The 2018 MLB season looks promising for both diehard adults and neophyte kids. There are hot young teams like the White Sox, amusingly terrible teams like the Padres, and insanely charismatic players like Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig. There are also the perennial rivalries: Angels versus Rangers, Mets versus the Phillies, and everybody versus the Yankees. Still, fans who want to pass down their fandom would do well to rethink teaching their kids to hate the Yankees. Inarguably the most successful team in the history of American sports, the Bronx Bombers have long attracted derision from roughly 29 fanbases. But they are legitimately fun now. They are a roadshow. Go ahead and root against them, but do it live because there is a ton to like and there will be for a while.
For decades, the Yankees were baseball’s Evil Empire, and hating them was every bit as fun as rooting for your favorite team. Their franchise history is an embarrassment of riches that would even make the NBA’s Lakers and Celtics jealous. The Yankees have won 27 championships – 16 more than the next closest team, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Bronx has also been home to an infuriating number of the greatest ballplayers of all time, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe Dimaggio, Mariano Rivera, and whoever broke your childhood dreams.
While that success should be enough to inspire loathing, the Yankees weren’t just despised for being winners. They were specifically hated because they were perceived as the team most willing to buy their way out of mediocrity. Unlike most major American sports leagues, Major League Baseball doesn’t have a salary cap — the league did recently institute a luxury tax, but that hasn’t really curbed spending — so rich teams had the opportunity to exploit mid-to-small market teams by offering their best players massive contracts. The Yankees are the richest team and they’ve historically played the part. George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ owner from 1973 until his death in 2010, was more than willing to bankroll any expensive contract if it gave his team a shot at winning. As a result, the Yankees consistently had the highest payroll in the league. In fact, they had it for an astounding 15 straight seasons, from 1999 to 2013.
This year, for the first time in more than two decades, the Yankees payroll is not among the top five highest. Despite having signed Giancarlo Stanton – owner of the richest contract in the history of American sports – the Yankees’ collective salary has fallen all the way to seventh. It’s hard to label the Yankees as the privileged super-team when there are six other teams with rosters more expensive than theirs.
It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that the Yankees don’t win like they used to. The Yankees certainly haven’t been stuck in last place purgatory, but, by their impossibly high standards, they have had a pretty mediocre run since winning their last championship in 2009. They missed the playoffs three times in the last eight years.
While the Yankees are rightfully considered a serious contender this season, they are mostly regarded as a team filled with massive potential, as opposed to a presumed powerhouse that bought their way to another World Series. With players like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez on board, that World Series might still be around the corner, but it’s a lot different to win with homegrown talent than it is with hired guns (Stanton certainly qualifies there but, as he proved in his time with the Miami Marlins, he can’t do it alone).
What does this mean for Yankee haters? That they will be booing arguably the most entertaining team in the league. They will be booing guys who irrationally swing for the fences during every at-bat and other guys who layout for every possible fly ball. They won’t just be rooting against the hustlers in the main office, but against young dudes who hustle like no one else in the game. Again, a totally defensible position, but an unfortunate one for parents trying to get kids pumped about a game that is — let’s face it — a bit inaccessible at times.
To be clear, none of this is to say that you should feel bad for the Yankees or their fans in any way. They are still one of the richest teams in baseball, have a roster loaded with talent, and have won a World Series in the last decade. But, perhaps for the first time in any of our lifetimes, the Yankees are really hard to hate. They will get there, to be sure. So maybe it’s time to let kids learn about the Evil Empire on their own. It will, inevitably, rise again.