The Two Sides of the Yankee Syndrome
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this winter that the other teams in the NL East are kind of taking a long-term view right now, because the Cubs are going to be so strong for the next three or four years that there is no point in butting your head against a brick wall. I don’t believe this, to begin with. The Cubs had a year in 2016 when most everything worked for them. They will have a very strong organization in 2017 with a tremendous team on the field, but they are not likely to have another year when most everything works for them. The MORE probable outcome is that some things will NOT work for them—Zobrist may be suddenly old, and Baez may strike out so much that he can’t play, and Bryant or Rizzo could get hurt, and Kyle Hendricks may discover that the ground balls are finding holes, rather than going right to somebody’s glove. My understanding of the nature of baseball is that several things go seriously wrong for every team every year, most of the time.
But anyway, it brings up a general subject. I am always more interested in the underlying question than in the immediate manifestations of the question. There are two sides to this syndrome. There is what could be called the Yankee Syndrome, 1955, and the Yankee Syndrome, 2003.
When the Yankees dominated the American League from 1921 to 1963, in the long run it damaged the league. The other teams, for the most part, gave up on competing with the Yankees. The Red Sox took a run at competing with them in the late 1930s and 1940s, the Indians did in the 1950s, but for the most part, the league just gave up. By the early 1950s there were three horribly weak organizations in an eight-team league—the Senators, A’s, and the St. Louis Browns—and two organizations which had not exactly given up, but were floundering, the Red Sox and the Tigers. The White Sox were trying to get back on their feet, working on it. The race was between the Indians and the Yankees, and the Yankees were usually four games better.
The American League fell far behind the National League in the overall strength of the league, in large part because of the domination of the league by one franchise. But when the Yankees became super-strong again in the late 1990s, it had the exact opposite effect. The Red Sox said, "No, goddammit, we are NOT going to concede this division to the Yankees and let them have it; we are going to get in there and fight." The Blue Jays didn’t back off, either. Rather than becoming a weaker division, because of the Yankees, it became the STRONGEST division in baseball, by far—and still is today, although the rest of baseball is catching up a little bit every year.
So the same cause had different effects, which is a common thing; the same cause will often have completely opposite effects in different situations. A gunshot noise frightens one dog under the table, but causes the other dog to attack.
I was thinking about this because of the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team. The Jayhawks have won the Big 12 for. . .I don’t know, twelve or thirteen straight seasons now. They are two games in front with four to play this year, so they may make it one more.
In theory, this is not good for the league, to be dominated by one team for this length of time. But in fact, it has been GREAT for the league, from the standpoint of competitiveness. The other teams HAVEN’T decided "Oh, we can’t compete with the Jayhawks". Baylor, Iowa State, West Virginia, Oklahoma and others have said "No, goddammit, we are NOT going to just let the Jayhawks have it. We are going to get in there and fight." The result is that the league is far STRONGER now than it was when the Jayhawks started this run. Ten, twelve years ago, the Big 12 was the third or fourth best basketball conference in the country, behind the ACC, the old Big East, maybe the SEC, the Big 10, the Pac 10 maybe. Now, by any objective criteria, it is easily the best.
I have talked about this before, but when there is a fast runner in a foot race, a mile race or something, everybody else runs faster. If the pace is slow, a runner may run the mile in 4:05, but you put a world class miler in there, the same guy will run it in 3:58. Same syndrome; you run as fast as you HAVE to run to keep up.
That’s why it is surprising to me to hear people talking about the Pirates and Cardinals just backing off and letting the Cubs run for a couple of years. That’s Yankee Syndrome, 1955. I don’t know about anybody else, but if I was there, the hell with that. If the Cubs catch a few tough breaks, you can beat them. If they don’t, that’s what the Wild Card is for. You get them in a seven-game series in October, you can beat them then.