One of the most fascinating pieces of television during our collective lockdown has been ESPN’s groundbreaking series on the Chicago Bulls dynasty, The Last Dance. The show follows the Bulls and Michael Jordan in their final season as The Bulls, the dynasty that rewrote basketball history in the 1990s.
All-access, behind the scenes series tend to be interesting, especially so when you feature players as dominant as Jordan or teams as culturally ubiquitous as the Bulls were in the 90s. It got me thinking about which Yankee teams would make for the most compelling TV, which squads you’d sit through ten hours of footage to follow.
The easiest answers are 1927, 1941, 1978 or the Yankees’ own 1998 season. I think there’s something more fundamental about failure in baseball, though. Dominance, whether by teams like in ‘27 or ‘98, or individuals like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, isn’t quite as addicting as being close, but failing, in my opinion. Take Moneyball for example, which draws a lot of narrative satisfaction from the fact that Oakland did all these groundbreaking things, only to fall short in the end. That’s baseball, Suzyn.
With that in mind, the first team that I thought would make for a great docuseries is 1985. What you need for a series like this is a compelling protagonist, a player that you can frame the entire season and story around. For The Last Dance, this is obviously Michael Jordan, the most famous athlete on the planet at the time.
For the ‘85 Yankees, the protagonist really is Don Mattingly, in the season he set a career high in home runs and was the AL MVP for the first and only time in his career. This is peak Mattingly - following a breakout 1984 with an even better campaign, one of the best players in baseball, but at the same time, this is one of his last full and healthy seasons. The back injuries that plagued him in the second half of his career, issues that ultimately kept him out of the Hall of Fame, start to flare up in 1987, spurring a slow decline from where he was to the shadow of himself we’d see in the 90s. From a storytelling perspective, that decline on the horizon is something we know as an audience, but nobody actually in the series would know, adding a dash of tragedy to what would otherwise be a successful individual season.
You need more than just a great protagonist, though. One of the highlights of The Last Dance has been the non-Jordan stories - Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson’s relationship, or Scottie Pippen’s ill-fated 1991 contract keeping him hilariously underpaid. The 1985 Yankees, meanwhile, feature arguably the best supporting character imaginable, peak Rickey Henderson.
Rickey’s actually a better player than Mattingly in 1985, putting up a ten-win season in the one of what I call his “lol seasons”, leading the league in runs and stolen bases, walking 99 times and posting a 157 wRC+ to lead the team. Of course, Rickey’s onfield performance is only half the story, and he’d be much-watch television at his peak in the 80s. The Yankees as a team finish 1985 with 97 wins, SIX wins better than the West Division champion Kansas City Royals. Baseball is a game of failure, but the 1985 Yankees are victims of a suboptimal playoff structure, and one of the best teams in baseball sits on the sidelines.
The second team for a miniseries is the 2001 team. Much has been written about that squad and the season as a whole - the push for a four-peat, the way the nation rallied around the Yankees in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and one of the alltime great World Series ending on one of the most famous plays in baseball history.
There isn’t a single protagonist for the 2001 season the way other years can have one, but what a narrative arc for the team to follow. Jordan and crew are playing for a championship and legacy, the Yankees are playing in part to restore normalcy to a nation’s shattered spirit. The stories of the Yankees visiting shelters around New York in the week MLB postponed all games alone would make for some of the best television in years.
In the playoffs that season, New York knocks off the 102-win Oakland Athletics, part of the genesis of the Moneyball movement. The next round, they beat arguably the best regular-season team of all time. The loss to Arizona in the World Series should spark a conversation about what it means to fail. Certainly for Jordan, and most Yankee fans, any season that ends without a championship is a failure. Contextualizing the loss with everything the team, and the city, and the country, went through in 2001 might change how viewers feel about the black and white nature of winning and losing.
The last team that would make my list is 2012, where we see parallels between the Yankees and The Last Dance as time pulls rosters apart. The entire 1997-98 season for the Bulls is one of impending departures - Phil Jackson knows he won’t return as head coach, Jordan makes it very clear he won’t play for a team without Phil at the helm, and Scottie Pippen’s contract is up at the end of the season. Even Rodman would be released by the Bulls midway through the next year, meaning the four people we’ve followed the closest through the series are all in different places less than a year after winning their last title at the end of 1998.
2012 isn’t quite the same - it’s not the last season of Derek Jeter, but it’s the last season of good Derek Jeter. Mariano Rivera plays through the 2013 campaign, but losing him to a torn ACL early in 2012 feels like a dry run for Yankee fans to prepare for his eventual retirement. Andy Pettitte was at the end of a contract and old enough that retirement wasn’t out of the question. Robinson Cano wasn’t in the last year of his contract, but like Pippen, the tensions rising between a star and the front office were a bad omen.
So many key cogs of a new era of Yankee teams - now an old era of Yankee teams - had their last moment in the sun in 2012. The team made the playoffs, a much sweeter end to a campaign than the final seasons of Jeter, Mo or Pettitte’s careers in the next few years. Of course, they lose in the ALCS to the Detroit Tigers, and Derek Jeter’s infamous injury seemed to portend the end of an era of Yankee baseball.
The Last Dance will end with a championship, while 2012 ended with Derek Jeter being carried off the field with a broken ankle, underscoring the fundamental element of failure in baseball. All of these hypothetical series wouldn’t end with the triumph that the ESPN doc that inspired this post will, but that’s such a key part of the differences between the sports. A winning Yankees’ season would be more fun to cover in this style, but there’s often far more worth in seeing a losing one.