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Oedipus Rex and the Yankees: A comparison of fatal flaws

Sophocles warned against hubris a long, long time ago. Brian Cashman didn’t listen.

MLB: Washington Nationals at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

If Brian Cashman paid attention in English class, we could have avoided all of this.

There’s so much we can learn from an epic poem written in 429 BC, most fundamentally that the nature of human beings doesn’t really change. Heroes become tyrants consistently throughout history and literature; the tendency to develop egotistical hubris born out of success is a constant danger to both general managers and Oedipus, the prideful, short-sighted king of Thebes. It’s somewhat of a paradox — one gains confidence through success, but the line between confidence and egoism in the face of glory is thin, almost imperceptible.

The concept of hamartia first appears in Aristotle’s Poetics, written in 335 BCE, about a century after Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex. Aristotle argued, with Oedipus as a prime example, that a true Greek tragedy is about the demise of someone who is fully, imperfectly human. The tragic hero is neither evil nor a model of virtue—and, in that regard, is relatable to the audience. Tragedies should tell the story of someone whose downfall is caused not by greed or vice, but “by some error or frailty,” as the famed philosopher put it. Oedipus, the powerful, wealthy but ultimately human king, came into Thebes as a non-traditional successor who suddenly possessed extreme power. The same can be said of Brian Cashman taking the reins of a lean, mean winning machine in 1998.

Oedipus has a chance to mitigate his gruesome fate, and it’s practically telegraphed to him. Early on, he summons the blind prophet Tiresias to ascertain the mystic cause of a plague eviscerating Thebes. Tiresias tells the king the truth: the plague started after the late king Laius’ murder, and the plague will end when the killer is brought to justice. Oedipus, Laius’ successor and new husband of Laius’ former wife Jocasta, takes it upon himself to solve the mystery. Oedipus came to Thebes as an outsider who rose to prominence on his competence. He has a strong sense of honor and wants to do right by the man who handed him the keys to the kingdom, a most respectable pursuit.

In their ensuing conversations, the blind prophet meekly expresses that Oedipus himself murdered Laius. He repeats the revelation several times and begs Oedipus to listen or it will be his undoing. The revered king doesn’t even entertain the notion of his own wrongdoing and essentially responds with ‘what do you know? You’re blind!’

The king sits atop his throne and boasts of his arrival in Thebes and his military victory over the Sphinx long ago, which led to his coronation. He deflects the dead-on accurate prophecy using his greatest conquest as proof that he couldn’t possibly have done something so awful. He sees his victories as interminable proof of his worthiness, even as they drift further into the past. Besides, past nobility has nothing to do with present nobility. The truth is evident, but ironically, Oedipus, not Tiresias, is blind. The game has changed and left Oedipus behind, and any chance he has to save himself is dashed by arrogance. Sound familiar?

Cashman, at some point, was excellent at his job. He delivered his fair share of Sphinx moments — 2009 is the obvious one, but Cashman’s hamartia of pure arrogance took full effect after the 2019 season. That team seemed destined for a World Series, yet ended tragically with a Jose Altuve blast and a smirk from Aroldis Chapman that lives in infamy. Throughout that season, Cashman pushed all the right buttons, fashioning scrap heap pieces like Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman into contributors. He was aptly lauded for the flurry of moves to cobble together a team that would come within a game, if not an inning, of the World Series.

Oedipus sends Tiresias away, labeling him a quack. The more he resists the truth of his existence, the more it tortures him. Jocasta, his wife and Laius’ widow, begs him to drop the line of inquiry concerning Laius and consider the outlook of his reign. She assures him that nobody can see the future and prefers to focus on administrative duties of her position, the dollars and cents of running a kingdom, while forgetting about the past under Laius’ rule. I swear I’ve heard this one before. Some guy named Hal?

Jocasta has been around the block. She knows what makes an excellent king — she’s been a queen her whole life and is an expert in such affairs. She tells Oedipus that she and Laius, too, were privy to the prophecy that Laius would be murdered by his son. To prevent this, the erstwhile royal couple abandoned their firstborn on a mountain to die. Besides, she tells Oedipus, her former husband was killed by a band of robbers. How could it have possibly been at Oedipus’ hand, who was an outsider from another kingdom (Corinth) at that point and not in Thebes?

Every epic poem has a chorus — an emotional underpinning of the audience’s feelings as the plot progresses. The chorus chants between scenes in a live performance, in this case verses about the sinister nature of egoism and entreaties to the king to listen and save himself. The Greek chorus is not unlike the chatter Yankees fans have produced about Cashman’s stubbornness to adjust since 2019. The chorus in Yankee Land rings out: Too many right-handed hitters! Not athletic enough! Too many aging position players! Cashman, like Oedipus, is deaf to the sound advice of the chorus that could’ve saved his skin.

Things start to go downhill when Oedipus suddenly finds out he was adopted and taken into the royal family of Corinth as a child, throwing his parentage into murkiness, and has absolutely no plan in the event of this revelation. His worldview is forcibly changed, and instead of adjusting, he resists. Just as Oedipus is destined to fulfill a prophecy he desperately tries to avoid, the team is seemingly fated to repeat their past mistakes. The Yankees find themselves caught in a cycle of disappointment perpetuated by the pinnacle of success that has long since fossilized into a relic of a different era.

Oedipus’ tragic flaw lies in his arrogance and refusal to accept his limitations as a human being. He sees himself as a noble truth-seeker and doesn’t ever worry the knowledge could destroy him, as Tiresias warned. This comes to pass at Oedipus’ devastating conclusion. Turns out, the shepherd tasked with disposing of baby Oedipus on the mountain top had moral qualms, and he dropped it off with another shepherd who was headed to Corinth. Oedipus grew into a prince in Corinth, and long ago on his initial journey to Thebes, recalls the traveler he killed for the equivalent of cutting him off in traffic. That, he finally realizes, was Laius. It’s far too little, too late, and it also dawns on Oedipus that he’s married to his mother.

Jocasta knew, at least on some level. She could’ve stopped this train at any point to salvage her life and the life of her kingdom ... but she didn’t. She sat on her hands because intervening would’ve been too unpleasant. She did the equivalent of signing Oedipus to a contract extension knowing he was a man possessed by delusions of grandeur. Shortly after the shocking twist, she hangs herself and Oedipus sticks her sewing needles into his own eyes, blinding himself, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Were the 2023 Yankees doomed from the start as an injury-prone, geriatric confluence of grim fate and free will? In their initial success, both parties overlooked warning signs that should have prompted caution and reflection. Both Oedipus’ and Cashman’s inability to admit their limitations and adjust to circumstances beyond their control led them down a path of self-destruction, where the consequences of their decisions proved to be their insurmountable imperfection. Cashman should crack open Oedipus Rex — the GM could stand to learn a thing or two from the legendary Greek epic poem.