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Thoughts from the first Yankees home playoff game in three years

The first playoff game in the Bronx in since the start of the pandemic was just about everything a fan could have hoped for.

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

At around 6:30 pm on Tuesday night, I was fortunate enough to enter Yankee Stadium, along with a pair of anxious friends, to watch Game 1 of the ALDS between the Yankees and Guardians. As we walked in, we steeled ourselves for the night ahead, and I quietly hoped that the events of the game would allow me to write an article about a triumphant return to playoff baseball, about a team and fanbase that, years after the last playoff game in the Bronx, was ready to explode.

I’m thrilled to report that that’s exactly what happened.

The crowd was buzzing ahead of first pitch, and the Yankees recognized the opportunity they had on their hands. Yankees fans, while not exactly long suffering, hadn’t seen a home postseason game since before the beginning of the COVID pandemic, a long three years since 2019 ALCS Game 5 against the Astros. There was a nervousness, and an eagerness, a pent-up excitement, a sense that 50,000 people were ready to go nuts.

The Yankees acknowledged that, and planned the most robust set of pregame set festivities I’ve ever seen from the typically buttoned-up franchise. Minutes after former ace CC Sabathia threw out the ceremonial first pitch, the lights went out, eliciting Oohs and Aahs from around the park. From the dark appeared Nick Swisher in the middle of the field, jumping around like a maniac and waving a Yankees flag, the way you would imagine Nick Swisher would. As Swisher moved from center field toward home plate, the lights suddenly came on full blast, and the crowd erupted:

It was all pretty cheesy, yes, but it was also exciting, dramatic, and fun. The notoriously stuffy New York Yankees, about to play their highest-leverage home game in years, were out here just having fun!

The lights went dark again, and a spotlight homed in behind the plate, as the managers and umpires exchanged lineup cards. It was another cool effect, letting the drama build up again with Gerrit Cole moments away from taking the mound.

At last, Cole and the rest of the Yankees took the field. The crowd didn’t exactly settle in; of all the games I’ve been to in my life, this was the one where the fans spent the most time just standing, regardless of what was happening on the field. None of us could wait to let loose, eager to break out at the first big moment. Cole gave us what we needed, striking out José Ramírez and then Josh Naylor to end the first, sending the fans into a frenzy.

From there, we got to enjoy what was, outside of a few odd moments, a surprisingly smooth game, as Sam noted in his analysis this morning. Yet the precise way the game played out made for the perfect amount of in-person playoff catharsis.

Specifically, the almost-debacle that was the third inning made the team’s quick comeback that much sweeter to witness. In the third, Cole gave up his trademark maddening home run, yielding a solo shot to a player, Steven Kwan, who hit just six during a full 2022 regular season. A hit-by-pitch and a double later, and we had all the makings of a the kind of classic 2022 Gerrit Cole blow-up.

But Cole induced a force out for the second out of the inning, and sensing that he had a chance to escape, the crowd rallied around him, willing him to record one more punchout and keep the game alive. Cole dug deep and delivered like the ace we needed, whiffing Andrés Giménez to right the ship:

That dance with danger upped the anxiety levels in the crowd, and it all paid off immediately with Harrison Bader’s dinger to tie it in the bottom of the third:

Cole took us to the edge, but brought us back, and now we were truly rolling. The top of the fourth won’t be featured in any championship DVD’s if the Yankees win the World Series, yet it was among the more electric frames I’ve witnessed live, with the audience riding the momentum from the previous inning. The fourth saw Oswaldo Cabrera’s foul-line grab (and hat retrieval), Josh Donaldson’s excellent stab deep in the hole at third, and a backwards K from Cole to end the inning:

Jose Trevino nudged the Yankees in front with a sac fly in the fifth, and the good times were rolling. Every Cole whiff was met with an eruption, and every sharp defensive play behind him prompted a celebration.

Anthony Rizzo sent a high fly into the second deck in right in the seventh, and the outcome was becoming clear. Cole got his first playoff Yankee Stadium ovation, the bullpen closed things down, and we got to sing “New York, New York” triumphantly, a 1-0 ALDS lead firmly in hand.

From this fan’s perspective, it’s hard to script a better return to the playoff experience. No, this wasn’t a historic game, not one that will make anyone’s list of the best ever Yankees playoff games. But it had the perfect balance of anxiety, stakes, catharsis, and fun. The game balanced drama with levity, ups and downs, early tribulations before later triumphs.

It was, essentially, all a fan could ask for. A high-stakes, high-leverage game that also found a way to just be straightforward and fun. Let it be an omen for how the rest of this October in the Bronx will unfold.

Stray thoughts from the notebook:

  • The Yankees did a good job making the opening proceedings feel appropriately Bronx, having the team take the field to Fat Joe’s “Lean Back”.
  • Pretty much every player received loud cheers during pregame introductions, except for Aaron Hicks, who was booed. Sorry, Aaron.
  • This is in no way a defense of Josh Donaldson, who only has himself to blame for getting thrown out on what he thought was a dinger. But he wasn’t the only one fooled; home-run celebration music started to play at the Stadium, sending the crowd into a frenzy and Donaldson into a trot.
  • The person who sang “God Bless America” sang an introduction to the song that seemingly zero people in attendance had ever heard, prompting confusion around the stadium. Aaron Judge was caught giggling on the Jumbotron, reminiscent of NBA All-Stars laughing during Fergie’s National Anthem.
  • Keeping with the theme of the team allowing itself and its fans to have fun, the Yankees had a DJ on hand, pumping house music and hip hop throughout the night. The vibe was consistently celebratory, particularly as the Yankees pulled ahead. Having a DJ rev up the club certainly won’t be every fan’s cup of tea, but personally, I preferred it to hearing “Welcome to the Jungle” or “Sweet Caroline” or whatever played for the millionth time.