The other day I channel surfed into the 1996 Yankees season opener on YES. The “classic” was timely as the organization is about to celebrate the silver anniversary of a champion that initiated a run of four titles in five years.
Yet, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the opponent.
Holy heck, the Cleveland outfield that day was Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez — all in their primes. And it had to be that good to overshadow a rest of a lineup that included Sandy Alomar Jr., Carlos Baerga, Julio Franco, Eddie Murray, Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel.
From 1994-2001, Cleveland averaged nearly six runs a game (NEARLY SIX RUNS A GAME). Those Indians went to the playoffs six times, reached the World Series twice and came within two outs of their first championship in four decades. But they never did win, which is why my eyes gravitated to them.
“The Yankees are sort of at a point like we had, you realize you have to break through,” said John Hart, the general manager of those Cleveland squads.
Over the past four years the Yankees have averaged a major-league best at nearly 5 1/2 runs per game. They have made the playoffs in each of those seasons, getting eliminated twice by the eventual champion and twice by the World Series loser. But the Yanks remain without a title since 2009 and by Bronx math that is an eternity.
There are two ways that this can go for the Yankees, circa now. They can follow the past two champs — the Nationals and Dodgers — who went through years of being viewed as October dogs. Sometimes you have to kick and kick at the door before it bursts open. The Dodgers, the other coastal superpower, won eight straight NL West titles and not until the eighth did they finally capture their first title since 1988 — or in Los Angeles math an eternity-plus.
Or the Yanks can be those Cleveland teams, so powerful that annually they believed this was the season.
“Every year after ‘94 we felt we had a team that could win it all, absolutely,” Hart said.
The Yanks are no small market, like Cleveland. But nothing lasts forever. This is Aaron Boone’s fourth team. His contract expires after this season. Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, who served as cornerstones to the club that made a surprising run to ALCS Game 7 in 2017 (Joe Girardi’s last team), can be free agents after 2022, same as Zack Britton, Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green. Will Brett Gardner — the last vestige of the ‘09 champs — retire after this season?
“The thing that scares you so much is that windows close even for large-market teams,” said Dan O’Dowd, who was Cleveland’s assistant GM through September 2000 (full disclosure: I work with Hart and O’Dowd at MLB Network). “It is difficult to hold onto everybody. You do feel the pressure of the window closing; we did in Cleveland.”
Hart recalled the joylessness that can swarm a team when “winning 103 games and getting to the playoffs is seen as a bust because you don’t win it all. You know the regular season isn’t meaningless. You better grind and get to the playoffs. But you know at all times, it is going to be eyes on the playoffs (for judgment of the season).”
So this hovers over the Yankees as they ready Thursday for their 119th home opener. They are not built just to win the AL East or make the playoffs. The report card reflects a parade or not from the instant Bernie Williams throws the ceremonial first pitch. Gerrit Cole will follow with the first real pitch of 2021. Cole represents what those Cleveland squads never had — a true ace. They tried for Randy Johnson, refused to give up a young Bartolo Colon to trade for Pedro Martinez.
Cole was excellent in Yankee Year 1, including his three postseason starts. But like the Mets with Jacob deGrom, the Yanks do not want to squander having one of the few unquestioned No. 1 starters in the sport before the warranty expires on ace-hood. They do not want to waste a period when the offense and the bullpen have been this powerful.
They have questions for sure, about the durability of the non-Cole portion of the rotation and the middle of the field defense, notably Sanchez catching and Gleyber Torres at short, and being overly right-handed on offense again. But they have the best talent in an AL East where the Opening Day opponent Blue Jays are better, the Rays remain the gnats that roar and the Red Sox retain a puncher’s chance because their lineup could be powerful.
“We understand the urgency and importance of playing well,” Boone said. “That all feeds into the hunger of this team, especially because we have tasted a lot of success, but come up short a lot. It truly does burn with these guys. It is an extra little motivator for them. I certainly understand — we understand — the talent and capability in our room and the urgency that comes with that.”
The curtain goes up on another season Thursday with a lingering question — how long does this window stay open for these Yankees?