Best known for their rich traditions THE YANKEES are setting the pace in the AL by embracing current trends: power hitting, a power bullpen and depth
WHEN INFIELDER DJ LeMahieu signed his two-year, $24 million free-agent contract in January, he celebrated by studying. He quizzed himself until he could remember each of the Yankees' 21 retired numbers and the 22 men who wore them. He was going to be a Yankee, after all. He needed to know his history.
History is everywhere at Yankee Stadium. Batters aim for Monument Park, one of the team's museums, located beyond centerfield. Flags commemorating the 27 championships ring the stands. Retired numbers adorn the walls of the clubhouse. And on his way to the field, each player passes under a sign inscribed with Joe DiMaggio's words: I WANT TO THANK THE GOOD LORD FOR MAKING ME A YANKEE.
No, a Yankee can never forget where he is. Players joke that they should teach Yankees History 101 in spring training. Veterans warn rookies to do their homework but not to pretend they know more than they do: You don't want to get caught mixing up your Red Ruffings and your Whitey Fords.
But for all the talk of the past in the Bronx, this year's team epitomizes baseball's present, which is all about power: power bats and power arms. The Yankees rank third in the league in home runs, despite getting only one from slugger Giancarlo Stanton (out until at least mid-August with a right knee injury). They are fifth in hitters struck out, despite missing ace Luis Severino since spring training (out with a shoulder and lat injuries and due back no sooner than late August). And thanks to their depth they have the best record and the largest run differential in the American League despite losing 1,511 days to the injured list, more than twice as many as the next--most afflicted club.
The Opening Day leftfielder, third baseman, first baseman and shortstop have combined to play 36 games this season. Instead players who in February looked headed for Triple A or the bench have flourished: Righty Domingo Germán has struck out 4.52 men for every one he has walked and leads the league in wins, with 12. First baseman Luke Voit ranks seventh in the AL in on-base percentage, at .386. LeMahieu, who signed without a promise of regular playing time, started the All-Star Game at second base and leads the AL with a .333 average. And last month GM Brian Cashman added DH Edwin Encarnación and his 401 career longballs. This team barely resembles the one that took the field in March.
Other than the pinstripes and the smooth chins, it does not resemble those sepia-toned Yankees of yore, either. Reliever Adam Ottavino grew up in Brooklyn, living and dying by the Yankees, so he thought he knew what to expect when he signed for three years and $27 million in January: "The team I grew up watching felt very old-school, buttoned-up, serious," he says. And the one he joined? "A lot looser than I thought it would be."
For that he can thank star outfielder Aaron Judge. Past clubs dressed in silence. When Judge debuted, in 2016, he bugged longtime starter CC Sabathia until he received permission to deejay. That same season the Yanks began passing out a championship belt to players who achieved standout performances; this year, Judge decided to make it a tradition after each win. They celebrate victories with a fog machine, strobe lights and blaring music. None of this is calculated, says Judge, who just wants his teammates to feel comfortable: "Don't tell anybody, but I'm just winging it. I don't know what I'm doing out here."
When a TV host complained that this went against the Yankee way, Sabathia fired back: "It is the Yankee way. It's 2019. This is a new group of guys." (Perhaps too new. Leftfielder Brett Gardner, horrified, reveals a secret: Some of the younger players have not even seen Field of Dreams. The last two Yankee teams are the youngest in 27 years.)
This group is so good, centerfielder Aaron Hicks says, that anything short of title number 28 would be a disappointment—not only to the franchise, but also to the men in the clubhouse. The past two New York teams have lost in the playoffs to the eventual World Series winner, last year in the ALDS to the Red Sox, a year earlier in the ALCS to the Astros. That level of success would be inspiring almost anywhere else. Here, Hicks says, it's "a failure."
It has been a decade since the team's last parade, which qualifies as a drought in the Bronx. "We want a piece of that history," says Judge. "That's the coolest thing about coming here. You look around and you see the retired numbers, you see all along out there: 1999, 2000, '09—wow, all this history. I want to see 2019 up there. I want to see 2020. I want to see all my teammates' numbers up there. We honor all the teams in the past who have done these great things, but selfishly, we want to be a part of that."