It was May 2nd. A Sunday. Eighty-four degrees and partly cloudy. The home team in white with blue pinstripes, the visitors riding in from the west in gray. One with nothing to lose, the other with everything to prove. I announced to my neighbors in section 412 that their team was going to win, that they need not worry, that any time a visiting club’s leadoff man is batting ninth and its designated hitter isn’t hitting anything at all, there probably wasn’t much cause for alarm.
“Our Yankees are gonna give you a game,” someone said.
“This is New York, kid,” added another. “You tell your team you gotta bring your best here.”
“Who’s pitchin’ for you, Buehrle?” someone asked. “Buehrle’s got nothin’ on Phil Hughes. Nothin’.”
As predicted, they were right. And so was I.
It wasn’t really a problem of them facing the Yankees—you know, the Yankees, who’ve won some games, haven’t you heard. But take away the name, take away the carefully manicured mystique and spiteful pedigree and the facts were this:
The team the White Sox were up against was playing .666 ball to the Sox’ .400.
The Sox’ opponent’s leadoff man sported an .877 OPS to Sox leadoff man Mark Kotsay’s .540.
The enemy was hitting a collective .390. The Good Guys? .182.
Two second basemen, entered that game, both heralded as the future of their respective franchises. One, playing for the winning team, was perhaps the best-hitting second baseman in the game at that moment. The other, playing for the Sox, was perhaps the worst.
And their mirror image existence continued almost endlessly, trading one’s bad for the other’s good, but we all knew: one team on the field was built to win this game, the other was built to maybe compete, both proving in unison that competition is no substitute for victory.
There are three kinds of Yankees t-shirts, each more pathetic than the last.
The first is the jersey t-shirt with a player’s name and number on the back: JETER 2, RODRIGUEZ 13, and, for reasons unknown, SWISHER 33. Perhaps bro-tastic whining is what makes a Real Yankee, I don’t know. But you wonder what the point is of such a piece of clothing when, all jokes about envy and weakness aside, Yankee jerseys don’t have players’ names on them for the exact reasons Yankee fans will tell you no one’s jersey should have a player’s name on them—that you root for the name on the front, not the back; that you shouldn’t have to be told who your favorite team’s players are; that the numbers mean something bigger than just who’s borrowing them on their trip through town, unless yuh Babe Ruth oah Dare-ick ****kin’ Jee-tah, in which case you, sir, are a sporting god to these savage baseball heathens.
But I digress.
The second will tell you how many times the New York Yankees have won a World Series. Twenty-seven at the time of this writing but, to hear the people wearing such clothing tell it, that may change as soon as next week while lesser teams are still foolishly hacking away in vain trying to get their unworthy hands on a trophy that rightfully belongs to the New York Yankees. This strikes me as funny not because you can’t take a step around Yankee Stadium without being reminded of this achievement, but because anyone who wears a shirt that says “Got Rings?” quite likely has none of their own. Oh, sure, they wept tears of joy at Rick’s Bar on Leonard Avenue or puked all over the 6 that one night last fall, but ask them how many times the Yankees handed them a piece of jewelry commemorating their contributions to what happened the previous October. Ask them how many hits they got off of Schilling, or how many they stole against the Phillies. These people, these fans, they cannot wait to remind us that their team has won more than ours and yet these people, in the end, have won exactly as much as any other observer of any other game; where a normal fan gets joy from a sporting drama that ends well, a Yankee fan is so sad, so desperate for hope they must try to draw what little pride they can from some stranger’s good day at the office. You might as well claim to have cleaned all the windows on the Chrysler Building.
But again, I digress.
The last is the one about the Red Sox. Or the other about the Red Sox. Or the other one that says that thing about Boston. And you have to wonder: if their team is so great, so storied, such a perfect embodiment of victory itself, why are these fans so insecure about a team with only seven World Series wins to their credit? How can you possibly be threatened by any team, ever, anywhere, when even your team’s museum is so sure of itself? Maybe they’re missing something obvious, or maybe they need to create a fictitious enemy to feel better about what they’ve done to the league, to the business, to the sport.
Or maybe they haven’t figured out that 27 minus seven is a huge number, New York schools being what they are these days.
A lot of people hate the Yankees for what they are, for what they spend, for what they do. I am not one of these people. The Yankees don’t get things done in a way any other team is above, no matter what other self-congratulating baseball operations might tell you. Every team engineered a crooked deal for a new ballpark, every team preys upon the financial suffering of another and every team cons its fans into thinking they are part of something special. No, my problem with the Yankees is that, so long as they and I both exist, Major League Baseball is effectively over.
Think about it like this: having won 27 of a possible 105 World Series (or 95, if you consider they weren’t even the “Yankees” per se until 1913), the Yankees have put themselves in a position where the next-winningest St. Louis Cardinals would have to win 17 titles in a row to give them any competition. The point of the sport is to win and then to Win, and for as long I will live, the Yankees will have done more of that than anyone, ever, anywhere. The White Sox may take them on a Saturday afternoon, but history will show that one of those two clubs won When It Counted because they won enough to end up Where It Counted. They’ve lost more World Series than most teams have even appeared in; what is special to most is an afterthought to them, a team of laughable wealth turning the cherished into the disposable.
This is not about jealousy or some petty sense of entitlement, but about being beaten into submission; okay, New York, you win. You win. You won. Now leave the rest of us alone.
Confession time: I rooted for the Yankees on one occasion, and I would’ve rooted for them a second had the very specific opportunity presented itself.
The first was 2001. World Series. Yankees vs. Diamondbacks. Not out of some sense of post-9/11 I♥NY sentimentality or even adherence to the idea that the league with the DH must always prevail, but because the Diamondbacks of that season were, for all intents and purposes, the Yankees minus the closer. Gonzo, Grace, Matt Williams, Steve Finley Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling: before they were the Diamondbacks’ stars, these were other teams’ stars, Kevin Kendrick and Jeff Moorad having by then successfully pried away the talents of the Mariners and Tigers of the world. Except, in the end what they’d really done is beat the Yankees at their own game—twice over, if you think about it.
When it comes down to it, you can only have one bully in the game, and the way I saw it, the Diamondbacks needed to be taught a lesson. Any more than one goon in the sport and it just becomes stupid; the new big spender becomes annoying and the old big spender just gets even worse. Look what happened to the Red Sox, and now the Phillies; look what didn’t happen to the Cubs. The reason the former are now despicable is the same reason the latter is laughably pathetic.
That shameful franchise from the North Side, by the way, brought about the second justifiable instance of rooting for the Yankees. We all remember the autumn of 2003, as the sports press drooled at the prospect of a Cubs-Red Sox showdown, and we all probably remember recoiling in horror at the sad, sad coverage we knew was coming our way. Misguided poeticism turning squalor into splendor and revisionist history making phonies into phenomenon. It was disgusting before it even happened, and we needed an antidote. We needed the calculated evil of a true juggernaut to reveal to these people everything that they were not. In short, we needed the Yankees.
But it never came to that, and one evil’s incompetence ultimately saved us from another’s menace. Just like last time.
So this is how it comes to pass in an afternoon that the Sox are rendered helpless against good pitching, where their best pitcher is just another guy getting laughed out of New York, where the best they can do is to lose by nine runs and watch a little hope disappear.
There will be other games, yes, and in fact there already have been. Games where the Sox look like the real deal and games where they look like an American Legion softball team getting crushed by the guys from the next town over. There will be some stretches that make us cheer, some that make us swear out loud, and some that remind us again that summers spent rooting for this team seem to get shorter and shorter every year. But it’s only May, and it was just one game.
And yet, somehow, it might as well have been all of them.