Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Who are you and what have you done with the Yankees?

What? The Yankees are having fun? You cannot be serious! Photo from this site.

As surprising as it is to see the Yankees atop the AL East—and I don’t know about you, but it blew my mind that, until last Friday, they hadn’t been alone in first since the final day of the 2006 season, that’s like 872 years in Yankee fan years—it’s nowhere near as stunning as the method with which they’ve surged into first.

The Yankees played their 18th straight error-free game last night, breaking the record set by the 2006 Red Sox. This is a team that last year had immovable objects at first and short, the poster boy for indifference at second and a guy with a bad hip at third. Derek Jeter still needs 77 steps to get to anything not hit directly to him, but Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez are vastly improved over last year and Mark Teixeira’s defense at first base is as gorgeous as Jason Giambi’s was grotesque.

Most impressive of all is the lobotomy the Yankees have undergone. A franchise that used to play baseball as if it were a punishment suddenly seems to be having a blast.

The most valuable player in each game gets a WWE-style championship belt, or, if he’s lucky, a shaving cream pie in the face from A.J. Burnett. Players have video game tournaments. Teixeira is autographing for Jorge Posada a picture of Teixeira barreling into Posada during a 2006 game.

CC Sabathia took the whole team to the Cavaliers-Magic NBA playoff game Thursday and then did something even more amazing two days later, when he participated in those video games hours before his start against the Indians. Sure is a lot different than Roger Clemens rubbing icy hot (*cough* and God knows what else *cough cough*) on places that should never be anywhere near icy hot.

I have to admit: Even though I wrote thousands of words about the goofily good chemistry of the 2004 Red Sox, and believed every word of it, I roll my eyes every time I hear the Yankees and their announcers gush about how much this teams likes each other and how it has sleepovers during which they watch bad movies, order pizza in the middle of the night, crank call the Blue Jays, have pillow fights and put Brian Bruney’s hand in a warm bucket of water after he falls asleep.

They’ve defined joylessness for so long that it’s tough to conceive of anyone actually having a good time in the Bronx. I still picture Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera—the four holdovers from the dynasty—harrumphing about all the damn kids making all that noise.

Along those lines, is absolutely hilarious to watch Yankees games in which Paul O’Neill—who was the leader of the grumpy, this-is-no-fun-and-anyone-who-thinks-otherwise-will-be-punished-to-the-fullest-extent-of-the-kangaroo-court-that-doesn’t-exist Yankees—is in the broadcast booth. I swear, you can hear him cringe whenever his partners talks about how much fun these Yankees are. Back in my day we broke bats and carried on like three-year-olds! And we liked it!

But George Steinbrenner is no longer in the picture and his kids seem to like running the team with a mostly sane hand. I still think Joe Girardi is a humorless drill sergeant, but maybe he really is pulling a Tom Coughlin and producing a nicer, friendlier skin in order to save his, well, skin.

And maybe Brian Cashman really did find the perfect mix like the Red Sox did in 2003-04, when they imported a bunch of guys who just didn’t give a crap about the team’s history or Curses or anything like that. Nick Swisher seems to be the Kevin Millar of these Yankees and Sabathia, Teixeira and Burnett don’t seem intimidated yet by the mystique and aura of the Yankees. And wouldn’t it be interesting if Johnny Damon, a Dan Duquette holdover who ended up being one of the symbols of the Sox personality overhaul, served in a similar role with the new Yankees?

Of course, it’s still early, and there’s plenty that can go wrong to turn the sunny mood sour. The most reliable reliever in front of Rivera is Alfredo Aceves, who began the year at Triple-A. There’s little depth at the minor leagues if the 30-somethings that make up the Yankees’ core begin to break down. And the approaching summer promises to be the most pressure-packed any of the newcomers have ever experienced.

Let’s also not forget that those 2006 Sox finished a distant third despite their spate of defensive brilliance. And like those Sox, who fattened up on an easy schedule prior to the All-Star Break, these Yankees are feasting on sub-.500 opposition: They’re 22-9 against teams with losing records but 8-12 against teams with winning records. So while these Yankees are a whole lot more fascinating than a month ago, let’s see how they fare in Boston next week before declaring their one-year playoff drought (that’s like 436 years in Yankee fan years!) over.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you (I know; stop the presses!). The Yankees need to prove themselves against the Sox in the next series, or all that has come before means nothing.