Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Metaphysics of Yankee-Hating

For awhile there (ca. Oct. 20, 2004 - Nov. 1, 2009), I honestly thought that the New York Yankees might never win another World Series in my lifetime. It was irrational and fairly dumb, but something during that time about how the internal logic of baseball seemed to be working allowed me to believe that the Yankees simply could not win a World Series under contemporary conditions. The shape of the broader narrative of baseball in this time—the integration of sabermetrics into all facets of the game (particularly fandom) and the consequent general devaluation of image—led me to believe that a team that still seemed to be playing the game and building their roster as if cameras and headlines were what decided titles—such a team could not triumph.

By the general devaluation of image I mean the paradigm shift that has taken place in the understanding of how to assess production and, to maybe a lesser extent, talent. The intuitive language of the scout's eye has been replaced by the almost humorously arcane jargon of the sabermetrician, the guy who can not watch the game but can with the aid of increasingly sophisticated instruments for recording pitch-by-pitch data tell you who's not swinging at the right pitches, who's throwing too many off-speed pitches, whose slump is temporary, and who needs to be benched.

Or maybe it's not image that has been rejected, but the idea of fluidity as the unit of analysis. Motions—pitching, batting, throwing, even watching the pitch—are disaggregated into discrete, precise elements to a fetishistic degree, rationalizing or even Taylorizing processes which for a long time seemed like they were at their best when they were at their most poetic, least mechanical (Charlie Gehringer to the contrary).

Either way, the Yankees assumed a position of not just villainy but almost blasphemy, of satanism: this was an organization that, no matter whether it ever adopted sabermetrics and other related studies, did so still under the banner of the image, of fluidity (capital and labor moving in and out lubriciously), of what they looked like in the camera's eye or underneath the headline. Victories on the field were to be produced by victories in the press—boffo free agent signings, prima donna players, inter-family power struggles—in short, by dominating the attention of the media. It is of absolutely no relevance if the Yankees only differ in degree from the Red Sox or other big spenders in terms of how they ran their club; they always seem to wish to differ in kind, as if being a baseball team in a baseball league isn't all they are, as if what happens in the media has a reality beyond what happens on the field.

This attitude isn't supposed to produce championships. This strategy isn't supposed to win. Not now, not knowing what we know about how much of what defines and produces success isn't what the headlines cover. Baseball is a game about solid, unassuming middle relief, and the Yankees are Joba fucking Chamberlain. How can that possibly work out?

There are terabytes worth of reasons for hating the New York Yankees—historical, personal, ethical, spiritual, aesthetic, maybe sexual—but now there's one more: the metaphysical. Winning the World Series is a gash in the fabric of both justice and reality. This simply shouldn't have happened.

Later (11/6): Let's hear it for the 'Nays!' 17 Congressional Representatives voted against House Resolution 893, "[c]ongratulating the 2009 Major League Baseball World Series Champions, the New York Yankees." I now have 17 new favorite politicians. 


Richard said...

As much as I wish the Phillies had played better and beaten the Yankees, I don't agree with too much of this post. The Yankees have always wanted to win and been smarter about it than most other teams. As easy as it is to hate Steinbrenner, at least since the mid-90s, when he got out of his team's way, they've been generally smart. They play the game the way the sabremetricians would like, they are monsters of OPS. Yeah, they had some bad signings during the 2000s, but I never saw them as image over substance.

See this article:

Related to the author's point, Philadelphia is a big city, and only recently has it played like one, actually spending to keep talent and being smart about bringing players in. But the owners sure got wealthier even when things were going poorly.

Granted, you are a Red Sox fan, so...

Andrew Seal said...

I don't mean "image over substance" in the sense of "image instead of substance"--you don't win that many regular season games through showing up on Sportscenter more often than anyone else--but rather that they have seemed to think that image has a reality in addition to substance.

Maybe a cross-sports comparison would clarify: the Patriots dynasty works much more like the kind of strategy I expected to be perennially successful in baseball: you define some core strengths (Brady, coaching), and you build your team around those core strengths, filling roles with people who suit those roles rather than finding the best person at that position who can be stolen away from another team. Partly, this is the way that a football club must be run under salary caps and with far less dynamic free agent and trade markets, but it's also a philosophy: this is how we will win, by executing our game plan perfectly and forcing the other team to play into it.*

The Yankees aren't thinking about filling roles with people who fit their roles well; they're not even thinking about roles at all, it seems. The strategy they've seemed to pursue is the Reaganite strategy of trying to push your competitors into an arms race that can only be won by the Yankees. Just go after the biggest free agents every season. Yeah, that means that they become monsters of OPS (as the biggest free agents will be OPS monsters), but I don't think that means playing the game the way sabremetricians would like.

Bottom line, I see them as a club who doesn't try to build a winning team, but who tries to build the superior team. And I thought that this goal--superiority--was never going to work when most other competitive clubs are building to win, which is, after all, the point.

*The acquisition of Randy Moss is really the only significant departure from this, and while it produced one extraordinary regular season, I find it completely appropriate that the 2007 Patriots "massacre everybody" strategy failed to work in the Super Bowl.

Tim said...

The Yankees were building their teams of the 90's as sabermetrically as any. Stick Michael's front office philosphy emphasized OBP long before it became the vogue stat in baseball. The 1998 Yankees are one of the most perfectly assmbled baseball teams of all time. And while their spending this decade has been absurd, to claim this is an issue that affects universal justice is nearly as absurd.

The winter the Yankees gave mussina a $18m a year contract, the Red Sox gave manny a $20m a year contract. Manny whines his way out of town and the red sox pay the remainder of his salary. The Sox paid $100m for Matsuzka. Josh Beckett came to boston the same way Pedro did, as a salary dump. They have done as much as the Yankees to upset the baseball gods, but no pinstripes so no villians.

And the Mets are worse than either the Yankees or the Sox. But they're inept so they also aren't villians.

The Yankees are the richest team with the highest payroll and hating the Yankees is as much a baseball tradition as the seventh inning stretch and pretending Fenway park is a pleasant place to see a game. But to make this complaint as if the earth will collapse and seas will boil because the yanks won again is ridiculous.

Andrew Seal said...

Hi Tim,

Thanks for commenting. I was being hyperbolic about the universal justice stuff. Sometimes people on the Internets exaggerate things for fun.

More substantively, my argument was about how the Yankees--both front office and players--act as if they want to be perceived differently for their stupid decisions and wasteful spending. Can you imagine anyone on the Red Sox or Mets trying to upstage a World Series that he's not in like A-Rod did with the ridiculous Boras feud during the 2007 World Series? The point is not that the Yankees do things that the Red Sox or the Mets do, but that they want to do them in a way that sets them apart. Can you blame people for vilifying them because of that?

Richard said...

Some takes on the whole massive payroll issue:





For the record, the Phillies have a fairly high payroll, I am against the salary cap, I hate that teams can't sign their homegrown stars when they get too good... I had argued that there should be revenue sharing, but I guess there already is. There should be more.