Damn, Yankees

Jeff MacGregor/ESPN.com

The boxes of fan mail and T-shirts and photos and shoes are stacked next to his locker as high as Mo Rivera is tall. Next to him, very quietly, Ichiro gives an interview. Alfonso Soriano sits just behind them both, pulling on his cleats. This is last week, before the whole thing blew up.

Jeter, slender in pinstripes, always taller than you remember. Sabathia slumped in a chair. Teixeira, expressionless. The Yankees' clubhouse is crowded with the New York writers and the writers in from Los Angeles and Japan and the radio guys and online guys and television people and everyone is here to write and say whatever's left to write or say about the Yankees' 2013 season. To gather notes for the obituary. Maybe three dozen of them. Four, counting the publicists. All quiet. Milling. Circling. Looking down at their thumbs, down at their notebooks or their phones or their recorders, looking up again. Circling. Looking down. Thumbs. Milling. Looking up. Whispering.

The clubhouse is huge, a study in deep-pile 21st century luxury-by-committee and noise absorption, all self-conscious big league lighting and Death Star carpet and million-dollar veneers, medium-blond wood cut from the money tree, trimmed along the top of the lockers with a miniature of the famous fa├žade. The only smell is the absence of smell. It's an upholstered sensory-deprivation tank.

There is a weird sepulchral density of airless, timeless dislocation here, and the weight of all that expensive, desperate excellence. That's what you read in the papers, anyway. The Yankees are old and rotten with anger and money and eight and a half games out. They stink. Everyone is slumping, hurt, suspended, retiring. Miserable. The soft blue light, the supplicants, heads down, the murmurs. This is how you imagine the grotto at Lourdes.

"Let's go," says Jeter low to no one, and the players and the writers funnel out the door. Team photo today.

This is the Yankees' clubhouse in the dog days of 2013. Hushed and reverent and absurd, the whole thing like a funeral in the business class lounge at Virgin Atlantic.

* * *

When I was a kid, the Yankees were hopeless. Joyless. They stank then, too, and by the time I was 10 years old Ralph Houk and CBS were propping Mickey up at first with a broomstick, and the brightest prospect for the future was Tom Tresh. Or maybe Joe Pepitone. For a decade the Yankees were hapless, irrelevant. You could look it up.

But even then they imposed themselves on you. In the same way New York City requires New Yorkers to live as New Yorkers, the Yankees insist on your very specific devotions. Even if only retroactively, if only historically, if only by invoking greatness 30 years gone, the Yankees enforce a certain brand of eternal loyalty. According to which the Yankees are always the Most Important Story In Baseball And Must Be Taken Seriously, even when they're 70-89. Even before Steinbrenner and the dress turtlenecks, when the only thing to see was Roy White or Bobby Murcer rounding second chased by the ghosts of Gehrig and Ruth. Even when the only story worth telling was the one about Kekich and Peterson. The Yankees demand your respect even when they haven't earned it.

This was just as true 40 years ago when the city was going under, back when the last magic of postwar Technicolor New York gave way to the block-by-block apocalypse of the 1970s. This is back when the waiting room at Grand Central was full of junkies on the nod, and the heads and the straights were kicking syringes off the sidewalks in Times Square and your old man was teaching you what to do when you got mugged; back when Toots Shor and Jack Dempsey surrendered New York to TGI Friday's and Bachelors III, and Joe Namath ran the city and the Colombo family whacked Joey Gallo in Umberto's Clam House on his birthday down on Mulberry Street. Worse, the Mets won a World Series.

The Mets were never to be taken seriously. Unlike the Yankees, entombed at Yankee Stadium and as humorless as the pharaohs, the Mets were lively and fun and unlikely and self-effacing.

The genius of the Mets then and now is to exist only, always in the present. The Yankees drag their past behind them like chains. The Yankees are the endless roll call of baseball's honored dead. The Mets are your uncle in from Mineola for the day in his Delta 88.

* * *

Down the hall, "Anywhere With You" pours out of the Angels' clubhouse like it's dance night on RFD-TV. Behind the batting cage Mike Trout shakes hands with Reggie Jackson.

* * *

There is some confusion this week on the matter, but Alex Rodriguez is a comedy the media insist on writing as a tragedy. (Billy Martin was a tragedy the media played for years as a slamming-door comedy.)

* * *

In any case, the Yankees' death notice for 2013 might be premature. In the past eight days the Yankees have won five of seven games. In the past eight days Alfonso Soriano hit .484 and drove in 18 runs.

The Yankees are eight games out. Six and a half away from the wild card. Hope is a terrible thing.

* * *

It rains hard and then it clears and the skies above the Bronx are blue and high and perfect and Derek Jeter, 39 years old in June, takes BP for the first time in days while Joe Girardi watches. The ball doesn't sound quite right coming off the bat. Another week to dial things in maybe. Alex Rodriguez, now 38, steps in and the bat cracks and the ball sizzles and rises and flies, and everyone smiles and the fans clamor for autographs and snapshots. The "A-Rat" headlines won't hit New York doorsteps for another few days.

On the big screen out in center they're running that video from Mickey Mantle Day in 1969. It feels antique now, grainy as a transmission from deep space and drained of color. Mickey's all dressed up for his retirement. He waves and smiles that Mickey smile and snaps his chewing gum. There's Phil Rizzuto. Mel Allen. The ovation goes on and on and on. The roar echoes down out of the old stadium and into the new one, down out of the past, down out of time like a message from centuries ago. Mickey Mantle raises his hand to wave goodbye. Mickey Mantle is 37 years old.