The New York Yankees are back. They made the playoffs just once in the past four seasons, and while they never slipped below .500, they did mostly slip into irrelevance other than a one-and-done wild-card appearance in 2015. But here they are, led by future first-ballot Hall of Famer Aaron Judge (what, too soon?), making an argument that they are the best team in baseball.
The thing about these Yankees -- I kind of like them. I said it. They're not your typical Yankees team, built more on youth and homegrown players than aging, high-priced free agents. You can't help but like Judge, or at least admit his combination of power at the plate and grace in the outfield is pretty awesome. Luis Severino has been fun to watch. Brett Gardner is playing like an All-Star. Alex Rodriguez isn't around to steal the headlines.
It got me thinking: Is this the most likable Yankees team ever? I mean, it's OK to admit that most of us dislike the Yankees by default. You know the reasons why. The rings. George Steinbrenner. The money. That pinstripes magic that makes everything always go the Yankees way. And no, I'm absolutely not bitter about that home run David Justice hit off Arthur Rhodes.
So let's go back to 1920 and rank all the Yankees teams from least likable to most likable, focusing mostly on the post-1976 era, when I first started watching baseball.
2000 Yankees (87-74): This team won the World Series, which is bad enough. But even more disheartening, it wasn't even a good team. The Yankees won only 87 games and beat my Mariners in the American League Championship Series in part because Jamie Moyer broke his kneecap in practice before the series began. They won the first game of the World Series because Timo Perez didn't hustle and was thrown out at home plate. Then in Game 2, Roger Clemens THREW THE JAGGED SHARD OF A BROKEN BAT AT MIKE PIAZZA, a guy he had hit in the head with a pitch earlier in the season. If this happened in 2017, Twitter would have had a nuclear meltdown.
2009 Yankees (103-59): In 2008, the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993, so they went out and spent $423.5 million to sign Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. That's more than 17 franchises were valued at the time. They moved into the new Yankee Stadium and tried to sell $2,500 tickets. Then they won the World Series.
1999 Yankees (98-64): Chad Curtis, the World Series hero, was later sent to prison for molesting three teenage girls at a rural Michigan high school where he volunteered. Chuck Knoblauch was later arrested twice for domestic violence. Jim Leyritz killed a mother of two in a DUI accident. Hideki Irabu was later arrested for assaulting a bartender and drunken driving. Clemens and Darryl Strawberry were still here. They also won the World Series.
2012 Yankees (95-67): This was an aggravating, overachieving old team -- the starting lineup featured guys 31, 31, 32, 34, 36, 38, 38 and 40 years old -- that made the playoffs even though Mariano Rivera was injured. It then turned into destroyer of dreams against the Orioles in the division series. The O's had made the playoffs after 14 consecutive losing seasons. A feel-good story! Game 1 was a tie game in the ninth, when Russell Martin leads off with a home run, and the Yankees score five runs. In Game 3, Raul Ibanez homers in the ninth to tie it, and homers again in the 12th to win it. Raul Freakin' Ibanez, supreme Mr. Nice Guy and ex-Mariner, doing this for the Yankees (alongside Ichiro Suzuki). At least the ALCS turned in a four-game sweep in which the big story was Alex Rodriguez getting benched and holding that infamous on-field session with the media. And you wonder why teammates once called him "A-Fraud" for his poor playoff performances.
1949-1964 Yankees: Yeah, baseball in the 1950s was great -- if you were a Yankees fan. Otherwise, it mostly sucked. They won 14 pennants in 16 seasons, including five straight World Series titles from 1949 to 1953. Even Yankees fans grew bored with all the winning. They drew almost 2.3 million fans in 1949, but just 1.3 million by 1964. They also were one of the last teams to integrate, not signing a black player until 1955.
2004 Yankees (101-61): This was the apex of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. The Red Sox were searching for that long-awaited World Series title and were still the scrappy underdogs. The Yankees were the evil empire. They had traded for Rodriguez and Kevin Brown, and signed Gary Sheffield as a free agent. Jason Giambi went down with some weird intestinal parasite, and I am in no way suggesting that there was something more to that story.
In July, this happened:
In Game 6 of the ALCS, this happened:
I'm kind of getting all weepy just remembering these good times.
2001 Yankees (95-65): Of course I hate this team! They beat the 116-win Mariners in the ALCS! Then they almost won the World Series for the fifth time in six seasons. There was the Derek Jeter flip play against the A's, the Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius home runs off Byung-Hyun Kim, the Jeter Mr. November home run. I'll never forget when the Yankees took a 2-1 lead over the Diamondbacks in the eighth inning of Game 7. It started to rain, the wind picked up, garbage was flying throughout the stadium. It felt like the Apocalypse.
1978 Yankees (100-63): They were 14 games back on July 19. Billy Martin got fired. The Red Sox won their final eight games, but the Yankees finished 6-1 to end up in a tie for the division title. Bucky Dent hits the home run. Bob Welch strikes out Reggie Jackson in an epic confrontation in Game 2 of the World Series, but Jackson gets his revenge with a two-run homer in Game 6. Of course he did. It's the Yankees. They win back-to-back titles. The only redeeming thing about this year was Ron Guidry going 25-3. You can't dislike somebody nicknamed Louisiana Lightning.
2005 Yankees (95-67): I'm still annoyed that Aaron Small went 10-0.
1936-1939 Yankees: They demolished the American League, winning four straight pennants by an average margin of 15 games. They won four World Series in a row, losing just three games. Lou Gehrig got sick in 1939, and that didn't even slow down the team. The Yanks went 106-45 and outscored their opponents by 411 runs.
2014 Yankees (84-78): This should have been the first losing season since 1992. In Jeter's final season, Joe Girardi kept hitting him second, despite a .304 OBP, which was just dumb. It was actually kind of infuriating, like saying, "We know this is really dumb, but we're the Yankees and we don't care and we'll probably win anyway." They were outscored by 31 runs and still finished with a winning season.
2010 Yankees (95-67): Steinbrenner passed away in July and everybody talked about what a great owner he had been. I mean, forget that time he took away dental insurance from Yankees employees. Anyway, the Yankees were tied for the AL East lead on the final day of the season. Now, I'm not saying they threw that game so they'd face the Twins in the playoffs instead of the Rangers, but they started Dustin Moseley in the season finale. They won the wild card, but MLB was so appalled at what the Yankees did that it added a second wild card for 2012 to force teams to go all-out for the division.
1982 Yankees (79-83): Peak Steinbrenner. After losing the World Series in 1981, The Boss decided he needed more speed, so they traded for Ken Griffey Sr. and signed Dave Collins. Those two combined for 23 stolen bases. He fired Bob Lemon as manager after 14 games, hired Gene Michael, replaced him with Clyde King, and after the season, hired Martin again (for the third of five times).
2006 Yankees (97-65): Do you remember anything about this club? Me neither. But they probably weren't all that likable. I do remember Joe Torre moving A-Rod down to eighth in the lineup in Game 4 of the ALDS, which was in no way a complete overreaction to a three-game sample.
2013 Yankees: Jeter missed almost the entire season. Teixeira played just 15 games. A-Rod played 44 games, and I don't remember if it was because he was hurt or suspended. (He was injured, but his suspension for the 2014 season was announced during this season.) Lyle Overbay, Eduardo Nunez, Jayson Nix, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner played key roles. I have no memory of Wells in pinstripes. They still finished over .500. Once, just once, could they have a losing season?
2002 Yankees (103-58): It was time for change, so they replaced Tino Martinez with Giambi, that winter's mega free agent. They also brought back former top prospect Ruben Rivera, only to release him in spring training after he stole Jeter's glove and sold it to a memorabilia dealer for $2,500. Giambi would hit 41 home runs, but the club flamed out with a playoff loss to the Angels.
1979-1981 Yankees: Thurman Munson died in 1979, George Brett torched Goose Gossage in the 1980 playoffs, and Tom Paciorek beat the Yankees with walk-off home runs on consecutive nights, which was like the biggest highlight in Mariners history for a long time. Even as a kid, it was sweet to beat the Yanks. Steinbrenner shuffled through five managers (including Bob Lemon twice) and called Dave Winfield "Mr. May" after he went 1-for-22 in the 1981 World Series. But the highlight of this era was Steinbrenner getting into a fight in an elevator with two Dodgers fans during the World Series, or so he claimed. "There are two guys in town looking for their teeth," he said, explaining the cast on his left hand, a swollen lip and bruise on his head.
2016 Yankees (84-78): This team committed the worst sin imaginable for the Yankees, being both boring and mediocre. Releasing A-Rod in August was only a temporary reprieve.
2007 Yankees (94-68): Of all the dramatic things that could happen, Roger Clemens announced his return to the Yankees during the seventh-inning stretch of a game in May. Can you get any more insufferable? Just be careful clicking on that link; you may grow a third ear.
1965-1975 Yankees: The dark years. No playoffs for 11 seasons in a row. In 1965, they had their first losing season since 1925. These teams weren't as bad, mostly just unmemorable, although there was that time pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson exchanged wives and children. They even had to play two seasons at Shea Stadium as Yankee Stadium was rebuilt. What would be the seminal moment in the era came in 1973, however, when Steinbrenner led a group that purchased the Yankees from CBS for $8.8 million. "I won't be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all," he said. "I can't spread myself so thin. I've got enough headaches with my shipping company. We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned."
2003 Yankees (101-61): It's easy to forget how much the Yankees used to outspend the other teams in this era. This team had a payroll 55 percent higher than the No. 2 team. There was the memorable Pedro Martinez-Don Zimmer fight in the ALCS, and then Aaron Boone ripped apart hearts across New England with his Game 7 home run. Joe Torre crying in joy after that game almost made us all Yankees fans for a moment -- until we realized they were still the Yankees. At least they lost the World Series.
2011 Yankees (97-65): By this time, we were numb to Yankees success. Maybe I liked this team a little. Bartolo Colon was on it.
1983 Yankees (91-71): Winfield killed a seagull. Was it an accident or on purpose?
1997 Yankees (96-66): You know who was underrated? Mike Stanton. From the 1997 postseason through 2001, he pitched 26 innings with a 2.77 ERA, .204 average allowed and no home runs. He helped get the ball to Rivera and never gets any credit.
1929-1935 Yankees: It's kind of amazing in retrospect: The Yankees had Babe Ruth (through 1934) and Lou Gehrig and won just one pennant in seven seasons. That was 1932, the year Ruth CALLED HIS HOME RUN IN THE WORLD SERIES AND THEN POINTED SEVERAL TIMES AT THE PITCHER AS HE ROUNDED THE BASES. How incredible is that? Then again -- what a jerk! Imagine that happening in 2017. We would never discuss another bat flip again because we'd be in the middle of a civil war over respect for the game.
1984 Yankees (87-75): I have fond memories of playing this team on MicroLeague Baseball, although I refused to hit Omar Moreno leadoff like Yogi Berra did. This was the year Don Mattingly became Donnie Baseball as he battled Winfield for the batting title. The final day began with Mattingly at .339 and Winfield at .341, but Mattingly went 4-for-5 with two doubles to end up at .343, while Winfield went 1-for-4 to finish at .340.
1996 Yankees (92-70): This was actually kind of a nice story at the time, as the Yankees returned to the World Series for the first time since 1981 and beat the Braves. They had those young guys leading the way -- Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. David Cone returned from a blood clot. Dwight Gooden threw a no-hitter.
Then this happened in the playoffs, which is when we should have known Jeter was destined for a charmed existence:
Even all that would have been bearable, but THEN WADE BOGGS HAD TO JUMP ON A HORSE IN A VICTORY LAP and:
2015 Yankees (87-75): After a glorious two-year absence from the playoffs, the Yankees win a wild-card spot in the first post-Jeter year. A-Rod returned from his year-long suspension to hit 33 home runs, and it almost felt like a redemption story. Then he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the playoff game and the Yankees lost, and all was right with the world.
1985 Yankees (97-64): This was a fun team. Rickey Henderson scored 146 runs and stole 80 bases. Mattingly won MVP honors by driving in 145 runs. Winfield and Don Baylor provided plenty of beef. Steinbrenner fired Berra after 16 games and replaced him with Martin (for his fourth stint). The Yankees lost eight in a row down the stretch, and Martin and pitcher Ed Whitson brawled for 20 minutes in a Baltimore bar. Whitson had been bad-mouthing Martin for not starting him the day before. Martin went after Whitson. Big mistake: Whitson had been trained in martial arts. He broke Martin's arm. The 1980s, everyone!
1986-1989 Yankees: The decline from perennial playoff contender to sub-.500 team began under Lou Piniella, included a fifth and final appearance from Martin, went back to Piniella, and concluded with a 74-87 season in 1989 under Dallas Green and Bucky Dent. This was also the era when Steinbrenner hired gambler Howard Spira to dig up dirt on Winfield. Obviously, I enjoyed this era.
1992-1995 Yankees: After Steinbrenner was banned from day-to-day management of the team in 1990 for the Winfield/Spira episode, the Yankees set about rebuilding the farm system without Steinbrenner's interference. Buck Showalter was hired as manager in 1992, and even though Steinbrenner was reinstated in 1993, the rebuilding was successful and the team made the playoffs in 1995 after a 14-year absence.
That was an enjoyable team. It was Donnie Baseball's final season and first playoff appearance. Pettitte and Rivera were rookies. Jeter made his debut. Williams blossomed into a star. Paul O'Neill was kicking Gatorade coolers. Now, this may seem like a bad moment for Yankees fans:
It was actually a great moment! Showalter wasn't brought back and "Clueless Joe" was hired. See, even bad things for the Yankees turn into good things.
1920-1926 Yankees: The Yankees became The Yankees when they acquired Ruth from the Red Sox prior to the 1920 season. Ruth was a sensation in 1920, cracking 54 home runs. Imagine watching the young, charismatic, force of nature that was Ruth. And I just mean his nightlife activities. They won pennants in 1921, 1922 and 1923. Yankee Stadium opened in 1923, and they'd win their first World Series. A dynasty was born.
1998 Yankees (114-48): I will grudgingly admit that excellence is to be admired. Orlando Hernandez's escape from Cuba to postseason hero was an incredible story. You can't dislike Rivera. They had awesome brawls. Of course, they received a little help in Game 1 of the World Series. Remember when Mark Langston fanned Tino Martinez in a tie game in the eighth inning? Except Richie Garcia -- the same ump in the Jeffrey Maier crime scene -- called the pitch a ball. And Tino followed with this:
Ask Padres fans if they're still angry about that one.
1976-1977 Yankees: After a 12-year absence from the postseason, the Yankees returned to the World Series in 1976, beating the Royals in the ALCS with one of the seminal moments of my childhood:
Those were the days. Howard Cosell hogging the call. Fans streaming on the field. Chambliss slugging people as he rounded the bases. The likable Willie Randolph at second base, the vastly underrated Graig Nettles playing third as good as Brooks Robinson, Thurman Munson taking no crap from anybody. They lost the World Series, so they signed Reggie Jackson in 1977 and he did this to become Mr. October.
1927-1928 Yankees: Ahh, to go back in time to see Ruth and Gehrig terrorize opposing pitchers. I think we'd all enjoy that. They swept back-to-back World Series.
1990-91 Yankees: I loved these teams. Years of bad trades -- Willie McGee, Fred McGriff, Jay Buhner -- and bad free-agent signings had depleted the farm system. They hit rock bottom in 1990 with a 95-loss season, their worst since 1913. What a list of True Yankees: Bob Geren behind the plate, Steve Balboni at DH, Alvaro Espinoza at shortstop, the legendary Oscar Azocar in left field. Deion Sanders hit .158 in 57 games. Tim Leary lost 19 games as the staff ace. Man, those were the good old days.
2017 Yankees: Imagine this: A Yankees team without a lineup of 30-something veterans. Sure, they still have some high-priced free agents in Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka, Aroldis Chapman and Sabathia, but the core players came up through the system (Judge, Gary Sanchez, Gardner, Severino, Dellin Betances, Jordan Montgomery) or were acquired via trade (Michael Pineda, Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius, Starlin Castro). Judge has been baseball's most exciting player so far, and don't sleep on Sanchez, last year's rookie starlet who has been heating up as well. Hicks' maturation has been impressive and Severino is pitching his way onto the All-Star team. It's a group that, dare I say it, may grow together to resemble another core group from 20 years ago. In other words -- we don't even want to go there, do we?