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On 2022, 1998, and the pitfalls of historical comparisons

Let’s stop with the (non-statistics-based) comparisons to the dynasty years, shall we?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

A couple weeks ago, I invoked the story of Lou Gehrig Day to discuss the innate connection to Yankees history that a lot of fans of the team possess. Speaking as someone with an extensive background in the field, I think a lot of this connection can be chalked up to the fact that the Yankees have a very good marketing strategy, but there’s something peculiar about the way we remember history.

Here’s a quick story. Growing up in a city about an hour outside of Toronto, I was constantly surrounded by Jays fans. Friends, family, everyone. Whenever the Yankees, and my fandom, were brought into discussions, the conversations inevitably spiraled into one of three things:

  1. I’m a bandwagon jumper and only cheer for the Yankees because they’re winning;
  2. The Yankees are incapable of winning an “actual” championship because they’ve bought all of theirs; or
  3. How many championships have you actually been alive for?

The first two are worthy of articles in and of themselves, but the third one is what I want to focus on here. More than the previous two, this question always bothered me a little bit. Firstly, I’m a kid of the ‘90s, so I’ve been alive for five titles.* Secondly, the Jays won titles in ‘92, the year I and a lot of my friends were born, and ‘93. Is being a newborn or a toddler enough years on this planet to qualify you as a witness to a champion? Because I sure see a lot of people my age claiming those ...

*Author’s note: For what it’s worth, I was alive for the 1996 World Series title, but I never claim that I remember/witnessed it. It’s the little things, guys.

But beyond just the logistical gymnastics my friends and family had to put themselves through, it was always just a confusing question for me to answer. Obviously the goal of every sports fan is to see their favorite team win as many championships as they possibly can in their lifetime, but, at least for me, a team’s history is part and parcel of cheering for that team. Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle ... hell, even Reggie Jackson. I never got to see any of those guys play for the Yankees, but by virtue of them wearing the pinstripes, their storied careers and their accomplishments still inform my fandom.

All of this brings us to the present day. I’m about to say something that might make a lot of people really mad, but it’s been weighing on me recently and I just have to get it off my chest. Here it goes ...

With this team, it sometimes feels like we lean too heavily into our past. There, I said it. What am I talking about? Well, for one example, I’m talking about the constant comparisons of this year’s team to the 1998 club. When the Yankees got off to their blazing hot start and were on pace to break the all-time wins record, the ol’ mythology mill heated up and we saw legitimate arguments about whether this team was actually better than the ‘98 Yankees or not. Now that the 2022 version of the team has cooled off a little bit in recent weeks, we’re seeing a number of people invoking the ‘98 club again, as some sort of, “See, I told you they weren’t as good!” flex.

The issue with debates like these, much like the Michael Jordan or LeBron James debate, is that they’re ultimately unproductive. Sure, they can be fun little thought experiments — I would love to see Ruth face-off against an Adam Ottavino slider just as much as I'd love to see Aaron Judge tee off on 1920s-style pitching — but comparing a team or a player from today with a team or player from nearly 25 years ago strips them of their historical contexts. Baseball nowadays is much different than it was back then, from the way the game is played — whereas a flamethrower was relatively rare in the late ‘90s, it seems like every team features 10 guys who can hit the high 90s with their fastball — to the way the game is understood and coached.

This is something I struggle with as well. Whenever I hear people talk about how good a shortstop or closer is, my first impulse is to say, “Yeah, but they’re not Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera!” Sometimes it takes every fiber of my being to stop myself from saying it for fear of looking like an old man yelling at a cloud. And that’s okay! It’s totally fine to think that the generation of ballplayers you grew up with is the best there ever was. For instance, I firmly believe that Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer of all-time and I will die on that hill. But maybe don’t use that historical narrative to strip away the good stories of this generation, you know?

The Yankees, by virtue of being the most storied team in professional baseball (if not all professional North American sports) have an extensive and tremendous history. These narratives provide us fans with a beautifully rich tapestry of stories to draw from that help us make sense of our own fandom. For instance, I was crying when I researched and wrote that Lou Gehrig Day piece — take it easy on me, I’ve got a lot going on — despite the fact that it happened some 50-odd years before I was born. Understanding the significance of that day and just how much Lou Gehrig meant to this organization in the ‘20s and ‘30s is a beautiful exercise in history that I recommend every fan undertake.

But, some things don't need to be historicized. It is okay for the 2022 New York Yankees to be an excellent team achieving excellent results, just as it is okay for the 1998 New York Yankees to be an excellent team that achieved excellent results. To my eye, saying something along the lines of, “the 2022 New York Yankees aren’t as good as the 1998 Yankees” is just as bonkers as saying “The 1998 New York Yankees aren’t as good as the 1927 Murderers’ Row Yankees.” Doing so does a disservice to all of the teams and players involved.

The Yankees are riding an excellent first half into the All-Star break. Who cares whether or not they’re better than the teams from the ‘90s. Let’s learn our history, enjoy the baseball we’re currently watching, and focus on rooting like hell for number 28.