The Empire Is Evil Again

The whole thing has played out exactly like a Hollywood movie. The pure-hearted hero; the villain we know and love (to hate); the well-intention idiot that lets it all happen. The 2018 MLB season should merit Oscar consideration.

To begin our story, we have to turn the clock back to last season. The Bronx Bombers have always been baseball’s biggest villain. Winning does that. But it’s more than the crushing feeling that the Yankees will always be better; it’s the way they’ve built their rosters, the ways in which they’ve achieved total victory. Anyone can build a champion if they throw enough money at the problem. And for years and years, that’s what the Yankees had done, from Babe Ruth to Alex Rodriguez. Their best players were bought from Whole Foods, not Kroger.

But something strange happened last year. A 6-foot-7 phenom emerged, one who makes the baseball bat look like a toothpick and who crushed dingers with the effortlessness of a fly swatter. Aaron Judge was a Yankee…but he was fun to watch. Everyone in baseball was rooting for him; and, as a result, rooting for the Yankees.

Yankees Collage
From Judge to CC, the Todd-Father to Bird, there were many reasons to cheer for the 2017 Yankees.

There was something different about this 2017 team. Their top players weren’t free agent blockbusters. Some were home-grown prospects, studs that had spent their full careers in pinstripes. Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, and Luis Severino headline that class, but prospects like Clint Frazier and Jordan Montgomery played key roles as well. There were underdogs–underdogs, on the Yankees! Greg Bird, trying to make it back to the big-league club after months of battling injury. Aaron Hicks, acquired from the Twins, trying to carve out a place for himself in a crowded outfield. Starlin Castro, a cast-off from the World Series champs Chicago Cubs, trying to prove that he too was a champion. Perhaps no underdog story was more emotional than that of CC Sabathia, returning to the diamond after entering rehab for alcohol abuse.

They came together in the summer of 2017, a squad of misfits and cast-offs. Yes, there were free agents; in the modern game of baseball, there always are. But these felt different from the Yankee blockbusters of old. Todd Frazier found a home in the Bronx after never living up to his contract on the south side of Chicago. Sonny Gray was a top pitcher, but his understated ways on and off the mound meant it was impossible to cast him as the villain. David Robertson returned to work with the manager that had made him a star.

And something strange happened, amid the Aaron Judge home runs and the Severino strikeouts. The Yankees were fun. They were likeable. The thumbs-down meme quickly spread throughout the clubhouse. The ever-smiling Didi Gregorious became the team’s motivator and emoji translator. The team’s antics in the dugout, from the jokes between Judge and mini-me Ronald Torreyes to the “dugout camera,” became a testament to the new boys of summer, a new team of kids just playing a game.

Thumbs Down
Contender for top baseball meme of 2017?

Baseball’s villains had become baseball’s darlings. But a good screenwriter knows: it’s all about misdirection. Get the audience to like and trust your villain; and then turn the tables.

Enter Derek Jeter, himself a former member of the Evil Empire. Stepping into his new role as co-owner and head of operations in Miami, his only goal is to turn a long-suffering franchise into a winner. Attendance was down. The team’s payroll was bloated. The pitching staff was dreadful. And the farm system was depleted. What was the golden boy to do?

Derek Jeter Marlins
Meet the new boss…same as the old boss.

Jeter decided the first thing he needed to do was cut payroll. He needed to get the bloated contracts off the books, tear the team down, and rebuild the farm system to create a winner in the future.

His intentions, we assume, are good; it would be a dastardly plan indeed if Jeter were helping the Yankees, wouldn’t it? He wants to create a winner in Miami, and has decided that tearing it down is the only way to do that.

Well-intentioned, perhaps. But we audience members know this story. The good man who can’t see how terrible his ideas are, who can’t understand that his plans to build his team will destroy it–and himself–in the end. And in his failure, he will inadvertently return the Evil Empire to their position of power.

Our titanic plot twist came in the early hours of Saturday morning, when sources reported that the Yankees and the Marlins were close to a deal. As the world woke up, the rumors were confirmed: Giancarlo Stanton was going to the Bronx. The Yankees had swooped in at the last minute to get baseball’s biggest–and most expensive–prize of the offseason.

The Empire was evil again.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Atlanta Braves
The newest Bronx Bomber: Giancarlo Stanton.

Gone is Joe Girardi, the admirable old salt who led the team through its rough patch. Gone is Starlin Castro, the man who wanted to prove his worth on a championship team but will now be back in the doldrums in Miami (unless he gets traded again). Likely gone too is Todd Frazier, the emotional heart of that 2017 team. The Yanks want to bring back Sabathia, but he still remains unsigned. With Stanton and Judge on the corners, it would not be surprising to see Aaron Hicks or Clint Frazier depart soon to find somewhere a bit less crowded.

Oh sure, this team will be fun to watch. Stanton and Judge will turn every ballpark into a Little League field, and guys like Didi, Bird, and Luis Severino are still worth rooting for. But they aren’t the underdogs we fell in love with in 2017. They’ve become the Goliath once again.

They will win. Maybe not this year, and maybe not the next. But with that lineup, a strong rotation, a dominant bullpen, and all the money in the world, it’s only a matter of time. And when they do, it will feel like it always feels: that the Yankees, as fun as they were to watch, had a leg up on everyone else. That once again, the bad guys won.

But Hollywood scripts don’t let the bad guys win, at least not without a fight (right, Rocky?) If the Yankees are the villains of our story, the hero has just arrived on the West Coast.

Shohei Ohtani cares about nothing but baseball. His modest goals include winning the Cy Young, throwing the fastest pitch ever, and winning a World Series. He trains as hard, if not harder, than almost any player. He spends his down time preparing for the game, trying to master his pitches and perfect his swing. He’s got power; he’s got speed; he’s got a wicked slider; and now, he’s got Mike Trout.

Shohei Otani Angels
The Yankees might hold all the cards now. But Ohtani’s coming…

The Angels have become the anti-Yankees, signing perhaps the only player in MLB that doesn’t care a bit about the money. It will take time before they’re ready to take on the Evil Empire. Ohtani has yet to play in the majors, and while the hype is real and well-deserved there will doubtless be an adjustment period. The Angels still have holes in the roster, particularly in the starting rotation and the infield. They have their flaws; but we can’t have a Hollywood hero without giving them mountainous challenges to overcome.

Giancarlo Stanton a Yankee. Shohei Ohtani an Angel. Derek Jeter still with Miami, but for how long? Grab the popcorn; 2018 is gonna be good.

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