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The Yankees Can Return to Their Rightful Place As Baseball’s Premier Villains

Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge celebrate after Stanton’s three-run home run in game five of the ALDS. Photo: John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

With their win over the Guardians on Tuesday, the Yankees advanced to the American League Championship Series, where, for the third time in six years, they’ll play the Houston Astros for the AL pennant. The National League side of the MLB postseason bracket features two teams — the 89-win Padres and the 87-win Phillies — who each needed to pull off a pair of upsets to get this far. But the ALCS features two heavyweights who also happen to be two of the most polarizing teams in sports — two teams that, in their own way, are the most compelling villains that baseball has to offer.

The Yankees have long been the league’s great bully, a swaggering franchise with a big payroll that’s not shy about reminding you about all those championship rings. In recent years, the franchise itself has embraced the idea that they are, as former Red Sox president Larry Lucchino famously called them, baseball’s Evil Empire. (The Yankees even once went to court to confirm that status. They won.) They believe in tradition, they demand excellence, and they ooze superiority.

This sort of mindset tends to drive non-Yankees fans mad. TV producer and Red Sox fan Michael Schur, who co-hosts a podcast (mostly) about baseball with sports writer Joe Posnanski, noted on a recent episode that this belief — that the Yankees are more special than any other franchise — is instilled the second a new player arrives in New York: “Suddenly they shave their beards and mustaches and they cut their hair and they just have drunk the Kool-Aid and joined a cult.”

The thing about a superiority complex, though, is that to maintain it — and to really fuel the hate that goes along with it — a team needs to actually win. And the Yankees haven’t had a lot of postseason success in recent years. This is their first trip to the ALCS in three years, and they haven’t reached the Fall Classic since 2009 — an eternity for a franchise that enters each season with a “World Series or bust” mentality. They’ve built a brand on sustained dominance, but the confidence that once electrified Yankee Stadium during the team’s best years has been understandably missing.

Indeed, the vibes among Yankees fans have been strange this year. As my colleague Will Leitch has pointed out, the season’s dramatic ups and downs left fans uncharacteristically nervous entering October. But even with fans still voicing complaints about manager Aaron Boone, the Yankees continue to march on, despite hitting just .182 in the ALDS. Through three postseason home games (and one rainy non-game night), the crowd at Yankee Stadium has been making noise for Giancarlo Stanton homers and Gerrit Cole strikeouts and singsongy chants of “Who’s your daddy?” directed at Cleveland’s Josh Naylor, who’d mimed rocking a baby in his arms after homering off Cole in game four (it’s a long story). I’m not even sure fans are operating at peak Yankee arrogance yet, and this is already what the scene looks like postgame:

But such displays may not grate on a national level the way they used to. Because as the Yankees made a habit of early-round playoff exits in recent years, a new villain emerged in Houston, one with a much more specific origin story. The Astros’ brand of organizational McKinsey-ball turned around a moribund franchise but also turned off fans outside of Houston with a cutthroat front office obsessed with data-driven efficiency. The team committed a far worse sin by illegally stealing signs en route to a 2017 World Series victory, cementing their legacy as rule-breakers. Some of the players from that team are now with different clubs; some of the players on this year’s Astros weren’t around when it happened. But it doesn’t really matter to most fans, who will long associate the franchise with trash-can-based espionage.

The Astros are on the kind of run the Yankees would have found routine during pretty much any decade except the last one. They’ve now reached the ALCS in six straight seasons, advancing to the World Series three times over that span (twice beating the Yankees to get there) and winning it once. And so even if the internet has exhausted its supply of fresh garbage-can jokes, and even if we’ve all long stopped giving José Altuve videos the Zapruder treatment, Houston remains baseball’s villain of the moment.

But the Yankees, if we’re being honest, wear the black hat much better than the Astros. To root against the Astros because of their 2017 scandal is to cast a moral judgment, and we’ve already relitigated one cheating scandal too many this season. The Yankees don’t need to rile up opposing fans with tweets that literally talk trash and make light of their own bad behavior. Their reputation forever precedes them; they just have to thank the good Lord for making them Yankees, take the field, and soak in the boos of opposing fans just for being who they are. They surely wouldn’t have it any other way, either.

As the two teams square off on Wednesday night, Yankees fans hope their team can exact revenge after disappointing losses in 2017 and 2019. Astros fans will double down on the us-against-the-world mentality they’ve developed in recent years. And the rest of the country can just hate-watch it all and root, as the joke goes, for the meteor.

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The Yankees Can Return to Their Rightful Place As Villains