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José Altuve, 1998, and the Blank Check

I was adrift in the spring of 1998. I lived in a small apartment with unpacked boxes in each room and usually nothing but last night’s leftovers in the refrigerator. I once spilled some powdered laundry detergent on the carpet by the front door and it stayed there for two months. I was twenty-eight years old, but I might’ve passed for nineteen. I was adrift.

But that was the spring when I met John Sterling and Michael Kay. The internet was still a brave new world back then, and I discovered that New York’s WFAN was proudly streaming their content 24 hours a day, long before we used the word streaming, and long before Major League Baseball began policing the web. And so each afternoon I’d make sure to be home by 4:00pm so that I could sit down at my computer, log into AOL, and listen to the Yankee game.

It was magic. I sat in my empty apartment three thousand miles away from the Bronx, but night after night I had a virtual seat in the Stadium. And night after night, they just kept winning.

I wasn’t a complete recluse, by the way. On Friday, June 5th, a group of teachers went out after school to celebrate a birthday. Her name was Leslie, and her classroom was two doors down from mine. She needed a lift back to school at the end of the evening, and she laughed when I told her I needed to switch to sports radio to check the Yankee score. (A 5-1 win over the then-Florida Marlins.) She playfully slapped my hand away from the dial, but it wouldn’t be until the next night that I’d hold her hand for real. Next month we’ll celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary.

I didn’t listen to as many games the rest of that summer, but the magic never faded. It was young love. Derek Jeter was still a kid, Mariano Rivera was in just his second season as closer, and Chuck Knoblauch could still make the throw to second base. The wins piled up and soon enough Boston wasn’t chasing New York, the Yankees were chasing the ’54 Indians and the ’27 Yankees.

Even before the eventual World Series win, that ’98 season was baseball nirvana, a once-in-a-lifetime experience following a team that was so special that I knew I’d never see its like again. But only 24 years later, here we are.

The 2022 Yankees carried a 51-18 record into this weekend’s series with the Houston Astros, the same mark as the ’98 squad after 69 games. Just as with that ’98 group, this year’s team already seems to be running unopposed in the American League East, having enjoyed a double-digit lead for more than a week.

The Astros, then, were the perfect opponent at the perfect time. No team right now — not the Red Sox, not the Blue Jays, not the Rays — is a greater antagonist than the Astros, and no player is a greater villain than Houston’s José Altuve. Fans in the Bronx boo Alex Bregman out of duty, but the treatment reserved for Altuve is special. He isn’t greeted with derision, but with a palpable hatred that far exceeds anything hurled at Pedro Martínez or Kevin Youkilis or anyone else. The boos rain down each time he comes to the plate, and instead of amusing themselves with the wave, the fans fill any lull in the game with regular chants of “Fuck Altuve.” Sometimes when the Astros aren’t even in town.

If it were only because he cheated in 2017, the animosity would’ve faded a bit, as it has with Bregman. But it’s because he cheated then, stole an MVP from Aaron Judge, stole a World Series appearance from the city, and then continued to break Yankee hearts for the next five years. If Altuve ends up in Cooperstown one day, it will be in large part because of the damage he’s done against the Yankees, ignoring the steady stream of verbal abuse the likes of which few athletes have ever had to endure and uncorking one devastating home run after another. The rational part of my brain admires him for all that, but there isn’t much place for rational thought when the Astros come to town. I despise him.

It wasn’t a surprise, then, that Altuve played his part to perfection over the weekend, doubling twice, homering twice, and scoring four runs. The surprise on Thursday night was that when the Astros took a 6-3 lead into the ninth inning, it was the much maligned Aaron Hicks who saved the day. His game-tying three-run home run rocked the Stadium, shook my living room, and reminded everyone in Yankees Twitter that Hicks does, in fact, deserve his roster spot.

Three batters later the Yankees had runners on first and second as Judge walked to the plate. Cascading chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” washed over him as he watched three Ryan Stanek splitters miss the zone before jumping on the fourth one and lashing it into the corner to bring home the winning run and add another highlight to his historic season.

Justin Verlander led the Astros to a 3-1 win on Friday night to even the series, and then things started to get crazy. Cristian Javier, a kid making his twenty-ninth career start, held the Yankees hitless for seven innings before giving way to Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly who got the final six outs to wrap up a combined no-hitter. Combined no-no’s have suddenly become more common than standard no-hitters, but they don’t hold much weight with me. I was more irritated by the loss than the history.

And then Sunday happened. Facing the mighty José Urquidy, the Yankee bats were silent once again. The Bronx Bombers were hitless through the first six innings. Combined with the nine innings from the day before and the ninth inning on Friday, that made sixteen consecutive hitless innings, the longest stretch for any team since divisional play began in 1961.

Sure, the history was bothering me a bit at this point, but the present was much more pressing. If you don’t regularly peruse the Yankee corners of Twitter, you might (or might not) be surprised to know that even during this wonderful season there’s still an awful lot of angst out there. Some are still ready to fire Brian Cashman for passing on Carlos Correa, others are still certain that Aaron Boone only has the job because of the home run he hit in the 2003 ALCS, and still others regularly clamor for the release of Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks. It’s a dark place, and the reality of a series loss to the Astros or, heaven forbid — a second consecutive hitless afternoon — introduced into that black hole of delusion would likely cause the entire internet to explode.

Thankfully Giancarlo Stanton saved the universe when he stepped to the plate in the seventh inning and swatted a ball over the wall in center field, his third dinger of the series and seventeenth of the season. It was only one hit, and the Yankees still trailed 3-1, but there was hope for the first time all day. As I texted with a friend about avoiding another no-hitter, the response came back quickly: “Fuck this, Yanks are gonna win this game.”

Just an inning later D.J. LeMahieu launched another bomb into the seats in left with a runner on and the game was tied at three. The unhittable Clay Holmes turned the Astros away in the top of the ninth, and the Yankees seemed set to close things out in the bottom half when the resurgent Gleyber Torres walked with one out, stole second, and advanced to third when the catcher’s throw sailed into the outfield. Thursday night’s hero, Aaron Hicks, needed only to put his bat on the ball to get Torres home, but he struck out. When Torres turned his ankle on his way back to third and crumpled into a heap, Houston gratefully accepted the third out on the strangest strike-him-out, tag-him-out double play you’ll ever see.

Michael King somehow managed to keep the Astros from scoring in the tenth, and in the bottom half the Yankees once again found themselves with a runner on third and one out. Pinch hitter Matt Carpenter (I wouldn’t mind a left-right platoon at third, by the way) was walked intentionally, LeMahieu struck out, and Aaron Judge came to the plate with two outs and the game standing on third base.

Part of the appeal of the 1998 Yankees was that no single player’s statistics leapt off the page. This year’s group, however, revolves around Judge, the best player in baseball this season. You can’t read an article about these Yankees without being reminded that Judge “bet on himself” this spring when he turned down the security of the Yankees’ nine-figure contract offer, preferring to play the season out and see what free agency might bring.

It’s a tired observation, but it’s hard to imagine that things could’ve gone better for Judge. I can’t imagine that anyone in the free agent era has had a better walk year than what Judge is putting together this season. At this point I’m actually surprised when any ball he hits doesn’t find the seats, and he’s become the team’s everyday center fielder, just because he can. Aside from everything he does between the lines, he’s become not just the clear leader of this team but one of the most iconic players in the sport.

When he sits down across the table from Cashman this November, it won’t be a negotiation, but a coronation. Whether or not the season ends with another parade down the Canyon of Heroes, whether or not he hits sixty home runs, whether or not he wins the MVP, Aaron Judge has proved his point. Cashman would be wise to slide a blank check across the table along with the keys to the franchise. At the press conference that afternoon, with Aaron Boone at one end of the table and Derek Jeter at the other, Judge will be introduced as the sixteenth captain in the history of the New York Yankees. The terms of the deal won’t matter because he will have earned whatever he wants.

All of this was true before he came to the plate in the late afternoon on Sunday with his team tied with their darkest nemesis. Before he swung and missed at a slider from Seth Martínez, and before he put a smooth swing on the next slider and sent it soaring out of the shadows and into the light. Before he turned to his teammates and shrugged as the ball landed among the masses in the left field stands, before he had to be reminded to circle the bases, and before he danced the final few steps of the route and landed on home plate to close out a 6-3 Yankee win and split of one of the stranger four-game series you’ll ever see.

Bang Zoom

Yeah, it’s June and not October. Still, that win last night in the Bronx against the Astros was sweet.

Not to mention the fact that the Yanks have continued to play so well—and against decent teams such as the Rays and the Blue Jays.

June is not October but a winning June is better than a losing one and we will take it.

Testing 1, 2

The bubble has yet to burst. The Yanks keep rolling. Sure, it can’t last forever, but it sure has been fun so far, huh?

Next couple of weeks will be an interesting challenge: Rays (twice), Jays, and a four-game set against the Astros.

Tasty.

Ay Yi Yi…

The team apparently spending a little win-loss capital to refresh and deal with injuries and then take on their biggest competitors to continue the long slog to the mid-season break.  Let’s hope they can manage to stay on top and not stumble over more of their own hubris until then.

Break Up the Yankees

Jeez, this is a better start than many of us anticipated—winning close games (Aaron Judge with a walk-off homer last night against a cement-mixer; Gleyber Torres with 5 RBI this afternoon) and giving a promising and exciting Mets team a run for the town’s attention. Something good for the time being in this cockamamie world.

How Ya Like Dem Apples??

After a rough start (*ahem*), the Yankees engine suddenly took off like a Ferrari in a Formula One Grand Prix as they reeled off 11-straight wins against middling and tough competition.  Even if their streak was broken right after, their starters have been quite a revelation of late, particular “Nasty Nestor” Cortes with the pronstache holding the Jays to two runs in four innings, which at this point would qualify as an off-night for him (four walks, three Ks), but hey: this season might actually be something to be into, huh?

Let’s have a few more of these long win-streak thingies why not… and how’bout tossing Boone a few more times for good luck?

A Little of This (and a Little of That)

Sorta, kinda m’eh to start the season for los Bronx Bombski’s.

What do you make of our boys thus far?

UPDATE: Well dayum, never mind then; how’bout dem Big Apples? >;)

A Spring Like No Other

I have to say, I can’t remember being so unexcited about an Opening Day. It’s weird. I look forward to the rhythm that Yankee baseball will bring to my life, of listening to the game in the car on the way home from school, turning on YES when I get home to watch while putting together dinner, popping over to this site to mingle with the Banterites.

None of that has changed. I imagine I’ll still consume 125 games this season, my son and I will go to at least one of the games in Anaheim, and we might even motivate to travel a bit farther away to see the Bombers play in person in some other stadium.

But all of that is because that’s the way it’s always been. My attachment to the Yankees right now is more like an attachment to a limb. If they’ve always been a part of my life, if they’ve been the one constant of the past 45 years — and I don’t mean that in a romantic James Earl Jones kind of way, but as a simple fact — how can I not want to do all those things?

Part of this is because I’ve gotten older. I knew when Derek Jeter retired that I would never have another favorite player, just because it made no sense. I’ve got stacks of Jeter baseball cards and a jersey hanging in my closet. Remember the GQ cover with Jeter, A-Rod, and Nomar? It’s in a box in the garage.

I’ve written here before about my affinity to the former Captain, and it would make sense if I were to transfer some of those same feelings to Aaron Judge, presumably the next captain of my favorite team, but there’s something missing. Not with Judge, but with me.

It’s likely that there are fewer baseball seasons in my future than in my past, but that realization hasn’t made me look at this year or the next or the one after that as any more precious. Instead, it’s just another campaign in a series of seasons that have begun to spin past with a disturbing quickness. When I was a boy there was no longer stretch of time than the months that separated the last Yankee game in October from the first one in April, but as I write this on the eve of Opening Day it seems like only a few weeks ago that the Yankees were eliminated in a dismal Wild Card loss to the Red Sox, of all teams.

And I’ve fallen victim to the worst symptom of growing up — I firmly believe that I’ll never again know the thrill of waiting for that pop-up to settle into Charlie Hayes’s glove back in 1996. I won’t ever feel so brashly confident as when I was walking out through the Anaheim Stadium concourse in the summer of 1998, chanting “Let’s!-Go!-Yan!-kees!” along with thousands of other West Coast Yankee fans — after a loss. I’ve been watching this team long enough that my heroes have become myths and their exploits have become legend. Nothing that happens in 2022 will match anything that’s come before, that’s what my heart tells me.

Intellectually I know that I’m no different than the cranky guys at the bar who once complained that Reggie and Munson were no match for Mantle and Maris, or the crankier guys who once preferred Gehrig and Ruth over the M&M Boys. Intellectually I know that Judge and Stanton might put a hundred balls over the fence this year, but will that thrill me like Guidry did in ’78? Like Jeter did when he put #3,000 into the seats? Like Mo did for nineteen years?

But they aren’t wrong when they talk about the possibilities that loom large on Opening Day. If fans in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Kansas City can feel optimistic about their teams, certainly I can muster some positive thoughts for my Yankees. I can look past deficiencies behind the plate and age almost everywhere you look. I can be thankful that I don’t have to root for Carlos Correa. I can dream about the glorious possibility of Jasson Dominguez, the same as I once did about Ruben Rivera. (In the dream, it turns out different this time.)

So while I might not be as excited about this Opening Day as I was five or ten years ago, I’ll still be watching. The line drives will be crisp, the curveballs will snap. A new Yankee will show up wearing an old number that Graeme Lloyd or Mel Hall or Luís Sojo used to wear, and I’ll make a mental note, but I’ll stay in the moment. Because that’s what I’ve always done. That’s what I’ll always do.

Play Ball!

Another season is upon us, go figure.

Are you excited about our Yanks? I’m not but that won’t stop me from rooting them on.

Never mind the blowhards:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

[Picture by Harold Eugene Edgerton]

Video Killed the Radio Star

Or something like that. Hey, so longtime Banterite and Yankee fan, none other than Mr. Okay Jazz Tokyo, has a question: My elderly father is in Washington DC and can’t navigate how to watch the Yankees. Does he need both Apple TV AND Amazon Prime? He can’t see them play Baltimore or the Nats either as those are blacked out locally…”

Lil’ help?

[Painting by Kenneth Price]

S’Long, Sluggo

The Gary Sanchez era in the Bronx is over. And with him a lovely third baseman named Gio.

Baseball is back. Let’s have feelings.

[Photo Credit: Arturo Pardavila III via Wikimedia Commons]

Oh, Yeah … Baseball

Looks like there will be a season after all.

Go figure.

The Anatomy of a Memoir

Deep into Here I Are: Anatomy of a Marriage, an Audible Original released last week, Alex Belth describes his wedding to co-writer Emily J. Shapiro. It was a private ceremony on a Caribbean island, the type of wedding you see in the closing scene of a romantic comedy that makes you wonder why you bothered with the stress of a hundred and fifty guests and three entrées and a petulant flower girl. The smart ones elope to paradise.

But buried in the beauty of that moment lies a metaphor that’s likely unintentional. Alex spins a charming tale – Alex and Emily are both charming throughout – about how nervous he was walking from the beach to the end of the pier where the ceremony would take place, worrying with every step that the heirloom ring meant for Emily’s finger might slip from his hand and fall through a gap between the planks of the wooden pier, never to be seen again.

When we think about walking a plank, images of pirates and circling sharks come to mind, or perhaps a ship’s captain falling victim to mutiny. I don’t mean to compare a marriage to such a morbid scene, and neither would Alex or Em, but there is something in that moment to which any of us who have walked down the aisle – or a pier – can relate. 

While the captured pirate might take those final steps under threat of a drawn sword, the happy couple is equally powerless, driven by their beating hearts and intertwined souls. But here’s the irony: no matter how deep the love, no matter how committed the mind, each couple walks this plank and takes this leap knowing that the future is uncertain. And like the pirate, they must ask themselves a simple question: dare we look beyond the end of the plank?

In this beautifully produced memoir, Emily and Alex take us on an intimate tour of their marriage, shying away from nothing, illuminating everything, looking fearlessly over the edge. It’s a project more than two years in the making, stemming from a seed planted long ago in an article Alex wrote describing his role as husband and caretaker to Emily as she struggled first with panic attacks and Crohn’s disease and later debilitating vision issues.

The two of them have expanded that original article into a two-and-a-half-hour expedition, beginning with their cautious courtship, continuing through the early days of their relationship, and extending into a marriage that has not just survived but thrived. 

Structured in a series of alternating interviews, the piece feels less like a book than an afternoon with friends. As Emily describes her numerous hospital visits or Alex admits to childhood issues that have lingered into adulthood, something remarkable happens. The two of them draw the listener in, laying out their intertwined stories and memories with such vulnerability and confidence that the exercise feels less like the dissection of a marriage and more like a coffee klatch. You picture yourself sitting at their dining room table, and when the narrative switches from Alex’s discussion of his father’s drinking problems to Emily’s explanation of why she didn’t want to have children, you imagine that Alex has simply left the room for a moment, perhaps to fetch some cookies from the kitchen.

Without question, the personalities are the strength of the production. I should admit that I’ve known Alex for almost twenty years, but Emily is the star of the show, and probably of the marriage. (Sorry, Alex.) Her matter of fact explanation of her various maladies and her frank discussion of what she’s lost along the way are somehow completely devoid of self-pity; we see her not as a victim of her body’s betrayal but as a survivor always ready for the next fight. Listeners will wish they could undo what’s been done, but not once will they pity Emily J. Shapiro.

Alex and Emily clearly recorded this with hopes of providing inspiration, and they’ve succeeded. As specific and extreme as parts of their journey may be, it is somehow relatable and universal. Any listener who has been married will recognize themselves at some point, perhaps as Alex talks about releasing his need to find solutions to his wife’s struggles or when Emily’s voice softens as she describes her husband’s gentle nature. Listeners who have traveled some of the darker roads described will no doubt find solace and comfort, but even those who have not will feel uplifted.

Here I Are soars because it’s about so much more than medical mysteries and marriage therapy. It’s a love story, something every one of us will recognize. It couldn’t be more familiar. All of us have done what Alex and Emily do here. When one couple meets another, it doesn’t take long before we begin unspooling stories. We stare into each other’s eyes and tell about first dates and near misses, of coincidence and happenstance. We draw sustenance from the sharing of these origin stories, but we don’t usually go deeper than is comfortable. We don’t usually look over the edge.

Emily and Alex do. They tell us about their first date, but also their first breakup. They tell us about their wedding, but also why they don’t have children. They give us everything. They walk the plank, and they ask us to follow.


[Photo Credit: Caleb Kenna]

Thanks, Buddy

“They talk about Bernie being the bridge between old and new; but Gerald was there, too. Even though he was more of a natural ballplayer than Bernie, Bernie was the one who ended up being the better overall player and having the longer career.  But Gerald has a place in our hearts forever.”   – Alex Belth

He was the man who shepherded one of the greatest homegrown Yankees of all time, no small feat in our modern times.  Ironically, he was not around to share the glory of the Yankees’ most recent dynasty beyond its inception, and returned at the tail end after the winning was done.  Yet he was a fan favorite throughout, and no matter where he was playing, we always seemed to be waiting for him to come home.

Rest In Power, Old Friend. We’ll be talking more about you in a New York minute…

 

Book it, Dano

Baseball. Remember that?

Well, over at Esquire I compiled a list of 100 great baseball books. Give a look.

What About the Yanks?

Lots of free agent signings in the mix before the anticipated lockout. Yanks quiet thus far.

This can’t make anyone around here particularly happy, I’m sure…

Seems Like Old Times

Yanks play the Sox in Boston tonight. Winner moves on, loser goes home.

Never mind the indigestion: Let’s Go Yank-ees!

But Of Course

…Of course the Yanks will play the Sox on Tuesday night, on the road.

Sure, the Yanks romped in Boston not so long ago. Be nice if they’ve got one more big win in them but I’m not feeling overly confident, you?

Regardless, a one-game playoff is better than nothing and we’ll take it, like it or not.

 

All of That for This

 

So, this cockamamie season comes down to the final day of the season: win and the Yanks are in. Lose, and oy veh.

Never mind the agita:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

The Final Week of the Season

Three against the Jays, three against the Rays. Should be more than interesting.

Never mind the nonsense:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver