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The reality of the mythicized “New York temperament”

When players struggle in pinstripes, it’s easy to say that they can’t hack it in New York. But is that a real excuse or a crutch?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

In 1961, Roger Maris was caught in the middle of a fabled home run race. Pitted against the fan-favorite Mickey Mantle, the two swatted dingers back and forth like ping pong balls as they chased 60 home runs and the ghost of Babe Ruth. Something ugly happened, however, when a new guy started out-slugging everyone’s hero en route to topping Babe Ruth’s legendary conquest: the fans and the media turned on him.

Near the end of the season, the stress became too much. The constant bad press, booing fans, and death threats caused Maris to have physiological reactions. He couldn’t run his hand over his head without pulling out clumps of hair. He was able to power through and accomplished the unthinkable feat of a 61 home run season, but he looked worse for wear.

As Maris learned the hard way, the realities of being a professional athlete in New York can be grim. He was tagged for having a weak temperament—a North Dakota kid who couldn’t hack it in the big city (those same critics must have forgotten that Mickey Mantle was from Oklahoma). Maybe that was true. He was a small town guy facing the unwarranted and blistering hatred of a big city. His play was solid, but inside he was hurting.

In the 57 years since that historic season, the feedback landscape for players has changed tremendously. Rather than living or dying with stadium fan reactions and the headlines of a handful of widely circulated newspapers, today’s athletes are bombarded with a slew of opinions. Unfortunately for them, those opinions no longer only come from the writers they interact with on a daily basis. Now, criticism comes from all angles.

Current professional athletes are subject to scrutiny from talking heads on 10 radio stations, 15 TV shows, about 30 podcasts, and hundreds of blogs. When all else fails, there’s also the millions of hot takes from anyone with a Twitter or Instagram account. It would seem that with 30 passionate fanbases and a never-ending stream of content, any MLB player is fair game. You can catch as much flak in Oakland as in New York.

However, that hasn’t been the standard for active or prospective Yankee players. In the past week, both Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner have used player temperament as a litmus test for their ability to succeed in pinstripes. Cashman has been uncharacteristically open about his desire to move Sonny Gray to another team. He echoed the sentiments felt by many all season that maybe Gray just isn’t a New York guy:

We are going to move him if we get the right deal because I don’t think it is going to work out in The Bronx. [...] Until someone walks through your door and lives it [life as a Yankee], it is hard to know.

Hal Steinbrenner was asked about the conclusion of the season, plans for the winter, and more specifically, Manny Machado. The Yankees owner didn’t mince words when discussing the star infielder who has recently faced backlash for his antics on the field and statements off the field:

The analytics, the pro scouting are always talking temperament, personality, motivation, how good a teammate someone is, do they understand what is expected of them by the New York Yankees and by the fans of New York City. It does matter, and it will be no different this year.

Every player we talk about, it would be one of my questions. New York, you will have a tough time if you don’t have the temperament for it or you don’t have the temperament for how [the Yankees] insist it is done.

Clearly, the pressures of New York are more than just a talking point for a radio show caller, they’re a key measurement for the ownership and upper management. But, is the New York factor real or is it just a convenient excuse for not reaching a player’s full potential? Wouldn’t the same pressure be applied in Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles? Wouldn’t it also apply to the Mets?

The answer is yes and no. There are two factors that create that pressure-filled environment. First, there is the big market and national media. Few teams can rival New York when it comes to that spotlight, but it would be naive to say that the Red Sox, Dodgers, or Cubs don’t get close to the same national coverage as the Yankees.

Second, there’s expectations. With the exception of the Red Sox of late, no other team is coming into each and every season expecting a championship. Even that might be a stretch as Boston has only been a winning franchise for about a decade. Teams like the Astros or Cubs are loaded with talent, but they don’t have a century of winning history preceding each season. For the Yankees, it’s always been World Series champs or bust.

New York definitely has those two factors down, but there’s also a wild card: Yankee fans are brutal. There’s no other stadium that regularly boos its best players when they have an off day. These are fans that spent many games this season booing Giancarlo Stanton, the 2017 National League MVP who was a 4.2 WAR player hitting .266/.343/.509 with 38 home runs in 2018. Derek Jeter famously told President George Bush before he threw out the first pitch in Game Three of the 2001 World Series, “Don’t bounce it, they’ll boo you.” No one is safe from the fans.

The temperament issue is certainly real in New York. A player who wants to succeed with the Yankees has to adapt to a buttoned-up, clean-shaven organization that preaches saying and doing things “the Yankee way” like it’s gospel. They have to endure unfair expectations and deal with harsh criticisms of local and national media when they’re not met. Then there’s the fear of getting booed off the field by your hometown fans during a slump, intensifying every at-bat and making you slip deeper into it like quicksand.

Is the pressure in New York worse than say, Boston? Besides the booing, probably not. Is it the reason players like Sonny Gray don’t succeed? That’s up for debate, but again, probably not. If you have good stuff, you have good stuff. Blogs and tweets aren’t stopping you from executing pitches. Sometimes players just struggle.

New York media and fans can definitely make a player’s job harder, but if talented players are flat-out failing in pinstripes, maybe it’s time to look around the organization and staff for answers. For the Yankee brass to put the blame of a disappointing tenure in the Bronx like Gray’s on the mythicized New York feels reductive. Everyone should respect the difficulty of playing baseball for the Yankees, but if bad performances can be wiped away as “not the right temperament,” it should also be remembered that Roger Maris hit 61 home runs with his hair falling out.