Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On the Dimming of Bright Stars

"Old age comes on suddenly, and not gradually as is thought."
--Emily Dickinson

The Core Four saw its swan song in 2009. Pettitte left the game on his own terms a year later. Jeter, Rivera, and Posada soldier on. Welcome to decline, dear friends.

Jorge Posada – he of the .182 batting average, lowest among qualifying players – laced a line drive into the gap during Sunday's Subway Series finale that had double written all over it. Mets center fielder Jason Pridie made an excellent play to the cut the ball off and fire into second. It shouldn't have mattered – most major leaguers would be standing on second by the time the ball had gotten there anyway – but it did. Posada was out by a parsec.

The play brought to mind a play made (or not made) in the final year of another New York great, Willie Mays. Patrolling center field for the new-kid-on-the-block Metropolitans, he fell face-forward while trying to make a diving catch on a swooping drive. For the young Say Hey Kid the tough play would have been routine. You could tell that, rather than back up and play it safe, his mind directed him to make the catch – he knew no other way – but his 42-year-old body would not comply. Such was the snap-decision equation for Posada. Ball squarely in the gap = double. Except when, physically, you just can't.

Your ego is writing checks your body can't cash!

"Growing old is just a helpless hurt," Mays would later say. It's difficult to watch a once-great player unable to perform at the high standard to which he and we are accustomed. Apparently, that player is also difficult to manage. Posada removed himself from the lineup a week ago, rather than face the ignominy of batting ninth in a nationally televised Yankees—Red Sox showdown. Posada made vague reference to a stiff back and said needed a day to clear his head. He got his off-day, along with a media firestorm that had everyone from ownership, management, in-game Fox Sports announcers, fans of all stripes, and the national sports commentariat weighing in.

Will he retire? Was this insubordination? Should he be disciplined? Would the Yankees try to void his contract? Is an apology in order? (On the last question, Derek Jeter, ensnared in his own public fray with Father Time, answered no, creating a secondary conflagration that required a conference call with Cashman, Girardi, and the brothers Steinbrenner to ensure that everyone was "on the same page.")

"Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art---," Keats wrote in 1819, no doubt anticipating the age-defying dominance of Mariano Rivera.

Posada apologized the next day, and the word from team spokespeople was that the issue was resolved, let's move on. But for the Yankees' "legacy assets" and the man with the unenviable task of managing their subsiding value, the struggle to redirect time's arrow continues.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bring Back the Lost Boys of Brooklyn

For a sport relentlessly haunted by the hormonally-imbalanced ghosts of its past, enter a team of ghosts who could actually do some good. I refer of course to Dem Bums of Flatbush Avenue, who, like Tolkien's Dead Men of Dunharrow, are cursed to restless disquiet. The dazzling play of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider are confined now to the memories of antediluvian Brooklynites who watched their team dominate the National League in the 1940s and 50s, often – save for one spectacular October in 1955 -- to end up losing the World Series to the Yankees.

The ghost of Gil Hodges has seen better days.

Walter O'Malley moved the team to Los Angeles in 1958, seeking a new stadium and new revenues in a growing market. John Sexton wrote a piece in the Huffington Post in 2009 in which he called that moment "The Birth of Distrust":

The unraveling of our civilization can be traced to that point -- all of our country's sorrow and defeats and all of our self-doubt and mistrust, became inevitable then. Political assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, the collapse of confidence in our leaders (first public, then ecclesiastical, and finally everywhere) -- it all became possible. If the blessed and beloved Dodgers could leave Brooklyn three years after the great miracle occurred, what theory, what tale, what conjecture was too outrageous to be believed?

With Major League Baseball taking over day-to-day operations of the Dodgers this week and the team's ownership status in a state of flux, now seems as good a time as any to seek a resolution that would return the venerable franchise to its rightful home. Move the Brooklyn Dodgers Back to Brooklyn, writes Tom Van Riper in a piece for Forbes.com yesterday. He notes that the timing is right: "Fifty-four years after the Dodgers headed west, the cities' rolls have reversed. Los Angeles, with its smog, bum economy, suffocating state debt and off the charts traffic, is the past. Brooklyn, with its hipsters, gentrification, revitalized brownstone neighborhoods, reformed Coney Island waterfront and soon-to-open Barclay's Center, is the future."

Yous weisenheimers wanna go get a pizza pie after Dem Bums win?

What a story it would be. Midcentury baseball in New York is the stuff of legend. I know the Golden Age of Three Big New York Clubs through books and films, among which I and many include Mickey Mantle and Phil Pepe's My Favorite Summer, 1956 and, Ken Burns' definitive and sublime Baseball. What it must have been like, to be a baseball fan in New York during that time. Could it be like that again? If the Nets, of all franchises, can draw fans and make money in Brooklyn, surely the borough's much-missed avatars can do the same. It's hard to imagine anything more electrifying and just for the New York Game.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Raineth drop and staineth slop, And how the wind doth ramm! Sing: Goddamm.

It's been a cold winter for fans of both New York teams. The Game need not remind you that after months of breathless courtship – winks, nods, shy smiles, and fistfuls of cash – Cliff Lee spurned our romantic overtures in favor of an old flame, Philadelphia. Not even the overtures of the newly svelte C.C., his old pal from Cleveland who has foresworn his once daily consumption of an entire box of Cap'n Crunch, could win Lee over. (It was a thoughtful gesture of C.C., incidentally, to donate his junk food to the Fernando Valenzuela Institute for Strength Training, of which Joba Chamberlain is a now a devotee.)

A man on a mission.

Nor need we rehash the public relations debacle that was the Derek Jeter contract negotiation. Or note that Andy Pettitte, New York's most reliable pitcher of the past 15 years, officially retired. Or point out what every Met fan understands all too well: the Mets enter 2011 with the same roster, one year older, that went 79-83 last year. Oh yeah, minus their best left-handed reliever, Pedro Feliciano. Who went to the Yankees.

But we go there anyway, because griping is a quintessentially New York tradition.

As if the Mets on-field problems weren't enough, we learned in recent weeks that for the past 20 years, the de facto chief financial advisor for the New York Metropolitans was one Bernard L. Madoff. (Who else? Were you expecting Alan Greenspan?) The repercussions of that relationship have caused ownership to explore selling a roughly one-quarter stake in the team. It will take a lot more, however, than a minority owner with little influence over team operations to turn around a culture defined by dysfunction. (It's a new year – where's the optimism, you ask? Um...I know this: the Citi Field Shake Shack has great burgers, fries, and fixins. Wow, what a burger! Enjoy!)

Citi Field's prime attraction, in all its glory.

The news that the Yankees acquired all-star Rays closer Rafael Soriano was the best of the weary winter. Of course, moments after the Yankees introduced one of the best relievers in baseball, Brian Cashman took the podium at Soriano's news conference and proceeded to discuss in detail his strenuous opposition to acquiring him. That said, welcome! The passing of the Old Man certainly appears to have liberated Cashman to speak his mind. Yet the more we hear, the more it becomes apparent that the Yankees' philosophy of coupling a big budget with shrewd baseball management is missing half the equation.

Cashman has done good things for the franchise, to be sure, especially his building of the farm system in recent years. But his inflated ego was all too evident in the Jeter negotiations, in which he sought leverage by publicly denigrating the most popular Yankee since Mickey Mantle. Shall we see where his stellar business acumen gets him as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team whose annual payroll matches approximately that of the Yankees' third baseman? He may get his chance in 2012.

Cashman at Foley's this winter, sharpening his skills for a potential career change.

But never mind 2012. 2011 awaits! At least according to the calendar. In a coup of talent acquisition this winter, the Yankees obtained such boldface names as Mark Prior, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Andruw Jones, and Eric Chavez: sometime all-stars who now cling to big league status by a phantom of a thread. Indeed, we're on our way to 120 wins, if we can somehow turn the clock back to 2003.

Pitchers and catchers this week – huzzah!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Freddy Schuman: A New York Icon

The passing of Freddy "Sez" Schuman this past weekend brought a sense of sadness to the New York Game. Freddy and his colorful signs and frying pan were as much a staple of the old Yankee Stadium experience as were long bathroom lines, maddening traffic conditions, Bob Sheppard's elegant voice, and incredible late-inning comebacks.

Thinking about Freddy reminds me of the games my parents took me to as a boy, in the early and mid 90s, when I knew Yankee Stadium as a collection of crazy characters. There was an electric guitarist who played for tips near River Avenue whom my brothers called The Jimi Hendrix Guy, because he kind of looked like Jimi and seemed to be trying to channel him. Mostly he just made a lot of noise and appeared to be having a good time. Inside, there was Cousin Brewski, who along with his brews offered rapid-fire quips in a deadpan, heavy Noo Yawk tone. ("Cousin Brewksi's here! Get a buzz from the cuz!")

Cousin Brewksi

There was also a season ticket holder in the field level box seats known as The Scatman. He was a big guy with intense eyes and long, graying hair who gyrated like a holy roller to whatever song was playing in between innings. The stadium video crew even made a montage of his best moves, which was sometimes played after the seventh inning stretch (before Cotton Eyed Joe took a lamentable stranglehold on that spot). My brothers and I were wondering around the field level late one game, no doubt looking to upgrade our seats, when we bumped into him. "Hey, it's The Scatman!" I said. He smiled and nodded, seeming to take great satisfaction in our recognition of him. Later that game, the crowd erupted as Yankees scored. As the cheers dissipated, one baritone voice remained behind me, delivering a deep-throated aria, as if he were on stage at Lincoln Center. Several fans turned around. "Let's-a-go Yankees!" he roared in an Italian accent. He looked like Pavarotti's thinner younger brother. Only in New York. That was the old stadium.

The first time I can recall meeting Freddy was at a game in 1996. The Yankees were cruising in first place, and Freddy's sign reflected the exuberant mood: "Freddy Sez: Yankees Are Like Wow!" My brothers and I each took a turn banging on his pan. Later that year, my father, who is a Manhattan College alum, took us to a Manhattan Jaspers basketball game. Freddy was there. This guy really gets around, I thought. I banged on the pan.

At a game in '97, I spotted Freddy in the loge, and decided to walk up and shake his hand. "Go Jaspers, Freddy," I said. "Hey, alright!" he laughed, pumping my hand vigorously. I banged on the pan.

As the years went on, Freddy became friends with more and more fans, and cemented his status as much more than a minor celebrity: he become part of the fabric of the New York baseball community. He had a role in a MasterCard commercial and in the video for House of Pain's Jump Around. He made it over to the new house in 2009, but I suspect he felt out of place amidst the luxury boxes, sushi bars, and hedge fund managers in thousand-dollar seats. The posh amenities are nice, for those who can afford them, but for my money I'd rather see the old characters.

It was proper for the Yankees to honor Freddy with a moment of silence before game three of the ALCS. He represented that which is great about the New York Game.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

George Steinbrenner Monument's Park

The New York Game was snapped out of its months-long hiatus with the recent unveiling of the George Steinbrenner Monstrosity in Monument Park. Three times larger than the dedications to those no-names of yore (Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle), it stands five feet high and seven across, weighs in at 750 lbs., and bears a slight resemblance to a widescreen HDTV. Josh Alper of NBC Sports notes that it is visible from space.

Mariano Rivera, who will have his own monument out there one day, stared open-mouthed for a good spell, as if thinking but trying to restrain himself from saying, WTF...?

"It was big; probably how The Boss would have wanted it. The biggest one out there," Derek Jeter said, displaying his characteristic deftness for observation that keeps his own opinion to himself.

Granted, it's not quite as garish and unmerited as, say, the monument in Ashgabat to Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov...

But not that far off. I'd put it somewhere between the permanent preservation of Vladimir Lenin's body and Saddam Hussein's now-toppled statue in Baghdad...

As do many Bombers fans, I have mixed feelings about George's reign. There's no question he's an important figure in the history of the Yankees, and indeed, all of baseball. He did a lot of good for the team, and we all know, quite a bit of bad. But come on.