Bombast and baseball

Darryl Strawberry created a stir the other day by claiming his 1986 Mets team was better than his 1998 Yankees team. Without going into the merits of his argument, the negative zeal of Yankee fans in defending their team reminded me much of what has gone wrong with this country and why I am happy to be rooting for a team other than the New York Yankees. Naturally, as was pointed out by some commenters, Strawberry’s contributions to the 1986 Mets were more critical and prominent than those he added to the 1998 Yankees, so in this, the 25th anniversary of that ’86 team, he might have a bias. Still, it’s one thing to disagree with a man, but quite another to spew venom and viciousness scant few levels shy of Hank Williams Jr.

Few reasonable responses should be expected by commenters on an ESPN site (though I fully agree with this quite reasonable hypothesis). But the arrogance, the bile showering forth from many fans of the most honored franchise in baseball history is disgusting. Once I felt as though the Yankees were occupied by the conquering force of the late George M. Steinbrenner and his offspring — clearly, the fans are the ones who are the ones occupying this franchise. I am glad I am not a part of it. Hell, even the dugout is more reflective and self-aware than their fan base.

Society suffers these days from an undercurrent lacking in humility and grace and an overabundance of greed, arrogance, and bombast. The most vocal (and, hence, the de facto representative) Yankee fans have it in spades, and that’s why I needed to leave that fold. I am not naive enough to think that if another sports teams had their success rate and resources, they would not be as obnoxious or as utterly lacking in self-reflection and empathy, but there you have it; these are the times in which we live.

When, as vocal Yankees fans and the team’s president, Randy Levine, openly admit that anything less than winning the World Series a failure and a bitter disappointment — not mere disappointment but a failure and bitterness and all that implies — I think you get to the core of being a Yankee fan these days. In many ways, it reflects the current rot as it exists in many sectors of America’s economic society. It’s of a piece to what those involved with Occupy Wall Street movement are protesting against. And this is not to argue in favor of accepting failure, or of a socialist view of the world, or against capitalism, or against intrinsic success in favor of lovable losers. But success takes many forms. It does not mean that only one team in baseball is a Success and the 29 others Failures. There is one team that is a champion. Though by the measure of athletics, it essentially equates to 29 losers, it does not equate to 29 failures. The inability to see that, and the attendant lust for greed that accompanies this worldview, does not bode well for American society and its need to take care of all and to show forms of grace and humility.

Yankee fans of a previous era, perhaps, say, before the 21st century began (to select a convenient starting point), could win and enjoy their successes without this insatiable need for greed, for apocalyptic dominance, for suffering for winning only one of the past three World Series, while simultaneously dismissing and belittling the accomplishments of anyone else. It is hard to image the fans of the Fifties Yankess, the Twenties Yankees, even the Seventies Yankees, behaving so poorly.

Likewise, corporate leaders and captains of industry, while having a long history of opulence themselves, did not quite show the greedy disconnect that they show now, except perhaps in the trust-busting days of Theodore Roosevelt.  When Jeff Imeltt doesn’t bat an eye for building his success on using overseas workers (and, by easy extension, putting Americans out of work) while acting as the country’s jobs czar, it’s all part and parcel of the same arrogance and greed that is ruining America’s economy for all but the most comfortable.

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Mets GM: Opportunities lost and found

Now the worst-kept non-secret in town official, Sandy Alderson was is expected to be announced as the new Mets general manager on Friday.

I admit to having perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to the news he was the front-runner for the job a few weeks ago, particularly since the rumor mill had Tony LaRussa joining him. Blissfully, the pompous LaRussa is staying in St. Louis. So I am now more than a bit optimistic that the near-63-year-old Alderson can turn things around for the Amazin’s (though I still stand by my agreement with columnist Bill Madden that a general managership is a younger man’s game).

Alderson was a chief executive in the Oakland A’s organization from 1983 to 1998. He was Oakland’s GM in the late ’80s when Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco were known as the Bash Brothers. That duo later became notable for their admitted steroid use, as did a later Oakland slugger, Jason Giambi (though Giambi didn’t become a full-time player until 1997, he came up in an organization with two steroid-using sluggers as star attractions, at least raising the question if the steroid culture, as prevalent as it was in the Major Leagues in the ’90s, was even more prevalent in Oakland).

Alderson should have to answer for this at some point. But just not at his introductory press conference, as ESPN columnist Ian O’Connor suggests (h/t MetsBlog).

(Digression No. 1: Ian O’Connor is a writer I greatly admired, and still do. We used to run his column in the lousy paper where I toiled more than a decade ago. My dream as a kid was to grow up to become a New York sportswriter, and when I was an exurban-New York high school sportswriter in my mid-to-late-20s, I narrowed my dream to become a columnist like him and his fellow Daily News alum Mark Kriegel. That dream for me died a slow and then final death for a variety of reasons beginning more than 10 years ago (some largely self-inflicted), and I stopped reading O’Connor regularly when I entered my own post-sportswriting exile, but he seems to have obviously done some great work since.)

(Digression No. 2: As I tried to point out on MetsBlog (my comment seems to be in perpetual moderation), in response to a comment about sportswriters not doing due diligence during the steroid era, Steve Wilstein stands alone. He was the AP scribe who spotted and then asked McGwire about the bottle of Andro in his locker during the ’98 homer chase. Wilstein’s sportswriting brethren largely left him twisting unsupported in the wind that summer while sales of Andro boomed after Wilstein’s story broke. In the face of a popular groundswell for McGwire and follow homer run chaser/suspected cheat Sammy Sosa, I am ashamed to admit that I can’t say I’d do anything different in asking such unpopular questions in the face of such overwhelming popularity. Though at least I can be certain and proud of the fact that I wouldn’t have asked for a hug from my buddy McGwire, as Joe Buck embarrassingly did.)

(Digression No. 3: Wilstein and his andro reportage was covered in Ken Burns’ recent addendum to his PBS “Baseball” documentary, “The Tenth Inning.” To me, the now-retired Steve Wilstein is a sportswriting version of an American hero. They should erect a statue of him in a press box of his chosing.)

I disagree with many of my fellow Mets fans on MetsBlog who largely say that Alderson is not coming here to talk about the past, which sounds dangerously close to his former star’s dispiriting and damning 2005 testimony to Congress. Alderson should talk about the past. But I’m going to punt and say that’s both a talk he can give later, and a penance he’s already begun to pay for.

I think the steroid culture of the Bash Brothers is a spot on Alderson’s record. Some day he should answer for it. But why now? This is not President Bush squandering an opportunity to talk straight with the American public nine years ago — instead of asking for the shared sacrifice our country gave circa 1941 to 1945, he told us to go shopping.

This is not that moment for Sandy Alderson (the steroids-in-baseball version of it, anyway). I’m not sure when that moment will come, or if it already came and went, another opportunity missed. Perhaps it came and went in 2005 on the “60 Minutes” program O’Connor refers to. Perhaps it came and went when Alderson was hired by the Padres earlier this decade or when Bud Selig hired him earlier this year to help clean up problems (steroids chief among them) in baseball in the prospects-rich Dominican Republic.

And not to give Alderson a pass, but perhaps his effort over the last eight months to try to police steroids in the Dominican at least pays some of that penance, an unspoken, unacknowledged atonement of sorts, a reckoning, however brief and targeted it may have been.

Being a fan — particularly an ex-Yankee fan/now-diehard-Mets fan — and an ex-sportswriter involves living with a large helping of hypocrisy (hell, being me involves a large degree of hypocrisy, but that’s a whole other series of blog posts. I feel like Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday: “It appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds.”). Apologies, if they are still to come, can come later. I’m looking forward to the Alderson era in Metsdom and all the opportunities it presents, today and in the future.


What Don Draper wants vs. what we expect of him

So,  perhaps it wasn’t the ending many fans wanted and hoped for. If that’s want what you want, “Friends” is probably still on re-runs on one of the Turner stations.

Don Draper blew up a consistent source of income for an advertising firm — Big Tobacco — last week in a gamble designed to save his firm. He ultimately couldn’t take another gamble by blowing up his Don Draper identity, as Faye Miller suggested at the start of Sunday’s season finale.

Don has spent his entire adulthood chasing the idea of who he wants to be, rather than who he really is, a central theme to this season, this show, and, not coincidentally, what advertising sells to us, the people. Or, as Draper told Faye in Episode 2 of this season: people are torn between “what I want versus what’s expected of me.” With all we know and have seen of Don Draper, how he sells products as much as he sells his identity on a daily basis, why would he want to be “stuck trying to be a person like the rest of us,” even if a potential visit from the G-men sends him into panic attacks and nervous breakdowns? And aren’t we all a little bit incapable of change? Or as Don once told Faye (wrongly, as it turns out): “You can’t tell how people will behave based on how they have behaved.”

Who doesn’t, sometimes, commiserate with Don Draper? I know I do, torn between who I want to be and who I am, what I want versus what’s expected of me. Is it true that “every time something good happens, something bad happens,” as Peggy puts it? Or can you simply retreat, even for a day, into what you want to be and not do what’s expected of you without consequences? Or do you have to be Don Draper, and ignore those consequences as much as possible?

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On the other hand, you could simply read Greg’s excellent “interview” with Don Draper on how he’d fix the Mets and improve the Amazin’s fan base at Faith and Fear in Flushing.


Alderson, LaRussa way wrong for the Mets

So, Sandy Alderson is interested in the Mets’ newly vacant general manager’s job, and the Mets are said to be ready to interview him next week. This, of course, has the rumor mill ramping up that Tony LaRussa, said to be tired of managing in St. Louis, would logically follow said Alderson to the said Mets (should Alderson get the said job, it is said).

Didn’t the Mets already try this once with re-tread Oakland A’s management? (see: Howe, Art). How’d that work out for them?

First of all, Alderson seems to have the tacit endorsement of Bud Selig. I do not consider that an advantage. Second of all, the buzz of winning ball teams this century have been young, innovative general managers. Not to sound ageist, but as Bill Madden of the Daily News wrote this week: “… ask John Schuerholz ask Pat Gillick, ask almost anyone, the GM job has become a young man’s job.”

Alderson had great success as a GM in the 1980s. So did Frank Cashen, and I don’t see the Mets interviewing him to come back. Alderson, who will be 63 years old next month, hasn’t been a GM in 13 years (though he was the San Diego Padres CEO from 2005-2009, when the Friars went 397-414 for a .490 winning percentage, or 0.00186 percent better than the Mets’ winning percentage this year of .488).

Then there’s LaRussa (who has a law degree, don’t you know?), the Cardinals manager who was Alderson’s A’s manager, and whose name is devilishly linked with his former boss among the Mets commentariat. I don’t like LaRussa’s politics (lover of Arizona immigration laws, featured guest-speaker-introducer for Glenn Beck’s America, though God forbid don’t upset him more than you’re upsetting him now), but, hey, whatever. Even Jackie Robinson was a supporter of Nixon and Goldwater. It’s just, LaRussa can’t stop shining the spotlight on himself and his J.D.-conferred brain.

That’s the problem. LaRussa can’t help himself, which is exactly why I don’t want him here. It’s all about him. LaRussa is to the Cardinals/A’s as Joe Girardi is to the Yankees. Even exempting politics (I have no idea of Girardi’s, which is a plus side in the Yankee skipper’s column, though, did you know, he has an engineering degree from Northwestern?), they have an innate need to let you know how much smarter they are than you.

LaRussa, who claims he saw no evil among the steroid-abuser.

LaRussa, who was outmanaged by Jerry Manuel — that now departed, ever-quotable former manager — in a 20-inning game earlier this season. That road win set the Mets on their much beloved 9-1 homestand in late April, which in turn sparked a two-month winning joyride, which of course they could not sustain. But it sure as hell was fun while it lasted.

Alderson is not the right choice for GM for a rebuilding Mets team. LaRussa is even a worse choice as a potential manager. But some in the Mets commenting community are happily abuzz at the prospects. Are Mets fans so desperate for a winning team that they’d sell the lovable soul of this franchise? What are we, the Yankees?

(who has a law degree, don’t you know?)

The real Comeback Player of the Year

Sorry, but if you were a first-round pick who went bust because your team doctor discovered you were missing a ligament in your pitching arm, and then, 14 years later at 35 years old, you post a sub-3.00 ERA and become perhaps the only feel-good story on an otherwise moribund team, how are you not the Comeback Player of the Year? Tim Hudson and his precious Tommy-John-surgery-rebuilt arm can go blow (as nice as I’m sure Mr. Hudson is). R.A. Dickey of the Mets was the real Comeback Player of the Year 2010 in the National League.

Yeah, I know the argument goes that Dickey was never good before this season, so what, exactly, is he coming back from? Um, how about unfulfilled promise? How about that quintessentially American story of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and persevering over adversity to achieve a measure of success? If that’s not a comeback story in sports, let alone America, I don’t know what is.

This is not to demean what Tim Hudson has accomplished. And this may come across as callous or as diminishing rehabilitation from dramatic surgery as something that most non-baseball-playing mortals could possibly comprehend or undertake. But lots of professional ballplayers come back from injuries, even (in this day and age) from Tommy John surgery — that is, coming back from a repaired ligament. Not a lot of them have come back from not having a ligament at all, to say nothing of coming back from 14 years of life as a journeyman to discovering a magic and should-be impossible-to-control knuckleball while throwing the seventh best ERA in the league (albeit 1/100ths of an average earned run behind the guy you lost the award to).

“The 30 Club beat reporters from MLB.com, the official web site of Major League Baseball, selected the winners for the 2010 Major League Baseball Comeback Player of the Year Award,” reads the press release from Major League baseball announcing this year’s awards. I’d say the 30 club beat reporters wouldn’t know a good comeback story if it bit them on their collective online ulnar collateral ligaments.


Summer in the Citi

I briskly walk down the steps of the subway station on a gray and unseasonably cold weekday afternoon in August.  I am in Queens. It is six days after my 38th birthday, and I can’t remember the last time I rode a subway in New York. As the steps fall beneath my feet and the overhang of the station clears my view, I see the reddish-brown brick rotunda and the giant red apple in the plaza in front of me. I am at Citi Field.

A man sitting on a low wall near the apple talks to me about the park. A plane takes off low overhead. I call my friends, who I will meet inside the park later, and laugh. I am smirking as wide as a 9-year-old boy when they lower the lights and bring out his candle-topped birthday cake.

I buy my tickets from perhaps the most patient ticket agent in all of New York, and I cynically think, is this what it is like when you have a .500 ballclub that doesn’t sell all of its seats? Is it the Mets, or do teams just treat their fans better when the home club is playing poorly, the experience created because this is a weekday game for a non-pennant contender? No reason to ponder this further; my first impression of a 2010 Mets representative is a positive one, and a ballpark looms.

I enter the rotunda and, of course, I look up at the high, arched windows, and I look down at the marble floor. It is 90 minutes before gametime, and the crowd inside the rotunda is small. I go through the team store and I poke my head into the Hall of Fame museum, but only briefly. I ride the escalator up and walk around a bend and I see the field. It still gets me — how green the grass is for major league baseball, whether your team is in first place or last. The park is both larger and smaller than I expected, and I can’t stop taking pictures with my camera-phone, and I walk around the entire field-level concourse, even up and down some stairs to peek through the fence at the bullpen and behind me I see how close the auto-chop shops are across the street, and I love this new stadium.

It is a windy late afternoon, and it will become a windy, misty night, and with our seats in the upper deck promenade, I am glad I wore my rain jacket on this August night. But that is later. I as am giddy as a child on this first trip to this 2-year-old park of my adopted team.

I complete my circle around the concourse and then double back to the food area behind center field. I take a peek at the kiddie wiffle ball field I hope my son will get a chance to try out someday, and I buy him an orange Mr. Met T-shirt that he will surely outgrow in six months. I go upstairs eventually to check out our seats and am satisfied.

The author (right) and "friend."

The author (right) and newfound superfriend (with saxophone) outside Citi Field.

My friends arrive and call me from the center field area I just vacated. I practically run down the stairs to meet them and we embrace and eat soft tacos and drink beer while standing a table in center field, the wind battering us like we were on a fishing boat in the bay. We watch R.A. Dickey from a distance, warming up in right field. I grab a second round of beer just before the National Anthem, and we stay at our stand-up table underneath a giant scoreboard for the first inning while buffeted by the wind and I love every minute of watching baseball, drinking beer, eating food, and spending time with my friends, away, temporarily, from work, family, household chores. I miss my family, admittedly momentarily, but I also think about how I can’t wait to introduce my 4-year-old son to this baseball experience (minus the beer, of course) and how I can’t wait to point out all the architectural nooks and crannies to my wife over good food. But, selfishly, not tonight. Tonight is my birthday present to me, and the Mets later add a cherry on top with a ninth-inning win.

But the victory is secondary to me, paradoxically, to getting to experience a big new park for the first time, to eat (separately, of course) Mexican tacos behind center field and a Kosher hot dog topped with pastrami high above the left field line, to cheer with friends for the Mets, for a 35-year-old knuckleballer, for Mets hitters coming up to the plate to the strains of the Stones’ “Start Me Up” (for rookie Ike Davis) and Van Halen’s “Panama” (for the aforementioned Dickey), to enjoying the company of old friends for a few hours, wind and light rain be damned, to enjoy a few last laughs and photos, and to finally take an express subway and a long commuter train back to my parents’ home, where my precocious boy sleeps peacefully on an air mattress at his grandparents’ house.


On dodging career bitterness to become the ‘other guy’ and escape ‘the depths of Mordor’

In what has become a disaster of a Mets season after so much promise in June, R.A. Dickey remains a highlight and perhaps the most inspirational story to come from on-field performances in this baseball season.

Dickey’s story has been well-told, but for readers of this blog who are neither Mets fans nor baseball fans, here’s some catch-up: Dickey was born without (or perhaps it atrophied as a youngster) an ulnar collateral ligament — the primary tissue that stabilizes the elbow — in his pitching arm. He shouldn’t be able to turn a doorknob without pain, let alone pitch.

He was drafted out of college by the Texas Rangers, but a team doctor discovered the oddity in his arm, and the team downgraded a promised $800K offer to $75 grand.

After wandering through the majors and minors and through several organizations for more than a decade — the very definition of a journeyman — Dickey has found success in his first season with the Mets this year by mastering the unpredictable knuckleball, a pitch so rarely used that only two Major League hurlers use is as a primary weapon (Dickey and Boston’s Tim Wakefield). Dickey is doing this at 35, an age when most professional ballplayers are in their decline stage (though some top-level pitchers do throw into their 40s, as do many knuckleballers).

Oh, and by the way, in the world of monosyllabic jock quotes, Dickey was an English major in college, is an avid reader, and is a thoughtful quote.

But what continues to strike me, and what gives me inspiration as a 38-year-old former English major with what feels like a stalled career and little understanding of what to do about it, is R.A. Dickey’s attitude about his own career, which saw such promise (and promise of riches) turn to a kind of professional wandering in the desert, and then to an eventual career reboot that is well on the way to redemption.

As he told the New York Times in 2008 (while still working on, but not yet perfecting, that knuckleball):

“‘Imagine winning the lottery and then losing the ticket,’ said Dickey, who signed with the Rangers because he assumed no team would give him a chance again. He reported to the minor leagues knowing that precious little was keeping his elbow together, that each day pitching could be his last.

“‘Every day I had to decide whether I was going to be bitter, if I was going to be that guy — woe is me, you know?’ Dickey said. ‘I had to choose every day to be the other guy.'”

Or, as announcer and Mets legend Keith Hernandez said in the Mets broadcast earlier tonight (in a bit of coincidental and unfortunate timing, just before Dickey gave up a game-tying home run), Dickey’s career was “in the depths of Mordor,” and now he is a candidate for comeback player of the year. Read the rest of this entry »