BOSTON WAS BEAUTIFUL on Saturday. Warm. Breezy. A little after noon, a yellow luxury coach bus idled outside the front entrance of the Four Seasons Hotel. A small crowd gathered behind a metal fence.
It was all very standard. The autograph hunters with their bags of jerseys and cards. A couple of college-age fans who shouted out their love for the team. A pair of women with New York Yankees T-shirts.
The Yankees players trickled out slowly. Giancarlo Stanton. Aaron Judge. Gerrit Cole. Nestor Cortes was the only one to stop to sign anything, and he only did so after chiding one of the regulars for a posting a mean-spirited Instagram message.
As a man and a little girl walked by, the man pointed to the players climbing onto the bus. “Look at those Yankees,” he said, and the little girl stopped. She stared for a moment at the big bus and the big players. And then, in the matter-of-fact tone only an adorable child can produce, she asked the same question that New York fans have been asking each other, over and over, for months.
“Daddy,” she said, “Who are those Yankees?”
THE ANSWER TO that little girl, as any exhausted Yankees fan will surely tell you, has ranged widely during this gloriously maddening, maddeningly glorious season. There have been separate stretches where the Yankees have lost 10 out of 15 games or 13 out of 18 or 13 out of 20, as well as other stretches where they have won 23 out of 32 or 13 in a row or 43 out of 63. These Yankees are everything: a juggernaut or a disgrace; world-beaters or a team that couldn’t get a hit off a high schooler. Because of their violent fluctuations, all the labels have felt valid.
With only six games remaining in this season, however, here is a previously unknown story that might offer a new potential identity:
A little more than a week ago, the Yankees got a pet.
Pandemic puppies are on trend, but Cortes, the Cuban lefthander who played for the Yankees in 2019 and rejoined them this season, led a group of players who were interested in becoming animal owners in a different way. Specifically, they wanted a turtle.
After some discussion, a small (and, it must be said, very cute) turtle was acquired from a neighborhood pet store. The players were elated. The turtle’s name is Bronxie, an ode to its home borough, and it lives a comfortable life. It wiles away most of its hours in a tank with a piece of tape labeled “Bronxie the Turtle” on it. It is well-fed. At times, it even roams freely, crawling among the white, interlocking-NYs on the blue clubhouse carpet.
The Yankees famously do not have an organizational mascot, but Bronxie has been immediately embraced. Cortes is very much a proud papa, but others, including DJ LeMahieu — who is said to just enjoy staring at Bronxie — are involved and engaged caretakers, as well. This week, Bronxie made his first road trip, joining the team in Boston.
“There is a lot of love,” Yankees veteran outfielder Brett Gardner told me, adding, “Everyone is also very aware of what’s happening lately.” Gardner, of course, was referring to New York’s performance since Bronxie’s adoption: a three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers; a three-game sweep of the Red Sox, including a dramatic eighth-inning comeback on Sunday night; and a critical move from a place outside the American League’s second wild-card spot to a position squarely in the mix for the first one, as the Yankees begin their final six games against the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays.
“Lucky charm, whatever you want to call it; I know a lot of guys believe there’s a connection here,” Gardner said before Sunday’s game. “At the end of it, it would be great if we could go out and get him a little World Series ring.”
He smiled and jogged out to join his teammates. Who are those Yankees? Maybe they are Bronxie’s team.
ALTHOUGH THIS SEASON has brought the topic into sharper focus than ever before, the question of identity is one that has lingered over the Yankees for some time. The last championship dynasty (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and others) ended two decades ago, but for many, the larger philosophical sentiment underpinning those Yankees teams, and really all Yankees teams under George Steinbrenner, persists.
The Yankees are the best, that thinking goes. So, they buy the best players, use those players to put together the best teams and, because of all that, should win the World Series all the time.
Michael Kay, who does play-by-play of the Yankees games on television and also hosts a weekday radio show in which he often takes calls from fans, said he calls this phenomenon “the Steinbrenner-ization of a generation.”
“That’s what George sold them,” Kay said. “And so, those fans who still want that to be the case have been miserable since 2009.” (That year, the Yankees spent more than $400 million on CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira in the offseason before winning the franchise’s 27th title.)
In truth, Kay continued, the Yankees under Steinbrenner’s son, Hal, are different.
“George fired Yogi Berra 16 games into the season, so this year, at 41-41, I don’t think there’s any chance George wouldn’t have fired Aaron Boone,” Kay said, adding that baseball, as a sport, has caught up anyway. The rise of analytics-based player evaluation has allowed a team like the Rays, currently in first place in the AL East and eight games ahead of the Yankees, to have an objectively deeper team than the Yankees despite having a payroll that is $130 million smaller.
For an ever-growing segment of Yankees fans, as well as a significant part of the Yankees organization, that model — the Rays’ bargain-hunting brilliance — is aspirational as well as, it sure seems, quite a bit more fun. Who doesn’t prefer diamonds found to diamonds bought? But there isn’t anything close to unanimity on that kind of seismic shift, within or outside the team, and so a schism has developed that makes years like this one even more complicated.
When the Yankees thrive, is it because of their high-priced stars performing? Or because of canny decision-making from the manager or the front office? And when they swoon, is it because general manager Brian Cashman pushes the team to rely too much on analytics? Or not enough?
At the center of it is Boone, the former Yankee who had his own indelible moment against Boston with that AL Championship Series-winning home run in 2003. Boone is as warm and thoughtful as he was in his playing days, and he remains the epitome of the old-school ballplayer. He comes from a baseball family. He essentially grew up around major league clubhouses before playing 13 big league seasons himself, and he largely presents in that classic mold. He defends his players and their ability to perform to the point of occasional absurdity. He is relentlessly positive. He does not have a problem relying on a series of well-worn clichés (“Every game is important,” “I believe in my guys”) in his daily interactions with the beat reporters.
Boone has tried to engage with the injection of analytics that Cashman has brought to the club through assistant GM Michael Fishman, but it is clearly not his natural inclination. His coaching staff is a mix of old-school and numbers-rooted coaches, and he is a frequent target for complaints about his inconsistency in the cacophonous multiverse that is Yankees fans on the internet. (Sunday’s decision to remove reliever Clay Holmes after one inning, in which Holmes struck out the side, was just the latest example.)
Boone’s steadfast commitment to remaining unruffled can give him an at-times pained look on the bench, but Kay said he sensed a visceral difference in Boone for a few weeks back in August. Yes, it was during one of the Yankees’ best stretches this summer, but it wasn’t simply because they were winning, either, Kay said. It had just as much to do with the fact that the Yankees, due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols, were forced to play lesser-known players such as Greg Allen and Andrew Velazquez and Kyle Higashioka. Not coincidentally, their style shifted, as well.
Suddenly, the Yankees’ baserunning was more aggressive. There were more steals. There was more hitting-and-running and fewer double plays. The Yankees were more assertive; they didn’t simply wait for analytics’ lasting contributions to the recent game — a walk, a strikeout or a home run.
That kind of play (and those kind of players), the numbers tell us, is not necessarily as reliably effective. But that does not mean it isn’t engaging.
“I think if you injected him with truth serum, Boone would say that was the most fun he had this season,” Kay said. “He was managing the team like it was a team from before analytics existed.”
CASEY STENGEL ONCE said that “managing is getting paid for home runs someone else hits,” and while that is assuredly true (whether you’re Boone, Tony La Russa or anyone else), it also undersells the personal component of what modern sports leadership requires.
Whatever one thinks of Boone’s baseball acumen, there is no denying that a significant part of his responsibility lies in motivating his players. It is his job to create an environment in which the players believe — regardless of whatever just happened — that another success is attainable.
This task, which is inevitably heightened in the pressure cooker that is playing in New York, is something Boone made a significant part of his team talk on the first day of spring training. “I wanted them to be clear about it right away,” he told me in Boston. “I said it straight: ‘There is adversity coming for you.’ Because there always is. It isn’t about if; it’s when. And I wanted them to know I would support them when it happened.”
Boone, admittedly, didn’t necessarily foresee a season with so many extremes — the Yankees went from preseason title favorites to underwhelming and possibly out of contention to now back to a dangerous postseason pick — but while one could look at the Yankees’ season as a series of disappointing inconsistencies, another interpretation is to see it as one of perpetual redemptions.
Or as LeMahieu put it: “The story of our season is getting punched in the face and coming back.”
The Yankees’ ability to plow on is remarkable enough, but to go one layer deeper, it is their unshaking belief that they’ll be able to plow on that feels like it could be special. On Saturday, trailing the Red Sox by a run with two outs in the eighth inning, Stanton stood in the on-deck circle at Fenway as Boston lefty Darwinzon Hernandez tried to retire Anthony Rizzo to end the inning.
As he watched, Stanton had one thought: “They better get Rizz.” When Hernandez didn’t (he hit Rizzo to load the bases), Stanton strode to the plate and obliterated the first pitch he saw, rocketing the ball into the night sky for a grand slam that pushed the Yankees to an unlikely victory and made the summer slogs feel that much farther away.
Will those moments continue? Will that energy always be there? Or to put it another way, who are those Yankees? As Gardner said when I asked him the question the next afternoon, “Well … that’s still to be determined, isn’t it?” And it is.
On Sunday, Stanton homered again and the Yankees came back again. And that is, in the end, what will push the Yankees as far as they can go. They will need to mash. And pitch. And take the opportunities when they are right there in front of them. They will need Stanton. And Judge. And Cole, who pitched well in Friday’s win. And Gardner. And the bullpen guys. And yes, maybe even Bronxie.
There are six games left in this serpentine season, and there was some serious discussion about what to do with Bronxie as the series in Boston neared its end. Travel is tricky for a turtle, so the question was asked: Should Bronxie go on to Toronto with the team? Or perhaps head back to New York and his more familiar surroundings?
There was talk. And debate. And then the Yankees completed their rally, and Bronxie’s record moved to a perfect 6-0, and the answer, to everyone, was obvious. Bronxie is in Toronto. Neither he, nor the Yankees, are going anywhere.