I’m a Yankee fan.
I don’t know if you knew that about me; it is something I tend to hold pretty close to the vest. Oh, there are a few hints out there – the large decals on the back window of my truck, the plethora of paraphernalia around my office, the shirts and shorts and jackets, 8 Yankees ball caps, the cell-phone cover, the life-sized cardboard cutout of Babe Ruth in my office, you know – a few minor things. Other than that, I try to keep my sports allegiances to myself. It’s just not something I feel comfortable talking about.
Being a Yankee fan is both a joy and a trial. One word sums up the joy – 27. That’s how many World Series championships we have. The trials come, of course, from those who are jealous of the Yankees’ accomplishments, those who are fans of lesser teams who wish they were the boys from the Bronx. They come from those who feel Yankees fans are fair game for ridicule (though we are uniformly humble and unassuming in our cheering practices). They come from frustrated fans of teams who don’t have the Yankees’ resources.
My love affair with the Yankees began in earnest on Saturday, October 10, 1964. I was watching game 3 of the World Series with my dad on our grainy black and white set. Mickey Mantle led off the bottom of the ninth inning of a 1-1 game. My dad, a Yankee fan since growing up in eastern Pennsylvania listening to Yankees games on the radio in the Lou Gehrig era, was begging for Mickey to hit a home run and end the game. That is exactly what he did. We didn’t call them “walk-offs” back then but that was the first time I remember pulling for the Yankees and rejoicing at their success.
Soon after that game, the Yankees took a turn for the worse. They lost that series and became a mediocre to poor team for the next decade. I still cheered for them even though there wasn’t much to get excited about.
Then, in the mid 70s George Steinbrenner discovered free agency and a new Golden Era was born. Reggie Jackson. Sweet Lou. Catfish Hunter. Thurman Munson. Willie Randolph. And, of course, Billy Martin. Those Yankees were pretty good, reaching 3 straight World Series and winning two of them, both against the much-hated and evil Los Angeles Dodgers.
The second of those years was the greatest of all seasons for a Yankee fan. In 1978, the Yankees started out in turmoil. Reggie and Billy were fighting and the Yanks were losing. In the middle of August they were 14.5 games out of first (no wildcards then) and given up for dead. Then, the Yankee miracle took place. They won…and won…and won again. After 162 games they were dead even with the forces of darkness and they went into Fenway (the vortex of evil in the world) for a tie-breaking game. Down 2-0 with the innings slipping away, light-hitting Bucky Dent stepped to the plate and deposited a ball in the netting over the Green Monster. After a soul-grinding 3 inning save by Goose Gossage, the Yankees were on their way to an easy win over the sinfully wicked Kansas City Royals and the Dodgers – each easily brushed away. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
Then things got bad. Real bad. George Steinbrenner decided to see if he could single-handedly turn my beloved Bombers into a joke. Firing and hiring managers on a nearly daily basis. Trading away any prospect in the Yankee system for broken down outfielders who couldn’t hit anymore. Criticizing and ridiculing his own players. From 1981 until the mid 90s the Yankees were a joke.
But an interesting thing happened in the early 90s. Steinbrenner got in trouble for some shenanigans he pulled against Dave Winfield and was suspended for a couple of years. Gene “Stick” Michaels, one of the former managers, took over the operation of the team. He built the farm system up and in the mid 90s a crop of young talent came up that changed the course of the Yankees over the last 20 years.
You haters say, “The Yankees are the best team money can buy.” Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard it a million times. And they do spend a lot of money. But the truth is that the backbone of the Yankees championship teams of the 90s and 2000s was a cadre of farmhands who never wore anything but pinstripes (with one exception). A young man named Derek Jeter (who Steinbrenner wanted to trade!), Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte (left for Houston for a couple of seasons), Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera (G.O.A.T.) and later, Robinson Cano.
This team was different. Oh, they were still hated because of the uniform they wore, but even the haters had to admit that this core group of players (later known as the Core 4 after Bernie retired) was a classy group and a credit to game of baseball.
And now, they are gone. Gone. None of them will ever play in the Bronx again, except perhaps on Old-Timers Day.
I sat in my hotel room in Des Moines in a puddle of tears when I watched Derek Jeter’s last game at Yankee stadium. I can’t help but wonder if it was all staged – Hollywood would reject a script like that because it was too perfect. Derek puts the Yanks ahead in the 7th, then the bullpen gives up three runs in the ninth to tie the game. In the bottom on the ninth, Derek lines a single (yes, an inside-out swing to right field – he Jeterized it!) to score the winning run. That was fun.
But then I saw them standing there. Andy. Mo. Jorge. Tino Martinez. Bernie. And of course, the Mr. Joe Torre. Standing in a line waiting to greet the last of their group to walk away. Jeter didn’t see them and greeted all his teammates. Then, as he was headed to the dugout, CC Sabathia came over to him and pointed him to the reception committee.
My wife walked in and thought I’d lost my mind. There I am blubbering as a bunch of men hug one another on a baseball field.
But I love the Yankees. And the last 20 years, the Derek Jeter era, has been the true golden eera for my boys. Year after year they made it to and dominated the playoffs. They have been a joy to watch. And its gone. An era has ended.
Of course, it all started to end in the winter before the 2004 season when we traded for a steroid-enhanced infielder from Texas (we Yankee fans do not speak his name). He Who Must Not Be Named had some good years and helped us win the Series in 2009, but we could never feel about him the way we did about the Core 4.
And the era really ended in Yankee Stadium in 2012. The Yankees were playing Detroit in the first game of the ALCS championship. In the first game, down 4-0, the Yanks came up in the bottom of the 9th. Two 2-run home runs later, Yankee stadium was rocking and confidence was high that we would roll through the Tigers and go back to the Series where we belonged.
Then came the second worst moment of my Yankee-cheering career. The worst was in 1979 when a news flash told us that the Captain, Thurman Munson, died in a plane crash over the All-Star break. This one came in the top of the 12th when the new Captain ranged to his left to field a fairly simple ground ball. His ankle snapped and he fell in a heap and the heart of the Yankees was gone. We lost 4 straight.
Derek tried to come back last year, but played in only 17 games. This year, he has been a leader, an inspiration, and a .255 hitter.
But Thursday night he was Captain Clutch all over again. It was dramatic, wonderful, fitting – like a glimpse into the old days. But it was also a reminder that those old days are now historical.
It is hard to imagine that next year someone else will be at short. The Core 4 is gone. I suspect the Yankees will spend enough money to field a decent team in 2015. But the glory days of the Core 4 are gone.
It’s gonna be hard for this old codger to get my soul stirred to watch. I’ll keep cheering. If the Yankees are bad, or worse, mediocre, for a few years, I’ll be a fan – like I was in the 60s and the 80s. I realize my passion for the pinstripes is at times out of balance – the Holy Spirit and I have had several meetings about idolatry through the years. I know there are more important things than baseball out there. But all of my life I’ve loved the Yankees and this bunch, this Core-4 led, championship-winning, classy iteration of the Bronx Bombers has given me many a a joyous moment through the last 20 years – more than I can remember.
And when Derek Jeter walked off the field Thursday night, I died a little. As he rides off, the Captain takes a piece of my heart with him!