Trouble in Yankeeland

If you’re a professional Yankee hater, well, this has been a springtime to savor. For the first time in a decade, the Bronx Bombers look positively human, never mind their recent back-to-back wins against the Mets and the Red Sox. The team seems stagnant and lifeless—a far cry from the exciting and explosive Mets with their young stars Jose Reyes and David Wright.

The Yankees’ formerly smug fans are in a panic: They’re calling sports talk shows and writing letters demanding the heads of men they’ve spent years cheering. They’re cooking up all kinds of deals and signings, ever eager to spend George Steinbrenner’s money in pursuit of the World Series championship they believe should be theirs for the asking.

It’s hard not to be amused by the panic in Yankeeland, by the desperation that drove the team to sign the latter-day Hessian, Roger Clemens, to a deal that will pay him about $1 million per start, with the startling proviso that he doesn’t have to make road trips when he’s not due to pitch.

It may be satisfying to watch Yankee fans squirm, but fellow New Yorkers who delight in the team’s predicament should be careful about what they wish for. The Yankees have been good for New York. Their return to greatness in the mid-1990’s roughly coincided with the city’s own remarkable revival.

A decline in the team’s fortunes, just as they prepare to move out of their historic home to a wildly expensive new playpen in the Bronx, would certainly not be in the city’s best interests. The sight of rows and rows of empty seats in the new Yankee Stadium obviously would be disastrous for the team. But it would also foster a depressing image of the city.

Like it or not, the Yankees remain a symbol of New York. The Mets may well be a team on the upswing, and they surely seemed poised to enjoy many fine seasons in the near future. Ultimately, though, the Yankees are the team most identified with New York. The connection between the city and the team was brought home as never before in the fall of 2001, when the Yankees brought the World Series to New York in the aftermath of 9/11. The Yankees lost that Series in the ninth inning of Game 7, but still: For a memorable week, they represented the defiant spirit of a wounded but determined city.

The days probably are long gone when a single team can dominate baseball like the Yankees did in the 1920’s or the 1950’s. The record they have established over the last decade is all the more remarkable: four World Series titles, six pennants, nine straight Eastern Division titles.

But fortunes ebb and flow, and the aging Yankees may well be coming to the end of a remarkable era of brilliant baseball. If so, real New Yorkers, no matter where they pledge their baseball allegiance, ought to wish the team well as it searches for a new generation of champions.

For a decade, the Yankees have represented New York with class and dignity, and have drawn millions of people to the Bronx. Nobody—not even a closet Red Sox fan—should wish for that to end.

Trouble in Yankeeland