Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Like Rooting For Microsoft

The More Things Change...
Way back in the early 1950s, it was famously said that rooting for the New York Yankees in baseball was like rooting for U.S. Steel, like rooting for Goliath to beat the hell out of David. Now more than a half-century later, I guess being a Yankees fan is like rooting for Microsoft to crush more small companies, for Wal-Mart to push out a few more small-town mom&pop stores, or for Halliburton to get just a few more no-bid contracts.

The point is, the Yankees fan is in a no-win situation. If his team wins, it's because they have the highest annual payroll in the sport by a wide margin; if they don't win the World Series, then they're a bunch of choke artists, underachievers and losers. Making the playoffs is never enough. Winning the pennant is small consolation. There's no joy in the Bronx, hasn't been since 1996, when winning was still a new thing. Even if they win the whole ball of wax, the emotion the players and fans feel is more like relief than any true joy.

And really, it's not easy to
root for a ballclub whose owner (George Steinbrenner) is and always has been a mentalcase--a truly paranoid bully of a boss. He's a twice-convicted felon and, what's worse, a truly Nixonian Republican. One of the best lines in baseball history came courtesy of the late Billy Martin, who said of Steinbrenner and the insufferable Reggie Jackson, "One's a born liar, the other's convicted." Priceless. It's also hard for me to root for something with which another paranoid freak, Rudy Giuliani, is so closely associated. And let's face it, many of their fans feel they're entitled to winning every year, and they tend to treat the rest of the league as their very own farm system. You hear these lunatics calling up sports radio stations and saying things like, "Hey, is Miguel Cabrera a free agent next year? He'd look good in pinstripes." I wanna scream at my radio when this happens. Develop your own fucking players, pal. Isn't that what made those late 1990s teams so enjoyable to watch--seeing young'uns like Derek Jeter & Bernie Williams & Jorge Posada rising up through the ranks to take their place alongside a select smattering of role-playing vets?

Instead, it's become a yearly carousel of superstar free agents parading through Yankee Stadium: Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, etc., not to mention trading for A-Rod and giving up one of their few exciting players, Alfonso Soriano, in the process. Now GM Brian Cashman may finally be getting it, as Steinbrenner finally takes a back seat in personnel decisions.

Which brings us to the hot topics burning up the sports-talk airwaves and playing themselves out through the back pages of New York's hideous tabloids, which are three in number as far as I can tell: Bernie, Mariano & A-Rod.

First Mariano Rivera. He's complaining about being underpaid, not getting respect, etc. Last time I checked he signed a contract that pays him $10 million a year. Now, sports was a lot more enjoyable, and baseball especially, when the fans didn't even know how much their favorite players earned in a season. And even if they did, the salary was not likely to be obscene, more like a reasonable multiple of 3-4 times what they earned in their own jobs. Now it's become ridiculous, and you best believe all those inflated, bloated salaries are passed on to the fan via higher ticket prices, parking charges, and those $4 hot dogs and $6 beers you're stuffing yourself with every inning.

Now, I think I read somewhere that Mariano grew up dirt-poor in the dangerous slums of Panama City, Panama. Legend has it that when the neighborhood kids got together for a game of baseball, they improvised by using a large plantain as a bat, fashioning a baseball out of whatever round fruit was in season at the time, while small farm animals and younger siblings served as first, second and third base. All of which is commendable and to be admired. But it makes his latest demands for an immediate new contract all the more vexing.

I'm not saying that because The Great Mariano overcame such harsh circumstances he should play for less or take less money. But you'd think a guy who made millions of dollars playing a kids game would be a little more grateful, a little more happy just to be here, a little less greedy. I expect his counterparts who grew up middle class in Florida or Southern California to act like spoiled brats whenever they discover someone else is making a few lousy bucks more per year. That's what makes it all the more out of character for Rivera. Plus, for someone who seems to be so pious, you'd think money wouldn't be such an ongoing obsession.

I think Cashman is playing it the right way, calling his bluff to an extent. After all, the guy is gonna be 38 years old--ancient for a pitcher, never mind a closer; history shows he already should be finished as a closer, no pun intended. And he's hardly been dominating in recent years. The true test is that as a fan you never feel it's over when he comes into a game anymore, the way you did earlier in his stellar career, the way you felt when the great Goose Gossage was stalking the mound for those great late '70s Yankees teams and intimidating the hell out of batters with his walrus mustache and cold, mean eyes looking down on you.

So I say let him walk if he wants to. Better to get rid of him a year too early than a year too late. Others can close games, and we can not win the World Series without him.

Same with Bernie Williams. He also wants a guaranteed roster spot on this year's club. Guess what? It ain't gonna happen. Every Yankee fan has a soft spot in his heart for Bernie. After all, he was there roaming centerfield well before the glory years started in the Bronx, so how can you not appreciate him. By the same token, wasn't he on his way to the Red Sox about 10 years ago before Steinbrenner himself intervened and threw some more cash at him? Where was the loyalty then? As Jerry Seinfeld so rightly pointed out, these days fans are rooting more for the uniform than the players contained therein, as modern day ballplayers resemble mercenaries more than the humble aw-shucks guys our dads and granddads rooted for back in the day.

Williams had a decent year last year filling in for injured outfielders Gary Sheffield and Hidecki Matsui, hitting .281 with decent pop. But his arm is more like a chicken wing now, and nobody will mistake him for Roberto Clemente as he gingerly patrols the outfield, even more reluctant to chase down a long fly lest he go anywhere near the outfield wall. As much as I've always respected Bernie, it would make me cringe whenever he stopped short of the wall; god forbid he gave up his body for the good of the team. We wouldn't want him to damage his guitar-playing fingers for all the money the Yankees are paying him.

In short, I don't want Bernie taking at bats away from young, up & coming Melky Cabrera. Would it have been fair to Bernie if a 40-year-old Dave Winfield was taking playing time away from a young Bernie Williams? Nope. So it's time, Bernie. You couldn't break a pane of glass with that arm of yours these days, you're still a clueless baserunner after all those years in the league, and I think the passion for the game isn't where it should be. I think Yankees fans would forgive him if he were to ply his trade elsewhere in the league. He'd still be remembered as a true New York Yankee. After all, players like Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Tom Seaver all finished their careers for other teams but we still associate them with the Jets, 49ers, Mets, respectively. That's the way sports is nowadays. Deal with it.

As far as A-Rod goes, he too has no fun playing the game, and it's his own fault for taking the money and being the highest paid player. I know technically someone has to be, but he could've chosen to remain in Seattle, the team that he came up with, because as far as I know nobody held a gun to his head and told him to go to Texas for $250 million. Now he's detested not only league-wide but is booed in his own stadium on a regular basis. Then he put his foot in his mouth and took a few nasty cheap shots at Derek Jeter, basically calling him overrated and a media creation, instead of the winner he has proven to be. I don't blame Jeter for not forgiving him. The same competitive drive that makes him a once-in-a-lifetime player is fueling the animosity between him and A-Rod. Apologies are so overrated, in my opinion; people think they can do the worst things to other people, say the meanest things, act abominably (inside sports as well as in real life), and all will be forgiven if they go through the motions of mouthing some tired, insincere mea culpa. You said it, you did it, now pay the fucking piper for a while.

We never should have traded Alfonso Soriano for this guy. He detracts from the overall team focus, and I'm sick of it. He wants everyone to like him, instead of just being himself. Give me a scumbag like Barry Bonds. At least he's honest in a sense and doesn't really care if you like him or even respect him.

Remember Kirby Puckett? I don't want to talk bad about the deceased, but what the hell: I'll make an exception. Everyone thought he was a genuinely nice guy, always had a twinkle in his eye. It turns out the guy was a habitual sexual abuser, repeatedly forcing himself on women in public. So you have to take someone's image with a large granule of salt.

My point, if there is one, is that baseball is no longer the innocent pastime it used to be, if it indeed ever was. That's what I want to say here. All that other stuff I wrote? Just window dressing. This is my real point, that rooting for the Yankees has become an ordeal, markedly less rewarding and enjoyable than even 10 short years ago, when we didn't know how good we had it. I'll never forget being at that first Yankees victory parade following the 1996 World Series, waiting with The Vin and millions of fans for our hometown boys to cascade through the Canyon of Heroes. Now, I'll still get a kick out of beating the hated Mets in Interleague play or, even better, another Subway Series. I'll still delight in besting the detested Boston Red Sox for the division, sending their pompously martyrized/self-important fans spiraling into paroxysms of despair. But don't expect me to get all teary-eyed if the Yankees fail to capture their 27th all-time championship flag this year. Real life has intruded all too much into what, after all, should still be a game.


John Salmon said...

Actually there's not much of a correlation between MLB ticket prices and salaries-see the book "Between the Numbers".

Plus, a baseball ticket is still much cheaper than an NBA, NFL, or NHL seat.

Johnny Starr said...

Warden its not too late, you can still become a Met fan. Willie Randolph would love to have you.

Wardens World said...

I do have a soft spot in my heart for Willie, as I've written about before. I have to admit that I like a couple of Mets and thus it's slightly more difficult to hate them; besides Willie, I've always liked Delgado, and of course El Duque is hard to root against as a Yankee fan, even Pedro is someone I've respected, Don Zimmer throwdown aside. But by the time we play the Mets I'll generate enough hate to make it enjoyable. Johnny Star in the House!!!!