By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns
Those outside the family of died-in-the-wool Yankees fans have alternately feared, hated, and even despised the team, as one might expect from a franchise that has made a habit of collecting rings through the generations.
But this team is different. The current Yankees have actually become likable, a condition with which they have never had even a passing association.
Loveable is still a ways away. But if the legend youngsters like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, and Aaron Hicks are carving out with select veterans such as Matt Holliday and Brett Gardner continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they indeed became as beloved as the 1962 Mets.
The circumstances would be entirely different, of course. Even the most ardent of Giants and Dodgers fans had to love those Mets, if only because they were the ones who brought the National League back to New York.
They stunk. But the 120 losses mattered little to the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field faithful left broken-hearted when their teams fled to California in the late ’50s. They were just happy to have the new team, even if Gil Hodges and the handful of other big names on Casey Stengel’s roster had seen better days and the losses came in most creative ways.
These Yankees are likable because they have succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. Not only that, but they’re a nice bunch of guys who seem to appreciate their good fortune. Judge, for instance, is a humble fellow who recognized his failures from 2016 and worked hard to become the complete, dominant player of 2017.
Ditto for Severino, who went from the heights of rookie success in 2015 to outright failure the next year, to future ace status this year. And Hicks is just delighted to be getting regular work after preseason expectations pigeon-holed him as no better than a utility reservist.
Even with their third straight loss on their current West Coast trip, 8-7 in 10 innings to the A’s on Thursday, the young Bombers are having a ball as AL East leaders. But that’s kind of the point. Even their losses are interesting. The likelihood of seeing Judge hit a tape-measure job is always present. But if not, there’s a guy like Hicks, who reached over the fence in the first inning Wednesday to rob Luis Valbuena of a grand slam.
The successful Yankees teams have always had those qualities — in spades. But few have been as humble and unentitled as this squad. Thus the jealousy-fueled hatred.
The Yanks of the ’20s transformed baseball. The acquisition of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox in 1920 turned the Yanks from a small-ball also-ran to a power-based world champion of the nascent lively ball era. But for all the excitement of seeing Ruth bang one out of first the Polo Grounds and then, starting in 1923, Yankee Stadium, a lot of the old-timers of the deadball era, led by irascible Giants manager John McGraw, hated the Yanks for bastardizing their traditional “inside” game.
The Yanks of the ‘40s and ‘50s were simply just too good to be loved. Packed with stars like Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and the rest of them, they basically rolled over the American League under managers Joe McCarthy and Stengel. Yankees fans were thrilled to watch their team collect 10 championships and 13 pennants in those decades. But the rest of baseball jealously despised the Bombers’ gluttony and muttered, “Hey, give somebody else a chance, would ya?”
As they said, rooting for the Yanks was like rooting for U.S. Steel.
It was no surprise then that the world outside the Bronx gloated when the franchise went into a lull in the ’60s and ’70s before George Steinbrenner took over and put together the best baseball teams money could buy. The “Bronx Zoo” squads of the Reggie Jackson era were great, but hardly likable. Jackson fought with prickly catcher Thurman Munson and manager Billy Martin. Goose Gossage fought with Cliff Johnson. And everybody fought with the guy who signed all their huge paychecks.
Who but a Yankees fan could root for that?
The “Core Four” teams came as close to likability as any of them. But there were too many stars from other teams who mixed in with the homegrown Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera to be well-liked. Not when Roger Clemens threw the splintered end of Mike Piazza’s broken bat at the catcher en route to the 2000 ring. And then there were the steroids that tainted the careers of both Clemens and Alex Rodriguez.
These kids are different, though. For the most part, they’re a clean-cut, together unit that one suspects will stay united during the inevitable valleys of a long season. They’re fun to watch. And though they sit atop the division just about assured of at least a wild card spot, they haven’t had the sustained success that allowed their storied predecessors to lord it over their AL neighbors.
They may yet become the most hated team in baseball. But right now, few begrudge the Yankees their achievements.
They could well finish the year as the most beloved team since the ’62 Mets.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino