Is Simply Getting into the Playoffs Enough for the NY Yankees?

by Deb Seymour

Back during the 1995 MLB season, prior to social media and when Buck Showalter was managing the Yankees, the fan base was pretty critical of Buck’s management style. How did we know this? Well, there were reports in the newspapers, of course. And radio call-in shows. And student conversations in school. And water cooler conversations at work. And lots of impromptu conversations in the city with people we didn’t even know — while waiting in line for our bagel and coffee in the morning or on the subway platform on our way to work or school.

And yet, at the end of the day, Buck snuck his Yankee team into the playoffs. This was the first year of the MLB Wild Card, and the Yankees were the first ever American League Wild Card team. They went on to play a now storied, five-game ALDS against the Seattle Mariners, in which they won the first two games at home at Yankee Stadium and then couldn’t manage to win one final game, for a series win, at the Seattle Kingdome. Alex Rodriguez was a rookie Mariner at the time. Tino Martinez was the Mariners’ first baseman. Randy Johnson, the HOF southpaw, was the Mariner ace. And Edgar Martinez was the Mariners’ notorious Yankee killer. The Yankee record in the strike shortened, 144-game, 1995 season was 79-65. And the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks didn’t yet even exist.

North American baseball’s come a long way since those days. MLB has expanded to 30 teams instead of 28, the Montreal Expos are now the Washington Nationals, the Milwaukee Brewers have moved to the National League, and to go along with all that — there have been rule changes galore. One other notable change over the past nine years was in the postseason format: there are now two Wild Card teams in each league, and this year’s AL Wild Card teams were once again the Yankees — and their historical, noteworthy rivals, the Boston Red Sox.

But this is a story that’s almost independent of which team won or lost the AL Wild Card game in 2021. This is a story about a proud, old baseball franchise with “27 rings,” as fans are quick to point out. It’s a story about a franchise that in recent, modern history has never been satisfied finishing a season with just a .500 record or even just a winning record; the Yankees have to make the postseason or the entire season’s been a failure.

The real question on everyone’s mind, then, is this one: has the Yankees’ season been a failure even if they actually made the playoffs, but didn’t win the World Series? “27 rings” has a great ring to it (apologies, pun intended) if it’s 2010. But for the past 11 years, fans have been impatient for that 28th ring, which would continue the Yankees’ tradition of winningest franchise in modern American sports history.

But to really tell the Yankees’ story, we have to go back in time. The current New York Yankees team began its history as the Baltimore Orioles, in 1901. In 1903, the club was bought and moved to New York City, and renamed the New York Highlanders. The Highlanders were officially renamed the New York Yankees in 1913. From 1903-1912, the Highlanders played at Hilltop Park, between 165th and 168th Streets in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. This is the neighborhood in which I grew up, and it’s also one of the highest points in Manhattan. And as is well documented, the New York Yankees then moved to the Polo Grounds (still in the borough of Manhattan); and, eventually, in 1923, moved to their new stadium in the Bronx: Yankee Stadium.

The Stadium itself was modified and upgraded several times till “new Yankee Stadium” opened in 2009; but the teams that resided and played there included the likes of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Roger Marris, Yogi Berra, and Phil Rizzuto as well as some more latter day fan favorites such as Bobby Murcer, Thurmon Munson, Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly, and the host of players who won five World Series from 1996-2001.

It’s no coincidence that many of the fan favorites listed above went to the World Series multiple times. It’s also the case that some of them won the World Series multiple times. It’s of course a bit of a chicken and egg problem to say that players only become fan favorites because they win high stakes games — or is it instead the case that fan favorites are the great players; and thus they tend to be the ones who have the most success? Either way, the winning tradition for the Yankees has become an expectation over the past century and it is, indeed, what fans have come to expect.

Over the past 12 MLB seasons, the Yankees have made the playoffs nine times. In no year since 2009 have they gotten past the ALCS, meaning it’s been 12 seasons since a World Series appearance. There have been cheating scandals, luxury tax levies, and a pandemic intermixed into this recent history, which are also part of the story. But this period also represents the third longest World Series drought in Yankee history, since the team became the Yankees (and no longer the Highlanders). It’s easy enough to assess blame and scapegoat individuals for the drought — but the longer it stretches, the less it becomes about any one individual player, manager, coach, or front office employee. The danger, as far as Yankee fans are concerned, is that it becomes part of the heart of the team. The expectation of winning a World Series every year wanes, some mediocrity starts to become acceptable, and, in short, the Yankees are no longer “the Yankees.”

And so we return to the original question: is simply getting into the playoffs enough for the New York Yankees? I think by now every reader knows the answer to this question. Yankee fans will tell you, “we expect to win” — and by “win,” Yankee fans do not mean anything less than “win a World Series.” And without its fan base, there is no Yankees. There is no easy way to end a story like this. Who could ever tell Yankee fans to settle for less than what they’ve come to expect, over generations of loyally following their team? All that comes to mind is the tired but true adage: wait till next year. After all, there should always be hope. And, most importantly, there should always be heart.

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