They did not just cheer Derek Jeter last Sunday night at the new Yankee Stadium, on the night when they unveiled the plaque of Jeter that will hang in Monument Park, and retired his No. 2. They cheered what they still want the Yankees to be, what they became again in the 1990s when Jeter and Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte and Bernie Williams were all young, and suddenly the good old days at the old Stadium were now.
In the interview room before Jeter's ceremony, there was a question to Pettitte about how special that group and that time was at the old Yankee Stadium, and Pettitte smiled and shrugged and said, "They were just the guys I came up with." And a whole new generation of Yankee fans grew up with them, watched as the Yankees won four World Series in five years and nearly five in six, and became as great as any Yankees teams in history, including the ones that won five World Series in a row between 1949 and 1953.
Those teams only had to win four games in October to win it all. Joe Torre's Yankees had to win 11. It is why it is no stretch and hardly hyperbole to call Torre's Yankees as much a dynasty as any in Yankees history. They cheered Reggie Jackson last Sunday night, and what he did in the 1970s. They cheered like crazy for Hideki Matsui, the batting star the night the Yankees won their last World Series in 2009. But what they really honored on the occasion of honoring Jeter was the last time the Yankees were kings of the world.
Yankees fans still talk about Yankee Universe; what they really want is order being restored to the baseball universe. And now they hope that kids like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez begin to do that, as the Yankees have become a team to watch again across the first quarter of this season. It has reached the point with them, and pretty quickly, that when somebody like the Royals' Danny Duffy shuts them down the way Duffy did on Thursday night, it is treated like big news.
Even after the Jeter ceremony last Sunday night, when the Astros jumped on Masahiro Tanaka for six runs in the first inning, when the Yankees got behind 8-0 after two, the final score ended up 10-7. When it was 9-4 in the middle of the game, you started to think of the night earlier this season at the Stadium when the Yankees came back from 9-1 down and ended up beating the Orioles 14-11. The Yankees can hit, they've had just enough starting pitching so far, they've survived injuries to Sanchez and Didi Gregorius, and now wait to see how serious a problem they have with closer Aroldis Chapman now that Chapman has gone to the disabled list with an inflamed rotator cuff.
"It's still been a pretty exciting time for us," general manager Brian Cashman says. "We played good baseball for the last two months of last season, we had the kind of Spring Training we did, and now we've started out the way we have."
They came into the weekend 10 games over .500, in first place in the American League East. The Orioles have lost their own closer, Zach Britton, the Red Sox have been without David Price because of his own arm problems, the Blue Jays got off to a terrible start. The Astros are the best team in the league and in baseball right now. But the Yankees haven't been all that far behind.
I ask Cashman about what has surprised him, in the first season after he was a seller and not a buyer at the last Trade Deadline, and seemed to microwave his Minor League system by trading away Chapman to the Cubs and Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians.
"Obviously Judge has been [a surprise]," he says. "We felt he was an above-average talent, but we were expecting some growing pains. But now he's come on like an avalanche. Been nothing but amazing. Been playing like a superstar. Sometimes it just happens that way with young talent. Something clicks and things come together quicker than you projected. We honestly felt it would take longer with him for it to all come together. But he's had a remarkable impact on our team."
Cashman refers to his starting pitching this way: "Surprisingly good so far." He spoke of coming into the season with questions about CC Sabathia, and Tanaka, who continues to pitch with what was diagnosed as a partially torn ulnar ligament a couple of years ago. Luis Severino had 22 lifetime starts coming into the season. Jordan Montgomery is a kid. Michael Pineda has been a mystery, just because of his stuff, from the moment he arrived at Yankee Stadium from Seattle.
Here were the stats for the starters going into the weekend series against the Rays:
Tanaka: 5-2, 5.80 ERA after getting lit up the way he was by the Astros
Pineda: 4-2, 3.42 ERA
Sabathia: 3-2, 4.93 ERA
Severino: 2-2, 3.86 ERA
Montgomery: 2-3, 4.81 ERA
But behind them, of course, are stellar relief pitchers, even without Chapman in the room right now. Tyler Clippard has a 1.08 ERA, Adam Warren is at 1.19, Dellin Betances, who closes when Chapman can't, is at 0.73. The blueprint for the Yankees is simple enough: keep hitting enough to get to the bullpen guys with a lead. Keep hoping there is nothing seriously wrong with Chapman. Then hope they all have enough arm left by September.
Clearly, Cashman likes his team. Even though he once talked about the Red Sox talent and compared them to the Warriors, he never conceded anything in the AL East, and neither did his manager, Joe Girardi.
"It doesn't mean we're not realists," Cashman says. "We know how long the season is, how quickly things can change. Fatigue happens, injuries happen, bad performances happen. But for now, we like where we are."
Then he is talking about the way a young guy he has always liked, Aaron Hicks, 27, switch-hitter, has played well this season when he has gotten a chance in the outfield, hitting seven home runs and batting .311 so far.
"I remember the day in Spring Training when Joe and myself told [Hicks] that Aaron Judge had won the starting right-fielder's job," Cashman says. "We both basically told him the same thing: stay ready, you'll get your chance. And he said, 'I'm tired of waiting for a chance.' And I'm, like, good, keep staying tired. I think I was hearing him exactly right. What he was saying wasn't dejection. It was objection. He was telling us that he was tired of waiting and felt his time was now. Now you see the way he's played."
Everybody sees the way the Yankees have played themselves into first place. You could hear how excited Yankees veteran radio play-by-play man, John Sterling, was to call them that at Derek Jeter Night: "First-place Yankees." Small sampling still, in the capital of the biggest baseball history. Long way to go. Yankees aren't great again, not yet. Just fun to watch again. Order at least being restored to the universe at Yankee Stadium.