Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Roots of Hatred

The New York Yankees. The very mention of the name evokes many images, some positive, some negative.

On one side you have the image of class. The Yankees are a franchise that's made excellence into a tradition to be respected and upheld. While other franchises have changed with the times, the Yankees have remained constant in many ways, standing as a monument to the game's splendor. Their history is untainted by trendy uniform changes and gimmicky ballparks; they just go out there every year expecting to win, because the Yankee brand symbolizes quality.

On the other side you have the image of a rich bully. The Yankees have built championship teams by drastically outspending their nearest competitors and at various times employing questionable business practices. They carry with them a boorish sense of entitlement, and it's trickled down to a sizable portion of their fanbase. Because they're the Yankees, everything they do is given special attention by the media, and the overexposure is enough to breed resentment from the average non-Yankee fan.

Your opinion of the Yankees is probably reflected in which of these images comes to mind first. If you're familiar with my blog, you know that I most certainly have no love for them. Recently though, I had the occasion to ask myself why. Over on Baseball Fever, my favorite forum for the National Pastime, I participated in a discussion about the Yankees that inevitably turned toward their payroll. I had probably best not recap the entire thing, since it abounded with histrionics and unnecessary taunts (mostly from others, not me), but in a weird way it made me think about what my issues really are with the hated Bronx Bombers.

The Anti-Yankee Hater Movement

Before I mention any points that were discussed, I should say I found it interesting to discover that there are some Yankee fans (and even a few sympathizers) who are extremely sensitive about the fact that people hate their team. They consider it a slight when someone calls them "evil" or accuses them of buying championships, and they refuse to stand for it. Among these people, "Yankee-hater" itself is a dismissive label. You know what I mean, right? "Oh, ignore him. He's just a Yankee-hater."

The implication, of course, is that anyone who hates the Yankees possesses no rational reason for doing so, and is merely reacting with reflexive rage. Now, if you think that sounds ridiculous and completely lacking in self-awareness, I share your view. When arguing with these types though, it forces you to be consistent and clear with your reasoning, so that you don't come across as blinded by emotion.

What is it I really hate about the Yankees? Well, if I had to state my main reason, it's that when I follow a sport I like seeing a variety of champions. I started following baseball in 1995, so that means I've seen five Yankee titles during my fanhood. Over a sixteen-year span, that's pretty significant. If I'm going to devote my attention to a game for seven months I don't want it to turn out I was watching a rerun the entire time. I've witnessed more than my tolerable quota of Yankee success, so if I hate the Yankees, it's because a Yankee title deprives me of the fresh storyline I was hoping for when the season began.

Is there more to it than that, though? I'll confess, I'm certainly guilty of bringing up the Yankees' payroll and referring to them as "evil" at times. Clearly their spending bothers me on some level, but what?

The American Way

I've preferred to keep politics off this blog, since what is baseball, after all, if not an escape from real-world issues? As this is something of an introspective post though, I guess I should reveal a little about my views: I'm a capitalist. Yep, that's right. I think free markets and competition are necessary parts of a healthy economy. I don't believe all rich people are conniving Gordon Gekkos who only achieved anything by trampling others, I believe many of them are good people who earned their fortunes fair and square. Truly then, it'd be hypocritical for me to espouse "underdogma," the idea that the underdog has inherent moral superiority to the overdog.

On the other hand, baseball and the business market are based on different models of competition. In the business world the consumer doesn't care which company is number one, he just wants to get his money's worth for a product or a service. Many similar businesses can coexist just fine regardless of which one is most profitable.

In baseball, the ultimate goal is to be number one in a given year. Sure, a team and its fanbase can enjoy a season that doesn't end with a World Series title, but over time they expect to win at least one. Without that all-important championship, history has a way of undervaluing your accomplishments. That's why I can't help but feel disappointed when a team wins a second championship in the same era. When that team looks back at their season they'll see an affirmation of the greatness they already knew was there; when their competitors look back they might see their best opportunity at immortality missed. While I believe in the power of free markets, it's hard to be a free market absolutist when dealing with a sporting model.

Competitive Balance and All That Jazz

Baseball, of course, doesn't have an absolute free market, due to the Competitive Balance Tax. Does that actually make a difference though? Well, since the CBT went into effect with the 2003 season, the only team to win back-to-back pennants has been the 2008-09 Phillies, and only the Red Sox have won multiple World Series. While certain teams have established themselves as playoff regulars during that span, we've had the variety of champions that I like in sports. If I based my verdict entirely on results, it'd be hard to argue that the Competitive Balance Tax has been bad for baseball.

Still, the CBT ceiling is set so high that only four clubs have ever had to pay it. The Yankees, in fact, are the only ones who pay it annually. Does something that affects so few franchises really have much of an impact? I suppose if nothing else it provides a psychological advantage. The Yankees can still spend far more than any other team, but there's something comforting about knowing the CBT is there as a possible deterrent against certain levels of excess.

Some would argue that our current three-tiered playoff system is responsible for producing more random outcomes, but the same system was in place when the Yankees won four World Series in five years. Interestingly enough, their payroll wasn't nearly as obscene back then relative to the rest of baseball (though they were still accused of buying championships at the time). What does that prove, if anything? Did the Yankees just get lucky? Was it a perfect storm of proper franchise management and financial power? Is it evidence that the CBT allows more teams to get in on the action? Heck, could it be coincidental? Were the lower-budget teams getting smarter at the same time the CBT went into effect? Honestly, I don't have the answers, I'm just asking rhetorically. My hunch though, is that it's a combination of several of these factors.

Get Off Your High Horse

So the Yankees' advantage has been slightly muted in recent years. Is their rich bully image becoming unfair? Hardly. They still have the resources to be in the running for any player they want, and their payroll still dwarfs their nearest competitors'. Still, they've won only one World Series since the CBT went into effect, so how can I say they're ruining the stories I'm looking for? Should I really hate them so much?

To answer this question I think we have to go back to that other image I mentioned up front: the one of class. Honestly, I don't blame the Yankees for spending the way they do. It's only natural to use the resources you have available to be successful. What I resent, however, is the idea that the Yankees are inherently better or more important than every other franchise because of those resources.

For all the Yankee hate that's out there, there's plenty of Yankee sucking up to balance it. Many media members are unapologetic in their desire that the Yankees (and their big market brethren) be perpetually successful, because heaven forbid they should have to pay attention to those trifling teams in the smaller cities. Essentially, it's no different than being a fan of the Kardashians: Possess a lot of bright, shiny objects and people will worship you. In my younger years I might have gotten caught up in the same hype. These days, I recognize it for what it is: elitism.

I can understand why certain franchises get more attention than others. For a team like the Yankees, it's due to their unparalleled success and the fact that they play in a huge media market. I don't see them as any more significant than say, the Cleveland Indians though. The Indians have their own unique place in baseball's rich history, and were it expunged, baseball would be no less poorer than if it were losing the Yankees' history.

A Final Word Amid All This Rambling

As a capitalist, I accept that life isn't fair, and that certain competitors will always have advantages others don't. I don't necessarily like it, but it's the nature of the beast. The Yankees' money doesn't make them evil, it merely makes any story they tell predictable and uncompelling. Even so, they have their place in baseball, and I certainly wouldn't deny them their right to build a winner (as some anti-Yankee haters would claim).

All I ask is that you don't try to tell me the Yankees are so successful because they possess superior business acumen or that they operate on a higher plane of class than baseball's great unwashed. Yes, the current administration has done a decent job running a team with an abundance of built-in advantages, but that in no way proves any moral or intellectual superiority on their part. If more Yankee supporters could admit that, there might be more respect behind the hatred.