NEW YORK — Someone was asking me the other day if sports fans in New York are different from fans anyplace else in America. I say, on the whole, they are not. Sure, there are more of them in one concentrated place, and New York is a different city from anyplace else, so that does give New York fans a certain character. The tabloids … the boroughs … the subway … the tunnels and bridges … the rush of Times Square … the buzz of the Village … yellow cabs … the walks along the streets and boulevards … all these things create a background, a canvas, and against that canvas New York fans have their own character. Then, so do Boston fans and Philadelphia fans and Cleveland fans and San Francisco fans and Los Angeles fans and St. Louis fans and Dallas fans and pretty much everyone else. Fundamentally, I think New York fans cheer pop-ups, boo quarterbacks, lay into referees, hope and gripe and celebrate and mourn like every other good fan in the grand ol’ U.S. of A.
Yankees fans, though … well, they are different. To my mind, this isn’t so much because of New York as it is because the Yankees are always a good baseball team. You probably know the numbers: 27 World Series, 40 pennants, 49 playoff appearances. They have appeared in the playoffs every year but one since 1993 — and some of the kids born in 1993 are graduating high school in the next few weeks. Even on those rare occasions when the Yankees are not great, they are not terrible. They are never hopeless. The Yankees have never lost 100 games in a season. They have lost 90 on three times since they traded for Babe Ruth. Their best player just about every decade has been an iconic player, the sort of player who adds to the glamour of pinstripes. Look at the players who have led the Yankees in Wins Above Replacement decade by decade:.
1920s: Babe Ruth
1930s: Lou Gehrig
1940s: Joe DiMaggio
1950s: Mickey Mantle
1960s: Mantle (with Roger Maris second)
1970s: Thurman Munson
1980s: Don Mattingly
1990s: Bernie Williams
2000s: Derek Jeter
Not all of these players are or will be in the Hall of Fame, but they all have their legend, and they all add a little something to the enormity of the Yankees. Add in a few one-named giants who are not even on that list — Yogi … Whitey … Reggie … Mariano … Scooter … Goose — and you see that there has never been a time when Yankees fans did not have a poster for the 10-year-old’s wall. It seems impossible to grow up a Yankees fan and not feel entitled, not only to winning but to something larger — a sense of place, a piece of history, a singular player, goosebumps under the lights, cool evenings and magical comebacks ending with the 4 train rattling and Sinatra singing New York, New York over the speaker system.
Those fans seemed to know when the ninth inning started Tuesday evening that the Yankees were going to win. They seemed to know this in a different way from, say, the hope that floods Fenway Park or Dodger Stadium or Busch Stadium in the ninth inning. Obviously this is only my perception. But it didn’t feel like “hope.” That word suggests doubt or at least hesitation. There is humbleness in hope. Yankee fans — proudly, I think — shun humbleness. Toronto led New York 4-3 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, and Brett Gardner grounded out to start the inning, and still the vibe I was picking up in the stadium was not IF the Yankees would win but HOW the Yankees would win, like this was an episode of “Perry Mason,” and they were as curious as anyone else to see who in the crowd would jump up and admit to being the killer.
Jorge Posada stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter. The roar overwhelmed. It is fascinating to watch a once terrific player grow old in the place where he made his name. It doesn’t happen as much, of course — Bonds did not grow old in Pittsburgh, and Griffey did not grow old in Seattle, and Rickey Henderson did not, then did, then did not, then did, then did not grow old in Oakland. Seems to me there’s something spellbinding, a blend of sadness and joy, the comes with watching the player who brought you so many thrills, once the bat speed dulls by two-hundredths of a second, once the line drives turn to ground outs, once the old home runs die on the warning track. The sadness is obvious. But there’s joy too because, you never know, he might, just might, do it again.
So, yes, the loudest cheer of the night happened when Jorge Posada stepped to the plate. True, he was hitting .176. Yes, it was just a few days after he pulled himself out of the game when he found his name in the dreaded ninth spot in the lineup. Even the biggest Jorge Posada fan in the world knows the end is close … the end may even have passed unnoticed. But even the most cynical Jorge Posada fan can believe in the power of a single moment, one more good swing. Toronto’s closer Frank Francisco threw a 94-mph fastball. And Jorge Posada may be at the end, but he still knows a few tricks, and he started his bat early, and he ripped a line drive to right field. Toronto’s right fielder Jose Bautista slid to stop the ball and watched it bounce away, allowing Posada to trot into second for what the official scorers called a double.
The stadium cheers did not get any louder, I don’t think. They just stayed loud. It was as if everyone was saying: “Oh … so … this is how the Yankees were going to win. Interesting.” Chris Dickerson came into run, and Derek Jeter stepped to the plate — another aging icon, though one obviously in a different moon phase from Posada. He grounded out to to short — in five at-bats on Tuesday he contributed six outs and did not hit the ball out of the infield. There were a few scattered boos when he hit into his double play, though all in all there seems to be a gradual shift of expectation when it comes to Jeter. There are certainly those who think he will re-emerge as a star again, one last trick up his sleeve, though that’s an increasingly small group. There is a larger group, I think, who believe he will find a way to be at worst adequate, often better than adequate, something good, because he’s smart and he’s driven. Anyway, it isn’t as if Honus Wagner plays short in every other American League lineup.
One line of thinking I’ve heard lately from some Yankees fans, though, is a little bit different, and I have to say it’s an elegant line of thinking. It goes something like this: The Yankees can afford to deal with Jeter’s demise. That is to say that the Yankees — with their riches and their history and their great players — should be able to win no matter how well or how poorly Jeter goes. The Yankees, after all, won World Series with Bucky Dent at shortstop. San Francisco won last year with a beat up Edgar Renteria. Boston, after falling short with a great shortstop, won one World Series with Julio Lugo and another with Pokey Reese and a few games of Orlando Cabrera. You don’t need a great shortstop to win. As one Yankees fan wrote in: “Jeter carried the Yankees for a long time. Maybe the Yankees should carry Jeter in return.”
In any case, Dickerson was running on the pitch so he went to third on Jeter’s groundout.
I should mention that at this point, Mariano Rivera was warming up in the bullpen, and that too sent a jolt of excitement through the crowd. Has any athlete in the history of New York (or the history of anywhere) given fans a more assured feeling than Mariano Rivera? I would suggest: No. When Rivera warms up, the Yankees almost always win. It’s that simple. Mickey Mantle … Joe Namath … Mark Messier … Clyde Frazier … Babe Ruth even … none of these players, despite their obvious greatness, could grant the peace of mind that comes with the familiar pitching motion of Mariano Rivera. If he’s up, the Yankees are probably winning, maybe tied, at the very least in position to tie. And if he enters the game, the Yankees will almost certainly win. I think this helps explain why Rivera is so beloved. Certainly it mostly has to do with his own greatness — his 572 saves, his 205 ERA+, his 0.71 ERA in the postseason and so on. But it also has to do with his role, his particular circumstances, with being the best closer who ever lived. Yankees fans have come to connect the very sight of Mariano Rivera and victory. No pitcher in the history of baseball, not even Cy Young, has been on the mound at the end of so many victories. And I would argue that no player in the history of American sports, not even Bill Russell, has been more synonymous with that blast of joy that comes when your favorite team wins.
With two outs, the tying run on third, Curtis Granderson stepped in. The stadium did seem to quiet some, not out of disappointment, at least not the way I heard it. I thought it was out of expectation. Here’s what I thought: “These fans are sure — or at least pretty darned sure — that Granderson is going to get a hit.” Now, I can’t know that. It was just the feeling that came over me. But I’ve never had that feeling anywhere else except Yankee Stadium, old and new. Oh, sure, I’ve been in many places where the fans clearly BELIEVE the guy will get the big hit. That happened a whole lot in San Francisco at the end of last season. But I’m not talking about fans believing. I’m talking about fans knowing. It’s subtle and it could be my imagination. But that’s how I hear it. If Curtis Granderson had made an out, I think a lot of fans would have felt surprise first, then depression.
Granderson already had three hits in the game, and of course he has hit 16 home runs already this year, well ahead of his previous pace. Granderson was a heck of a player in Detroit — I think he was , in 2007 and 2008, a markedly better player than, say, Carl Crawford was at his best in Tampa Bay. In 2007, he had 38 doubles, 23 triples, 23 home runs and he stole 26 out of 27 bases. In 2008, he was only marginally lesser year — he hit 13 triple that year, though it also led the league. In 2009, he struggled, especially against lefties, though he hit 30 home runs. That’s when the Yankees traded for him.
To me, Granderson seemed the sort of personality who would light up New York. He is by all accounts a great guy, quotable, thoughtful, interested in using his position to help people. But he got off to a dreadful start in New York — he was hitting .225 in early July — and because New York has so many people in such a small space, and the tabloids blare the news every day, and talk radio fills the air in stopped cars trying to escape for Long Island and New Jersey, momentum can carry you. Once they label you a bust, it becomes hard to be anything but a bust. Not that they called Granderson a bust … the expectation wasn’t that high to start with. He slugged 17 homers in the second half of the season, and he handled center field solidly, and it seemed that he was destined to be sufficient, perhaps best defined by the letters ALHBTM (At Least He’s Better Than Melky).
But this year he has been re-energized … mostly by the home run, but on Tuesday night he showed off a bit more of his game, slashing two singles and a double on a day when the Yankees offense was mostly pretty feeble. His leadoff double in the eighth sparked a two-run rally that had given the Yankees this chance in the ninth. Now he came up in the ninth with the tying run on third base. And he promptly smacked a ground ball between the hole on the right side of the infield to score Dickerson and tie the score. The New York crowd was grateful. Then he stole second base. The crowd was grateful again.
And that finally led to Mark Teixeira. There is a lot to say about Mark Teixeira. He signed an eight-year $180 million dollar deal before the 2009 season — it was, at the time, the third largest contract ever signed by a player behind only A-Rod* and Jeter. Since then, Joe Mauer has gotten a bigger package deal. You figure Albert Pujols, even struggling the way he has, will get a bigger deal when the season ends.
*Well Teixeira’s was fourth-largest if you count A-Rod’s deal twice … the first deal with Texas and then the renegotiation with the Yankees.
But, there is something different about Teixeira from all those other guys. A-Rod was a remarkable player when he got his deal, a one-of-a-kind shortstop the first time and the reigning MVP who had become the first Yankee right-hander to hit 50 home runs the second time. Jeter is, of course, Jeter — the most iconic player of his era. Mauer is a homegrown Minnesota superstar who, when healthy, has his case for the best player in the American League.
But what is Mark Teixeira? Nobody ever claimed he was the best player in the game. Nobody saw him as a singular force or a hometown hero. By the time the Yankees signed him, he had already played for three teams. He had never won an MVP or come particularly close. He had hit 43 home runs once, a few years earlier, but that was in Texas, the best hitters ballpark in the league, and he’d hit 30 of them at home. He was amazing in Anaheim, but that was only for a 54-game stretch that happened to be conveniently timed going into free agency. He’d been about as good for a 54-game pennant run stretch in Atlanta one-year earlier. He was best, up to that point, as a rental.
This is not to say that Tex is anything less than a terrific baseball player. He’s a switch hitter with power who plays graceful first base. He’s a wonderful player to watch because nothing ever looks too difficult for him. he has the gift. He came to New York and, in many ways, had his best season. He led the league in homers and RBIs. He looked good enough at first base to win his third Gold Glove. He finished second in the MVP voting. And, as mentioned above, once a narrative passes muster in New York, the momentum swells. The Yankees won the World Series. And Tex became viewed as a truly great player.
But it has to be said that since the beginning of the 2010 season, Tex is hitting.256/.366/.487. That is 60 or so walks away from what Vernon Wells has done since the beginning of the 2010 season (not to downplay the value of 60 or so walks). He led the league in runs in 2010, though, and he is a much better hitter at Yankee Stadium where the fans see him, and he’s very good at scooping bad throws out of the dirt and making diving plays, and he has a quiet presence … and so there still seems to be joy surrounding him. There is not, from what I can tell, even a whiff of disappointment when it comes to Teixeira. Yankees fans are always looking ahead to see who the next icon will be. Tex seems to many the most promising candidate.
With Granderson at second base, Tex smashed a hard ground ball to the right side. Toronto first baseman Juan Rivera is not a first baseman by trade. This was only the 20th time he had played the position after years in the outfield. Earlier in the game, he had snagged a hard-hit Robinson Cano ground ball with Yankees runners on base but it looked like pure luck. On replay it was clear that Rivera’s head snapped up when the ball arrived and his glove only happened to end up in the right place. It was not likely that he would make two plays like that in one game. And, in the bottom of the ninth, with the swirl of expectation all around him, he did not. The ball bounced off his glove into short right field, and Granderson scored, and the Yankees won.
It had taken what seemed a pretty unusual series of events — a rare hit from an aging star, a misplay in the outfield, a good decision to start the runner on the a groundout, a ground ball single through the hole, and finally a single off the glove of an inexperienced first baseman. But, somehow, such things don’t seem unexpected in the Bronx. Tex ran away from teammates who wanted to bludgeon him in celebration. Then, he got a shaving cream pie in the face. Everyone cheered. Sinatra sang. And then things quieted down and people shuffled back to the subway, to their cars, to their homes, while John Sterling said on the radio: “The Yankees win. Theeeee Yankees win.” Well, of course they did.