By Tom Allon
Like many New Yorkers, I got swept up last week in Yankee-mania as the underdog Baby Bombers almost made the Fall Classic.
I’m actually more in the Mets camp, but I’m not one of those fans who thinks it’s a zero-sum game in New York baseball. I am first a New Yorker and then a sports fan, and if any team from my city is winning, count me in to be on that bandwagon.
Just a quick, related digression: How can Mayor DeBlasio say that he can’t root for the Yankees because he’s at heart a diehard Red Sox fan? Aren’t politicians supposed to know when it’s wise to fake it or put their city ahead of their roots?
But back to the Bronx: Has there ever been a more appealing superstar than Aaron Judge, the Yankees Paul Bunyan in right field?
He doesn’t showboat or gloat after he hits a monster home run and he hustles after every ball hit in his vicinity. His over-the-fence home run-saving grab in the American League Championship Series was one of the best plays I’ve seen in the last decade. Afterwards, he was all professional, throwing the ball back to the infield as he quietly went back to his spot in the outfield.
And Didi Gregorius is so good at shortstop that some are saying “Derek who?” He’s another breath of fresh (modest) air in an era where superstars like Odell Beckham, Jr. can’t contain themselves in their over-the-top victory dances.
Gary Sanchez is perhaps the best catcher the Yankees have had since the late, great Thurman Munson back in the 1970s. Although Sanchez needs vast improvement in blocking balls behind the plate, he’s a legitimate slugger and clutch hitter to anchor the middle of the lineup behind the mighty Judge. And smooth-hitting first baseman Greg Bird looks like another Don Mattingly-esque hitter — he just needs to get savvier (and faster) on the base paths so he doesn’t keep getting thrown out at home plate.
This team of many 25-and-under superstars is a very different team than Yankee championship teams of the past. There aren’t too many high-priced superstars, so you don’t feel like the Steinbrenners bought a winning team like you did in the late 1970s, 1980s, and early ’90s. General Manager Brian Cashman, who deserves to be resigned right away, has expertly assembled a powerhouse young lineup and pitching staff, with perhaps the best bullpen ever assembled.
When the Yankees were on the brink of qualifying to play in the World Series against the one-time hated rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers, I was transported back to my youth in 1977, 30 years ago, I trekked up to Yankee Stadium as a high-school sophomore very early one morning to buy bleacher seats to the World Series game. I recall watching a crafty right-handed pitcher the Yankees had signed as a free agent, Jim “Catfish” Hunter (they don’t make names like that anymore). I recall that in the midst of a crumbling city, the Yankees were this exciting beacon of drama with colorful players like “Mr. October” Reggie Jackson and a brawling manager named Billy Martin, whose combative style seems like such a throwback in this modern era of zero tolerance for bad behavior in sports.
I didn’t realize then that Catfish Hunter, signed for more than a million dollars (which seemed astronomical then), would foreshadow an era where declining team loyalty and rampant free agency would scramble teams every year and lead to an era where checkbooks in the boardroom sometimes got more ink than strikeouts on the field. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, a blustering larger-than-life character who was immortalized on the popular sitcom “Seinfeld,” represented the robber barons of baseball ownership in the late 20th century. Each year, he put on the field the best team money can buy and was pretty successful. But small market teams with a fraction of the Yankees payroll like the Oakland Athletics and the Cincinnati Reds often knocked the hated Yankees off their pedestal to prove that money can’t buy grit and hustle and teamwork.
But this year’s Yankee team, which admittedly had some high-priced players in the twilight of their careers like C.C. Sabathia and Jacoby Ellsbury, won the hearts of New Yorkers because they weren’t supposed to get far this season and because they were led by the gentle giant in right field, whose demeanor on and off the field was so authentic and so endearing that one hopes the trappings of money and fame doesn’t ruin him in the future. I doubt it will.
In the meantime, I’ll be one of those fans counting the days to pitchers and catchers in Spring Training in March.
And the chance to hear the fans once again bellow: “All Rise [for the Judge].”
Tom Allon, a lifelong New York sports fan, once aspired to be a sportswriter covering the Mets and Yankees. He is the president of City & State and can be reached at tallo