Thoughts on the Yankees as “the pinnacle of Major League Baseball”

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As I noted in the recaps, last night, after hitting a big homer in a New York win, a very happy and enthusiastic Mark Teixeira said this about playing for the Yankees: “the Yankees are the whole package. I mean once you play for the Yankees, you’ve kind of reached the pinnacle of Major League Baseball.”

Mark Teixeira plays for the Yankees and he was happy and they won so of course he’s going to say nice things about his team. But those specific things aren’t about the moment or even the current roster. That’s not akin to the usual “we got a great bunch of guys in this clubhouse” stuff you often here from a team on a roll. No, they’re a statement about the status of the Yankees as a franchise over time and maybe for all time.

And, of course, they’re not new or really controversial words. I know non-Yankees fans sometimes tire of hearing about Yankees Exceptionalism, but facts are facts. They have more championships than anyone. They have more money and are the most valuable franchise. They are, by any measure that matters, the marquee franchise in Major League Baseball now and throughout history. If you go to another country, even one where baseball is not played, it would not be unusual to see a Yankees cap on someone’s head. It’s a team but it’s also a symbol that, with no disrespect to any other team, stands apart. And above.

But I’m still taken with a player actually saying that in a postgame interview. Or any of us ever saying that kind of thing at all outside of the sort of analysis in which I just engaged in in the previous paragraph. It may be true when we think about such things, but why is it so often said when we don’t think about such things? Why are there casual, and not just analytical or intellectual references to the Yankees as the class of baseball and its championship history and its excellence and all of that? This happens frequently, even if we’re not trying to actively contextualize the Yankees in the universe. What fascinates me is not the Yankees-as-the-pinnacle as a matter of fact (they are). But Yankees-as-the-pinnacle as a part of their brand. And how that truly came to be.

People often said such things, casually, about the Yankees until the mid-60s because, my God, the Yankees won all the time. Their seemingly god-given status as the pinnacle of baseball was the central conceit of a Broadway musical in which it literally took a deal with the devil to knock them off their perch.

But from the mid-60s until the late 90s, people didn’t really talk about the Yankees in that way. They understood the history, but it wasn’t sacred. There wasn’t some sense that the Yankees were the pinnacle of anything, really, even when they won four pennants in six years. The Yankees were thought of as a crumbled dynasty for a time, and then a zoo or a madhouse, even if they won. By the early 90s, thanks to a lot of brand-sullying by George Steinbrenner, they were just any old team, not more special or different than the others, their history notwithstanding. Yankee Stadium wasn’t talked about as sacred ground. They renovated the place in a pretty non-sacred manner in the 70s, actually, even if people later pretended that it was still the venerable old ballpark. The upshot: the Yankees had a wonderful history and could still win sometimes, but they were just a team.

Then the 90s happened. When the Jeter-led Yankees started winning again, there was no guarantee that that 1950s-style-rhetoric — “The Yankees are the pinnacle” —  would come back. And simply winning all of those championships didn’t mean that such talk would last. Mark Teixeira was only around for one of them and almost everyone else is gone. It’s been over six years since they hoisted a flag. But the talk has lasted. Why? Why hasn’t it receded like the talk about the Yankees receded as the 60s became the 70s?

Maybe part of that is because the Yankees have remained competitive, even if they haven’t really threatened to win a pennant let alone a championship in the past six seasons. I think it’s mostly because there was a concerted effort to make historical excellence and an intimate tie in with that old Yankees history part of the New York Yankees brand. George Steinbrenner may have been responsible for sullying the team’s image, but he’s likewise responsible for polishing it back again too.

After a couple of decades of occasional lip service to the idea of the Yankees as the Pinnacle — but without doing much to actually demonstrate it — Steinbrenner really started going all in with the “anything less than a championship is failure” talk after he returned from his suspension in the early 1990s. From there media and marketing folks who like to talk about concepts of dynasties and who like to traffic in nostalgia took the ball he gave them and ran with it. And soon players — taking their cues from the very savvy Derek Jeter — began couching almost all of their comments in those terms. When things are bad, the smart ones talk about “hey, this is New York, this is the Yankees and more is expected of us, we get that.” When things are good you get quotes like Teixeira’s. The notion that the Yankees are the preeminent team in baseball is not just a thing someone says because it’s their team. It’s an immutable fact. And it’s totally and completely part of the brand now. I suspect it will remain so even when the Yankees truly crumble and become a bad team once again as, odds are, they will one day.

None of this should be construed as me saying that it’s illegitimate. They won five championships in that stretch when the branding happened and they have won more championships than anyone overall. They earned the right, with victories and finances, to claim that they are the pinnacle. It’s not phony and I’m not slamming the concept here. But the concept was given a BIG helping hand by the rhetoric George Steinbrenner began using with increasing frequency starting in the 90s. No different, in a lot of ways, than Al Davis and his “Commitment to Excellence” stuff, except the Yankees backed it up and the idea of “championships or bust” never became a punchline or an albatross like the Raiders’ self-applied brand became eventually.

I’m not slamming the concept. I’m not slamming Teixeira. I just find his words and the myth-making and hero-building and story-telling and brand marketing that led into what he said after a win last night totally fascinating.