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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT 2021 THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Under President Biden, Will the Yankees Return to Their Winning Ways?

The Biden administration bodes well for Bombers fans. Over the past several years, the Yankees have had an abundance of talent — Judge, Stanton, LeMahieu, Hicks, Andújar, Cole, Chapman, Torres, to name a few — but also a surfeit of injuries. Will Joe Biden heal both the rift in the body politic and those ailing hamstrings out on the field?

History says he just might, because the Yankees have shown a partisan slant to their pinstripes going back to their earliest years. Let’s roll the tape on the Roaring Twenties, when the GOP’s Calvin “The business of America is business” Coolidge was in the White House. In 1923, the Yanks won their first World Series, led by slugger Babe Ruth’s three homers in six games. Four years later, the Yanks had assembled their fearsome “Murderers’ Row” lineup, but had only two homers over that whole 1927 Series, both from Ruth — which was still two more than the Pittsburg Pirates managed while losing in four straight. In 1928, Lou Gehrig hit four homers for the Yanks during the Series, but Ruth still outshone his teammates by hitting three dingers in Game 4, doing his part to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Yanks didn’t make it to the Series for the next three years, and the country was having its troubles, too. In 1932 you could support Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential campaign by buying a “Republican Depression Coin.” The token lambasted then president Herbert Hoover’s moribund leadership since the stock market crash three years earlier. That same year, Ruth was holding out for an $80,000 a year salary. When a reporter pointed out to the Bambino that even Hoover was only making $75,000 a year, the Sultan of Swat retorted, “What the hell has Hoover got to do with this? Anyway, I had a better year than he did.” Indeed, in 1931 Ruth had led the league with 46 home runs, accompanied by a gaudy .373 batting average.

But it was 1932 that would mark milestones for both Ruth and the Yanks. In that year’s Series, the Bambino supposedly “called his shot,” gesturing with an arm toward center field to taunt the Cubs players and inform fans that he was going to hit the next pitch out of the park. The legend endures, because Ruth homered to deep center and the Yanks won that Game 3, finishing their sweep of the Cubs the next day, October 2. A month later, Roosevelt defeated Hoover in a landslide — Ruth was still doing a hell of a lot better than the POTUS — and the ’32 World Series would be the Yanks last championship under a Republican president for two — count ’em! — two decades.

When FDR took office, on March 4, 1933, the country was still in the trough of the Depression — unemployment was near 25%. The Yanks entered a slump too, not even making it to the Fall Classic in ’33, ’34, or ’35. But by 1936, FDR’s New Deal agenda had driven unemployment down to 17% and the Yanks were back on top, racking up four straight World Series wins from 1936 through 1939 under manager Joe McCarthy (the former minor-league second baseman, not the future Red-baiting U.S. senator from Wisconsin).

The Yanks won again in 1941 — the same year Time magazine founder Henry Luce called on all Americans “to create the first great American Century.” The Bombers beat “Dem Bums” — as the Brooklyn Dodgers were affectionately razzed by their fans — in this first of seven meetings between the crosstown rivals. The Yanks next triumphed in 1943, beating the St. Louis Cardinals, but without help from future Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio or stalwart Tommy “The Clutch” Henrich, who were both in the military as World War II raged. More Yankee stars traded their pinstripes for service uniforms over the next few years, and FDR — after pulling the country out of the Depression and marshaling America and its allies in the struggle against fascism — died in 1945, just months before the war came to a close. The Yanks returned to their winning ways under his successor, Harry Truman, in 1947. The next year, while Truman was giving a speech excoriating the GOP, a supporter yelled out, “Give ’em Hell, Harry.” Truman shot back, “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them, and they think it’s Hell.” The Yanks, however, must have felt the Truman era was heaven, winning every year from 1949 through 1951.

Then, on October 7, 1952, in the 7th inning of Game 7, with two outs, the bases loaded, and the Yanks ahead 4–2, Dodger Jackie Robinson hit a short pop-up that second baseman Billy Martin, positioned almost on the outfield grass, snagged with a lunging catch, saving at least two runs. The Yanks held off Dem Bums to win their fourth World Series in a row. Exactly four weeks later, Republican Dwight Eisenhower, riding his reputation as the Supreme Allied Commander who defeated the fascists in Europe, crushed Democrat Adlai Stevenson by an 11-point margin.

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The nation liked Ike, and so did the Yankees, winning three times during his two terms, in 1953, ’56 (the last time they faced Brooklyn, for a 6–1 overall record), and ’58. Perhaps at some point the Bombers had heard this wry remembrance from the last Republican POTUS they ever won a Series under: “When I was a boy growing up in Kansas, a friend of mine and I went fishing and as we sat there in the warmth of a summer afternoon we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he’d like to be president of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.”

In 1960, ready for a generational changing of the guard, the nation elected John F. Kennedy. The Yanks, like much of the nation, seemed inspired by the young president’s vision and vigor, renewing their winning ways in 1961 and ’62. Although he was eight years younger than the 43-year-old Kennedy, Yankee catcher and outfielder Yogi Berra was getting old for his profession. Still, he hit for a .318 average in the ’61 Series and, despite having only four plate appearances in ’62, earned his tenth World Series ring, a record that, like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, looks safe for the ages. Berra can perhaps be seen as having both blue and red pinstripes, with five rings under Truman, three while Ike reigned, and two to usher in JFK’s “New Frontier.”

The country entered a malaise when Kennedy was assassinated, in 1963, and it was doubly so for the Yanks. Neither Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, nor Gerald Ford got to throw out a pitch at a Yankees World Series game. During the city’s fiscal crisis, however, a hyperbolic headline in the October 29, 1975, Daily News became a bit of a fall classic itself — FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. The Yanks went on to lose to the Reds in the Bicentennial year, the last of Ford’s term, but things brightened in 1977, when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Although Howard Cosell is often credited with the phrase “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning,” he never actually said it during the telecast from Yankee Stadium on October 12, 1977, when an ABC camera captured scenes of a blazing apartment building nearby. Instead, the always history-minded sportscaster noted, “That’s the very area where President Carter trod just a few days ago,” referencing a trip the former Georgian peanut farmer had recently made to the South Bronx to get a firsthand look at urban blight.

But if the borough was enduring hard times, the Bombers themselves were riding high that October, and the fans in the stadium for Game 6 — pent up after a decade-and-half drought and the Yankees up three games to two — were ready to explode. Then they did. After free-agent slugger Reggie Jackson hit three home runs off three successive first pitches, the Yankee faithful were in a howling frenzy. In the top of the ninth, the Yanks up by four, Reggie was in his usual spot in right field, basking in the cheers of “Reg-gie! Reg-gie!” after tying Babe Ruth’s record for three homers in a single World Series game. But he also found himself dodging firecrackers thrown from the stands, a display of hooligan passion that sent Jackson in for a helmet as Cosell intoned to a national audience, “We’ve talked about this before. We don’t want to belabor the point. Behavior like this is intolerable, unthinkable, disgraceful — not worthy of this great city.” Then pitcher Mike Torrez snagged a bunted pop-up for the final out, and the fans stormed the field. Jackson, running full tilt with his shoulder lowered like a halfback, leveled more than one delirious celebrant in his dash for the clubhouse.

In 1978, with plenty of high-priced free-agent egos in the clubhouse, Yankee drama had reached a fever pitch. A quote from Jackson (now known as Mr. October) typified the era: “In the building I live in on Park Avenue there are ten people who could buy the Yankees, but none of them could hit the ball out of Yankee Stadium.” His teammate, third baseman Graig Nettles, summed up the team some wags were calling the “Bronx Zoo”: “When I was a kid I wanted to be either a ballplayer or work in a circus. Now I get to do both!” Fiery manager Billy Martin continued a long-simmering feud with Jackson and also jousted with owner George Steinbrenner, who the scrappy former second baseman felt wasn’t giving him enough support in disciplining his high-priced players. Martin, always known for his temper (and the occasional bar brawl), apparently decided he’d had enough of both Jackson and the Boss, telling a reporter, “One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted.” Jackson may or may not have lied about missing a bunt signal from Martin during a game, but there is no doubt the Boss was found guilty in 1974 of making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential re-election campaign. So Martin was fired, but the Yanks went on to win that year — only to start their longest winless streak in franchise history.

In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan made Jimmy Carter a one-term president — and the Great Communicator didn’t help the Yanks much either (unless issuing a pardon to cleanse Steinbrenner of his campaign-donation foibles in the Nixon years counts.)

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George H.W. Bush presided over no Yankee victory visits to the White House.

But the Clinton years saw a resurgent Yankee squad, which, with the help of what later became known as the “Core Four” — closer Mariano Rivera, shortstop Derek Jeter, pitcher Andy Pettitte, and catcher Jorge Posada — went on to snag rings in 1996, ’98, ’99, and 2000.

Then bupkis during George H. Bush’s two terms.

But with Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, the Bombers didn’t wait long, taking on the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 Series. First Lady Michelle Obama, along with Second Lady Jill Biden and World War II vet Yogi Berra, watched from the infield as Tony Odierno, an Iraq War vet, tossed the ceremonial first pitch. The Yanks lost that game, but behind the MVP hitting of Hideki Matsui they took the Series in six.

For those who have been keeping score — that’s Dems 20, GOP 7 — what can we divine for 2021? Under manager Aaron Boone, the Yanks have made the playoffs the past three years, but never advanced to the Fall Classic. In 2019, Boone famously called his own players “fucking savages,” because their discipline in not swinging at balls out of the strike zone was brutal on opposing pitchers. In retrospect, we didn’t know just how much fucking savagery was yet in store for the nation, as Donald Trump lied about the deadliness of Covid-19 and later encouraged his followers to ever-escalating acts of violence. In the last year of the Republican president’s wannabe autocracy, watching or listening to a ballgame was a surreal endeavor. With the foam-core crowds and canned cheers and boos, fans at home might as well have been watching that episode of Star Trek where Roman gladiators fought inside a pasteboard arena and a disembodied hand turned the dials for “applause,” “hisses,” and “catcalls.”

But 2021 holds new hope for the nation — and for the Yanks. Two Bronx natives shone at Biden’s inauguration: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor swore in Veep Kamala Harris and Jennifer Lopez serenaded the crowd. J.Lo was accompanied by her fiancé, former Bomber third basemen Alex Rodríguez.

The Yanks have been on the verge throughout the Trump years. Maybe all it took to make the Bombers great again was to vote the Queens native out of office.

Thank you, America. See you in October.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES

Abstract Baseball

Earl Weaver was the perfect baseball manager. A bantam without the athleticism to make it in the Show, he had a numbers runner’s smarts that made his Orioles perennial contenders. His pre-computer-age secret was a collection of 3×5 cards on which he plotted the stats of all his batters against opposing pitchers, and vice versa. Weaver had excellent instincts, and knew that in baseball (which, after all, employs managers not coaches) numbers and bodies both count.

Bodies also count a lot in fine art, but sport has rarely been depicted in that particular field. For every Greco-Roman discus thrower or Bel­lows boxing canvas, there are thousands of ren­derings of Christ. Contemporary art gives us Kiki Smith’s defecating figures and Sensation’s “Dead Dad”; sports, meanwhile, have been left largely to flaccid hacks like LeRoy Neiman.

Since the early ’90s, however, artist Janet Cohen has been getting at baseball’s bottom line in a series of evocative conceptual drawings. In her most recent show, at the Clementine Gallery (through May 13, 526 West 26th Street), her works appear to be little more than patches of stray marks. But take a closer look, and even a casual fan soon realizes that the blur of black scratches are actually handwritten baseball no­tations: S’s, B’s, and K’s. These are mixed with similar notations in red. The blacks and reds are densely layered and sometimes obscure each other as they clot into four hazy groups that roughly define the corners of a rectangle. The artist has printed at the bottom “Minnesota at New York 5.17.98 New York Wins 4-0.”

Huh? So? The second drawing is similar, though more spare, entitled “Montreal at New York 7.18.99 Yankees Win 6-0.” More drawings follow, providing an increasingly complete pic­ture of the two games. The red and black nota­tions become more explicit, revealing additional information: players’ names, numbers of hits, errors. By the seventh variation, what die-hard Yankee fans have known all along is explicated in a caption: These are abstractions of David Wells’s and David Cone’s perfect games.

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But Cohen goes beyond mere scorekeep­ing, charting where each pitch crosses the plane of the strike zone. Black for the home pitcher, red for the visitor, each pitch is consecutively numbered and annotated. The result­ing drawings become anti-targets, a record of pitchers striving to avoid the bull’s-eye that any major leaguer could park in the bleachers. One could spend an “unmanageable amount of time” (as broadcaster Michael Kay might gripe after a typical three-and-a-half-hour Yankee game) finding nuances and subtleties that, like the game itself, leave both a solid record and an evanescent aura.

For instance, the drawings inform us that both games were perfect. Yet we can tell which pitcher is the slob — individual black B’s drift haphazardly from the mass in Wells’s triumph. Meanwhile, dapper Cone keeps his pitches tight and economical, with even the farthest off the plate enticing a batter to K.

In separate, inning-by-inning drawings of Cone’s game, a sense of the ever more exacting groove he is working emerges: His black marks are terse and spare, even as the red plottings of the Montreal pitcher Javier Vasquez hemorrhage on the page of the second inning, when the Yanks hammered him for five runs. By the sixth inning Cone needs only five pitches, while a valiant Vasquez struggles to contain the earlier damage, needing only nine of his own to shut out the side. A minor red flurry in the eighth chases Vasquez, and the ninth drawing is monochromatic, black graphite inexorably counting off Cone’s final 11 pitches.

These drawings are absent a climactic roar, but they are rich with reflection, with the ob­scuring drizzle of April, the muggy haze of Au­gust, and the crisp clarity of October. So perhaps in Janet Cohen, baseball, which is ultimately unquantifiable (no matter how hard Bill James tries), has found its perfect artist.

2000 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about Janet Cohen's conceptual drawings about David Cone and David Wells perfect games for the Yankees

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From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Paranoid Style in Yankee Baseball

It is about 10 o’clock in the morning, the Florida sun is already heating up, and I am standing outside a closed gate at the New York Yankees’ Fort Lauderdale training camp. I give the security man my name and tell him I have an appointment with the Yankees’ PR director, Ken Nigro. The guard does not move. It is clear to him that I’m trying to pull some kind of fast one. I reach into my pocket to produce the working-press card is­sued by the New York City Police Department. My picture is on it. In color.

The guard reaches two fingers through the fence for the card. He looks several times at it, several times at me, but he does not open the gate. Neither does he return the card. Carrying it with him, he walks the 15 yards to the press trailer. A moment or two later, he emerges, opens the gate just barely wide enough to admit me, and hands back the card. “They’re expecting you,” he says. He sounds disap­pointed.

Waiting inside the trailer, already typed out on the reception desk, is the little pink pass that will admit me to the field, clubhouse, press box, etc. for the duration of spring training. Nigro is there too. Tall, whippet-thin, and with a haircut that could pass for punk if it wasn’t vaguely military, he takes two rapid steps backward as I enter his office. Eventually he recovers and shakes my hand almost as though he didn’t believe it carried a com­municable disease. We talk politely for a minute or two, and I ask him for a media guide. Though these pocket-sized fact books were once, years ago, more-or-less internal documents distributed only to the media and other baseball clubs, most teams now print them up by the tens of thousands and sell them as souvenirs. The Yankees’ costs five bucks at the Stadium, six by mail. Nigro hesitates, finally unclasps a trunk near the door, and removes one. “You’re very lucky,” he says, “we have only a few left.”

I thank him, consider offering to shake his hand again but decide I don’t want to unnerve him, and start to leave the office. “One thing,” he says, “just a word to the wise.”

“Yes?”

“You’re interested in Billy Martin, right?”

“Yes.”

“I wouldn’t ask him any questions if I were you. He can be, er, difficult.

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•••

It is a truism of administrative theory that the speed of change in any organiza­tion is inversely related to its complexity. When Jimmy Carter wanted to send peanuts to market, they went; when he tried to counter Pentagon procedures, nothing happened. Major league baseball clubs — front offices, farm teams, scouts, players, coaches, agents, broadcast subsidiaries, union reps — are relatively complex entities; though the advent of free agency made it possible to work signif­icant year-to-year changes in the players’ roster, organizational character yielded only grudgingly. Even in the darkest days of the Horace Clarke era, the Yankees’ off-field personality was as patrician and imperial as it had been in their days of greatness. The imperialism remains to some degree (in most spring training camps, security consists of a retiree tilted back in a folding chair), but the essential hallmark of the Yankees has changed in the decade since George Steinbrenner purchased the club in 1973. By now, at every level in the organization — from the guard at the gate to the principal owner in his private box —the Yankees are marked by a broad streak of paranoia.

Before getting into definitions, I should point out that it is not necessarily a bad thing for an organization to exhibit symptoms of paranoia. Within the United States government, for instance, there are several thriving bureaucracies that are supposed to be obsessed with the notion that someone — the Russians, the Cubans, the Yippies — is out to get us. That is their job, and as long as some countervailing force keeps their twitching fingers off the launch button, it may even be a useful one. Paranoia becomes dangerous or self­-defeating only when when it achieves the kind of dominance it has with the Yankees.

Clinically, paranoia can be defined as a malfunction marked by systematized delusions of grandeur (“I am the pope”) or of persecution (“The media are out to get me”). Authorities generally recognize that, except in a schizophrenic state, the disorder can coexist with an otherwise intact mental and psychological condi­tion. Paranoia can involve hallucinations (“See that short man in the lavender suit over there? He’s one of them”), but as a garden variety neurosis, it involves prob­lems interpreting reality, not perceiving it.

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Thus, on the afternoon of March 25, when the Yankees were trailing the Expos 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth, approx­imately 7000 observers were in general agreement that Roy Smalley’s leadoff line drive to right field was perhaps trapped, rather than caught, by the Montreal out­fielder. The umpire thought not, however, and as Smalley chugged into second with an apparent double, he signaled that the ball bad been caught. George Steinbren­ner, standing surrounded by reporters in an area along the rightfield line near the Yankee club house, disagreed. “Schmuck,” he shouted (registering un­happiness, disappointment, and grief). Then, as reporters dutifully transcribed his words, he continued, “This happens every spring. The damn National League umps are all homers. [NL president Chub] Feeney tells them to give close calls to the National League teams” (thereby registering paranoid belief in a conspiracy).

Steinbrenner’s charge, being news, was duly reported, and as might be expected, caused some raised eyebrows in the com­missioner’s office. Steinbrenner re­sponded neither with a denial nor an apology, but by promptly banning all re­porters from the area in which he’d been standing (thereby positing Conspiracy B). The ban, creating the George Steinbren­ner memorial zone of silence, was enforced by two uniformed Fort Lauderdale police. Throughout the game, though Steinbrenner never deigned to enter the quarantined area himself, he periodically craned forward from the owner’s box to make sure it was clear of reporters.

There are a couple of points to be made here. First, paranoia is an organizing principle, imposing order (the umps are out to get me) on chance (working with only a three-man crew, they blew the call). To invent, and reinvent on the spot, an explanation for every event which leaves one never at fault, always a victim, is hard work and demands a creative intelligence. It is, for instance, just barely imaginable that Feeney told his umps to be biased­ — though it is hardly likely he would think this the ideal way to get them ready for the National League season.

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Second, the existence of real power makes it considerably easier to sustain one’s paranoid delusions. First, Stein­brenner indicted the reporters as co-con­spirators in the attempt to embarrass him, and then, by banning them from the area in which they’d been watching late innings ever since the Yankees moved to Lauderdale in 1962, he proved they were part of it (see Richard Nixon, Daniel Ells­berg, and “national security”). Otherwise, he’d have let them stay there, right? He’s a rational guy.

When things aren’t going as he de­mands, Steinbrenner vents his feelings of betrayal by scattershot attacks, often vil­lifying the players’ he’s spent millions on. His impulsive decision to trade away Bobby Murcer after a pop up was an early example; last year’s repeated remarks that Winfield wasn’t a superstar like Reg­gie indicates he hasn’t changed much. In­deed, during 1982’s rotating circus of managers and pitching coaches, the Yankee clubhouse was often as sullen and suspicious as the principal owner himself. Long before they became a fifth-place team, the Yankees had started acting like one.

This spring — only partly, I think, because it was spring — the team seemed more relaxed, A slumping Cerone could work on his stance with Pinella, and Murcer could terrify a hungover player with the spurious news that he’d be dh’ing during the afternoon’s game. Winfield seemed particularly at ease and secure in his role as the team’s acknowledged leader. “A lot of it,” he said, “is that Billy protects us from George. Not in any direct sense, maybe — though I think he’ll do that too, if he has too — but that he acts as a lightening rod.” Winfield broke off to guffaw as another player, reacting to the deaths in the Lippizanner stables, shouted across the room to the trainer’s office, “Hey, Gene. If that stuff kills horses, how come it only makes Willie’s lip sore?” then continued: “This year when George wants to scream at someone, he’ll scream at Billy and just let us play baseball.”

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Billy Martin, the likely target for Steinbrenner’s predictable rages, has been a favorite victim of authority for much of his life; after the famous Copacabana incident in 1957, you can bet it wasn’t Ford or Mantle the Yankees traded. Now nearing the age of 55, he has all Steinbrenner’s intelligence and eye for conspiracy, but only he (occasionally) be­lieves he has Steinbrenner’s power. Mar­tin is often fond of pointing out to his players and to reporters that he’s both “a man and a manager.” As a man, he man­ifests all the characteristics of negative paranoia — every fight he ever got into was the other guy’s fault; every baseball job he’s ever lost was because people poisoned the owner against him — but as a manager, he makes the paranoid mindset work for him.

The concept of “positive paranoia” was first discussed by Andrew Weil in his 1974 book, The Natural Mind. Weil argued that paranoia, usually treated as a unitary phenomenon, actually had two parts — first, the imposition or discovery of a pattern in random events, and sec­ond, the interpretation of that pattern as hostile. Citing work done at San Fran­cisco’s Mt. Zion Hospital during the Haight-Ashbury heyday, Weil noted the existence of a significant number of peo­ple who exhibited the typical paranoid’s obsessive drive to explain every single blot in even the most complex Rorshach test, but who appeared to believe, quite hap­pily, “that the universe is a conspiracy organized for their own benefit.” In sports, such a tendency is called “a win­ning attitude.”

To watch a Billy Martin training camp is to discover the positive side of paranoia at work. To the occasional observer, base­ball often appears a collection of random events — hit a round, spinning ball with a round bat and who knows where the damn thing will go? — but winning teams win precisely because they can impose a pat­tern on that randomness. Offensively, they hit behind the runner or execute the squeeze; defensively, the best teams have a coordinated, routine response for vir­tually every situation. There is no predict­ing, for instance, the precise way a bunt attempting to move a runner from first to second will roll, but the defensive re­sponse — the first and third basemen charging, the second baseman covering first, the shortstop covering second, the left fielder breaking toward third — is de­signed to incorporate the random roll of the ball into a pattern determined by the team in the field.

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To create such patterns — to imagine and neutralize virtually anything an of­fensive team can do — is to exercise posi­tive paranoia, and Martin’s teams prac­tice these routines endlessly and inven­tively: runners on first and third, no out, and the batter pops a foul near the stands behind first base. What is the play?

The intuitive play, of course, is for the first or second baseman, whichever catches the ball, to heave it home and prevent a run from scoring. The problem is that a throw from short right field to home may he wasted if the runner on third is only bluffing, and will allow any­one but Rusty Staub to tag up and go from first to second, putting two runners in scoring position and eliminating the prospect of a routine double play. Most clubs defense the pop foul, then, by having the pitcher run to a spot on the direct line between where the foul is caught and home plate and act as cutoff man. Martin, instead, has the pitcher break directly for first base, and drills his fielders to fire the ball directly to the inside corner of the base. This pins the runner on first, ob­viously, but it eliminates the prospect of a direct throw home. Does it work?

Coach Don Zimmer is positioned near the boxes behind first, tossing pops into the air and letting either Don Baylor or Willie Randolph call for the ball. As he tosses it, Bob Shirley races from the pitcher’s mound to first base. At the precise moment the ball is caught, Jerry Mumphrey, perhaps the fastest Yankee regular, tags up at third and tries to score. Time after time, Shirley’s relay to the catcher nips him. The drill, with different runners, fielders, and pitchers, goes on for almost 20 minutes.

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“You set up the play that way,” says Martin later, “to make their first base coach play defense for you, and you prac­tice it with a fast runner on third to convince everyone it’ll work. If a player not only knows what to do, but believes it’s what he should be doing, he’s gonna do it right 99 times out of a 100. On a play like that, if anyone stops to think — Willie, the pitcher — the runner scores, so you drill and make it as routine as the pitcher covering first on a grounder.”

How often, during the course of a sea­son, does the situation they just practiced come up? “Maybe only three or four times a year,” he says, “but maybe a dozen or so. Maybe three times in one game. But even if it’s only once, you fuckin’ well better be ready for it.”

Martin, pretty much an autodidact since high school, is a Civil War buff, and military thinking is the paradigm of posi­tive paranoia. Conceive a strategy, devise tactics, drill, and execute. And, of course, the enemy is out to get you.

In baseball, the other team is out to win, so field generalship is an appropriate mode. Roy Smalley, nine years in baseball and going through his first full spring with Martin, talked about the system: “There’s more money here, first of all, which means more coaches to work with you, which means more time actually to practice, in­stead of just taking infield or bp. There’s an attention to detail here that I’ve never seen anywhere else, except maybe a little with Gene Mauch.

“But I think Billy’s real genius as a manager is that he knows what to do with a particular team. At Oakland, he had to steal every run he could get, so he in­vented Billy Ball — you guys named it that, he didn’t. But with this lineup, he can afford to wait for the big inning, so he’ll be more conservative, stealing a run only when he has to, or just enough to keep the other guys off balance. I mean, even though we’re loaded with power, he’s made damn sure that everyone knows how to squeeze.”

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The threat works for him. Leading the Dodgers 1-0 in the seventh inning of a game at Vero Beach, the Yankees load the bases off Fernando Valenzuela on a single, an error, and a walk. With the bottom three hitters coming up, everyone in the park is thinking Billy Ball, and the cor­ners move onto the grass and toward the foul lines. But Andre Robertson swings away and lines a single to right through the hole where the first baseman might have been. The corners move back as Otis Nixon comes up swinging. He tops a ball toward third, and Valenzuela has to field it, too late for a play. With pitcher Shane Rawley, who may not lift a bat again all year, in the box, the infield moves in again. But even Rawley swings, sending a grounder neatly through the too-wide gap between third and short. By the time the inning is over, the Yankees lead 8-0.

After the game, Martin laughed about the sequence. “That’s what you call Billy Bull, right? If they know you’re capable of executing the squeeze — and if they know you’re willing to do it — they’ve got to defense it. As soon as they do, they give you a bunch of other options.”

Though Martin’s Yankees will often be able to wait for their power to carry them, they will probably not be staid. Through­out the spring, they worked on a com­plicated decoy double steal involving the runner on first apparently slipping as he broke for second, and drawing a throw that would let a runner on third come home. It is perhaps a little too tricky, and after a game against the Expos during which Nettles ran directly into the wait­ing arms of the Montreal catcher, Martin was a little testy. “Nettles worked it right,” he insisted. “Mumphrey just got a little too far off the base.”

But what was supposed to happen?

“Listen, it’s supposed to be a surprise play. How can it be a fuckin’ surprise if you put it in the paper?”

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Martin’s attitude toward the press is complex. He is extremely sensitive to the fact that they can be his allies — tacitly agreeing that certain things are “automatically” off the record — and he cultivates the beat reporters assiduously. As spring training wound down, for instance, every­one was involved in the who’ll-make-the­-team guessing game; Martin leaked the final roster to the regular reporters 24 hours before it was officially released. He was able to do this, of course, partly be­cause be knew them and trusted them enough to know that one of them wouldn’t rush up to Butch Hobson and ask how it felt to be cut while Hobson was still hoping to make the team. In that sense, it’s easy to explain the way Martin works with the regulars, but nothing (except, perhaps, suppressed resentment that he does have to be nice to the major dailies) can quite explain the occasional cruelty he shows to other journalists. An hour or so before a Lauderdale game against the Astros, Martin was sitting in the dugout talking with me and a Newsday reporter, when a puppy-dog of a kid bounced up. “Excuse me, Mr. Martin ” he said, “I’m with the Pace College newspaper, can I ask you a few questions?”

“Sure, sit right down here next to me and ask away.”

The kid got his tape recorder working and began with the obvious roster question: “I’m going to tell all the writers that at the same time,” Martin said. The kid tried to rephrase it, “Didn’t I just tell you I was going to tell all the writers that at the same time?” Flustered, and without the experience to slide to another subject, the kid sort of burbled about how many pitchers the Yankees might carry. Martin looked at him like he was dogshit: “If I answer that, it’ll make three times I’ve told you the same thing. Twice is enough, isn’t it?” His ears red with embarrass­ment, the kid shut off his recorder and got up. “Right, thanks Mr. Martin. Have a good year.” “Sure, same to you …” and as the kid walked away, he continued, “… asshole.”

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Logically, Martin was right. A half­-dozen reporters had been working for a month to figure out the answer to those questions, and he was hardly going to stiff them and give it to a kid on a daypass, but the combative, bullying nature of his re­sponse was surely not a matter of logic. When things are not going as he wants­ — when they aren’t fitting the pattern he’s designed — Martin can be weirdly short­-fused.

Still, though I don’t believe that some­one else started every fight he ever got into (and if you believe Martin’s explana­tion that he offered to bet the famous marshmallow salesman $300 to a penny that he could kick the salesman’s ass in order to avoid a fight by making the sales­man leave him alone, I hope the Easter Bunny brought you lots of candy), it’s clear that Martin’s rep has made him something of a target. A Fort Myers cop who was on crowd control duty when Mar­tin arrived for spring’s final game said, “At first I didn’t recognize him. He was wearing a cowboy hat and had an attrac­tive young woman in the car with him, but he made a couple of jokes and seemed in a real good mood. When he got out of the car, he was signing autographs for all the kids and laughing. But out of nowhere, this one guy — a pretty big guy — started shoving him and shouting at him. Martin shoved him back once — not hard, just to get him away — and I had to grab the guy and lead him off.” If the cop hadn’t been there, headlines again.

In general, most of the players ap­preciate Martin’s readiness for at least a metaphorical fight. Bob Shirley, who came to the Yankees as a free agent dur­ing the off-season, may feel differently now that he’s been dropped from the starting rotation after a single bad outing, but in Lauderdale, he was full of praise for Martin. “I’m really looking forward to playing for him. San Diego, and especially Cincinnatti last year, it was almost like nobody cared what happened. You win, you lose, you get a bad call … so what. Billy’s different. He wants to win, he wants you to win, and you know that if anything goes wrong, he’s a hundred per cent on your side. You know the fielders are going to be making the plays, too, because they know how much be wants to win. Everything is going to be different this year.”

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Well, yes and no. There is no question­ing Martin’s will to win — barely able to stand up straight after an attack of food poisoning that struck down 15 Yankees after their New Orleans road trip, Martin managed to lurch up from the trainer’s table and chew out Rudy May for having walked six and hit one batter during less than an inning of a B-squad game — but there are limits to will power. Despite their strong spring, the Yankees starting rotation remains shakey, and Baltimore has to be the division favorite. Belief can carry a galvanized team of college kids through a short tournament, but it’s un­likely to sustain professional athletes over a 162-game season; they know too much.

And like all neuroses, paranoia­ — whether positive or negative — exists be­cause it serves the function of making reality easier for the neurotic to deal with. The intellectual struggle involved in fit­ting external events into a preconceived pattern pays off by providing a coherence that lets the paranoid function with con­sistency — and often with brilliance. Over time, however, not even the most fertile imagination can keep pace with the curve balls life throws; at that point, either the systematization stretches so far that it tips over into a psychotic creation of un­reality or the paranoid is forced to aban­don it, often sinking into deep depression. Given good breaks, Martin may be able to sustain his positive paranoia over an en­tire season, but, it seems inevitably to crumble over time. As Maury Allen wrote in his 1980 bio, Damn Yankee, “The scouting report on Martin said he would have one personality for the first year of his managerial career and another — “ug­lier, meaner, and more sarcastic — later. He would play to the press in his first season, buddy up with the players, drink­ing socially and laughing with them about common enemies, the press and manag­ment, and charm the fans. Things would change later as his own insecurities would surface, his own ego would take hold, his true nature would spring to the fore.”

The difference between the 1981 and ’82 seasons with Oakland provide the most recent demonstration that Allen was right about the superficial pattern, but he’s wrong to suggest that the ugly Martin is “truer to nature” than Billy the Good. The natures are one and the same; it is external events that determine which dominates. All the things which have made Martin the best dugout manager in the game, year in and year out, contribute to his apparently inescapable loss of con­trol. Every game in which Martin and his teams are able to control chance within the boundaries of the playing field leaves him more vulnerable to the breakdown when off-field events remind him how lit­tle control he really has.

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Injuries, throughout his managerial ca­reer, have driven Martin round the bend. Prior to the famous “One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted” remark that led to his first departure from the Yankees in 1978, Martin had been trying to buy time with a jury-rigged team. Three starting pitchers (Hunter, Messersmith, Gullet) and his best long reliever (Tidrow) couldn’t throw. His double-play combina­tion (Dent and Randolph) was out, cen­terfielder Mickey Rivers fractured his hand, and catcher Thurman Munson was so crippled by cysts it pained him even to squat behind the plate. The same ability to see patterns that makes Martin a great manager began to give him the creepy crawlies. The only explanation for all these events was a more sinister kind of pattern. It was Reggie’s fault, or George’s, or even Henry Hecht’s. Or maybe, in an unholy conspiracy, all three of them: “The press made it so much harder for all of us,” Martin has written. “Henry Hecht of the New York Post was the worst, … he’d try to pit player against player, or a player against me, or me against George. He’d do that all the time.” Eventually, preoc­cupied by the plotting he knew was going on in the clubhouse and the front office, Martin lost his grip on what was happen­ing on the ballfield. He begin issuing con­fusing instructions to the bullpen, at one point telling Sparky Lyle just to get up and soft toss and a minute later calling to find out if he was ready to go into the game.

In another setting — one where the owner wasn’t already preoccupied by his belief that the manager, the press, and the players were part of the conspiracy oper­ating against him — it is possible that Martin could survive his various crises. He didn’t make it through Oakland’s sore-armed 1982, it’s true, but one can at least imagine a setting in which he could simply hold on for a while, then gradually recover. That situation does not exist with George Steinbrenner’s Yankees, and for the sake of the players — for Martin’s as well — one wishes Mumphrey, Kemp, Net­tles, Smalley, and Gamble an exceedingly speedy recovery. ♦

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Knicks-Lakers 1970: A Word For Wilt Chamberlain

I am convinced that if Wilt Chamberlain appeared on the floor of Madison Square Garden with a supporting team of four arthritic midgets against a team of NBA All-Stars, the All-Stars would be regarded as the sentimental underdogs, and when the game was over, the sportswriters would blame Chamberlain for clogging the middle so much that the arthritic midgets were unable to drive in for easy lay-ups on the give-and-go, a textbook maneuver that is sometimes good for as many as five showy baskets in a game. But Wilt is not a textbook player. He is a monster with extraordinary size and strength and stamina, a veritable anathema to paunchy sportswriters and commentators who haven’t had anybody to identify with since fat Freddy Scolari stopped throwing up his soft floaters for the Fort Wayne Pistons. Even athletes who have slugged sportswriters have received more favorable press and media coverage than Wilt has. He is never given credit for exceptional performances or generous impulses. He is taken for granted as a brutal fact of nature, rebuked for his presumptions of humanity and sensitivity. “Both teams have played well under adversity,” Chamberlain quipped after the sixth game. “We Americans emphasize winning too much.” The resident humanist in the Post sports department pounced on Wilt for making such a peaceful statement after having voted for Nixon. And so it goes. No blow is too low against Wilt, no herring too red. Every other center who has ever played with any distinction in the pivot has been treated with more consideration.

When Wilt has a good game, he’s a bully. When he has a bad game, he’s a bum. When he takes a great many shots, he’s a prima donna. When he prefers to pass off, he’s supposed to be sulking. If he plays the low post, he keeps his own players from moving freely. If he plays the high post, he’s depriving the team of his strength on the backboard. Lew Alcindor played the low post for three years at UCLA with no one complaining, but Chamberlain has always been criticized by Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, and other disinterested observers for not playing the high post as Russell always did with his team of spectacular outside shots. The problem is that the only help Russell’s gifted team-mates needed from Russell were picks whereas Chamberlain’s always needed shovels as well. All in all, Wilt has been such a handicap to all the teams he’s played on that it seems incredible that he has gotten to the seventh game of the finals on so many different occasions, especially when the indisputably great Oscar Robertson considered himself lucky whenever he managed to lead Zinzinnati even as far as the first round of the playoffs.

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Actually, Wilt shouldn’t have been playing at all this year after the kind of knee operation that once incapacitated Elgin Baylor for a full season, and ended permanently his one-on-one capabilities as a superstar. Wilt played only 12 games in the regular season, and never fully regained his mobility and timing in the play-offs. But he wanted to give Los Angeles one last shot at an NBA title, and so he came back in the limited role of stiff-legged back-up for West and Baylor. Even so, no one figured that the Lakers would get by Atlanta, a hard-driving, hard-nosed team that had been manhandling the Knicks all season. I figured the Hawks as the kind of Pier Six brawlers that would bloody the noses of the nice Ethical Culture now-you-shoot-I-shot-10-minutes-ago types on the Knicks. To everyone’s surprise, the Lakers had to battle from a three-to-one deficit against Phoenix to get into the semi-finals against Atlanta, and then bam! Atlanta went down in four straight, and the Los Angeles Lakers, the perennial paper tigers of the NBA play-offs, were poised for their final humiliation.

Meanwhile back in New York, the Knicks scrambled for their lives against the individually talented and collectively disorganized Baltimore Bullets. Earl Monroe, the most obsessively offense-oriented ballplayer since George Yardley, was giving Frazier fits, but the Knicks received some compensation from the extraordinary reluctance of Wes Unseld to take a shot at the basket if there was anyone, friend or foe, within 40 feet to pass off to. In the final game, Unseld embodied the ultimate perversion of unselfishness in basketball into a kind of Floyd Patterson guilt complex about missed shots.

Along came Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks, and they went down in five games even though (and no one said because) Alcindor came up with Chamberlain type stats on points scored and rebounds. No one said Alcindor was a bum because his team lost, or that Reed had more heart and soul and talent and character than Alcindor. After all, Alcindor played Reed one-on-one whereas Reed always had help coping with Alcindor. No one seemed to recall that Chamberlain always played Russell one-on-one whereas Russell always had two or three Celtics sagging on Chamberlain. Actually, at several points in the play-offs, Alcindor sulked and panicked in a way I have never seen Chamberlain sulk and panic, but no one seemed to notice, or care. Alcindor was being pampered in the press in a way Chamberlain never was even when he won all the marbles in 1967.

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The stage was set for the ultimate psychodrama of the finals, and there was more suspense than usual. The Lakers were patented losers in the finals, West and Baylor even more so than Chamberlain. As usual with all Chamberlain teams, the Lakers were grossly over-rated. Sure Chamberlain had scored over 25,000 points, Baylor over 20,000, and West over 17,000, but that hardly made them three superstars at the tops or their games, but rather three glorious veterans dragging out their weary flesh for the last big boo. The rest of the Lakers — Erickson, Garrett, Hairston, Counts, Egan down to the virtually unusable dregs — seemed hardly in the same class as the Knick ensemble. It seemed if not a cinch for the Knicks, at least a distinct probability that the old dinosaurs on the Lakers would not be as difficult for the Knicks as were the raw, rugged individualists on the Baltimore Bullets. But who could be sure? The Knicks had never won a championship in the 24 years or their existence, and they had choked up the year before against a veteran band of Celtics out for their last hurrah. The Knick fans and players raved about the greatness or Jerry West, but their real concern was Wilt Chamberlain. (The Celtics always raved about Chamberlain’s team-mates as a means of needling Chamberlain and driving a wedge between him and his team-mates.) West was reportedly bitter that Chamberlain was earning twice as much money even though West was doing the most scoring, and Happy Hairston gave an interview to the ubiquitous Post sports department with the complaint that he wasn’t driving as much now that Chamberlain was clogging up the middle.

The first game went according to schedule. Reed poured in 37 points inside and out, shooting over Chamberlain and driving around him. Chamberlain played a quiet, static game, putting in his regular quota of rebounds without any notice or fuss, hitting a few baskets in between oohs and ahs over Jerry West’s long jump shots. The Lakers looked like a plodding, methodical team without much imagination or even intelligence. West seemed to lack stamina, and getting the ball upcourt seemed too often to be a traumatic experience for the Lakers against the most perfunctory press. Debuscherre covered Baylor like a glove, West was guarded by relays of guards, and Garrett and Erickson were allowed to pop away with impunity but insufficient accuracy. In a word, Los Angeles, Chamberlain included, looked pathetic. Knicks 124-112.

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The second game was closer, and the Knicks were sloppier, and the outside shooting was less accurate. Still, the Lakers only squeaked through by two points, thanks to some defensive heroics by Chamberlain in the last minutes of the game. Shots blocked never appear in the statistics. What did appear was disquieting to both sides. After two games, New York had shot 94 field goals out of 208 attempts, an average of 45 per cent. The Lakers had shot 86 out of 182 attempts, for 47 per cent. The Knicks made 39 out of 63 of their foul shots for 73 per cent, the Lakers 47 out of 71 for 66 per cent. The Knicks led the Lakers in rebounds 107 to 103, assists 53 to 37, personal fouls 60 to 42, and total points 227 to 217. Of course, the first two games had been played in New York, but a pattern was becoming evident. The Knicks were averaging 18 more shots a game than the Lakers because of Lakers turn-overs, and the Knicks were decisively ahead in assists. Chamberlain’s weakness at the foul-line seemed to be a fatal luxury for the Lakers.

The third and fourth games at the Forum were cardiac cases in overtime, and everyone will remember for years to come Jerry West’s 60-foot last-second shot that took the third game to overtime, but the Lakers lost just the same, largely because they got only 86 shots off, opposed to the Knicks’ 109. West took 28 shots, and made only 11. Chamberlain took 10 shots and made seven. Reed made 17 shots out of 30, and Debuscherre 10 out of 20. Bradley was way off at three for 13, Barnett seven for 18, Frazier somewhat better at eight for 17. Baylor had been shooting over 50 per cent, but sloughed off in the third game to four for 13. Erickson and Garrett and Egan and Hairston took up some of the slack, and the Lakers kept it close. In the fourth game, Reed cooled off considerably, Barnett and Debuscherre came on strong, Frazier and Bradley went very cold. For the first and last time in the series, the big three of West, Baylor, and Chamberlain meshed together at top form to pull out an overtime thriller from the Knicks. At this point, it seemed like a close series that would go down to the wire. The momentum seemed to be with the Lakers simply because they hadn’t been blown off the court by the speed, depth, youth, and versatility of the Knicks. Above all, Chamberlain seemed to be getting stronger vis-a-vis- Reed rather than weaker.

Then came the fateful fifth game and the psychodrama that has plagued Wilt Chamberlain all through his career. Eight minutes into the fifth game with Chamberlain decisively out-playing Reed for the first time in the series, Reed suddenly collapsed in a helpless heap as he drove on Chamberlain. The ball rolled out of Reed’s hands, and Chamberlain picked it up, tossed it up court, and then stopped to look at his fallen antagonist. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make merciful. Now Goliath was deprived even of his David. Henceforth, he would be swarmed over by an army of inspired Lilliputians. Suddenly, the Knicks were back in college in the last game of their senior year, and all the form charts went out the window. The adrenaline was flowing freely as it always had in the direction of the puzzled giant Wilt Chamberlain. The Knicks swept away a 16 point lead as they managed enough turn-overs to stock a pastry shop. The Lakers seemed befuddled, confused, as if they couldn’t adjust to the absence of a bona fide center against them. From the moment of Reed’s injury, the Lakers were transformed from weary old samurai warriors into toweringly arrogant overlords. Chamberlain dominated the sixth game with 45 points on 20 of 27 shots from the field, and 27 rebounds. West chipped in with 33 points, but most significant of all were the 18 points of Garrett on nine of 11 shots, seven out of seven in the first half alone. Even in this game, the Knicks took 105 shots to the 94 shots of the Laken, and the Knicks shot almost 50 per cent from the field, mostly from the outside. Cazzie Russell finally delivered the sixth player marksmanship he was noted for, and Dave Debuscherre and Nate Bowman did some extraordinary firing of their own. The Knicks were not nearly in such bad shape as they seemed, and they had the invaluable psychological advantage of being treated as one of the 100 neediest cases.

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The seventh game was less a game than an emotional coup d’etat with Willis Reed hobbling on the floor, hitting his first two outside shots, jamming his stiff-legged bulk against Chamberlain to keep him outside, Chamberlain missing his foul shots and fade-aways, the Lakers panicking, turn-overs, Frazier humiliating West with steals and drives, and the crowd going wild. Toward the end of the game, Chamberlain began setting up Baylor for some outside shots to fatten up his points for that old boxscore up in the sky. The Knicks rolled on and on for their first championship in 24 years. The seventh game belonged to Reed emotionally and to Frazier tactically. Frazier virtually destroyed the Lakers single-handed with three-point plays that were supposed to be be exclusive property of Jerry West. The Lakers had not been good enough, but they wouldn’t have gotten as far as they did without Chamberlain. To the end, Chamberlain didn’t get the call from the man he voted for. Reed got the call from Nixon, a politician who would rather be on the side of the winner than on the side of a fallen follower even though Chamberlain technically represents Nixon’s beloved Los Angeles and Reed technically represents Nixon’s hated New York.

The first Knick championship team is obviously the best Knick team of all time, but lest we forget, I should like to remind my fellow veterans of those dreary winter evenings in the 69th Regiment Armory that the Joe Lapchick teams of the early ’50s may have been somewhat ahead of their time, and that if they had played under today’s rules, they might have knocked over the Lakers and the Royals in the play-offs. As I recall those hectic days, there was no 24-second rule, and the only way to get the ball from the team that was ahead was to foul, and after each foul in the last two minutes there was a jump ball, and George Mikan or Vern Mikkelsen would always be out-jumping Harry Gallatin or Sweetwater Clifton or Connie Simmons, and there would be another foul, and another jump ball, and the last two minutes would stretch into the most painful infinities. Those were the days of deliberate ball-handling, and double and (on the old Washington Capitols) even triple pivots, and clobber fouling and rabid fans (especially in Syracuse) going so far as to rattle the wire supports when an opponent was shooting a foul. It was a paradise for the big men, which explains the disastrous Dukes-Felix ear when we had 14 feet of nothing out there. Still, Lapchick’s teams were the best-coached teams of their time, and when he left, and the Vince Boryla regime came in, the Knicks became a pitiful joke in New York. Most people would go to the Garden to see the out-of-town stars, to see if Baylor would out-score Yardley, or Arizen would out-score Pettit, or Robertson would out-score West. We would watch Frank Selvy drive and Neil Johnson hook and Cliff Hagan curl in twisting lay-ups, but we always expected the Knicks to lose, and the Boston Celtics to win, but strangely no one ever cried out to break up the Celtics. Once Wilt Chamberlain came into the league, he became the big villain, and the Celtics heroic underdogs. It didn’t matter that Chamberlain out-scored and out-rebounded Russell in their head-to-head confrontations. All that mattered was that Russell was cast as the maestro, and Chamberlain as the monster. And then last year, the NBA championship came down to the seventh game between Los Angeles and Boston with both Russell and Chamberlain having picked up five personal fouls. Russell drove on Chamberlain and threw a jump shot. Chamberlain batted that back too. Did the announcer give Wilt any credit for his defensive plays? No, he said that Russell should drive on Chamberlain a third time to get Chamberlain out of the game. But Russell didn’t have to. Butch Van Breda Kolff, the crybaby champion of coaches, kept Chamberlain on the bench for the last five minutes while the Lakers watched another championship go down the drain by two points. (This year Butch cried some more as he demolished and demoralized the Detroit Pistons, but last year he was treated by sportswriters as the hero with Chamberlain as the villain of the L. A. fiasco.)

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Strange treatment indeed for a player who holds the record for most points scored in a game (100), most points scored in one season (4029), most field goals made in one game (36), most free throws made in one game (28), most rebounds in one game (55), most rebounds in one season (2149), highest scoring average in one season (50.4), highest lifetime scoring, highest lifetime goal percentage (.526) as opposed to West’s .468 and Bill Russell’s .440. He led Bill Russell eight out of 10 years in rebounds, and even led everybody in assists one year. He could have scored many more points if he had not decided to sacrifice his own statistics to help his team. This is a sacrifice Russell with his limited scoring capability never had to consider with the high-scoring Celtics. Why then this persistent hostility to Chamberlain? I think partly because there is something profoundly anti-aesthetic in Chamberlain’s classical economy of movement. Chamberlain was handicapped by coming into basketball after the imposition of anti-big-man rules, widening the three-second zone, the 24-second rule, the elimination of many tip-off situations, etc. If Chamberlain had played in the Mikan era, he would have stuffed Mikan and Mikkelsen in the basket with each hand. He would have been too much. In the Boston Celtic era, he was handicapped by not having enough players on his team he could profitably pass off to. The percentages of his own shooting as opposed to everyone else’s made it mandatory that he be surrounded at all times. Still and all, Chamberlain could manage to wear down all but the most exceptional opponents, and he came so close so often to winning it all that it is idiotic to label him a loser. It was perhaps his destiny to bring out the ultimate in all his opponents, and for that I think it is more fitting that he be thanked rather than condemned. As for Jimmy Brown claiming that Russell always cut Chamberlain down to size, such a comment comes with ill grace from Brown, it being common knowledge that Chamberlain once challenged Brown to a barefoot race and beat the erstwhile Cleveland fullback, who himself was notoriously deficient in “team” spirit particularly when Cleveland quarterbacks were being crunched by opposing linemen and linebackers. With Jimmy Brown as their friend and protector, the Cleveland quarterbacks didn’t need any enemies. Brown prevailed on Russell to abandon basketball for a career in pictures, a fitting outlet for Russell’s raging ego which demands not only that Chamberlain play a secondary role in the scenario of the NBA, but that all the other Boston Celtics be regarded as Russell ‘s untalented spear carriers. (Vide Russell’s incredibly spiteful book on the subject.) Fortunately for us and unfortunately for Russell, the economy of the ghetto could support only one hopelessly expressionless black movie star.

By “winning” more championships, Russell is as much superior to Wilt Chamberlain as Red Ruffing was to Bob Feller. Russell was the key, the strategist, the orchestrator of the Boston team, but he hardly played all the instruments. My all-time All-Star team is Chamberlain at center, Pettit and Baylor at the forwards, West and Robertson at the guards, but I’m not sure that even this team would necessarily beat a team composed of Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Bailey Howell, the Jones boys, Spec Sanders, with Frank Ramsey and Hondo Havlicek sitting on the bench and ready to come roaring into the action.

Don’t get me wrong. The Knicks deserved their championship as the Celtics deserved theirs. But I did feel it was time someone said a word for Wilt.

Categories
From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Greatest Hits One More Time

When the Village Voice sent Ishmael Reed to cover the 1978 title rematch between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks, the feature sprawled over nine pages.

In the circus surrounding the fight — which was Ali’s bid to become the only boxer in history to win the heavyweight crown for a third time, having lost it to Spinks seven months earlier — Reed bends an elbow with comedian Dick Gregory, receives a friendly choking from gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, assesses the surprisingly dour affect of Ali cornerman Bundini Brown, and bumps into a “white-haired Norman Mailer,” among many other luminaries, celebrities, hustlers, and hangers-on. Reed delivers a short critique on the book Mailer had written about the Ali-Foreman title match in Kinshasa, four years earlier: “I realized that what I had mistaken for racism in Mailer’s writing was actually frustration — frustration that he couldn’t play the dozens with Bundini and them; frustration that he couldn’t be black. Maybe one day the genetic engineers in their castles rocking from lightning will invent an identity delicatessen where one can obtain identity as easily as buying a new flavored yogurt.” 

Over these nine pages, Reed’s rollicking, uncompromising prose proves worthy of its truly larger-than-life subject. Ali would have turned 77 tomorrow, January 17. Strap in and enjoy the ride — it’s 1978 all over again.

 

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Categories
From The Archives From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES show-old-images Uncategorized

Giving It Up for Mr. May!

[It was 1988 — pretty much the middle of the New York Yankees’ longest drought between World Series wins (1979–1995), and seven years since they’d even made it to the Fall Classic. All the more reason to sit in the cheapest seats, drink too much beer, and unleash invective upon visiting players and fans. As correspondent Ivan Solotaroff wrote in the September 20, 1988, issue of the Voice, “Baseball-watching invites strange behavior and, two weeks into this Yankee homestand, I’ve actually begun to fear the Voodoo Man’s Evil Eye, and to respect his power.” Solotaroff was referring to one of the bleacher regulars, called “Bleacher Creatures,” in this case a man with a pencil mustache who would train his “magnetizing gaze” on opposing ballplayers.

The Voice reporter succinctly summed up these lean times for the Bronx Bombers: “The Yankees, 2-8 in their last 10, are coming into the fifth inning down by a familiar four-run count. [Bleacher Creatures] Frank and Bob are already ingesting their remedy for slumps like this: many Jumbo beers, a confirmed one-way ticket back to second grade.”

Solotaroff then consults with Cousin Brewski, the beer vendor. “‘How are you? How are you? How are you?’” he asks from ten rows away. “‘The Voice? Sure, I’ll tell you everything you wanna know. The Regulars? Best fans out here. Class. They know everything. Teena’s got the batting averages, Bob, the Captain, knows every word of the “Gang Bang Song,” the “Get the Fuck Out Song,” “Syphilis,” all the songs. Melle Mel’s a singer too. Big rap star. Famous, famous, famous. Sees everything — the others tend to drift a little.’”

Sports give us a tribal outlet that might otherwise turn into uglier fanaticism, and the bleachers have never been a place for the fainthearted. But, as always, the crowd in ’88 was a disparate mix, the fans glad to have anything to cheer about. Melle Mel — “taking time from cutting a new album to attend every Yankee home game” — commands his compatriots’ attention when he bellows, “Let me hear it, one time, for my man Mr. Da-a-ave Winfield.” Solotaroff drily notes that the huge crowd screamed, “Dave, Dave, Dave” as Winfield looked at a third strike.

Winfield had signed with the Yanks in 1980, for the highest-paying contract in baseball at the time. And in his first year he delivered — at least during the regular season. But he was flat in the 1981 World Series, which the Yanks lost to the Dodgers, and that was the last trip he made to the playoffs in a decade of wearing pinstripes. “I let Mr. October get away,” said Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, in 1985, referring to clutch hitter Reggie Jackson, “and I got Mr. May, Dave Winfield. He gets his numbers when it doesn’t count.”

Still, Winfield’s long-striding grace in the outfield and powerful strokes at the plate (he hit 465 career homers) made him a favorite with many fans, especially the Bleacher Creatures, who would yell encouragement at the right fielder from directly over his head. “Yeah, we know him,” bleacher denizen Bob told the Voice reporter. “Well, we don’t know him personally, but, he sees us on the street, he knows, yeah, the bleachers. We gave him a plaque last year, congratulating him for his sixth consecutive year hitting 100 RBIs. He didn’t do it, he ended up with 97, but we gave him the plaque anyway.”

This was back in the day when all that most of us could count on was that fabled fifteen minutes (or hours or seconds) of fame — that epoch before the social chum of Facebook and the careening notoriety of Twitter. Being a tried-and-true Bleacher Creature offered proximity to greatness. As one cheap seat regular said to another, referring to the Voice scribe: “Talk to the man, Frank. Get famous.” —R.C. Baker ]

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They Crawled Out of the Swamps to Save the Mets

[Archivist’s note: In the October 14, 1986, issue of the Voice (which would’ve hit the stands on October 7, just prior to the start of the NLCS pitting the Mets against the Houston Astros), the Jockbeat section of the paper featured a full-page exposé by humorist Charlie Rubin, “Favorite Dinosaurs of the Mets.”

Frank Cashen, the Mets G.M., gave Rubin a quote covering the basics: “Dinosaurs are important to any winning organization. And when your dinosaurs go, so does your competitive edge. I was talking to George Steinbrenner the other day, and he agreed with me. He said, ‘You know what killed off those great Yankee teams of mine, don’t you? Extreme cold and changing vegetation.’ ”

Left fielder Mookie Wilson added a player’s perspective: “When I’m in a slump, I comfort myself by saying if I believe in dinosaurs, then somewhere, they must be believing in me. And if they believe in me, then I can believe in me. Then I bust out.”

And pitcher Dwight Gooden imparted some field-level expertise: “Absolutely no question, the highlight of my season was finding that claw bone in the late Cretaceous formation just outside our dugout. Scaling up its dimensions, I’d conclude it was from a creature that was about 6-1 and 200 pounds…probably Tom Seaver.”

Now we know why that lovable team from yesteryear went on to win it all against the hated Boston Red Sox — who, we suspect, wouldn’t even recognize a Parasaurolophus if it was chowing down on the centerfield grass in Fenway Park. The takeaway? Know your dinosaurs — or lose the World Series.

Right about now you might be wondering, “How did anybody even think of this?”

Well, that’s what Jockbeat was for. We’ll be unearthing more than just dinosaur bones in future posts. —R.C. Baker]

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If the Yankees Keep Winning, Will They Give Trump ‘Thumbs Down’?

As the New York Yankees look to even things up today, there is a specter hanging over the House the Core Four built, and we’re not talking about their 1-2 deficit in the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros.

But first, let’s take a trip to that Monument Park of the mind. Although it has been burnished by almost a quarter-century of highlight reels, all Yankee fans of a certain age remember the tale of manager Joe Torre talking down a nervous George Steinbrenner when the Bombers were behind 0-1 in the 1996 World Series against the Atlanta Braves. “We’re facing [Greg] Maddux,” Torre recalled telling The Boss in a 2016 Daily News interview. “We may even lose tonight.” Then the Hall of Famer added, “I got giddy, I guess. I said, ‘But don’t worry about it. We’re going to Atlanta, that’s my town. We’ll win three there and come back and win Saturday night.’ He looked at me cross-eyed. I was kidding, but I had a straight face. He didn’t believe me. I didn’t believe me.” Maddux did in fact beat the Yanks — then Torre was proven a prophet when his team swept the next four games.

Today, the catcher who played under Torre — the triple-hitting hero of the Game 6 clincher against the Braves, 21 years ago — Joe Girardi, is manager of the Yanks, and one wonders if he is as sanguine as his former skipper. His Yankees dropped two close games due to a surfeit of strikeouts at the plate and pinpoint defense from the Astros. However, Game 3 brought major pop to Yankee bats, while Carsten Charles Sabathia bamboozled José Altuve and company. Game 4 happens this afternoon, and the Bombers need to take three of the next four to go all the way to a world championship. But a dilemma potentially awaits this team made up of 32 percent foreign-born players, with six of those eight players — Jaime García, from Mexico; Ronald Torreyes, from Venezuela; Aroldis Chapman, from Cuba; and Gary Sánchez, Luis Severino, and Starlin Castro, all from the Dominican Republic — hailing from south of President Trump’s proposed border wall. And some of the swastika- and Confederate flag–brandishing “very fine people” and anti-globalists among Trump supporters might not care much for the Amsterdam-born Didi Gregorius’s African descent, or the fact that he speaks four languages; perhaps only Masahiro Tanaka, from Japan, could pass muster with our anti-immigrant, “America First” commander in chief.  

So here’s an admittedly premature question for Yankees fans: How will you feel if the ahead-of-schedule-rebuilding Yanks pull off an October miracle and go all the way, and then go even further and hop on a charter flight to Washington, D.C., sometime early in 2018?

If they choose not to go, they would not be the first pro champs to snub the Donald. That distinction goes to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, who were disinvited by way of a Trump tweet after superstar Stephen Curry let it be known he would take a pass on the semi-tradition of winners visiting the POTUS. The Warriors have said they will instead “constructively use our trip to the nation’s capital in February to celebrate equality, diversity, and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization.”

Baseball’s protests have been more low-key over the century and a half since two amateur teams — the Brooklyn Atlantics and the Washington Nationals — were the first ball clubs feted by a sitting president, visiting President Andrew Johnson four months after the end of the Civil War. It is, after all, the sport that did not welcome African American players onto the field until Jackie Robinson donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform 82 years later, in 1947.

We do, though, have the poignant example of a ballplayer protesting blind patriotism in Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado’s refusal to stand for “God Bless America,” in 2004. The Puerto Rican native remained in the dugout throughout the song that had become de rigueur in post–9-11 America, protesting not only the debacle of the Iraq war but also the use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a target dummy for the U.S. Navy over a sixty-year span. At the time, he told the New York Times he remembered older residents reminiscing about “how, in the middle the night, a bomb blew up. I never experienced it, but I can imagine it.” He went on to explain why Puerto Ricans continue to feel hostile about the Vieques situation — “It’s still in the environment, it’s still in the ground, it’s still in the water” — and then pointed out, “That’s why we’ve got the highest cancer rate of any place in Puerto Rico.”

Going by the grudging relief effort he has offered hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, Trump seems to be no fan of that American territory. He is, however, known to be a sports fan, and even told Sports Illustrated in 2015 that he might like to own a team: “I guess I would say maybe the Yankees. George Steinbrenner was a great friend of mine, did a great job.”

At least one current Yankee, Sabathia, is on record as not wanting to be on any team owned by the real estate mogul, recently telling the Daily News, “I just don’t believe in anything that is Trump.”

Now, in the age of the most divisive president in living memory, Yankee fans can hope for seven more victories this year, and then that their team will join CC and do the right thing and find something else to do if and when the White House beckons. And c’mon — they have the perfect excuse: Trump is from friggin’ Queens!

For more baseball coverage from the Voice archives click here.

 

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“Don’t Make Me Seem Too Nice”: Remembering the Late Don Rickles

Don Rickles died on Thursday, April 6. It was the thirtieth anniversary, to the day, of the Sugar Ray Leonard–Marvelous Marvin Hagler fight, the most hyped boxing match since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s “Thrilla in Manila” twelve years earlier.

Just the announcement that Leonard and Hagler would fight set off a buzz, and the contest was immediately dubbed the “Superfight.” Sugar Ray was returning to boxing after a self-imposed three-year layoff, trying to do what everyone said was impossible: take the middleweight title against the seemingly invincible Marvelous (that was his legal name) Hagler, who was 63-2-2. The odds, depending where you put down your bet, were 3½ to 1 to 4½ to 1, in favor of Hagler.

These days, with attention divided between boxing and mixed martial arts, it’s impossible for most younger fans to appreciate the excitement these big fights stirred up in the general populace. In the Eighties and early Nineties, though, big fights drew attention not just from the sports media but from the mainstream news outlets, attracting movie idols, rock stars, and politicians to ringside.

At the Hagler-Leonard fight, my Voice credentials got me into the V.I.P. section of the outside arena at Caesars Palace, which was packed with celebrities. I sat next to someone I assumed was a celebrity, but I didn’t recognize him until the fourth round.

The bout moved with what seemed to me the pace of a Beckett play. Perhaps this was because every time Hagler seemed close to nailing Leonard against the ropes, I held my breath. After the third round, I said out loud, to no one in particular, “Well, damn, I don’t know how to score that one.” The gentleman to my left replied, “The flurry Leonard threw in the last ten seconds impressed the judges. Watch, he’ll do it again this round.”

And, by God, he did. Later on, when Leonard heard the ten-second buzzer, he unleashed an eight-punch combination that had the crowd in a frenzy. I began to feel a little better about my bet.

I also realized that my savvy neighbor sounded familiar. Up to that point I had been too absorbed to look at his face; during a lull in the action I turned to him and said, “You’re Don Rickles.”

He flashed that lopsided grin. “Yes, I am.”

“Boy,” I said, “you really know your boxing.”

“I’ve been picking winners for forty years, but I’ve never had the guts to put money down. I’m guessing, though, that you have a sizable bet on this one.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if Leonard doesn’t win this. I’ll have to call my wife back in Brooklyn and get her to wire me car fare to the airport.”

“Don’t worry,” he assured me with a pat on my arm. “Sugar Ray is tying Hagler up in knots.”

This fight, he told me, reminded him of Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta: The stronger fighter kept plodding forward trying to corner the faster one. The faster fighter kept moving in and out and counterpunching.

“Watch,” he said, “Sugar Ray’s moving counterclockwise. Not many fighters can do that. Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, but not many others. That way, when Hagler throws a right hook” — Hagler was ambidextrous but fought left-handed most of the time — “Leonard is already moving away from the punch.”

This guy, I thought, knows more about boxing than I do.

As it turned out, Mr. Rickles — that’s what I called him even after he told me to call him Don — knew not only more than I knew, but at least as much as the officials did. After twelve fast rounds, I waited for the decision with my heart pounding as never before or since.

“Don’t worry,” he told me, shaking his head. “Ray will get a split decision.”

“Did you score it for Leonard?”

“Eh,” he shrugged. “I don’t know who really won. A draw would be fair. But this is Vegas, and people expect a show. And Ray put on a show — those big flurries at the end of the rounds got him a lot of points. He looked like he won, and that’s what matters.”

Mr. Rickles was indeed correct — a split decision for Sugar Ray — and after the fight I bought him a drink.

“All the notes you took,” he asked, “are you writing this up for someone?”

“Yeah, the Village Voice. It’s a weekly paper in New York.”

“Oh, yeah, I know the Voice. I started reading it when Norman Mailer was there” — Mailer was one of the founders, in 1955. “You’re writing about boxing for the Voice, huh?

“To the Village Voice,” he said, raising his JD in a toast, “where boxing is the sport of queens.” Then he stopped. “If you write about this, don’t use that. I don’t want to offend anyone.”

“Don Rickles doesn’t want to offend anybody?”

“Only when I do my act. And don’t make me seem too nice — you’ll ruin my image.”

I don’t want to hurt his image, but Don Rickles was a heck of a guy to sit next to at a fight.

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Jeterian Bling: Yankee Fans Have to Settle for Five Rings From the Age of Jeter

In 1998, Derek Jeter had his first of eight 200-plus-hit seasons, batted .324, was chosen for his first All-Star Game, and received his second World Series ring. He was an integral part of one of the greatest teams in Major League history, one that set a record of 125 wins for the year, including a sweep of the Padres in the Series.

As Frank Sinatra once sang, “It was a very good year.”

But to further quote Ol’Blue Eyes, “Now the days grow short/I’m in the autumn of the year,” which well describes the final campaign of an astonishing career that began with Jeter’s Rookie of the Year season, in 1996.

Through it all, Yankees radio announcer John Sterling has been there calling Jeter’s pirouetting throws from the hole, his thousands of base hits, and all those countless balls and strikes the wide-eyed shortstop has watched smack into the catcher’s glove. Sterling, who coined the phrase “Jeterian swing” to describe Jeter’s taut cut to drive pitches to the opposite field, was always happy to belt out “El Capitán!” whenever Jeter went deep.

This sound collage, titled “Empire,” revisits the stellar 1998 season, when the Core Four — Jeter, Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada — were in their prime and John Sterling called every one of their 114 regular-season wins, and 11 more in the playoffs. It was created back in the analog days of 1999 on a Sony dual-tape-deck boombox. Listeners will notice that some of Sterling’s calls have been repeated — life interfered at times with taping the final pitch of every game. That said, even diehard fans may have forgotten a few other highlights from that phenomenal year, which Sterling and his then sidekick Michael Kay have fun with before Sterling’s shaking, bellowing, game-closing calls. And similar to the Voice‘s old Pazz and Jop numbering system, we are pretty sure there are 125 of them. Pretty sure.

George Steinbrenner named Jeter captain of the team in 2003, and while the Yankees have had success since then, it doesn’t come close to the record of the first half of No. 2’s career. One major shortcoming of the Jeter-led Yanks was thrown into high contrast during his last days playing at Yankee Stadium: In the first game of the final homestand, the Bombers won in the ninth with a single, a stolen base, a sac bunt (on a 3-2 count, no less), and then a hard grounder through Toronto’s drawn-in infield, a rare case of the Yankees playing small ball. Sterling catches a lot of flak for being a homer, but anyone who has tuned in over the past decade has heard him bemoan the Yankees’ inability to advance runners and get timely hits with men on base. One wishes the Jeter-helmed Yanks had manufactured a few more runs during El Capitán’s reign. (If there were a stat for payroll divided by hits with runners in scoring position, no Yankee fan of the past 10 years would want to see that gruesome number.)

But then, of course, came the storybook ending of Jeter’s final home game, an evening that began with a rainbow over Yankee Stadium and ended with a single, a sac bunt, and the Captain’s walk-off base hit.

Add to that five World Series rings. Fourteen All-Star appearances. Five Gold Gloves. A home run for his 3,000th hit (3,465 total, 6th on the all-time list). MVP of the first (and, so far, only) Bronx-Queens Subway World Series. And you have to love (O.K., or not) the Flip, the Dive, and, as if to confirm that Jeter was headed for a charmed baseball life, that fly out turned into a homer by fan Jeffrey Maier in the shortstop’s first year of postseason play. It has been one of the diamond’s most dazzling careers — call it “Jeterian bling.”

And, certainly, one of the most radiant memories is that of “Mr. November,” from the extended 2001 season. Which raises a hypothetical question for Yankee fans about the Jeter era: How many of those five World Series rings — if you’d somehow gotten hold of that glittering fistful yourself — how many of those baubles would you give up to have won it all in 2001, post 9-11, instead of having to witness Mariano Rivera get beaten, in that rare way that was his curse, with a blooper just over the infield?

Me, I’d still want that first one in ’96, sealed by third baseman Charlie Hayes’s ecstatic smile as he caught that foul pop and set off nearly two decades’ worth of pent-up pandemonium in the old stadium.

And beating the Mets in 2000 was sweet (if emotionally exhausting).

And the record of 125 wins sparkles like champagne.

But the other two — Atlanta again (yawn)? The Phillies? What would you give to have won it all while the city was still reeling? What could have better signaled that we were recovering than a Yankees world championship? (And truth be told — that year? I’d have been happy to see the Mets win it, so long as a team from the Big Apple could say to the haters, “We’re still standing.”)

We could’ve used it, to help us heal.

But hey: Welcome to New York.

It’s a helluva town, as Jay-Z and Alicia Keys reminded us with “Empire State of Mind” before the second game of the 2009 Series (after the Yanks had lost the opener to Philadelphia): “New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of/There’s nothing’ you can’t do/Now you’re in New York,” the camera quick-cutting to Mariano and Derek, bopping wallflowers whose star power was momentarily outshone.

So Yankee fans have to settle for those five rings from the Age of Jeter. Nothing’s perfect, not least the Captain’s farewell tour: In almost a full season of postseason play (158 games), his stats are impressive — .308 average, 200 hits, 20 homers, 61 RBIs — but he won’t be adding to those numbers in his goodbye year.

Now there is just the sparkle of that black-diamond chain Jeter wears around his neck as he awaits induction into Cooperstown. And perhaps we’ll get one final, blinding flash of Jeterian bling: Could Jeter become the first-ever unanimous Hall of Fame pick?

Read more baseball coverage from the Voice archives — including a first-person account about playing against Cal Ripken, Jr. and a Yankees art exhibit. 

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