As baseball season is about to commence, the annual ritual of Yankee vilification is in full throttle. The complaints are by now well rehearsed: The NY Yankees are too big, too arrogant, too wealthy, too storied, too successful, really (and did we mention that ticket prices are sky-high at Yankee stadium?)
Upon closer scrutiny, however, such criticisms are in essence back-handed compliments to a team that exemplifies key aspects of Western and American culture; which is why the NY Yankees and not the Dallas Cowboys are America's team in the truest sense.
Consider the following:
Former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge is purported to have pronounced that "America's business is business;" and it is true that the U.S. has had the world's biggest economy since the late 19th century -- a fact that was the necessary precondition for the country becoming the world's sole superpower at the beginning of the 21st.
Now, business properly understood is about competition; and the spirit of competition harks back to the ancient Greeks who bestowed a competitive streak to the West's DNA (To understand why, just turn to Friedrich Nietzsche's brilliant and brief essay "Homer's Contest" where he stresses that "The greater and more sublime... a Greek is, the brighter in him appears the ambitious flame... Every great Hellene hands on the torch of the competition.") Foreign policy expert and sports enthusiast Michael Mandelbaum correctly points out in his excellent book The Meaning of Sports that "Americans are the most competitive people since the ancient Greeks. Virtually any activity in the United States sooner or later becomes the subject of a competition;" and MLB former commissioner and baseball philosopher, the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, has explained that "before American games are American, they are Western."
So here is the connection: Baseball is part of Western civilization, which is imbued with a spirit of competition since antiquity that thrives today first and foremost in America; and the most competitive and successful team in America is none other than the NY Yankees: Think of the 27 World Series Championships, the 40 American League pennants and an unrivaled group of players who have donned the pinstripe uniform that includes Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Bera, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter (the list is long, after all, more than 40 former Yankees have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown).
No club can claim a more fabled history; and within an American context this matters greatly. The United States is a youngish nation and state. Its relative brief history does not afford the luxury of relying on heroes and successes of past millennia. As a result, a glorious past resonates even more whenever it can be found and is hence justly and intensely celebrated (think of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or the civil rights movement). Baseball is indubitably the most traditional of America's games and the Yankees posses the most glorious heritage. For this, they should be doubly celebrated for they thus contribute to the strengthening of the American societal fabric.
Except, the Yankees are constantly derided (it often seems to me that Yankee-bashing is the last acceptable refuge for the practitioners of the politics of envy). More recently, tremendous negative publicity has focused on expensive ticket prices at Yankee Stadium. Of course, one would want everyone to have access to baseball games. But seen from another perspective, this is about supply meeting demand and the market working in an unfettered manner. Taxpayers actually fund regulatory bodies at great cost with the aim to ensure that markets work properly. But when the NY Yankees "market" operates thus, the result is (mostly unfair) scorn.
But one can still point out that the NY Yankees have also exhibited a gallery of arrogant, larger than life, excessive personalities. To these criticisms, the reply has to be in the affirmative. But with one major caveat: To quote the great poet William Carlos Williams, "The pure products of America go crazy." And the Yankees are American as it gets. (Hence, even though he is Japanese, the fact that Masahiro Tanaka rented an entire Boeing 787 so that he and his family could come to the States fits well with Yankee tradition).
So by being the most competitive, successful team that abides to free market principles and possesses the most glorious past, the NY Yankees are fully in tune with American cultural and economic practices; which is why they can justifiably claim to be America's Team.
Dr Aristotle Tzimpiris is Visiting Fellow at New York University's Remarque Institute.