Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Yankee Rash

“Sport brings me out in a rash. I think it's awfully bad for people's characters. People's characters deteriorate as soon as they have anything to do with sport - they throw beer-cans at each other, they knee each other in the groin. Nobody knees each other in the groin at Covent Garden Opera House.” John Mortimer

What is it about the N.Y. Yankees that drives me to distraction? The appearance of the team’s name near the top of the American League East standings is enough to ruin my breakfast -- all summer long. It’s not that I favor any other team, particularly, anymore, and these days baseball counts for relatively little on the calendars of most sports fans. A friend of mine laughingly calls it a “sideshow.” I once thrilled to the antics of the relatively low-payroll Orioles who labored under Earl Weaver and spent many a happy, frustrated, and/or exhausting day in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, entertained by the likes of Rick Dempsey, John Lowenstein, Rich Dauer and a lot of other near-forgotten Orioles. Weaver, of course, was the main attraction and nothing could top one of his explosive face-offs with some unfortunate umpire. No one else ever got tossed out of a game with such panache. Those Orioles didn’t win many championships, but they were always in the running. Alas, in the days before multi-tiered playoffs and wild cards, they were inevitably edged out by the hated Yankees, who would manage to win a few more games than the Os and head for the post season. My Yankee-hating probably dates from that era, as I watched the Steinbrenner Bronxers siphon off one top star after another with the team’s fat checkbook.

Yankee fans take great pride in the team’s many world championships, legendary hall-of-famers, and its once-hallowed stadium. No one questions their achievements and consistent winning. That’s the problem. They seem to win all the time. The team and its fans expect to win -- year after year. They treat failure as a cosmic injustice, as if the Earth’s been knocked off its axis. When they win, they can’t seem to appreciate it the way other teams and their fans do; as something special and rare to be savored. Instead, victory is a mere affirmation of the cosmic order. Losing is so unacceptable to the Yankees that it cannot be endured without finding a scapegoat to blame for failure. Typically, the manager will get the ax. Other baseball fans simply wait in everlasting hope that, one day, their team might actually play in a World Series.

It’s only justice, I suppose, for I grew up a Yankees fan, just outside New York City, in the 1950s. I loved their annual trips to the World Series and dwelled over the team’s yearbook every season. Phil Rizzuto, who lived not far from me in New Jersey, was my hero. And who didn’t want to be Mickey Mantle in the 1950s? I never understood why my friends, nearly all of them Dodgers fans, looked down upon my Yankee devotion. They’d inevitably chant “break up the Yankees,” “the stars are in the National League,” and finally “Don’t you understand how this is bad for baseball?” I didn’t get it. Didn’t everyone want their favorite team to win -- all the time?

Decades later, as I sat in Memorial Stadium on a dreary fall afternoon, watching the Orioles pack it in for another season, I finally got it. My hatred of the Yankees only grew after my daughter moved to Boston and contaminated me with that city’s long suffering love affair with the Red Sox, a team whose long rivalry with the Bronxers nearly always left them frustrated. The team had been cursed, it was said, because its one-time owner had sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for the equivalent of thirty pieces of silver. The Yankees went on to win forever, while the “Sawx” festered in endless frustration and defeat, often tantalizingly close to a world championship, but never quite getting there.

Then came 2004 and the sweetest of victories over the Bronx Bullies. Down three games to none in the ALCS, the once Horrible Hose came back to take four in a row from their eternal tormentors. No team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit before -- what could be sweeter for Boston, or more devastating to pinstripe pride? The Sox’ 4-game sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series that followed seemed anti-climactic, even if it did finally end the 86-year wait for a world title. Another 4-game Series sweep in 2007 was icing on the cake and Boston retired its alleged curse for good.

Maybe the difference between the Yankees and other teams was summed up by a transit officer I overheard in the Boston subway not long ago. Chatting with an out-of-towner about those two world championships, he noted that the 2004 triumph was enough for him. He’d waited all his life for it, and it was sweet. The 2007 title was “gravy,” as he put it, but he really didn’t care if they ever won again.