« Song of the Day #53 | Main | Song of the Day #54 »

When You're a Loser ...

... it doesn't feel all that good. And what a loss it was for Yankee fans. But who am I to talk about losses? Not in the face of a history of enormous losses by the Boston Red Sox, who have spent nearly a century under the delusion that they are victims of the Curse of the Bambino, an alleged curse that emerged after they dealt Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees; for this, they have not won a World Series since 1918 ... and whatever their victories over the guys in pinstripes, it is only a World Series win that will vanquish that curse forever in the hearts of the Beantown faithful.

Yes, the Sox staged the most incredible comeback in postseason history. Down 3 games to none, they fought back and won four straight games to take the American League Championship Series. Good luck to the Sox as they face the best of the National League, which will be decided tonight in a seventh game "do or die" playoff between the Houston Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals.

As for the Yankees, what can I say? I'm a life-long fan. And contrary to what a lot of people keep telling me, and what Joe E. Louis said a long time ago, it is not true that "rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel."

I wasn't around when the Yanks were stringing together all those great teams of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. I was born of a generation that was too young to remember the glory days of the early 1960s, the days of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. I first started rooting for the Yankees in the late 1960s, when they were underdogs in the city of New York. In fact, the first game I ever saw was in the old Yankee Stadium, a Mayor's Trophy Game against the far-more beloved New York Mets, who were recent World Series Champs. New York had always been a predominantly National League town, with a classic rivalry between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Most of those NL fans despised the Yankees, and when the Giants and Dodgers skipped town, and the Mets were founded, these fans naturally gravitated to the new NL organization. So when the Miracle Mets won a World Series in 1969, and the Yankees were losing year after year, not going anywhere near a World Series from 1965 through 1975, it was tough being a fan for the "other team" in New York City. It was hard even in the 1980s to locate the Yankees on the backpage of the New York Daily News, as the Mets continued to reach the postseason, even playing a part in that Bambino Curse by beating the Boston Red Sox in 1986.

But there was a wonderful period for Yankee fans in the late 70s. In 1976, the Yanks had finally won another American League Pennant ... only to lose four straight to the Cincinatti Reds in the World Series. Fans like me had at least tasted what it might be like to see a Yankees team on the world stage. As relatively new owner George Steinbrenner took advantage of the new "free agent" market, bringing people like Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson to the Yanks, the misfortunes of a decade were suddenly being turned around. The stadium had been remodeled, and so had the team. In 1977, the Yanks finally were back on top. And I was in all my glory! And the current Boston Red Sox may have had the greatest comeback of any team in postseason history, but I can think of no regular season comebacks in my lifetime that was more exhilarating than the one staged by the 1978 Yankees, who were 14 games behind the Bosox in July, and who came roaring back, with Ron Guidry leading the charge, to a one-game playoff in Fenway Park. The Bucky Dent (or as he's known in Boston, "Bucky F. Dent") game. Those Yanks went on to win for the second consecutive year over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

But after 1978, the Yanks slipped back into their losing ways. They were contenders for the playoffs a couple of times, and even got back to the World Series in 1981, only to lose to those same Dodgers in 6 games. The closest they came to the Big Stage was 1995, when a team led by Don Mattingly came up short in the first round of the playoffs.

And then came 1996, when the Yanks scored an improbable victory over the heavily favored champion Atlanta Braves in the World Series. After 18 years of George Steinbrenner trying to create a team of all-stars, the Yanks finally were drawing from home-grown talent like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and others. This was a team, not simply the latest greatest players with the best stats thrown together with little or no attention to chemistry. And it was this team that went on to World Championships in 1998, 1999, and 2000, as well. Steinbrenner has made the Yanks contenders every year since then. But after their heartbreaking loss in 2001 to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 7 games, this has not been the same team. They may be the best team money can buy, but they're still not an integrated team. Perhaps George should think about the elements that brought four world championships to his Yankees in the five years between 1996 and 2000. Perhaps this is "Monday-morning quarterbacking," to use a football metaphor ... but true Yankee fans have known about the weaknesses in these Yankees for a long while. Can't keep plugging holes and selling the farm system, can't keep pushing new players in, and old players out, and still expect to field a team. They may win 100+ games in the season, and they may still be the most famous sports franchise in the world. But they're not going to go all the way like this. When Captain Derek Jeter was asked why this team hasn't won, he put his finger on the central issue: It's just not the same team.

So, Yankee fans, we'll have to wait till next year. Or the year after. Or the year after that.

But I want to say something to those people who have said to me: "Oh, come on, you guys win every year! Let some other teams win! You've got 26 World Championships, 39 American League Pennants!" Many of these Yankee haters, who enjoy talkin' smack, who bemoan Yankee "wealth" and who often suffer from Pinstripe Envy, just don't get it. Clearly, spending the most money does not guarantee victory; last year's lowly Florida Marlins did, in fact, beat the Yankees in the World Series. And it is true that Yankee misfortunes don't match those of the Cubs, White Sox, or Red Sox.

But when you're a fan, you're a fan. And if you're not a fair-weather fan, if you're the kind of fan who watches your team day after day, for years and years, the kind of fan who knows that your team hasn't won every year, the kind of fan who has experienced far more loss than victory, it doesn't matter if your team has 26 or 56 World Championships. All that matters is that your team strives for excellence. And often achieves it. And, in the end, it is the excellence of the New York Yankees, their history, that brings such a fan back to root, root, root for the hometeam.

So, the Yankees are down and out after the biggest postseason choke in baseball history. But they'll be back. They're not just history. For me, they are baseball. And any genuine fan of any team would feel the same way about their own team.

Good luck to the 2004 World Series contenders.

(Also see L&P ... )