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Championships are overrated

Philadelphia Phillies v New York Yankees, Game 6

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 04: Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees celebrates with his teammates after their 7-3 win against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game Six of the 2009 MLB World Series at Yankee Stadium on November 4, 2009 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

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LAS VEGAS -- I learned yesterday that there is a swath of Yankees fans who use the phrase “one in 17.” Maybe it’s a hashtag, I don’t know. The point is that it is used as a means of disparaging Brian Cashman and the Yankees for their alleged failures in having won “only” one World Championship in the past 17 seasons. This is not used ironically and it is not a joke. In the minds of these fans Cashman is, for this reason, a failure, as are the New York Yankees.

Later, when I talked about that some on Twitter, some Yankees fans tried to defend that mindset. I won’t bore you with the back and forth on that or single out any individual person, but I will share a quote from one of these people:

“Last year was the worst 100 win team I ever saw. Weak starting pitching, a lineup that couldn’t string three hits together and struck out a billion times. [Cashman’s] goal is to have 9 Dave Kingmans on the field. Garbage.”

I wish I was making this up. I wish I had never heard of the “one in 17" subculture at all, because it’s objectively insane.

Setting aside the extraordinarily convenient cutoff of 17 years -- how many in 22, friendo? -- I will grant that winning “only” one title in a 17-year span is somewhat unusual for the Yankees, historically speaking. And I suppose that one must acknowledge that the Red Sox and Giants have more titles over that same 17-year span. Things could be better on that score for the New York Yankees.

But it’s also the case, is it not, that the Yankees have been, more or less, the best team in baseball by any measure other than championships during that time too? Both Boston and San Francisco had sub-.500 seasons and even last place finishes before, in between and after their championships. Maybe they just have that 2009 World Series trophy, but there is no team a person could root for which is more assured of year-in-year-out success than the New York Yankees. They have not had a season in which they have lost more games than they have won since 1992. 1992!!

Are Yankees fans spoiled? Sure, on some level they are. But I don’t think this is about Yankees fan entitlement as such. Indeed, I think it speaks to a phenomenon in sports that applies to fans of any team: an overemphasis on championships. Indeed, I think championships are highly overrated and that caring only about championships is a great way to make yourself miserable as a sports fan.

Winning championships is, obviously, the goal of every sports team, but you are not a sports team. You are a fan. Sports are entertainment to you, not a means of personal validation. Because, again, you haven’t done anything to earn the validation of a championship like a player or a coach or an executive has. You watched it happen, but it’s their entire professional existence. They spend all of their waking hours to achieve that goal. You invested a little time, some of your disposable income and, depending on your temperament, greater or lesser degrees of emotional investment in order to watch baseball games.

You can’t say that the stakes for you are anything like the stakes for someone who owns, operates or plays for a professional sports franchise and thus you can’t say that anything less than a championship is failure and expect me to take you seriously. Especially considering that, when they’re being honest, and when they’re not giving postgame interviews, even the people in professional sports will tell you that they don’t actually think in those terms themselves. There are executives for 86-win clubs who are happy with how their team did given the talent they have. There are players who are quite proud of their years even when they get knocked out of the playoffs in the first round.

I’m not sure where the “anything less than a championship is failure” idea came from, but it’s relatively new.

Over the past couple of days in Las Vegas I’ve talked to a lot of fans and writers and friends about it and most of us agree that it was not a prominent concept among sports fans even a a couple of decades ago. I personally suspect it’s a function of branding and marketing, which became far more important as the 80s turned into the 90s and sports became an omnipresent lifestyle product rather than a mere entertainment. The “Just Do It” and “SportsCenter” era did a lot to immerse fans in the athletic ethos and to convince fans that they themselves share the traits of athletes. Motivational speeches and slogans doubling as product pitches, practice montages and veneration of the athletic work ethic as a means of signaling virtue and the general blurring of who the “we” is when we talk about sports has convinced a generation or three of fans that teams and fans are all in it together. That fans must, necessarily, share an athlete’s goals if they wish to understand and appreciate sports. If anything short of a championship is a failure for Michael Jordan, Tom Brady or Derek Jeter, it must be for me, on my couch, too.

So, yes, I get it. I understand that George Steinbrenner, as a matter of branding his business, used to say things like “anything less than a championship is a failure for the New York Yankees” and that a lot of people adopted that as their mantra as well. They came by it honestly enough. I also don’t want to shame fans or tell them how to appreciate sports, so if that’s the approach you take, by all means, feel free to continue to take it, even if I think it’s rather insane. This is still America and one is entitled to adopt “It’s all about championships” as their statement of purpose as a sports fan if they so choose.

But I would hope that these same people are willing to acknowledge that such an approach is not the only way to enjoy baseball. And I would also hope that, given how rare championships are for any team, including the New York Yankees, that they’d appreciate that viewing sports through a championships-or-bust prism is an excellent way to make sure you enjoy sports far less than if you viewed things differently.

Follow @craigcalcaterra