My favorite part of clinching celebrations during the Yankees dynasty years was waiting for the first player amid the flowing champagne to offer a “No one believed in us.”
That would allow me to retort, “Yep, no one believed in the team with the highest payroll, most stars and all this championship history.”
I get that it has become embedded in the modern sports lexicon to play this card no matter the size of the overdog saying it. All winners are going to talk about overcoming adversity like they climbed the Matterhorn in flip-flops while ignoring that every team in every sport and, thus, every playoff team and champion has to overcome the injury, underperformance and internal strifes endemic to a season.
I am only pointing this out because I think the Yankees of Gerrit Cole, Aaron Judge and a $300 million-plus payroll are about to try to play the “us versus the naysayers” mantra. To this, Marcus Stroman, whose two-year. $37 million deal with the Yankees became official Wednesday, is ideal. Because when it comes to chips on the shoulder and voicing the “no one believed in me” script, there is no one quite like this first-round draft pick out of Duke.
Let that be repeated: A first-round draft pick out of Duke playing the no one believed in me card as if they were a 37th-round pick out of Colby (Kansas) Community College. Love it.
Anyway, I actually think that the Yankees’ worst season in three decades has the organization feeling aggrieved and picked on. When their GM is publicly calling just about every criticism of his team and his administration bull(bleep), it speaks to Brian Cashman’s feistiness and also to a franchise that has done so well for so long not exactly knowing how to absorb these body blows.
It also led to the Yankees going to their safe space this offseason: paying what they must in prospects (Juan Soto) or dollars (Yoshinobu Yamamoto) to collect stars. Except Yamamoto did not take their money, which ultimately can buy a lot but can’t change geography when the pitcher preferred the West Coast (Dodgers).
The Yankees did not like the starting pitching prices elsewhere enough to budge, notably on Blake Snell or in trade for Dylan Cease. So they turned to Stroman, who somewhere within scrubbing a quarrelsome social media history and having dinner in Tampa with Aaron Boone and partaking in a couple of phone calls with other influential Yankees personnel convinced club decision-makers that he could be trusted to keep the focus on winning and his performance.
To that, perhaps, Stroman could offer no one believed in him — at least no one outside the employ of the Yankees, who over the years have talked themselves into (among others) A.J. Burnett and Joey Gallo and Josh Donaldson and Carlos Rodon, when there was an awful lot of evidence that it was a bad idea.
But, again, I think this is the tenor of the coming Yankee season. A bunch of players were shocked out of a comfort zone by the reaction to their and/or the team’s poor 2023 performance. So you might notice how much leaner, for example, Rodon and Giancarlo Stanton are if those are not tinkered with social media pictures. You could see the swelling number of Yankees already in the Tampa facility working out around captain Aaron Judge.
Like adversity, every club can offer up a version of this. After all, we are just a few weeks away from a 30-site chorus of everyone’s players being in the best shape of their lives and/or well ahead of schedule returning from injury. The difference for the Yankees is that the people saying this are generally more talented than their contemporaries.
You can say a lot about Stroman and Rodon, for example, but not that they lack high-end talent. Stroman was an All-Star in 2023, Rodon in 2022. You don’t need a shovel to dig through ancient history to find when they were last special.
And if the underdog spirit motivates them or other Yankees to quiet the outside noise, far be it for the organization to point out the inanity of it all. Hell, if the 1998 Yankees could find a way to say no one believed in them …
It is just that we are still in the New Year’s resolution part of this when everyone is pledging best behavior and dedicated focus to winning and physical preparedness. But the long season is truth serum. And it is hard to reverse:
• Once a career turns for the worst.
• Once things begin to go badly in New York.
• Once you prove injury prone.
• Once you show you are the kind of bad actor who, say, disrespects a coach on the mound or leads the league in being easily triggered on social media.
And the Yanks have many players who check at least one of these boxes. Can they find the underdog spirit (and talent) to being lifted against the naysayers? The Little $300 Million Engine That Could seems poised to try.