Born right around when the 1994 World Series was to be played, my memories of the dynasty Yankees of the late-90’s and early-00’s are sparse. To some extent, that’s a tough draw for people my age, as we missed out on one of the most entertaining times in history to be a Yankee fan.
On the other hand, we also missed out on the Yankees’ fallow early-90s period, and instead have been treated to a life’s worth of quality baseball. But watching the 2023 Yankees limp through the summer has brought things into stark contrast. For a Yankee fan born too late to have even seen Don Mattingly play, this team is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For a big chunk of the fan base, this will be the first time the Yankees have been entirely directionless, with no obvious narrative through-lines to tune in to follow on a nightly basis.
Part of this is tautological. The Yankees of the last 30 years have typically been excellent, and when a baseball team is good, it’s in contention for the World Series. When a team is contending for the title, well, that provides sufficient narrative thrust for pretty much any season. A very good club that otherwise has no other interesting qualities at the very least has a clear and compelling direction; toward the
piece of metal coveted trophy that every team and player wishes to lift.
The Yankees haven’t suffered a sub-.500 season since 1992 (a streak the current team is putting in jeopardy), and have rarely failed to provide a club that doesn’t at least nominally contend for a championship, providing their fans the most basic, and often sufficient, storyline to follow. But even the scant exceptions to this rule over the last three decades, the handful of Yankee teams that spent their late-summers with minimal playoff chances, actually had other compelling attributes to them. We obviously would’ve preferred playoff glory, but they at least offered us something to pay attention to even if our hopes for a championship parade through the Canyon of Heroes had been dashed.
The 2008 Yankees represented the first time many of us kids realized that the Yankees could miss the playoffs, with the team breaking a run of 13 straight years playing October baseball. Yet that team also coincided with the closing of the old Yankee Stadium after an 85-year run. I remember my parents taking our family out to the bleachers for one last trip to say goodbye in September, and getting lucky enough to see Derek Jeter break Lou Gehrig’s mark for most hits at the stadium. Even as the team fell out of contention, there was a reason to watch, as we all said farewell to a beloved monument with more highlights from Mike Mussina and even José Molina along the way. The march to the end still felt fittingly-Yankeelike, dignified, perhaps a tad overwrought, but historic nonetheless.
The Yankees bounced back from that down year, winning a whole lot of games and the club’s most recent title over the next four seasons. The clock struck midnight on the core of that aging and injury-riddled team by 2013, though, with the club missing the playoffs in both 2013 and 2014. Yet again, extenuating circumstances saved the Yankees from being completely uninteresting, as moribund as those rosters often felt.
Those years, of course, brought the sunset on the Core Four, with Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte bowing out in 2013, before Jeter exited in 2014. Once more, an otherwise also-ran had something captivating to pay attention to. It may have been preferred that the final seasons for those legends (not to mention the final season for the old stadium) would have included playoff baseball. But the middling nature of those clubs had a side benefit. The fact that we knew the season was ending at least gave us a concrete end date, allowing us to soak in the final memories with these greats at these sites, knowing full well the finale was near. Again, a dignified march to the end.
2015 brought the return of playoff baseball, and while that Yankee team was no juggernaut, it gave us a fun season to follow, even if they burned out in the AL Wild Card Game. The 2016 club, however, provides the most notable exception to the Yankees’ always-in-contention rule. That team famously retooled at the deadline, shipping out Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltran for a bevvy of prospects, waving the white flag on a team that wasn’t going anywhere.
And yet, this time without the fanfare of a funeral march, the team remained reasonably compelling, thanks to the breath of fresh air incurred by the Baby Bombers.
Gary Sánchez wrote the headlines, but plenty of other youngsters got extended run, most notably Aaron Judge, along with Chad Green, Luis Severino, and Tyler Austin. The winds of change blowing round the Bronx those days felt invigorating even as the team’s record failed to impress. In fact, this run of 30 consecutive seasons above .500 would’ve ended in 2016 had it not been for Gary’s heroics willing them to 84 wins. It was fun to watch the young guys succeed and fail, to wonder if these were the early days of the next great Yankee core, and to revel in the forbidden thrill of watching the Yankees do something many of us had never seen before (rebuild).
The Baby Bombers obviously fully arrived on the scene in 2017, and even if the Baby Bomber era hasn’t gone exactly to plan, the team has consistently contended and given us a reason to tune in for the entirety of this run. That is, until the last month or so.
The 2023 Yankees aren’t the first club in a generation to fall to the outskirts of playoff contention. They aren’t the first team to fail to give fans that most fundamental narrative to follow, that one of a team pushing for the championship. But for many of us, they are the first Yankees of our lifetime to be completely rudderless.
There is no retirement tour to save this team from unwatchability, no intriguing rebuild to whet one’s appetite for the future. What’s left is a stagnant roster running out there to lose, with no narrative through-line to bring us to the park or the TV interested every day. The franchise that once saw Mystique and Aura starring nightly has been reduced to staging Purgatory: The Baseball Team for our viewing pleasure.
None of this is to say I won’t be watching, or that anyone should just tune the team out; I’d posit that for many of us, a bad baseball game beats the good version of most other things. And hell, the Yankees themselves could make their season more compelling by A) turning it around as they’ve claimed they would for so long or B) calling up some players that could be a part of the next great Yankee team. Failing that, the Yankees will be something that they’ve never been before in my life: utterly devoid of purpose.