“This is George Steinbrenner, he’s the owner of the New York Yankees,” Tom Brokaw says from a polyester-blue 1970s NBC News set, introducing Americans to The Boss during the opening minutes of “Yankees-Dodgers: An Uncivil War,” a new documentary debuting on ESPN today at 9 p.m. EST. “He’s also one of the principal stars in a long-running soap opera here in New York.”
The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers of the late 1970s — mirror images on opposite coasts that met in the 1977 and ’78 World Series — were dramatic in the extreme. Both teams played seasons fraught with intra-organizational sniping and managerial intrigue. Both represented superficially glitzy cities in the midst of upheaval; while the Bronx burned outside Series games, fans threw smoke bombs onto the Yankee Stadium field. And in hard baseball terms, both teams were built according to a dictum Steinbrenner would establish as best practice among the sport’s upper crust to this day: Pile up stars, as many as the roster can hold. “I want to put the best team on the field that I can, that’s what I’m in the business for,” Steinbrenner said. “Anybody who says they’re not should get out.”
The Dodgers of that vintage had a lone Hall of Fame player, right-handed ace Don Sutton, surrounded by idiosyncratic All-Stars: Davey Lopes (base-stealer extraordinaire), Steve Garvey (clean-mouthed apple pie pitchman), Tommy John (first recipient of the eponymous surgery), Dusty Baker (co-inventor of the high-five and future 2,000-game winner as a manager). The Yankees likewise had a roster of big names — among them the catalyzing and tragic catcher Thurman Munson and ’78 Cy Young winner Ron Guidry — orbiting one in-his-prime player slated for Cooperstown, Reggie Jackson. (Catfish Hunter had slipped to a 4.71 ERA in 1977.) In 1977, the teams combined to have 11 players with 4.0 or more wins above replacement; in ’78, the number was nine.
Jackson — one of MLB’s first major free-agency signings, following the policy’s introduction in 1976 — most emblemized the rivalry’s glut of star power. By the numbers, he was just another in the string of quality contributors to those back-to-back champs, racking up only the team’s sixth-highest WAR in ’77 and ’78. But each added dynamo boosted the lineup’s odds of producing someone catching team-carrying fire, and Jackson turned immortal in the sixth game of the 1977 Series, hitting three homers on three first-pitch swings and becoming “Mr. October.” On top of his eight RBIs in the championship round, Jackson drove home the point that has defined both teams’ approach since, one that still distinguishes their championship chances today. For high-level franchises aiming for perennial contention and mid-playoff-run adaptability, stars up and down the roster aren’t a luxury, but a need.
This year, both teams again harbor strong championship hopes with recognizable names. According to FiveThirtyEight’s MLB Forecast, there’s a 16 percent chance the teams will meet at this year’s World Series for a rematch over four decades in the making — the season’s second most-likely matchup. But it is the Dodgers, not the Yankees, who have truly brought the Steinbrennerian vision into the 2010s and ‘20s, most recently by outspending the Yankees on payroll in seven of the past 10 seasons. And their edge in a hypothetical rematch — indeed, their edge over the entire rest of this season’s playoff field — rests not only in the amount of money they’ve spent but on how they’ve spent it.
To be sure, the Yankees employ the biggest star in the league at the moment, in the form of Aaron Judge. Judge’s 60-home run explosion has helped him generate 10.0 WAR, well clear of the rest of the league (even the cumulative greatness of Shohei Ohtani sits nearly a win back). But that’s where similarities to New York’s 1970s juggernaut end. Instead of making the splashes their late owner may have sought — “I didn’t come here to become a star, I brought my star with me,” Jackson said upon his signing — the Yankees have recently complemented Judge with economy buys. This past offseason, New York brought on a 36-year-old third baseman seven years past his MVP-winning prime and a shortstop with a lifetime .663 OPS. In May, they signed their marquee in-season pickup: a 36-year-old utility-man-turned-DH with a rebuilt swing. Those pieces have been intermittently useful and clutch, but also dreadful and injured. The highest non-Judge WARs on the roster? Nestor Cortes and Gleyber Torres, at 3.9 apiece.
The Yankees’ season has become a lesson in asking too much of a superstar. Despite the level Judge has held to, the team has suffered swoons, and the postseason-long home-field advantage that seemed secure at the start of the year has been replaced by a path that may take them through Houston, L.A., or — indignity of indignities — Queens. During one 13-game stretch in August, Judge sustained a 1.023 OPS while the team lost 11 games. Our model currently gives New York a 14 percent chance of winning the World Series, which ranks third in baseball’s pecking order.
Contrast the Yankees’ budget-minded approach with that of Los Angeles, which has over recent years unrolled a seemingly endless supply of red carpet for Hollywood-bound stars. A quick highlight reel of the team’s big acquisitional swings: Mookie Betts came in 2020, via the offloading of a couple of big-name prospects; Trea Turner tagged along with Max Scherzer at the 2021 deadline, in return for a similar package; Freddie Freeman headed west last offseason, when the Dodgers pounced with a free agent offer while the Atlanta Braves played chicken. (All of this added to a club that had won its division for seven straight years even before Betts’ arrival.)
The effect of this troika on the 2022 team has been totally unsubtle. Betts, a rangy right fielder still in his athletic prime, has topped his home run output from his MVP-winning 2018. Turner likewise still brings everything he ever has at shortstop: a contact-rich and opportunistically pop-loaded swing, near-best-in-baseball speed. Freeman was the riskiest splurge of the bunch, a then-32-year-old first baseman having reached a dangerous intersection on the aging curve, but his 2022 OPS (.922) is 27 points higher than his career average. The three imports lead the Dodgers in WAR, all bundled between 4.9 and 6.0.
The Dodgers’ star-hoarding has been proof of what big-name acquisitions can inoculate a club against. On an alternate timeline, this Los Angeles season is a disaster, with injuries costing them a handful of Clayton Kershaw’s starts and almost all of Walker Buehler’s, and with longtime stalwarts like Max Muncy and Justin Turner feeling the effects of age. Instead, largely on the strength of a top of the order that has paced them to an MLB-best 812 runs, L.A. has put up six distinct six-or-better-game win streaks in 2022, and our model has them as title favorites with a whopping 33 percent championship probability.
Nothing is certain in the postseason — now less than ever. The 1977 and ’78 Dodgers and Yankees played just a five-game league championship series each before meeting in their Fall Classic matchups; this year’s versions will have to make it through a five-game divisional round and a seven-game championship series to reach the World Series stage. One guarantee still holds, though — one Steinbrenner clearly subscribed to. When choosing between depth and star power, the best option is to refuse the premise and take both. Because in October, you won’t be sorry you paid the premium.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.
CORRECTION (Sept. 27, 2022, 1:05 p.m.): This story has been updated to correct how many years it has been since the Dodgers and Yankees last faced each other in the World Series. They last met there in 1981, not 1977, so the rematch has been 41 years in the making, not 45.