It's déjà vu all over again. For the seventh successive year the New York Yankees have failed to win the World Series. No wonder it's open season in New York. Repeated failure demands a sacrificial scapegoat. George Steinbrenner may have decided that Joe Torre's head must go, while the media--perplexingly--argues that it's all Alex Rodriguez's fault. These are targets that are obvious and tempting but, nonetheless, inadequate.
Yankee fans should aim higher. Can it really be a coincidence that the most-storied and successful team in American sports has failed to win while George W. Bush has occupied the Oval Office? I think not. The successor to the Curse of the Bambino is George W. Bush's hex upon the Yankees. Call it the Revenge of the Hanging Chad.
The Clinton-era Yankee dynasty was remarkable for one thing above all: These were Yankees you could love. Or at least not hate. They had a mixture of suave youngsters and scrappy veterans that sportswriters love. Four titles were added between 1996 and 2000. These were happy, innocent years of fat--so much so in New York, in fact, that providence even permitted the Mets to participate in a Subway Series in 2000. The doyen of baseball writers, Roger Angell, was not alone in setting aside his "long-standing coolness toward the club", concluding that "The Yankees--who'd have thought it--had become lovable".
But that was before the excesses of the Bush years. In 1996, the Yankee payroll was $66 million; this year it was $195 million--a spending splurge even the federal government might admire.
The parallels continue. As the United States has squandered goodwill internationally, so have the Yankees domestically. And one can see why.
In fact if Americans could apply their understanding of baseball to the country's relations with the rest of the world, then perhaps they would be better placed to understand how the United States came to have an image problem. After all, the New York Yankees are to Major League Baseball what America is to the rest of the countries of the world. The Evil Empire indeed.
The Yankees are a sporting hegemon; a "rogue franchise" doing--we're often told--great and possibly irreparable damage to the game. No other franchise has won more than ten World Series titles; the Yanks have hauled in no fewer than 26. Baseball is unipolar.
No wonder baseball deemed the Yankees are hyper-power in need of taming. Baseball's luxury tax--the millions of dollars paid by the Yankees to small market also-rans such as Kansas City and Pittsburgh--represents, in an American era marked by conspicuous tax giveaways to the already wealthy, a collectivist move to meet Karl Marx's famous demand: "from each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs." It's Gulliver brought low by baseball's Lilliputians, just as, conservatives like to remind us, the United Nations desires to tame the United States.
Like the United States, the Yanks are immensely rich, accustomed to getting their own way, suspicious of those who did not appreciate their point of view, and not always especially diplomatic in dealing with their friends and rivals alike. George Steinbrenner's attitude to free agents--if we want him, we'll take him--is paralleled by the Bush administration's disdain for international institutions: Laws, or market realities, that apply to lesser nations don't apply to us.
Baseball cherishes its mythology, of course. In April, the game returns with an innocent and giddy optimism, willing itself to believe that everyone has a shot at glory--that with hard work and a little luck anyone can be champions. It is a sporting version of the American Dream. But each spring, one team stands in the way of this comforting romanticism. The Yankees block out the sun. They remind us of the darker side of the American Dream: While this country is open to anyone in theory, in practice--or at least often--only a fortunate few will make it. The Yankees, then, are the unforgiving voice of experience, snuffing out innocence. An American reality rebutting an American myth.
Perhaps that's why The New York Times can never seem to warm to the Pinstripers, even going so far as to publish an editorial before the 2003 American League Championship Series arguing that it would be better for baseball if the Boston Red Sox were to finally vanquish their ancient rival. May they never be forgiven for this act of metropolitan treason.
Sure, the Yanks might have more fans than any other side--like the United States, perhaps--but amongst baseball fans collectively, the Yankees are a minority taste, just as admitting to an admiration for the United States has become a risky proposition at dinner parties around the world.
In the circles I move in, it's considered poor form to admit to a fascination with, let a alone a liking for, the Bronx Bombers. Doing so is akin to supporting the school bully or admitting that you voted for George W. Bush in both the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections. It's not the sort of thing you mention in polite society. The Yankees are my sordid little American League secret and, to borrow from Yeats, my own "terrible beauty."
Now, you'll say that seven years without a title is not so very long. And if, say, you follow the Chicago Cubs, it certainly doesn't seem so harsh. But Yankee fans, like the Yankees' owner, are different: a single year without a title in the Bronx equates to something like seven years of ineptitude from other, lesser, franchises. In Yankee Years it's been nearly half a century since the Bombers last savored victory. At least it feels that way.
But perhaps it isn't just Bush's fault. Maybe the Republican Party itself is bad for the Yankees. After all, the Bronx Bombers haven't won a World Series under a Republican president since the Eisenhower administration. Just seven of their 26 titles have been won while the GOP possessed the White House. Perhaps someone should point this out to Rudy Giuliani. Is Hizzoner really prepared to sacrifice future Yankee victories upon the altar of his Presidential ambition?
Now there's a question for all Americans to consider: is Hillary Clinton the Yankees' best hope? From a Yankee point of view, one thing seems certain: 2009 cannot come soon enough. As America recovers from the Bush years, so will the New York Yankees.
By Alex Massie