Categories
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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713648″ /]

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

Categories
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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722081″ /]

•••

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714267″ /]

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.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725815″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722985″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717965″ /]

“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.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725889″ /]

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?”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716433″ /]

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.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724977″ /]

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.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”79481″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721971″ /]

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
From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Willie Randolph: The Brownsville Bomber

Summer 1974.
Past the hopscotch question mark and to the left of the skelly court was a pitch­ing rubber drawn in white chalk. During the course of your average Brownsville summer it moved around a bit, but basi­cally it stayed about 70 feet from the concrete barrel that served double duty as funhouse and backstop. All the little kids had been chased away and the stick­ball crew, the black guys from 305 and 315 Livonia Avenue and the Puerto Ri­cans from 360 Dumont, were banging around with sleek brown and orange broom handles and bats autographed by Thurman Munson, Danny Cater, and Horace Clarke, from Yankees Bat Day. Black tape was wrapped around the ends of bats and sticks for a solid grip. We’d spent so many summers on this asphalt stickball field, pounding Pinsy Pinky rubber balls into gloves and playing from noon to dark while ring-a-levio games, baby carriages, little brothers and sisters swirled around. As we’d gotten older, the endless summers of our adolescence had given way to the distractions of teen life; loose joints, part-time jobs, blue-light parties and, on occasion, reading books.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725900″ /]

On this day we were all out there again because Mickey was back home and, well, we all just wanted to be around. Bill Tra­vers in the Daily News always called him Willie Randolph, which confused me be­cause around the Tilden projects he was always Mickey as in Mantle, since he was one of the best hitters on the block. Whatever you called him, Randolph was the only guy on our block, or for that matter in all of Brownsville, that we knew of with a big league baseball con­tract. It meant a lot to me since not only did I live in the same project but was three years behind him at the same high school, and, after a so-so year of JV ball, was trying out for the varsity. Since both our project and high school were named after Samuel J. Tilden, New York State governor and presidential candidate of yesteryear, I thought maybe I’d stumbled upon a good omen.

A stickball game started and somehow I managed to get to pitch to Mickey, er, Willie. It would have been glorious to strike him out, but my hero was the Yan­kees’ underappreciated sinkerballer Mel Stottlemyre — in my mind as good as the Mets’ Seaver and Koosman — so it would have been fine if he merely grounded into an imaginary double play. Oh, well. The Tilden projects were (still are) 16 stories high. Surrounding the roof is a metal rail­ing, and right on top an incinerator. This is important information. In a moment of ill-timed machismo, I reared back and fired a high hard one. Armed with a brown stickball bat and batting instruc­tion from a Pittsburgh Pirate system known for producing hitters, Randolph smacked the pink projectile way up in the air, over the asphalt infield, over the fence that was an automatic double, over the alley that was a triple, and —crash!­ — right up against the fence over the 16th floor of a building whose number time has mercifully obscured. I remember thinking, “I hope he makes it to the ma­jor leagues. At least then I’ll have a good story to tell.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717965″ /]

Summer 1986.
Brownsville is not one of the neighbor­hoods Borough President Howard Gold­en highlights in his rosy reports about Brooklyn’s future. In Brooklyn in the 21st Century, prepared by the Fund for the Borough of Brooklyn with Golden’s cooperation, my childhood home — high­- and low-rise projects, the dying shopping strips of Belmont and Pitkin Avenues, Arab and Korean store owners, hard­working blacks and Hispanics, and more crack salesmen than summer jobs (are crack houses Reagan’s real urban enterprise zones?) — is mentioned just twice. Brownsville is one of those places where “the underclass,” the fashionable term for distancing America from its poor, multiplies and survives.

For Randolph, his friends, and me, too, one of the keys to survival in Brownsville of the ’70s was the number 2 (now 3) elevated IRT subway that runs through Brownsville and past what used to be my window at 315 Livonia Avenue. It was a magic carpet to “the Deuce” (a/k/a 42nd Street) and the movies; to Coney Island (after you switched to the D); and to Shea and Yankee stadiums. Mickey Ran­dolph took the 2 to the Deuce to the 7 — he was a Mets fan. I took the 2 to the 4 — I thought Horace Clarke was a fine second baseman. Time sure does pass.

Earlier this season, I took that ride again, getting on at Rockaway Avenue in Brownsville and taking that long trip from Brooklyn to the Bronx, anxiously anticipating the moment when the 4 train explodes into sunlight and there, white as a little boy’s birthday cake, is Yankee Stadium.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722985″ /]

In my stickball days I’d come down the steps and head left to the bleachers. This evening I hang a right past Babe Ruth Park, the handball courts, the suit-and-tie crowd entering the Stadium Club, right up to the press gate. While working for the Amsterdam News as a college student in the late ’70s, I’d often taken this  journey, and Randolph, traded to the Yankees in 1975, had been good to me, introducing me to a couple of players and basically making an insecure college kid feel alright. Good thing, too, because the Yankee clubhouse was as taut as a newly strung tennis racket. Reggie Jackson was always nasty to me. Thurman Munson was mean. Graig Nettles was a redneck. Billy Martin’s office was the hellhole of an unstable enemy. Except for Oscar Gamble, a funny motormouth who knew his on-base percentage and homer-to-at-­bat ratio from day to day, even the other Yankees were wary of writers they didn’t know and many they did. Later, when Geoffrey Stokes dissected Yankee psy­chology with his Voice piece “The Para­noid Style of Yankee Baseball,” I knew exactly what he meant.

Now things seemed different. Ran­dolph was no longer just a sane soul in a room of gifted egotists, but co-captain of a team with pitchers too young to know what to do or too old to do it well, a rookie manager still to be tested under fire, and some of the greatest players in the game. Captain! Hard to imagine homeboy from Brooklyn — a negro — be­ing captain of America’s Team.

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

Walking into the clubhouse this time I didn’t have to hold my breath for fear that someone would step on my toes. My first impression: Winfield is bigger than any of those aforementioned Yankee stars, yet when he sat watching Carol Jenkins on Live at Five or strutted past the Winfield Foundation letters stapled to the bulletin board, he didn’t dominate the room the way those money players did. I don’t know what the departed Don Baylor meant in the clubhouse, but in comparison to the “good old days,” some­thing was different; whether it meant there was a leadership vacuum or just non-Yankee normal baseball tranquillity, I don’t know.

Randolph sat in the center of the room, watching Live at Five, too, and lacing up his cleats. He recognized me immediate­ly, smiled, and we started talking. Our talk that night and in subsequent conver­sations was defined and divided in two parts: the “Mickey” Randolph story of how a Brooklyn boy grew into a major league ballplayer; and the tale of number 30, Willie Randolph, a man obsessed with consistency, privacy, and pride. So the following is on the order of a double­sided single: “Homeboys on Parade” b/w “Yankee Attitude (Why Willie Randolph Has Outlasted Fred Stanley, Bucky Dent, Andre Robertson, Bobby Meacham, and 24 Other Double Play Partners).”

[related_posts post_id_1=”722081″ /]

S I D E  O N E

Mickey Randolph didn’t hang out, which was unusual for the neighbor­hood’s top athletes, who enjoyed basking in the respect their ability generated. The difference was probably that most of the stars of the ‘Ville played hoops; and like the notorious World B. Free (then Lloyd “All World” Free of Canarsie High) most Brownsville players chanted the mantra “Give up the pill.” While these cats were holding court Randolph was upstairs. “I remember they would call me, ‘Hey, Mickey, come on down, man, we’re playing ring-a-levio,’ or, ‘We’re playin’ manhunt,’ and I’d go, ‘Naw, man, I got to get my rest.’ At that time I didn’t need rest,” he says with a chuckle in the Yankee dugout. “But that’s what I thought I needed to do to be prepared to win the next day. I didn’t know that guys had a beer or two or got drunk or smoked a joint. I actually be­lieved that athletes got their rest at night. I remember my homeboys hanging out on the corner partying, and I was upstairs watching the Mets at 8 o’clock.”

Part of Randolph’s baseball orienta­tion may have resulted from living in 360, which the black guys in 315 and 305 called “the Puerto Rican building.” “His­panic building?” he says with a smile.

“Yeah, the majority of them were. They make them good rice and beans and are a good band of people. I remember even going to Puerto Rico, my first time being out of Brooklyn. I must have been 10 or 11 years old. We had an all-star team within this league and they won a trip to Puerto Rico for a week; we went on a little tour of three cities. I remember sleeping with a net over me. It was so weird. I just wanted to play ball. It could have been with the Russians; I didn’t care who it was with.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725889″ /]

Crucial to Randolph’s development as a young player was his friendship with a gardener at the Tilden projects named Frank Tepedino. His namesake and nephew was a scrubby reserve outfielder with the Yankees from 1969 to 1972 and another nephew, Russell, played second base on the same Tilden JV baseball team I did. “Frank gave me my first break,” Randolph says. “He got tired of chasing us off his grass and everything, so he said, ‘Listen, you guys really want to play ball? Come on down to Five Dia­monds [in Prospect Park] on Saturday and we’ll play.’ ”

Tepedino introduced him to American Legion ball, where he competed against Italians and Jews from outside Brooklyn’s dark neighborhoods, and also to a few tricks of the trade. Man on first. Ball hit up the middle. Randolph fields it and, instead of flipping underhand or turning his body to throw sideways, he flips it backhand, “Frank showed that to me when I was 11 or 12,” he says, grabbing a ball and twisting his wrist to demon­strate. “I remember him very vividly saying, ‘Get close to the base. Get that ball and flip your wrist around and shovel it.’ I would sit in my room and put a pillow on the bed and just take a hardball and for hours just stand there throwing the ball into that pillow.”

Gifted basketball players are scouted in junior high, but relatively little attention is paid to New York City baseball players. For every Randolph, or fellow Brooklynite Julio Cruz (White Sox), or Shawon Dunston (Cubs), a slew of bas­ketball players emerges from the inner city every year. Part of the problem is the lack of fields and the poor quality of those that exist. Willie and I traded stories about the Tilden High School field in East Flatbush; I remember twice getting hit in the throat on bad hops, he got it once in the mouth. Randolph once took his spikes and dug up a rock “as big as a damn basketball” in the shortstop hole. Quality instruction is in short supply as well. Basically, “you just had to get what you could from this guy or that guy, and keep your eyes open for anything else,” says Randolph, who in the off-season does clinics around the metropolitan area.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725481″ /]

Fear keeps many baseball scouts out of Brownsville and neighborhoods like it. “Half of them are afraid they’re gonna get mugged,” he says. “Some scouts came out to see me and stayed in the car.” Still, by his senior year at Tilden, Ran­dolph was all-city at shortstop and enough of a prospect that the Mets, Expos, and Royals all took a look, but the Pirates were the only ones that showed real interest.

In the ’70s the Pirates were one of the most popular teams in black America be­cause they were always ready and willing to sign and play black and Hispanic play­ers. In fact, they are the only major league team in history to put nine black/Hispanic players in the game at one time. However, the open-door racial policies of the Pirates didn’t mean they liked scout­ing in Brooklyn, either. Randolph signed his Pittsburgh Pirate contract in a car outside diamond seven at the Prospect Park Parade Grounds. “It’s the seventh inning of a game and they call me off the field. They say, ‘Listen we got to go back to Pittsburgh. We want you to sign. You got to sign, and gotta sign it now. We ain’t gonna wait.’ I got in the car. On this particular day they did not want to get out of the car. They just wanted to get it done and over with.”

At one point during our dugout talk another reporter, whom I didn’t see, sat down behind me with an open notebook. Randolph had me stop taping and told my fellow scribe quite firmly not to take notes. Willie considered this a private interview. Said reporter remarked that he was after his own “angle” and retreated a few feet. Willie had been comfortable talking about his pre-Yankee days, but his rebuff of the other reporter made me remember that Willie is a New York Yan­kee, not simply some homeboy I grew up with.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716433″ /]

S I D E  T W O  

Sitting in front of Randolph’s locker some weeks later, waiting for him to emerge from the weight room, it struck me that the second baseman is the Yan­kees’ Invisible Man; through tempera­ment and study he has kept his true char­acter obscure on the most reported about sports franchise in America. If Randolph were a b-boy, I’d say he was “fronting.” My man wouldn’t lie to the Daily News, but he’s much too wise to tell folks what he really thinks about his years with the pinstriped crew. Listen to how Randolph schooled the troubled and now departed Bobby Meacham on reporters: “He told me, ‘Just answer what they ask you. Don’t volunteer additional comments.’ ”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when, in contrast to my previous visit, he was initially quite guarded. He asked me very directly what I was trying to “get,” as if he suspected I was out to do a hatch­et job. That homeboy stuff had worn off. Randolph was just pursuing his policy of cautious engagement, quite aware that at Yankee Stadium, giving the wrong quote to the right reporter is like setting fire to your ass. And through 21 managerial changes, four World Series, four All-Star selections, more seasons in pinstripes than any black Yankee except Elston Howard 912) and Roy White (14), this is one Brownsville cat who has kept himself quite chilly.

Ask him about the media and he says, “I’m much more open these days because I’m more mature. I feel like I can con­verse without falling into traps that I might have fell into earlier,” but he makes it clear scribes are not his closest friends. “I got burned sometimes early in my career which probably made me a little tougher. It’s like when you grew up on the block and someone came out of their face wrong, you don’t forget it. You don’t make the same mistakes.”

Privacy, you see, is a big issue with Randolph. You have rarely seen pictures of his wife Gretchen, his high school sweetheart who lived in 305 Livonia, or his three kids. Away from the ballpark, with the exception of the baseball clinics and some charitable appearances, he keeps a low profile, attending Broadway shows (he was one of the few to like Big Deal) and catching some jazz in the Vil­lage. Randolph assiduously avoids the ce­lebrity backstage hustle. “The PR guy is pushing, ‘Come on, let’s get the publicity picture.’ I say, ‘That’s for you. Does the man want to do that? Did he request me to come back here?’ So I just go do my thing, sit back, check it out, slip out the side door, in my car, and I’m gone.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”713648″ /]

Aside from his don’t-crowd-me, I-won’t-crowd-you attitude, another factor in his reticence may be that his current contract ends this season. That will make him a 32-year-old second baseman with three to four quality years ahead of him. From the Yankees’ viewpoint, he may be nearing the end of his value as trade bait. Is the recently acquired (and younger) Wayne Tolleson next season’s second sacker? I hope not. Despite making more errors in the first half of this season than he did all of last, Willie can still pick it, and because of his exceptional batting eye (he’s been in the base-on-balls top five all season), he’s still a good number two hitter even if Lou Piniella doesn’t think so. Randolph would definitely be a valuable commodity in the open market, someone teams like the Orioles and the Padres would covet. Of course Randolph doesn’t want to go. His roots are too deep in this city and his team.

So first we talked with the tape record­er off. I explained what I was looking for and Randolph listened, nodding at me and saying little. And, to my surprise, the Invisible Man began to open up about the Yankees. “People think, ‘Oh, you’re never involved in any controversy.’ That’s not necessarily true. That’s not true at all. I’ve had my spats and squab­bles with ownership. I don’t run to the paper and publicize it like some guys might. I just let it roll off my back. I don’t let it get to the point that it starts eating at me and affects my play.”

In 1982 boss George fined and flogged Randolph for missing an off-day work­out. “I had a prior commitment with the Mental Health Association and I felt I couldn’t cancel. There were over 1000 people there to see me. Kids. There was a little bickering about it in the papers. He was really pissed about it. This was dur­ing the strike year. We weren’t even play­ing ball when I committed to this so, just because we came back to playing ball and he feels we’re playing horseshit, I can’t just disappoint the kids and tell them I can’t come.”

Billy Martin and Dick Howser turned out to be his favorite managers: Billy for his style, and the Kansas City manager (now recovering from brain surgery) for his temperament. “Billy Martin taught me a lot. He was my first manager. He believed in me at a very young age. Not too many rookies play under Billy. He gave me a chance to play and really didn’t mess with my game. I like Billy’s aggressive style. Now, the total contrast was Dick Howser. Dick Howser was a coach before be became a manager, so I had a chance to get to know him before he took the job. He was the kind of guy who wouldn’t say a lot, but he was open for suggestions. If you had any problems you could go and talk to him. He just treated me with a lot of respect and, hey, we won 103 ball games that year (1980), so you can’t argue with that. You don’t win 103 games by sitting on your butt in the manager’s seat.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”669095″ /]

Then he adds with an ironic smile and a laugh, “Managers can’t do it for you, Nelson. You got to go out there yourself. No one’s gonna help you at that plate facing that 90 mph fastball. No one can turn that double play for you.” For him, the difference between competitive ball­-clubs, like the current Yankees, and the championship squads of the late ’70s is not found in batting averages and ERAs. “When you think about those years you remember we had a veteran team with a certain moxie, a certain attitude that I think got us over a lot,” he says with obvious affection. “Today we have a tremendous amount of talent. Man for man, I think we have much more talent than many other teams. But that doesn’t al­ways win you championships. You have to have a certain makeup, a certain arro­gance, a cockiness about yourself; just the way you played the game. Nettles, Reggie, Thurman, Chris [Chambliss], Mickey [Rivers], Goose [Gossage], all those guys — they knew how to win, that’s all.” Which suggests that some of the qualities I found so intimidating at the time were part of what made them so cold-blooded in all those memorable battles with the Red Sox, Royals, and Dodgers. “At times it got to the point that we felt we could turn it on when we had to. It seemed that way anyway. It’s a bad habit to get into but we seemed to be able to do that. It was amazing.”

It was 10 years ago this summer that Randolph, the star of Yankee training camp, won the second base job opposite shortstop Fred “Chicken” Stanley. That same historic season the renovated Yankee Stadium reopened, Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner were the toast (not just the talk) of the town, Thurman Munson was the only straw in the drink, and behind the steady starting pitching of Catfish Hunter, Ed Figueroa, and Don Gullett, the Yankees won the American League East by 10½ over Boston, bring­ing the franchise its first pennant in 12 years. Randolph, Piniella, and Guidry (who that year appeared in only seven major league contests) are the only sur­vivors from that campaign. Piniella, of course, is managing, and as captains, Guidry and Randolph are following in the cleat marks of Babe Ruth, Lou Geh­rig, Munson, and Nettles (also Roger Peckinpaugh and Everett Scott). No one made a big deal about Randolph being the Yankees’ first black captain, and nei­ther does he. What apparently is more significant to him is the time it took for management to acknowledge his leader­ship with the title. My impression is that Randolph wanted to be made captain when Nettles went to San Diego in spring 1984.

[related_posts post_id_1=”79481″ /]

“Nothing. Nothing really,” Randolph answers very softly when asked what difference being co-captain has made. “I feel that for the last five or six years I’ve been a leader in my own way on this club. You know in your own mind, you know from the response from your teammates. No writer or no one else has to tell you, ‘He’s the leader.’ ” He takes on a whin­ing, mocking voice to say, ” ‘Oh, I think I’ve arrived. I think I’m a leader.’ I don’t need that. My relationship with my teammates is what makes me captain, not statistics or longevity. When it happened, it was a highlight for me, but you have to understand it was talked about for awhile. So maybe a little bit of the ooomph kinda went away a little bit. It wasn’t like I just said, ‘Oh, well.’ But I was already comfortable with the way I perceived myself and what I meant to this team when they announced it. I don’t want to play it down, but you have to know the history of the whole thing.”

Roy White, the senior black Yankee when Randolph joined the club, currently hitting coach, backs him up. Standing by the batting cage watching Randolph work on his swing, White recalls that in ’76, “He was a quiet kind of shy young man with a lot of talent you immediately no­ticed,” but that today “Willie is a leader on the club and is a lot more verbal about it than people realize. In the clubhouse, in the dugout, on the bus, he talks to guys, gets on them. He’s very good with the younger players.” Meacham felt that way and, according to Stokes’s book on the 1983 Yankee season, Pinstripe Pandemonium, that was true then with Mea­cham, Andre Robertson, and Brian Dayett. Stokes also remarked “it sometimes seemed as though there were two different Willie Randolphs wearing pinstripes.”

Randolph’s attitude is that of the clas­sic other-borough New Yorker. Where out-of-towners like Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, George Steinbrenner, and Billy Martin came to the Apple to get drunk on the city’s glamour and power, Ran­dolph sips from the cup lightly. A camera ad. A Gillette spot with Steve Garvey and Steve Carlton. Some stuff on WPIX and SportsChannel. That’s all this hometown hero has tasted. He says, “I haven’t really pursued it. I’ve been open for it,” yet Randolph must know that solid second basemen with barely over 30 lifetime homers don’t get Madison Avenue calls unless they chase.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721971″ /]

He hasn’t. He won’t. He’s still got the baseball obsessiveness that kept him up­stairs at night watching the Mets and perfecting his double play toss. The dif­ference, over the long run, between some of the very gifted Puerto Rican players in 360 Dumont and Willie “Mickey” Ran­dolph wasn’t raw talent. There were cats we played with who could put the ball on the roof of the Tilden projects, and field as sweet as Topps bubble gum. What sep­arated Randolph from his local peers is what separates the 1976 Yankees and 1986 Yankees.

“When you walk out in the field you have to really feel like you can win; that you’re the best at what you can do. That’s how I approach my job,” he says near the end of our talk, buttoning up the most famous jersey in professional sports. “It’s all about attitude.” ♦

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

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

Yankee Ball At Its Best

Contesting the Fix of Time and Space

In Los Angeles, movie stars gather at Chavez Ra­vine and click their smiles across acres of major-league turf. Dodger Stadium, host to this flash of white and green, also offers the common grace of traditional baseball drama.

Fronting for anything is a tough act in southern California; a World Series that starts here must follow legends that open with cavalry traveling by illusion and arriving by limousine.

“Nothing,” responds a friend, “has ever been real here.”

To the manner born, this year’s Dodger team approached the Series warmed by the shine of Hollywood gospel. First-base coach Jim Gilliam died two days before the opener, and, in its grief, Los Angeles gave his name as a spirit of temporary visitation, offering these October Games to his memory.

But sport is of this world and speaks primarily to moving flesh. Baseball is for the living. Music should be played for de­parting souls, tears shed, and poetry spoken. Dedicating ballgames to the dead asks too much of too few. October ball simply fea­tures world-class human muscle contesting the fix of time and space.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717965″ /]

Here was a championship for the latter day: New York and Los Angeles, High John the Conqueror meeting Aimee Semple McPherson. Because there are few vibrations that can embrace both coasts; Laid Back and Uptight, Beauty and the Beast of Cities, or Sun Beyond Cement. An abstract, up-tempo rivalry. Strained relations between Coney Is­land and the San Andreas Fault… the Apple and L.A.

Somewhere below tons of news copy and miles of instant replay, Captain Davey Lopes of the Dodgers stepped up to the plate. Maybe this exceptional sorrow is always in his eyes. Tonight, however, he’s made it clear he wants to live higher and stronger for the friend and mentor he affectionately called the Devil… Jim Gilliam, who replaced immortal Jackie Robinson at second base in old Ebbetts Field.

Lopes, star-looking but unemployed by lo­cal movie moguls, a man with the most heroic moustache in the game, bops two hom­ers into a night of sad remembrance.

He leads his team and wins. Cheers thun­der for the Yankee loss. In America, people sometimes hope New York will die before the close of the century. And so the spectre of another Yankee Frankenstein rising from the ash of urban blight is enough to turn stom­achs from Shawnee Mission to Walla Walla. Citizens who have sent such men as Proxmire and Brooke to the Senate can hardly be ex­pected to welcome news of a Yankee Five-Year Plan for kicking ass.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722985″ /]

On those first warm nights in Los Angeles, Davey Lopes played out the craze of affec­tion, and with a deeply bruised soul. Some­thing grand was necessary, something wholly honorable, to the extent the cameras would allow. To leave Jim Gilliam nothing but ashes might exact this quotation from Ameri­can playwright Bill Gunn: So far you’re just one of the play people. Don’t try and get real tonight…

Before the teams left Los Angeles, earlier than the superb moment when young Welch, a Dodger who can throw fire, brought death on Reggie Jackson with a second-game fast­ball in the top of the ninth, the word was Glove: Graig Nettles. Like a doughboy aris­tocrat near the Marne River shouting, They Shall Not Pass, Yank third-baseman Nettles got down. His body in full extension toward the foul line, he actually reached, in one in­stance, part of the way into left field to snatch a ball back from its flight, a play memorable enough to join, for sheer brilliance, George Foster’s flawless peg to home plate in the 1975 World Series against the Red Sox in Boston, when Foster cut down Denny Doyle trying to score the winning run. Few throws from the outfield have created more excite­ment.

In the second of the Games at Dodger Sta­dium, Nettles clearly established that he had taken away a vital portion of the field for the right-handed pull hitter, which was to say most of the Los Angeles team. He speared line drives, gobbled up screamers headed for the left-field corner and extra bases, and double-played the Dodgers into bad health.

A cold sweat seemed to settle early in L.A.’s dugout. Of course, there was the rea­sonable assumption that Nettles might not continue to matter that much. The Yankees, demanding more allegiance from an overworked miracle, fell two games down to the West Coast. With blessings from Big Dodger in the sky, Tom Lasorda, manager and loyal subject for all seasons, flew his team east for the march on Yankee Stadium.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722081″ /]

Bronx Bomber pursuit of a second con­secutive world championship had already gone through waters where sharks were counted as victims. And for one whole por­tion of a fractured season, Bob Lemon was called to turn plowshares back into swords.

As mentor to some incorrigible athletic no­bility, Lemon wisely chose to play himself in the new adventure… he was what he is — a quiet, knowledgeable figure from the scram­bled world of out-of-work baseball managers loafing for one more shot.

There were many arias being sung in the emotionally volatile Yankee clubhouse. Bob Lemon came, shrugged away these improvi­sational shuffles, and played through.

Bob Lemon decided from the beginning to make a most important contribution to a troubled team by simply acting his age. Billy Martin, in contrast, had never understood that a man can’t be young in the company of the young unless he’s actually young himself.

Lemon is not, and knows it. He has been in this game for more years than any of his players have been alive. Calm, alert, he has the reflexes of a wise, aging Good Time Char­lie playing poker and the Blues while learn­ing from both that winning is about being able to lose, too, but mainly about showing up in either case.

[related_posts post_id_1=”669095″ /]

Managing the Yankees has long been a job men would willingly die to have. To succeed in the Bronx ball yard is perceived as The Max… but ask Yogi… interview Bill Virdon.

Lemon stroked the man called Jackson into sitting down from right field to be the designated hitter. Grumbling, threatening again to quit, Reggie became the most magnificent DH October had ever seen.

In Mickey Rivers, America has a man who certifies the premise: There are answers in the universe we simply shouldn’t question. He is part Charlie Chaplin and part Charlie Parker, a mix of energy and relaxation that quickens the senses. In the third Game of the Series — Dodgers vs. Ron Guidry — Rivers hunches at the plate like a question mark, then sacrifices, a maneuver that brings to baseball its one truly beatific symbol.

This bunt by Rivers is moving well when Los Angeles catcher Steve Yeager grabs it, cocks his arm to throw, then, mysteriously hesitates — pausing in his night’s occupation to create still another cryptic Series footnote — while Mickey beats it out.

Why? cry the West Coast fans.

And they are premature in rolling their eyes toward heaven. The real nightmare is still forming up ahead. And since when have there been explanations?

[related_posts post_id_1=”713648″ /]

Bill Russell may or may not know of Jelly Roll Morton, the American musician and oc­casional genius who died, chrism trickling down his chest, in a certainty he’d been cursed by demons punishing him for an offense committed in another life.… What does it matter? When you’re done you’re done. Wild pitches? Missing the cutoff man? (Steve Garvey, it is reported, throws a base­ball with considerable reluctance, and he’s the interior cutoff man for Los Angeles. If he doesn’t make the good toss, those clouds per­ceived by pessimists, floating over the Ra­vine… are real.)

Russell shakes. Ron Cey backs away from grounders like some timid mailman from a macho German shepherd.

New York was once home to a popular evangelist named George Baker. More widely known as Father Divine, be was a solid base­ball fan during New York’s glory days of the 1930s and ’40s. One of Baker/Divine’s ritual extravagances involved staring with eyes ablaze at a congregation of his advocates and demanding:

DO YOU SEE THE MYSTERY!!!

It wasn’t so much a question as it became an order. Divine must have adored the Yankees because they were winners, as he was, and overcame parades of obstacles on the way to achieving dreams. Some said George Bak­er could see things others cannot — how to be­come Father Divine, for example.

The dream established in the Yankee col­lective, though clouded periodically with misleading clues, was a simple term of victo­ry. They chose to win. And, with a masterful use of their late schedule, the Yanks tracked down the front-running Red Sox, beat them four straight in their own yard at Fenway, then refused to panic when they (the Yanks) were stomped on the final day of the season by the dismal Cleveland Indians. Like a gifted horseplayer who does not lose when it is absolutely necessary for him to win, the Yan­kees played their greatest ball when nothing else would do (witness Lou Piniella’s bare-hand pickup of a ball about to pass him in the sun of right field in Boston; it was, to that point, the defensive magic of the year).

[related_posts post_id_1=”716433″ /]

As the Yankee victories clustered in The City, an impressive illustration emerged, and it should always remain in the mind’s eye. If pitching is the game’s heart, and homers ­under-pressure form its guts, then baseball’s character is determined in the deathless rou­tine of fielding plays. The Series is always tense, and for so many reasons. Seldom is there much margin for error. The Dodgers lived in that margin.

Shortstop Bill Russell had double-play balls crawling along his arms like runaway cottonmouth snakes. When the truth was apparent, of the trouble the Dodgers were in, they reacted like men who’ve seen the lights all vanish on the freeway, leaving them to grope their way to hopelessness and back. In the grip of Divine’s resolute mystery, Los Angeles went stumbling after an answer — a haven, perhaps — where baseball would again encourage the logic of sweat and righteous living, the honest work of true believers.

The Yankees believe in nothing. Yet it was not Chris Chambliss or Jim Spencer waving So Long to ground balls trotting near first base, bidding them godspeed into right field… that was Steve Garvey, impotent at the plate, tight out on the diamond. Ron Cey seemed at a point ready, at least, to quit. And Davey Lopes, as well, began conceding base hits as they left Yankee bats, in a sort of laissez-faire assumption that diving after baseballs is a way of paying them too much homage.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713114″ /]

But Graig Nettles was diving. And Brian Doyle. Bucky Dent achieved nirvana by sec­ond base. Lou (as in Boo) went crashing into walls like a man who was anxious but unwel­come at some exclusive, catered affair. Thur­man Munson, with his throwing arm hanging like a canned ham, rose up to throw on run­ners he had no business throwing out, and said later it was:

Because I wanted to…

The Bombers played sonatas on the Yan­kee Stadium grass.

The Dodgers needn’t be perceived, inci­dentally, as recruits who disgraced their uniforms but only as men who failed. They may, in fact, be fortunate, living in a country where millions never complete the tasks assigned them, drifting instead between medi­ocrity and indifference, all the days of their time.

Pitcher Don Sutton of the Dodgers, who would lose the final, devastating ballgame at Los Angeles, brought a measure of reflection to the work when he told a reporter that he felt no exceptional pressure on him as he went out to face the Yankees.

“Try feeding six kids in America on a small paycheck,” said Sutton. “That’s pressure.”

Ball, said a one-time city mystic, is just ball, that’s all. But ABC, then NBC, and all the TV news departments in between have reminded us again just how easily the nation­al trigger can be pulled with jingles and the­matics, morose vulgarity and aging boyish charm. The World Series has always been sold without apology. If you don’t like the product, you can always turn it off. But how many of us have never been drawn back into those golden afternoons when we could shag fly balls three hours at a clip and swing evenly at curves for another two?

[related_posts post_id_1=”722046″ /]

The memory clings to closets and attics all over this country, where dry leather presses, glove against abandoned spikes, and Louis­ville Sluggers lean quietly against the back walls, having seen no combat in a decade.

Sportscasters know how to remind if not inspire us; they are ghost vocalists through the walls of the night to tell us the game should never be confined to the simpler forms of personal recollection when there’s a fortune to be made.

The stars can be paid and their legends re­plenished beyond the century if everyone re­members the rules. Nobody gets hurt if we all embrace the concept of regulation. As in: Rule 7.09 (f), the Official Baseball Rules, which states in part that any player just put out (Reggie Jackson) then impeding any fol­lowing play on another runner shall cause that subsequent runner (Lou Piniella) to be declared out for the interference of his teammate (Reggie Jackson, one more time).

And Munson does not score in the crucial fourth game, when the Yankees win in the bottom of the ninth on Piniella’s clutch sin­gle. The larger rule, of course, is that the forces will always let the drama flow the way it wants to go. Piniella went to right field on young Welch, the Billy Budd of the Series, and the Mojo went along for the ride.

[related_posts post_id_1=”648810″ /]

When they tied it, the Yankees had, in fact, won the Series. Visions of the Juggernaut lunged through Beverly Hills, where bets on the Games had been made with those chumps in the New York offices.…

How? wept the movie stars, canceling Game 7 box seats. When it ended, the rough­cut shows, the Dodger left-fielder, Dusty Baker, was daring Brian (Who?) Doyle to hit a ball over his head. When it came to performing their respective jobs of that moment, Doyle did, Dusty didn’t. And, at Yankee Stadium, young Welch threw a blazing fastball sailing over his catcher’s head… shortly after the rain delay… and a swirl of dust rose in a shadowy column around second base. Later, the winning run would score from there.

What remains to be remembered is not just Reggie’s agonized reaction to striking out with two men on, two out in an electrifying ballgame, but instead Reggie’s talk with Lou Piniella later, in the fourth game. Jackson could have said, simply, The time is here.

And Lou clotheslined a single to win, 4-3. Before that, the Yankees had trailed, 3-0.

The World Series also details how difficult baseball is to play, and how dangerous, or at least how passionately disposed to reveal itself in the deepest heat.

The Dodgers were simply not up to it this time. But, nonetheless, back in Los Angeles, the stars were smiling for the team’s return. Glitter fades, though, when an infielder reputedly as quick as Bill Russell is nailed stealing second base by a catcher who can scarcely lift his throwing arm.

[related_posts post_id_1=”79481″ /]

Then, it’s time to be scared.

In the sixth game it seemed obvious from the outset that the Dodgers couldn’t take care. Even Lopes’s homering immediately off Catfish Hunter didn’t carry with it the sound of supremacy in full gallop. Though they went ahead 2-0, it was the Dodgers who were always behind. Until, finally, the freeway was jammed with disappointment riding away early, leaving tears along the dash­boards.

(The boxer Jack Jefferson, in Howard Sackler’s play and film The Great White Hope, demands of a humble group of Ne­groes outside a prizefight arena, just what difference it will make in their lives if he, Jefferson, wins the crown, the heavyweight championship of the world…)

Pride, fading slowly to dust, is all the poor seem to get. Those shimmering lights at the banquet, we are told, will not gleam into the bleachers.

The commons need to hear tickertape fall­ing on a ball team in precisely the same way they needed to hear the contents of Caesar’s will. Huge Rich Gossage was sending flame at the Dodger bats when all of it ended. He was cheered on lower Broadway, riding the slowest Manhattan flatbed. Catfish was in a distant stream, rod and line for his glove. Nettles remained in Los Angeles; it’s his home. Roy White, too. And the mysterious flight of Mickey Rivers was clearly into Flori­da. The wind scattered like the players.

[related_posts post_id_1=”638234″ /]

Someone watching the final outs by Sony, aware of the tension simply draining away, said: It’s back to the old days, the clock just turned around, back to my father’s mouth being tight with anger for days because the Dodgers never seemed to beat the Yanks.

Of course, they were Brooklyn then, a uni­verse away from Hollywood, and of course the moods in the nation were vastly different. When Johnny Podres threw to Elston How­ard, who grounded to Pee Wee Reese, whose peg to Gil Hodges beat Howard by several steps, 1955 Brooklyn swept into space and history, in a time recalled today in city folk­lore. Yet, in those days, there wasn’t Don Sutton either, leaving however small a re­minder that ball, after all, is just ball, saying it aloud so that 500 years from now some an­cient-history buff will know that our pressure was in the coal mines, and in the guns that stacked up in our streets. The pressure is on us all to say why we have no answers. Ball is aspirin, too. And none of us should ever be allowed to forget we soothe ourselves at the expense of duties too staggering for calculation. We owe the world something, if for no other reason than we have so much. If we owe ourselves anything, let it be the making of some literate equation out of why the Yan­kees total payroll might feed hunger in the states of Mississippi and Idaho, for instance. So that once some moral sense can be made of the entries in the record book which may suggest, by that time, Reggie’s ability, before taxes, to purchase the school system in Coral Gables for a small down payment in cash.

Maybe, at last, the real part is in the eyes of Davey Lopes. In one of the sports maga­zines he can be seen looking toward a place on the playing field that has anchored Lasor­da’s fury. But Lopes is looking deeper, way past the grass and the sculptured ground of Yankee Stadium, beyond the umpire’s myopic call on Jackson’s interference. In Lopes there is the grimmest observation, and his eyes are the message:

We are not going to win…

[related_posts post_id_1=”721971″ /]

After that proud start before the folk in the neighborhood, the Dodgers were blitzed in four. And, along the way to losing their World Series, the Los Angeles players left behind them 140 regular-season fielding er­rors. They’d won the pennant, curiously enough, when Phillies’ centerfielder Gary Maddox, steady as they come, dropped a soft line drive in his own park that eventually lead to the Dodgers’ winning run.

The players come home to score. They skip parades and wait for the money to be di­vided. In Boston, in Philly, out in Kansas City, too, their losses are slowly wearing off. They all looked into the fire (the same four teams made the playoffs again this year, not the greatest index around for the current state of the Bigs), but couldn’t hang on.

And again, except for the Yankees and New York, there seems to have been nothing seen…

The cost of bearing witness would seem to be connected to the pain described by poet Melvin Van Peebles in regard to those who have to: Trick by the pound to buy that ounce.…

Maybe more. Once, the power of the Yan­kees eased sores in New York’s condition. But not anymore. The city streets are more and more filled with the lost. Below the lights of the Yankee party, the fun for victors, New York has become the Dodgers on the other side of all the ditties and singsong where the city is a loved one serenaded by disorder.

When the rookie Jim Beattie had struck Los Angeles dumb in the fifth game, a crowd of several thousand pedestrians went up the long hill away from the Yankee Stadium, above the Harlem River, bordering the site where the Polo Grounds used to stand.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722322″ /]

Uptown.

A Blood, young and savaged by wine, called out in a voice like a tuba from his perch by the side of the street:

Yo, how’d they do?

And several folks in a row answered, as of­ten as he asked: The Yanks won, man, they’ re gonna do it!

Wine offered a smile without teeth, scars on his face, and said:

Made you happy, hunh? Made you happy?

And then his tuba laughter thundered back down across the bridge to McCombs’ Dam Park, right by the Stadium, across the Latin Quarter established there on the hand­ball courts, and just went rattling, it would seem, right on up to the Concourse. Toward a city gritting its teeth…

Maybe, that is, it echoed that far…

Categories
JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

‘We’ve Got a Contender’

This month the city is making a manic attempt to convey its bygone grandeur. On the Fourth there was more white flapping in the harbor than on sheet-airing day in a whorehouse. And mid-month the delegates to the Democratic National Convention will arrive to honor the man who wind-sprinted through the primaries, the Georgia Preach.

That old slattern Broadway will be gussied up in an attempt to remove its younger sisters from the streets. But it’s all cosmetic. The sounds of decay and death will be excluded from the mindless chatter inside the Garden, while the insistent offstage reverberations remain as ominous as those in “The Cherry Orchard.”

The one vestige of our halcyon days resides in the Bronx — the Yankees. By playing majestic ball and with some front office high­handedness, the team resembles the pin-striped aristocracy of old. True, the city floated the ballooned price for refurbishing the stadium, and owner George Steinbrenner seems to fit the mold of the boardmen who have always run the Yankees.

For openers, he was convicted for illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign, but Jimmy Bres­lin tells us in his book on Water­gate, How the Good Guys Finally Won, that Steinbrenner might have been the first whiff that aired the Nixon stink.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717965″ /]

According to Breslin, Steinbrenner (always a large Democratic contributor) padlocked his checkbook in ’72. When he was asked to explain his new-found frugality, Steinbrenner told the Democratic alms-seekers that the Nixon forces had threatened him with an extensive audit of back income taxes if he didn’t make a large contribution to CREEP. Breslin reports that this incident and others like it led House Speak­er Tip O’Neill to the conclusion that the Nixon gang was into knav­ery not yet conceived by the other side of the aisle.

After being suspended from baseball last season (in reality he was as excluded as Robespierre), Steinbrenner’s first edict this year was that the Yankees’ hair should be shorn. (I have come to believe that a darning egg is an erotic symbol in the Midwest.) Then there was the flap over the stadi­um’s financing, the city’s reneging on the promise to rebuild the area surrounding the park, and the Yankees playing feudal barons in determining who should be allowed to rent the stadium we paid for (the Moonies, passing tonsorial muster, were approved).

So taking all these overtures, the Yankees seem (on the surface) their old nasty selves. Such pre­ludes don’t kindle passion, espe­cially in the heart of an old Nation­al League rooter. But my Giants are long gone, and one can’t go through life listening to Tony Ben­nett warble about coronary dis­placement.

And so we are left with the Yankees, a situation akin to the old dilemma of being stranded on an island with a nun.

The Yankees have been adopted as our surrogate gun to instill fear into the hinterlands. Survival, not grand passion, is the issue. There is precedent for this. Surely no one believes that the hard hats found anything in common with William Buckley. Indeed, Buckley was the archetype of the kid they used to chase home from school, but they needed a verbal gun to tangle with their antagonists. So be it with the Yankees. During our sad interlude their foreboding pin stripes are the symbolic gate that is holding the tiger at bay.

The aristocratic trappings aside, the Yankees have changed. Stein­brenner has surrounded himself with solid baseball men. He hired Gabe Paul as general manager from Cleveland, and Paul is a freewheeling trader and an astute appraiser of personnel. Many peo­ple credit Paul with putting to­gether the pennant-winning 1961 Cincinnati Reds, and he is the man who hired Pete Rose. Since he joined the Yankees in 1973, Paul has swapped flesh with the abandon of a harem master.

[related_posts post_id_1=”79481″ /]

Only two of the current Yankee starters — Thurman Munson and Roy White — are products of the Yankee system. Indeed, not since Victor Frankenstein scoured the countryside has a monster been created from so many divergent sources. The Yankees’ current credo is similar to that of Emma Lazarus.

Then there is the matter of race. The Yankees of yore, when they were a whale of a team, bowed in pigment to Moby Dick. The cur­rent team has five black starters, and on a day when Dock Ellis and Elrod Hendricks are battery mates, seven of the starting nine are black! Moreover, they have abandoned their traditional white centerpiece — the man on the wed­ding cake — in centerfield. Once the province of Di Maggio, Mantle, and Murcer, centerfield belongs to Mickey Rivers, and backup is Elliott Maddox.

But obtaining the players is one thing. Getting them to function tandem is quite another. It is here, that the Yankees rolled the dice by hiring Billy Martin. No more fatherly “Iron Major” Houks or bland Bill Verdons. The front office stooped to conquer when they anointed Martin — tough, streetwise, and unpredictable and skitterish thoroughbred who was fired by three teams after he had led them to winning seasons! (It should be remembered the Yankees once exiled Phil Linz for playing a Goddamn harmonica a bus!) Amazing that the Wasp Yankees would hire “Billy the Kid,” “The Brat,” the tough “dago.” Martin, who punched out Jimmy Piersall, who made headlines with his birthday brawl in the Copa and was traded shortly thereafter from the Yanks, and who as a manager at Minnesota “put out the lights” of Dave Boswell, one of his best pitchers. To the old Yankee brass, Martin would be considered a guttersnipe. To the current front office, he is seen as the premier skipper in baseball. It’s a good tout. Con­sider:

Martin, like Eddie Stanky, always exceeded his soupcon of talent with brains, aggressiveness, and a penchant to fade the action when the stakes were high. Branch Rickey once said about Stanky that he couldn’t run, throw, or hit, but he was the best damn second ba­seman Rickey every saw. Casey Stengel said that Martin was the smartest player he ever had, and his record as a player is telling.

[related_posts post_id_1=”669095″ /]

Martin holds a lifetime batting average of .257, while in World Series play he hit .333. In 11 years as a player — 3419 at-bats — he hit 64 home runs, in 99 at-bats in four World Series he hit five. His home run percentage in regular season play was 1.9 per cent, compared to 5.1 per cent in the Series. In the 1952 Series he made the famous catch of Jackie Robinson’s pop fly to save the Series for the Yanks. In 1953 he won the Babe Ruth Award for the best player in the Series batting .500 by going 12 for 21 including a double, two triples, two homers, and five RBIs, plus 1 stolen base. Martin fit the Hemingway canon of grace under pressure.

In 1968, serving as a coach for the Twins, he was offered a chance to manage Denver in Triple-A ball. Martin said he didn’t want the job (“I liked the security of a third base coach”), but his second wife Gretchen insisted he take the chance. Rumor had it Minnesota was giving Martin a last meal —­ they were looking to dump him and felt his fiery nature would add discord to an already floundering minor league club. He took over a seven and 22 team and transformed them into a 65–50 winner by season’s end. The next year Minnesota, with Billy’s cherry pie all over its face, hired him as the manager of the parent club. Minnesota won the divisional championship, and Martin lost his job. The end result might be characterized as a case where the operation was a success but the doctor died.

Martin sat out the ’70 season and in ’71 took charge of the Detroit Tigers, leading them to a divisional championship in ’72. He lost that job in September ’73 and a week later was hired by the Texas Rangers, whom he led to a second place finish. In 1974 he won the Manager of the Year Award but was fired by Texas in July of ’75 when he was picked up by the Yankees.

It seems that in the baseball world Martin is someone with whom you have an affair or a fling but never a relationship. His fire makes him irresistible to Geritol owners, but Christ, a steady diet? He suffers the fate of many lovers — his spirit, his unorthodoxy leads to coupling, but the constant heat burns the union to ashes. Like a frisky terrier, the hope is always to channel the spirit “construc­tively,” but Martin refuses to be housebroken. He has warred with owners, general managers, players, umpires, and the press. Martin is not your man if your ­ultimate aim is to get him to piss ­obediently on a paper in the corner.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713648″ /]

But Gabe Paul, by the nature of his trades, seems to fathom Martin’s personality. Martin says his managerial philosophy is simple: take it to the opposition, force them to make mistakes. And in concert with Martin, Paul has fashioned such a team.

It is similar to the team that Leo Durocher demanded and got when he became manager of the Giants, and the comparison doesn’t end there. Durocher and Martin wedded by baseball genius, cocki­ness, quicksilver tempers, a gam­bler’s instinct, and desire to win that exceeds Chuck Colson and his supine grandmother.

To past Yankee teams, the steal, the hit and run, the squeeze were proletarian gambits to be used occasionally (more to alleviate monotony, one suspected, than of necessity). When Yankee runners reached base, they waited there with the hauteur of a man who is always assured he can commdeer a cab in the rain. The trip home was guaranteed by a Di Maggio, Henrich, Mantle, Berra, or Maris. Under Martin, everyone carries a token.

Even Martin’s room in the club­house lacks grandeur. With its white pocked cement walls, it looks (fittingly enough) like the inside of a bunker. The furniture is functional Ramada Inn, and the sterility of the walls is interrupted only twice — by a plastic Pepsi-Cola clock (it compounds more than interrupts) and by a photo of Casey Stengel doffing his cap.

Martin sits behind his cluttered desk. He is lean, and the only validations of his brawler’s rep are impressive forearms and outsize bony fists for a man of his build. But it is his dark, on-the-prowl, pit-boss eyes (every sonnuva bitch is pocketing an ace) and his long nose that predominate.

Alfred Manuel Martin was born May 16, 1928, in Berkeley, California, to a Portuguese father (Marteen) and an Italian mother. Eight months after his birth his father cakewalked, and this psychic blow may have led to the physical ones he later visited on others. The “Billy” came from his grandmother’s calling him “bello” (“beautiful” in Italian).

[related_posts post_id_1=”417832″ /]

Martin’s mother still lives in Berkeley in the oldest house in the city, but it is difficult to imagine Martin as anything other than a New York Italian. His style de­mands such designation. Two other out-0f-towners come to mind in their personification of the city; Leo Durocher (Springfield, Mas­sachusetts) was as much Brooklyn as the trolley car, and Toots Shor (Philadelphia) seemed like the Jewish Jimmy Walker.

In an interview Martin has a sense of self-presence. There are theatrical props: half-lens glasses lie on his desk, and he puffs on a large U-shaped pipe — scholarly ar­tifacts to offset his tough image. But then they are more than props, since even his critics admit he is an ardent student of the game and an organizational wizard. G.M. Jim Campbell of Detroit said, after firing him: “Foul line to foul line, Billy was exemplary.”

Indeed, Martin is so much for “the club” he really doesn’t think outsiders should intrude in its do­main. When asked if he is doing anything to fill the gap at shortstop (collectively, Mason and Stanley are hitting about 60 points below Ty Cobb’s best season), he shoots back, “Who says there is a gap?”

When informed “the press” for one example, he retorts, “If writers knew any Goddamn thing, they would be managers.”

When questioned if there is bad blood between him and Elliott Maddox, Martin says that’s “in­ternal stuff — nobody wants to read about that.”

He will tell you he never embar­rasses any of his players in public: “That’s bush.” Criticism, when it comes, usually comes privately, first from one of his coaches, and if that isn’t heeded, he will step in.

Probably no other manager in baseball controls more aspects of the game. Martin does it all: shifts the fielders, calls pitchouts, and nobody runs without his okay. On any other club such adept runners as Rivers and Willie Randolph would have a carte blanche go-­sign. When Rivers (possibly the fastest man in the game) was asked about this, he answered abruptly: “Ask Billy. He handles everything. I just do what he tells me.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”713114″ /]

But Martin’s tutorial style is liberating to others. Oscar Gamble says he never played for a manag­er who utilizes his players more, and Greg Nettles (with seven sto­len bases) says no other manager ever thought of giving him a go-sign!

Martin has been quoted as say­ing a manager of his sort can change the outcome of 20 to 50 games. He also has been quoted as stating that the secret of managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the four who are unsure. But then Martin changes quotes as quickly as signs.

He now says the manager does more work in the clubhouse than on the field. It is in the clubhouse that personalities have to be assuaged, and where one must stay on top of “little problems.”

Martin, who said in his playing days that he was “the proudest Yankee,” sees baseball as an ex­ample for life. There is loyalty on a team, and that is an attribute he cherishes. When Casey Stengel (whom he considers the greatest manager he ever saw) didn’t back up Martin after the Copa incident, he didn’t talk to Stengel for five years. Martin simply commented, “I was mad. It takes me much longer than other people to get over things. That’s the way I am.”

Now he pays the ultimate hom­age to Stengel by imitation. When he walks to the mound, he sticks his right hand in his back pocket just as his mentor did, and he has even adopted Stengel’s funny little trot.

To Martin, the business world could learn much from the club­house, because it is there you find “pride, desire, self-sacrifice — like the Marine slogan of ‘Semper Fi­delis.’ ” Such attitudes coincide with Martin’s Catholicism. He is a churchgoer and wears a gold cross on his cap. Churches and club­houses give the same security as a ring of wagons — you always know where the enemy is.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716433” /]

But the interesting side of Martin is his dark unpredictability. He exudes a scent of danger, as Sonny Liston did in private and Norman Mailer does at a literary function. One waits for a stroke of irratio­nality, a physical move. And Mar­tin is well aware of this, since he gives imitations of sportswriters avoiding his eyes and shuffling their feet.

But when he strikes out, he is not beyond smoothing it over with diplomacy. When Bowie Kuhn killed the Vida Blue deal, Martin said the decision was “worse than Watergate,” a comment that must have driven Steinbrenner to dis­traction, considering his recent history. But Martin viewed the remark as his inalienable right: “This is America. You can say what you please. Kuhn’s decision had nothing to do with ethics — it had to do with money. If we got Blue and three minor-league players who couldn’t play for $200,000, nothing would have been said. Ethics weren’t involved.”

Billy the Kid has his code, and those who cross him will be dealt with. This time around, one feels he’ll survive because he respects Paul as a peer, not some bump­tious millionaire who bought a club as a toy to tinker with. Paul is a church elder.

One also feels Paul must re­ciprocate, because this complex individual has imprinted his per­sonality on the club, making it function like so many Billy Mar­tins. Martin also must be viewed as an alchemist, since players such as Rivers, Chris Chambliss, and Ga­mble are playing the best ball of their careers. Dock Ellis has re­discovered his arm, and Lyle has reignited his old spark. The result is that the Yankees are breezing toward a pennant despite a titanic hole in their infield and an outfield with arms so weak they would be granted immunity to play catch in the Hall of Mirrors.

But what about all that self-sa­crificing, Semper Fidelis razzma­tazz? Is this the message we want to give to the burghers out there? Take heart. When asked if he still drinks with his players, Martin replied with a side-pocket grin, “I’m from the Abe Lincoln school. You know what he said about General Grant? ‘Find out what he’s on, and give it to everyone else.’ Maybe that’s what the other owners should do — find out what shit I’m on and give it to their managers.”

Are you listening, America? We’ll tell you — “Billy Boy is here.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES Lives NYC ARCHIVES

How Jim Bouton Lost His Fastball and Found Inner Peace

At nine on a damp Wednesday morning I ride the empty subway to Shea Stadium to watch Jim Bouton throw his improved knuckleball. A couple of you may not know that Jim Bouton is adorable and beloved and presents the sports news on CBS at 11 every weeknight with a winning blend of ragged directness, muscular intelligence, moral fervor, political conviction, maverick independence, and waggishness. My friend Martin says that Jim Bouton is endearing and seems to take chances. My cousin Jonathan says Bouton is refreshing, a jock who realizes there’s more to life than the stupid game of his choice. My friend Rhoda says that Bouton’s politics are good and he has a neck as big as her thigh. At a party a married couple say to me in unison: “Oh, Jim Bouton.” What’s his appeal? My analyst says: “He’s a regular person.” On television Jim appears to be wearing hairspray, but he may be doing that to make an ironic comment on our society.

In 1963 and 1964, his peak, Bouton pitched 41 winning games for the Yankees, twice in the World Series. When he retired five years ago he had just finished losing two games for the Oklahoma City farm club of the Houston Astros. His book Ball Four was out then, generating controversy, seeming to betray the trust of certain teammates, causing the baseball commissioner to hop back and forth from one foot to the other with rage, getting good reviews, and selling well. Bouton was 31 and a marginal player, quitting to enter what he called “the communications field.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725900″ /]

At Shea Stadium a thin man loudly promises to introduce me and unlocks the waiting-room door. I share the room with some amenities, luxuriant plastic philodendrons in a wall planter, and assorted chairs. Bouton when he arrives his blue CBS baseball uniform looks rather slight and very tidy, like a well turned out child. We walk through the locker room, where several half-dressed men croak out obligatory challenging laughs. “Our ultimate fantasy,” Bouton says to me, looking cheerful and mannerly. “A girl in the locker room, with the linament and everything.”

In the dugout Bouton says he got through every spring by telling in himself that someday he’d be back in baseball. In Canada during vacation he felt his knuckleball in his fingertips. In August he played in Oregon — with the Portland Mavericks, “a sort of dirty dozen” — and did okay. Today he’ll pretend to show his colleagues his pitch while playing a mock game and making a little film piece, basically about himself, for his spot at eleven. Many may know — because Bouton has often mentioned — that he learned the knuckleball from instructions on a cereal box when he was 10. He’d like to try to go back to baseball — not for 10 years, maybe for a year or two even if in the minor leagues — “to satisfy the things I want to satisfy inside myself.” He made a few calls around for the spring, to the Yankees, the Mets, and the Phillies, none of whom had called back yet.

WordPress Tehcnical Support

Shea Stadium circles around and above us, broad and empty, the rows of seats banked up in sections of pale color, then the panel of blinding lights, then the gray sky. Various CBS softball players and a couple of former big-league players in uniforms start throwing balls around. “Keep em up, Jim, I haven’t got my cup,” says the umpire, looking enormously pleased. “Cup is your, the inset that you wear in your supporter,” Bouton says to me, rapping himself in the groin. “Got a cup?” a man calls over the field. “Got a saucer?” A woman sits in the dugout and slings her arm around former big-leaguer Duke Carmel’s beefy shoulders and fingers the back of his haircut. “We treat nice girls nice,” says Duke Carmel. Bouton sits on the bench and pulls down his pants to palpate his pulled muscle. Duke Carmel pats Ron Swoboda’s velour behind. From the dugout the men are small on the field but their faces are clear. This must be it, the baseball world, the famous cool sweet simplicity out here, the ball thudding with a light sound into the mitts, the grass, the space, the wide sky, the rough genial heartbreaking camaraderie, the men like boys. The planes arcing overhead are deafening. Jim Bouton looks around with a look of sweet distracted happiness. “These guys just wanted to come out to Shea and horse around,” he says. “Did you guys order a crowd? Hey, Ron, is there a plaque in the turf in right center field commemorating your World Series catch? Recessed in the grass? Hey, Ron, when was that catch? I mean the time of day and all that?”

Bouton gives me his wedding ring to hold, inscribed: The Greatest Thing… Love 12/12/62. He tells me about growing up. So small in the fifth grade he had his own little white uniform. Everybody else wore gray. He thought he was going to be a midget, he looked like the batboy. He wasn’t like those guys like Tom Seaver, who grew up as stars, who knew they were going to be good, they just didn’t know how good. Big strong kids. They didn’t know whether to be good big-leaguers, or great big-leaguers, or great minor-leaguers. For Bouton all that was beyond dreams, and when he made the team it was a wonder. A wonderland. His first day with the Yankees he put on his Yankees uniform and came out and sat there in the dugout for two hours all alone, smiling at the pigeons.

Bouton looks dreamily out over the field at Ron Swoboda. “I had a lotta traumatic experiences in high school,” he offers, watching Swoboda. He was a three-sport star in Ridgewood, New Jersey, “about to realize my high school greatness,” when his father was transferred and he found himself the south side of Chicago full of big, black, mature kids: “Everybody was big, The whole school. They called me warmup Bouton. They’d bring in the left fielder to pitch, the right fielder, the catcher, somebody would come outta the stands and pitch, and I would warm up. I was Warmup Bouton. The most miserable year of my life.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722985″ /]

“I thought I couldn’t do anything. In the summer all the kids played ball and I worked at the A&P. In the back, stamping prices on cans of peas.” He pumps his fist up and down from the elbow, stamping cans in the air, bitterly grinning. “Two for 35 on the baby food. I was really down.”

Bouton pitches until he gets three pictures of Swoboda striking out, and Swoboda interviews Bouton on the field. I throw the ball with three fingers, Bouton tells him, because I was 10 when I learned it off the back of a cereal box.

Jim Bouton and I walk to his car, a little Renault. He strolls around to my side to open the door. “This is a funny car,” he says, “You have to unlock it from this side. I’m not being polite.”

***

At CBS Ron Swoboda and Jim Bouton lean in their chairs in a little darkened interior room to screen today’s film. On the wall, a bleached color picture of Swoboda repeatedly swinging, sometimes hitting, whirling, bulging, incredible. Fuck and shit, Swoboda and Bouton yell, fucking camera didn’t follow the ball! They sound outraged and look cheerful, staring and side by side. Below the picture of Swoboda steadily swinging, a television set is on with the sound off, so that as Swoboda whirls, pale and powerful, Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra in a high headdress slumps in her massive throne, small and willful and defeated, in black and white. Turns her eyes down. Takes the delicate slowly slithering asp in her hands and places it on her white breast almost with a look of welcome. Her handmaidens, broken with grief, rest their bent curly heads on her knee. The gates shudder with the battering ram of Cleopatra’s enemies. Shit and fuck, shitfuck, fuckshit, Bouton and Swoboda shout to the moving picture, as Claudette expires: “Overexposed! Overexposed!”

***

Bouton in his office gives an interview. “Tennis players!” he yells into the phone. “The lineman makes a bad call, they go into the locker room in a huff! They grew up on country clubs! They grew up on canapés, these guys! Hors d’oeuvres! They’re really not real athletes! I mean, be honest, you take the starting lineup of the Cincinnati Reds, or any basketball team, Dave DeBusschere and those guys, if all those guys spent the same amount of time on the tennis court do you really think that those big-time tennis players would’ve winded up being the best tennis players? Right. They wouldn’t be. They’d be home in tears. It’s Ping-Pong! It’s just big Ping-Pong outdoors…

“No. Nobody disparages hockey players. Not even Sumo wrestlers. (Hehheh) There’re a lot of things to admire about a hockey player, they earn their pay… Jesus, I dunno, these sound like essay questions. I dunno what Shakespeare would say about hockey.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725889″ /]

***

Bouton is at the rodeo rehearsal at Madison Square Garden filming himself riding a Brahma bull. He says he loves the way people respect you when you try to do what they do. With these great cowboys, he loves the look they get in their eyes, their accents, the way they giggle and poke each other. While he’s doing it, he says they welcome him. He feels like a cowboy himself.

Inside the Garden the arena floor has been taken down to dirt, and three little buffalo loiter in a corner while a small orchestra thumps out “Careless Love.” Bouton has been lowered onto the back of the bull, let out of the gate, and smashed onto the ground within three seconds. He sits in the locker room with his wife, Bobbie, and his three kids and their two little friends, on a bench next to the hanging rows of brilliant scarlet and green satin shirts of the cowboys, looking pale and fragile and happy. He is waiting for somebody to tell him where they keep the soap and towels. He keeps telling everybody what one cowboy said about the mud on his Western shirt: “Whah, Jayim, that thair’s clean boolshit, that ain even hit th’ ground yayet.”

In the car four kids and I crush together hotly in the back. Bouton’s daughter Laurie rides backward in the front seat gazing in my face. Michael, who is 11, comments on the scene: “Those two old men turned their heads when that lady walked by. And wasn’t even too pretty either. Hey, topless! My kind of show!” Michael tells me about his father, for my article: “He was born in St. Barnabas, was it? St. Bernard. He grew up dreaming to be a baseball player. He got his dream and he couldn’t believe it. And now he can’t believe it either: He can’t pitch anymore. He’s trying to get back. That’s the story of his life.”

At Roosevelt Hospital Bouton is wincing, smiling, and moving carefully. Emergency rooms, he says, remind him of a Nichols and May routine. “Age?” a man says through a glass partition. “36, going on 12,” says Bouton, leaning on the man’s windowsill, full of grace under pressure.

Jim Bouton is at a nice low level of celebrity where people don’t rip off his arms and legs but where he is recognized often enough so that he moves freely around a friendly city. He very much enjoys being recognized. Outside CBS, a short round black man in a flowered shirt blocks our path. He looks up into Bouton’s face with a tender glance. “The baseball man?” he says. “You that — baseball man?” He shakes Bouton’s hand. He walks along next to us, leaning in and reaching across Bouton to hold his hand. He hugs Bouton, wrapping his arms about his body with gentle confidence and lowering his head to lean it against Bouton’s chest as we walk along. Bouton waggles his fingers and protests in murmurs as he and his fan and lover dance together down the sidewalk, but his fan never understands that Bouton’s chest hurts, and he relaxes his embrace only after he conveys to Bouton that he loves him.

Jim Bouton takes a shower. He carries his shoes and hairdryer and I carry some clothes on hangers to help him because some cartilage has pulled away from some bone in his chest. We find a dressing room for “As the World Turns,” with a fuzzy orange carpet, a round sink, a black leather couch, and bed. I take off Jim Bouton’s tooled leather pointy-toed cowboy boots he got at the rodeo last year. I unwrap his wide Ace bandage, rolling around and around his chest, bumping his helping fingers, dropping the little silver clips on the rug. I feel warm and protective and safe and nervous. He needs me, but not much. He is hurt, but only slightly. A direct, decent, vigorous man, vulnerable yet comfortable in the world. A devoted outsider like me. Jumpy with chutzpah. Also once a short boy. They always had a touching quality and terrific intensity and drive, and humor, and a soupcon of totally understandable ruthlessness. When grown they recall their childhoods. I never met a formerly short man I didn’t like. He pads to the bathroom, grimacing and limping almost imperceptibly in a delicately understated and aesthetically pleasing way, as I reach a pitch of quiet sexual agitation. I have been reassured by meeting his calm wife, his friend for half his life. She ignored me. I have been cheered by meeting his children, spirited, brace, truth telling, sloppily dressed, unrepressed. I felt legit. I yearned to be part of that family, back there in the steamy car, riding, Jim Bouton my patient father and husband and lover. “I’ll meet you after,” I say, glancing around as if deranged. Bouton grunts. “Up to you,” he says from the bathroom. “I could change in here.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717965″ /]

Bouton often says that he enjoys things. I enjoy signing autographs, he says. Being well-known. I enjoy crude jokes, locker room humor: Somebody calling somebody a dildo, stuff like that. About beaver-shooting, going up on a roof and spying on women, or the tape recorder under the bed: It’s a traveling world, Bouton says, the world of the salesman, of the Shriners on convention in Des Moines. It’s the world of any man when he’s out of town and with his peer group. Not a male thing, a group thing. I admit that was part of the attraction for me. I admit I miss that. It was humorous. I would never by myself go up on the roof of a hotel, I’d feel — weird; none of us got sexually excited by anything we saw, it was just — the funny bizarre nature of it, our being in a group and all of us doing it together. I could go back to it, very definitely.

I enjoy trying to do the things that other people can do, Bouton says. Bullfighting, oh, Christ, was that exciting. I was so frightened I could hardly operate. That’s what makes it interesting, to see if you fear is so great that you can’t function.

I enjoy cutting film, he says, I enjoy the pure abstract concentration of ball playing, the making the mind blank, the instinctive movement. Enjoyed acting. Enjoyed being a delegate at the 1972 convention, it was an intense emotional experience and I felt like I was part of something important. Caucusing. Making deals. Smoke-filled rooms. Some radicals.

I enjoy being the underdog, Bouton says. You have to’ve been the underdog and prevailed to know how satisfying that can be.

Overall, of course, what Bouton enjoys is the company of other men. He has always thought about Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner and all those people: “Your Show of Shows!” Those funny funny men! God, he would’ve loved to be a part of that group.

Women’s liberation, Bouton thinks, will mean women being able to get that same incomparable group experience for themselves. Germaine Greer already told me my book treated women as sex objects, he says to me. I told Germaine Greer that women use men sexually as much as men do women, one-to-one. On the road, we were the ones who wanted the meaningful relationships! The girls were coming up to our rooms and comparing our performances and grading us against hockey players and basketball players and keeping diaries — we were being used! But women should be able to travel in groups and horse around together too. I’d love to see that. Once they can talk openly about sex with their girlfriends, the next logical step is comparing notes, and the next logical step is to — I would wish that for them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725815″ /]

Over and over Bouton has love being a brave amateur learning from pros. It makes for great funny dialogue, he says, looking incredibly pleased: “Naaow, dohn grab the hohwns, naaow, Jayim.” In fact Bouton even loved the way his wonderful father used to intercede for him with his mother. Loved being on the same basketball team with his brothers. Loved setting up bowling pins with his brother 20 years ago, throwing in a pin to give some lady a strike, speeding up incredible goddamned dragging slow ladies night.

You insist on being a maverick, I say, but to me you look exactly like one of the boys.

They wouldn’t say I’m one of the boys,” he says. “I was always — I was a Communist! The only reason I’m one of the boys now is that I was successful: instead of being weird, you become ‘eccentric.’ I’ve felt comfortable even though I didn’t fit in, just being around, just being part of the scene, even though they didn’t accept me totally. I don’t need to be accepted totally. I’ve always liked them more than they liked me.”

Categories
From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

7 Days: The Yankee Takeover

When Adam Moss stepped down as editor of New York magazine last month, it marked the end of an era. Since taking the helm of the august title in 2004, Moss had helped set the industry standard for magazine journalism, documenting the life of the city in all its highbrow, lowbrow, brilliant, and despicable glory. 

Of course, as dedicated media-watchers know, much of the New York‘s DNA was apparent three decades ago, when Moss emerged from Manhattan’s media landscape as the 30-year-old wunderkind behind the much-loved, short-lived 7 Days magazine. Published by then-Voice owner Leonard Stern for two years bridging the ’80s and ’90s, 7 Days was a glorious failure, bleeding money, but minting the reputations for a generation of fledgling journalists

Flipping through the 7 Days archives today is an exercise in delightful discovery. There’s future best-selling author Meg Wolitzer (The Wife) writing the weekly crossword puzzle; a regular magazine-watching column from fellow future best-selling author Walter Kirn (Up in the Air); Peter Schjeldahl covering the arts scene; Joan Acocella on dance; and below, Jeffrey Toobin writing about the Yankees, long before he became the lead legal analyst for the New Yorker.

This next week, we here at the Voice archives will be sharing some of these treasures from the vault. Welcome to seven days of 7 Days.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714084″ /]

Back in 1966, when the old Fifth Avenue Coach Line was doing a lousy job running Manhattan’s buses, New York City used its power of eminent domain to buy the company and start running the routes itself. It may now be time for the city to exercise that power once again to take over another troubled local franchise: the New York Yankees.

Of course, George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner, has said repeatedly that the team is not for sale. But the beauty of eminent domain is that for once the Boss’ feel­ings don’t matter. George would have the right to squawk to a judge about the price the city pays, but if the city were successful, he couldn’t keep the team.

How would it work? Under state law, the city has an abso­lute right to acquire any local property it wants, which it does through a process called condemnation (certainly an apt term to apply to any team that calls Andy Hawkins an ace). New York usually uses this power to acquire real estate for things like roads or public housing. But the eminent-do­main prerogative has been extended in New York to include such less tangible forms of property as the bus franchise and the trade routes of a laundry.

Eminent-domain proceedings in New York follow a two­step process, says Robert Pfeffer, who runs the condemna­tion section of the city’s legal department. First, says Pfeffer, “the city goes to a court for an order authorizing it to condemn the property.” In that initial court action, the city would have to prove that its takeover of the Yankees was for a “public use.” Courts usually define use with vague phrases such as “a use that promotes the general interest,” a standard that the Yankees deal — even in a city now mostly concerned with the Mets — ought to satisfy. According to Leonard Koerner, chief of appeals for the city’s legal depait­ment, “The courts are pretty reluctant to substitute their judgment for the government’s on whether something’s a public use.” In other words, if city officials want to condemn property, the courts usually let them do it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714135″ /]

The second stage of the process, says Pfeffer, comes when “that same court litigates what just compensation the owner is due.” Taking title to the team would no doubt cost a pret­ty penny, but the city could go to the credit markets to raise the money. (Bomber Bonds? Pin-Stripe Paper?) Alas, under New York City law, a judge — and not a jury full of grouchy Yankees fans — would determine Steinbrenner’s just compensation.

As bizarre as the process sounds, it’s been tried before. Both Oakland and Baltimore made legal plays in the ’80s to keep their football teams from relocating; the Raiders to Los Angeles, the Colts to Indianapolis. Though the courts spurned both cities, they did not reject the idea of using emi­nent domain to take possession of sports franchises.

Of course, the primary benefit of New York’s purchase of the Yankees would be to end the Steinbrenner era (and with it, presumably, the chance for any more Billy Martin curtain calls). But public ownership also would give a welcome goose to the political life of the city. Who would appoint the man­ager? Perhaps, as the president is allowed to pick the cabi­net, the mayor would have the honor, but subject to the “ad­vice and consent” of the City Council. But who would have the right to decide on trades? Or the purchase of free agents? The conflicts might give a new, literal meaning to the term turf battles.

Think of the possibilities. A mayoral candidate’s platform includes education, mass transit, and returning Dave Ri­ghetti to the starting rotation. Mario Cuomo speaks at Notre Dame on the morality of a municipal baseball team stealing its opponents’ signs. The City Planning Commission votes a ban on the hit-and-run. With one out in the seventh, the City Council convenes an emergency session to order Steve Sax to sacrifice Jesse Barfield to second. The mayor vows a veto. Into the breach steps . . . Andy Stein.

Maybe Steinbrenner should keep the team after all.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Bob Dylan, Tangled Up in Baseball

In 1961, just as Bob Dylan was cutting his teeth in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, another young man from Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, was taking New York City by storm: Roger Maris. In the last chapter of his pseudo-memoir Chronicles: Volume One, the then-21-year-old folk singer describes meeting with music publisher Lee Levy, who asks him if he’s written any songs about baseball players.

“I didn’t follow baseball that much but I did know that Roger Maris who was with the Yankees was in the process of breaking Babe Ruth’s home-run record and that meant something,” writes Dylan. “Maris was from Hibbing, Minnesota, of all places. Of course, I never heard of him there, nobody did. I was hearing a lot about him now, though, and so was the rest of the land. On some level I guess I took pride in being from the same town.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”235365″ /]

Dylan’s connection to the national pastime surfaced throughout his career, which may explain the below story from the April 13, 1993, issue of the Voice, in which John Lammers and Hart Seely celebrated opening day by previewing every major-league team through the prism of Dylan songs (Yankees: “Howe is in the basement, mixing up the medicine. George is on the pavement, thinking ’bout the government. Boggs in the trench coat, bat out, paid off, says he’s got a bad back, wants to get it laid off. Look out kids, it’s something you did. God knows when, but it’s C’lumbus again.”)

This week marks the release of the fourteenth installment of Dylan’s Bootleg Series, More Blood, More Trackswhich offers fans a deep dive into the sessions for 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. That same year, Dylan rekindled his connection with the Bronx Bombers by penning “Catfish,” an ode to Catfish Hunter, which name-checks Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson.

2004 saw Dylan and Willie Nelson touring minor-league ballparks around the country, kicking things off in Cooperstown, New York; it was a tour the pair repeated with John Mellencamp in 2009. By that point, Dylan had made his fandom explicit when he dedicated an episode of his Theme Time Radio Hour to the national pastime in 2006.

Later that year, Jonathan Lethem asked Dylan about baseball in a Rolling Stone profile. In particular, Lethem wanted to know what team was the singer’s favorite. Dylan responded:

“The problem with baseball teams is all the players get traded, and what your favorite team used to be — a couple of guys you really lifted on the team, they’re not on the team now — and you can’t possibly make that team your favorite team. It’s like your favorite uniform. I mean…yeah…I like Detroit. Though I like Ozzie [Guillen] as a manager. And I don’t know how anybody can’t like Derek [Jeter]. I’d rather have him on my team than anybody.”

If only Lammers and Seely had been writing a few years later, we might have gotten “Jeter and the Monkeyman.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”415552″ /]

The Bob Dylan Baseball Abstract

By John Lammers & Hart Seely

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

  1. Yankees: Howe is in the base­ment, mixing up the medicine. George is on the pavement, thinking ’bout the government. Boggs in the trench coat, bat out, paid off, says he’s got a bad back, wants to get it laid off. Look out kids, it’s something you did. God knows hen, but it’s C’lumbus again.
  2. Milwaukee: They pitch just like a Wegman, yes they do. They get rich, just like a Wegman, yes they do. And they twitch just like a Wegman, but they hit just like a B. J. Surh’f.
  3. Baltimore: lt’s a Har’ld, it’s a Har’ld, it’s a Har’ld, it’s a Har’ld — it’s a Har’ld Baines a­gonna fall.
  4. Toronto: Well, if you’re trave­lin’ in the north country fair, where the winds hit heavy on Pat Borders’s ‘hind. Remember Steib to bne who lives there. He once threw a n’hitter for nine.
  5. Boston: It ain’t Vaughn, babe, Mo Mo, Mo, it ain’t Vaughn, babe. It ain’t Vaughn you’re look­in’ for, babe.
  6. Cleveland: They long to pitch you in the morning light. They long to pitch you in the night. Stay, Nagy, stay — stay while the game is still ahead.
  7. Detroit: Knock knock knockin’ on Cleveland’s door. Knock knock knqckin’ on Cleve­land’s door.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST

  1. Texas: “Velocity,” I spoke the word as if a wedding vow. Ah, but Ryan was so much older then. . He’s younger than that now.
  2. Kansas City: Because some­thing is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Cone?
  3. Oakland: Y’see Canseco on the street, you always act sur­prised. You say, “How are you?” “Good luck,” but you don’t mean it. When you know as well as me, you’d rather see him paralyzed. Why don’t you just come out once and scream it?
  4. Minnesota: Winfield, put your gloves in the-ground. You can’t use them anymore.
  5. Chicago: Take me on a trip upon Bo’s magic swirlin’ hip, his swiftness has been stripped, a vic­tim of a clip, his feet too slow to step, waitin’ only for his shoe deals to be wanderin’.
  6. Seattle: Heading out to the west coast, Lord knows they paid some dues, getting through, tan­gled up in Lou.
  7. California: And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn. “Come in,” he said, “I’ll give you, Gruber for a song.”

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

  1. Montreal: You don’t need a Wetteland to know which way the wind blows.
  2. Mets: Once upon a time you played so fine, you threw away Dykstra before his prime, didn’t you? People’d say, “Beware Cone, he’s bound to roam,” you thought they were all kiddin’ you. You used to laugh about, the Strawber­ry that was headin’ out. Now you don’t talk so loud. Now you don’t seem so proud. About having to shop Coleman for your next deal.
  3. St. Louis: “No reason to get excited,” the Mets they blindly spoke. “There are many here among us who feel Gregg Jefferies’s but a joke.”
  4. Pittsburgh: It ain’t no use to sit and ponder Bonds babe, it don’t matter anyhow. An’ it ain’t no use to sit and ponder Drabek, if you don’t know by now.
  5. Philadelphia: Well Daulton and Dykstra should have some fun. Just keep them off Highway 61!
  6. Florida: I see coming every reject from the rest to the South­east. Any day now, any day now, they shall be released.
  7. Chicago: The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast. A slow one now will never be fast. As the present now is just as the past, the order they’re never evadin’. And the last one now will always be last, for the Cubs, they aren’l a­changin’.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

  1. Atlanta: Well they’ll stone ya and say Maddux is the end. They’ll stone you and then Smoltz will come again. They’ll stone you with Tom Glavine in your car. They’ll stone· you with Av’ry on his guitar. .Yes but you should not feel so all alone. Everybody just gets stoned.
  2. Cincinnati: It’s a shame the way she made them scrub the floor. But they ain’t gonna work on Margie’s farm no more.
  3. Houston: You can pitch Dra­bek with all that you can afford. You can pitch Swindell and put goose eggs on the board. Well, you may pitch the devil or you may pitch the Lord. But you’re gonna have to bat somebody.
  4. San Diego: Come all without, come all within. You’ll. not see nothing like the mighty Gwynn.
  5. San Francisco: Here is the story of the Magowan, the man St. Petersburg came to pan, for what he never done, who sits in the owner’s box but one … day he could’ve been the Tamp’ian of the world . .
  6. Los Angeles: Yonder stands Martinez with his gun. Crying like a fire in the sun. Look out the Braves are comin’ through. And it’s all over now, Dodger blue.
  7. Colorado: An’ the silent bats will shatter. From the scores be­tween the lines. For they’re one too many castoffs. And a thou­sand runs behind.

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 ]

Categories
NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

NYCFC’s Bronx Stadium Would Use City Parks Land — Sorta

When the owners of the New York Yankees announced, on a June day in 2005, plans for a new stadium to replace the 82-year-old Yankee Stadium, they had a special treat for New Yorkers who’d been hearing for more than a decade how the public would need to pay for a new home for the ball club: Steve Swindal, George Steinbrenner’s son-in-law at the time, declared, “There will be no public subsidies.”

That turned out to be not quite so much true. After adding up all the tax breaks and parking garage construction fees and costs of rebuilding parks that were bulldozed to make way for Yankee Stadium 2.0, city and state taxpayers ended up out more than $800 million — one of the spendiest public costs for any baseball stadium in U.S. history up to that time.

Earlier this month, developers working with New York City FC — the Major League Soccer franchise co-owned by the Steinbrenner clan and Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan — revealed the latest plan for a new soccer stadium to arise just south of the Yankees’ home field, which has been serving as a not-entirely-satisfactory temporary home for the soccer team since the club launched in 2015. (Among other things, the field dimensions make for a soccer pitch so narrow that players can all but throw the ball into the goal from the sidelines.) Unlike NYCFC’s previous plan for the same site, a New York Times report promised, the soccer team’s owners were “not asking for the avalanche of free land, tax breaks, and public funding” received by previous stadiums in the tristate area.

Is this sports promise for real? A Voice analysis finds the answer to be: It’s complicated. Even more than other previously proposed NYCFC home field sites — which have wandered the five boroughs from Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens to Pier 40 in Manhattan to Aqueduct and Belmont race tracks to a riverside spot in the South Bronx that was dead seemingly even before it got off the ground — the new Bronx plan involves a rabbit hole of leases and subleases, public land and private operators, and creative bookkeeping that makes the final price tag difficult if not impossible to calculate.

“This generation of development just seems to be getting bigger and bigger and more complex,” says Bettina Damiani, a Bronx resident and former director of Good Jobs New York, an economic development watch group that tracked and analyzed the Yankee Stadium deal. And with the added complexity, she says, any hope of transparency has gone out the window: “If you don’t care about the people that live and work and run small businesses in a neighborhood, you should at least have a marker of whether this will financially benefit a community, or a city, or a region, or something.”

***

The latest site to catch NYCFC’s eye will be familiar to anyone who lined up around the block for Yankees playoff tickets during their postseason runs in the Seventies or Nineties. Garage 8, also known as the “triangle garage,” is a four-level parking structure that sits immediately south of the old stadium site, providing parking spaces at $35 a pop for anyone foolish enough to drive to a Yankee game. Along with an elevator parts factory across 153rd Street to the west — plus 153rd Street itself, as well as an on-ramp to the Major Deegan — the garage would be demolished to create a roughly eight-acre plot of land just big enough to squeeze in a soccer-specific stadium of the kind that makes fans happy, and MLS execs positively drool with glee.

Five years ago, NYCFC’s owners planned on having the city let them use the land free of charge — and also free of property and other taxes, for a total public gift on the order of $106 million. If you count the $100 million in IOUs that the city would have to forgo collecting from the nonprofit company that runs the garage — money it might never get, given that hardly anybody, it turns out, wants to pay $35 for parking when there are other cheaper garages plus the subway and Metro-North all a couple of blocks away — the total taxpayer cost would have cleared $200 million.

[related_posts post_id_1=”577910″ /]

In this latest iteration, the team owners would do away with the need for public cash by means of a new gimmick. Instead of giving the land to the team, the city would sell or lease it to a private developer, the exquisitely named Maddd Equities, which was already looking to build housing in the area. Maddd would, in turn, sublease the garage site to NYCFC, which would erect on it a 26,000-seat, $400 million soccer stadium. (The city, it should be noted, has yet to sign on this plan, though deputy mayor Alicia Glen told the Times that negotiations are ongoing.)

If all that sounds a bit alchemical — add one private housing developer, and presto chango, watch the public subsidies disappear! — it only gets odder from there, thanks to the convoluted history of that garage site.

Back in 1973, when the city embarked on its first Yankees stadium redo project — right after George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees from CBS for the cut-rate price of $8.7 million — it acquired the triangle garage land, city property records accessed through PropertyShark.com show, from Kinney System, which had run an open-air parking lot there. (Around the same time, the city used its eminent domain powers to seize the stadium site itself from the Knights of Columbus and Rice University, which through a series of sales by former Yankees owners had ended up holding title to the land and the building, respectively.)

Sometime between the 1970s, when the city actually took title to the garage site, and the present, City Hall placed the parcel in the hands of the Parks Department. But at the same time, it never formally designated it as parkland, a process that involves the city getting the state to add the land to its zoning maps.

This is, parks and city land use experts agree, kinda weird. Some space that is treated as public parks isn’t actually owned by Parks — many community gardens, for example, are technically owned by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. But the reverse is seldom true. “In general, because Parks has traditionally had a bare-bones budget, they’ve been unwilling to take on things that aren’t really parks,” says Tom Angotti, a Hunter College urban planning professor who formerly worked for the Department of City Planning.

And in any case, even if Parks owns the garage land, that doesn’t mean its exactly Parks land, let alone parkland. That’s because in 2009, after Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council approved building a new baseball stadium atop two public parks (which were actually mapped as parkland, as was the old stadium, as were some of the sites of new garages built by the city to accommodate the Yankees’ demand for still more parking), the land was leased by Parks to the city’s quasi-public city Economic Development Corporation, which then subleased it to Bronx Parking Development, that nonprofit parking company that is currently defaulting on its rent payments to the city. (Not to mention on its commitments to bondholders, who have been keeping Bronx Parking afloat only by allowing it to punt on loan payments for years.) Queries to the Parks Department about the status of the garage site were referred to EDC, as the leaseholder; EDC, in turn, directed questions back to Parks, as the landowner.

All of which is a fascinating glimpse into the byzantine land swaps that underlie our city. But really, there’s one big question here: Would NYCFC’s proposed deal require the city to give up land that, even if it has a surplus parking garage sitting on it now, could otherwise be used as a park, or for housing, or for some other purpose other than a soccer stadium?

The best way to tell for sure would be to look at the lease between Parks and EDC, and see what it says can and can’t be done with the land. Neither agency, though, will directly disclose the actual lease language; a Voice Freedom of Information Law request for the document is currently pending.

***

The worry, obviously, is that somewhere in all that fine print are hidden costs that will end up on the city’s tab. This wouldn’t be at all unusual: When University of Michigan sport management professor Judith Grant Long compiled a database of sports venue deals in 2012, she determined that such under-the-table goodies as free land and tax breaks added an average of 40 percent to the public cost of each stadium and arena.

With a little creative financial thought, it’s easy enough to see how NYCFC’s arrangement could be used to sneak in public subsidies as well. The market value for just the 4.5-acre triangle garage site is $31.5 million, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Let’s say EDC were to offer it up for sale to Maddd for, say, $10 million, and the developer then turned around and leased the site to NYCFC for the same price. Even though the city still wouldn’t be giving any cash to the soccer club, suddenly — presto chango — the Steinbrenners and Sheikh Mansour would be getting a $21.5 million discount on their land costs, courtesy of taxpayers.

And if EDC leased the land to Maddd, the deal could be even worse for the city, because the site would then remain exempt from paying city property taxes. The current assessed value of the garage site, per IBO, is $14,165,100; forgoing property taxes on that would cost the city just over $1.4 million a year. (Mayor de Blasio’s office did not have a comment in response to Voice queries about whether Maddd will pay market value for the land or property taxes on the proposed stadium site.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”562678″ /]

We’ve seen this kind of maneuver before when it comes to sports venues. In 2013, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno offered to pay for $150 million in renovations to the team’s publicly owned stadium if the city of Anaheim would just hand over development rights to 150 acres of parking lots on the site; the land gift, the city later determined, would have been worth about twice as much as the renovation costs. (After Anaheim mayor Tom Tait rejected the deal, Moreno quietly signed a lease extension without getting his desired land.) And closer to home, the New York Islanders are pursuing a new arena atop state-owned land at Belmont Park that could be worth anywhere from $74 million to $300 million in public land discounts.

And there’s one final twist to the NYCFC plan: The garages only become available if the Yankees agree to lift the requirement, agreed to in 2006, that the city provide a minimum of 9,500 parking spaces for fans — a provision that even the team owners no longer care about, but which they can decline to do away with unless the city agrees to use the garage property for a project of their liking. In effect, the Yankees and NYCFC can say: Yes, that’s a valuable site you have there — now give it to us for a stadium, or else we’re going to make you keep it a parking garage until long after cars are a thing of the past. Michael Bloomberg’s Yankee Stadium deal truly is the gift that keeps on giving.