Tuesday, March 31, 2015

How Bereft of Icons Are the Yankees?

I went out to buy Christmas presents for my little brother and godson this winter, and I found myself reverting to a tried-and-true formula: tickets to a game and a Yankees jersey. For a couple kids in their early teens, that holiday present can't go wrong. There was a problem with the second half of the gift, though: Which player's jersey should I buy? Every young Yankees fan already owns at least eight Jeter jerseys and shirseys, and now it's time to move on. However, whose jersey is the new fail-safe? Masahiro Tanaka? Not with that potentially balky right elbow. CC Sabathia? Not in this decade. Brett Gardner? How is he already 31? A-Rod? Yeah, in your braDellin Betances? One more good season might make him the team's biggest star.

I ended up buying a pair of Jacoby Ellsbury jerseys. As I gave my brother and godson the gift, I explained that I felt like Ellsbury has the best chance to be a star for the next few years. They both seemed to buy it, despite my lukewarm sales pitch.

My Christmas dilemma is emblematic of a bigger issue for the Yankees. In this star-crazed city, the Yankees lack a true star. Ever since the days of Ruth and Gehrig, the organization has never gone very long without boasting at least one player with transcendent talent and personality. Even the crappy Yankees teams of the 1980s had Don Mattingly, one of the coolest and most productive players of the decade. Now, for the first time since '83 -- the season before Donnie Baseball hit .343 to win the AL batting title -- the Yankees lack an icon.

On Tuesday morning, Greg Pokriki at Pinstripe Alley wrote that this season presents a chance for the Yankees to return to normalcy. Pokriki spun it as a positive, saying that the team's tabula rasa might prove liberating for the players and the fans. However, if the team plays like a group of Joe Walshes, a bunch of ordinary average guys, it won't be fun as attendance plummets and the team dwells in the baseball purgatory that exists around .500.

Much to the chagrin of the YES Network, the team doesn't currently have a player who's producing Yankeeography-worthy moments. Sure, the franchise has some nice pieces -- Chase Headley, Tanaka, Ellsbury, Gardner, Betances. The team also has its share of over-the-hill former superstars. But there's really no true icon to carry the pinstriped torch. (Assuming that a pinstriped torch exists somewhere in the world.) This season will probably be one of those rare ones when the team doesn't feature any players that will eventually be enshrined in Monument Park. Even in 2003 and '13, when Jeter was hurt, Mariano Rivera was there as the face of the team.

In the years between Mickey Mantle's farewell in 1968 and Thurman Munson's first good season in '70, the Yankees lacked a true star.* Ditto for the period between Reggie Jackson's departure in '81 and Mattingly's breakout in '84. And now, 2015 will most likely be one of those seasons. The only question is how long of an icon-less dry spell we've entered.

*During those mini-eras, the Mets happily stole the New York spotlight. The same thing might be happening right now.

Traditionally, even the wealthy Yankees have drafted and developed most of their true legends. Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, and others have transformed the Yankees farm system from a laughingstock that would incur Nelson Muntz's scorn into a more respectable outfit. Let's hope that at least one of those youngsters will soon begin a long run of success in the big leagues. Otherwise, Yankees fans will have little to look forward to other than retired number ceremonies and memories about past New York legends. Until that next star arrives, this team won't really feel like the Yankees. On the bright side, at least there should be plenty of tickets floating around.

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