Yanks Become America's Team Once and for All


Perhaps we revere our heroes more when they are flawed, the imperfections rendering them more human, the magnitude of their achievement enhanced further when it is realized that they are not divine after all, merely flesh and blood, like the rest of us. But, still, there is the unfulfilled yearning for the final victory, the agony of triumph snatched from our hands in the final moments that renders such reflections bittersweet at best, and vapid at worst, offering little consolation, save the knowledge that they at least were there again, narrowly missing the summit by the flimsiest of margins. Yet how close we came to believing that this collection of players, this Yankee team, if not divine, was at least possessed of some vital anima, living under the favor of some benevolent force. They appeared as minor deities, playing in baseball's ultimate shrine, the temple of professional sports, Yankee stadium, with the spirits of their sacred ancestors assuring, we thought, the final outcome.

One could be excused from thinking as such - before the bottom of the ninth in game seven that is - for as infallible as this Yankee dynasty has been the last six years, as dominant as they have been, we have seen greater collections of talent before. This team, when broken down into its component parts, does not overwhelm you on the paper, does not, for example, field an MVP candidate, possess the dominant player in the league at any position, or boast a Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, or Mantle. But what this team does do is win, including five appearances in the World Series in the last six years and four world championships - this generation's version of the ongoing saga of the Yankee legend, the latest link in a tradition of greatness. And no body of players has ever merged so superbly into a seamless whole, exceeded by far the sum of its parts, nor overwhelmed the baseball world with its flawless play, as this.

Words like destiny, mystique, and aura come easily when thinking of the Yankees, and have since Babe Ruth powered them to their first World Series appearance in 1921. In the next 80 years, the Yankees have appeared in 39 World Series - or virtually every other year - winning 26 of them, a dominating record that no other team remotely approaches. But it was in games 4 and 5 of this year's World Series, where Yankee dominance, inevitability, and magic appeared most in evidence, had even the most hardened Yankee haters and nay-sayers mumbling to themselves, and wondering if, indeed, there was some providential force guiding their destiny. With their backs to the wall, in the ninth inning with two outs and two runs down, the Yankees sent up first Tino Martinez and then - the second night - Scott Brosius, each of them pounding two run homers to tie the game, allowing the Yankees to go on to win both games in extra innings. These were crushing Yankee victories that at the time must have devastated the morale of the Diamondbacks, and, in particular, their young Korean side arm closer, Byung-Hyun Kim, the 22 year old who gave up both homerun blasts...

But this year was different, Yankee inevitability faltering in the final moments, falling before an unlikely team, with an unbaseball-like name: a team with a four-year franchise history from a city that has never once fielded a championship team in any sport - the Diamondbacks, who managed to produce some ninth inning magic of their own, scoring two runs against the Yankee's best, the great Mariano Rivera, for a dramatic come from behind victory. They took the seventh game, 3-2, to win the World Series, and dethrone the Yankees after their run of three consecutive championships.

But even in defeat, even with the demoralizing loss in the seventh game, there was an unlikely recognition of sorts, an emerging awareness through out the land - in the aftermath of September 11 - of just what this Yankee team and their city mean to the nation - even in defeat and, perhaps, more so, because of it. There seemed to arise a grassroots acceptance of the Yankees (and New York) by the rest of us, begrudging, perhaps, but palpable, a surprising change of attitude from one of suspicion and resentment to that of sympathy and admiration... the reflexive antipathy to the Yankees and NYC overcome this year after the attack, as the nation watched the crippled city dig itself out from the rubble. The Yankees, in a word, became America's team... under unusual circumstances, yes, but an endorsement just the same. An acknowledgement by the nation of the Yankee achievement and their preeminent position in the pantheon of American sports, with newly minted Yankee fans materializing everywhere, well outside the confines of the five boroughs, Yankee-haters in retreat now, perhaps for good.

How could it be otherwise? Who, indeed, better represents the nation, embodies our greatest hopes and most noble ambitions, in the world of sports, than the Yankees? What team better speaks to the silent voice that is great within us than this team? And does not every player, from the kid on the neighborhood squad to the big leaguers themselves, dream of playing for the Yanks? They are the standard of greatness against which all others are measured. A symbol of excellence that cannot be surpassed. For eighty years the Yankees have fielded championship teams, through every era and decade, through depression and war, as much a part of the American scene as the automobile and the hot dog. More than symbols of America, they are metaphors for America: Yankee destiny as American destiny: for in their primacy and dominance through the last century, we see the primacy and dominance of our nation, a dazzling example of what can be achieved through diligence and persistence. And, particularly, this Yankee team: with its three consecutive world championships without a great slugger, without a Mantle or Ruth among them, just hard working gritty players who gelled into one of the great teams of history - the perfect metaphor for the US.

After September 11, the Yankees became America's team, in perception as well as fact (for they have always been as such, only we failed to recognize it). And New York, capitol of the world, symbol of hope and opportunity, gateway for millions of immigrants pursuing their dreams, became, once again, America's city. We can embrace this eminently American team, do so unabashedly, even with patriotic fervor.

And mark my words; the Yankees (and the city) will be back...


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