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In 2001, a few weeks after 9/11, the New York Yankees lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in one of the most exciting World Series in years. A lot of people rooted for the Yankees that year—a sentimental favorite. But, my, how times have changed.
Last week, the Yanks stumbled into last place by losing a set to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays—just the latest in what’s quickly becoming a season of Yankee lows. All around the country, baseball fans are salivating. Dan Shanoff of Page 2 calls it “nationwide schadenfreud.” The Yanks have won four championships in the last ten years. And they have used their deep pockets to monopolize the free agent market in the last five. But here they are, your 2005 Yankees—with a 14-19 record as of this writing. People aren’t just happy the team is losing. They’re giddy over the chance to finally stick it to Yankee fans.
As a Yankee fan, I say good.
I bring up the 2001 Series for two reasons. One, because that was the last time I felt a true connection with the Yankees. (They’re still my team, but I’m as turned off by their spending habits as I’d imagine Royals and Pirates fans are.) And two, because I can’t help but notice the parallels between the Yankee schadenfreud and the rise in global anti-Americanism.
I don’t want to ruin a perfectly good baseball discussion by talking about politics here, but when you stop and think about it, New York’s epic collapse in the playoffs last year was basically the Yankee September 11th. And their acquisition of Randy Johnson over the winter was, for all intents and purposes, the Yankee Iraq war.
To understand what I’m saying, you have to understand how poorly Yankee fans get along with every other species in the universe. Yankee fans are the rude American tourists who can’t understand why anyone would speak another language or root for a team that hasn’t won 26 World Series. Not all Yankee fans are like this, of course. But the ones you’re likely to meet are. That’s because they can’t stop talking—screaming, really—about the fact that they root for the winningest team in North American sports history. Where I come from, we don’t call these people Yankee fans, though. We call them Ranger fans. And they’re an embarrassment to everything the New York Yankees stand for.
When I was in high school in 1994, the New York Rangers played the New Jersey Devils in the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals. It was one of the best playoff series of any sport that any of us had ever seen. But it got to a point where it was almost impossible to enjoy it anymore. Once it became clear that the Rangers were a so-called “team of destiny”—that they were on their way to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years—all the loudmouthed part-time Ranger fans crawled out of the woodwork and got in your face about how good “their” team was (when, meanwhile, they couldn’t name one guy on “their” team other than Mark Messier). Before long, the woodwork fans became so overbearing that genuine hockey fans couldn’t get a word in edgewise, no matter which team they rooted for—the Devils, the Rangers, or even the Islanders (who were minding their own business, having been ousted early in the playoffs that year).
Non-New Yorkers haven’t had many opportunities to see woodwork Ranger fans in action. For one thing, the Rangers rarely win. For another, nobody cares about hockey. But woodwork Ranger fans also form a key constituency of the Yankee fan base. And since the Yankees win a lot more often than the Rangers, the rest of the country simply assumes woodwork Ranger fans are Yankee fans first and foremost.
Either way, I’m not going to apologize for these people. I’m a Yankee fan, but I don’t like them any more than you do. In fact, I think they’re a big reason why the Yankees stink this year—as well as why everyone else is so happy about it.
You see, these fans are only interested in their team when it’s winning, and for that reason the Yankees organization has put a premium on winning at all costs. Now, obviously, there’s nothing wrong with George Steinbrenner going out and buying every major free agent on the market. The team can afford it. And as long as there’s no salary cap, it’s certainly not against the rules. But all the same, it takes the fun out of following baseball for fans of teams that can’t afford $200 million payrolls. These teams spend the off-season thinking up ways to get more out of their existing rosters; the Yankees spend the off-season figuring out who they can give the most money to. This strategy keeps the team in contention, but it’s shallow, boring, and frequently devious. And the Yankee fans who would respond to this by saying, “Well, that’s what you get for not rooting for the Yankees,” are precisely the problem. If everyone rooted for the same team, then why have other teams at all? Just so the Yankees have someone to play with?
This is why I compare the Yankee schadenfreud to the current strain of global anti-Americanism. Think about it. Why do people hate the Yankees? Why do a growing number of foreigners hate America? It’s not because the Yankees and America are dominant powers (though they are). It’s because the rest of the world feels like the Washington Generals to their Harlem Globetrotters.
Americans were right to say, as they did before the Iraq war, that foreigners shouldn’t “have a veto” over American policies. Similarly, Yankee fans are right to criticize fans of other teams who say they can’t compete without a salary cap. Those fans should study the ineptitudes in their own front offices before punishing the Yankees for years of success. But at the same time, the Yanks have abused their market position—making big name trades and free agent signings almost as if out of spite. And much the same, while the whole world mourned September 11th, the build-up to the Iraq war was like one big “Well, that’s what you get for not coming from America.” Remember Old Europe? Freedom Fries? CD demolitions? You weren’t just with us or against us back then. You were with us or we would destroy you. I know; back then, I felt that way.
The Yankees that went up 3-0 only to lose 3-4 to Boston last year were not the same Yankees who won four World Series between 1996 and 2000. Those teams had solid farm systems, which were plundered to acquire many of the marquee players who’ve come and gone like so many hookers since 2001. The Yanks have established a giant financial chasm between themselves and the rest of the league the last few years. The final straw came in 2004, when they swooped in at the last second and signed Alex Rodriguez away from a deal with the Red Sox. This proved, once and for all, that the Yanks would never allow other teams to acquire weapons of mass destruction—which is fine if you’re a Yankee fan, but crappy if you root for the Royals or Pirates.
The Red Sox—who, in fairness, have baseball’s second biggest payroll—responded by building a team specifically tailored to Yankee weaknesses (even growing their hair and beards like genuine anti-Yankees). So when push came to shove in the 2004 playoffs, the Yanks didn’t have a leg to stand on. They faltered, as big, clumsy bureaucracies inevitably do. Baseball fans cheered for the same reason people all over the world have come to view 9/11 as America’s comeuppance. Obviously, it’s sad that the death of 3,000 Americans could be seen in such a light. It tugs at my heart to think of it that way. But just as the Yanks responded to last year’s loss by acquiring yet another big name, high-cost player (Randy Johnson), America responded to 9/11 by invading Iraq. These weren’t solutions to problems; they were more of the same things that caused them. The parallels are increasingly clear.
If the first month of baseball is any indication, 2005 won’t be a good year for Yankee fans. Personally, I’m rooting for a fresh start at this point. Things could improve, but with this listless band of overpaid all-stars, it’s only a matter of time before they bottom out. That’s when the woodwork fans will disappear. And that’s when the rest of us will get to deal with the people they’ve pissed off.
That’s what I get for being a Yankee fan.
Well, that, and 26 World Series.