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October 28, 2003

Breaking Balls

The Curse of Yankee Fandom

by Derek Zumsteg

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Ah, fall. When sullen teens rake leaves in their parents' yards, breath clouding in the morning, muttering about having to get up before 10 on a crisp Saturday, pushing the fallen into piles where, if it's not prohibited by law, they set fire to them in the highlight of their day. The World Series is over and somewhere, George Steinbrenner sits, fidgeting, waiting for his front office staff go gather in one room to talk about the results of this year, where George will set fire to them in the highlight of the year, and go out in search of replacements.

Yankee fandom is such a weird place. Jim Caple wrote that "rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for Ticketmaster, only with better T-shirts." But it's beyond that, and it's only in defeat that the depth of strangeness comes out.

Failure to win the World Series isn't a disappointment, it's betrayal, and revenge must be had. I've been reading fan boards, e-mails, and New York press since the loss to the Marlins, and it's amazing. Most hard-core team fans look at the off-season with a sense of resignation: How's this football game going? Is the quality of play in the NBA still awful? What harem reality show does Fox have for me this month? ("We've taken a billionaire royal prince from the Arabian peninsula and taken him shopping across the country...for women! Watch the catfights ensue as they try to become the first to bear a male child and assure themselves a life of wealth and comfort! Only on Fox!")

Fans of other teams face the off-season and have a thought process that runs (more or less) like this: "We have some good young players, they should be OK. We have this high-paid guy that sucks, boy, it'd be nice to get rid of him. We have some decent pitchers, that might work out if they stay healthy. There are a couple of obvious weak spots, I hope we get a good free agent or two. Yeah, we might be pretty good next year."

Whereas the mob of angry Yankees fans runs: "We've got some good young players, but they're not good enough. They're gone, we'll send them to some god-awful team in exchange for their best players coming up on free agency. We have this high-paid guy that sucks. He's gone. We have some good pitchers, if they get hurt we'll find more. There are a couple of obvious weak spots, and we'll go get the best free agents out there. That should do it."

Where's the fun in that? It's like solving a Rubik's Cube but being encouraged to paint the sides one uniform color.

Take Aaron Boone (and someone will). Robin Ventura wasn't cutting it, so they went out and traded a fine pitching prospect for a guy who...well, his career line is .270/.332/.448, and when he was in New York, he hit .254/.302/.418 in those 54 games, which is low, sure, sure, but he is 30, and his Reds time is about as far over his career line as his New York time was below it. It was a bad acquisition, sure, because they could have kept Ventura, who hit .220/.331/.422 after leaving New York for the pitcher's haven that is Dodger Stadium. For now, Boone's gone from being the steadying veteran presence to a choke artist whose mental makeup was always unfit to wear pinstripes and everyone should have seen this coming.

So Aaron Boone won't be back next year. The Yankees don't have any better options, but hey, there'll be someone out there on the free agent market. Mike Lowell? Tony Batista? Who knows! It'll be someone, though, and only the best will do.

Until they show weakness. For instance, Jason Giambi. Dogged by a knee injury that affected his swing, Giambi only hit .250/.412/.527 on the season. Sure, towards the end of the year he tailed off (badly) and when (if) he comes back on a surgically repaired leg he'll need to establish he can hit strikes. And yeah, he's a big guy who likes his women and fast food and we're told, fast women and fast food on fast women, but there's a crazy desire to bury him, to ship him off to the remotest corner of baseball and eat his salary for the remainder of that crazy deal they gave him, all because he had a year that wasn't as spectacularly amazing as the previous three. But he's Jason Freaking Giambi, one of the most feared hitters for years! Turning his hitting struggles into character issues and his character issues into proof he's not a Yankee and thus needs to be exiled--it baffles me.

It's the same thing with Alfonso Soriano (please!). Here's a guy who at 25 has three seasons under his belt in which he's flashed huge power, can hit for average, but doesn't walk. It feels like he's slumped as scouting's caught on to him, and there's some truth to that: the middle of this season he was pretty bad, but his September (.348/.387/.670) was amazing. He seems like he's up there hacking when he sees the arm come around 'fastball', and I've seen pitchers with wicked breaking stuff make him look dumb. I've also seen great pitchers give up home runs to him, so I'm not prepared to scratch him entirely. Nine Sorianos in your lineup and your team scores more runs than anybody. And you give up a ton of runs on defense, because (among other things) Soriano's bad with the glove.

I don't think there's a fate worse than being a Yankee fan, like the kind of Yankee fan that demands their World Series-losing team be packed into a rocket and the rocket sent into the sun and then the sun blown up. To be so expectant of complete victory that coming up short causes steam to come out one's ears--if expectations are so high, what kind of joy can be had in winning anyway? If the Yankees won every year, would the rabid fans crank up the pressure? "Oh, it took them too many games to beat the Giants this year, they were a weak team, and it should have only taken five games." "No way, man, four, max."

I wasn't cheering for the Marlins to win the World Series so much because I was a fan of the team, but because I've been cheering for the Yankees to lose for years, just to have the expectations ratcheted down to the point where I can talk to a fan of my most hated rival team, ask them how they're going to do next year, and have them say: "Well, we have some good young players, they should be OK..."

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