By Emma Span
The day before I left New York to cover spring training, my editor at the Village Voice was abruptly fired. When I got back, I met the new editor for the first time… at which point he abruptly fired me, for reasons he declined to explain, other than that I wasn’t his “taste”. Ah, the thrilling world of print media! I knew I should’ve gone to law school.
In some ways, though admittedly not most, this is actually a bit of a relief: I could already feel, after only seven months on the job, some of the joy being sucked out of the game. Baseball writing is a grind, with few off days and very little time to relax, and sportswriters are quick to admit they’re not fans. (This Joel Sherman post is one of the more recent and, I think, honest examples, but almost any beat writer will echo these sentiments). Nor should they be: they’re supposed to be objective, and as Sherman says, his allegiance is to his column. But when you’re neutral, a baseball game becomes an exercise in aesthetics and plot points. It can still be a pleasure to watch, but it lacks the visceral emotional pull that draws many of us to sports in the first place.
Seeing the players off the field humanizes them – watching Mariano Rivera examine a pair of new sneakers, or Endy Chavez trying and failing to tie a tie, or Farnsworth, Bruney, and Proctor feeding the waterfowl. But the fact is that half the fun of rooting for baseball teams lies with the larger-than-life personalities and storylines. With a game every day, you need heroes and villains, not regular people (incredibly fit and staggeringly wealthy regular people, but you know what I mean) with their mundane complement of merits and flaws.
In many ways I was less disillusioned by the players than I expected to be – our culture takes a dim view of professional athletes these days, but almost everyone I talked to was at the very least polite (even when clearly sick of answering questions), and more than a few came across as intelligent and pleasant. But that’s not the point. The point is that if you’re going to spend three or four hours of your life watching a ball game, you want to cheer for your heroes – not the actual human beings, but your idea of them. Melky Cabrera the person seems like a good kid. I got to interview him through a translator this spring, and he spent most of the time smiling warmly and thanking God and Joe Torre – roughly an equal number of times, which I suppose is probably about right. But I still prefer the Melky of the popular imagination who sprang into the city’s collective consciousness last year.
Sometimes the real world is kind enough to give your imagination what it wants. One of the knocks against the Yankees in recent years has been that they don’t appear to be having much fun. Not a few pundits actually blamed the 2004 ALCS loss on this, though I’d argue that was due more to the Red Sox’s pitching, David Ortiz’s hitting, and Dave Roberts’ legs than any kind of magical positive attitude (FORP – Fun Over Replacement Player?). But as a fan, purely as regards entertainment value, it is generally more enjoyable to watch a group of guys who are having a good time themselves. I wouldn’t say that “fun-loving” is the precise word to describe those 1990s teams, but they did appear to genuinely like each other.
Last year, the Mets often seemed to have the Yankees beat by miles in that regard, but in Tampa this spring the Bombers looked as if they were catching up. I think partly that’s due to the youth influx – Cano and Cabrera together are an exuberant presence, even though (or maybe because) I usually can’t understand what they’re saying. But it’s also a deliberate effort: Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi, in particular, are making loosening up a priority.
“It’s been a slow turn but we’re definitely getting it,” said Giambi of the lightening clubhouse atmosphere. “When I first came over here it was just a different core of guys, they weren’t like that. They were more businesslike, which was great because it was successful for them, as far as winning four world championships… I mean they had fun, but they were a little more businesslike. Whereas Johnny and I are a little more-” he paused to find the right word, and succeeded – “slapdick.”
In the end, playing good baseball will make almost any group likeable. But as both juicy column material, and fodder for cheerfully irrational fandom, I say the more outsized personalities the better — the kind of personalities who can make an impression from a distance. Cano and Cabrera did this last year, and I believe Giambi can do it again, regardless of what kind of artificial help he may have had in the past. Matsui does it without the benefit of speaking English. And hell, Johnny Damon is the master. We’re down to the last vestiges of those 90s teams, if you’ll forgive me for referring to one of the greatest closers of all time as a vestige, and the Yankees need to forge a new identity for themselves. I just want it to be an engaging one — whether I end up watching this season from the press box, the stands, or the futon.
Emma Span is now a freelance writer, apparently, and lives in Brooklyn. She blogs about New York baseball at Eephus Pitch.