The Yankees Will Sell Their Past Until There's Nothing Left Of It

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The Yankees announced yesterday that they will retire the numbers of Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams, and that all three—along with Willie Randolph—will receive plaques in Monument Park in four different ceremonies spread across the season. No American sports team has made such an art of monetizing its history.

Posada and Williams were career Yankees, while Posada and Pettitte won five championships (Williams four). They represent the core of a roster that had a historically successful run, one that gets extra shine from the hopeless scuff of the team as it is these days. But the Yankees appear drunk on their own past, even more so than usual: last season saw ceremonies for Joe Torre (whose number was retired), plus Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, and Goose Gossage. 2016 will undoubtedly see the bodily assumption of Derek Jeter. If things get desperate, maybe they'll honor Mike Mussina or Roy White or Luis Sojo or John Sterling, just to give an August Sunday afternoon game a little attendance bump.

This is fine as far as it goes, because these are ballpark promotions, differing from Cap Day Presented By Nobody Beats The Wiz only in their patina of respectability and in how they serve as an investment in future marketability. They're celebrations of the past, yes, but ones that brace the franchise's own brand for the next generation as one that has—and appreciates—history. Does it matter that the designation of a Yankee legend is arbitrary, or that we're literally watching the team confirm the historicity of its own myth? Not particularly. I grew up thinking Phil Rizzuto must have been a great ballplayer. Mission accomplished, I guess.


At this point, the Yankees have been successful enough at selling the postmodern contrivance that is The Yankees with gravid horns, Michael Kay intoning about class, a solemn Tino Martinez joining the company of the immortals, and so on that they've largely written over the underlying reality it's supposed to be referencing. You sell the unbroken chain of greatness, even if there were really only two discrete stretches of good baseball over the last half-century. You sell the undying loyalty of player to club and club to player, even if many of the Yankee greats were all but put down with a bolt gun once their usefulness came to an end. You sell the sacredness of a stadium, even though it's soulless, across the street from and resembling in name only the one that actually hosted the history. (Semantics; the old ballpark looked and felt nothing like the older one, the real one.)


Monument Park, 2010; Jim McIsaac/Getty

You sell the best—or, more accurately and tautologically, the most expensive—team money can buy, and if that fails to keep the turnstiles turning, you fall back on ceremony. This year's team may not fit the line, but here's ol' Andy, who always did. The Yankees may be fêting so many retired players because attendance has tanked, or attendance may have tanked because they don't have these players anymore, but either way they're going to congratulate themselves on their greatness, because the act of doing so more is in some ways even more fundamental to what they are than winning is.


I don't and never will begrudge the Yankees for marketing their past, because it clearly works. My parents never pushed me toward one local team over the other, and my earliest baseball memories are of an era when the Mets were the good ones. But I knew Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and I liked the idea of a team that appreciates itself and what it's been and strives toward an ideal of immutability, even to the point of snobbishness. Baseball as a sport, to some extent, coasts on its own bow wave; nothing wrong with a team that knows it.

History can be stretched thin, though. With the three honorees this year plus Jeter, that'll be 23 numbers retired, including two duplicates, with all but the first three coming in the last half-century. (They've been retired in fits and spurts, which tend to fall in fallow periods for the franchise's on-field success.) At this rate, your grandchildren may very easily see a day when the Yankees are unable to dress an expanded September roster for lack of two-digit numbers.


Monument Park—the first stop on the stadium tour, just $20 if bought in advance—is splitting at the seams. You should be able to learn the history of the Yankees without stopping to admire the graven accomplishments of Goose Gossage or Tino Martinez or, yes, even Roger Maris, and yet there they are, marking the precise measure of the team's self-regard. It's cynical and more than a little depressing that the most successful and most talent-rich franchise in the history of American sports feels the need to resort to this sort of thing to overwhelm visitors. But then, this is a season where the most successful baseball team ever is pegged by Vegas to win as often as the Mets, where finishing .500 would hit the over. With a present so dull, you can understand why the team would turn to a past that's just getting brighter all the time.

Top photo by Mike Stobe/Getty