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.

Reason No. 613 to hate the Yankees

Cliff Lee did great in his final audition in front of the Bronx faithful, though not sure how faithful they all are when a sizable portion of them abandoned the game before its conclusion. Hey, Yankee fans: Your team scored 5 runs in the eighth inning a few days ago, on the road — is it too much to ask for you to stay until the end of a game, particularly considering you needed to take a second mortgage out for your seats? You’re a disgrace to “Freddy Sez” Schuman, who died on Monday at age 85.

Anyway, Jay Mohr was (somehow) right — one of the primary reasons I can no longer root for the Yanks is reflected in Mohr’s quote to the Daily News in Sunday’s paper:

“I was a Yankees fan when I was growing up but when the organization had the audacity to tear down the old Yankee Stadium  to somehow make it better and bigger and brighter, it just became this embarrassment of wealth where every year I’m supposed to root for a guy that I booed eight months ago, like Randy Johnson or Kevin Brown. ‘Oh yeah, now I like him because he is wearing pinstripes.’ It’s just too much.”

Not to worry Bronx Boosters: Cliff Lee will be yours in a matter of weeks. If you’re fortunate enough, you’ll get to see him at call-backs beating your team once more.

Cheering for … A-Rod?

Just about the only time I’ve ever cheered for A-Rod:

A-Rod confirms split with longtime agent Boras

More on George

The thing is, people say, if you were a fan of the New York Yankees and you were a fan of winning, you didn’t necessarily care how George Steinbrenner treated his employees, or how George created a winner.

I’m not sure that’s true.

There was no bigger Yankee fan than me through 2001. We loved the Yankees in spite of George, and sometimes, perversely, because of George. We hated his antics. We loved his antics. I’d say losing played into how much we disliked Steinbrenner back then, but I’m not sure if winning brought us back into his fold in the late Nineties.

George’s rein from 1982 to around 1998 gave Yankee fans the rare chance to root for an underdog. Perhaps that’s why I gravitated to the Mets the last two years — except for around 1984 to 1989 when the Mets were dominant, they’ve been perennial underdogs in this two-team town.

Of course, “underdog” in the Yankees sense didn’t necessarily mean Steinbrenner had the lowest paid team. In fact, quite the opposite. And the Yankees used to be proud of pointing out that they had the highest winning percentage of any team in the Eighties (while also not pointing out that they reached one World Series in that decade, and that was because of a fluke caused by the 1981 strike).

No, my favorite Yankee teams were the ones I grew up with, the Eighties and early Nineties. Winning in 1996, and again in 1998, was like the culmination of those long (for the Yanks) dark years. After ’98, when they traded David Wells for the Texas accused-steroid meat-head, it started to become less fun. My wife and I were engaged at Yankee Stadium in July 2001. I never went to another game again. Though we gave out Yankee souvenirs (among other items) to our families at our wedding in 2002, my interest in baseball waned as my interest (and, eventually, my passion) for the Yankees waned. My interest in baseball was only reborn by two things: my son, who at a very early age, picked up on an intense interest in the sport; and my newfound rooting for the New York Mets.

Yes, George brought the winners back to the Bronx. I loved it at first in 1996 and 1998. I loved it retrospectively from 1977 and 1978. But perhaps I loved the craziness he brought with him even more.

One of my favorite books, which I know I have around the house somewhere but cannot locate, is Bill Madden’s and Moss Klein’s account of the Steinbrenner years up until around 1990 entitled Damned Yankees. It’s a recommended read for anyone who remembered those years, or who cared to remember those years, and how the good, the bad, and the ugly made for roller-coaster seasons as a fan.

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Jimmy Breslin and Steinbrenner

This is all kinds of awesome (h/t and Jerry at Defiantly Dutch).

On Steinbrenner

I don’t know how to react to the news of George Steinbrenner’s death. As a child of the Eighties and a graduate of the Nineties, I remember most that he gave us Don Mattingly, the great 1995 playoff series with Seattle, the worthy 1996 championship, and the perfect year of 1998.

I remember less (because I was so young) the late Seventies’ championship. The 1980 to 1983 teams were the ones I remember most from my formative years — a 103-win season, a trip to the World Series in a strike-shortened year, an entirely lost and misguided campaign, and a third-place finish in a bizarre but impossible-to-look-away season with a July 4 no-hitter by Dave Righetti and the Pine-Tar Game in what was Billy Martin’s last full season as manager (though he came back for partial seasons twice more).

To root for the Yankees in those days was to root for chaos. Steinbrenner made it so, and I learned the worst sin a team could make, perhaps even worse than losing, was to be a boring team to follow.

He coveted certain stars on other teams too much, and was willing to spend to bring them in. Later examples included the execrable duo of Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson, perhaps two of the greatest pitchers of all time, and two of the hardest pitchers to root for (to say the least). I couldn’t bring myself to cheer for those guys. The craziness and fun of the earlier Steinbrenner teams was one thing. The abject surliness and joylessness of these two was something else.

He gave us Reggie Jackson, who was not immediately beloved at the time, but then proved himself in his first year with the “Bronx is Burning” Yankees in the 1977 World Series.

He also gave A-Rod to the new breed of Yankee fans, and believe me, they deserve each other, this new breed of fan and the smarmy slugger. A-Rod spent years preening before finally delivering in the 2009 World Series, costing over 45 times more per year than Reggie (in average annual salary), but taking six times longer to deliver in the Series.

Steinbrenner’s is a complicated legacy. He had his own level of dignity, particularly in later years when his health failed him and he seemed more a kindly benevolent uncle than a looming malevolent force. There were dignified players to go with that aspect of his personality, even before it manifested itself in the last few years, players like Mattingly, Bernie Williams, Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter. There were class acts who came in who had limited success but limitless grace, and they made the team classier by their presence and occasional deeds, like Catfish Hunter and Jim Abbott. He had his gritty warriors, too, like Lou Piniella, Paul O’Neil, Thurman Munson.

His early years brought out the sarcasm and humor in players like Graig Nettles and Sparky Lyle, two of my favorites. Much as gallows humor can be pervasive among soldiers sharing a foxhole, it seems to me now that wry observers like Nettles and Sparky might have used their world-weary cynicism to shield themselves and allow a level of detachment from the off-field antics created by Steinbrenner’s ownership.

Nettles once famously observed: “Some kids dream of joining the circus, others of becoming a major league baseball player. I have been doubly blessed. As a member of the New York Yankees, I have gotten to do both.”

But soldiers can hold the fort against wave after wave of a persistent force for only so long before being overwhelmed (or in Nettles’ and Lyle’s case, traded).

However, the damage in the Bronx came, after a time, not from the outside, but from within. After years of attention-grabbing headlines and firings and re-hirings of managers — dismissing Dick Howser after that 103-win season in 1980 and, through an emissary, the beloved Yogi Berra after only 16 games in 1985 — and years of bad trades and even worse free-agent signings, by the late Eighties, and perhaps sooner, the Big Top at the circus collapsed from the inside.

In the beginning, Steinbrenner brought us to four World Series in six years, winning two of them, the first in his fourth year of owning the franchise.

Then he brought us Melido Perez, Andy Hawkins, Pascual Perez, and, of course, Ed Whitson. He brought us teams under Dallas Green, Bucky Dent, and Stump Merrill.

He was suspended in the early Nineties, came back and, after firing Buck Showalter after the team lost in the 1995 playoffs, the fans began marching to the bombast he wrought. The fan attitude began to change after a few years of winning championships, especially after 1999 and 2000. To win it All still was the result of hard-earned work, crafting, sweat, dedication, and (in the back office) trading, signing, and scouting. But it also became something else: the expectation of a spoiled, petulant child. Those children became worse when they didn’t get their way, when someone else won the titles they came to expect (and demand) would always be theirs. And if the kid up the block had a bigger pony, then dammit, they wanted an even bigger one. Steinbrenner got what he wanted in more ways than one.

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Rooting interests

Was in Barnes & Noble the other day on my lunch break,and I flipped through Joe Benigno’s book Rules for New York Sports Fans. Well, hell, I’m almost 38 years old, and My Old Man had me reading the sports pages since I graduated from picture books (I grew up thinking that newspapers were read backwards, starting from the back page). So I hardly need to read about “rules” for being a fan. On the other hand, I live too far upstate to get WFAN’s signal, and Benigno is nothing if not a passionate sports radio host, so I gave the book a look-see.

Benigno writes that you can’t change fandom after you’re 13 years old, that there’s no divorce in fandom. I don’t think I saw it, but I suppose he might as well have added that there’s no converting religions (through marriage or otherwise) in sports fandom and no equivalent evolving of your politics as a fan, either (I’d probably agree on that one for professional politicians).

Well, I’m not divorced (despite my friends frequently referring to my wife as a Saint). I’m still a Catholic (though, to paraphrase Jake Barnes, I’m a rotten one). I’m still fairly Center-Left. And I changed the team I root for at the age of 36.

It’s been nearly a year since I came out with this, but let me explain and expand.

I was born into Yankee fandom — my father idolized Mickey Mantle, and my grandfather (from Italy by way of Yonkers, or is it Yonkers by way of Italy?) took me to my first ballgame, at age 7, at Yankee Stadium in 1979. I rooted for them until I was 11, became disillusioned at that impressionable age, came back within a few years, and slowly had that cynicism build up until I left the Yankees to root for the 2009 Mets. The Yankees won the World Series that year. The Mets won an early start to fall golf.

The year I turned 11 I rooted for the 1983 Yankees more than any team in my life, past or present. If you remember, that was the season that Billy Martin came back to manage the Yankees (Oh, right, that one? No, not that one. That one? No, that one.). The Yanks’ game program had a picture of Martin from behind pointing his thumb over his shoulder at his No. 1 with the words “Billy’s Back.” The team yearbook had a photo of Martin kicking dirt on an umpire, which surely did wonders for the Yanks getting any leeway on close calls that season.

My favorite player was Graig Nettles. I adored him. I modeled my batting stance on his. I sought out his model baseball glove, his model spikes, his model bat. I sought out his baseball cards. I bought his book. I loved Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” music video (remember those?) because he mentions Nettles at the end of it (the end of the video, that is, not the song).

And the Yankees traded their two-year captain and Gold Glover in spring training 1984 and named Toby Harrah their third baseman.

I was crushed. A few days before the deal, I remember seeing the back page of one of the tabs with a story about the potential trade of my hero. I threw the paper down the stairs in my house in anger.

Nettles went to the Padres, and the Padres went to the World Series that year. I bought and wore a Padres hat that year.

Eleven is pretty young to become a budding jaded cynic, but hell, I experienced a strike shortened season when I was 9. No wonder my generation grew up jaded, for God’s sake. It’s one thing to have grown up a decade earlier, when your President leaves a season (or two) early. It’s only politics, government, and the future of the free world. It’s quite another to have your baseball heroes out for the summer. We’re talking about something much more important. (Though at least they came back that year. I wonder how fans who were 9 years old during the 1994 strike-canceled season feel today).

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