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Ringing in the New York Yankees Year

By now, I need not remind any of you of the insane transpirings of MLB’s offseason, but in case you haven’t turned on a television, read a newspaper, or touched a mobile device in a couple months, some stuff went down. And in the only fashion appropriate for New York, most of it involves the Yankees. Here’s a quick timeline for ya:

First, the Yankees cut manager Joe Girardi mere weeks after an unexpected seven-game trip to the ALCS. Yes, we’re talking about the same Joe Girardi who won a World Series, nearly over-achieved his way to another, and never had a losing season in his ten year stint as manager – ten years in which the Yankees made the playoffs six times. For context, the Mets have only made the playoffs nine times in their entire existence.

Then, on December 11, New York again stole league headlines via a blockbuster trade, acquiring reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton from the MLB’s resident fire sale, the Miami Marlins. Stanton, 28, joins a Yankees team with an exciting young core, fresh off a League championship appearance, to create professional baseball’s equivalent of Megazord – that thing in Power Rangers when all their robot vehicles combine and create a super vehicle.

Finally, they hired former Yankee Aaron Boone as the club’s 35th manager. In Boone’s case, the term former is applied incredibly loosely: he played in only 54 games with New York in 2003. It turned out, though, that 54 games was enough to provide one of the most memorable moments in the last twenty years of Yankee history when he hit an extra-inning walk-off homer in 2003’s ALSC against Boston.

In short: straight madness.

To analyze each of these moves individually would only lead to the same conclusion, and that conclusion is not even that “The Yankees are back.” I mean, if you’re a fan of any other team, were they ever gone? In this organization, we’re talking about a team that hasn’t had a losing season in over 25 years and won the AL East 14 of 19 seasons between 1994 and 2012. While the success of other New York pro teams fluctuate disappointingly in increments of decades – hampered by troublesome athletes, coaches, and executives – it’s been clear for nearly a century that for the New York Yankees, winning is the standard. A winning season isn’t cause for celebration. A wild card berth doesn’t indicate success. Exceeding outside expectations does not guarantee you your job. When it comes to making decisions in the Bronx, the axe falls like a guillotine.

And while every team’s ultimate goal is to win the World Series, the Yankees have made it clear that the World Series is the expectation, it won’t be the exception. Already favored at 11-1 to win it all before the Stanton trade, the Bombers jumped to the favorite at 5-1 by pairing the only Major Leaguers to hit over 50 home runs in 2017. And why not? Considering three of the four playoff division series winners finished in the top ten in total home runs, it’s not too big a stretch to say that this fact translates to wins. In New York, small ball is a foreign language (for what it’s worth, the Mets finished 8th in that category).

And just take a moment to consider the statement they’ve made. Though Girardi’s contract had expired, the Yankees front office’s decision not to renew it essentially counts as being fired. When my phone buzzed a notification from ESPN, announcing that Girardi and the Yankees had “parted ways,” I actually had assume that Girardi had stepped down. I had heard a few days earlier from the legendary Mike Francesa on Mike’s On that Girardi had a son playing college football, and to continue to manage the Yankees meant that he’d miss his son’s games. And considering Girardi had skipped a game in May 2017 to attend his daughter’s high school graduation, the family angle of a retirement might have made sense.

But when I learned later that New York had to declined to offer him a new contract, you could almost hear the machine warming up in the Bronx. You don’t just cut the sixth-winningest manager in a legendary franchise’s history and assume the message has been heard. If you’re the Yankees, you drop the bomb.

Enter Stanton. Reigning NL MVP. A man who hit nearly a third of his team’s homers in 2017. Stanton’s home run count became a sensation we haven’t seen since the home run races of the steroid era. Across the country, broadcast crews would break from local coverage to update his mounting total. It was one of the major storylines of the year, as Stanton quickly became an MVP favorite despite playing for a sub-.500 team, boxing out deserving candidates on breakout teams the likes of Paul Goldschmidt and Charlie Blackmon, and a surefire Hall of Famer in Clayton Kershaw. While already a top tier player, Stanton whipped the media into a frenzy. And nobody does media frenzies like the Yankees.

Money might not grow on trees literally, but the huge figurative money trees in Yankee Stadium’s outfield are casting enormous shadows, and the shadow reveals the ugly side of professional baseball ownership. In the wake of the Stanton trade, we got a cringing look at Derek Jeter’s initial endeavor as part owner of the Miami Marlins. His decision to cut payroll was so unpopular, he was recently forced to hold a town hall-style meeting, open to season ticket holders, and essentially endured a verbal assault from unhappy paying customers. To his credit, he fielded the criticism with class, assuring the mob that he had a plan and that they’ll stick to it.

This is more that can be said for the Yankees crosstown stunted counterpart, the hapless Mets, whose owners have displayed nothing short of complete ineptitude over the last twenty years. Just last week, Mets GM Sandy Alderson – so far only spending $14 million to sign a little-known reliever for two years – announced that he plans to do even less by slashing $20 million from payroll, in essence waving a white flag over the Mets 2018 season before it even begins.

The message, though, is louder than the actual players on the field. In today’s sports landscape, teams aren’t only competing for championships, but are also fighting for exposure. Most pro sports team owners don’t own teams as a hobby, and pro athletes aren’t just in it for the exercise – it’s an investment. And in order to pull a return, you need eyes on the product. That’s what the Yankees have mastered, and it’s made evident by the state of the two teams they’ve left in the wake.

And while, yes, the Yankees typically take on an above-average payroll, it goes beyond money. They’re willing to be shrewd; they’ve been engaged in trade talks with the Pittsburgh Pirates regarding pitcher Gerrit Cole for weeks now, but talks stalled when, reportedly, New York refused to part ways with soon-to-be star infielder Gleybor Torres. They’re also willing to reward, as they most recently signed veteran pitcher – and arguably pitching lynchpin of last year’s ALCS run – CC Sabathia to a one-year deal – basically to say, “hey, thanks.” It’s more than just having a huge payroll, it’s about decisiveness. It’s important, also, to remember that while making moves at the major league level, the Yankees have also developed one of the strongest farm systems in baseball.

Whether or not New York is fielding the “best” team in baseball right now is up for debate. There’s plenty of talent across the league, as well as other teams making serious moves. There’s no reason not to expect the likes of the Astros, Dodgers, Cubs, or even the Giants, to be in the mix come October 2018. But you could certainly make a case that the Yankees, despite falling short of the World Series, won 2017.

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