I know this might sound corny to say with the Yankees currently enjoying a comfortable lead, but I've got to say it anyhow: I really like the 2004 Bronx Bombers. I appreciate their professionalism, and enjoying watching them play, warts and all. Regardless of what shakes down later this season--whether they make it back to the fall classic or lose in the first round of the playoffs--I think this is my favorite Yankee team since the 1999-2000 versions.
They've got appealing new stars like Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown and Flash Gordon, as well as reliable role-players like Paul Quantrill, Miguel Cairo, Tony Clark, Jon Lieber, Ruben Sierra and John Olerud. I can find something to like about almost all of them (the only guys I'm not wild about are Enrique Wilson, and Felix Heredia). As far as I can tell they all fit in well in New York. I thought that Kenny Lofton could turn into another Raul Mondesi, but after some standard complaining to reporters early in the year, he's been a model citizen.
I realize that the Yankees have their flaws: the pitching isn't dominant, the middle-relief is suspect, the defense isn't especially good, but really, I haven't spent nearly as much time worrying about them as I did during the past two seasons. (The Yankees have problems that every other team would just love to have too, right?) I understand that there is no way to quantify terms like "character" and "chemistry," and I don't know how much they contribute to a team winning or losing games. My sense is that mainstream writers tend to overrate these qualities while many sabermetricians discount them too readily.
However, the Yankees seem to have a lot of character this season. And you do have to be a certain kind of player to thrive in New York (or Boston or even Philly). There is so much pressure to win the World Series in the Bronx that I can see how it would overwhelm some players. Perhaps guys like Jeff Weaver and Rondell White weren't the ideal fit for this team. The 96-01 Yankees were populated by type-A personalities. I believe that guys like Sheffield, Gordon and Brown have embraced playing for the Yanks. They buy into the Jeter-Mariano-Torre concept. One thing that many of the Yankees' new players have in common is that they are competitive dudes. (When was the last time you saw Sheffield, Matsui, Jeter, or Rodriguez loaf it down to first?)
While there are some Yankee fans who will call the season a failure if they don't win it all, I don't get the sense of "joylessness" that Mike Lupica carped about last season. Maybe that exists for the working press when you cover the team. I know that it can infest your mentality just rooting for them. But it doesn't have to.
I take the win-at-all-costs-or-else!-attititude as a given being a Yankee fan. It used it bother me, but now I don't fight it anylonger. It's the way it is, and quite frankly, it has always been that way since I've followed the team (with a few years off in the late 80s and early 90s). If the Yankees have a curse to call their own it is the curse of their own grand expectations. The owner may consider the season a failure should they not win a title and that is his right. Derek Jeter may echo those sentiments and that's fine. I like having an owner who wants to win--it would be nice if he had some grace, but screw it, you can't have everything--and I also like hearing that kind of talk from the teams' star player.
But for me, the win-or-bust mentality can only go so far. I've adopted it to a certain extent because it is the teams' reality, but will the season be lost or a disaster for me if they don't win it all? Hardly. My biggest wish for the Yankees--or any team I root for--is for them to be a tough out. As long as they go down fighting, or get beaten fair-and-square, I'm fine with that. When they beat themselves--1981 World Serious, 1995 playoffs--that is is tough to stomach. I don't know if the Yankees ability to come-from-behind this year will run-out before October of if will continue to define them throughout the playoffs. I just know that they've been enormously entertaining so far and I wanted to let you know how much I've appreciated watching and writing about them all summer.
I know it is early for this kind of talk, but who would your MVP (s) be for the 2004 Yanks? I'd say that Rivera and Gordon have been the best pitchers, and Sheffield and Matsui have been the best everyday players.