All across Arizona and Florida, pitchers and catchers are reporting to Spring Training facilities with position players soon to follow. This means the long winter is almost over and that the 2018 MLB season is upon us. Many free agents are still unsigned, but the core personnel for all teams are pretty much set. Some trades and free agent signings may still happen in the coming weeks before the regular season gets underway, and there is always a chance that a prospect exceeds all expectations and leaves Spring Training with the big club instead of going back to the minors, but barring that, we pretty much know which players will be on which teams for Opening Day. Spring always makes me think about my beloved New York Yankees – both what they’ve meant to me over the years and what they mean to me going forward, as well as the hopes I have for the coming season. And, after several years of having little hope in the Yankees, there is once again the potential for greatness taking place within the confines of George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida.
I have been a Yankees fan my entire life. It started because of my mother who spent some time in Comack, NY when she was a child and was a Yankees fan, especially a fan of Thurman Munson. So, when I was born, I became a Yankees fan too. I have brief glimpses of memory of the Bronx Zoo Yankees in the late 1970s, mainly of Reggie Jackson. The 1980s was when I truly became a diehard fan. The days of summer were filled with the exploits of Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Willie Randolph, Rickey Henderson, Mike Pagliarulo, among many others. Growing up in Northwestern Connecticut, televised games were watched mainly on WPIX-11 out of New York, listening to Phil Rizzuto talk about birthdays, holy cows, and leaving after the seventh inning.
I, like many Yankees fans, remember my first visit to Yankees Stadium. It was a spur of the moment trip with my buddies George and Bobby, and George’s dad. The Yankees were playing the Canseco/McGwire Athletics. I believe the Yankees lost 6-2, but I’m not positive that was the result after 30+ years. I do remember how green the grass was, how blue the sky was, how loud the fans were, and just how majestic Yankees Stadium was. This was the late 80s/early 90s Yankees, so needless to say, the team wasn’t very good. Sadly, I have not been to Yankees Stadium since the early 1990s and my last Yankees game in-person was a Subway Series game in June 2001 but that was in Shea Stadium. Sadly, I have yet to visit the new Yankees Stadium but hope to get there for a game as soon as I possibly can.
Yankees fans that started following the team in the mid-1990s have pretty much only known success. They do not know the pain and the suffering that was the Yankees of the 1980s. They haven’t lived through dealing away players for whatever big bat happened to be available (Jay Buhner for Ken freakin’ Phelps, Steve Balboni). They have only known relative stability at the manager position, not the carousel of managers that seemed to bring at least two managers to the team every season. With this team, I believe Aaron Boone will be around for at least five years, if not longer. Being the Yankees, the end goal is always the same, so in order to remain, they need to win the World Series at least once in the next five years for Boone to make it to a decade at the helm.
The players are what truly determines how successful a Yankees season is. Each successful Yankees team, or dynasty of teams, have a core group of players (or a single player) that are integral to their success. Every decade in Yankees history has these players – Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the 20s, Joe DiMaggio in the 30s and 40s, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle in the 50s, Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson in the 70s, Don Mattingly in the 80s, and of course the “Core Four” of Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, and Rivera in the 90s/2000s. This Yankees team may have a “Core Six” – Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Luis Severino, and then add in someone like Giancarlo Stanton, Gleybar Torres, or Miguel Andujar. The Yankees of the late 2000s/early 2010s, while successful, did not have this core group of players. Jeter and Rivera were at the end of their careers, and the team was comprised of older players mainly built through free agency – the team’s prospects were once again sacrificed for the high priced free agent or big name trade like they were in the 1980s. That is until the last couple of years when Brian Cashman convinced ownership to sacrifice winning for a few seasons to rebuild the Minor League system and ride out the over-priced older talent. Now the team is ready to compete for the next decade to come, just like they were in 1996.
This is what has me most excited to be a Yankees fan again. The Yankees are not “buying” a World Series title like they did in 2009 by signing the biggest free agents – they are reloading from within. Trades and free agents are still key, as is resigning your own players (which having the coffers of the Yankees always makes it easy to resign the players) but it is having young players developed and coming up through your system that truly helps a team succeed. Whether these players are drafted into the system or obtained through smart trades, all teams need to have young prospects to get the fan base excited about the future, and finally, the Yankees have this again.
The mid-1990s Yankees rejuvenated Yankees fans. The 1994 season was the first great season since 1981, but would be cut short due to the Players’ Strike. I was looking forward to Donnie Baseball’s first post-season appearance, hopefully against Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez and the rest of the monstrous Montreal Expos. Sadly, due to the strike, that never happened. 1995 brought the first Wild Card game and the heartbreaking double by Edgar Martinez and the end of Don Mattingly’s career. 1996 changed everything – players like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte were on the roster (though Posada’s impact was still a couple of seasons away).
I was in the United States Air Force at that time and for the next seven years, I would find myself up at 2am while in England to watch a playoff game, or being deployed to Kosovo and up at 6am still watching Game 4 of the 2001 World Series as it went into extra innings and I had to go to work right after (that made for very long day). I remembering losing my voice from screaming so hard when Jim Leyritz hit the homer against the Braves in 1996 and sitting in utter disbelief as Mariano Rivera gave up the game-winning hit to Luis Gonzalez in 2001. I remember sitting in tears watching Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte come out to the mound to take Rivera out of his final game. I remember thinking that of course, Jeter’s final hit in Yankees Stadium was an opposite field, game-winning hit. The Core Four Dynasty created so many memories for Yankees fans to look back on over the years.
I must admit, that over the last few years I have watched very few regular season Yankees games; even during Jeter’s and Rivera’s final seasons I only managed to watch a couple games. The slowness of the game, the inane announcers, just other things going on, all stopped me from watching more games. I found myself watching highlights of games or players so I could write about the team for several websites, but I just couldn’t find the time to watch the team much after 2008 or so.