After 168 games, we know a lot about the spirit of the Yankees. With Johnny Damon, Nick Swisher and A.J. Burnett around, they are a fun-loving club. Sure, the super-serious trio of Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter and, yes, Alex Rodriguez make up the core of their offensive club, but for the Yanks, the fun is why they’re winning. Or so goes the narrative.
At the end of last week, on the verge of the ALCS, the serious Wall Street Journal explored the Yanks’ fun side. The article is a bit incongruous; due to the Journal’s style guide leads to a whole bunch of references to Mr. Swisher and Mr Damon. But the point remains: It is because of the Yanks’ fun-loving ways that they are a good team. “Fun creates winning,” Swisher has said. “You’re looser when you’re having fun. Your true ability comes out, rather than being tense.”
Matthew Futterman and Austin Kelley explore this concept as it relates to the Yankees:
Since the 2003 World Series, the last one the Yankees appeared in, the team has gone about its business with the sober professionalism of a group of pall-bearers. In 2005, after the Yankees started the season 11-19, Mr. Torre told the New York Times, “There’s a lot of tension. One to 10, it’s probably an 8. You try to say things to loosen people up, you make jokes, and there’s required laughing. Nothing is spontaneous. This is our life.” To compound the pressure, there was always a chance that volcanic owner George Steinbrenner would threaten somebody’s livelihood.
Before this season, Mr. Girardi said he got the sense that this team might be different. “There was closeness that developed on the pitching staff,” Mr. Girardi said. Shortly after spring training began, Mr. Girardi noticed that Mr. Burnett was taking several of the other pitchers on outings in the afternoons and evenings. Mr. Sabathia was taking teammates to Orlando Magic games. “Just seeing these guys through the first couple weeks in the spring, I knew it was going to be a real laid-back and relaxed atmosphere,” he said.
As the season began, despite the pressure of christening the new Yankee Stadium—and the distraction of a steroids scandal involving Mr. Rodriguez—the light mood prevailed. On May 15, after beating the Twins with a two-out, walk-off single, Melky Cabrera was getting ready for a postgame TV interview when Mr. Burnett snuck up behind him and smeared a towel full of whipped cream on his face. Two days later, after three consecutive walk-off wins, that day’s hero, Johnny Damon, was so worried about getting a pie that Mr. Burnett had to sneak up on him by hiding behind a teammate. “A.J. has been a big part of the looseness of the clubhouse,” Mr. Girardi said. “His attitude is great. He brings a lot of energy every day.”
That’s all well and good, right? But when it comes down it, the Yankees won this year because they hit .283/.362/.478 with a franchise-record 244 home runs as their pitchers put up a 4.28 ERA and led the AL in strike outs. I’m often skeptical of the narrative that fun leads to winning. Generally, as I’ve learned from the teams I’ve been on, winning leads to fun and not the other way around. I’ve been on bad teams that have fun, but my teammates on the good ones always got along better.
What if, though, there is some truth to the theory that players perform better when they are more or less relaxed? The Journal reporters took a look at some of the sports psychology studies on the make up of athletes and found some support for the belief that players having fun perform better:
Research shows that heightened anxiety causes athletes’ muscles to tighten and decreases their mental focus. “The classic example is when someone freezes from stress,” said Daniel Gould, a sports-psychology professor at Michigan State and co-author of “Understanding Psychological Preparation for Sport: Theory and Practice of Elite Performers.” “In sports, you don’t see people freeze, but an athlete that’s a little tight might miss the plate by a hair.”
Not all athletes play their best when they’re relaxed. “It’s like each of us has our own temperature we perform best at,” Prof. Gould said, “and you have a thermostat. You learn to psych yourself up if you’re not up enough, and you learn how to cool off a little if you’re too hot.” But for the most part, psychologists say, professional athletes need to keep stress levels down. “Having a relaxed clubhouse is good,” Mr. Gould said.
So there you have it. Conclusive proof that some players perform better when relaxed and some do not. I enjoy seeing the Yankees have fun because I have more fun. We all love watching Burnett — Mr. Burnett — pie another teammate. In the end, though, the Yanks have won 108 games this year because they are a very good team, relaxed clubhouse or not.