The things the three boys sitting in Section 217 love, in ascending order, are: “Despacito,” novelty spring training caps, Giancarlo Stanton, Dippin’ Dots, Aaron Judge, and All-Rise-ing for each and every Aaron Judge at-bat. They sport somewhere around $500 of Officially Licensed Swag between them, a tidy lineup of the jerseys that represent their sincerest hopes and dreams: Judge, Stanton, and Sánchez. They have come to spring training less to root for them than to observe the opening notes of their coronation. They are 20-somethings and Italian-somethings and they drown out a whole half-section of George M. Steinbrenner Field with three-plus hours of nonstop discussion of a late-March Yankees–Blue Jays game. That discussion’s main points: what was great, and what could have been greater. Their parents sit in silence on either side of them, looking a little nervous each time their buoyant progeny leap up as Judge’s music begins to play.
The 2018 Yankees are exciting, but here, before the eyes of so many Bronx faithful on the cusp of the regular season, excitement is almost beside the point. The team is coming off a rare stretch of what would probably not, for any other franchise, be considered fallow years, but for the Yankees were an aberration and, depending on whom you ask, an abomination: In the four seasons between 2013 and 2016, the Yanks made the playoffs just once, falling in the 2015 AL wild-card game to the Astros. It was a period of most un-Yankee-like mediocrity, a commemorative-cap-less era the likes of which had not been seen since the dark days of the early ’90s.
The Yankees heard those rude things you said about them, those sighs of relief you breathed when you looked over the AL East standings. This season, they’ll have you know, could be the one, just like so very many before it. Last year, the team made it to the ALCS before falling in seven games to Houston; Sports Illustrated, fresh from its Astros prophesying, now has the Bronx Bombers making it to this year’s World Series. To a squad that ranked second in runs and first in home runs in the majors in 2017, the team added Stanton in the offseason, taking over the remainder of the four-time All-Star’s contract from the fire-selling Marlins. He will join catcher phenom Gary Sánchez and, of course, Judge, whose 2017 rookie season saw him put up an eye-popping 52 home runs and produce the kind of fan fervor that as of now is radiating out of Section 217. The three—who together make up nearly half of last year’s Home Run Derby field—will play under first-time manager Aaron Boone, the third in a line of major leaguers and someone who knows, perhaps, a little bit about high expectations.
Inside the Yankees locker room before the game, someone has cued up Puerto Rican singer Ozuna. Players sit around their lockers and nod along, pinstripe pants looped haphazardly over hangers but never—never—left lying on the floor. It is the last home game of spring training, and just outside in the lower tunnel of Steinbrenner Field, a small mountain of Bronx-bound suitcases lies piled. Someone pushes a cart, and a pair of loose baseballs goes tumbling off; boxes of unopened fan mail sit stacked: “TOM KAHNLE, NY YANKEES, ONE STEINBRENNER DRIVE.” A trainer hands a sheet to Aaron Judge—the day’s lineup, maybe, in which he is notably not in the leadoff spot, where rookie manager Aaron Boone had slotted him the day before. At the time, Boone explained the decision to put Judge first in the batting order in part as a ploy to get the headlines over with: “Obviously it’s a story today,” he told reporters, “so I want to at least get that part out of the way.” Judge gives the page a quick read, flicking its edges to the beat of “Síguelo Bailando.”
The general consensus is that people are ready to get the hell out of Florida. Spring training is long, and Saturday’s game came five and a half weeks after pitchers and catchers first reported to Tampa and a full month after the team’s first springtime game. The Yankees, like many other teams, staff their spring training facilities with a motley crew of retirees, some of whom, now just hours from the resumption of 7 a.m. Jazzercise, are none too subtle about their eagerness to return to the great silver masses of the post-employed. One man, for whom the word “octogenarian” is maybe more than a little generous, responds to a question about the Bronx Bombers’ final home spring outing with an emphatic “thank God!,” adding, as elevator doors shut in his beaming, violently tanned face, “I’ve had enough!”
Tampa is the sort of place where you might find yourself drawn, moth-like, to the highway-side neon of someplace called Bahama Breeze, which traffics in Frozen Bahamaritas® that arrive with a plastic shot of Cactus Juice Schnapps adhered to the side like a parasitic twin and is the sort of institution where someone attempting to leave through an emergency exit and instead setting off the fire alarm is an occasion for restaurant-wide applause. It is also the sort of place where, the following morning, you might find yourself contemplating the possible repercussions of throwing up on Stanton, 2016’s Home Run Derby king. This, at least, turned out to be for naught: Stanton signs a baseball someone offers him and then treads away, closing out his first chapter of springtime home media availability.
Just how many taters will be mashed this coming summer and fall in New York? For most teams, that might be a moot concern, or at least a deeply secondary one. But with the Yankees, or maybe just with these Yankees, it’s come to feel every bit as vital as wins and losses.
Spring training games don’t really matter. When the Pirates and Phillies reached the end of the ninth inning of their final spring game tied at 5–5 on Tuesday in Clearwater, the players simply turned for the dugouts, Pittsburgh skipper Clint Hurdle waving farewell to his Philadelphia counterpart. And yet the games do have a way of taking on meaning: When Judge homered in the Yanks’ first game at Steinbrenner Field this spring, it felt like confirmation that all that hype last year, those months of frenzy over baseball’s biggest boy and the fans buying robes and the team building an actual Judge’s Chambers section at Yankee Stadium—all of it was reasonable. Maybe underselling him, really. In 2018, Judge would be the player who clubbed 47 home runs in last summer’s Home Run Derby and not the guy who went .228/.391/.548 in the second half of 2017. It is written.
The truth is almost certainly somewhere in between, of course. Maybe more the latter than the former, when you consider how little evidence there was to suggest an impending dingersplosion for the then-24-year-old rookie before last spring. But Yankees fans, like the team they follow, are given to extremes, and if Judge’s 2018 is anything short of meteoric, there are not a few people who will write it off as an abject failure. To wit, one of Section 217’s large adult sons muttering during a Judge at-bat under his breath, which is to say very loudly: “Maybe do well in August this time.”
You can feel Boone bracing for a backlash even now, trying to get as many of those first storm clouds of fan panic out of the way in Tampa as he could. After the final home game, which saw the Yankees take down Toronto, 13–6, Boone talked to reporters in his compact springtime office about first baseman Greg Bird, who was scratched earlier that day with what turned out to be a reaggravation of an ankle injury that would require surgery. “It’s sports,” he said, “and that’s why you have depth.”
Judge, at least, will not be alone, wherever he falls in the batting order: In the fifth inning of his last Steinbrenner Field start, he notched a single that was promptly followed by a Stanton home run, a two-man sequence that you could feel those in attendance getting ready to expect to stay on their feet for. Judge is not the only one facing high expectations. The Judge-Stanton-Sánchez jersey triptych is replicated throughout the stadium, both on the backs of those who remember the bad times—13 straight seasons without a single visit to the playoffs, a gloriless desert in which fans could barely gasp “talk to the rings”—and those for whom it is, at most, the faintest childhood memory.
Boone, then a 30-year-old infielder, arrived in the Bronx in 2003, after order had been restored: That year, the Yankees were coming off eight consecutive playoff appearances. After a midseason trade from the Cincinnati Reds, his brightest moment in pinstripes came that October, when he hit an 11th-inning walk-off home run in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Red Sox. The lows would soon follow: Three months later, he tore his ACL playing in a verboten pickup basketball game; the Yankees released him shortly thereafter.
“I feel like I’ve been asked a lot over the last few days, ‘Are you ready to get out of here? Are you ready to break camp?’” Boone said. But now his 25-man roster was set, more or less, his suitcase somewhere in the heap outside, his players ready to trade in the elaborate Florida bunting for the real thing up north.
Boone allowed himself a chuckle: “I’m officially looking forward to it now.”