It's a weird time to be a Yankees fan. Somehow, the team is fun, and not because they are winning, although that certainly helps. For a long time, the New York Yankees were in the Win Or Go Home business, which is great when you're winning all the time, and an outright bummer when you're not.
That, more than anything else, explains why the Yankees are struggling to draw a crowd. When the only fun thing about you disappears, so will the fans. And it takes a while for both to come back.
The philosophy that anything short of a championship is a failure defined the organization, and was a personal calling card of none other than the Captain, and the team's most boring superstar, Derek Jeter. It's easy to see why he felt that way—he won a World Series in his rookie year and became the centerpiece of a dynasty in a franchise known for dynasties.
According this philosophy, however, the Yankees have been failures 15 out of the last 16 seasons. That's not really true, obviously—even though they only won the World Series in 2009, they had been in the playoffs every year to that point except 2008 (weirdly, the final year in Old Yankee Stadium)—but when you sell your "Rings or Bust" ethos to fans, and they soak it up, and then you repeatedly don't deliver, you have the makings of an existential crisis.
Because of this mentality, the Yankees were very much a baseball corporation. The charms of baseball did not exist in Yankee Stadium. There was no mascot going down a slide, no giant apple in center field, no anthropomorphic tubed meats racing around the warning track. The Yankees mascot was loud man in a "Count the Rings" shirt.
The players, by and large, assumed the Jeter position: boring men who were only happy once a season, usually in October. Again, as a fan, this is great when you're winning. It's fun being dismissive and arguing with other fans when you have the ultimate trump card: "Cool president's race, bro. Talk to me when you win something."
That attitude is not unique to the Yankees; it permeates all sports. It is the logical outgrowth of those same sports arguments. When trying to compare players, or teams, across leagues, eras, and even sports, what do you do when you can't definitively say who's better? You go to the tiebreaker. What's the hardest thing to do in any sport? Win the whole damn thing. So it becomes "who's got more?" All nuance is gone, and you just go right for the kill shot.
The Yankees are the prime example of this, and openly courted it, but when they got bad, it became a drag. As the team aged, early exits or overmatched showings in the playoffs were soon followed by not making the playoffs at all. The baseball robots were not only boring; they were losers. In a sport that bills itself as a game of failure, demanding the polar opposite is a tough sell. Why am I watching, or why am I going to the game, if this exceptional team is no longer exceptional, and the players aren't even any fun?
The change was gradual, and I do think it had a lot to do with Jeter no longer being with the club, but at a certain point it became OK for this team to have no expectations. Last season, as Gary Sanchez burst onto the scene, the team actually made a push for the playoffs. They didn't make it, obviously, but instead of feeling like a failure, it was a near miss. You didn't think, What the fuck, I can't believe they blew it!! Instead, you thought, Man, they almost did it! It's a fine line, but a refreshing one.
This season, the Yankees are straight-up fun, and they are winning. The jarring image of a defensive end roaming right field and mashing taters into the 4 train has a lot to do with it, but don't discount the restorative power of hope. The team is young for the first time in forever. The team is about the future for the first time in forever. And it is fun for the first time in forever.
The Yankees—the goddamned New York Yankees—have a mock court set up in right field with fans in wigs and judge's robes. A year after the Chicago Cubs win the World Series, the Yankees are doing goofy, fan-friendly things. This is insanity.
Who knows how long it will last—rookies playing key roles and a starting rotation that is, uh, very shaky foreshadow it not lasting all season—but this is the difference between this year and years past: I don't care how long it lasts, or if it will end in the playoffs or a World Series. I am actually totally OK with it not ending that way. The journey has become fun again, and whatever the destination is, it just is.