Yankees have to turn this special season into a championship


The Rangers shockingly reached the 1979 Stanley Cup Final and more stunningly won Game 1 against the three-time defending champion Canadiens, then took a 2-0 lead in Game 2. From that point forward, Montreal dominated, winning Game 2 and never losing again.

I thought of that Saturday night, in a bar with a few friends watching the end of the 2021-22 Rangers season. They won the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final against the two-time defending champion Lightning and took a 2-0 lead in Game 3. From that point forward, Tampa Bay just dominated the series regardless of proximity of scores, winning Game 3 and never losing again.

I knew inevitably what was coming and, sure enough, as the game concluded, someone in my group mentioned the youth of the team. That they would be back. And I told them about the 15-year-old me watching some postgame coverage after the 1979 Rangers were eliminated and an interviewer offering the same sentiment to their 23-year-old captain, Dave Maloney. He made it clear no one promises tomorrow. He bemoaned the lost opportunity in the moment, saying, “Who knows when we’re going to get here again?”

The Rangers would not return to the Cup Final for 15 years.

And if you are wondering why the longtime baseball columnist of this paper has used a few paragraphs on hockey, it is because Maloney’s words have stuck with me; have always resonated when a team is eliminated and I hear someone raise the possibility of tomorrow. I remember it well in 2017 when the Yankees, in a bit of a rebuild for them, somehow got all the way to ALCS Game 7. Of course, history is a bit smudged because the Houston team that beat the Yankees is now renowned for its sign-stealing scandal. Still, there was a glow around those Yankees — an inevitably that they would eventually attain their title.

Except these days Greg Bird plays first base for the Triple-A Yankees, Gary Sanchez is a catcher/DH with the Twins and Chad Green — such a bullpen revelation that season — recently underwent Tommy John surgery during his walk year. Notably, the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year, Aaron Judge, can be a free agent this coming offseason.

Blink and young becomes less so. Teammates leave. Opportunities flit away.

“Who knows when we’re going to get here again?”

The Yankees celebrate their walk-off win over the Cubs on June 10, 2022.
The Yankees celebrate their walk-off win over the Cubs on June 10, 2022.
Corey Sipkin

Because the Yankees are here. Now. They have the majors’ best record — by five games over the Mets. They are being compared to the best Yankee teams, which essentially means to the best teams of any type ever. There is magic about them. Nestor Cortes Jr. is pitching like an All-Star and Luis Severino, after missing nearly three years, is pitching like Luis Severino, who was the ace of that 2017 team.

Clay Holmes and Jose Trevino, small trades, are performing brilliantly. Matt Carpenter, released from the minors by an under-.500 organization, is channeling Shane Spencer by way of Shelley Duncan. In the time it took you to read that sentence, I think Carpenter hit another homer.

But above it all is Judge, who might hit 60 homers and the free-agent jackpot. And only one of those would definitely be with the Yankees.

Which brings urgency.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet that the Yankees and Judge still end up together. I would suspect they never make it to an arbitration Zoom a week from Wednesday. Judge has asked for $21 million, the Yankees have countered at $17 million. How about settle at $19 million, with a $1 million bonus if Judge makes the All-Star team — which of course he will — and another $1 million if he wins the MVP, for which he currently is the AL frontrunner. Perhaps that stimulates stealth long-term negotiations. Because it is best for both parties to find a way back to each other long term.

I was at the Tribeca Film Festival debut of “The Captain” on Sunday. Derek Jeter probably does not get a documentary about his life if he is not a career-long Yankee — since, among other things, the head of ESPN and the director of the film are both lifelong Yankee fans. More importantly, Jeter converted opportunities into five championships as a Yankee, four at the onset of his career, one in the glorious 1998 season when they were 46-14 after 60 games, barely better than than 44-16 of the current group.

For Judge to one day get the full Jeter treatment, he likely has to stay a Yankee the whole way. But he also has to be the face of a champion. And, “Who knows when we’re going to get here again?”

Aaron Judge celebrates a home run.
Aaron Judge
Corey Sipkin

In the here: the Yankees have concluded the junior pageant portion of their schedule as a powerhouse should: overwhelmingly. Beginning Tuesday against Tampa Bay, the Yankees play 46 of their final 102 games (45 percent) against the Rays, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Astros — the next four best teams in the AL and three that have ousted the Yankees from the postseason since 2017. So even with an 8 1/2 game AL East lead, there is a long way from here to The Canyon of Heroes — the 2015 Yankees led the division by seven games and finished second by six.

This group is much better than the 2015 Yankees, probably the 2017 version too. But are they the 1998 Yankees? They’ve got a shot. You are never promised the next one. At some point championship caliber must become a championship.

Because, “Who knows when we’re going to get here again?”

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