The Yankee franchise represents the worst side of modern baseball and is thus the fittest of villains in the cosmic drama embodied by the game…
“They are the ‘Dark Side.’ They represent all that is evil about baseball, and about our society in general.” —Bill Lee, former major league pitcher
It was the late winter of 2002, and the Boston Red Sox were in hot pursuit of Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras, who had just fled the communist island-nation and whose services could be secured by any Major League team—likely the one that bid the highest amount for his services. The wealthy Red Sox were optimistic that the flame-throwing Contreras would soon be theirs and would help the team surpass their hated rivals, the even-wealthier New York Yankees, to whom they had finished second in the American League East for five straight years. But when the Yankees announced that Contreras had accepted their offer of $32 million for four years (in those days a generous baseball contract), the Red Sox were stunned. Team President Larry Lucchino complained to a reporter, “The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.”
“The Evil Empire”—the Star Wars-themed, Reaganesque epithet captured the essence of how the rest of the baseball world had long viewed the Yankees franchise. In 2008, a small company named Evil Enterprises, who sold merchandise parodying the Yankees’ logo, attempted to patent “Baseball’s Evil Empire” as its signature phrase for the line of products. But the Yankees fought the claim and tried to prove that the title belonged to them. The Yankees won the case and the exclusive right to use of the name. “The record shows that there is only one Evil Empire in baseball and it is the New York Yankees,” the judges wrote in their decision.
Though its ghostly legends—Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Red Ruffing—hold a revered place in baseball lore, it is the modern Yankee franchise, beginning with the reign of owner George Steinbrenner, that has represented the worst of the modern era of Major League Baseball.
As with all modern institutions, money has infected—though not debased—baseball. With the advent of free agency in 1975, players were no longer bound for life to the team that had originally drafted them, and were able instead to negotiate a contract with any team after they had accrued a certain period of service time. In Gotham, businessman George Steinbrenner had recently become majority owner of the Yankees, and the change in baseball’s labor agreement gave him a blank check to throw out lucrative contracts to players in an attempt to win championships.
Two decades before the Contreras signing, Steinbrenner signed Dave Winfield, then a rising star with the San Diego Padres, to a ten-year, $23-million contract. Midway through the deal, the ever-critical and overbearing Steinbrenner lashed out at his star player’s poor performance during a crucial fall series, dubbing Winfield a “Mr. May” who failed to perform in the clutch. Despite the moniker, Dave Winfield was a bona fide star for the Yankees, as were many of the other free agents Steinbrenner signed to big-dollar deals between 1977 and 2009, when the Yankees won (purchased?) seven World Series titles: players like Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui….
Steinbrenner was less successful in buying other players in his fevered pursuit of a pennant at any cost. Pitcher Ed Whitson (five years, $4.4 million), who was signed after the 1984 season, lasted only a year-and-a-half as a Yankee; he was so bad that he was heckled by fans after games and even received death threats; Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu (four years, $12.8 million) was inconsistent and generally poor, gaining so much weight at one point that Steinbrenner referred to him as a “fat toad”; Pitcher Kenny Rogers (four years, $19.5 million) had the two worst years of his generally very good career with the Yankees, and he ended up being traded, along with cash, to the Oakland A’s for a player-to-be-named-later.
Yankee fans are known to boast about how many players want to play for the Yankees, pointing to cases such as that of the aforementioned Hideki Irabu, whose Japanese contract was purchased by the San Diego Padres; Irabu refused to sign with the Padres, saying he would only play for the Yankees. A trade was worked out between the teams, and Irabu signed a four-year, $12.8 million with the wealthier Bronx Bombers.
Irabu’s case actually raises a question that most Yankee fans miss: Was it the lure of Yankee greenbacks, or the honor of wearing Yankee pinstripes, that enticed Irabu? Indeed, has any player has ever turned down more money from another team to play for the Yankees? The aforementioned Dave Winfield, derided by owner Steinbrenner as “Mr. May,” when inducted into the Hall of Fame, chose to be enshrined there, not as a Yankee, in whose uniform he achieved his greatest fame, but as a member of his original team, the Padres.
The (Narcissistic) Face of the Modern Yankees
In 2004, the Yankees traded for Rangers’ superstar, Alex Rodriguez, then in the midst of a ten-year, $252-million contract. In 2007, “A-Rod” exercised his right to opt out of the contract, signing another deal with the Yankees: ten years, $275 million. At the end of the 2016 season, A-Rod retired, and by the time the Yankees pay off his contract in 2017, they will have paid the slugger more than $317 million (the excess amount because of a bonus clause in his contract); and this does not include $132 million in luxury-tax penalties that the Yankees had to pay Major League Baseball due to the size of the Rodriguez contract.
Though he won two American League Most Valuable Player Awards with the Yankees and helped the team win the 2009 World Series, A-Rod became the focal point of controversy during his Yankees career: He was implicated in the performance-enhancing drug scandal that swept baseball in the early 2000s, finally admitting in 2009 that he had taken a “banned substance” during his playing career; he had a contentious relationship with fan-favorite shortstop Derek Jeter, slighting the team captain in comments to the press for lack of leadership; and he carried on with many high-profile, less-than-wholesome women—including Madonna and actress Kate Hudson—on the New York club (and strip-club) scene, including when he was married.
On the field, A-Rod made several classless plays that violated baseball protocol: he once lazily traipsed across the pitcher’s mound when returning to first base from third base on a ball that turned out to be foul (it’s just not done in baseball—”Get off my mound” was A’s pitcher Dallas Braden’s response); he once successfully confused two Blue Jays’ infielders by shouting “I got it” when they were converging on a popup (“That’s not Yankee pride right there,” Jays’ manager John Gibbons complained. “That’s not the way they play. I thought it was bush league”); during a 2004 playoff game against the Red Sox, A-Rod, in trying to make it safely to first base on a slow roller up the first-base line, illegally slapped the ball out of Boston pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s glove (this initially allowed Derek Jeter to score, but upon Boston’s protest, the umpires ruled interference, called A-Rod out, and voided the run).
Alex Rodriguez embodies the modern New York Yankee franchise: undeniably talented but also cocky, self-obsessed, overpaid, and willing to win at any cost. And that cost sometimes involves cheating.
The most notorious instance of the Yankees benefitting from extra-legal means occurred in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series between the Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles. With the Yankees down 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Derek Jeter hit a long fly ball, under which Orioles’ right fielder Tony Tarasco positioned himself at the outfield wall, ready to make the catch. As the ball descended to just a mere few feet above Mr. Tarasco’s raised glove, a twelve-year-old fan, one Jeffrey Maier, reached over the wall and pulled the ball into the stands. Fan interference on a ball in play is not permitted, and the umpire is given the discretion to call the batter out in this situation, if in his judgement the ball would have been caught—or to award the batter a certain number of bases, if he thought that the ball would have hit off the wall. But umpire Richie Garcia—over vociferous protests from Mr. Tarasco and Oriole manager Davey Johnson—ruled the play a home run, and the game was thus tied, the Yankees going on to win in extra innings. The interference play swung the momentum in the series, and the Yankees won the best-of-seven championship four games to one.
Perhaps worse still was Gotham’s treatment of Jeffrey Maier, who was feted as a hero by the team and the New York media, the youngster appearing on national shows and being given star treatment in the Big Apple. All this for interfering with the integrity of a crucial major league baseball game, an infraction that, if committed by an adult, would have resulted in an immediate ejection from the ballpark. In later years, several Yankee players involved in the game admitted that the unimpeded ball would not have cleared the fence, and the Yankee franchise itself tacitly admitted the complicity of a fan in their victory when the team installed a railing above the right-field wall to prevent spectators from interfering with balls in play.
As for Derek Jeter himself? With the video undeniably proving fan interference, he was forced to admit “there was a little interference there”; however, the famous Yankee tellingly added, “but I don’t care.” (Such a reaction is not surprising from a player who once put on a melodramatic act, pretending that he had been hit in the wrist by a pitch—and thus awarded first base—when video replay showed clearly that the ball had hit the nub of his bat.)
Their pattern of cheating has continued in recent years. In 2014, Yankee pitcher Michael Pineda was caught with pine tar on his neck, which he was illegally adding to the ball to aid its movement; in 2017, outfielder Matt Holliday made a bizarre and apparently unprecedented manuever on the basepaths to interfere illegally with the Red Sox’ completion of a double play; also in 2017, the Yankees violated the rule book once again by keeping Yankee Stadium’s lights off, as the skies darkened, in the top of the 10th inning versus the Orioles, turning them on only as the home team came to bat in the bottom of the inning (the Orioles immediately protested, and umpires ordered the lights turned back off).
And the Yankee penchant for cheating extends too to their fans. In 2017, a Yankee fan was ejected by the home plate umpire for calling out the set-up position of the opposing catcher to a Yankee batter, thus helping him identify where pitches were going. The fish rots from the head down, it is said.
The Yankees’ Maier-aided comeback in the 1996 playoffs was simply the most high-profile of many such Yankee late-game rallies in the modern era that suggest to their opponents that something is afoot in Yankeedom that defies natural explanation. Though it is difficult to find data on the number of such comebacks, the present writer is an Orioles fan who has followed the game closely for decades, and who can testify that the Yankees have an uncanny—or perhaps to put it less generously, an infernal—knack for coming from behind, or at least, threatening to come from behind, particularly in the final inning of games. One is reminded of the vampire, who seemingly cannot be killed by normal means.
One only has to look back a few weeks to see one of the greatest examples of such a nearly inexplicable comeback: In a game on April 28, the Yankees trailed the then-first place Orioles 5-0, 9-1, and 11-4, before scoring four runs in the seventh inning, and three runs in the ninth inning to send the game into extra innings. The game-tying home run, again almost inexplicably, was hit by second baseman Starlin Castro as he fell to his knees. The Yankees ended up winning the game in the tenth, an outcome that seemed pre-ordained after the abominable acts of the ninth inning.
And it is not simply comebacks, the number of balls that bounce the Yankees’ way, or the number of close calls decided by umpires in their favor that suggest that the Yankees possess more than the usual amount of luck allotted by the baseball gods to each team. Again, simply considering this season, the Yankees were fortunate enough on two occasions to face starting pitchers who were obviously injured when the game commenced (Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays and Brett Anderson of the Cubs); the Yankees won both games. They also had the good fortune to avoid facing the Cubs’ regular, lights-out closer (Wade Davis) in a game in which the Cubs led 2-0 going to the ninth inning. Cubs’ set-up man Hector Rondon, filling in for Davis—who was unavailable due to pitching three days in a row—gave up a three-run home run to Brett Gardner in that fateful ninth, and the Yankees won the game.
Oh, right… that’s yet another far-fetched comeback story.
Baseball as Drama
The Ancient Greeks used the same word for both an athlete and an actor: agoniste (αγωνιστής). And indeed baseball is at bottom a drama, the players the protagonists and antagonists in a supreme play of heavenly import: its setting an Edenic expanse of green grass; its tools the primal elements of wood and animal skin; its motions man’s God-instilled, instinctive ones of running, throwing, and swinging at a pitched ball; its goal the ultimate one of coming home. As David Bentley Hart (also an Oriole fan) has observed:
The ballpark is a paradise into which evil does occasionally come, whenever the Yankees are in town, and this occasionally lends the game a cosmic significance that it would not be improper to call “apocalyptic.” This, in fact, is why that dastardly franchise is a spiritually necessary part of the game in this country; even Yankees fans have their necessary role to play, and—although we may occasionally think of them as “vessels of wrath”—we have to remember that they, too, are enfolded in the mercy of providence.
If there is one thing that Christians are allowed to hate, it is evil, as the Book of Proverbs tell us, and—with apologies to Ronald Reagan—while they preach the supremacy of their Empire State franchise, declare its omnipotence over individual free agents, and predict its eventual domination of all teams in both leagues, the New York Yankees are the focus of evil in the modern baseball world.
And while the Yankees play the role of the bad guys, this fan will suggest that it is the Baltimore Orioles who best represent the good guys—or at least one of the good teams of baseball. Though admittedly the Orioles have had one or two cads who played for the team (Albert Belle, Armando Benitez), they are the exception that prove the rule, for the Orioles have generally been known for enlisting modest, hardworking players to their cause—from Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell in the Orioles’ heyday of the 1960s and 1970s to Nick Markakis and J.J. Hardy in recent times.
And then there is of course Cal Ripken, Jr.. No player is more associated with the Orioles than this Hall of Famer, who played twenty-one seasons for the Orioles (and for no other team) from 1981-2001. A two-time American League Most Valuable Player and Gold Glove winner, and a nineteen-time All-Star, Mr. Ripken is best known for holding the record for most consecutive games played: 2,632. That record is indicative of Mr. Ripken’s work ethic and dedication to the game of baseball, and is more impressive when one considers that for most of his career he played the grueling position of shortstop.
It is telling that the previous record-holder of the consecutive-games streak was first baseman Lou Gehrig, who played seventeen seasons for the Yankees from 1923-1939, appearing in 2,030 straight games. Gehrig, who was forced to retire after developing the disease that came to bear his name, was like Ripken a modest, no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of player, representative of a Yankee ethic that has melted into the past, under the hot lights, easy money, and fast times of the modern franchise.
Epilogue: The Mark of the Beast
Baseball fans love to talk about curses: the “Curse of the Bambino” (the trade of Babe Ruth by the Red Sox to the Yankees that supposedly resulted in decades of frustration for the Boston franchise), the “Curse of the Billy Goat” (the ejection of a goat and his angered owner from Wrigley Field in Chicago in 1945 that was said to deny the Cubs a championship until 2016)…. But if supernatural forces are at work in any manner in baseball, rivals of the New York Yankees would be the first to tell you that George Steinbrenner must have made a Faustian bargain at some point with the Devil in return for the promise of earthly championships.
Of course, we know that there is a God in Heaven, and that He is just. And thus, in one instance at least, He seemed to intervene directly on behalf of the Yankees’ arch-enemy, the Boston Red Sox. It was Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series. The Yankees were leading the best-of-seven series three games to zero and were leading by a run in the ninth inning with Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera on the mound. Rivera blew the save, the Red Sox won the game in extra innings, and, mindbogglingly, went on to win the next three games against the Yanks. This feat—overcoming a three-games-to-none deficit in a best-of-seven series—has never been duplicated in sports history. (The Red Sox were thus said to “reverse The Curse” of 1918, when they traded the great Babe Ruth to the Yankees in return for cash.)
And what happened to Jose Contreras, the Cuban pitcher who signed with the Yankees instead of the Red Sox? He was largely another bust for the free-spending Bronx Bombers. In 2006, the Red Sox extracted their revenge on the Yankees, outbiding their rivals for the highly-coveted Japanese pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka; the Yankees then talked themselves into overspending for the consolation-prize pitcher from the Far East, Kei Igawa, paying a $26 million bid (and $20 million for five years) for the far-less-talented lefty hurler. Perhaps the worst signing ever consummated by the Steinbrenner regime, the Igawa contract turned out to be an embarrassment for the Yankees: He spent most of his career in the minors and started only sixteen major-league games, pitching terribly in nearly every one.
Igawa never pitched for another team in America, fittingly ending his tenure with the “Evil Empire” in 2011 with a career ERA of … 6.66.
Maybe he was a Yankee at heart after all.
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The featured image was taken by the author.