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Keith Strudler: A Season Of Failure

It’s entirely possible that the New York Yankees are the second-best team in baseball this season. We’ll have a bit more clarity after the World Series, where the Washington Nationals have taken a 1 game to none lead over a Houston Astros team that beat the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. By all accounts, Houston was the better team, both over those six games and the regular season. They have dominant pitching; and they’ve largely owned New York since putting together a championship caliber roster a few years ago. And New York has endured more injuries this season than you average coal mine, making their almost good enough finish even more impressive.

That’s not how Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge sees it. After losing to the Astros, Judge said that this past season was a failure. Not a disappointment, or a step short. But a failure. Judge contextualized this a bit, noting the team in spring training talked about winning the division, which they did, getting in good position for a post season run, which they also did, and winning the World Series. Which they did not. So by Aaron Judge’s account, that makes the sum of the past eight or so months a failure, no matter how close they came or just how good the Astros are.

Certainly, Judge’s comments come in the heat of the moment. It’s very easy to lose perspective when you packing your locker up for the winter. And it’s probably worse that Houston has been New York’s final opponent for three out of the past five years – which would have been much better if they were still in the National League. Perhaps Judge might see it a bit differently a few months or even years out, especially if they’re able to finally get over the Houston hump next season. If they don’t, I’d expect the loss could sting even more over time. Just ask Charles Barkley or Dan Marino what it’s like to almost win a title.

In many ways, sport is largely built around the construct of expectation. For example, in college our cross-country team once finished second in our conference championships. We felt like we just won the Olympics, especially since only a couple of years prior the team finished dead last. As a fan, I’ve never been happier than when my school made it to the sweet 16 of the men’s basketball tournament for the first time ever – and some might suggest the last. There was never any assumption that either team might finish better than that. So even in defeat, those seasons were unmitigated successes.

For the Yankees, and teams like them – say Alabama football, or about five or six NBA teams, or someone like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt at their best, there’s no winning in losing. Which makes each season and each championship something of a binomial – either you win it all, or it’s a failure. It’s a perspective shared by a rarified few – politicians, brain surgeons, astronauts, maybe some trial attorneys. But most of us live a much less challenging world of grey, where you can a have a pretty good day at work, and that’s just fine. Where Aaron Judge sees ones and zeros, the vast majority of us enjoy the luxury of a Likert scale.

To be fair, it’s hard to feel bad for either Yankees players or their fans, of which I am not one. In fact, I grew up in Houston. Take that, New York. The Yankees have enjoyed five titles since 1996, the most recent coming in 2009. And they’ve made the playoffs seven times since then. Even New York’s down seasons are really good, at least according to any reasonable standard of measurement. Which makes not winning the World Series after what felt like an untenable drought, well, a failure.

In that ethos, some might say that Yankees fans, and maybe even players, are as they say, spoiled. I used to think that as well, especially since Houston won its first title ever in 2017. That’s ever, which is a long time. I’m starting to believe that’s the wrong way to think about it. Perhaps the Yankees are tortured as much as they are spoiled. Because even after a great season with huge wins and a deep playoff run, for Aaron Judge, this season was a failure. Imagine that as the litmus for happiness. As a fan or even an elite athlete, I think I’d rather be able to accept a job well done than living in perpetual regret, where even winning is more relief than jubilation. Such is the challenge for Aaron Judge, who probably won’t enjoy a baseball season until the Yankees win it all. If they do. And why being second best, just won’t be enough.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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