There really should be no minimizing being here. There are 30 major league teams, and two-thirds have already closed up shop for the winter. It still matters in baseball, getting to the postseason. It is still an accomplishment, in a more profound way than any other sport.
By rights, you should not dismiss the Yankees earning a wild-card berth. You should not roll your eyes at the fact the Yankees are the No. 5 seed in the five-team American League tournament. The Yankees not only won 92 games, they won eight out of nine late, at a time when merely winning seven out of nine would have required an extra play-in game.
That’s just being fair.
But this is fair also:
These are the Yankees, and this is Year 5 of a reloading process that has yet to yield a 41st pennant, let alone a 28th championship. It has been 12 years since the Yankees have been to the World Series. The Royals have been there twice since then, the Rangers twice, the Red Sox twice. The Rays have been there, last year. Even the Mets have been more recently.
Maybe that oughtn’t be a capital crime. But it is the Yankees who demand they be tried on the order of championships won and worlds conquered. So it is the Yankees who will be judged by those standards.
And using those standards, this isn’t enough.
Nobly making the wild-card game, maybe playing the Red Sox to a memorable finish before losing late, isn’t enough, not by the self-imposed pinstriped standards.
The Yankees, put simply, must win Tuesday night,
They must win, and they must, at minimum, put a scare into the 100-win Rays in the ALDS to follow, or else all the grumbling, all the griping, all the grousing that accompanied the Yankees’ own 92-win journey will feel justified. This was not a team assembled to tiptoe through the Fenway Park gauntlet in one-and-done hell. This was a team with aspirations.
A loss Tuesday night? It means we can finally label this season what so many jaded Yankees fans have been labeling it since the middle of the summer, using a variety of adjectives that all lead to the same conclusion: disappointing, discouraging, dissatisfying, disillusioning, disenchanting. And the hammer, which breaks away from the alliterative pattern:
“We’re a really good team,” Aaron Boone said Monday, at rain-soaked Fenway Park, one day before the first genuinely essential game of his managerial career. “When we play well, we can beat anyone.”
That is Boone, has been Boone, even in the worst of times this year, and while he surely believes the feel-good mantras (of which he has a bottomless supply) help inspire confidence in his team it has driven Yankees fans alternately batty and belligerent.
Boone is likely managing for his future at Fenway, but he will not be the only one asked to answer for what happens if the night goes sideways.
Brian Cashman was the one who assembled the team coming out of spring training, the one that wouldn’t have been near good enough to play in Tuesday’s game, and while he is due praise for the midseason maneuvering and midcourse correction that did get then here, he will have to answer, at some point, for this empty five-year reload — and for the 12-year championship drought.
So will some significant members of the roster, one that spent so many chunks of this season underperforming its potential.
Maybe the same questions will apply even if the Yankees survive Fenway, make it to Tampa Bay, and go down in a blaze of glory there. We can worry about that then. For now, there is a vital survive-and-advance game awaiting them Tuesday, at Fenway, against a Red Sox team hardly anyone expected to be anywhere near the postseason this year.
“As a competitor this is what you sign up for,” Boone said. “You hope to be in these scenarios where you’re playing a meaningful game to move on to something more special. We’ll embrace that, we’ll look forward to [Tuesday], we’ll walk out there with a lot of confidence, expect to play well and take our best shot.”
All good, honestly. But these are the Yankees. The Yankees sign up for more than this. They do not exist to take their best shot, to roll the dice, to hope for the best. The standards are different. The aspirations are higher. The expectation is far greater. Survive this gauntlet Tuesday, these questions go away for a while.
Survive. Advance. Or else.