When the big news arrived, exactly two weeks before Christmas, there was a palpable, giddy murmuring among baseball fans. The Yankees had acquired Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins for Starlin Castro and a couple of top prospects.
Suddenly, the Bronx Bombers possessed the only two men who had hit 50 home runs last season: Stanton, who hit 59 bombs, and Aaron Judge, who slugged 52, an MLB record for a rookie. They had their new Mantle-Maris combo. It was OK to hate the Yankees again.
Veteran lefthander CC Sabathia was on vacation at the time. His reaction when he heard the news was, ‘Yo, that is a Yankee move.’ If it flushed all those old Yankee-haters out of the bushes, so be it.
“That’s what we like,” Sabathia told MLB Network. “We want to go out there, put the best team on the field and crush everybody every game.”
Damn Yankees. But not everyone buys the notion that it’s OK to hate again. Hart Seely is a humorist and lifelong Yankee fan who published the acclaimed “Oh Holy Cow!: The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto” and wrote “The Juju Rules,” the memoir of an obsessed fan who claimed to influence Yanks games from his couch.
“I’m not playing ball with you on this, OK?” Seely said from his home in Syracuse. “This is fake news, a narrative that’s being put forth by the anti-Yankee media. I hope you quote me correctly on this, because I’m calling out people like you, who are clicking their heels and jumping into the air with happiness because they think the tide has turned their way.
“Well, it’s not OK to hate the Yankees, yet, and I’m going to tell you why – because the Red Sox went out and bought J.D. Martinez, who was the best slugger, the best DH, on the market. Nobody seems to feel that puts the Red Sox in some highly hateable position.”
Seely has a point there. If this is about spending gobs of money on players, the Yankees aren’t close to the biggest offenders. Their payroll is around $165 million, seventh in MLB according to the sports salary website, Spotrac. The team with the highest payroll at around $234 million? The one I grew up rooting for, the Bosox.
It has been a long time since the Red Sox were some cuddly underdog, choking in the big games and spending half as much as George Steinbrenner back in the true days of the Evil Empire. Going back to 2004 and the heroic comeback from 3-0 against the Yankees in the ALCS, the Sox have won three World Series and established an affluent, arrogant baseball empire of their own in New England.
“If it’s OK to hate the Yankees, you better be ready to sign on to hate your little favorite team in Boston,” Seely said. “You could argue that the Red Sox were the best team in baseball last year, and they added J.D. Martinez.”
The Red Sox did win the AL East last year by two games over the Yankees. But they got smoked in the division series by the Astros, who were extended to seven games in the ALCS by a surprising and generally likable Yankee team.
Maybe that’s the problem. Almost overnight, the Yankees went from lovable losers, a team that missed the postseason three out of four years from 2013-16 and actually spent frugally, to within an eyelash of the World Series. They were actually described as a “feel-good” story. Really, the Yankees?
What bugs people is the Yankees got good again too soon, and did it the right way. They signed and developed homegrown studs like Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery, and built around them, as they did in the glory days of Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera.
Yanks GM Brian Cashman, a profligate spender in the past, constructed the current team with a number of shrewd moves. He drafted Judge 32nd overall, Montgomery in the fourth round. He paid just $225,000 for Severino as an international free agent. He stole Aaron Hicks from the Twins for a backup catcher.
In a sense, they beat the Sox at their own game. Boston has drafted well. It boasts the game’s best all-around outfield – Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts. It also signed David Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract two years ago, which hasn’t exactly been a rousing success.
The fact is, the Yankees and Red Sox enjoy the best of both worlds. They’ve developed their own star players and have the luxury of adding highly priced players to the mix, which generally keeps them above such well-run but more cash-strapped organizations as the Royals, Marlins, A’s and Twins.
It was the tanking Marlins – and the sainted Jeter, now part-owner and CEO – who dealt Stanton and the rest of his 13-year, $325 million contract to the Yanks for Castro and prospects. As Seely pointed out, it was similar to the trade the Red Sox made with the White Sox for Chris Sale last year, though Boston took on a lot less salary and gave up a greater bounty in prospects (Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech).
“If the Yankees hadn’t stepped up and traded for Stanton, he’d be playing for Boston right now,” Seely argued.
You can question whether the financial imbalance is good for baseball. With the added wild card, average teams stay in the playoff race longer than ever. It keeps fans interested deep into the summer. But the sport is top-heavy. There are seven teams (Yanks, Red Sox, Dodgers, Astros, Cubs, Indians and Nationals) who made the playoffs last year and are seen as virtual locks to make it again.
But the public loves super teams, as we’ve seen in the NBA. Even as a kid, I didn’t hate the Yankees. I resented them, yes, and even admired them. I secretly wished the Red Sox had Thurman Munson instead of Carlton Fisk, I wanted the Sox to have a speedy pest like Mickey Rivers hitting leadoff, and a stud starter like Ron Guidry.
Hate them or love them, baseball is better when the Yanks and Red Sox are both contenders. The game hasn’t seen anything as passionate and dramatic since they met in the ALCS in 2003 and 2004. At the time, you figured it would become an annual diamond conflict. They haven’t met in the playoffs since the 2004 comeback.
The Red Sox haven’t won a playoff series since winning the 2013 World Series. The Yankees haven’t been in the Series since winning it in 2009. They each added one of the top sluggers in baseball. Maybe it’s time they met again.
“I think it’s almost automatic,” Seely said.
And if the Yanks and Sox finally meet again in October, what will the haters do then? Hate on the team that’s paying its players $69 million less?