When the Yankees play in October New Yorkers come alive with hope because the Yankees in post-season conjures up the presence of the ghosts of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle.
The Yankee brand is the most valuable and lucrative in all of sports largely because they are the team that has won 27 World Series.
Every boy in America that grew up in the fifties and sixties has had arguments of the merits of Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford and the image of the clean-cut Yankee in those sharp looking pinstripes have all added to the value of the Yankee brand.
But the power of any global brand is established by victory over all competitors.
The only real Yankee superstar at present is Aaron Judge who recently channeled the inimitable George Steinbrenner when he remarked “You can win every single game in the regular season, but if you lose in the post-season, it doesn’t matter. Each year, it left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Spoken like a true legend and that’s why there is no joy in Mudville this year. And there won’t be unless and until the Yankees finally win another World Series.
The burden of the Yankee legacy weighs heavily on each player.
Perhaps with the exception of Judge, LeMahieu and Tanaka, the entire team had the look of a deer in the headlights during their play against the Astros. They looked tight and tense and fraught with anxiety. Long gone are the days where Jeter would joke around in the dugout and be able to relax the team.
The Yankees of today are non-believers despite all those upbeat posters in the locker room, despite the ineffective interventions of their sport psychologist and despite the formidable architectural aura of Yankee Stadium itself. The question they will ask themselves this winter is what went wrong and what do we do about it.
To be a world champion is a mystery that every Yankee coach and general manager is paid to solve. If you turn to other sports you will find no answer. I work with PGA tour players and spend lots of time discussing what went into a win and how to repeat that experience each week.
Was it the hotel they stayed in? Was it the food they ate? Was it related to how they were getting along with their spouse that week? How much sleep did they get? Was the win due to the course they liked or the players they played with? Hard to say.
In baseball, you look at past winning teams to find answers. Were the 1998 Yankees dominant because of how Torre handled Steinbrenner? Was it due to ease of Jeter or O’Neill or the talent of David Cone? Did the 2009 Yankees win because of Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera and CC Sabathia?
There are so many factors involved, all of which must be in place for the entire season. And then you have to get lucky too. If Brett Gardner’s sinking line drive drops one foot sooner than the Astro’s Josh Reddick fails to make the catch and the Yankees score two more runs and go on to win the game and perhaps the series. Such is the wonder and the angst of sports.
You can already see greatness in Aaron Judge and DJ LeMahieu. These two kids have that look in their eyes that say watch out we are coming.
New Yorkers are allowed to shed some tears this October at the sight of what we witnessed this week but the greatness of the human spirit is that hope springs eternal.
Soon enough the rough bearded faces of Justin Verlander and Jose Altuve will be all but forgotten and we will be treated to another crop of clean-shaven, clean-cut Yankees to observe.
And as a sport psychologist, I will be looking for exactly two things in their faces. I will be watching for the steely look of a savage but at the same time the calm smiling look of joy and fun. That is the magic combination that Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera had and that Aaron Judge and DJ LeMahieu have now.
Let’s just hope that their ‘savage/joy’ can rub off on a few of their teammates. You see you can’t just be a ‘savage’ as the lead up to commercials talked of. And you can’t just be having fun.
You have to be both at once. The attitude of savagery must be paired with a heart of lightness and joy. No easy formula but one that they will all need to learn if they hope to walk in the footsteps of Babe or Mickey or Whitey.