When was the last time the Yankees were exciting?
Your mileage may vary. For me, it was Oct. 13, 2012. The Yankees hosted the Tigers in Game 1 of the ALCS that night, a contest best-remembered for two diametric moments: Raul Ibanez lighting the Bronx on fire with another game-tying home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and the funeral-like solemnity that extinguished that inferno when Derek Jeter collapsed in a heap three innings later.
In many ways, Jeter’s broken ankle that night signified the end of the Yankees’ reign of relevance. That might seem too-harsh a criticism for a team that still hasn’t had a losing season in 24 years, but it’s hard to have watched this team for the past four seasons and come away with a different conclusion. After nearly two decades of dominance, the team’s most successful campaign since the Detroit sweep resulted in just 87 wins and a one-and-done shutout loss in their lone playoff appearance. The team’s mediocrity transcended just their win total though, as the All-Star-laden rosters of the aughts abruptly gave way to the Lyle Overbays and Stephen Drews of the world. These were the seasons of clean-shaven Kevin Youkilis, Opening Day lineups featuring Jayson Nix and Ben Francisco, and the Brian Roberts and Travis Hafner experiments you had assuredly blocked from memory.
The Yankees had memorable moments during this timespan of course, but nearly every one was rooted in pure sentimentality…Mariano Rivera crying on Andy Pettitte’s shoulder, Jeter’s walk-off single in his final Yankee Stadium at-bat, the inexplicable redemption of Alex Rodriguez. Little of it served to push the Yankee story to new and unexplored territory, to establish a trajectory toward the next climax. The past four years served as a fine and fitting epilogue to the twenty years that preceded it, but that story is now finished. The lineage to the dynastic 90s died with Jeter’s farewell. CC Sabathia, entering the final year of his contract, remains the last true vestige of even the 2009 championship. There are no more farewell tours to be had, no more nostalgia to tide us over.
This is year zero in the next generation of Yankee baseball.
When Joe Girardi fills out his Opening Day lineup card in St. Petersburg on Sunday, it will be the youngest incarnation this team has produced since 1991. That’s a nice, neat attempt to capture the dramatic transformation this team has undergone, but it’s hard to pack the excitement Yankee fans feel right now into a fun fact. It’s hard to convey the electricity of Gary Sanchez digging into the box, the awe of watching Aaron Judge hit a ball off the scoreboard, the unbridled lunacy of Twitter ablaze with Greg Bird puns after he deposits another ball in the cheap seats. The Yankees are exciting again, and they’re exciting in a way we haven’t seen in a quarter-century.
In every new beginning, there is only promise. That can be nerve-racking. The Yankees are fun today, but fun is fleeting. If Sanchez turns into a pumpkin or Bird gets hurt or Judge is sporting a 40-percent strikeout rate on May 1st, the enthusiasm will waver. If Luis Severino tears a ligament or Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier don’t hit the ground running, the despair will be overwhelming. Promise is dangerous. Promise, particularly of the baseball variety, can break your heart.
Promise is also what makes this such an exciting time to be a fan, though. Every Chapter One could be the beginning of a literary masterpiece, every crackle and pop of the needle a potential harbinger of your new favorite band. Every new year brings the hope that you’ll finally get your shit together — you’ll get that promotion, you’ll lose 20 pounds, you’ll floss twice a day.
The Yankees rode their last wave of success for two decades. It was an incredible run, but the story had to end eventually. Now there’s an entirely new generation of fans eager to see the team begin at Chapter One for the first time in their lives. They’re off to a good start.
Lead photo: Kim Klement / USA Today Sports