"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Hank Waddles

Judgment Day

I. The Waiting

When I woke up on Wednesday morning and checked my phone, the notification screen was full. The latest was from Twitter, from someone who seemed to be talking about an Aaron Judge deal. I found the truth within about thirty seconds — forty-five minutes earlier, Judge had indeed decided to return to the Yankees and had agreed to what we’ve been told will be a nine-year contract for $360 million. I already had a handful of texts from East Coast friends, and within the hour I’d get a few more from folks out here in California who thought of me when they heard the news. It was a whirlwind.

It been a long, strange journey that started before the Astros were done celebrating their victory over the Yankees in the ALCS. What would Judge do? With the Judge camp somehow as leak-free as a Flex Tape commercial, the baseball world was left to tea leaves and idle speculation. First we believed that the boos he heard in his final game at the Stadium might push him towards leaving, but when Anthony Rizzo signed we thought it meant he was staying. When he accepted his American League MVP award and joked good-naturedly with Giancarlo Stanton, it was another positive sign — of course he wanted to stay and play with his good friend, Big G.

But baseball is a business. We know this intellectually, but sometimes a baseball hero can turn an intellectual fan back into a ten-year-old, and we can forget the magnitude of the millions being offered to these players. Likely no fan base in sports is more guilty of this than the Yankee Universe, where we often drastically overestimate the power of pinstripe tradition and history. Most of us would probably give up a few years of our lives to experience any of the fantasies we’ve seen play out over the past few decades. To stand in right field and listen as an entire stadium chanted our name, to lace a single to right field for a game-winning RBI in our final at bat, to walk off the mound one last time and sob on a friend’s shoulder because the dream has come to a close. To stand before a microphone in the middle of the diamond and somehow try to explain what it means to have your jersey number hung alongside Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio.

We’ve convinced ourselves that all of those moments meant more precisely because of where they happened, not just how they happened. We’ve convinced ourselves that being a Yankee means more, and so it’s confusing when players — the businessmen whose salaries are paid for with the turnstiles we spin, the jerseys we buy, and the remotes we click — consider leaving. Why in the world would they?

And so when we first heard whispers of an offer from the Giants, it wasn’t overly concerning. Of course he has to talk to other teams, we reminded ourselves. It’s part of the process. He has to gauge his worth on the open market, but that’s all it is.

As the days went by and there was still no positive news, we tucked ourselves in and spun our own tales to keep us from panicking. Does he want to be Derek Jeter or Robinson Canó?

And then Tuesday happened. Most baseball observers still believed that the Yankees were the frontrunners to retain Judge’s services, but on the second day of the winter meetings, we suddenly began hearing reports that the San Francisco Giants were making a strong push, and we even heard numbers that were far larger than the Yankees’ last offer of $305 or $310 million. Things were getting interesting.

Weeks earlier I had set up Twitter alerts on my phone for all the relevant Yankee writers, and that was in addition to my standard alerts from ESPN and the Athletic. My phone was buzzing like a beehive all week, but it was never about Judge, always about a rumored deal for number three starter in the National League Central. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Thankfully I was in the middle of basketball practice when Jon Heyman sent off his infamous “Arson Judge appears headed to Giants” tweet, so I didn’t have to live in that seven-minute universe in which the Yankees’ had allowed their best player to leave, but it certainly seemed like something bad was brewing. Where there’s Arson, after all, there is usually fire. I was convinced — or at least almost convinced — that he was gone.


II. The Truth

Aaron Judge is more than just the numbers. Let’s set aside his historic 2022 for a moment and look back to his rookie season of 2017. That was the year when we knew he was different. Judge can only be compared to Derek Jeter, but not even Jeter had the immediate emotional impact that Judge did when he arrived. Jeter was a good player, a Rookie of the Year winner like Judge, but in 1996 he wasn’t yet the team’s biggest star.

In 2017, the Yankees had Chris Carter at first base, Starlin Castro at second, and Chase Headley at third. Honest. Judge opened the season in right field, and after hitting ten home runs in April and seven more in May, he wasn’t just the tallest Yankee, he was the biggest. The Judge’s Chambers was still a season or two away, but fans at the Stadium were already wearing robes and powdered wigs in the stands. Each game was a celebration, each at bat was an event.

When the Yankees came out to the West Coast in June, Judge was hitting .347 with 21 home runs, but when my son and I headed out to Anaheim for the opening game of the series, I was still stunned by what I saw. There are always thousands of Yankee fans at these games, but this time there were as many Judge jerseys as Jeter. A few rows in front of us sat a family of five, each wearing a navy blue Judge 99 t-shirt. With each Judge at bat, someone in the crowd would yell out “All Rise!” and we dutifully stood for every pitch. Three thousand miles from Yankee Stadium, these fans who had planned ahead and ordered their gear in anticipation of their hero’s arrival all knew exactly how to worship. And when Judge hit his 22nd home run that night, the celebration in the unofficial Yankee section along the right field line in Anaheim Stadium was raucous. The MVP chants bounced around the stadium as Judge jogged around the bases with his head down, likely already thinking about his next at bat.

If Brian Cashman or Hal Steinbrenner had been in the stands with us that night, they’d have offered him a lifetime contract on the spot. It was his 86th career game, but he was already the face of the franchise.


III. The Resolution

When I went to bed on Tuesday night I was resolved to the fact that none of this had mattered. Aaron Judge would be blasting baseballs into the San Francisco Bay in 2023, but before he ever played a game in his new home, he and the Giants would open their season on the road… playing the Yankees in his old home. I fell asleep imagining this cruelest of twists, and I wondered if fans would cheer him for his six years of greatness or jeer him for having the temerity to leave it all behind. I cursed myself for caring so much.

And then it was morning.

For the next nine years the Yankees will be paying Aaron Judge for a season neither he nor anyone else will produce again, and that’s okay with me. I truly hope that he’s able to carry the team to a World Series championship or two, but I won’t be terribly disappointed if he doesn’t. For me, the true victory came on Wednesday morning with the realization that for the next nine years I’ll be able to watch Aaron Judge play for my favorite team. My son and I will go to as many games as we can, he in his Judge jersey and I in my Jeter, matching countless father-son combos in the Bronx and beyond.

All Rise.

Dread Not

The most difficult part of the playoffs from a fan’s perspective is that the narratives are crafted so quickly that they become fact before anyone has a chance to question them. After two games in Houston most people have decided that these Astros are simply too good for the Yankees, that their dominant pitching staff is untouchable, that the Yankee bullpen is a dumpster fire, that this team from the Bronx simply isn’t very good.

Perhaps it’s time to back away from the ledge and remember that we’re talking about two games, and those two games weren’t all bad. Consider, for example, that the mighty Astros only scored seven runs in those two games, and that the three runs they scored on Thursday night came courtesy of one mistake — a two-out, two-strike fastball that Luís Severino wasn’t able to get up in the zone. There’s also the fact that Aaron Judge nearly grabbed Game Two right back with a laser that might’ve been a home run were it not for the winds that were whipping through Minute Maid Park.

A quick note about those two balls, Alex Bregman’s towering fly ball that landed in the seats for a three-run home run and Judge’s line drive that was caught at the wall by Kyle Tucker. Those two balls determined the game, so the postgame analysis naturally focused on the differences between the two, and the Yankees came out looking a bit petulant as one after another they stood in line to tell us that they thought Judge’s ball was going out. (In their defense, they had to answer the questions.) Severino even went so far as to say the Astros had been lucky because Bregman’s ball had been only 91 MPH off the bat while Judge’s had been 106. (Ever the diplomat, Judge said he never thought it was going out. He had hit it to the wrong part of the yard.)

Alex Eisert at Fangraphs provides some quick analysis on the data behind those two balls:

After the game, Severino expressed surprise that Bregman’s looping 91.8 mph fly left the park and Aaron Judge’s 106.3 mph shot to right didn’t. He mentioned the wind as a factor; the roof was open at Minute Maid, and the swirling air currents may have brought balls back into the park in right field but lifted out those hit to left. Yet, it’s hard to discern the ultimate impact environmental factors had on the game’s outcome; there were plenty of Astros who flied out to deep right as well, notably Peña, who hit a 99.2-mph, 22-degree drive that stayed in the yard. Besides the wind, batted ball spin may have caused Judge’s knock to fall short.

The whole discussion was interesting because it pointed out how exit velocity and launch angle haven’t just changed the way the game is played but the way it’s perceived. When you’re sitting in ballpark, every ball hit in the air looks like it’s going to be a home run, so we’ve all quickly learned to watch the outfielders, not the ball. Knowledgeable fans have been doing that for generations, but the players don’t do that anymore. With stadium scoreboards posting exit velocity and launch angle the instant a ball is struck, all eyes in the dugout immediately look to those magic numbers. It’s no longer the crack of the bat but the flash of the scoreboard that triggers celebration in one dugout and despair in the other. The game has changed.

Today will determine whether or not this series changes. If I’m being honest, I’ll admit that the narrative being written right now actually isn’t based on just games one and two. We all know that Houston beat the Yankees five out of seven games this season, without Yankee pitchers throwing a single pitch while holding the lead, and we all bear the scars of 2017 and 2019. These Astros, whether cheating or not, have ripped our hearts out of our collective chests over and over.

Ah, but this is baseball, and sometimes the action doesn’t follow the script — just ask the Dodgers and Mets. Gerrit Cole pitched and won the biggest game of his Yankee career six days ago in Cleveland, and today he takes the mound for a game that’s probably even bigger. (No, it’s not an elimination game, but to my knowledge no team has ever come back to win an ALCS after being down 0-3, right?)

I have faith in Cole because I have to. There is no other choice.

There are a few tweaks to the lineup — Rizzo moving into the leadoff spot, Carpenter back at DH, and Cabrera at short. I’ve gotten used to Boone’s constant shuffling of the batting order, so I have no thoughts on that, but I wonder about playing Matt Carpenter. He looks hopelessly lost, bringing to mind the days of Gary Sánchez. The only hope is that he might run into one and accidentally put a ball into the seats. Here’s hoping. Anyway…

Let’s-Go-Yank-Ees!

  1. Rizzo, 1B
  2. Judge, RF
  3. Stanton, LF
  4. Torres, 2B
  5. Carpenter, DH
  6. Bader, CF
  7. Donaldson, 3B
  8. Cabrera, SS
  9. Trevino, C

On the Edge

Last night’s game was difficult.

There are any number of things that could’ve been done differently, and all of them were hashed out and beaten into the ground in the minutes and hours after the Cleveland Guardians scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Yankees 5-3 and take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series.

There were questions about bullpen usage and defensive strategy, but we never got any actual answers from Aaron Boone. Rookie Clarke Schmidt, and not All-Star Clay Holmes, was tasked with getting the final three outs of the most important game the Yankees had played up until that point in the season. When asked about it afterwards, Boone said that Holmes was only available in an emergency. When Holmes was asked about it, he said that he had showed up at the park prepared to pitch. When Luís Severino was asked about it, he said that Holmes was the closer, so of course he was surprised. Then he expanded: “You’ll have to ask Boonie and Blake about that.”

It was a bad look. The Yankee house was burning, and everyone one was taking turns tossing kerosene on each other.

Some also wondered about Oswaldo Cabrera’s play in left field. He had had a great game and certainly would’ve earned first-paragraph mention in most recaps had things not imploded in the ninth inning. His double ahead of Aaron Judge’s home run was important, and his own two-run home run in the fifth inning gave the Yankees the lead in a game they were poised to win.

But for the second time this series we saw him make a tentative approach on a ball hit in front of them, and this time it started that rally in the ninth. Why, people asked, was Aaron Hicks on the roster if not to play defense in the ninth inning of a two-run game? That double was a ball that Hicks likely would’ve caught.

There were also questions about shortstop Isaiah Kiner-Falefa, who continues to struggle in the field. He botched a ball that led to a run in the second inning, then misplayed a grounder that should’ve been the third out of the sixth inning. Instead, Severino was lifted early and the Guardians plated a run.

Boone wouldn’t admit concern about either Cabrera’s defense in left or IKF’s fielding at short, but tonight’s lineup indicates something different; IKF is out, Cabrera is at short, and Hicks is in left. Too little too late? We’ll see.

If you’ve made the mistake of wandering through Yankee twitter in the last twelve hours, you know that the natives are restless. I get that, but there’s one theme that I disagree with. When the Phillies play the Padres in the NLCS, Bryce Harper will be facing Manny Machado, and many Yankee fans are convinced that one of those two players would’ve been the balm to heal all these wounds. (This summer it was Carlos Correa, but since the Twins didn’t make the playoffs, I suppose people have forgotten about him.)

The reality is that this is baseball, and this is the playoff structure that baseball wants. The 162-game regular season tells us who the best teams are, but that isn’t exciting enough for Rob Manfred and his minions. They don’t believe that October provides enough drama on its own; they want ALL the drama. But it’s a double-edged sword. The scene in San Diego last night was epic. I apologize for using that word, but that’s truly what it was. It was everything that baseball wants.

But on the other hand, by allowing a team into the playoffs after finishing 22 games out of first place, baseball now moves to the LCS without one of the greatest regular season teams in the history of the sport. They will see this as validation of the expanded playoff system, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. If they expand to 24 teams, there will be upsets galore and even more excitement — precisely because this is baseball. Anyone acn beat anyone in a short series, and that’s exactly what they want. They want the drama.

Will the Yankees be the next victim of this? Or will Gerrit Cole do what he was paid to do? Tune in tonight and find out.

Let’s-Go-Yan-Kees!

  1. Torres, 2b
  2. Judge, rf
  3. Rizzo, 1b
  4. Stanton, dh
  5. Donaldson, 3b
  6. Cabrera, ss
  7. Bader, cf
  8. Trevino, c
  9. Hicks, lf

Guardians

  1. Slap hitter, lf
  2. Slap hitter, ss
  3. José Ramirez, 3b
  4. Homer or nothing hitter, dh
  5. Rookie, rf
  6. Slap hitter, 2b
  7. Slap hitter, 1b
  8. Slow slap hitter, c
  9. Bloop hitter, cf

Welcome to the Playoffs

New York Yankees starting pitcher Luis Severino throws during the first inning in Game 3 of a baseball American League Division Series against the Minnesota Twins, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Game 2 in the Bronx did not go the Yankees’ way, and not just because of the final result on the scoreboard. It was one of those games when line drives off Yankee bats were caught, but bloops and flares off Guardian bats found the grass.

In a well-pitched game on both sides, there were a handful of moments that determined the game. With a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the third, Josh Donaldson stood at the plate with two outs and runners on second and third. He ripped a ball to left field that would likely have scored two and might even have chased Cleveland starter Shane Bieber from the game, but left fielder Steven Kwan was able to race in and grab it for the final out. Later, with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth, Kyle Higashioka looked for just a moment as if he would be the hero, but his line drive was snagged by third baseman Jose Ramirez, and again the Yankees were turned away.

Finally, in the top of the tenth inning, Aaron Boone sent Jameson Taillon (and not Clarke Schmidt) to the mound, a questionable decision considering Taillon had never before appeared in relief. The result was predictable, if not the manner in which things played out. First there was a bloop to left by Ramirez, a ball that Oswaldo Cabrera might’ve been able to catch were it not for a moment’s hesitation towards the end. The hustling Ramirez forced a desperate throw to second from Donaldson, and when that throw sailed into right field, Ramirez ended up a-huggin’ third. Oscar Gonzalez followed that with another bloop, this one falling in front of Aaron Judge in right, and the Guardians had their lead. (Josh Naylor followed with a double that was an absolute rocket, but it was the bloops that had done in Taillon.)

The Yankees were never going to go 11-0 in the postseason, and they probably weren’t even going to sweep the Guardians. This isn’t the time to panic. Luis Severino takes the mound today, and it’s been more than two weeks since he last allowed a base hit! Yesterday’s loss does nothing to change the fact that the Yankees are a better team than the Guardians, or that Severino is a better and more experienced pitcher than Cleveland’s Triston McKenzie. Tonight’s game is pivotal, but this isn’t doomsday. Come in off the ledge and watch the game. It’ll be fun!

Let’s-G0-Yank-ees!

Showtime

And so it begins.

Originally I wasn’t sure what I thought about baseball’s new playoff format — I’m generally against any expansion of the playoffs, any further dilution of the regular season — but I actually think they got something right this time. (Mets fans, sadly, likely have a different thought right now.)

But our Yankees are fresh and ready to go, and so are we. Sure, it’s nice that the bullpen arms are rested, but I didn’t mind having five days free of anxiety either. So bring on the Guardians!

If you’ve been paying attention for the last twenty years — and you wouldn’t be reading this if you haven’t been — you know that there’s some deep recent history between these two teams. As the Yankees were rising in the mid ’90s, the rivalry with Cleveland was sometimes more intense than the one with Boston. It’s blasphemy, but it’s true.

It began with Mariano Rivera’s ill-fated cutter that floated up in the zone and then into the seats off of Sandy Alomar’s bat in 1997, one of just two bad postseason losses during an otherworldly six-year run. The following year, Cleveland gave the 1998 Yankees their only moments of tension (helped a bit by Chuck Knoblauch) before El Duque Hernández showed that he was still an ace, fourth starter or not. Almost a decade later, Cleveland had the upper hand again, this time when a swarm of midges engulfed Joba Chamberlain and changed the course of the 1997 ALDS.

The Yankees eliminated Cleveland in the 2017 divisional series and again in the 2020 wild card series, but it’s interesting that I don’t remember a single thing about either of those moments. Didn’t Giancarlo Stanton do something monstrous in 2020? Perhaps.

And so what will 2022 hold as these two teams face off again? Will we remember this series forever, or will it disappear into the corners of memory?

There’s been drama in the Yankee camp, as Aroldis Chapman has been left off the roster for this series because he failed to show up for a workout — or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, we’ve likely seen the last of Chapman in pinstripes, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, who among us would’ve felt comfortable watching him on the mound in an October game that mattered?

Our old friend Matt Carpenter is back, and even though his role is yet to be seen — will Stanton play the field to let him DH, or will Carpenter just be a pinch hitter? — I’m as happy for him as I am for the potential impact he might have on the Yankees’ playoff run.

Aside from the efforts of the Cleveland Guardians, a better team than some might think, there are two things that will determine the Yankees’ success or failure in this series. The first one is obvious, the $324 million elephant in the dugout, but we’ll get to that later. What I’m interested in seeing is how the more inexperienced Yankees fare in the postseason spotlight. I don’t worry for a minute about Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton or Luís Severino or even Josh Donaldson. Even if those players don’t perform, it won’t be because of the moment.

But what about Nestor Cortés? We’re told that he doesn’t fear anything, but I don’t think that even Nestor himself knows how he’ll feel when he toes the rubber on an October night in Yankee Stadium. Oswaldo Cabrera has been an important contributor over the past month, and observers have noticed how comfortable he looks. Will he still have that same comfort with two outs and a runner on second in the eighth inning? We’ll see.

The truth, however, is that nothing that I’ve written so far matters nearly as much as how Gerrit Cole pitches tonight. He’s still one of the best pitchers in the game, the type of pitcher who’s a threat to throw a no-hitter every time out, but this season he’s also been one of the most volatile pitchers in the game. At no point tonight, no matter how well he appears to be throwing, will I be relaxed. It won’t matter who’s in the batter’s box, it won’t matter how many strikeouts Cole has, I will always worry that he’ll groove a fastball or hang a curve or lose a changeup and the ball will disappear into the night.

The Yankees gave him the richest contract in their history precisely for Game 1. It’s the reason that Aaron Boone named Cole the starter for this game weeks ago, even though an objective look at the statistics would’ve resulted in Cortés getting the ball instead, or even Severino.

But it always had to be Gerrit Cole. This was always going to be his moment. And so much depends on this moment.

Area 51

Aug 29, 2022; Anaheim, California, USA; New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge (99) grounds out in the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

When my son and I were walking around Angels Stadium about an hour before the first pitch on Monday evening, we got to the open area out behind centerfield, and I pointed towards the water structure that separates the left field seats from the right.

“Judge is gonna hit one into those rocks tonight, I’m sure of it.”

It would be a rocky game for the Yankees as the offense continued to struggle, but when Aaron Judge came up in the eighth inning and crushed a ball into those rocks, the seven previous innings didn’t matter much anymore. It was August 30th and Judge had just hit his 50th home run, and by the time he got to second base the Yankees fans in the crowd had started chanting “M!V!P! M!V!P!,” not bothered at all that winners of four of the last eight MVP trophies were looking on from the other side.

I’d been watching the schedule for a month hoping that we might get to see Judge hit a round number, so for a moment as we stood and cheered, the 4-3 deficit didn’t matter that much, and I wasn’t even upset as we walked out of the park a bit later, the score still the same. We had seen history, and we had shared the moment with tens of thousands of other Yankee fans. I hope Judge gets 60 and 61 and 62 in the Bronx, but I’m glad he hit number 50 out here. It was a moment I’ll never forget.

Dog Days

The Dog Days are here, but they’ve been here so long that it’s hard to know what we’re seeing. The optimistic among us see a summer swoon compounded by untimely injuries and some bad luck, but the pessimists will say the goose is cooked. The first ninety games were a mirage, and this collapse is proof that Brian Cashman isn’t committed to winning, that Aaron Boone is incompetent, and that the entire franchise is a shell of its former self.

Like most issues like this, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The past has been romanticized to the point that yesterday’s embarrassments (George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin) have become the models that could save this season. “George wouldn’t stand for this, Billy would flip over the postgame spread.”

Perhaps.

Or maybe things will work out on their own.

At least things will look a bit different tonight, with Oswaldo Cabrera starting at third and Estevan Florial in center. The prospects are coming to the rescue. Perhaps.

This team doesn’t need to panic, it just needs to win a game or two. That’s all. The winning streak starts tonight.

Vin Scully, 1927-2022

I was nine years old when we moved to California in the summer of 1979. I had fallen in love with the Yankees two summers earlier on a trip to New York, so now I found myself three thousand miles and three time zones away from my favorite team. Cable sports networks and the internet hadn’t yet been imagined even in the wildest science fiction, so if I needed to know the Yankee score before the morning paper arrived the next day — and I always did — my only option was to listen to the Dodger game on the radio as I lay in bed.

In the beginning Vin Scully was simply a means to an end. If he didn’t share the out-of-town scores during the final innings, I’d try to stay awake for the postgame show.

Whether doing radio or television, Scully was that rare announcer who worked alone, providing the analysis to his own play by play, so instead of talking to a partner in the booth, he spoke to all of us. He spoke to me. (I’m sure this happened at other ballparks also, but Scully’s one-on-one connection with his listeners was so powerful and ubiquitous that Dodger fans were notorious for bringing their transistor radios to the stadium so they could still hear Vinnie call the game as it unfolded in front of them. Sometimes this would cause feedback during the broadcast, so it wasn’t uncommon to hear Mr. Scully politely ask the patrons below to turn down the volume.)

Like any announcer anywhere, Scully’s repertoire included a handful of phrases that would come up from time to time. If the Dodgers began mounting a rally after trailing throughout, he’d explain that this was the first time the Dodgers were “getting a look at the game.”

As I lay listening in the dark, Scully gave me a look at the game in a wider sense. Even as a boy I knew a fair amount about baseball, and Vin Scully was my guide as I travelled deeper into the game’s history. The wonderfully slow pace of the games allowed him to weave narratives throughout the course of inning, skillfully telling stories one pitch at a time. Davey Lopes would take a throw at second and fire to Steve Garvey to complete a double play, and suddenly I’d hear a story about how Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski would routinely catch a throw from his shortstop by pinning the ball against his closed glove with his bare hand to make for a faster exchange. Reggie Smith’s helmet would come off while rounding third, and it would remind Scully of how Willie Mays would wear his cap a couple sizes large so that it would come off every time he raced around the bases, a bit of gamesmanship that gave the crowd an extra few minutes to cheer and further rattle the opposing pitcher.

These were the bedtime stories I needed, told in the soothing voice of Southern California’s grandfather pulling memories from a lifetime of announcing baseball games. He called some of baseball’s most iconic moments — Henry Aaron’s 715th home run, Don Larsen’s perfect game, any number of World Series clinchers — and even made his presence felt in other sports. His was the voice describing Joe Montana’s pass to Dwight Clark to beat the Cowboys and send the 49ers to their first Super Bowl.

But I’d argue that his Hall of Fame career was built with smaller moments. Describing the ballet of a 6-4-3 double play, narrating a youngster’s efforts to finish a melting ice cream cone in the stands, opening each game by telling his audience, “It’s time for Dodgers baseball!”

Or teaching a nine-year-old boy all about the game.

To Sleep – Perchance to Dream

The days and weeks leading up to the major league trading deadline first and foremost offer opportunities for a franchise to transform itself, but it asks fans to declare something as well.

The Yankees made some smaller moves, picking up a starter, two relievers, and a couple outfielders while also moving Jordan Montgomery in a late surprise, but the big move came courtesy of the San Diego Padres.

There are always a few shiny objects dangling in July, and Juan Soto was the shiniest. When the youngest superstar in the sport is on the trading block, all of the usual big market teams are immediately linked, and there was certainly speculation that Soto could end up playing right field in the Bronx, giving the Yankees the most lethal left-right combination imaginable.

But it was a smaller market team that swooped in with a genius stroke to get a player whose combination of power and plate discipline has been favorably compared to the legendary skills of Ted Williams. Adding Soto to a lineup that already includes Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis, Jr., gives the Friars three of the best young players in baseball at least through 2023, and that’s where the brilliance of this plan truly lies.

Tatis is in the first year of a 14-year $340M contract, but it’s heavily backloaded, so he’ll be making a relatively modest $20M in 2025, the year that Juan Soto will be an unrestricted free agent. It doesn’t seem remotely possible that any franchise, and certainly not the San Diego Padres, could keep all three of those elite players. Those three alone would cost more than a hundred million dollars a season, but Machado has an opt out after 2023.

So what the Padres have done is assure that they’ll have these three players together for this pennant race and all of next season. With Soto in the fold, a Machado opt out will now actually benefit both parties. Machado will certainly be able get more than the $150M that will remain on his contract, and the Padres will shed that obligation just a year before they have to give a long term deal to Soto. If for some reason they prefer Machado, they can sign him and let Soto walk. It’s a win-win for San Diego, and they just might win a World Series along the way.

There are certainly Yankee fans who are furious right now that Soto isn’t headed to the Bronx, no matter which prospects might have gone in the other direction. And while it’s tempting to imagine what Soto might have done with the short porch in right, I’m okay with Brian Cashman’s decision.

Unlike any other sport, baseball is built on dreams. Every organization has a prospect who might become the next Ted Williams, and it’s easy to be enchanted by that hope. It’s why people don’t stop at a roulette table to bet on red or black but to wink knowingly at the croupier and drop a chip or two on 23. We dream big.

Soto would’ve been a big win, but I’m happy putting my chips on Jasson Dominguez. Thirty years ago the Yankees drafted a kid from Kalamazoo, and I dutifully followed his career through the minor leagues, hoping that he might become something special. A few years after that, Yankee scouts convinced me that another young prospect could be the next Mickey Mantle. The first you know; he was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame last summer. The second you might not. His name was Rubén Rivera, and he hit .216 over the course of a nine-year career with five different teams.

There’s no telling what might happen with Dominguez, but the odds are certainly against him matching what Soto has already accomplished. Even so, I’m glad he’s still with us. I’m glad I can still follow his minor league numbers and imagine what he might become in New York.

I choose to dream.

Houston. Do We Have a Problem?

There is no greater crucible in sports than baseball’s 162-game schedule, and the New York Yankees are running roughshod on their opponents this season. Today — and for the past two months — the Yankees have the best record in the game. At 64-30 they have a comfortable twelve-game lead in the American League East and are all but assured of winning the deepest division in baseball and advancing to the playoffs. All season long, they’ve just been better than anyone else.

Anyone else but the Houston Astros.

The Yankees and Astros completed their regular season series last night, with the Astros sweeping a double header in Houston and beating the Yankees for the fifth time in seven games.

Were it not for Aaron Judge and his walk-off heroics that saved two games in New York, the Yankees would have lost all seven contests with the Astros. In fact, those two swings by Judge were the only moments in a week’s worth of games against their arch rivals (sorry, Red Sox) that the Yankees enjoyed a lead. It’s been that bleak. (Judge did his best to rescue his team again on Thursday night, rocking a massive three-run homer to left to cut a five-run lead to two, but it wasn’t quite enough.)

The mightiest offense in baseball was repeatedly humbled by Houston pitching. The Astros threw a combined no-hitter against them in New York and opened the following game with six more hitless innings, and Houston pitchers, both starters and bullpen, were generally in control in all seven games. The Yankees scored 22 runs in seven games, including a disturbing two runs or fewer in four of the seven.

Not surprisingly, acorns are falling on everyone’s heads. Should the Yankees fall into mediocrity and go 36-32 the rest of the way, they’ll still finish with 100 wins and a division crown, but there are those who will tell you that the season is over. That this team cannot beat the Astros.

I understand this point of view because I carry the same scars you do, but regardless of what happened in this year’s seven-game sample, I’m comfortable saying that right now the Yankees of 2022 are better than the versions that watched their seasons end at the hands of the Astros in 2017 and 2019, and that the Astros of 2022 are weaker. If Brian Cashman decides to spend some capital to add Luís Castillo or gut the farm system to land Juan Sóto, the Yankee advantage over the Astros will only widen.

Let me say this again — the Yankees are better than the Astros. If you refuse to believe this because of that 2-5 season record or because of how listless the Yankees looked in so many of those games, I’ll ask if you also believe that the Cincinnati Reds (who handled the Yankees last week) are better than the 64-30 Bronx Bombers.

Yes, the seven games against the Astros were difficult, but sometimes baseball is like that. Everything’s going to be okay.

José Altuve, 1998, and the Blank Check

I was adrift in the spring of 1998. I lived in a small apartment with unpacked boxes in each room and usually nothing but last night’s leftovers in the refrigerator. I once spilled some powdered laundry detergent on the carpet by the front door and it stayed there for two months. I was twenty-eight years old, but I might’ve passed for nineteen. I was adrift.

But that was the spring when I met John Sterling and Michael Kay. The internet was still a brave new world back then, and I discovered that New York’s WFAN was proudly streaming their content 24 hours a day, long before we used the word streaming, and long before Major League Baseball began policing the web. And so each afternoon I’d make sure to be home by 4:00pm so that I could sit down at my computer, log into AOL, and listen to the Yankee game.

It was magic. I sat in my empty apartment three thousand miles away from the Bronx, but night after night I had a virtual seat in the Stadium. And night after night, they just kept winning.

I wasn’t a complete recluse, by the way. On Friday, June 5th, a group of teachers went out after school to celebrate a birthday. Her name was Leslie, and her classroom was two doors down from mine. She needed a lift back to school at the end of the evening, and she laughed when I told her I needed to switch to sports radio to check the Yankee score. (A 5-1 win over the then-Florida Marlins.) She playfully slapped my hand away from the dial, but it wouldn’t be until the next night that I’d hold her hand for real. Next month we’ll celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary.

I didn’t listen to as many games the rest of that summer, but the magic never faded. It was young love. Derek Jeter was still a kid, Mariano Rivera was in just his second season as closer, and Chuck Knoblauch could still make the throw to second base. The wins piled up and soon enough Boston wasn’t chasing New York, the Yankees were chasing the ’54 Indians and the ’27 Yankees.

Even before the eventual World Series win, that ’98 season was baseball nirvana, a once-in-a-lifetime experience following a team that was so special that I knew I’d never see its like again. But only 24 years later, here we are.

The 2022 Yankees carried a 51-18 record into this weekend’s series with the Houston Astros, the same mark as the ’98 squad after 69 games. Just as with that ’98 group, this year’s team already seems to be running unopposed in the American League East, having enjoyed a double-digit lead for more than a week.

The Astros, then, were the perfect opponent at the perfect time. No team right now — not the Red Sox, not the Blue Jays, not the Rays — is a greater antagonist than the Astros, and no player is a greater villain than Houston’s José Altuve. Fans in the Bronx boo Alex Bregman out of duty, but the treatment reserved for Altuve is special. He isn’t greeted with derision, but with a palpable hatred that far exceeds anything hurled at Pedro Martínez or Kevin Youkilis or anyone else. The boos rain down each time he comes to the plate, and instead of amusing themselves with the wave, the fans fill any lull in the game with regular chants of “Fuck Altuve.” Sometimes when the Astros aren’t even in town.

If it were only because he cheated in 2017, the animosity would’ve faded a bit, as it has with Bregman. But it’s because he cheated then, stole an MVP from Aaron Judge, stole a World Series appearance from the city, and then continued to break Yankee hearts for the next five years. If Altuve ends up in Cooperstown one day, it will be in large part because of the damage he’s done against the Yankees, ignoring the steady stream of verbal abuse the likes of which few athletes have ever had to endure and uncorking one devastating home run after another. The rational part of my brain admires him for all that, but there isn’t much place for rational thought when the Astros come to town. I despise him.

It wasn’t a surprise, then, that Altuve played his part to perfection over the weekend, doubling twice, homering twice, and scoring four runs. The surprise on Thursday night was that when the Astros took a 6-3 lead into the ninth inning, it was the much maligned Aaron Hicks who saved the day. His game-tying three-run home run rocked the Stadium, shook my living room, and reminded everyone in Yankees Twitter that Hicks does, in fact, deserve his roster spot.

Three batters later the Yankees had runners on first and second as Judge walked to the plate. Cascading chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” washed over him as he watched three Ryan Stanek splitters miss the zone before jumping on the fourth one and lashing it into the corner to bring home the winning run and add another highlight to his historic season.

Justin Verlander led the Astros to a 3-1 win on Friday night to even the series, and then things started to get crazy. Cristian Javier, a kid making his twenty-ninth career start, held the Yankees hitless for seven innings before giving way to Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly who got the final six outs to wrap up a combined no-hitter. Combined no-no’s have suddenly become more common than standard no-hitters, but they don’t hold much weight with me. I was more irritated by the loss than the history.

And then Sunday happened. Facing the mighty José Urquidy, the Yankee bats were silent once again. The Bronx Bombers were hitless through the first six innings. Combined with the nine innings from the day before and the ninth inning on Friday, that made sixteen consecutive hitless innings, the longest stretch for any team since divisional play began in 1961.

Sure, the history was bothering me a bit at this point, but the present was much more pressing. If you don’t regularly peruse the Yankee corners of Twitter, you might (or might not) be surprised to know that even during this wonderful season there’s still an awful lot of angst out there. Some are still ready to fire Brian Cashman for passing on Carlos Correa, others are still certain that Aaron Boone only has the job because of the home run he hit in the 2003 ALCS, and still others regularly clamor for the release of Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks. It’s a dark place, and the reality of a series loss to the Astros or, heaven forbid — a second consecutive hitless afternoon — introduced into that black hole of delusion would likely cause the entire internet to explode.

Thankfully Giancarlo Stanton saved the universe when he stepped to the plate in the seventh inning and swatted a ball over the wall in center field, his third dinger of the series and seventeenth of the season. It was only one hit, and the Yankees still trailed 3-1, but there was hope for the first time all day. As I texted with a friend about avoiding another no-hitter, the response came back quickly: “Fuck this, Yanks are gonna win this game.”

Just an inning later D.J. LeMahieu launched another bomb into the seats in left with a runner on and the game was tied at three. The unhittable Clay Holmes turned the Astros away in the top of the ninth, and the Yankees seemed set to close things out in the bottom half when the resurgent Gleyber Torres walked with one out, stole second, and advanced to third when the catcher’s throw sailed into the outfield. Thursday night’s hero, Aaron Hicks, needed only to put his bat on the ball to get Torres home, but he struck out. When Torres turned his ankle on his way back to third and crumpled into a heap, Houston gratefully accepted the third out on the strangest strike-him-out, tag-him-out double play you’ll ever see.

Michael King somehow managed to keep the Astros from scoring in the tenth, and in the bottom half the Yankees once again found themselves with a runner on third and one out. Pinch hitter Matt Carpenter (I wouldn’t mind a left-right platoon at third, by the way) was walked intentionally, LeMahieu struck out, and Aaron Judge came to the plate with two outs and the game standing on third base.

Part of the appeal of the 1998 Yankees was that no single player’s statistics leapt off the page. This year’s group, however, revolves around Judge, the best player in baseball this season. You can’t read an article about these Yankees without being reminded that Judge “bet on himself” this spring when he turned down the security of the Yankees’ nine-figure contract offer, preferring to play the season out and see what free agency might bring.

It’s a tired observation, but it’s hard to imagine that things could’ve gone better for Judge. I can’t imagine that anyone in the free agent era has had a better walk year than what Judge is putting together this season. At this point I’m actually surprised when any ball he hits doesn’t find the seats, and he’s become the team’s everyday center fielder, just because he can. Aside from everything he does between the lines, he’s become not just the clear leader of this team but one of the most iconic players in the sport.

When he sits down across the table from Cashman this November, it won’t be a negotiation, but a coronation. Whether or not the season ends with another parade down the Canyon of Heroes, whether or not he hits sixty home runs, whether or not he wins the MVP, Aaron Judge has proved his point. Cashman would be wise to slide a blank check across the table along with the keys to the franchise. At the press conference that afternoon, with Aaron Boone at one end of the table and Derek Jeter at the other, Judge will be introduced as the sixteenth captain in the history of the New York Yankees. The terms of the deal won’t matter because he will have earned whatever he wants.

All of this was true before he came to the plate in the late afternoon on Sunday with his team tied with their darkest nemesis. Before he swung and missed at a slider from Seth Martínez, and before he put a smooth swing on the next slider and sent it soaring out of the shadows and into the light. Before he turned to his teammates and shrugged as the ball landed among the masses in the left field stands, before he had to be reminded to circle the bases, and before he danced the final few steps of the route and landed on home plate to close out a 6-3 Yankee win and split of one of the stranger four-game series you’ll ever see.

A Spring Like No Other

I have to say, I can’t remember being so unexcited about an Opening Day. It’s weird. I look forward to the rhythm that Yankee baseball will bring to my life, of listening to the game in the car on the way home from school, turning on YES when I get home to watch while putting together dinner, popping over to this site to mingle with the Banterites.

None of that has changed. I imagine I’ll still consume 125 games this season, my son and I will go to at least one of the games in Anaheim, and we might even motivate to travel a bit farther away to see the Bombers play in person in some other stadium.

But all of that is because that’s the way it’s always been. My attachment to the Yankees right now is more like an attachment to a limb. If they’ve always been a part of my life, if they’ve been the one constant of the past 45 years — and I don’t mean that in a romantic James Earl Jones kind of way, but as a simple fact — how can I not want to do all those things?

Part of this is because I’ve gotten older. I knew when Derek Jeter retired that I would never have another favorite player, just because it made no sense. I’ve got stacks of Jeter baseball cards and a jersey hanging in my closet. Remember the GQ cover with Jeter, A-Rod, and Nomar? It’s in a box in the garage.

I’ve written here before about my affinity to the former Captain, and it would make sense if I were to transfer some of those same feelings to Aaron Judge, presumably the next captain of my favorite team, but there’s something missing. Not with Judge, but with me.

It’s likely that there are fewer baseball seasons in my future than in my past, but that realization hasn’t made me look at this year or the next or the one after that as any more precious. Instead, it’s just another campaign in a series of seasons that have begun to spin past with a disturbing quickness. When I was a boy there was no longer stretch of time than the months that separated the last Yankee game in October from the first one in April, but as I write this on the eve of Opening Day it seems like only a few weeks ago that the Yankees were eliminated in a dismal Wild Card loss to the Red Sox, of all teams.

And I’ve fallen victim to the worst symptom of growing up — I firmly believe that I’ll never again know the thrill of waiting for that pop-up to settle into Charlie Hayes’s glove back in 1996. I won’t ever feel so brashly confident as when I was walking out through the Anaheim Stadium concourse in the summer of 1998, chanting “Let’s!-Go!-Yan!-kees!” along with thousands of other West Coast Yankee fans — after a loss. I’ve been watching this team long enough that my heroes have become myths and their exploits have become legend. Nothing that happens in 2022 will match anything that’s come before, that’s what my heart tells me.

Intellectually I know that I’m no different than the cranky guys at the bar who once complained that Reggie and Munson were no match for Mantle and Maris, or the crankier guys who once preferred Gehrig and Ruth over the M&M Boys. Intellectually I know that Judge and Stanton might put a hundred balls over the fence this year, but will that thrill me like Guidry did in ’78? Like Jeter did when he put #3,000 into the seats? Like Mo did for nineteen years?

But they aren’t wrong when they talk about the possibilities that loom large on Opening Day. If fans in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Kansas City can feel optimistic about their teams, certainly I can muster some positive thoughts for my Yankees. I can look past deficiencies behind the plate and age almost everywhere you look. I can be thankful that I don’t have to root for Carlos Correa. I can dream about the glorious possibility of Jasson Dominguez, the same as I once did about Ruben Rivera. (In the dream, it turns out different this time.)

So while I might not be as excited about this Opening Day as I was five or ten years ago, I’ll still be watching. The line drives will be crisp, the curveballs will snap. A new Yankee will show up wearing an old number that Graeme Lloyd or Mel Hall or Luís Sojo used to wear, and I’ll make a mental note, but I’ll stay in the moment. Because that’s what I’ve always done. That’s what I’ll always do.

The Anatomy of a Memoir

Deep into Here I Are: Anatomy of a Marriage, an Audible Original released last week, Alex Belth describes his wedding to co-writer Emily J. Shapiro. It was a private ceremony on a Caribbean island, the type of wedding you see in the closing scene of a romantic comedy that makes you wonder why you bothered with the stress of a hundred and fifty guests and three entrées and a petulant flower girl. The smart ones elope to paradise.

But buried in the beauty of that moment lies a metaphor that’s likely unintentional. Alex spins a charming tale – Alex and Emily are both charming throughout – about how nervous he was walking from the beach to the end of the pier where the ceremony would take place, worrying with every step that the heirloom ring meant for Emily’s finger might slip from his hand and fall through a gap between the planks of the wooden pier, never to be seen again.

When we think about walking a plank, images of pirates and circling sharks come to mind, or perhaps a ship’s captain falling victim to mutiny. I don’t mean to compare a marriage to such a morbid scene, and neither would Alex or Em, but there is something in that moment to which any of us who have walked down the aisle – or a pier – can relate. 

While the captured pirate might take those final steps under threat of a drawn sword, the happy couple is equally powerless, driven by their beating hearts and intertwined souls. But here’s the irony: no matter how deep the love, no matter how committed the mind, each couple walks this plank and takes this leap knowing that the future is uncertain. And like the pirate, they must ask themselves a simple question: dare we look beyond the end of the plank?

In this beautifully produced memoir, Emily and Alex take us on an intimate tour of their marriage, shying away from nothing, illuminating everything, looking fearlessly over the edge. It’s a project more than two years in the making, stemming from a seed planted long ago in an article Alex wrote describing his role as husband and caretaker to Emily as she struggled first with panic attacks and Crohn’s disease and later debilitating vision issues.

The two of them have expanded that original article into a two-and-a-half-hour expedition, beginning with their cautious courtship, continuing through the early days of their relationship, and extending into a marriage that has not just survived but thrived. 

Structured in a series of alternating interviews, the piece feels less like a book than an afternoon with friends. As Emily describes her numerous hospital visits or Alex admits to childhood issues that have lingered into adulthood, something remarkable happens. The two of them draw the listener in, laying out their intertwined stories and memories with such vulnerability and confidence that the exercise feels less like the dissection of a marriage and more like a coffee klatch. You picture yourself sitting at their dining room table, and when the narrative switches from Alex’s discussion of his father’s drinking problems to Emily’s explanation of why she didn’t want to have children, you imagine that Alex has simply left the room for a moment, perhaps to fetch some cookies from the kitchen.

Without question, the personalities are the strength of the production. I should admit that I’ve known Alex for almost twenty years, but Emily is the star of the show, and probably of the marriage. (Sorry, Alex.) Her matter of fact explanation of her various maladies and her frank discussion of what she’s lost along the way are somehow completely devoid of self-pity; we see her not as a victim of her body’s betrayal but as a survivor always ready for the next fight. Listeners will wish they could undo what’s been done, but not once will they pity Emily J. Shapiro.

Alex and Emily clearly recorded this with hopes of providing inspiration, and they’ve succeeded. As specific and extreme as parts of their journey may be, it is somehow relatable and universal. Any listener who has been married will recognize themselves at some point, perhaps as Alex talks about releasing his need to find solutions to his wife’s struggles or when Emily’s voice softens as she describes her husband’s gentle nature. Listeners who have traveled some of the darker roads described will no doubt find solace and comfort, but even those who have not will feel uplifted.

Here I Are soars because it’s about so much more than medical mysteries and marriage therapy. It’s a love story, something every one of us will recognize. It couldn’t be more familiar. All of us have done what Alex and Emily do here. When one couple meets another, it doesn’t take long before we begin unspooling stories. We stare into each other’s eyes and tell about first dates and near misses, of coincidence and happenstance. We draw sustenance from the sharing of these origin stories, but we don’t usually go deeper than is comfortable. We don’t usually look over the edge.

Emily and Alex do. They tell us about their first date, but also their first breakup. They tell us about their wedding, but also why they don’t have children. They give us everything. They walk the plank, and they ask us to follow.


[Photo Credit: Caleb Kenna]

Yankees vs. Everyone

At this point, I don’t even like looking at the scoreboard. It got easier when the division slipped out of reach and I could just root for the Rays to beat everybody, but the rest is kind of muddy. Do I want the Red Sox to push the Blue Jays further back in the wildcard race, or do I want Boston to lose so the Yankees might be able to host the wildcard game? And what to make of the Oakland-Seattle series? Would it be better for one team to sweep the other, or would a split be better? It’s just too much.

Such is the nature of a pennant race, especially one augmented (or bastardized, depending on your point of view) with so many extra spots. I remember seasons when there was nothing more boring than September baseball, as the Yankees and I basked in the glory of a double-digit division lead and looked at the playoffs as a birth right rather than a pipe dream.

Ah, but times have changed. It’s natural to look at each one of these games as life and death, to curse our luck and load a dropped foul ball with the weight of an entire season, but we all know the truth. There is no greater measuring stick in all of sports than the 162-game Major League Baseball season. When each of those games has been tallied, you are, as another New York coach once famously said, what your record says you are. These Yankees won’t look back at a dropped popup, a six-run ninth inning, or any of various trips to the injured list. You can’t pinpoint anything in this haystack full of needles; the pinpoints are everywhere.

The irony of baseball’s playoff expansion is that while it may have created more excitement in some corners of the country, it’s diluted it in others. Out in California, many are making the argument that the Giants and the Dodgers are the two best teams in baseball. Were it not for the wildcard, this would be a playoff race for the ages, but both teams are already making postseason plans. (The Dodgers, sadly, having built one of the best starting rotations in recent memory, a stable of pitchers that will make them the favorites in any postseason series, face the possibility of elimination in a wildcard game without any of their superior depth coming into play. Will it be exciting? Certainly. Is it what baseball is meant to be? Absolutely not.) Oh, and because baseball refuses to fix inequitable brackets, the Giants’ (or Dodgers’) reward for having the best record in the National League will be what baseball feels should be the weakest playoff entry, the wildcard team. In this case that means the two best teams in the sport will face off in a first round five-game series. To quote another New York manager, “It’s not what you want.”

But the wildcard allows us to dream. As inept as the Yankees have looked recently and at various times throughout the season, they can still win the World Series, and that’s the downside of the wildcard. In theory, you could put the Baltimore Orioles into the playoffs and watch them win 12 of 20 October games and host a championship trophy in the end. If there is any sport that should not have expanded playoffs, it’s baseball, but here we are.

And so dream, I will. If the Yankees can finish up business against Texas and then win six or seven of their last nine against Boston, Toronto, and Tampa Bay, there will be at least one more game. At this point that’s all I want. One more game.

And Down the Stretch They Come…

If there’s been one constant in the Yankee Universe over the past 100 years, it has been postseason baseball. There have been a few droughts — 1965 to 1975, 1982 to 1994 — but no franchise in the history of sports has enjoyed such consistent excellence. The Pinstripes have only missed the playoffs four times in the last 26 years, and while the 2009 World Series triumph might seem like a distant memory, we’ve been spoiled.

And so when things were at their darkest back in June and the Yankees were looking up at several teams in the standings, it wasn’t just October baseball that seemed unlikely. It didn’t feel like the Yankees would be playing meaningful games in September. We acted like spoiled children do everywhere. We screamed. We cried. We lashed out. We assured our non-Yankee-fan friends that all was lost, that this was the worst and most confounding Yankee team we’d ever seen. (They were confounding.) We wanted general manager Brian Cashman to sell at the deadline even though the roster had virtually no sellable pieces. We were insufferable.

But then the calendar rolled over into July, and the Yankees were much better. When August arrived they were even better than that, and in the first week of September the team now sits firmly in control of its own destiny. With the offense looking healthier each day (Gleyber Torres was activated on Friday) and the Baltimore Sacrificial Lambs coming to town for a three-game weekend series, all signs are pointing towards October baseball. Again.

Now if the Rays could only lose once or twice…

If the Season Ended Today…

When I woke up on Tuesday morning it occurred to me that the first game of the double header between the Yankees and the Red Sox would be arguably the most important game of the Yankees’ season.

Sure, the Yankees’ recent resurgence had paired nicely with Boston’s regression to the mean, trimming several games off of a lead that had seemed insurmountable when the Bombers limped out of Boston last month, but this one game seemed crucial to New York’s hopes. It isn’t just that the Yankees had lost their first seven games to the Red Sox this season and 10 of 13, it’s that they were embarrassingly bad in many of those losses. So even though the Yanks had gone 15-5 since that Fenway series while the Sox were 8-20, a loss on Tuesday afternoon would have erased all of that and sent a powerful message to players in both dugouts. Same old Yankees, same old Red Sox.

And so when Boston loaded the bases with none out in the top of the softball-seventh, the Yankees’ 5-3 lead looked about as solid as a Times Square umbrella. Not only were the Yankees going to lose, they were going to lose in 2021 fashion, promising you victory before ripping your heart out and holding it aloft, beating but still dying.

But Jonathan Loaisiga, the most consistent member of the battered bullpen, cleaned up his own mess, retiring Travis Shaw on a line drive and striking out Kiké Hernández and Hunter Refroe to close things out, the last strike coming on a 100-mph heater that overmatched Renfroe and tipped the balance of power in the game’s most storied rivalry. Last month the jeering chants from the Fenway faithful carried an eerie ring of truth, but Loaisiga’s primal scream from the mound following that final strikeout sounded an awful lot like 1978.

The night cap was much less dramatic — solo homers by Luke Voit and Giancarlo Stanton gave the Yankees all they needed for a 2-0 win behind the historically precocious Luí Gil — and even the ending was uneventful. Chad Green’s three-up-three-down save was delightfully boring.

Yes, the Tampa Bay Rays are still five games clear of the Yankees, and yes, there are still 42 games left to play, but I no longer look at those 42 games with dread.

The last time the Yankees played a double header was on the Fourth of July. After they opened with a horrific loss to the Mets, I honestly hoped that Aaron Boone would be fired in between games. Only a young George Steinbrenner would’ve been bold enough for something like that, and it turned out to be a good thing that his son Hal is not as rash. No matter what happens with the Rays or the White Sox or the Astros, Boone is almost assuredly the American League Manager of the Year. There were times this season (last week even) when the players on the injured list could form a better team than the one on the field, but Boone has somehow not only kept his group afloat through one devastating loss after another, he’s had them playing their best baseball after most observers had written them off.

An entire starting rotation and a closer on the injured list? No problem. We’ll call up a kid from AAA (Luís Gil) and watch him become the first pitcher in more than a century to start his career with fifteen or more innings pitched over three scoreless starts. Not a lot of home run power? No problem. We’ll just become a running team. Since the All Star break, no team in baseball has stolen more bases than the Yankees.

When things were darkest, I found myself wishing for a firing, but even then I knew that the sky was not falling because of any decisions Aaron Boone was making or not making. I wanted a change simply for the sake of change, simply to send a message, but instead Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner chose to send another message — “We believe in this team.” On Tuesday afternoon and Tuesday night, their faith was repaid.

When Aaron Judge was scratched from a lineup during the days before the trading deadline, Yankee Twitter immediately lit up with worries that the centerpiece of the team was being traded. Many voices wanted the Yankees to buy sellers at the deadline, not buyers. Less than a month later, those concerns are forgotten.

If the season ended today, the Yankees would be in the playoffs.

New World Order


I like to imagine that somewhere out there are Yankee fans who were off the grid for a few months. They jumped on the internet the first chance they got, and lots of things were the same in Yankeetown.

The first thing they’d notice is that the team is still scuffling, teasing fans into thinking about a World Series one day, ripping their hearts out the next. They’d check on Aaron Judge and be relieved that he’s healthy and still one of the best players in the league. They’d see that Aroldis Chapman has a boatload of saves and has been lights out recently, no concerns there. (Don’t bother telling them; they’d never believe you.)

But then they’d look more closely, and nothing would make sense. Anthony Rizzo playing first base and carrying the Yankee offense? Joey Gallo in the outfield and providing another left-handed bat in the lineup? Rougned Odor at third instead of second? Jameson Taillon was American League Pitcher of the Month in July?

GIANCARLO STANTON WITH A GLOVE ON HIS HAND??? This is obviously the most preposterous development of the past season. After spending two years as a full-time DH, removing any lineup flexibility that would’ve allowed occasional half days for Judge or Gary Sánchez, Stanton is suddenly a versatile corner outfielder, looking adequate in left field one night and right field the next. (The irony of all this is that recently he’s been hitting like a utility infielder, continuing the Yankees’ season-long theme of “two steps forward, two steps back.” Nice for salsa dancing, not for baseball.)

If one those out-of-touch Yankee fans had sat down next to you on the couch for the series opener against the hapless Baltimore Orioles on Monday night, you’d likely have turned to your guest and said, “This is what I’m saying.”

The ballpark was buzzing, the Bleacher Creatures were in full throat, the lineup was delightfully staggered, and the worst team in the American League had generously tied a sacrificial lamb to the mound. You just knew that Rizzo or Gallo or both would launch bombs into the bleachers. You just knew that the momentum from the weekend’s South Beach sweep and the energy of the Bronx would push the Bombers to a big win. You just knew the season had turned.

Didn’t you?

But then Andrew Heaney, the newest Yankee starter, gave up four solo home runs. And then Jorge López and his 6.19 ERA carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning. And then Aaron Boone played the infield back with a runner on third in the eighth even though he was already down by five because probably even he knew how ridiculous the game had become.

It was one of those games, and if the outcome felt familiar it’s because the 2021 Yankees haven’t won a game in which they trailed by four runs or more at any point. Comeback Kids they aren’t.

Oh, and then Boone opened his postgame presser by casually mentioning that Gerrit Cole would miss his Tuesday start because he had tested positive for Covid. (Don’t worry; we’ve got Heaney.)

But. Still.

Somehow I’m still excited about this team. Somehow I’m still looking forward to seeing Corey Kluber and Luís Severino on the mound later this month. Somehow I’m still excited about a playoff run in September and big games in October.

Somehow I still believe. Do you?

Bad News Bombers?

What if — now hear me out — what if it’s possible?

It demands either optimism or delusion to think positively about a team that’s in fourth place in the division and fifth place in the wildcard race, but here we are. This modest stretch of success, taking two of three first from the Astros and then from the Red Sox, feels significant, but we’ll have to wait a bit until we know whether we’ve finally found the oasis or been taken in by a mirage.

But what if it’s real?

The lineup posted for Sunday night’s Red Sox game certainly didn’t give much reason for optimism. While the top four (D.J. LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sánchez, Gleyber Torres) might’ve made sense back in April, the next five were simply preposterous. Four of the players were guys I hadn’t heard of back in April; three of them I hadn’t heard of two weeks ago.

We were promised an outfield of Clint Frazier, Aaron Hicks, and Aaron Judge, but for various reasons (mysterious dizziness, wrist surgery, and Covid-19, from left to right) Aaron Boone is left with Ryan LaMarre, Greg Allen, and Trey Amburgey. Seriously.

While it’s tempting to be critical of management for not jumping on Joc Pedersen when the Cubs unloaded him to the Atlanta Braves, here’s the counterpoint — no team in my memory has seen such a devastating stretch of injuries and extenuating circumstances impact a single position group like this. Looking at it from an organizational standpoint, the Yankees are currently working with their fifth outfielder (Brett Gardner), a converted utility infielder (Tyler Wade), and the starting outfield of the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Rail Riders. (LaMarre, Allen, and Amberguey).

But here’s the thing. Not only did the Yankees take the series against Boston with a decisive 9-1 win, they looked good on Sunday night. They were having fun.

The names you know were 2 for 15 (a single for LeMahieu and a hope-inducing homer for Torres), but the interlopers carried the day. LaMarre and the stylish Rougned Odor had two-run homers, and LaMarre and Allen each had a stolen base. (I’d look up the last time a Yankee had a home run and a stolen base in the same game, but I fear the answer might be Rickey Henderson, which would make be too sad to finish this post.)

While fans might the lament the lack of star power in the lineup, part of the appeal of what we saw over the weekend came from the joy of the players wearing the uniform, the clear appreciation of these unexpected opportunities.

LaMarre, a thirty-two-year-old journeyman who is hardly a kid, took a tumble that was serious enough to draw his manager all the way out to right field to check on him, but the outfielder stayed in the game. “I told Boonie that I’m not coming out of the game,” he explained. “You don’t get too many chances to wear pinstripes, so I want to take advantage of every inning that I get out there.”

It isn’t reasonable to expect these Bad News Bombers to make a realistic playoff push, but if they can at least keep up the illusion for another week or so until Aaron Judge, Gio Urshella, and maybe Luke Voit can rejoin the team, the playoffs will be a possibility.

Seriously.

A Swiftly Tilting Universe

When Gary Sánchez jumped on an 0-2 fastball from Houston’s Blake Taylor in the top of the 8th inning, he did more than just give the Yankees an insurmountable 7-2 lead. Before he had even finished the follow through on a swing so pure that it must’ve been hard for any observer to imagine his two-year slump, it felt as if we were witnessing a massive recalibration of Yankees Universe.

With just six more outs the Bombers would complete not just a 5-1 road trip heading into the All-Star break, but a decisive three-game sweep of the team that has clearly surpassed the Red Sox as the principal villains on the Yankee schedule.

Nestor Cortes, who always looks to me like he’s just gotten off his shift at Ray’s Pizza (Original Ray’s, not Famous Rays), started the opener and came an out shy of qualifying for the win but still lowered his ERA to a city-best 1.05 as the Yankees set the tone with a 4-0 win.

Cortes was impressive, but on Saturday evening Gerrit Cole was phenomenal. After yielding nine runs in eight and a third innings over two mediocre starts, the whispers were no longer whispers. Cole had struggled since baseball’s crackdown on illegal substances, and suddenly the most important member of the Yankee pitching staff — in 2021 and for the next five years — was no longer a known quantity.

Given those circumstances along with the current desperation of his team, his complete game shutout in the middle game of the series was his most important and most impressive outing in pinstripes. When Cole struck out Robel García with his 112th pitch to close out the eighth inning with a slim 1-0 lead, anyone who’s been watching baseball for the past decade logically assumed his night was complete, even it wasn’t statistically complete. So when Cole climbed back out of the dugout for the ninth inning to act as his own closer, it was as if we were all stepping back in time.

Perhaps we weren’t headed all the way to the days of Tom Seaver, who hit double-digits in complete games in each of his first eleven seasons, or Bob Gibson, who had fifty-six complete games over 1968 and ’69, but it felt a lot like Jack Morris’s World-Series-clinching ten-inning shutout of the Atlanta Braves in 1991. (I understand that a performance like that in Game 7 of the World Series puts Morris on another level, but if we focus just on the pitching, this is a good comparison.) While Morris pitched all ten of his innings that October night without any runs on the board for either team, Cole worked his masterpiece with the benefit of just a single run, courtesy of an Aaron Judge homer (more on this later).

Like Morris three decades ago, Cole impressed just as much with his determination as with his brilliant stuff. After a lead-off single to José Altuve forced Cole to work the the rest of the ninth inning with the game-winning run standing in the batter’s box, the once and future Yankee ace took hold of the moment and refused to let it go. A ten-pitch battle with Michael Brantley ended with a harmless fly ball to center field for the first out, and then Yuli Gurriél went down on three quick strikes. What followed is the stuff of legend.

When Cole had last faced the Yankees back in May, Yordan Álvarez had touched him twice for two long home runs, so it was no surprise that Aaron Boone popped out of the dugout as the Houston slugger made his way to the plate to face a hurler who had already thrown 126 pitches. Pulling Cole would’ve been the easiest decision of Boone’s night, and it would’ve been that rare move that could never have been second guessed. After all, this is 2021, not 1951.

But Gerrit Cole was not ready to go quietly into that good-night. Surrounded by an infield ready to pat him on the back, Cole greeted his manager with defiance rather than deference, his head bobbing to punctuate words that didn’t need to be heard to be understood. When asked afterwards what he had said, Cole admitted that, “I said the f-word a lot, and I kind of just blacked out. I don’t really remember what I told him, to be honest.”

Whatever he said, he won his case, then threw three fastballs past Álvarez at 97, 99, and 99 miles per hour, the last pitch accompanied by a primal scream that echoed from Houston to the Bronx and back again. In a month that had seen two of the worst regular season losses in recent memory, Cole had spun a superlative on the other end of the spectrum, giving goosebumps and optimism to Yankee fans everywhere.

The Yankees hung on to that momentum into the third game, plating single runs in the third, fourth, fifth, and seventh behind an impressive effort from starting pitcher Jamieson Taillon, so when the Kracken launched that three-run homer in the top of the eighth, I celebrated.

After a long first half of mediocrity and several different losses that felt like rock bottom, I truly believed the team had found itself, and perhaps even forged a new identity. Saturday’s game had ended with the signature moment of Cole’s defiance and determination, but there was a moment during Judge’s home run trot that seemed, at the time, to carry more longterm weight than anything happening on the pitcher’s mound.

As Judge rounded third, he took a quick peek into the Yankee dugout before clutching his jersey with two hands and pulling it tight, clearly mimicking Altúve’s celebration after his ALCS-clinching homer in 2019, an action that led to rampant speculation about cheating that was more high-tech than just the banging of a trash can.

It was a decidedly un-Yankee-like moment for the de facto captain of this team, an on-field jab at an opponent that we never would’ve seen from Jeter or Mattingly or Randolph or even Munson, but it seemed like exactly what this team needed. When asked about it afterwards, Judge smiled mischievously and talked about how chilly it is in Houston in July. He was just reminding the guys, he said, to stay warm.

Joe DiMaggio was probably spinning in his grave, but the modern day Yankees welcomed the opportunity to join the rest of baseball in 2021. When Sánchez returned to the dugout after his blast, his teammates had somehow found a parka, and he wore it draped over his shoulders (stay warm!) as he paced up and down, accepting congratulations.

It was a happy time. The Yankees would surely close out this game and head into the much needed break in the best possible way. Only a week earlier I had texted friends saying, “The Yankees aren’t going to make the playoffs, but for real this time.” But thanks to this series — thanks to Judge, thanks to Cole, thanks to the Kracken — all of that Sturm und Drang had washed away. The Yankees were back.

But you know what happened next.

The stunning part of this latest ninth-inning collapse wasn’t so much that it happened — we’ve grown used to this now — but how quickly things fell apart, how quickly the universe tilted back into disarray. And unlike previous games, it was hard to question any of the manager’s decisions.

Domingo Germán had looked great in two innings of relief of Taillon, and with a five-run lead and Jonathan Loaisiga on the Covid list and Aroldis Chapman on the what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you list, it made sense to roll with Germán through the ninth.

And you know easily things could have broken differently? Gurriél led off the inning with a single, but it was a ball that dribbled down the third base line before dying in the grass for a base hit. Two pitches later Kyle Tucker hit a rocket off the wall in left for a double, and Green was done.

The unhittable Chad Green came in at 4:39 local time, and things combusted quickly.

4:40 — Double by McCormick, 7-4 Yankees.
4:42 — Double by Toro, 7-5 Yankees.
4:44 — Single by Castro.
4:46 — Line out by Maldonado, one out.
4:49 — Home run by Altúve, 8-7 Astros.

Ryan Roucco described it perfectly: “A crushing gut punch here in the ninth.”

LoCastro might have had a shot at McCormick’s double, Judge had come about two inches short of catching Toro’s double, and Torres really seemed to have skillfully dropped Maldonado’s lineout, setting up what should’ve been an easy double play. Had just one of those butterflies flapped its wings, the Houston rally might not have happened.

But it did happen. As Altúve stepped on home plate to complete the comeback, the smallest man in the ballpark disappeared beneath a horde of celebrating teammates. He was shirtless when he emerged, giving the Astros not just a win but the final word in the conversation Judge had started the night before.

So where do we go from here? If there’s one thing we know, it’s this — no team in baseball has the experience that this team does in rebounding from devastating losses. The only difference now is that they’ll have to rebound with a roster decimated by Covid and against the Boston Red Sox.

We. Shall. See.

Houston, We Have a Problem

If the Yankees were 54-32 and comfortably cruising towards the playoffs rather than 44-42 and desperately clinging to dwindling hopes, this weekend’s series with the Houston Astros would be filled with drama and secondary storylines. We’d be gnashing our teeth heading into a three-game set with a team that isn’t just the class of the American League but a true Yankee nemesis filled with villains up and down the lineup.

But as things are, the Yankees can’t afford to worry about which team is in the opposing dugout. Whether it’s the Astros or the Orioles, the Yankees need wins and lots of them. They’ve put themselves in a position where they’re essentially already in the playoffs, but instead of a five-game series they’re engaged in an eleven-week crucible that demands they win five of every eight games at a minimum. They’ll either eliminate themselves early and limp to the finish line, or they’ll arrive in October battle scarred and forged into a team no one will want to play.

Can this team pull off such a feat? That’s the true value of a series like this. The Yankees can’t afford to think about revenge. Should Aroldis Chapman wind up facing José Altuve with a one-run lead in the ninth inning (gulp!), it won’t make sense to think back to how the Yankee season ended in 2019. Winning two or three games this weekend obviously won’t change the outcomes of either 2017 or 2019, nor will it guarantee anything this season. If the Yankees manage to win twice this weekend, it will simply mean that they’ll need to win just 48 games the rest of the way instead of 50. First-half mediocrity brings nothing but second-half pragmatism.

The good news? It’s possible. Sure, Thursday saw the Yankees fall into old habits as they made a rookie pitcher look like Sandy Koufax and failed to close the deal on a potential series sweep, but there are positive developments that give reason for optimism. Luke Voit had seven hits in eight at bats during the first two games of the Seattle series, Gary Sánchez is a serious offensive threat again, and were it not for the most anti-climactic MVP race I can remember, Aaron Judge would be a strong candidate for the award.

So buckle up, everybody. We’re about to learn something.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver