New York fans like winning, but one diehard confesses that winning against the AL's super-compelling underdogs this time out wouldn't be much fun.
I could almost say that for a Yankees fan, it was fun. Playoff baseball often isn't: For champions of the mind in April, anything short of a World Series title is a failure. A Yankee season is measured not by its sum of achievements but by its distance from the ultimate goal. October in New York brings tension, a lurking sense of something slipping away.
For a baseball fan, though, this October has been unquestionably fun. The Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics, two teams widely predicted to finish at the bottom—28th and 29th respectively in the ESPN pre-season power rankings—are playing playoff baseball.
The baseball fan in me knows that seasons like those unfolding in Baltimore and Oakland are what make the sport great. The Yankees fan in me must hope that they end. So what to do?
The Orioles and Yankees have been drawn together in a playoff series for the first time since 1996. Beginning in '98, the Orioles posted a losing record in 14 straight seasons, and finished in last place in 2008, '09, '10, and last year. Nobody—not the fans, not the pundits, perhaps not even the Orioles themselves—thought they would be in the playoffs, flipping last year's record of 69-93 to go 93-69.
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It's not just that the O's have overcome a baseball career's worth of futility by qualifying for the playoffs. They did so in style. Beginning last September, when they knocked out Boston on one of the best end-of-season days in recent memory, the Orioles have played an unusually exciting brand of ball. In the regular season, the team posted an amazing 29-9 record in one-run games. (This statistic also has baseball's mathematical models concluding the team is more lucky than good—but regardless, it makes for good spectacle. Until last night, the team had won 16 extra-inning games in a row.) The only guy on the team who makes more than $10 million, Nick Markakis, broke his hand on a C.C. Sabathia fastball and will miss most if not all of the postseason.
The O's streaked into the playoffs and won a one-game qualifier on the road against Texas, the two-time defending AL Champs and pre-season pennant favorites. Craig Sager said Oriole Park on Sunday night—when the O's won a 30th one-run game, against the Yankees—was the loudest stadium he had ever been in.
Yankees history since the '96 ALCS, of course, has been exactly the opposite. The team has made the playoffs 17 out of the last 18 years, and won the World Series five times. It has emerged from a title drought in the '80s and early '90s to become, again, the team everyone loves to hate. Yankees fans are used to this. The "Evil Empire" critiques that come blowing down the coast from New England do not rattle our windows. The small-market whiners do not disturb our sleep.
We like being the best. Over the years, the Yankees have dispatched countless underdog teams—the A's, the Twins, the Twins again, and again. But this year throws a wrench into my karmic calculation of baseball justice. I'm having trouble reconciling my love for the Yankees with my love for the game. For if the game is the thing, how can I hope for the end of this crazy dream in Baltimore?
And if we advance to play Oakland? The surprise of the Athletics' success—in a division arguably the toughest in the majors—has the baseball press, no stranger to hyperbole, searching for words. Oakland began the season by trading away their three best pitchers. Their entire team costs about 1.7 A-Rods. They are the first team in postseason history with five rookie starters. The A's, Phil Taylor writes in Sports Illustrated, are "the best kind of baseball party." Their victory last night—three runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the heavily favored Tigers—was the stuff of baseball cinema.
The Bombers aren't helping things. The Yankees have good story lines—the return of Andy Pettitte, the resurgence of Derek Jeter, the title quest of Ichiro Suzuki—but also have some unattractive qualities. The average age of the line-up is nearly 33, which is almost five full years older than that of the next-oldest AL contender. There's the A-Rod problem. And some homegrown stars have been lost: the long-awaited catching prospect Jesus Montero to a trade, Jorge Posada to retirement, Brett Gardner and Mariano Rivera to injury, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes to disappointment.
And though I try not to buy into narratives of sports and the fortunes of cities, the Yankees' three American League opponents form a Hollywood shortlist of gritty towns ready for a comeback story: Oakland, Detroit, and Baltimore.
Fans are confronted with conflicts of interest all the time. Fantasy baseball players are accustomed to formulating bizarre scenarios that will give both their real team and their fantasy team a good result. Last year a distant cousin of mine pitched a very important game for the Texas Rangers against the Yankees, and I murmured to myself, like Dr. Pangloss, "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." If sports are really getting you down, you can take the Jerry Seinfeld approach and remind yourself that, with free agency shaking up rosters every year, you're just rooting for laundry.
I'm not jumping ship to root for the Orioles. No doubt Orioles fans don't want my patronage. They may find my excitement condescending. Camden Yards has no room for Yankees fans, grown bored in the house of victory, seeking the vicarious thrills of an improbable playoff run, the foreign joy of winning against the odds.
That's fair. I can say all I want about the beauty of baseball, but I didn't sit through the 14 losing seasons that make Baltimore's current run so sweet. I haven't endured the specter of the team moving out of town, the small-budget manipulations and the big-name departures that make Oakland's success so thrilling. A fan must go there to come back, and the renaissance of the O's and A's isn't mine to enjoy.
But what a year for baseball.