It has been a grueling season on and off the field for the New York Yankees since losing a five-game American League Division Series last October to the Tampa Bay Rays.
They’ve survived COVID, numerous injuries, 35 blown saves—including one in last week’s Field of Dreams Game—and 10 losses in 16 games to the archrival Boston Red Sox after dropping the first seven in a row.
Yet, optimism abounds, because the Yanks are making a charge at first place in the AL East and are right there for one of the league’s two Wild Card spots with a little more than six weeks remaining in the regular season.
The Yankees are a big-league best 43-23 in one-run games and 14-4 so far during the month of August, including a three-game sweep in the last two days over the sagging Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.
“It’s a team that has a lot of heart, playing with a lot of confidence,” beleaguered manager Aaron Boone said after the Yankees passed Boston into second place in the midst of a six-game winning streak. “But we have a long way to go.”
The good news continued for the Yanks this week, as pitchers Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery, catcher Gary Sanchez and first baseman Anthony Rizzo came off the COVID list.
While closer Aroldis Chapman was unavailable with a sore left shoulder, Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga saved the three games on Monday and Tuesday. Chapman was reactivated Wednesday but couldn’t close out a 5-2 Yankee victory.
Cole was his old self on Monday in a 2-1 makeup win over Angels, striking out nine in nearly six innings.
“We’ve been missing having that big man toeing the rubber every five days for us,” Aaron Judge said about Cole. “He’s not only our ace, he’s a big part of this clubhouse and this team. To see him go out there and do his thing, I think you can ask every single guy—we missed that.”
It’s only one of the hurdles.
Operationally the Yanks, who are valued by Sportico at an MLB-leading $6.75 billion, probably will lose money again. They weren’t able to play to full capacity at Yankee Stadium until June 18, on account of New York State COVID health restrictions.
The first 32 home games were played mostly in front of about 10,000 fans in a ballpark that seats 49,642. Attendance averaged 21,472 for the first 59 home games, down from 41,827 in 2019, the last time Major League Baseball played to full capacity before COVID. Last year during a 60-game season, the Yanks, and all teams, hosted a 30-game season without fans.
Sportico reported that every MLB team lost money last year, but the Yankees were one of three teams, including the Los Angeles Dodgers and crosstown New York Mets, that lost more than $100 million. The Yankees lost $300 million in stadium revenue based on lack of ticket, concession and merchandise sales at the usual 81 home games.
During negotiations with the MLB Players Association last year for a shortened season, owners claimed that MLB stood to lose $640,000 a game, including pro-rated player salaries, to play in empty stadiums.
In the end, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told Sportico that the league suffered about $3 billion in operational losses and had to accrue $8.3 billion in debt just to get through the abbreviated season.
The players wound up losing 67% of their salaries last year, so the pain was spread around.
This year, though players are earning their full 162-game contracts and fans are now back at full capacity, there are still revenue issues. The Yankees, like other teams, must make good on season tickets that were paid in full last year and carried over to this season. The same is true for tickets that couldn’t be used for this season’s first 32 Yankee home games.
If health and safety restrictions remain stable, that might not all equalize until the 2023 season.
The two sides are now in collective bargaining for a new Basic Agreement. The current one expires Dec. 1, and although Manfred has tried to play down the prospect, there’s still the possibility of an owner lockout, although spring training schedules for 2022 were announced Wednesday. There’s no purpose in the players striking because they don’t get paid during the off-season. Their remuneration commences with Opening Day and ends on the final day of the regular season.
Despite reaching 85% herd immunity very early this season as players were vaccinated, Yanks players and staff have been affected by the coronavirus more than any other AL team. The Yanks were administered the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine after the first wave hit them.
It has prevented players from getting deathly sick, said one member of the organization, but it hasn’t prevented several of them from testing positive.
Most notably, Rizzo, obtained from the Cubs at the July 30 trade deadline, tested positive in the last wave after a very solid first week with the team. A Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor at 18, he had declined to take the vaccination when he was still in Chicago.
“For me, it’s just one of those things,” Rizzo said. “I’m definitely not against getting it. It’s just taking more time to see the data on all of it. There’s definitely personal reasons, as well, but it’s just one of those things where as we continue to get more data, I’ll continue to be more educated on it.”
With a second-in-MLB $203.8 million payroll, way behind the Dodgers at $267.6 million, the Yankees are deep. When Rizzo went out because of the coronavirus, Luke Voit (knee) came off the IL just in time to replace him at first base.
The competitive balance tax threshold this season is $210 million.
The Yanks are playing their best ball of the season just as the Red Sox are fading. Boston had a 4 1/2 game lead in the AL East as late as July 5 but are 15-21 since then.
The Yankees were as far as nine games out on July 25 before stepping it up in August.
They haven’t flown a World Series or AL pennant flag above the ballpark in the Bronx since winning it all in 2009. Optimism is high because the current edition of the club is still giving them an outside chance to do so with 41 games to go.
Boone’s contract expires then, though in July he already received the dreaded vote of confidence from Yankees principal owner Hal Steinbrenner.
Steinbrenner said at the time he was angry and frustrated with the club’s sporadic play. “But that’s not going to push me to a knee-jerk reaction to get rid of somebody,” he added.
Still, Boone’s future with the club may hang in the balance.
“We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas and continue to grind away,” said Boone, finishing his fourth season. “It’s still going to be a tough road ahead.”