Rooting for U. S. Steel
"Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U. S. Steel." attributed to Bill Veeck, Bennett Cerf, Jimmy Cannon, someone named Jimmy Little (probably a figment of Toots Shor's imagination), Red Smith, and Joe E. Lewis, among many others.
Oh, I'm certain that it's way, way to early to stick a fork in these New York Yankees, but I'm going to anyway. As of this writing, the Yanks are 8.5 games behind the Red Sox, and 4.5 games out of the Wild Card race (behind Cleveland). These are unquestionably surmountable numbers, both for the Wild Card and the Eastern Division title. The problem is, this is no longer the near-cakewalk it used to be, when the Central and West divisions were weak and the Yankees were sole possessors of first. Not only do the Yanks have to contend with the Tigers and Indians fighting for first and wild card, but the Twins and White Sox might get better (I'm guessing the Pale Hose will get much better offensively--the Twins, I don't know), and the Red Sox have a team that seems able to plow through September without falling apart (like last year). Not to mention the fact that the Yanks are getting bit with some bad luck, and their solutions seem reckless at best. Too much is riding on the back of Roger Clemens, the guy whom no one dares accuse of steroid use, and who is 44 years old and getting nearly that many millions of dollars.
All of this spells catastrophe on par with the forthcoming Evan Almighty.
But I also regret the fall of the Yankees. The Yankees have been bullying their way into the playoffs for eleven straight seasons, and it's always been purely enjoyable to watch. I love seeing them beaten up in the playoffs, and have enjoyed some of their crazy World Series. New York seems to shine in the bright lights of October baseball, and I truly adore all the hoopla (though I could do without the constant shots of poorly-aging Billy Crystal in the stands). And it's so great to have your team beat these guys. Really, would the Tigers have been quite as celebratory had they crushed the Twins in the first round last year? There's something magical about besting the Bronx Bombers. Damn Yankees work; Damn Athletics not so much.
And what of the Yankees fan? The great Arnold Hano, in his magnificent little book A Day in the Bleachers, once dismissed the Yankees fan as someone who "knows nothing about baseball except that the Yankees will win the pennant and World Series more often than they won't and that a home run is the only gesture of worth in the entire game." He wrote that in 1954, and was a New York Giants fan, and was a really good writer, so I let him get away with such venom. But it's not entirely true, is it? I mean, Stephen Jay Gould, a brilliant writer, and a decent baseball writer (he could be a bit long-winded) was a tremendous fan of the Yankees, who knew the difference between the value of a suicide squeeze, a stolen base, great pitching, and a towering home run from his idol Mickey Mantle. And there's lots of intelligent Yankees fans out there--if the Twins won year after year, and had an owner that didn't consistently make it seem as if the Twins have to recycle old aluminum to pay salaries, you'd get the casual, unobservant fan out there as well. Hell, we get an average of 23K per game and I'm telling you the majority wouldn't appreciate much more than one of Morneau's blasts.
Why is this significant? Because the state of the Yankees is important to baseball, and I think it says a lot about us when they're faltering--just as the demise of General Motors affects Michigan directly, and the U.S. as a whole. I asked Jeff, a friend of mine who is also a denizen of Florida, and who does not follow any of the Sunshine State teams. Jeff's been a Yankees fan, I believe, his whole life. When you think about it, from the teams of the late 70s to the Joe Torre club of today, he's got good reasons.
By the way, Jeff wrote this ten days ago, but it's still relevant.
The Yankees fan sez:
"For what it's worth, the following are my thoughts on the State of the Yankees...
The Yankees are my team the way America is my country. Both entities are gleaming examples of capitalism and both delight and frustrate me regularly. Both are the most successful and prosperous in the world. This makes them a target of hatred amongst radicals of hostile nations, I mean, fans of other teams. Maybe it's the wealth and success, the legacy of winning. Maybe the mandated haircuts, facial hair restrictions and the reasonable concealment of tattoos makes others view them with distaste.
However, the State of the Yankees is a bit of a sore subject with me, as you might imagine, because I love my team, sure, but also because I question everything that happens in the organization.
I watch them train each spring. Each game is an event in Tampa and this year, they won most of their home games. Everyone looked good, except Mientkiewicz who was relatively hitless. But they played hard and looked like they were having fun. Maybe it was a little too hard, too soon.
The epidemic of hamstring injuries and having three of five starters out of the rotation, has led to the firing of the strength and conditioning coach, which means there is yet another empty spot in the organization. Perhaps it's a chink in the armor.
Speaking of which, supposedly, Mr. Steinbrenner skipped the trip to the Bronx for opening day this year. There are rumors of his declining health. Some say it's Alzheimer's which is never good. Compounding that issue is the fact that George Swindall, Mr. Steinbrenner's son-in-law who was slated to take over the reigns of the team when Mr. Steinbrenner retires, was arrested for driving under the influence just before spring training began. Yeah. That doesn't show well. But as if that wasn't bad enough, Mr. Steinbrenner's daughter is supposedly divorcing Mr. Swindall, so, since Mr. Steinbrenner's own sons haven't been interested or involved, the future of the team's ownership is unclear. But Joe Torre is going to keep his job for at least a few more weeks and we still have our captain.
I'll spare you any rhetoric deifying Jeter, but you've got to admit, that guy is exemplary. Seriously, he deserved the MVP last year. And when you're a Yankees fan, you've seen him come through, ever since he was a kid here in Tampa playing single-A ball. A-Rod, on the other hand has always been held suspect. I mean, sure the salary was the biggest red flag, but what interests me more than what he earns is how can a team buy the most expensive player in the history of the league, a gold glover and MVP, and then make him change positions. (That's how much Jeter means to the Yankees, you know?) But I mean, what is up with that? Right there, he comes off as wounded in a bad fight. Then there is the relationship issue with Jeter--are they enemies or just not as good of friends as they once were? Who cares? We're all a little curious. Aren't we? I mean, when A-Rod was struggling last year, Jeter made no public statement of support or of condemnation. That tells me Jeter is strong enough in character to not kick a man when he's down. Notice also that, as team captain, he still didn't make a public show of support. This makes me wonder if A-Rod is just that big of an asshole that Jeter won't extend the olive branch. Whatever it is, it is interesting to watch unfold. It is like our generation's DiMaggio and Mantle.
As a Yankees fan, people ask me about the acceptance of A-Rod as a 'true' Yankee. I'll be honest, I want to like him. I'm hoping he gives me a reason to like him, but as of yet, he just hasn't. Sure he hit thirty-five homers and had 121 RBIs last year, but he hasn't done anything publicly to prove himself as possessing genuine Yankee-ness or being even reasonably likable. Maybe he'll come through in October and I'll be able to look past all the aloofness and neediness, but I doubt it. I mean, Wade Boggs helped us win a series and I'm still not particularly a fan of his.
And beyond this rift between A-Rod and Jeter and the ongoing injuries (who could have seen that first-pitch line drive into Karsten's leg coming?), the team has also shown some signs of fatigue, Mariano Rivera has blown a couple saves, the bullpen is already tired and the future of Joe Torre is being called into question every day. But, despite it all, we started out with a similar record in 2004 and we won the division. We could do it again. I suspect they'll get healthy and go on a division-chewing roll and at least get the wild card.
It could happen, even with the management and ownership issue so unclear, and the injured pitchers will heal (except Pavano, apparently) and we may or may not get Clemens. If we do, he may help or he may not. But since the World Champs for the past six years have been young teams with more chemistry than star power, it will take a lot of that old Yankee Magic for this group to get close this year. But if anybody can do it, it's this talented group of millionaires. And I'd really like to see the Yankees win at least one more before the city demolishes the house that Ruth built. (Don't even get me started on that.)"
Words from the horse's mouth, even if Jeff isn't a horse (not in the least, unless he digs horses, well you get the point...) Something tells me that the success of the Yankees actually creates just the opposite of what Arnold Hano suggests--it actually generates fans, and intelligent ones to boot. People who start to pay attention to the level of commitment the Yankees have as a team, which isn't always measureed by the size of its payroll. After all, Alex Rodriguez, for all his millions, is one hell of great player. The Yankees also instill such a loathing in people that playing against them is also great fun. The Tigers are in first, are last year's pennant winners, and they didn't draw as many people to the Dome as the Bombers did. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a dry spell for the Yanks, but be careful of what you wish for...