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The Yankees Are Old, Off-Brand, And Good

For the longest time, the Yankees have defined themselves by tradition. The new version has replaced True Yankees with veteran mercenaries...and they're good.
Photo by Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in a long while, the New York Yankees are free from their own mythology. At last season's close, Derek Jeter took his year's supply of parting gifts and pivoted from being a range-challenged shortstop to becoming the William Randolph Hearst of digital-age ex-jocks. After Jeter followed Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada into the TM'd sunset, it seemed fair to declare the end of the most enduring and exhausting periods of self-definition in sports history.


For as long as anyone could remember, the franchise had defined itself by its True Yankees—players who came up in the system, wore the pinstripes with the natural bearing of inheritance, and wept without the aid of eyedrops the first time Mr. Steinbrenner took them for a tour of Monument Park. Because these are the Yankees, there were also many top-dollar imports, yet the cynicism regarding these acquisitions was forgivable and forgettable so long as they deferred, in attitude if not in talent or import, to the team's spiritual core. The result was marketed as nothing less than a service to the American public, for whom the thought of a Jeter- or Rivera-less October was imagined to be unbearable. Yet neither Rivera or Jeter got the storybook ending at the end of their careers. The Yankees missed the playoffs in both their final seasons.

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The icons are gone now. Despite this rift in the franchise's orthodoxy, New York sits atop the AL East, a game and a half ahead of the surging Toronto Blue Jays, who swept the Yankees this past weekend. Whether or not their hold on the division lasts, any success is less interesting than in how it came about. These Yankees have little use for the organization's grand themes of legacy and lineage, and they are a lot more palatable for it.

The story of this year's Yankees begins with Alex Rodriguez, who at this stage of his career stands for the unloading of historical baggage and the double-fisted seizing of final opportunities. In a lineup of deteriorating but still effective sluggers—by my count, only one everyday New York position player, Brett Gardner, is in what might be termed a prime—Rodriguez is both the most deteriorated and the most startlingly rejuvenated. Flanking him are the similarly bounced-back, though far less provocative, All-Star Mark Teixeira; the smooth but slowed switch-hitter Carlos Beltran, who has an .860 OPS since June 1; the dour McCann; the zippy Gardner; and the, um, reliably present Chase Headley.


When you have an opportunity to touch Alex Rodriguez, you take it. — Photo by Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

With the help of a thin but capable starting pitching staff and an inexorable back end of the bullpen, this hodgepodge of un-Captain'ed reclamation projects is putting an old-fashioned hurt on the American League, recent Toronto troubles aside. They have scored the second-most runs in baseball, trailing only the Jays. They have hit the third-most home runs. In a ten-game stretch spanning the end of July and the start of August, they tallied 90 runs, besting their closest competition during that period by 24. That last bit may be a little bit of a fluke. The rest of it is, inexplicably, undeniable.

The first game of that searing stretch, a come-from-behind win over the Twins in Minneapolis on July 25, is as good a microcosm of this Yankee season as any. The Twins had knocked C.C. Sabathia around and led 5-0 by the top of the fourth, when Rodriguez hit a solo homer that only the most heavily scarred Minnesota fan—remembering those postseason sweeps at the hands of New York in the late aughts that seemed as perfunctory, on the Yankees' part, as dropping a check in the mail—perceived as anything other than a little stat-padding at the edge of a blowout. The score held at 5-1 until the seventh, when another Rodriguez shot and a Headley sacrifice fly made it 5-4, where it stayed until the final frame.

Alex Rodriguez, right, begs Brian McCann, left, to drive him to Dorney Park & Wild Water Kingdom. — Photo by Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The regularity with which the baseball gods have conspired to get Rodriguez to center stage at opportune moments this season is either evidence of a deity with an anti-establishment streak or a lucky run for mortals that are similarly inclined. There A-Rod was homering for his 3,000th hit in Yankee Stadium in June, four seasons after Jeter had done the same thing; here he was leading off the ninth at Target Field, two days before his fortieth birthday, looking to tie a game that an hour earlier had seemed out of reach.

Twins closer Glen Perkins threw Rodriguez a fastball at the knees, on the inside corner, and Rodriguez hit his shortest and most impressive home run of the night. The earlier ones had been mere craft. This one was art. Rodriguez deftly moved his hips back away from the plate, giving his arms room to extend; he swept his black bat low through the zone. The ball sailed over the wall in center, tying the game; an uglier shot from John Ryan Murphy minutes later gave the Yankees a lead they would not relinquish.

Over the course of a few innings, Rodriguez progressed from a diversion to the game's key figure, not unlike how the Yankees have gained an unexpected significance as April has led into August. Their first division title in three years is within sight—even if it's becoming less of a certainty in the face of a Blue Jays recent roster upgrade—as is the team's first postseason berth in at least two decades without a ready-made Bronx-exceptionalism script in tow.

The Yankees, in short, are no longer a parable. Rather, they are just a bunch of thrown-together sluggers at various points on their respective careers' downslopes, supported by a pretty solid pitching staff, making a go of it like anyone else. If this makes for harder work for FOX's promo writers come October, so be it. Everyone was sick of the old storyline, anyway.