April was a rough month for the New York Yankees. The team finished 12-14 and hit a low point of 6-11 midway through.
Many fans and writers were livid about this performance. This wasn’t my reaction, though. In my 20 years as a fan I’ve never seen the Yankees have a losing season. And that’s despite some bad starts.
In 2005 the team started 12-19. And in 2005 and 2007 the team struggled to stay above .500 until July.
So what explains the latest panic? One explanation is simply that fans are inclined to live in the moment. To them, engaging with the game means celebrating every win and raging through every losing streak.
But there’s also a less ephemeral concern at play. There’s little doubt that the 2021 Yankees will come back from their abysmal April — they’re already back to .500. But when the team does reach October, will it be with the players we currently know and love?
Among those who’ve struggled in early 2021 are Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier. Torres and Sanchez are both coming off of disappointing seasons, while Frazier has spent the past four years simply trying to establish himself as a major league starter. When the Yankees come back, will it be because these players turn things around, or will it be because the team decides to leave them behind?
When the Yankees partially turned around their 2016 season and completed the comeback in 2017 and 2018 , it was thanks to a group of players known as the Baby Bombers. And who again were these “Babies”? They were Sánchez, Torres, and Frazier, along with Greg Bird, Miguel Andújar and Aaron Judge.
So have these “babies” grown into true stars? Not really.
Bird suffered a slew of injuries and is no longer a Yankee. Andújar seems destined for the same fate. Frazier and Sanchez have struggled mightily with consistency.
Torres’ fall from favor hardly seems justified. His first two seasons were phenomenal, and his struggles came in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. Nonetheless, with a number of star shortstops set to become free agents at the end of the season, Torres’ time in pinstripes doesn’t feel like it’s set in stone.
Even Judge’s status is somewhat hanging in the balance. While he puts up All-Star numbers year after year, his tendency to get hurt, and the hefty price he will surely command in free agency, suggests he may not be able to be counted on to stick around as Derek Jeter’s heir.
When the Yankees were dominant in the late ’90s, they played with a fairly consistent cast of characters. Home-grown talents Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, were present (to varying degrees) around for the whole run. Throw in Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, Chuck Knoblauch, Joe Girardi, David Cone, Roger Clemens, Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton, and Orlando Hernandez, and it becomes clear that the dynastic Yankees had an identity that went beyond the logos on their caps.
I like cheering for teams with consistent rosters year after year. I like the notion that I’m cheering for people and not for a business.
The average Yankee fan may not share my lefty-sentimentalism. Nonetheless, I believe the average Yankee fan has come to associate home-grown talent and roster consistency with the team’s success.
In an earlier piece for Yanks Go Yard, I reflected on the 2004 Yankees season. The Yankees won 101 games that year and went to the ALCS. But , mired in that year of success was a lot of failure (even ignoring the whole Curse of the Bambino issue). Javier Vazquez, José Contreras, Kevin Brown, Jason Giambi and Kenny Lofton did not give the Yankees the seasons the team expected.
And that narrative held up throughout the 2000s. The decade was full of exciting acquisitions, with some paying off more than others. But with players like Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano zipping in and out of New York’s revolving door, it grew easy for fans to see the team as one that knew how to spend but didn’t know how to win.
When New York finally won in 2009, the success also gave rise to the term “the core four.” And while New York won that title thanks to a richly talented roster, many fans associate it with the veteran leadership of Jeter, Posada, Pettitte and Rivera.
Throughout Yankees’ history we’ve used collective nicknames for players who’ve guided us to titles. Ruth, Gehrig and Co. were “Murderers’ Row”; Maris and Mantle were the “M&M boys.” The successful teams of the late ’70s were the Bronx Zoo. And then there was the Core Four.
Sadly, the Baby Bombers were given their nickname while still in the cradle. And unlike Murderers’ Row and the Core Four, they may end up a mere historical footnote. Yankees’ fans should not give up on World Series ambitions in 2021, but even if those dreams do come true, fans may have to watch a dream, one even longer in the making, be snuffed out along the way.