HOUSTON – Enjoy this, Yankees. Really. These are the final days of the innocence, the last weeks in which you can float on the comforting pillow of being underdogs.
Next season you go back to your historic role. Favorites. Overdogs. Championship or bust. Animosity and jealousy in every city.
You might want to ask Derek Jeter and Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams what it was like going from 1996 to 1997. For 1996 was a gift. The team was not viewed as a championship likelihood. The Orioles had won the offseason, among other things importing Roberto Alomar, Randy Myers and David Wells. Heck, the Yankees nearly traded a failed starter named Mariano Rivera in spring for Felix Fermin because they were so unsure Jeter could handle being the starting shortstop.
They played in a World Series against the defending champion Braves and were so throttled in the first two games at home that George Steinbrenner was hoping for just one victory to avoid humiliation.
Those ’96 Yankees never lost again, pulled off the stunner. But by the time the victory parade down the Canyon of Heroes was complete — all the confetti, all the marriage proposals for Jeter, all the joy for the title that no one could see coming in March — the world had changed. Players transformed into stars being seduced by bookers on Letterman and Madison Avenue.
For the rest of the Core Four era, they would be overdogs imbued with the pressure of win it all or the season was meaningless. The Age of Pinstripe Innocence was dead.
This 2017 team was not expected to win, not even predicted to make the playoffs. The Red Sox had won the offseason, namely by landing Chris Sale. Heck, the Yankees did not know until the final week that Aaron Judge would even win the right-field job over Aaron Hicks.
They played the defending AL champ Indians in the Division Series and went down 0-2, losing in such devastating fashion in Game 2 that even a single victory in the best-of-five would feel somewhat face-saving.
But the Yankees won out, somehow kept their narrative as the $200 million Little Engine that Could.
They already have upset one 100-plus-win team in the Division Series, the top-seed Indians. Now, they again will cede home-field advantage, this time to the 101-win Astros, who already vanquished the team that outpaced the Yankees in the AL East, the Red Sox.
The Yankees are trying to become the sixth team to ever defeat two triple-digit victory teams in the same postseason. The last to do it was the 2004 Red Sox, who rallied from 0-3 down in the ALCS to beat the 101-win Yankees before sweeping the 105-win Cardinals in the World Series.
A Yankees team has done this. The 2001 version rebounded from 0-2 down to best the 102-win A’s in the Division Series before beating the AL regular-season-win-record 116-victory Mariners, in the ALCS.
No team has ever beaten three triple-digit win teams in the same postseason, which is possible for the Yankees, should they eliminate the Astros and the 104-win Dodgers in the World Series.
But no matter how this season ends now — valley of despair or Canyon of Heroes — the Yankees will never be the same, like they weren’t after 1996. Jeter won AL Rookie of the Year, as surely as Judge will. The sense is another Core Four is afoot for the Yankees — perhaps a Core Five or Six, even.
The Yankees are a year early on the rebuild plan and now, moving forward, the demands will be division titles and championships — or bust. They will return to Tampa next February no matter how this season ends viewed as a looming giant, which will only take another elevation level should they actually sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado after the 2019 season.
So they should enjoy this ride as unexpected escape artists with four wins already in elimination games. They should appreciate that somehow they have gotten to this point with Luis Severino lasting just one out in the wild-card game against the Twins, Judge going 1-for-20 with 16 strikeouts in the Division Series and their DHs a collective 0-for-20 in six playoff games.
They have some magic about them — some underdog magic. This, 2017, will be the last time for a while we can say that about the Yankees.
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