I was a child of the 1960s when rooting for the New York Yankees was not like rooting for the proverbial U.S. Steel but more like rooting for a company forever on the brink of going belly up. How bad were the Yanks of the late ’60s and early ‘70s? Put it this way: The team would have some of the extra players dress in street clothes and fill in the seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium to make it look like someone was actually at the games. (Ah, the Horace Clarke Era. No offense to Horace, a lovely, hard-working and decidedly mediocre second baseman who became the face of those wilderness years, 1967-73.)
We can remember those days fondly, because as every Yankee fan knows the trajectory of the Bronx Bombers – like President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s view of the arc of civilization – has, despite some zigzagging, been ever upward. No North American team has won more championships – 18 division titles, 40 American League pennants, 27 World Series titles. Few franchises are as valuable (estimated worth – $3.7 billion). And few have become more deeply ingrained in cultural mythology – Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” the “Damn Yankees” musical, “Seinfeld” – in which they were usually portrayed as something Olympian, successful, poised, aloof, arrogant even; “the money team in the money town” as New York historian Kenneth T. Jackson once described them to me. Even their classy, iconic interlocking NY insignia was designed by Tiffany & Co.
Now the Yanks have a young, buoyant, dynamic team – nicknamed the Baby Bombers – who are beginning to look an awful lot like the 1996 Yankee team that emerged from the Don Mattingly wilderness of the ’80s – poor Mattingly, the perfect son who never got the Series ring he deserved – which in turn had followed the magic of the battling, brawling Billy Martin Bombers of the late 1970s, my guys. Those 1996 Yanks had shocked the highly touted Atlanta Braves to usher in a new era of Yankee dominance that continued until 2003. (The Yankees would win the Series again in 2009.)
Will the Baby Bombers live up to the memory of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, let alone Mantle, DiMaggio and Ruth? I think so. They weren’t supposed to challenge for anything this year. So far, they’ve come back from the brink to beat a far more highly rated Cleveland Indians team to take the divisional title.
On Friday and Saturday nights, they lost the first two games in the quest for the pennant, falling to the Houston Astros 2-1. But win, lose or draw, you have the sense that these Yanks are on the way.
Watching them makes me wonder anew: What makes a winner? We hear a lot about winning, mostly from the Loser in Chief. (I love the cover of The Economist emblazoned with the headline “The Trump Presidency So Far,” illustrated by a huge golf hole and a club barely visible, kicking up dirt.)
Cynics will tell you money makes a winner, and indeed the Yanks have one of the highest payrolls in organized sports. Money may buy talent, but it cannot buy team chemistry or resilience, that ability to let it go and move on to the next pitch, the next inning, the next game, the next moment in life, which turns on a dime.
Nor can money buy the sense – the secure knowledge – that you will win.
“I wouldn’t get on the court if I thought there was a chance I would lose,” the Federer-like Tim Porter says in Anna Ziegler’s new play “The Last Match,” which opens in Manhattan Oct. 24.
Great champs don’t think they will win. They don’t believe they will win. They know they will win. And that knowledge makes success a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Does that mean they always win? Of course not. Losing is part of winning. But there’s always the next pitch, the next serve, the next inning, the next game.
There’s always “wait until next year” as the true champ nonetheless pursues what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.”