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.