In the words of Bryan Hoch at mlb.com, “Of all the statistics the Yankees could compile in their remaining 32 games, wins are the most important, needed as much as oxygen or water at this point.” I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say that this doesn’t make sense. Because there are no statistics for water or oxygen in baseball. But stupid as it is when the guys at mlb.com try to wax poetic, our friend Bryan Hoch had a point—one that could have been expressed more effectively by saying: If the Yankees, want to make it to October, they need to win more games—and lots of them.
What is unique about the Yankees is our capacity to triumph in the face of adversity. People simply don’t talk about the Marlins taking their division the way they talk about the Yanks winning the wild card. Sure, maybe Marlins fans talk about it, but people don’t. And, yet, the two events are equally likely to happen—based on the numbers. If few people talk about the Marlins taking their division, then no people talk about the Rockies winning theirs. And, yet, there’s a better chance of that happening than of the Yanks forging ahead past the Chowdas and the Devils to reign superior over the AL East. But, still, people think they might. True, fewer than the number who believe that they still have a solid shot at the wild card. But enough to where it’s something that even gets discussed. The question is why. The answer is because defying odds is what the Yankees do best.
Yesterday, I briefly discussed the idea of a team’s psychology as reflected through its slogan. This raises an interesting question: Can a team really have a collective psychology? You look at a team like the Mets, who continue to find ways to rise to the top, get within inches of success, and then, just when you think they’re set to nab the prize, they crumble. A coincidence? Maybe. But is it also possible that the players on the Mets have somehow internalized the idea that the Mets are a team that are destined to unravel when it counts? That the notion has become a part of their subconscious identities as players and, consequently, continues to drive their inability to rise up under pressure? Just as it may have been the case that, somewhere, deep within their souls, players for the Red Sox had begun to convince themselves, that maybe, just maybe, they actually were playing for a team that had truly been cursed?
If this is true, then the Yankees, of course, got the best end of this bargain. For they are a team that, time, and time, and time again has proven its worth in the clutch. Has made us feel hopeless up until the last only to produce a late season or late inning miracle to change things around. Want an example? 1978, the Yanks went into July fourteen games behind the Chowdas and came back to win the World Series. Want one that’s more recent? Last year, the Yanks were nine and a half games back in the wild card race. They won fifteen out of twenty games in September in order to clinch it.
The concept I describe is not simple or new. Anticipate failure, you’re going to fail. Anticipate success, you’re bound to succeed. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, call it a cult phenomenon in California that people pay to read a book about even though I just summed up its essence in a sentence. I mean, call it The Secret. Whatever you call it, one can’t help but wonder if a team’s own self-image doesn’t start to play a role in its own ability to perform in pressure situations.
If a team can develop a set of expectations based on its self-image, then this also applies to its fan base. How many times have we heard a sorry Cubs fan bemoaning his fate as a lovable loser? Or a Mets fan utter the words, “They’re going to find a way to blow it. They always do.” Conversely, how often have you been at Yankees Stadium in late innings when the Yanks were down, all hope seemed lost, but noticed that barely a person had left? Yankees fans have a winning mentality. They refuse to believe that the game is over and lost until the game is actually over and lost.
With the Chowdas, you have a slightly more complex fan psychology. There were, of course, the years of losing. The years, and years, and year, and years, and years—well, I’m not going to write it out eighty-six times, but you get it. Like the Mets fans and Cubs fans, the Chowda fans have always had a losing mentality. But never one that was quite so sympathetic. Pathetic? Yes. Sympathetic. Not so much. I think the reason for this is that it was a losing mentality that was accompanied simultaneously by self-pity and grandiosity. They felt bad about all the losing, yet couldn’t help but brag about it every time they happened to win. This inflated sense of self in the face of all that suckiness is part of what made the old Chowdas fans just so intolerable. The problem is, now that the Chowdas actually went and won, they’ve created a monster—namely the new Chowda fan. This fan is grandiose minus the self-pity. This fan is taking years, and years, and years, and years—well, I’m not going to write it out eighty-six times—of failure and trying to compensate for it with his recent bout of success. This is not a winning mentality. It’s what happens to an ego-driven losing mentality when it gets the smallest taste of victory. It’s what happens to Jan Brady when a boy finally agrees to go out with her. Does it make her somehow suddenly prettier and less annoying than Marsha that she finally went and got a date? Obviously not. But she’s a whole lot more likely to go around bragging about it
The Sox recent success, the breaking of the alleged curse, brings us back to the original question—can a team have a collective psychology? If so, how did the Chowdas manage to change theirs? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it’s that the players in this recent generation of Red Sox were too self-involved to be aware of their relationship to the team for which they were playing. Pedro, Manny, Trot Nixon, Curt Schilling, Kevin Youkilis. The analysis fits. Then, of course, there’s Johnny D., who isn’t so much self-involved as not-so-bright. Maybe they were just really good in 2004 and not quite good enough all those years prior and this whole theory of mine is a load of hooey. Who knows?
Either way, the fact remains that people expect things from the Yankees that they don’t expect from other franchises. They believe that, where the Yankees are concerned, anything’s possible. I know I do. And if, indeed, there is such a thing as a collective team psychology, perhaps this past weekend and our sweep of the Orioles was the beginning of yet another miraculous late-season Yankees comeback. Only time will tell. All I know is this: Since the Red Sox aren’t the losers they used to be, we can’t count on them to just lie down and die. We’re going to have to come by our shot in the postseason the honest way. The Yankee way. Smart money says it’s long shot. History says it’s gonna happen. And I sure hope history repeats itself. Because the only things I need more than October baseball are water and oxygen. Though, I could probably go without water a while as long as I had enough juice. But that’s not based on any statistical data. It’s just a guess.