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The Yankees’ “Evil Empire” label is fading

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The Yankees have long had a reputation as the villain of baseball, but are they as loathed as they once were?

New York Yankees v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

For 18 years, the Yankees were one of baseball’s best teams, and, without a doubt, the most hated. From their larger than life owner to their even larger payroll, there were myriad reasons that made the Yankees reviled nationwide. They were the team that opposing fans loved to hate, and they seemed to have permanently etched themselves into baseball’s history books as the villain.

At least, it appeared that way. Recently, it seems the Yankees are on their way to a kind of identification change. Perhaps they’ll never be quite as lovable as underdogs, but with a new generation of fans has come a new-look Yankees, and this version isn’t quite as easy to hate as the infamous Evil Empire.

That’s not to say the transition has been seamless. Unsurprisingly, the team had its own identity crisis for a few years. Although the Yankees continued to be a perceived elitist team who opted to buy wins through free agency (massive contracts dished out to Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, and Andrew Miller ensured that reputation), the team was no longer successful.

Similar to the way the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry died down, it was hard for fans to get passionate behind a cause without much significance. The Yankees were no longer good, and effectively transformed into a detested and friendless middle school bully.

Thankfully, the days of lineups featuring Vernon Wells, Stephen Drew, and Chris Stewart were soon behind New York. In a baseball sense, the Yankees are a completely revamped and reenergized organization with a new look, refreshing goals, and a bright future. No longer is the roster peppered with what many considered baseball’s overpaid villains; instead it’s populated with some of the league’s newest young talent.

Most of the names that gave the Yankees a villainous reputation, from the justified (Aroldis Chapman, though we shouldn’t forget the stain he left on the franchise, and George Steinbrenner) to the less deserving (Alex Rodriguez) are gone. In their place are young, (mostly) homegrown fan favorites like Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, and Didi Gregorius. It’s hard to hate exciting rookies, even if they’re on the Yankees.

Maybe the storied franchise hasn’t won over the hearts of America, but the perception of the Yankees around the league certainly has shifted. You’ll still find plenty of fans who would love nothing more than for the Yankees to fail, but it’s no longer a league-wide phenomenon. Opposing crowds can still boo the roster, but it won’t be with the same fervor as there once was. As Patrick Brewer, a Padres fan from East Village Times, put it:

As a kid growing up, the Yankees were always the Evil Empire. I was bred to hate them and everything they stood for. The money. The flash. The dominance. All these years later, and several years into adulthood, I somehow find myself rooting for the lovable baby bombers. With the likes of Aroldis Chapman and Alex Rodriguez gone, it's hard not to root for players like of Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge. For the first time in my lifetime, the Yankees may actually be likable.

While an overhauled roster has been the primary catalyst of the Yankees’ change in league-wide perception, there’s more at play. Narrative, of course, can often outweigh anything else in a fan’s eyes, and a new story in New York could be changing minds as well. A sudden second half run of success has revitalized the Yankees’ season, and Alex Yalen, a Nationals follower from Baseball Essential, highlighted that:

This team is a ton of fun to watch and so easy to like…something I never thought I would say about the Yankees. I love how rather than just closing up shop they've kept the AL East close.

The exciting debut of prospects even turned one self-titled “Yankee hater” into someone who “loves these Baby Bombers.”

In addition, the fact that the Yankees are no longer a dynasty makes it harder for some fans to muster up quite as much hate, as one Rays fan mentioned. Without the constant success, there’s no fun in rooting against the Yankees. The Joker would have been an uninspiring villain if he was mediocre at his job, and the same could be said about the Yankees. Dan J. Glickman, a Twins fan from Baseball Continuum, said “I feel like this year's Yankee team is just... there. I can't bring myself to truly hate them, but I don't like them either.”

Meanwhile, Mario Sanchez, a Cubs fan, said was also “somewhat indifferent to this Yankees team.” Interestingly, he also noted that his “vitriol towards them won't come until they make the playoffs. As long as they're not a factor, I'm indifferent.”

It’s not all good news (or indifference) for the Yankees from fans around the league, though. Charlie Gebow, a Diamondbacks fan from AZ SnakePit, brought up an interesting point when he wrote:

In a vacuum, the Yankees as their roster is built could be perceived as a fun team with a lot of fun players, and in actuality they are. However, the reason that I have a dim view of the Yankees wasn't simply because they are/were constantly good, it's because of how the franchise views itself.

One of George's dim large adult sons still runs the team. They always think it's still 9/12 every 7th inning. There's also Lonn Trost trying to keep the peasants out of the preferred seating, and there's just the fact that a significant portion of Yankees fans seem to think they're more special than anybody else cause they're the Yankees.

So, yes, the roster and youth movement are interesting and fun, and if I were a Yankees fan I'd go all in on that, but there's still that zeitgeist of "Yankees" that keeps me from ever really getting behind them.

Despite a new-look roster and a much more fun product on the field, the back end of the Yankees remain the same. Although Hal Steinbrenner isn’t quite as outspoken as his father, that doesn’t mean he’s an upgrade, and the Yankees have run into controversy throughout 2016 due to some of management’s snobbish attitudes and their botching of Alex Rodriguez’s retirement.

The team will always have high ticket prices and an upper-crust atmosphere at a stadium designed to feel like a five-star hotel, which will keep them from becoming a franchise the league will be pulling for. The current team may be underdogs, but the franchise is anything but. A Rays fan wrote that the Yankees are “basically the same…They didn't lose that inherent Yankee-ness in the process of remaking the roster,” causing her to continue to be “a Yankee hater.”

Some parts of what made the Yankees so loathed will never truly disappear, and that’s both good and bad. The ownership and management have been almost universally hated by Yankees fans and baseball fans alike, and a lack of change hurts. At the same time, it can be fun to be “the Evil Empire.” Maybe this reputation is why one fan wrote that they “absolutely fear the Yankees now and in the future, and another mentioned the “current Yankees team scares the bejeezus out of me.”

Although the Yankees will never be the sole villains of baseball, and have even been deemed, God forbid, likable, by some opposing fans, they are still the Yankees. The “Evil Empire” has, for the most part, been replaced by something much more appealing, but the “Yankee-ness” of the Yankees will remain forever.