With the NHL playoffs getting juicy and the NBA playoffs set to start any day now, there’s no shame in being a sports fan who has yet to pay attention to baseball this year. Nothing in sports embodies the "it’s a marathon, not a sprint" mantra more than an MLB season (on second thought, I suppose actual marathons do), so even if you are the type of fan who has the patience to get into baseball, missing the first six weeks of games after Opening Day typically doesn’t feel like a big deal. If you are someone who has followed this MLB season since early April, though, you’ve likely noticed two surprising developments:
1. The Yankees are one of the best teams in the majors.
I know this isn’t surprising in the general sense, given that the Yankees are the most storied franchise in sports. But this specific Yankees team was supposed to be in the middle of a rebuild, and many fans entered the season hoping to simply make the wild-card game, or at least somehow ruin the Red Sox’s title chances. Instead, the Yankees are 21–11, have the best run differential (plus-55) in the bigs, and lead the American League in home runs, OPS, GRAX, BABIP, BOPIT, wRC+, wOBA, and wNNNBC. (Full disclosure: I made a few of those up and have no idea what half of the others mean.)
Naturally, this has led to the Yankees yet again becoming a media darling that people can’t stop talking about. Shoot, even I’m getting sucked into the vortex. This article was supposed to be an in-depth look at the correlation between the Celtics’ success and head coach Brad Stevens’s decision to wear a tie during games, but I started typing and words about the Yankees just appeared on my screen. I know. All of this Yankees talk is disgusting. But it leads me to the second surprising story line of the 2017 MLB season.
2. The Yankees are — and I promise it hurts me to write this as much as it will hurt you to read it — actually kinda likable.
No, really. I didn’t want to believe it either, but it’s true. Thankfully, the Steinbrenner family still has a hard-on about New York’s players being clean cut, so we’ll always have that archaic and pompous bullshit for our Yankees hatred to latch on to. But think about what has traditionally been the makeup of the most hateable Yankees teams. They’re usually full of two types of guys: the huge names who are chasing a ring and/or the assload of cash that the franchise offered just because it can, and the players whose success is super annoying because, even though you can’t put your finger on the reason, it’s so obvious that they aren’t actually that good. For the most part, those conditions don’t exist with this Yankees team, and while there are certainly exceptions (CC Sabathia fits the former description; Brett Gardner fits the latter), this group is mostly just young, talented guys who mash the shit out of the ball and seem to have a blast doing it.
Leading the way for the Yankees has been rookie outfielder Aaron Judge, who is the result of a create-a-player experiment on MLB: The Show gone perfectly right, as well as the response to people who wonder what it would be like if LeBron James played baseball. He’s a savior to fans who miss the era of Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds, when home runs were routinely launched into orbit, and I almost can’t believe how perfect Judge’s story is. He’s built like a thoroughbred; he has a signature gap-toothed smile; he wears no. 99; he absolutely demolishes the ball; he’s a mild-mannered guy; his last name lends itself to countless puns; and, of course, he plays for the goddamn Yankees. It’s like he was handcrafted by the baseball gods and sent to New York to save a sport that’s lacking in star power. I know most of America will probably end up hating the guy because that’s how this stuff works, but for now Judge is a ton of fun and has earned every bit of coverage he’s gotten.
While Judge is dominating the headlines and highlight reels, though, another Yankee also has been playing at an absurd level and making it nearly impossible to cheer against him. That man’s name is Starlin Castro, and I have no problem admitting that my heart will always belong to him.
If you don’t know anything about Castro, allow this lifelong Cubs fan to get you up to speed. He made his major league debut for Chicago as a 20-year-old shortstop in 2010, hit a home run in his first at-bat, and set the MLB record for RBIs (six) in a player’s initial game. In his first full season in the majors in 2011, he became the youngest Cub ever to make an All-Star team and the youngest player ever to lead the National League in hits (207), and Sports Illustrated put him on its cover and anointed him a "phenom." We Cubs fans went full-steam ahead on the Castro hype train, and with good reason. For a fan base that had to endure can’t-miss prospects like Corey Patterson and Félix Pié transforming into underwhelming pros, the notion of a highly touted guy like Castro living up to expectations at such a young age was all the proof necessary that maybe God didn’t hate the Cubs after all.
But as the years went by, a few problems emerged. To begin with, the Cubs were total garbage in the early 2010s, awful even by their own historically tortured standards. They lost at least 85 games in each of Castro’s first five seasons in Chicago, a streak that the franchise had previously matched only once, from 1947 to 1951. As tempting as it was for us Cubs fans to lose our minds over Castro’s potential, it was impossible to ignore the team’s cellar-dwelling reality. He seemed resigned to a fate of accumulating production in vain, just like most Cubs legends before him, from Billy Williams and Ernie Banks to Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins.
The more acute problem with Castro, though, was that his brilliance at the plate was often overshadowed by, well, basically everything he did outside of the batter’s box. In Chicago he was as carefree a baseball player as you’ll find, and when he was doing well, things like mimicking Kris Bryant’s throw to first base, wearing a bucket on his head to celebrate a walk-off hit, trying to catch a bird with his glove, getting the crowd going with his walk-up music, and providing the world with an all-time classic GIF endeared him to fans as the most likable player on the Cubs roster. But when he was doing poorly that carefree attitude manifested itself as Castro not paying attention as a pitch was delivered, not knowing how many outs there were, allowing an extra run to score by sulking after an error, forgetting about runners being able to tag up, committing three errors in one inning, and all sorts of other easily avoidable gaffes. In the latter situations, Castro’s approach to the game became grating.
Eventually, the Cubs became loaded with middle infield prospects, the frustration surrounding Castro eclipsed his production, and Chicago traded him to the Yankees for pitcher Adam Warren and utility infielder Brendan Ryan in December 2015. Castro left town having recorded almost 1,000 hits in just six seasons; he also committed a whopping 144 errors during his tenure with the team. Although he was one of the most polarizing Cubs of all time, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Chicago fan who doesn’t have some sympathy for him, given that he was the foundation of the franchise for a handful of years and then was shipped off just before the Cubs won their first World Series since 1908. Castro, meanwhile, landed on a Yankees squad that went 84–78 in 2016, finishing in fourth place in the AL East.
That goes a long way toward explaining why Castro got such a warm welcome when he returned to Wrigley Field last weekend (that, and this piece he penned in The Players’ Tribune a month after news of his trade broke). And while I know what I’m about to write will make absolutely no sense because the Cubs literally did win the World Series without Castro, I still feel like the point needs to be made that the Cubs couldn’t have won the World Series without him. He was the lone bright spot in one of the darkest eras in franchise history, marred by Alfonso Soriano being paid $19 million to hit .244 in 2011, the team posting a 101-loss season in 2012, and Welington Castillo and Travis Wood leading Chicago in WAR in 2013. Castro played in 323 out of the 324 games that Dale Sveum managed the Cubs, for God’s sake. (That’s bad enough on its own, but even worse when you remember that Sveum haaaaated Castro.) Sure, he didn’t directly contribute to Chicago’s 2016 success, but he gave Cubs fans a reason to keep giving a damn during the preceding stretch when the circumstances surrounding the team otherwise offered every reason not to. That’s something I’ll never forget.
A year and a half after Castro was traded away from Chicago before he could enjoy the fruits of his labor, he’s again playing a prominent role in a high-profile rebuilding project that’s on the cusp of something great. And wouldn’t you know it — the Yankees are also stocked with promising young talent in the middle of their infield, and they boast one of the top prospects in baseball in 20-year-old Gleyber Torres. Unlike his final year in Chicago, though, Castro has evolved into an indispensable piece for the Yankees. He still has the jovial and carefree personality that characterized his time with the Cubs, and he’s still pretty suspect with his glove, too. But he’s added an element of power to his game (he hit a career-high 21 homers in 2016 and already has six this year), and he currently leads the AL in hits (46) while carrying a .351 average through 32 games this season. I gotta say, that warms my heart like you wouldn’t believe.
I don’t love that my life has led me to this point, yet here I am cheering on the Yankees, partly because it’s fun to see Judge destroying the world, but mostly because it’s comforting to see an old friend doing well for himself. I’ll always think of Castro as a Cub, although there’s definitely something peaceful about watching him wear another uniform, probably because I can still celebrate his successes, only now I don’t have to fear my soul getting sucked out of my body when he botches a routine grounder or is caught daydreaming as the ball is put in play. At any rate, I hope Castro gets his opportunity to shine on the October stage that eluded him in Chicago. Then again, I also hope that the Cubs kick his ass when he gets there.