Aaron Hicks must have felt exactly like the most fed-up fan in the Bronx. His head was down in disgust, the ball was sitting on the left-field line, and just like everyone who was watching in the ballpark and at home, he could not believe he hadn’t made the catch.
Of greater consequence, when he looked up deep in the left-field corner Friday night, Hicks couldn’t believe there were Rays actively running around the bases and headed home.
They say the ball hunts you down when you are struggling in the field, and Hicks found out the hard way they say that for a reason. Right after he dropped Wander Franco’s fly on the run in the fourth inning, and then incorrectly assumed it was a foul ball, Randy Arozarena feels Frankie Montas’ next pitch screaming into left. That twisted Hicks into a pretzel as he retired in vain pursuit, stabbing at the liner that rattled off the wall.
If the fans were all over Hicks, as they have been all summer (they were even chanting Joey Gallo’s name), well, it sure looked as if Montas and manager Aaron Boone wanted to boo him too.
No, this disturbing 4-2 loss to the Rays on Derek Jeter’s big Hall-of-Fame ceremony night wasn’t solely Hicks’ fault any more than the Yankees’ disappearing divisional lead is solely his fault. Once upon a time, the Yankees held a 15 ½-game divisional lead and invited comparisons to Jeter’s 1998 team, which won 114 games on its way to another World Series crown.
Now the 2022 Yankees are 3 ½ games ahead of Tampa Bay, and only two ahead in the loss column. Two. And given that they don’t face the Twins again over their final 23 games, the unfathomable is now a possibility: The Yankees could enter the postseason as a mere wild card.
Sensing the extreme urgency of the moment, and applying the mercy rule to a beleaguered athlete, Boone removed Hicks from the game in favor of Estevan Florial. At least the manager didn’t pull Hicks in the middle of an inning, the way an irate Billy Martin once famously pulled Reggie Jackson during another life at Fenway Park.
“I just felt like I needed to get him out of there at that point,” said Boone, who maintained that his move wasn’t punitive.
But this was an embarrassment all the same, with Hicks standing (and then sitting) as the most conspicuous symbol of a failing team. He’s an outfielder in the middle of a seven-year, $70-million contract who’s no longer a functioning major leaguer, and yet somehow he plays on in September while all the important October goals look less and less attainable.
In the end, it was oddly fitting that this went down on the night of Jeter’s homecoming ceremony. The captain always played through the whistle, never assumed anything, and never gave up on a loose ball.
How do you think the Flip Play happened? How do you think a thousand other charmed things happened over the dynastic course of Jeter’s career?
But as great as he was, Jeter was never, ever a one-man show. In fact, he was elevated by the organizational talent and resources around him, the ultimate team player on the ultimate team.
Aaron Judge, good for 55 homers and 119 RBI so far this season, only wishes he could lean on the likes of Mariano, Bernie, Paulie, Andy, Tino, Coney, Jorge, and the rest.
“He’s carrying the team,” Jeter said of Judge at his Stadium press conference. “It’s pretty remarkable what he’s been able to do here under the spotlight of New York.”
Yes it is. But too often, when Judge isn’t launching balls deep into the night, the Yankees quickly run out of ideas on how to score. They have lost the creativity and resilience they showed in the first half of the season, and the mounting injuries alone aren’t to blame.
Could this second-half plunge actually impact Judge’s free-agent decision to come? If he wants to go to the highest bidder this offseason, especially one with a history of winning, so be it. Most people in most industries base their career choices on the bottom line.
The Yankees might end up being that highest bidder, of course, as a $6 billion franchise that is baseball’s most valuable by far. And if Hal Steinbrenner doesn’t weigh in with the best offer for the slugger who looks certain to break the all-time team, American League, and non-PED record for homers in a season (see Roger Maris, 61), he will have a whole lot of explaining to do to a fan base that let him hear it again during the Jeter ceremony.
If the Yankees do have an edge here that goes beyond pure dollars, it’s the currency of mythology and tradition that no club can touch.
The kind they showed off Friday night.
But then the home team didn’t bother to go after a loose ball, and didn’t bother to do any of the little and not-so-little things the Jeter’s teams did to win games. Now, everything these Yankees are supposed to represent is in serious peril.