New York Yankees: The Truth Of The True YankeeS

Will Leitch will be previewing/musing on every baseball team each weekday until the start of the season. You can pre-order his book and follow him on Twitter. Today: New York Yankees.

I never quite understand when a baseball team says a guy just "isn't a good fit." This is not football, in which the wrong fit means forgetting to block the 350-pounder who just lacerated your quarterback's colon, or basketball, in which the wrong fit means chucking 30-footers while three seven-footers wait impatiently under the basket. This is baseball, in which one man stands at the plate, facing another man, and no one else is particularly involved at all. If someone is unpopular in the clubhouse — what exactly do baseball players fight about, anyway? I imagine clubhouse fights mostly involving indecipherable grunts about whether the locker room music is Rascal Flatts or Staind — or someone is unpopular in the city where they play, it doesn't affect whether or not they chase a 1-2 slider in the dirt. The ability to interact with others, whether it's one's teammates, one's fans, or one's city, strikes me as irrelevant. If you are unable to block out the clutter that surrounds you when you are at the plate or on the mound, it is bewildering that you could reach the Major Leagues in the first place. It is a solitary activity.

For a franchise as obsessed with big names and splashes, the Yankees are always obsessed with what a True Yankee is. This is a shifting definition, depending on whatever the headlines happen to be on a particular day. Alex Rodriguez was the epitome of non-Yankee-dom, until he hit a few homers in the World Series in the rain. Now, you'd never think anyone ever had anything bad to say about him. (It doesn't hurt that he keeps dating rundown movie stars; the Yankees love to believe they are an iconic American institution, a farm team for blind items.) Derek Jeter is the perfect Yankee, obviously, at least until there's a potential contract disagreement, in which case he'll become the player who doesn't realize how good the Yankees have been for him. (This is unlikely to happen, but GM Brian Cashman is savvy and knows that, idolatry aside, paying Jeter $25 million a year for the next five years isn't a smart play. Stay tuned.) Randy Johnson might be the greatest lefthanded pitcher of the last 40 years, but in New York, he was just a guy who pushed a photographer on the way to his first press conference and couldn't live up to what he'd been a decade earlier. Alfonso Soriano just never felt like he fit here: He couldn't be the epic stoic hero he could only be here, so out he went. It seems odd now to think he ever played in the Bronx.

Mark Teixeira is the logical, absurd extension of this, a man so programmed to be Yankee Pride that his personality has been scrubbed into oblivion. (If he ever had one in the first place.) Playing for the Yankees is supposed to be a privilege. Earn this. Last year's Yankee championship happened because everything broke right: A.J. Burnett would seem exactly the type of player Yankees fans would chafe against, but because he stayed healthy and learned how to put shaving cream in a hand towel, he's now in the upper echelon. It's a constant shifting of the goalposts.

One thing you can guarantee this year: If the Yankees struggle at all — and by "struggle," I mean, "win 90 games but somehow finish behind Boston and maybe Tampa Bay" — you'll hear plenty of moaning about the loss of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon. Right now, only casual fans mind: A World Series championship, even if just a piddly one, will give a Yankees GM some rare elbow room, at least for a winter. But it's a perilous place, the Bronx. The rest of us might look at the addition of Javier Vazquez and think, "Damn, the Yankees just grabbed an ace as their fourth starter." Yankees fans say, "Man, that guy can't pitch in New York! We haven't forgotten 2004!" What is new in New York is unproven, no matter what a player has done elsewhere. This is a false dichotomy of course: Vazquez may have a perfectly average year, a tick or two down from last year, but he's already coming in with expectations against him. Until you win one, here, you're nothing. (Unless you're Don Mattingly.) Even if you have little to do with the outcome at all. Nick Johnson came up with the Yanks right after they won a World Series; he's returning right after they won their next one. That'll be mentioned a few times. And Curtis Granderson: I know everyone thinks he's the perfect Yankee, and he's obviously a personal, friendly fellow. But he's due for a dropoff this year, and all it will take will be one or two misplays in center and a .220 average in April for the tide to start to turn. It can happen fast.

It has been a long decade since the Yankees won a World Series before last season, and it is to Yankees fans' credit that they've forgotten so much of the negativity of that decade now that they're back on the throne. But it always comes back. The only True Yankee is a winning Yankee: It's one that reaches that elusive ideal that is demanded. It's a reason for the rest of baseball to hate the Yankees, and a reason for fans to take pride in their exceptionalism. This ephemeral notion of Yankeedom probably doesn't exist, but that doesn't make it any less real.

Illustration via deviantART