It may be difficult to stomach, but at least philosophically and perhaps ethically, the New York Yankees should be the neutral fan’s heroes in their ALDS series against the Tampa Bay Rays. Yeah, sorry, but it’s true! Though it might be traditional to look at the younger team who’s never won a title as the scrappy underdogs and, though it might feel really, really good to despise the institution that is the New York Yankees with all their history, arrogance, and opulence, the reality of this series is that one team is trying its damnedest to win a frickin’ world championship and the other has tried to optimize the work of building a roster so much that the idea of “entertainment” feels like a tertiary concern at best.
While nearly every team in baseball, including Tampa’s ownership group, has avoided lavish free-agency spending and instead tried to either tank or field a team that’s just good enough to make the playoffs and potentially luck into a deep run, the Yankees are still the stereotypical Evil Empire of old. Only nowadays, with the way that the sport’s ultra-rich have worked to break baseball’s economic logic, bucking the trend by having the highest payroll in the game feels more like a virtue than a sin.
There was no easier way to contrast the two rivals, and their $81 million difference in team salaries this year (or $172 million if the season hadn’t been prorated), than the pitching match-up on Monday night, in a game the Yanks won 9-3. The slightly better performance on the mound came from last winter’s premier free agent, Gerrit Cole, whom the Yankees signed for an all-time-high of nine years and $324 million, or $80 million more than any other team committed to a free agent in the offseason.
Opposite him for the Rays was a talented youngster in Blake Snell who’s spent the early part of his career getting lowballed by his bosses. After a Cy Young-winning campaign in 2018, the pre-arbitration Snell made public his disappointment that the Rays had only offered him a $15,500 raise to a salary of $573,700 for 2019, and then went on to sign a five-year, $50 million extension that will keep him under team control through the 2023 season. While $50 million guaranteed is a near-impossible offer for a pitcher to turn down, what with the specter of Tommy John always looming, it’s undeniably a below-market deal for a man of Snell’s talents.
Though the Yankees, as the haters and skeptics will of course point out, are also guilty of using baseball’s player-unfriendly salary rules to get exciting guys like Luke Voit and Gleyber Torres to produce at a rate that doesn’t even come close to matching their paychecks, what differentiates them from the Rays is that this is far from the only way that they’ve built up their roster. Charlie Morton excepted, Tampa goes about its business like they’ve never heard of Curt Flood, while New York has taken advantage of free agency and blockbuster trades to create a contender the way that God intended. Masahiro Tanaka, signed from Japan in 2014 for $155 million, has been their most consistently reliable starter since his debut. Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton, who’d make a combined $30 million in a normal-sized year, anchor the late innings from the bullpen. And DJ LeMahieu, whose $12 million (non-prorated) salary tops any hitter in Tampa’s lineup, just won the batting crown with a .364 average.
But this is all an abstract debate involving amounts of money that I can’t even fathom and you probably can’t either. What matters most to fans is how the money translates to the play on the field. Even if one wishes to praise the Rays for their efficiency, or for the fact that they racked up more regular-season wins than New York with none of the household names, the Yankees are so goddamn fun to watch that it puts them head and shoulders above any other American League group. Not only are they putting a lot of money into this squad, but it’s creating a lineup that, when they’re on, is a certified superteam.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in the top of the ninth inning of Game 1 last night. Both teams spent the first eight trading dingers back and forth until the scoreboard said 4-3 NYY. But in the ninth, a cavalcade of hits culminated in a display of dominance from the Yankees’ highest-paid hitter—one whose salary nearly equals the entirety of the Rays’ payroll. With the bases jammed, Giancarlo Stanton (not yet halfway through a 13-year, $325 million contract) cracked a slider on the outside all the way to dead center, where it sailed over the wall for a dramatic, game-clinching grand salami.
I know that hating the Yankees is a prerequisite for being a baseball fan outside of New York. But if you love the sport, it’s gotta be hard to watch this dramatic display of power and not tip your cap to a franchise that wants to win more than anything else.