On Wednesday night, the Cleveland Indians will host the New York Yankees in a decisive Game 5 of the American League Division Series presented by Doosan (8 p.m. ET on FS1). Game 5's are always stressful, and they alter history in ways we never quite appreciate. How is baseball history different if:
- The Astros beat the Royals in Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS?
- The Nationals hang on to beat the Cardinals in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS? Or, for that matter, the Reds beat the Giants in Game 5 of the other NLDS that year?
- The Phillies give Roy Halladay just one measly run of support in the 2011 NLDS?
- The A's beat the Red Sox in the 2003 ALDS? The Braves beat the Cubs in the 2003 NLDS? (Steve Bartman would be just another Cubs fan going nuts 13 years later.)
- For that matter, the A's beat the Yankees in the ALDS in 2000 or 2001?
Think about the World Series titles for the 2015 Royals, the '12 Giants, the '11 Cardinals, or the 2000 Yankees -- how much did they change the narrative not just for those franchises themselves, but for baseball? How much did the Nationals miss out on by losing to those Cardinals? Or those Reds?
But I'd argue that Wednesday's game between the Indians and the Yankees is a particular generation-shifter. These are two of the most fascinating teams in the sport right now, and they're both at pivotal moments. Wednesday's game could shape the whole next decade for both franchises. Let's take a look at what's at stake for both.
New York Yankees
Since the new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, the complaint about the place among some is that it didn't have its own unique personality, that it felt antiseptic compared to the old building. This was a reasonable criticism until this year:
Yankee Stadium has found itself.
I'd argue it was the introduction of the Judge's Chambers in right field, in honor of Aaron Judge, a real-life superhero for the Bronx fans to call their own.
Remember when people were upset about the Judge's Chambers, that it was somehow undignified? It's the best thing that's happened to Yankee Stadium and maybe this whole franchise since that World Series win in 2009. It has introduced organic fun to the place and changed the whole vibe of the building. (Even an actual Supreme Court judge showed up.) The Yankees are 3-0 this postseason at Yankee Stadium, and that place has been roaring. Five years ago, you wondered if fans were ever going to get comfortable in the new stadium or if they were just going to miss the old place forever. Now it has that unmistakable Thunderdome vibe of PNC Park during the 2013 NL Wild Card Game. This place is, as they say, lit.
It's not just the Judge's Chambers, obviously, and it's not just Judge. For the first time, Yankees fans have a young, exciting, new team to call their own. The Yankees are not a bunch of expensive players past their prime cashing in late in their careers. The Yankees, of all teams, are the up-and-coming ones, with Judge and Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird and Luis Severino. (And of course, nearly a dozen more coming in the next few years.) The Yankees have something that they almost never have: the fresh team. They have the ones with the faces we haven't seen on this stage before. If they were wearing any uniforms other than the Yankees' pinstripes, they might even be the team the rest of the country was cheering for. Yankees fans have embraced this team because, man, who wouldn't?
But you only get to be new once. The unexpectedness of this season, of Judge's breakthrough, of the Yankees busting through to the ALDS a year earlier than the plan might have dictated, has invigorated the fan base and the stadium, but if the Yankees don't win Wednesday, the expectations will be elevated next season. Finishing second to the Red Sox won't be tolerated next year. With Gleyber Torres and Chance Adams and Miguel Andujar and others all coming, plus the presumed free-agent contracts the Yankees will surely shell out in the coming years, the spotlight is about to shine as usual on this whole organization. The fun, young, goofy team is gonna have to grow up fast.
You could make an argument that it will never be quite as much fun as it is right now. Lose this year, and the 2017 Yankees are a likable footnote before things get super serious. But win this year? Then you start making New Core Four T-shirts. Then Judge is a legend. Then this year becomes different than all those 1990s-2000 championships … more unexpected and special, maybe even a little better. The next decade of the franchise is up in the air. It could all come down to Wednesday.
These Indians have already secured their place in baseball history by being the other team on the field -- their home field, for that matter -- when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, the biggest story in sports. No one wants to play the supporting characters in a moment like that, but if you want to make the World Series, that's not a bad one to end up in, particularly with how valiantly the Indians fought and how incredible Chicago's Game 7 comeback was.
But that moment can become a footnote for Indians fans -- a happy precursor to what was coming, the first day of the rest of their lives -- only if they end up winning the World Series that they came so tantalizingly close to grasping last year. It's the Royals losing to the Giants principle; Royals fans don't weep about Alex Gordon not trying to score that much anymore, because they went out and won the World Series the very next season. The Cubs' victory right now is inextricably connected to the Indians' heartbreak right now. The Tribe have a limited timeframe in which to change that.
So far, the Indians have done everything fans could have possibly asked for. They've had a fantastic season, a far better one than last year, that included a historic winning streak, an AL MVP Award-caliber season from Francisco Lindor, their most telegenic and transcendent player, and a starting rotation that was essentially untouchable for a month. They have clinched home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs. They are healthier than they were a year ago, both on the mound and in the lineup. They've rebounded in the best way they could have. They're their best selves.
But all that changes if they lose on Wednesday. Suddenly, The Year After becomes a disappointment, a step backward, a regression. The loss to the Cubs isn't just a setback; it's the unfortunate peak. Terry Francona's decision not to start Corey Kluber in Game 1 is second-guessed forever. The Yankees see the Indians' moment, and they take it for themselves.
Then the clock starts ticking. The Indians have done an excellent job constructing their roster in the long term -- their deal for Jose Ramirez alone should win them organizational awards -- but years like this one don't come along that often. What if Edwin Encarnacion falls off a cliff? What if they can't replace Andrew Miller after next year, or Corey Kluber after 2019? How does next year's lineup replace Carlos Santana and Jay Bruce? The Indians may have the best team in the AL right now, but the Yankees, Astros and Red Sox all figure to just keep getting better, and that's not even mentioning how much improvement the Twins and White Sox are likely to make in the next few years. Will the Indians have the runway all cleared out for them like they have this year any time in the future? Isn't this as smooth a ride as they'll ever have?
If the Indians lose Wednesday, they must start to lay claim to The Cleveland Thing, yet another local team breaking its fans hearts. The Indians aren't separate from it anymore. They're down in the muck. The Indians are having a dream season. To have it end Wednesday, two rounds early, to the Yankees, would be a nightmare. The next decade of the franchise is up in the air. It could all come down to Wednesday.
Every MLB postseason game is big: That's why it's so exhilarating to watch. But I don't remember an ALDS game that has as much on the line as Wednesday's Yankees-Indians Game 5. I'm almost too nervous to watch. I can't imagine how actual fans of either team feels. Get a good night's sleep tonight, kids. You're going to need it.