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These Yankees are likable and I still don't like them

Aaron Judge and this fun team almost broke me, but they didn’t.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at New York Yankees Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Judge’s smile makes me smile. I never want to smile when Judge smiles, because it usually means Judge has done something good, which, by the Transitive Property of Sports, means the Yankees have done something good. And it really grinds my gears when the Yankees do good things.

I grew up a Red Sox fan in the ‘90s. Baseball was everything to me. I dressed up as Pedro Martinez for several Halloweens straight, and I told all the boys in my third grade class that I’d be the first woman to play in the major leagues. Thanks to the patriarchy and the fact that I wasn’t good enough at baseball, that dream did not come true. But, as the old Norse saying goes: “Those who can’t hack it playing professional sports write about them.”

Hating the Yankees was as much a part of being a Boston fan as loving the Red Sox was. A YANKEES SUCK shirt bought from the vendors outside Fenway Park was equally as valid as wearing a Pedro jersey when it came to showing your allegiance to the red and white. I don’t think this is as true these days as it used to be — when you haven’t won a pennant in a hundred thousand years, rivalries feel more significant. It’s easier to hate other teams when you’re a beleaguered underdog, but three World Series wins later (blessed), the wind is taken out of the “us against the world” sails.

But there are some things that, once ingrained, are hard to un-grain. New England isn’t alone in hating the Yankees; I don’t think that a team gets nicknamed The Evil Empire just because Boston fans hate it. I think, actually, that Boston fans are the last group of people the rest of the country would listen to — it’s more like we stumbled onto something valid for once; a blind squirrel-nut situation.

Many fan bases hate the Yankees as much as we do because the Yankees have been so good for so long, hail from NEW YORK CITYYYY, and are obnoxious enough to trademark the term “Baseball’s Evil Empire.” A phrase, I might add, that former Red Sox CEO Larry Luchino coined in 2002 after the Yankees signed Jose Contreras.

The only problem is that there’s been a glitch in the Sports Hate Index algorithm this year. Some designer deep in the cubicles of sports engineers (they’re very much like Greek gods in that they derive great pleasure from messing with mortals) fucked it up when they let Judge and the rest of this young team take the Yankees to unimaginable places. Places known as Almost Likable.

Judge wasn’t supposed to be as good or enjoyable to watch as he has been this season. He sucked last year. As recently as March, the Yankees were considering sending their largest and most adult son back to Triple A.

And then one of those sports nerds entered the cheat code, and Judge got good. Like, really good. Like, wouldn’t-stop-crushing-dingers good in the first half of the season and again towards the end. He crushed so many dingers. He cracked home run after home run out of stadium after stadium. His huge frame generates enough power to send baseballs flying into space; there are at least 13 circling Saturn right now. They float around the planet’s rings like tiny little leather moons.

After each ball vanished into the atmosphere, Judge would smile his toothy, earnest smile as he jogged his long limbs around the bases. His performances were so delightful that even I, a human who’s allergic to pinstripes, found myself looking forward to them. I actually laughed out loud as I watched him hit homers at the Home Run Derby over MLB All-Star Weekend.

Yankees fans liked this tall drink of Gatorade, too. In the star-player vacuum that Derek Jeter created, New York’s loyal glommed onto Judge like he was Saturn and they were the rings. Judge gave a fanbase something to cling to, but the grip still felt sort of loose to me.

I went to a game in the Bronx when they played the Sox this summer and was struck by how ... soulless the fandom felt. In Boston, Fenway feels like a church or a synagogue. The new Yankee Stadium feels more like a warehouse or a ballroom you could rent out. In a city where many people rent apartments for exorbitant prices, Yankees fandom feels equally leasable. It’s too easy. It’s too cool. It’s too ... neat. The country’s most famous city is blessed with a team that’s been one of the most dominant in the history of sports. You don’t have to be from New York City or have suffered that much to toss on a Yankees hat and call yourself a fan — it doesn’t take much.

My point is that the Yankees and their fan base have never done much to endear, and this was the first year I remember both doing, well, endearing things. Judge was a huge part of that, but so was the rest of the team — Didi Gregorious, Clint Frazier. They’ve got some fun guys. Even the fans started to be somewhat entertaining when they followed Todd Frazier’s lead and started doing that thumbs down thing.

The wild card game against the Twins Tuesday night was the culmination of my momentary and inadvertent soft spot for the Yankees. It was a total blast. The first three innings were the longest month of my life, but the three runs the Twins scored and then the subsequent Yankees outburst, and the two-run Judge homer made for some compelling baseball. I grinned as Judge rounded the bases. Then he did that silly mock-interview thing the team does after someone hits a home run, and I was like, “aw.”

But then I remembered that they stole that from the Cubs and I scowled.

Then I got angrier. It was almost primal. No matter how much I like the players, I just still hate this team. It’s one of those irrational parts of being a fan that I can’t explain and don’t really want to understand, for fear of finding out what it says about me as a human. I just know that this resentment sits deep at the heart of my connection to the Red Sox and I can’t dig it out. I felt constrictions in my chest as the Yankees pulled away and it became clear that the Twins weren’t going to win this one.

Any shred of compassion I felt for this year’s Yankees was wiped out when they beat Minnesota. And you know what? If they beat the Indians in the ALDS, I’m going to be even angrier. If New York robs Cleveland — 22-wins-in-a-row Cleveland — of a chance to battle its way to glory after getting so close last year, I will probably throw something at a wall. And I don’t even like the Indians!!!!

The thing is that whenever I go into a blind rage about sports these days, it feels like a recalibration, a normal baseline. The Yankees always have sucked, and always will suck, no matter what else is going on, or who they have on their team, and my hating them has no bearing on absolutely anything else outside of a ballpark. The team can do its darndest to be fun, and the world can burn around me, and I will always have room in my heart to hate the Yankees. And there’s some sort of perverse comfort in that.

Go Indians.


The Yankees' thumbs-down celebration rules