In the ninth year of its existence, the “new’’ Yankee Stadium is finally offering a new Yankee team.
They made over the ballpark in the off-season, ripped out some bleacher seats and replaced them with “fan-friendly’’ dining and mingling areas, which is nice if you’re not all that into watching the ballgame.
But they also made over the team, shedding some of the bloated contracts and aging bodies that had weighed on this franchise like an anchor over the past few seasons, which is more than nice if what you are really coming for is to see good baseball.
The 2017 Yankees may not be completely new – CC Sabathia still gets the ball every five days, Joe Girardi is entering his 10th season and Brian Cashman has been the GM since Bill Clinton was president.
But at least it feels new, even if two of its brightest young stars, Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird, continue to miss time because of injury and illness, and even if the catalyst of their offense is in fact the senior man in point of service on the team.
Yes, even Brett Gardner, in his 10th year as a Yankee and heading toward his 34th birthday, seems rejuvenated as the 2017 season gets underway, and the effect has not been lost on the so-called Baby Bombers who are being counted on to carry this team into the next generation.
“Our offense runs through Gardy,’’ said Aaron Judge. “When Gardy gets on base, he makes things happen for us.’’
Gardner stole two more bases and scored two more runs in the Yankees 8-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in their home opener on Monday, an opener that was distinguished by several things: the performance of Michael Pineda, who for one day at least seemed to have harnessed the tremendous potential in his right arm, carrying a perfect game into the 7th inning and retiring the first 20 batters he faced; the continued fine early season play of Chase Headley, no youngster himself, who homered and made a couple of terrific plays at third base; the second straight game in which the 6-8 Judge made a baseball disappear into the stands rather than a catcher’s mitt – and the new-found energy in the Yankee Stadium crowd, which for the first Opening Day in years seemed to believe it was watching something fresh and exciting.
“You could feel a different kind of energy from the Stadium today,’’ Judge said. “Yankee fans are hungry. They want a championship as badly as we do. And I think they’re kinda buying into this team that we got, and they’re excited for this team just like we are.’’
Just look at the difference in the starting lineup from a year ago as compared with Monday afternoon: Gone are Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann. In are Judge, and Sanchez – if he weren’t on the DL and expected to miss a month with a brachialis strain – and Bird, who should return soon from his combination of sore foot and sore belly, and Austin Romine and Ronald Torreyes, who looks as if he should be a clubhouse kid but swings as if he has something personal against the baseball.
And even with sending out that no-name lineup – Gardner is not only the elder statesman of the group, but along with Jacoby Ellsbury, probably its most recognizable name – more than 46,000 fans showed up to watch, which put the lie to the belief that today’s generation of casual, well-heeled New York baseball fans will only some out to see the stars, even if they can no longer play.
The real test will come, of course, as the games drag on and the novelty and excitement of Opening Day wears off. But there’s no question that on this Opening Day, there was a freshness about a place that for years now has seemed old before its time.
Whether it’s based in reality or not, there is a real perception that the place has been fumigated, the windows thrown open and a gust of fresh air allowed to blow through the place. The seeds of that perception were planted last spring, when Sanchez was called up at the trade deadline and proceeded to belt 20 home runs in the last two months of the season. Those seeds took root during the spring, when Bird belted eight home runs to lead not only his own team, but everyone else’s, too.
And while the perception may have been shaken over the first five games of this season, when the starting pitching rather predictably faltered, the past two games have given rise to the kind of hopes that have been absent from the Bronx since Derek Jeter busted his ankle in the 12th inning of a playoff game five years ago. When Jeter went down, his team went with him and has yet to get up.
But that may be about to change. There was the come-from-behind win in Baltimore on Sunday, the one that averted a sweep and sent the Yankees into their home opener with their heads up rather than their tails dragging.
And then, there was Monday’s 8-1 win and an encouraging, even transcendent performance by Pineda, who can be either exhilarating or exhausting from one start to the next.
Mostly, there was the feeling that this was not the same tired, old Yankees team you have been watching for the past five years. Even without Sanchez and Bird, probably their two most dangerous home run threats, the Yankees hit three balls out of their hitter-friendly ballpark, the third by Starlin Castro. They hit reasonably well with runners in scoring position – 3-for-11. Guys took the extra base, dived for the baseball, ran from home to first as if they actually meant to get there.
“Yeah, in a way it did feel different today,’’ said Gardner, who now has five stolen bases, a number he did not reach until last May 6. “Over the last 4-5-6 years we’ve had a lot of turnover on our roster, and now we’ve got a great mix of veterans and young guys that are very, very talented. That’s good because this game moves right along. It doesn’t wait for anybody.’’
For too long, it had appeared that the game was passing the Yankees by, that their continued reliance on big names – with big paychecks – was a relic of the past while younger, more athletic teams like the Royals and the Cubs and the Astros and (most disconcertingly) the crosstown Mets zoomed past them.
But not anymore.
“I think we have the ability to both hit for power and create runs on the basepaths,’’ Joe Girardi said. “We’re more athletic this year. So I think you can expect a little bit more aggressiveness out of us.’’
Part of Girardi’s off-season plan was to encourage Gardner – who stole just 16 bases last season – to use his man attribute, his legs, to create runs. Score 100 runs this season, Girardi told him, and we’ll be winners. Through the first seven games of 2017, Gardner has clearly taken Girardi’s advice to heart.
“I’m definitely trying to be more aggressive out there,’’ he said. “The team is better off with me on second or third than on first. I definitely think we can win games in a lot of different ways.’’
That, too, is a change, as is Gardner’s location in the Yankees clubhouse. As befitting his seniority, Gardner now dresses in the prime real estate of the large corner locker, right next to the entrance to the players’ lounge, formerly occupied by Beltran.
“This is the last locker I’ll ever have,’’ he said. “Because after this, there’s only one other place to go and that’s out the door.’’
The way Gardner is playing now, it doesn’t appear he’ll be heading out that door any day soon.