This period in Yankees history — let’s call it the Aaron Judge Era — has been marked by a perennial return to the postseason and endings in which members of the organization insist they have a championship team without the most important element — an actual championship.
From 2013-16, the Yankees made the playoffs once. Then Judge became a star and this is the Yankees’ fifth straight trip to the tournament, but the fourth time they finished second in the AL East. Twice they were at the mercy of sudden death (last year with expanded playoffs there were no one-and-done games). They are 2-0 to date, their October problems emerging as the month progresses.
Derek Jeter had a career trajectory in New York established by the Yankees winning a championship in his rookie season and then, with the same core group, winning four times in his first five full seasons. Judge is in full season No. 5 now. He is a free agent after next season. Already core pieces have frayed and more should be expected to go this offseason, perhaps even if the Yankees win it all.
But there is a dream scenario between here and the Canyon of Heroes for the Yankees — a Michael Corleone settling all family business potential for the Yankees. It will take a lot of cooperation, namely the Yanks being able to advance beginning Tuesday night. But this is their ideal path:
1. Beat the Red Sox. That would be their biggest rival. The organization that this century has changed this one-sided Cursed relationship by winning four titles to the Yankees’ one. That last title occurred in 2018. That postseason Judge played “New York, New York” on a boom box as he passed the Red Sox home clubhouse at Fenway Park en route to the team bus after the Yankees won Game 2 to tie the division series at one game apiece.
The Red Sox went to The Bronx, won two straight, partied on the Yankee Stadium field and played “New York, New York” in the winning clubhouse.
2. Beat the Rays. Tampa Bay is waiting in the division series for the winner of New York-Boston. The Rays, David to the Yankees’ Goliath, have won consecutive AL East titles, something the Yanks last did in 2011-12 or approaching about $2 billion in payroll ago.
The Rays ousted the Yankees from the playoffs in ALDS Game 5 last year en route to the World Series (every team that has eliminated the Yanks the past four years at least won the pennant). You remember that little morality tale. On Sept. 1, 2020, Aroldis Chapman threw 101 mph near the head of Mike Brosseau, triggering a benches-clearing incident when the game concluded. On Oct. 9, Brosseau hit the tie-breaking, eighth-inning homer off Chapman that won Game 5 and the series for the Rays.
In many ways, Tampa Bay has replaced Boston as the Yankees’ main rivals. The sides have been touchy for years about inside pitches (and hit batsmen) going both ways. And the Rays, more than any team, have an underdog aggressive streak that often unnerves the Yanks. The Yanks are 12-22 the last two years against the Rays, including both the playoff series and Tampa Bay winning two of three in The Bronx over the weekend when, had the Yankees done that, Tuesday night’s game would be at home rather than at Fenway.
3. Beat the Astros. Houston will have to cooperate by beating the White Sox in that division series. The Astros eliminated the Yankees in the 2017 and ’19 ALCS.
Many members of the Yankees will forever believe that if the Astros were not illegally stealing signs, the Yankees would have won the 2017 series (Houston has denied cheating in the postseason). What is the legacy of this era if the Yanks simply had reached the World Series that year and kept the 2010s from becoming the first decade since the 1910s that the organization failed to reach a Fall Classic?
The 2019 ALCS ended with Jose Altuve launching a walk-off homer against Chapman, refusing to allow his jersey to be ripped off and sparking — at minimum — a conspiracy theory that he was wearing a buzzer under his shirt that alerted him what type of pitch was coming. In order teams the Yanks despise: Rays, Astros, Red Sox, the teams that have eliminated them from the past four postseason.
4. Beat the Dodgers. Los Angeles, despite 106 regular-season wins, is in the same sudden-death peril Wednesday as the Yanks are on Tuesday. Los Angeles would need to beat the Cardinals, then win two more rounds to get to the World Series for the fourth time in five years.
Los Angeles is the West Coast Yankees. But over the last few years — as the Dodgers won eight straight NL West titles before this season and the 2020 title — it became clear they were outdoing the Yankees. Could the Yanks at least begin to put a dent in that belief, while reiterating just how difficult it is to win it all; since the Dodgers would then continue to have just one ring since 1989 despite all their money spent.
More importantly, if it got to that World Series matchup for Judge’s Yankees, they would also be playing defense for the last team to repeat as champions.
That would be Jeter’s three-peat, 1998-2000 Yankees.