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Evil Empire

On being a lifelong Yankees fan.

On the side of the Scottish parliament building, a saying is engraved: “Imagine you live in the early days of a better nation.”

This is a quotation from what passes as a national man of letters in modern Scotland, the late Alasdair Gray. Gray was, if not exactly a good writer, at least an interesting one, with whom I think I share some fixations and weaknesses. Yet this dictum for me holds little of the aspirational oomph intended by those painfully earnest Scots. The turn of phrase has always seemed an exercise in irony, an exhortation to denial: Pretend things aren’t so bad as they are. (“Cerebrotonic Cato may extol the ancient disciplines. . . .”) My talents run to irony and disappointment, which tend to go unused when things are getting better. It is difficult for me to imagine really enjoying life at the zenith of a thing, the Rome of the Antonines or the Spain of Charles V. It would be wasted on me.

I have always felt myself rather to be a product of decay—a merry little worm wriggling around in civilization’s carcass. Or, better, the loyal subject of a once-great empire that, although my own by birth, was only ever equivocally good—no, perhaps outright evil. 

You see, I’m a Yankees fan.

As of this writing, the most celebrated club in Major League Baseball is stranded glumly at the back of the East Division of the American League, scrabbling to get on the top side of the .500 line like a rat escaping watery death amid the debris of a shipwreck. The Yankees’ 2023 payroll, which, at nearly three hundred million dollars, is the highest in the A.L., goes to some of the greatest players to grace the modern game. Aaron Judge alone has a contract for three hundred sixty million dollars over nine years. Aaron Judge, individually, is as good at baseball as the Yankees are, collectively, right now, bad at it. The titanic outfielder last year clobbered sixty-two bell ringers before the roaring masses, surpassing Roger Maris’s season record of sixty-one home runs and Babe Ruth’s humble record of sixty.

Good God, man! Babe Ruth! Yankees fans love names like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, and Mickey Mantle. They love talking about the team’s number of pennants (forty) and World Series victories (twenty-seven). Yankees fans take a real “ye shall know them by their fruits” attitude to baseball. Which is what makes this slump such a downer.

I can take it a little better than most, both dispositionally and because of the quirk of my age. The late Nineties and early Aughts weren’t the worst time for the Yankees, but they weren’t one of the golden ages either; my New York relatives all projected an air of annoyance at decline. Perhaps more importantly, my first distinct memory of watching baseball was the 2000 World Series, Yankees vs. Mets. Specifically, I remember my father telling me that the Yankee Roger Clemens was a “jerk” but an all-time great pitcher. Minutes later, Clemens threw a nasty-looking fragment of a shattered bat at Mike Piazza. Jerk indeed.

Clemens maintained (and maintains) that he didn’t mean to chuck a foot-long spar of splintery elm at Piazza. The Mets didn’t see it that way, and a bench-clearing fight followed. It remains some of the absolute best T.V. I’ve ever seen. Pure electricity, especially if you’re six and up past bedtime. But it’s not exactly a great introduction to the game if you’re looking for clean-cut All-American pieties. For baseball, my eye has had a little jaundice from the start, and a jaundiced eye can look upon changes of fortune without blinking too much.

That was the era of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and all the rest, when baseball players looked like professional wrestlers and every day was a home run derby. The heroes seemed a lot like villains, and, as it turned out, most of them were. Clemens himself got sucked into the steroid scandal. The Evil Empire I grew up with was, it turns out, really an Evil Empire. But you can’t really shake liking the players you liked when you were a kid. I still think Roger Clemens is kind of cool.

You can’t shake the teams you grew up with, either. So it’s me and my jaundiced eye and the Yankees, suffering at .497 at the back of the A.L. East. Maybe it’s something about humility, about learning to be humble. The Lord of the Universe himself spent a few decades slumming it in a Roman bush league. The Yankees are great, but they’re not better than God.

Or maybe it’s about learning to love a thing for itself, which all those Orioles and Red Sox and Mets fans have gotten to enjoy for all these years. The Yankees are a bit like America, or the Catholic Church—the big historical winners who have fallen on somewhat shabby times. We now have to learn to love them for being what they are, not for their strength or their pomps. And, the truth is, the Yankees are an overpaid team that is not very good at baseball right now. That’s okay. They’re still the Yankees.

Anyway. They oughta fire Aaron Boone.