I have been in New York for 18 years. Every time I have gone to Yankee Stadium with my two sons and my daughter, I am somehow brought back to my boyhood. Perhaps it is because baseball is so very different from anything I grew up with.
The subway journey out. The hustlers, the bustlers, the bored cops. The jostle at the turnstiles. Up the ramps. Through the shadows. The huge swell of diamond green. The crackle. The billboards. The slight air of the unreal. The guilt when standing for another nation’s national anthem. The hot dogs. The bad beer. The catcalls. Siddown. Shaddup. Fuhgeddaboudit.
Learning baseball is learning to love what is left behind also. The world drifts away for a few hours. We can rediscover what it means to be lost. The world is full, once again, of surprise. We go back to who we were.
I slipped into America via baseball. The language intrigued me. The squeeze plays, the fungoes, the bean balls, the curveballs, the steals. The showboating. The pageantry. The lyrical cursing that unfolded across the bleachers.
[Photo Credit: N.Y. Daily News]
Here’s another excerpt from “Damn Yankees.” Over at Deadspin, check out Dan Okrent’s piece on the famous Peterson Kekich wife swap:
In the late 1970s, on my very first assignment as a baseball writer, I found myself in the press box at the Yankees’ spring training home in Fort Lauderdale. On one side of me sat Murray Chass of the New York Times, fairly early in his own career as the most prolific and most boring baseball writer in the paper’s (maybe any paper’s) history. On the other side my seatmate was Maury Allen of the New York Post.
It was only an exhibition game, but I had never been paid to watch baseball before, and even the cramped little press box in Lauderdale seemed like some sort of heaven to me. I gurgled something about this being my first professional gig as a sportswriter, and Chass looked at me briefly, emitted a noise composed entirely of consonants, and went back to his crossword puzzle. Allen was friendlier. He introduced himself, shook my hand, wished me luck, and spent the first couple innings chatting amiably about his life as a sportswriter. Around the top of the third, he paused in mid-anecdote, looked at the field briefly, and tapped a pencil on the arm of his chair. “I love everything about the job,” he said, “except the fucking games.” Then he got up and left.
It would be cheap to contradict the defenseless Allen, who died in 2010, and point out that his role in what was almost precisely a fucking game may have been the most exciting moment in his career. In the summer of 1972, the biggest trade in Yankees history originated at a party at Allen’s house in Westchester County, when pitcher Mike Kekich drove home with the wife of pitcher Fritz Peterson, and Peterson drove home with Mrs. Kekich.
The inquiry arrived via e-mail with a note of urgency from my publisher: You might want to take a look at this. Mrs. Frank Sullivan had just received a condolence call from a dear friend who had learned of her husband’s death on page 162 of The Last Boy, my 2010 biography of Mickey Mantle. Mrs. Frank Sullivan was upset. She was also surprised because her husband, an All-Star pitcher for the 1950s Red Sox, was sitting beside her on their porch in Kauai watching the sunset and sipping his favorite wine from a box. Mrs. Frank Sullivan wished to know how soon I might declare him undead.
I was appropriately mortified. Mickey murdered the ball, sure, but I had killed Frank. My apology was prompt and profuse. I had tried to find Frank Sullivan, honest. Two former teammates (at least!) and one heretofore unimpeachable online source had reported that Frank was putting on his pants one leg at a time in a better world.
I had grieved for him and, truth to tell, for myself because Frank wasn’t just another dead ballplayer. He was responsible for the best line ever uttered about Mantle, maybe the best line ever uttered by a major league pitcher. Asked how he pitched to the Mick, Frank answered on behalf of the 548 menaced hurlers who faced Mantle over 18 years: “With tears in my eyes.”
I had to use it. So I put Frank in the past tense.
The “late” Frank Sullivan e-mailed the next day:
Dear Jane, it would distress me big time if you were to lose a minute’s sleep over this. I know I haven’t. And besides, you’re probably not off by much.
Check it out.
The Yankee cards among my tired collection are like mug-shot exhibits, prepared for presentation to the Court of the Beleaguered. From Jake Gibbs, catcher without bat, to Walt Williams, outfielder without neck, they confirm my childhood status as underdog. Here is Bill Robinson, one would-be phenom, batting .196; here is Steve Whitaker, another, batting little better. Here is first baseman Joe Pepitone, sporting his game-day toupee. Here is second baseman Horace Clarke, who so disliked body contact that he often failed to make the relay to first on potential double plays.
Here are Roger Repoz and Ruben Amaro, Andy Kosco and Charley Smith, Fred Talbot and Hal Reniff, Frank Tepedino and Gene Michael and Joe Verbanic and Thad Tillotson and Johnny Callison and Danny Cater and Curt Blefary and Jerry Kenney and Jimmy Lyttle and Celerino Sanchez, poor Celerino Sanchez, and so many others you do not remember, probably by choice.
As hollow as it might sound, though, these were my heroes. I ached and rooted for every one of them as they failed daily on baseball’s Broadway stage, Yankee Stadium, facing two opponents every time they stepped onto the field: the American League team of the moment and the Yankees teams of the past. My father’s Yankees.
There won’t be a better book about the Yankees this spring than “Damn Yankees,” edited by Sports Illustrated veteran Rob Fleder. Consider a line-up that includes Frank Deford, Dan Okrent, Roy Blount Jr, Richard Hoffer, Bruce McCall, Leigh Montville, Jane Leavy, Rick Telander, Dan Barry, Tom Verducci, and Steve Rushin.
Will Leitch has a hilarious article about the uncensored joys of watching a game in the stands at Yankee Stadium; Charlie Pierce offers a wonderful take down of Jerry Seinfeld’s glib “rooting for laundry” routine; William Nack and Michael Paterniti deliver elegant pieces about the Bronx Zoo Era team; Bill James gives us the 100 best seasons ever by a Yankee catcher, and J.R. Moehringer and Colum McCann come through with beautiful memoir essays. And then there’s our man, Pete Dexter, who writes about Chuck Knoblauch in such a strange, funny, and true manner that his story will stick with you for a long time.
The book will be out this spring. And it’s a keeper.
I spoke to Pat Jordan this morning. I don’t need to borrow his gun after all–and oh, I learned that you can’t polish a Glock because it’s plastic–but he might want to put his to good use as his beloved ‘Caines were trounced by Florida State last night. He got so pissed watching football, he turned to the Yankee-Twins game. Then he got furious with the Twins, who went out like mice against the Yanks.
Me? I was at the game with the Mrs, sitting in the Todd Drew box, and I have to admit–by the ninth inning, I felt bad for the Twins. Or at least their fans. There was a group of five of them sitting in the row in front of us and by the time Time “Enter Sandman” played over the loudspeakers, these fans were getting heckled pretty good. On their way to another loss, another loss to the Yankees. They have a guy on their team named Hardy (first initial J and everything)–Damned Yankees, indeed.
The Twins had a few chances last night to do some damage and came up short. They had pitches to hit and they missed them, striking out, popping-up. The Yankees, on the other hand, removed any tension from this game early on, put up runs in the second, third and fourth innings, capped by a two-run dinger by Marcus “They Call Me Mr.” Thames. Phil Hughes pitched about as well as we could have hoped, and the only trouble the Yanks encountered was a lousy outing by Kerry Wood, who let up a run and loaded the bases, recording just one out in the eighth. But Boone Logan and Dave Robertson got out of it–Jason Kubel and Delmon Young missed their pitches and hit sky high, yet harmless fly balls.
Then it was time for the Great Mariano who retired the Twins in order and for the last time of the season. Jim Thome, a future Hall of Famer, faced Rivera in each game–popped-out to Rodriguez in Game One, and popped-out to Brett Gardner, who had him played perfectly, in Game Two. Now, in Game Three, Thome led off the ninth and saw three pitches. The last one, fastball on the outside corner, froze Thome, and he walked off the field, dismissed for the year.
Final Score: Yanks 6, Twins 1.
Yanks advance, looking every bit the part of defending world champs.
Emily and I had a good time–and I thoroughly enjoyed scoring the game in my new scorebook—but from the time we got off the subway, the energy around us was subdued. And it remained that way for most of the game, the by-product of the Yankees’ great success. There was no urgency in the building, something closer to entitlement. I don’t think that’s unnatural–how else would a fan base that has been so spoiled react?–but Emily turned to me late in the game and said, “This doesn’t feel any different than a regular season game.”
That said, we’ll take it. Another series win. Never gets old.
[Photo Credit: Andrew Burton/Chris McGrath–Getty Images]