postseason at the earliest possible time with a 6-2 loss to Boston in the American League Wild Card Game last Tuesday.  The lopsided defeat was a reflection of the Yankees’ consistent underperformance this year.  There was great hype beforehand, just as there had been many predictions during Spring Training that the team was a heavy favorite to win the AL East and a strong contender for a deep playoff run.  But once play began New York was clearly the inferior team Tuesday evening, just as it went through long stretches of indifferent play during the preceding months. 

Staff ace Gerrit Cole was knocked around by the Red Sox lineup, recording just six outs in the twelve batters he faced.  Cole gave up a two-run homer in the 1st and a solo shot in the 3rd before manager Aaron Boone pulled him after an outing that was his shortest stint on the mound in five years, but one that was far too long for New York’s hopes.  The offense managed just six hits off Boston starter Nathan Eovaldi and four relievers.  Half of those were delivered by the bat of Giancarlo Stanton, while the players occupying the last six spots in the Yankees’ order went a combined 1-for-20.  Impatient Yankee batters drew not a single walk, though they did swing and miss plenty, striking out eleven times.

In the wake of the debacle, fans took to social media to lament the game’s Fenway Park location, contending that a couple of Stanton drives that caromed off the Green Monster in left field and wound up being long singles would have gone into the seats at the Stadium.  Even if true – MLB’s Statcast tracking system suggested that at least one of the hits would have been just a flyout but for Fenway’s 37-foot left field wall – the complaint only served as a reminder that the Yankees had every opportunity to host the Wild Card game.  Twice in the season’s final weeks New York moved into the top AL Wild Card spot, only to lose games and ground in the standings.  Instead of taking care of business while controlling its own destiny, the team didn’t lock down its spot as the last squad in the AL playoff bracket until the regular season’s final day.

Given the franchise’s storied history, no fan of any other team is about to feel sorry for the Yankees or the faithful who, at least in non-COVID times, regularly keep the Stadium at or near the top of MLB’s attendance statistics.  But what is understandably hard for supporters of other franchises to grasp is just how that history creates its own unique expectations. 

For all his bombast, George Steinbrenner understood that.  It’s why he’d issue a public apology to fans at the end of any season that didn’t conclude with a parade up Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan.  Aaron Judge, the de facto if unofficial captain of these Yankees grasps the point as well.  Interviewed after Tuesday’s loss, he said, “I’m here to bring a championship to New York (and)…it’s kind of black and white for me.  Either you won or you didn’t win, and we didn’t win.  That to me is a failure.”

What’s less clear is whether the Yankees’ ownership and front office shares the pain of Judge and the team’s fans.  Those gaudy statistics cited above – forty World Series appearances and twenty-seven titles – were true in 2009, after the Yankees downed the Phillies four games to two and celebrated on the new Stadium’s field in its inaugural season.  But a dozen years later, the numbers haven’t changed, and only once in that time have the Yankees gotten as far as an elimination Game 7 of the ALCS.  Since its first championship in 1923, New York had been back to the Fall Classic at least once in every calendar decade.  That streak ended with the 2010s.  Since it took Miller Huggins until his sixth year at the helm to guide the Yankees to that first title, no manager has been granted a fifth year in charge without having won a championship.  That streak too seems likely to end, if as expected Aaron Boone is offered a new contract.

That would be the same Aaron Boone who after Tuesday’s defeat complained that “the league’s closed the gap on us,” as if the Yankees’ historical domination had continued over the past twelve years until this season.  Instead, seven different clubs have made multiple trips to the World Series since Mariano Rivera induced the final groundout from Shane Victorino in 2009.  Boone was pilloried on social media for the clueless comment, but the only opinion that really matters is owner Hal Steinbrenner’s, who seems content as long as tickets are being sold and the roster stays under the luxury tax threshold.  Those are simple and limited goals that might be entirely appropriate for many franchises, but expectations have always been greater in the Bronx, at least until now.  Then again, at least until now, no one would have ever confused the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue with Mudville.

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