This Yankees Postseason Feels Existential

Yankee fans aren’t as confident as they used to be. Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The first time I ever went to Yankee Stadium, it was game six of the American League Championship Series between the Yankees and the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners were fantastic that year; their lineup included Edgar Martinez, John Olerud, and a 25-year-old Alex Rodriguez, and they took a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning. I was a Midwestern transplant in my early 20s who had only recently moved to New York. I was also a fan of a team that hadn’t won a World Series in nearly two decades. So as I looked around the stadium, I could not believe how defiantly not-nervous Yankees fans were. October baseball is designed to fry every single nerve ending — someone said recently that watching your team play in the postseason is like watching a loved one try to defuse a bomb — which is why it was bewildering to see everyone so … calm.

I turned to my friend, a lifelong Yankees fan. “Aren’t you nervous?” I said. “It’s game six and you’re down 4-0.”

She just chuckled. “We’re the Yankees,” she said. “We’ll come back and win. We always do.”

Sure enough, the Yankees did just that. They scored three runs in the fourth on hits from Jorge Posada and Paul O’Neill, and in the bottom of the seventh David Justice smashed his most famous homer as a Yankee, a three-run shot that gave the Yankees a lead they never relinquished. Nine days later, they beat the Mets to win their 26th World Series Championship and their third in a row. With the sense of inevitable triumph the team carried back then, it felt like the Yankees would dominate forever.

The Yankees have won a World Series since 2000, way back in 2009. But almost everything else that has befallen the franchise this century has felt decidedly un-Yankees-like. The Red Sox — the Red Sox! — have won four World Series in that time. (The Yankees have lost to them in the postseason three times since 2004.) The Yankees once missed the playoffs three out of four straight seasons. They play in a still-relatively-new ballpark that almost nobody likes. Their only MVP over the past 22 years has been A-Rod (until Aaron Judge wins this year, anyway). And, worst of all, not only have the Yankees not won a World Series since 2009, they haven’t even reached the Fall Classic since then. The horror! What are they, the Orioles?

This is the context — the only context that really matters — for the Yankees as they begin their postseason Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium in the American League Division Series against the Cleveland Guardians. The Guardians scored a grand total of three runs over 24 innings in the Wild Card Series and thus seem exactly the sort of team the Yankees would want to face right now. But I don’t see a lot of confident New York fans out there right now. That this Cleveland team would worry them so much speaks to the Yankees’ futility in recent years, the total loss of belief that they’ll come through in the clutch, and, mostly, just how much seems on the line this year.

It’s fair to say that, either way, 2022 will go down as a memorable one in Yankees history, first and foremost because of Aaron Judge’s historic season. Just because Judge’s 62 homers isn’t an MLB record doesn’t mean he didn’t have one of the best hitting seasons in Yankees history and perhaps MLB history. He had the kind of season you don’t want to see fade away with a sad, quick exit from the playoffs. (The Mets had one of their best years in franchise history, but their ignominious loss this weekend ensures that it will never be recalled as such.) Judge’s season will always be remembered. But one of the reasons 1961 was so special, in addition to the immortalized Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle home-run chase, is that the Yankees won the World Series that year. The point of playing for the Yankees isn’t to win home-run titles; it’s to win the World Series. That’s how this is supposed to work.

A postseason letdown would also be particularly painful this year because of the auspicious way the season began. For a while, this Yankees team looked like the best one since the 2009 World Series winners, and maybe even better than that. On July 8, they beat the Red Sox to go to 61-23 on the season, good for a .726 winning percentage. Playing at that pace all year, the Yankees would have won 118 games, which would have been the most in MLB history. But then everything — other than Judge — started falling apart. Thanks to injuries, inconsistency, and some inevitable offensive regression, the Yankees went 38-40 the rest of the way, enough to comfortably win the AL East but ultimately costing them the No. 1 seed in the American League. The team actually had a losing record (10-18) in August before recovering, in large part because of Judge, down the stretch. But they have not looked quite the same since July.

Regardless of the result of this particular postseason, it’s a pivotal year. The obvious reason is Judge’s contract status: He’s a free agent after this season and just had the greatest walk-year season in MLB history. (Judge wisely turned down an enormous contract in the spring; 62 homers would fairly be called “maximizing your leverage.”) The Yankees will obviously do everything they can to sign him, but he’ll be in demand everywhere, perhaps most of all in San Francisco. The Giants have money to spend and a desire to make a splash, and not for nothing, they’re the team Judge grew up in California cheering for. You can actually make a reasonable argument not to give Judge a massive long-term contract — he’ll be 31 at the beginning of the deal and up until his most recent two seasons was notoriously injury prone — but this Yankees offense would look downright barren without him. Either they sign him to a huge but risky deal, or they go into the 2022 season with, uh … Gleyber Torres as their best hitter. There’s reason to worry about other areas, too. Ace Gerrit Cole is still solid but getting older, their bullpen looks far less spectacular than it did earlier this year, and the farm system has some exciting pieces (most notably shortstop Anthony Volpe, who should be up next year) but is still ranked mostly as a middle of the pack. The Yankees will be good in 2023 no matter what happens because the Yankees are always good. But there’s reason to think that they’re more likely to take a step backward over the next few years — particularly with the Blue Jays and especially the Orioles dramatically improving — than a step forward.

The Yankees have more than a puncher’s chance this year. Cole, Nestor Cortes, and Luis Severino are an excellent 1-2-3 atop the rotation, and the return of Matt Carpenter (who was actually hitting even better than Judge when he got hurt) to the lineup is perfectly timed. The Guardians aren’t scary, and you can certainly see the Yankees being at their best against the Astros, a team they (and their fans) hate with a passion right now. But this might be their best shot over the next half-decade. Which is its own indictment: Every year is supposed to be the Yankees’ best shot. This is why the Derek Jeter documentary was such powerful nostalgia: It was the Yankees as we remember them, the way we once saw them, rather than the way they are now — and the way their fans see them. There will be some close, scary games at Yankee Stadium this week and potentially next week and the rest of this month. Look at Yankees fans. They don’t look confident. They look scared as hell. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course: That just makes them just like every other fan of every other team in baseball. But every other team? That’s the last thing the Yankees are ever supposed to be.

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This Yankees Postseason Feels Existential