Once Upon a Time

Tampa, Fla., February 24, 2017; Yankees 9, Phillies 4 — 2017 is going to be a strange year for Yankee fans. With much of New York assuming the Mets will charge into the postseason, the Yankees not so much, you’d expect to hear dire descriptions of the team and pessimistic predictions for their chances. But to all appearances, the fanbase is in a better frame of mind than they’ve been in in years.

Conventional wisdom has it that Spring Training games are meaningless, and solid work in February and March will not translate when the real action starts in April. But the reason for the optimism is the play of young talents we’ve rarely — or never — seen perform on a baseball diamond. If the play of a team loaded with prospects is meaningless, well, what are we here for?

The Yankees outclassed the visiting Phillies 9-4 in the teams’ Spring season opener on both sides of the ball Friday afternoon. The mound staff of the home team threw seven innings of perfect baseball at the visitors, not a rare happening in early baseball at all, with Bryan Mitchell, Tyler Clippard, Tommy Layne, and Luis Cessa throwing six dominant frames. On the other side of things, the Yanks were hardly juggernaut-like in their output either. Following up on an encouraging season filling in for a two-decade icon at shortstop, Didi Gregorius drilled righthander Alec Asher’s third pitch over the wall in right for an early 1-0 Yankee lead, but otherwise the Bombers offense consisted of two singles from the newly signed veteran DH Matt Holliday (a good sign), until Aaron Judge came to bat in the fifth.

True to his rep, Judge had gone down swinging in the third, but not until he fouled off two 2-strike pitches. With lefty Elneiry Garcia on the mound in the fifth, the at bat was settled much more quickly; no one in uniform even turned when the huge Yankee right fielder walloped the first Garcia offering, upping the score to 2-0 with a drive just to the right of dead center.

It was good to see results from third-year Yank Gregorius and Judge, who debuted last year. But things got much more interesting when draft picks and prospect acquisitions Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, Dustin Fowler, Miguel Andujar and Kyle Higashioka took over for the starters in the sixth. Third baseman Andujar was the day’s most impressive performer, as he tripled in ex-Met Ruben Tejada with a first-pitch rainbow just short of the right field foul pole in the sixth, scoring himself when the throw was mishandled. Then in the eighth, though off balance on an outside floater, he yanked a pitch to the base of the wall in left, coasting into second and setting up a three-run onslaught. Fowler tripled to right in the seventh, scoring on a deep sac fly by Gleyber Torres before Higashioka homered for another run. And in the eighth. Frazier tripled in two and scored on old friend Rob Refsnyder’s single.

There were glitches too. The uber-touted Torres made a nice stab to his left on the first ball he saw at short in the seventh, but made a bad throw for the first of two Yankee errors in the Phillies two-run uprising, but he was solid on four following plays, and hit well. And Giovanny Gallegos allowed two singleton home runs and a single before retiring the Phils in the ninth. Tall lefty Jordan Montgomery looked in control over three frames, though he gave up two singles in the ugly top of the seventh.

The day was a Florida classic, a high sun after early clouds scorching the field and the crowd in 81 degrees of heat. But George M. Steinbrenner Stadium rolled out an impressive string of improvements, most of which I’ll talk about in future reports. Suffice it to say that the addition of fan-friendly clubs down both lines, a nice walkaround of the entire field, and a significantly improved entrance for all comers were all home runs to anyone who had visited in past years.

So with the New York baseball intelligentsia penciling in the crosstown Mets, with their dynamite young starting rotation, to a long run in the coming season and postseason, Yankee fans — having experienced an extended period of success due to the work of career hometown stars like the Core Four (plus Bernie, I’ll always add) — are anxious to see what we have. Even if it’s great we are told, it’s likely that 2017 is a year that the coming rise experiences its baby steps. The prize might come, but maybe two, three years down the road.

But few predicted that the team that took the field two decades ago in 1996 would take the ultimate prize. Wilhelm Karl Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm fame, was born this day in 1786. Once the story of this Yankee team is written, who’s to say how it ends? We’ve got 10 scintillating months to look forward to. Who’s to say, when it’s over, we won’t be describing a magical season in terms like this:

Once Upon a Time