By Tyler Kepner
David Ross has won the World Series twice since the last time the New York Yankees got there, in 2009. Both his championship teams were big spenders in big markets — first the Boston Red Sox and then the Chicago Cubs. But he never thought either team would always contend.
“I’ve been around baseball long enough to know there’s never any ‘always,’” Ross, a former catcher who now manages the Cubs, said Saturday. “I don’t think that’s a thing. Every year is unique, and there can be a lot of adversity. It’s hard to sustain success.”
It is hard, but not impossible: Look at the Yankees, rolling along as an amplified version of the team they have been for three decades.
For now they have the best record in the majors, 44-16 after Sunday’s 18-4 thrashing of the Cubs at Yankee Stadium. Only four times has the franchise raced to a better start through 60 games: with Babe Ruth in 1928, Joe DiMaggio in 1939, Mickey Mantle in 1953 and Derek Jeter in 1998.
All of those teams won the World Series, and matching that feat will be the only standard of success in 2022. That’s life in pinstripes.
“We’ve got a lot of guys in here, really, we haven’t done much of anything,” said outfielder Aaron Judge, after slugging two of the Yankees’ six homers on Saturday. “We’ve got Rizzo, Chappy, a couple of other guys with some World Series rings — but this team, collectively, we haven’t done much.”
Anthony Rizzo and Aroldis Chapman won their rings with the Cubs in 2016, when Ross — in his 15th and final season — rode off the field on his teammates’ shoulders after Game 7 in Cleveland. The Cubs were stocked in young talent and flush with cash, with a savvy front office and their own television network on the way. Didn’t it feel like the start of a long run of perpetual contention?
“I would have said yes, and then all of a sudden at the deadline last year they got rid of all of the guys that we all feared, that we all thought were a big part of what they were doing,” said the Yankees’ Matt Carpenter, a longtime St. Louis Cardinal who homered twice and drove in seven runs on Sunday against his old National League Central rival.
“It’s a testament to how hard it is to be consistently good. That’s why it’s really remarkable here — I know they haven’t won it since ’09, but they have been really good for a long time. Same thing in St. Louis: They haven’t won it since 2011, but they’ve been really good since then. There’s something to be said about teams that constantly give themselves a chance to be there.”
The Cardinals, who lead the NL Central, are pursuing their 15th consecutive winning season. The Los Angeles Dodgers are a safe bet to push their streak to 12. The Yankees? This would be their 30th winning season in a row. And with the standards for a playoff spot getting ever lower — six teams per league will make it this season — a winning record may be all it takes to reach the October tournament.
“When I was over there in my first time around, we had a couple bad seasons but we weren’t a bad team,” said Cubs reliever David Robertson, who played nine seasons with the Yankees between 2008 and 2018. “Now with the expanded playoffs, this team, they’re going to be in it, I would say, every year.”
Robertson, a 37-year-old right-hander, is having another casually dominant season, hard to hit with lots of strikeouts. Last year he pitched for an amateur men’s team before winding up in the playoffs with Tampa Bay; this past winter, home in Rhode Island during the lockout, he kept in shape by whipping unsuspecting locals in tennis before signing with the Cubs. He’ll make a nice trade piece soon.
The Cubs, at 23-36, are full of such placeholders, a roster of mobile trailers keeping up day-to-day operations at a construction site. After a close loss on Friday, they were thoroughly overmatched: the Yankees bludgeoned their pitchers with homers, waited them out for walks, and punished them Sunday after a dropped infield pop-up with runners on second and third.
This kept with tradition; the Cubs have still never won in the Bronx, dropping all 12 matchups, including four World Series games in the 1930s. It also reflected the mantra of the current Yankees, who know how good they are and seem desperate to prove it every day, a rare mix of ego and drive that defines the very best teams.
“I would say we’re very complete with our wins, whereas some of the teams in the past, if we didn’t hit homers, sometimes we didn’t come out with wins,” outfielder and designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton said. “But we’re finding all different types of ways to beat teams. If you give us an extra out, we’re capitalizing on it and just being tough on the opponent, trying to sweep everybody. You’re not going to get everybody, but that’s the mindset.”
On Saturday, Stanton hammered a curveball off the facing of the low-hanging second deck in left; it bounded back over the lower seats and landed on the field. It was the hardest-hit homer in the majors this season, at 119.8 mph off the bat, and the poor Cubs pitcher, a rookie right-hander named Matt Swarmer, ducked and turned — eyes wide, mouth agape — as it sizzled overhead. Nobody hits a ball quite like Stanton.
“You’re weird,” manager Aaron Boone told him in the dugout. It was high praise.
The Yankees are thriving in every area; they have scored the most runs in the American League and allowed the fewest in the majors. Their payroll, around $247 million, ranks third overall behind the New York Mets and the Dodgers. They sustain a star-driven business strategy with imports like Stanton and star starter Gerrit Cole, but develop from within and hunt for bargains (Néstor Cortes, Clay Holmes, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, José Trevino) like everyone else.
The pieces fit especially well this season, maybe well enough to deliver that elusive 28th championship; the next couple of weeks, against Tampa Bay, Toronto and Houston, will be a better barometer of the Yankees’ chances.
In any case, the rest of the schedule is really just a long — but fun — warm-up for the postseason. As the Cubs and others ride the waves of contending and rebuilding, the Yankees are doing what they always do. They are just doing it better than they have in a long time.