There have now been a few days to digest the sting of Saturday’s defeat, but I’m not yet ready to say I’m over it. Viewed within the context of the whole series, that is one of the most painful losses I’ve ever endured as a fan. For me, the enduring memories of the 2019 ALCS will be blown chances with men on base, not one but two hanging sliders, and a ball that bounced ever-so-perfectly to shortstop Carlos Correa. It feels like the Yankees should have, or at least could have, finally slain their personal dragon this time. That will have to wait at least another year.
After the series, de facto team captain Aaron Judge had this to say about the Yankees season: “It’s a failure. In spring training we talked about winning the division, putting ourselves in a good spot in the postseason and the World Series, and we came up short. So no matter how many games we won in the regular season or anything else we did, the season’s a failure.”
I have found myself thinking a lot about this quote since. I’m not really sure what to make of it. But, as I recover from the loss, I am asking myself if the Yankees 2019 season was a failure. Was it?
A few years ago, I would have argued that the “championship or bust” mentality, so often espoused by Derek Jeter, was a joyless and mechanical way to view baseball. I’ll be the first to admit it: I grew tired of hearing Jeter say this. It felt like that mentality made the Yankees unlikeable, rigid, and overly businesslike. After all, baseball is a 162-game slog with ups-and-downs and the playoffs are not an encapsulation of that season. Anything goes in the big dance, as they say. (But not everyone says this.)
But for some reason, when Judge said it on Saturday, it made me respect him even more. I know I saw others on Twitter and across the Yankee fandom saying the same, even many folks who shared my aversion to the Jeter-era platitudes.
So, what gives?
Personally, I think there is a natural divide here. It is cathartic to hear a player like Judge, the anchor of a team that has come so close but never taken that final step, say the obvious because in the most narrow of senses, he is correct. The Yankees are a championship-caliber team with championship aspirations. Before the season, the team–and we as fans–all believed they could win the World Series. They didn’t. Judge is right: that’s a failure.
That his statement comes on the back of a frustrating offseason (even if many of the moves worked out) and a frustrating lack of action at the trade deadline makes it even more refreshing to hear. But it also makes sense. For players, winning is a professional goal that they, to some degree, can control.
At the same time, though, I think the “win-or-its-a-failure” perspective is a hollow one for a fan. At the end of the day, sports are about entertainment and drama, and there’s no doubt that the 2019 Yankees team was entertaining and dramatic. I will remember them fondly despite the bitter ending. We have no control over the outcomes. We can only watch the story unfold. And what a story it was.
We saw Brett Gardner pummel a go-ahead, 8th-inning grand slam against the Red Sox for his 100th career home run in a career year. We saw a triumphant Didi grand slam against the Rays that all but clinched the division. We watched Gleyber Torres emerge as the next Yankee superstar. We saw the rise of Gio Urshela (.890 OPS!), were all proven wrong about DJ LeMahieu, and watched the Yankees win more than 100 games for the second consecutive year. There were many other moments, many other stories. Too many to detail here. And that is the point.
I am glad to hear Judge articulate the win-or-bust mentality. That’s a part of the fun of this team–they want to win, and they want it badly. That much is obvious; it’s endearing and that spirit was a huge part of the reason New York roared as one when DJ LeMahieu’s home run cleared the fence on Saturday. The Yankees were alive, and of course they were. They never quit. But they got beat anyway.
By outright dismissing the season as a failure because of this, fans risk forgetting, or devaluing at least, a season that was filled with nearly unrelenting joy up until the last five games. If you stuck with the 2019 Yankees for the entirety of the 162 game marathon, you know they could be called many things: persistent, tough, fun, talented, resilient, confident, savages. A failure they were not, no matter how their story ended.