When I was growing up watching the Yankees run their incredible streak of making the playoffs in 17 of 18 seasons from 1995 through 2012, my mom used to tell me about the Horace Clarke years, the dark era of Yankees baseball when she was younger, which I also read about. It was just a completely forgettable decade in the Yankees' history between their last American League pennant with Mickey Mantle and crew in 1964 and the resurgent Yankees of the late '70s. The stars were fading, the replacements were middling, and fans didn't have much to smile about.
The fans who hung around were rewarded for their loyalty with five playoff seasons in six years from 1976 through 1981, including four AL pennants, two World Series titles, and the never-ending joy produced by one swing of the bat from Bucky Dent on a Fall afternoon in '78 at Fenway Park. It was fun while it lasted, but before long, the Yankees were back to mediocrity. They missed the playoffs every year from 1982 through 1993, compiling what was then one of the longest playoff droughts in baseball, a dubious distinction that was simply shocking given the Yankees' spending capacity. There were a couple seasons that probably would have led to a Wild Card berth had the spot existed back then, but for the most part, it was just forgettable baseball yet again, best exemplified by this Andy Hawkins' no-hit loss:
In total, it was understandable to see why my mom always said the Yankees sucked when she was growing up and while awesome, it was still a little odd to see them succeeding so much in the late '90 and 2000s. In a 30-year span from 1965-1994 (over half my mom's life), they were a playoff team just five times. Yikes.
As wonderful as the days of prime Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and company were, it now appears evident that 2012 was the modern Yankees' version of 1964--one last playoff run with an aging team that ultimately fell short. The past two years have not been nearly as terrible as '65 or the last-place finish in '66, but man, have they been ugly to watch.
With their loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night, the Yankees dropped to five and a half games behind the AL Central-tied Royals and Tigers for the second Wild Card spot. It's just agonizing to look at the AL East standings--they are 11 games back of the hard-charging Orioles, who have one of the best records in baseball since the beginning of July. With any combination of nine Orioles wins and Yankees losses, they will be officially out of the AL East race, and the magic number in the Wild Card race isn't much better: 14. The Yankees are behind four other teams now for the Wild Card, and the two spots seem destined to go to two of the A's, Mariners, Royals, and Tigers.
Sources of excitement are few and far between on this group, much like it was during the Horace Clarke Era and Don Mattingly's career. The Horace Clarke Era had Bobby Murcer, Mel Stottlemyre, and a young Thurman Munson. In the '80s, there was Mattingly, a few years of Rickey Henderson, Ron Guidry, and Dave Righetti.
Likewise, the actual watchable talent here is sparse, especially on the current group that is without the injured Masahiro Tanaka and Brett Gardner. There's Jacoby Ellsbury, Dellin Betances, and Michael Pineda. Everyone else has just been a disappointing acquisition (Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran), some with sample sizes too small to get too excited about (Shane Greene, John Ryan Murphy), or an old guy winding down his career in disappointing fashion (Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki). It's hard to get fans to come out to the ballpark to watch Hiroki Kuroda or Chris Capuano make a start. David Robertson, Brandon McCarthy, and Chase Headley have been pretty fun, but who knows if those soon-to-be free agents will even be on the team next year?
Regarding next year, it's difficult to get too enthralled by the Yankees' future, either. As previously mentioned, there are only a handful of exciting players under contract past this year. Hopefully Tanaka will return, but there's still a very real chance he might have Tommy John surgery that would set his next start back to 2016. There's the likely return of the Alex Rodriguez Bizarro Show and the hobbled CC Sabathia. Yay. Maybe some of the promising prospects on the farm like Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, or Rob Refsnyder will lead a youth movement the Yankees so desperately need, but they're still just prospects with a lot to prove. As of now, they are only dice in the Yankees' hands, hoping to just turn some kind of profit on the craps board.
Am I supposed to be that excited by possibly seeing a guy like Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, or J.J. Hardy join this team in the off-season? Adding some of those guys might be nice, but they feel like moves that would put a team over the hump into legitimate playoff contention. The Yankees might be a .500 team or so this year, but they've been playing like a group that should be several games under .500 by virtue of their -27 run differential. That's a lot of runs to make up through off-season acquisitions.
Yes, it appears that we are entering another era of uncertainty in Yankees history. The team might even get more unwatchable. However, now is the time to prove for fans to prove that they are not mere fair-weather fans who only stick around for the championships, then completely ignore them until they are good again. Look back on that period from 1995-2012 and marvel--we were the luckiest fans in baseball to have witnessed such success, multiple championships, and an extremely likeable core of players. That was not normal, and it was damn entertaining.
Surviving through the rough times is what makes finally reaching the top most satisfying, which is what made 1996 arguably the most thrilling championship run in franchise history. My mom is far from the only Yankees fan who stuck it out with the team while they waded through the murky days of error-blowing no-hitters and Steve Saxes.
Keep the faith and the rewards that will come one day will be more than worth the wait.