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The Paranoid Style in Yankee Baseball

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

“Yes.”

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

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•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what was supposed to happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

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From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES show-old-images THE FRONT ARCHIVES

They Crawled Out of the Swamps to Save the Mets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Mets Aren’t Really Where All Old Sluggers Go to Die, It Just Feels Like It

Former home-run champ José Bautista made his debut for the Mets in left field last night, a string of words that becomes far less impressive once you realize that he was only available because he’d just been released by the Atlanta Braves after he hit a dismal .143 for them in twelve games as a nominal third baseman. It’s a testament to how hard it’s been to find anyone in Flushing who can bat right-handed and play the outfield: Incumbent slugger Yoenis Cespedes is in the midst of one of his annual disabled-list stints, and Juan Lagares interrupted his surprise bounceback season (.339 batting average, to go with his usual Gold Glove–caliber fielding) by kicking an outfield wall and tearing a ligament in his big toe, putting him out for the rest of the year. Under those conditions, Bautista looks, if you squint, maybe, like an almost-reasonable option.

And so the man called Joey Bats joins a long string of players — current Mets first baseman Adrián González, a forty-year-old Gary Sheffield in 2009, a 36-but-he-hit-like-he-was-much-older-year-old Michael Cuddyer in 2015 — to enjoy a transition into senescence in blue and orange. Baseball Twitter, as will probably not surprise you, has already taken notice:

OK, so it’s fun to poke fun at the Mets, as one does. But this being 2018, I figured there must be some way to actually quantify this observation: Are the Mets truly unique in providing solace to aging sluggers in their twilight days? So I came up with a simple metric to look at recently retired players with more than 300 career homers, and rank them by the percentage of lifetime homers struck for their final team, or Marginal Efficiency of Taters Smashed by Last Observed Landing:

Player: HR with final team/total HR, team, final year, METSLOL
Manny Ramirez: 0/555, Rays, 2011, 0.00%
Juan González: 0/434, Indians, 2005, 0.00%
Gary Gaetti: 0/360, Red Sox, 2000, 0.00%
Rubén Sierra: 0/306, Twins, 2006, 0.00%
Richie Sexson, 1/306, Yankees, 2008, 0.33%
Steve Finley: 1/304, Rockies, 2007, 0.33%
Adam Dunn: 2/462, A’s, 2014, 0.43%
Jim Thome: 3/612, Orioles, 2012, 0.49%
Jim Edmonds: 3/393, Reds, 2010, 0.76%
Greg Vaughn: 3/355, Rockies, 2003, 0.85%
Miguel Tejada: 3/307, Royals, 2013, 0.98%
Carlos Lee: 4/358, Marlins, 2012, 1.12%
Lance Berkman: 6/366, Rangers, 2013, 1.64%
Mike Piazza: 8/427, A’s, 2007, 1.87%
Iván Rodríguez: 6/311, Nationals, 2011, 1.93%
Gary Sheffield: 10/509, Mets, 2009, 1.96%
Derrek Lee: 7/331, Pirates, 2011, 2.11%
Luis Gonzalez: 8/354, Marlins, 2008, 2.26%
Jason Giambi: 11/440, Indians, 2014, 2.50%
Vladimir Guerrero: 13/449, Orioles, 2011, 2.90%
José Canseco: 16/462, White Sox, 2001, 3.46%
David Justice: 11/305, A’s, 2002, 3.61%
Moisés Alou, 13/332, Mets, 2008, 3.92%
Reggie Sanders, 13/305, Royals, 2007, 4.26%
Shawn Green, 14/328, Mets, 2007, 4.27%

One note: This chart excludes players who finished up their careers by returning to their old teams for a victory lap, or else we’d be muddying the waters with the likes of Harold Baines (one home run with the White Sox in 2001, 0.26 percent) and Ken Griffey Jr. (nineteen dingers for the Mariners in 2010, 3.02 percent). Only players signed because their new employers were under the delusion they can actually still play need apply.

While the Mets show up three times, for notable tail-enders Gary Sheffield, Moisés Alou, and Shawn Green, you’ll note they’re by no means the all-time champeens of old-age home-dom: The forever bargain-hunting Oakland A’s beat them out on this list for their own aged troika of Adam Dunn, Mike Piazza, and David Justice.

All that could change, though, depending on how the 2018 season goes for the Mets and their current crop of graybeards. González, acquired in the offseason to see if he could regain his 2015 All-Star form, has answered with a resounding “not really,” contributing five homers so far (1.58 percent) but not much else. And Bautista has yet to go yard in his one game in royal-blue pinstripes, so if he keeps up this non-pace and retires from baseball as a Met, he’d slot in right at the top of this list. Adding those two would give the Mets three of the top twenty players of this century in METSLOL, and four of the top 25, cementing their place as the old-age home of choice for not-quite-retired longball artists. Just one more reason for Mets fans to hope that Bautista enjoys a pleasant retirement — and soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more baseball coverage from the Voice archives click here.

 

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Fight Like a Girl

Every Wednesday afternoon, in the back room of a basement boxing gym near City Hall, a group of teenage girls gathers looking for a fight. They come in leggings and shorts, T-shirts and sweatshirts, sporting pop-colored Nikes and ears glittering with piercings, close-cropped haircuts and long tresses in high ponytails. A radio plays Top 40 hits interspersed with East Coast rap classics.

The girls are the first to take part in a free program called She Fights, an hour-long boxing class that meets twice a week.

To participate in She Fights, girls must be between fourteen and nineteen years of age and come from a low-income background.

Harlem resident Cristina Gonzalez founded the program last fall after trying to run a co-ed version.

“A majority of the people that kept coming week after week were the girls,” Gonzalez told the Voice. “They were the ones who were really disciplined and we really saw the joy in their eyes when they boxed.”

Ericka Parra, eighteen, showed up for class on a recent Wednesday. A bespectacled senior at the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem, Parra has been attending She Fights since the fall, and remembers thinking she couldn’t make it to the end of her first class, when two or three push-ups made her feel like she was going to collapse.

“Now I like them!” she tells me.

I ask her if she ever looks around when she’s out in the world and thinks, “I could beat up that person.” She cracks up, puts a finger to her lips to shush me, then offers a quiet but emphatic yes.

When six girls are present and ready, Gonzalez, along with coaches Hayley Bridgewater, Callie Exas, and Liv Adler, kicks off the class with an announcement: A $1,000 grant has come through, so the girls will get headgear to allow them to spar. They whoop and cheer, then get down to business.

After warming up with jumping jacks and push-ups, the girls begin throwing punches at the heavy bags and doing pad work with their coaches. All three donate their time; the gloves, handwraps, and mouthguards the girls use have come by way of donation as well. Exas demonstrates footwork for two girls, showing them how to pivot so they can stay close to an opponent while getting in blows. Adler, her sleeveless shirt showing off biceps that would make Michelle Obama jealous, calls out combinations as two girls throw punches at the pads she’s holding. Every few minutes, someone shouts, “Switch!” and the girls rotate to a new instructor.

Eventually, all the girls circle up to take turns sparring with Adler. They hoot and applaud for Bing Liang, a tall, reedy seventeen-year-old with short hair and a powerful cross who earns a “Yes! Beautiful!” from Adler.

Liang, another Young Women’s Leadership School student, says she appreciates She Fights for more than just the workout. “Coming here gives me another community,” she explains. “There are such strong women in this thing that’s really dominated by men. It’s really inspiring.”

Boxing has been transformative for fellow seventeen-year-old Marines Espinal. “I see my body change and I see my endurance change and I’m proud of myself,” she says. Espinal adds that training was particularly helpful when she was working on college applications: “Coming here was a way to relieve my stress, and it gives me a lot of confidence. I didn’t think it would, really, but you push yourself and you see how much you can do.”

Espinal says she’ll try to keep boxing once she moves to Rochester for college in the fall, but that she’s “really sad because I can’t train with them anymore.”

Adler says the girls have opened up to her about their personal lives, sharing stories of turbulent backgrounds and struggles with anxiety and depression. Adler is now determined to help She Fights raise even more money, to pay for tutoring or assistance with college applications. She hopes that future classes can start training girls even younger, maybe positioning them for scholarships to schools with boxing programs.

Gonzalez, who recently left her job in the mayor’s office to help run Bronx Democrat Amanda Farias’s campaign for City Council, has greater aspirations for the program as well. Right now she can accept a maximum of fifteen girls — she’s started a GoFundMe page, but her plan is to register She Fights as a nonprofit and find more funding and support to expand to other gyms. She also wants to offer Muay Thai and reach out to schools that are majority low-income students.

Gonzalez recalls a day when she was still teaching boys and none of them showed up. She later found out they had been stopped and frisked on their way to the class. When Trump’s travel ban first came down, it struck her that all her girls are women of color, many of them from immigrant backgrounds. Given her own background in politics, she tried to answer their questions when they came to class scared. Seeing their fear made her notice even more how boxing affected them.

“The first time you get to throw that punch and hit flesh, it feels so good,” she says. “As women, it feels like we shouldn’t be admitting to that. It is a violent thing, and women aren’t supposed to cause harm to others.”

But Gonzalez says the sense of strength boxing instills in young women made to feel powerless is invaluable, and she is careful to praise the girls not just for their physical prowess but for their discipline and commitment.

One of the most committed is eighteen-year-old Milenny Reynoso. “I like boxing,” she says. “I like the thrill.”

She’s tried regular classes, but nothing compares to She Fights. “I feel like we’re connected,” Reynoso explains. “At a regular class, everyone is just following instructions. Here, we’re like a family.”

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The Trouble With the Mets: A Superfan Reckons With Baseball’s Domestic Abuse Problem

A couple of years ago, when the New York Mets made a playoff run that ultimately ended in defeat to the Kansas City Royals in the World Series, I found myself, for the first time since childhood, interested in baseball.

I grew up not in Mets country, but in the suburbs of Boston, where baseball is inescapable. When I was a kid, in the 1990s, my friends would bemoan the decades that had passed since the last Red Sox World Series victory, in 1918, as though they personally had lived through them. The Sox, though, weren’t my team. My mother was a Long Island transplant, and so the Mets ruled in our house. Women make up only 30 percent of Major League Baseball’s regular audience, a statistic that always surprises me: Some of the most fanatical baseball fans I know are women. After all, my mom caught the bug from her own mother, who — during that 2015 playoff run — emailed us, “I have my Mets ’69 shirt on, drank my coffee from my Citi Field Inaugural mug & am about to put on a Mets hat to go to the PO.”

Despite my mother’s fanaticism, my interest in baseball came later. Perhaps more than other sports, baseball engenders a kind of personal involvement with individual players: Its appeal comes largely from the narratives that unspool on the sidelines. When I became a fan as an adult, watching the Mets four nights a week, it was largely for the human-interest side of the sport. My mother and I routinely discuss not only player performance but also, for instance, Mets righthander Noah Syndergaard’s love life. But that kind of personal involvement can cut both ways.

On April 20, Mets closer Jeurys Familia took the mound against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field, his first appearance of the season. Familia, who notched 51 saves for the team last year — a franchise record — hit 98 mph on the radar gun, striking out two and not allowing a run. But he also walked two and labored through thirty pitches. The Mets lost that game 6-4.

Familia’s debut was delayed not because of injury, but due to a fifteen-game suspension he was handed at the end of March under Major League Baseball’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse policy, instituted in 2015. The suspension stemmed from Familia’s arrest last November after his wife, Bianca Rivas, called 911 and summoned police to their Fort Lee, New Jersey, home. When officers arrived, they found Rivas with “a scratch mark on her chest and a bruise on her right cheek.” She later denied that Familia hit her, and no charges were filed.

With Familia and infielder José Reyes, who was suspended for fifty-one games last year for allegedly assaulting his wife in a Maui hotel room in October 2015, the Mets have the dubious distinction of featuring on their roster two of the four players who have been suspended under MLB’s updated domestic violence policy. The first, New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, was banned for thirty games last year for an incident the previous October in which the then–Cincinnati Red allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired eight gunshots inside the garage of his Davie, Florida, home. The most severe penalty was dealt to former Atlanta Braves third baseman Héctor Olivera, who was sidelined for eighty-two games after an apparent altercation with a woman at a hotel near Washington, D.C., in April 2016. Chapman, later traded by the Yankees to the Chicago Cubs, was
part of that team’s 2016 World Series–winning playoff run; he returned to the Yankees as a free agent in the offseason on a five-year, $86 million deal. Olivera is currently an unsigned free agent.

Neither Familia nor Reyes has been convicted of a crime, but Familia’s case is more ambiguous. It is, of course, entirely possible that he did not hit his wife: According to Rivas, her one-year-old son was responsible for the scratch on her chest, and the bruise “came from resting her hand on her face while she was lying down.” Familia did admit to damaging a bedroom door but denied having assaulted his wife. It was, his statement read, “important that it be known that I never physically touched, harmed, or threatened my wife that evening….I did, however, act in an unacceptable manner and am terribly disappointed in myself. I am alone to blame for the problems of that evening.”

Reyes, however, did not deny having assaulted his wife, Katherine Ramirez, following his arrest in Hawaii in October of 2015. Ramirez declined to participate in her husband’s prosecution, but sustained more serious injuries than
Rivas did — Reyes allegedly choked and slammed her against a glass wall — and Reyes’s suspension was correspondingly more severe. Widely viewed to be past his prime, Reyes was released by the Colorado Rockies in the wake of his suspension and subsequently signed by the Mets, the team that discovered him as an amateur out of the Dominican
Republic in 1999 and for whom he had played for nine years as a fan favorite. For New York, plagued by injury last summer, re-signing Reyes represented a low-risk investment: Because the Rockies had released him, the Mets would only be responsible for a prorated portion of the $507,500 major league minimum salary, while the Rockies paid out the remaining $38 million Reyes was owed under a deal he’d signed with the Miami Marlins in 2011.

The issue of domestic violence has long plagued sports. It has received increased levels of attention in recent years, however, in part due to the reverberations of the Ray Rice scandal in 2014, in which two separate videos of the star NFL running back assaulting his fiancée circulated endlessly online and on cable news. In the wake of the episode, the NFL, under the auspices of commissioner Roger Goodell, hurried to implement a new domestic violence policy, but it rapidly came under criticism and has, many feel, proved less than effective. Last year, Giants kicker Josh Brown was suspended for just one game after his 2015 arrest for repeatedly beating his pregnant wife, abuse he’d described in journals and letters. The Giants eventually released him, but only after significant public outcry.

Perhaps inspired by the NFL’s failure to reckon with domestic abusers, the NHL last year implemented mandatory domestic violence and sexual assault prevention sessions for all teams. During negotiations for the NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement in the fall, it was reported that that league’s CBA would “likely clarify the disciplinary procedures in dealing with domestic violence policy violations.” Baseball, meanwhile,
continues with its 2015 policy, which includes suspensions; treatment for players involved in domestic violence incidents; and training, education, and resources for all players in the league.

A satisfying solution to the problem of domestic violence and sports, and indeed for the problem of domestic violence in society at large, is not forthcoming. Simply blacklisting players who may or may not have committed spousal abuse can backfire: Brown’s wife, Molly, and Chapman’s wife, Cristina, both worried that their husbands (or, in Molly Brown’s case, ex-husband) would be cut from their respective teams. Many players’ wives depend on their husbands financially, and as Dr. Beth Richie, who served on the NFL’s policy group for domestic violence education and prevention, told Jezebel in 2014, “it’s never a one-time incident” — so “isolating someone from their meaningful community just means that they displace their violence onto someone else.” On the other hand, Bethany P. Withers, who conducted a study on domestic violence in sports, the results of which she detailed in a 2010 article for the Harvard Law School Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law, found that the vast majority of athletes accused of domestic violence are not punished at all, and many cases go unreported.

I remember Reyes in his heyday as an All-Star shortstop with the Mets. When he made his major league debut on June 10, 2003, one day short of his twentieth birthday, he was electric — young, buzzing with energy and an infectious smile, demonically fast around the bases. Even I, famously baseball-agnostic, liked José. So did everybody else — so much so, in fact, that many people seemed happy to have him back in Queens even years later, his best baseball behind him. That signing did spark some minor controversy — press coverage was mixed, and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said that the Mets “should be ashamed” to bring him back into the fold. But when he appeared in his first game back with the team, on July 5 of last year, fans at Citi Field greeted him with a standing ovation.

Watching at home, I felt less welcoming. In fact, I was furious. Reyes’s public apologies were unsatisfying; though more explicit than Familia’s — whose sheepish claims that his “unacceptable” behavior had caused “problems” rang more evasive than sincere — Reyes’s statement strikes me as similarly awkward and vague. “I deeply regret the incident that occurred and remain remorseful and apologetic to my family,” he offered. “I am happy to put this all in the past and get back to doing what I love most, playing baseball.”

The Mets appeared to share that eagerness to move on. The day of Reyes’s return, SNY ran a hagiographic montage at the beginning of the broadcast, and commentators Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez talked themselves into knots attempting to justify his presence on the team. Cohen seemed to be convincing himself as he spoke; Hernandez, meanwhile, pointed out that domestic violence also occurs outside the United States.

I was desperate for anybody involved with the team to take a firm stance against Reyes’s signing even as I knew that no one was going to break rank. I do not doubt that many of the men in the organization felt sympathy for Reyes’s wife, but the message they were sending was clear: She was less important than winning a few more baseball games. Familia’s wife has likewise been absent from the conversation in the wake of his suspension and return to the game. Though Reyes’s re-signing did prompt some debate, Familia’s suspension has inspired almost none: Cohen, Hernandez, and fellow analyst and former Met Ron Darling have discussed it almost exclusively as a practical impediment to the team’s success. On the evening of Familia’s return, Darling cursorily noted that he had been “taken off the suspended list,” as if player suspensions were akin to being placed on the disabled list or taking leave for bereavement. It is as though, by having one brief and superficial conversation about Reyes, the Mets and those around the team have decided that there is no need to ever do so again.

Baseball players, like all professional athletes, are public figures, subjected to scrutiny as well as adulation. Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, for instance, inspires awe across the country for his astonishing skill on the mound. Syndergaard is beloved by fans not only for his fastball, which routinely reaches 100 mph, but also for his affinity for Game of Thrones, his Twitter account, and his nickname, “Thor,” bestowed upon him because of his six-foot-six, 250-pound frame and flowing blond locks. When fans pledge their loyalty to a player, they are drawn to personality and persona as much as to athletic prowess: Wilmer Flores, who memorably cried on the field in 2015 when he learned that the Mets were planning to trade him to the Milwaukee Brewers — a deal that later fell apart — remains especially beloved.

Public figures inevitably also become objects of fantasy. I don’t mean sexual fantasy (although that is often a factor), but something more straightforward. My mother and I have never met Syndergaard, nor his good friend and fellow long-locked Mets righthander Jacob deGrom, but we have spent enough time talking and thinking about them that it sometimes feels like we have. Most players on the Mets are likable public presences, but Syndergaard and deGrom are particularly endearing. If you spend enough time watching athletes on television, you start to feel like you know them, even though all you’re seeing is men at work. But baseball is a leisurely sport, full of downtime and dugout antics, and players like Syndergaard and deGrom encourage its central fantasy, which is that the team coexists in perfect male-bonded harmony.

To some fans, especially some women, this impossible fantasy can be seductive. The world of baseball is entirely male, and in the absence of women, sexuality exists off-field and off-screen. The players, despite being specimens of athletic masculinity, remain boys in perpetuity — and boys, unlike men, cannot hurt you. Something about the all-male environment seems to encourage this sense of arrested development: While some players are very serious people, others, like Syndergaard and deGrom, pass the time by, for instance, playing hockey in the dugout with two large shovels and a spare ball. Familia is himself a great jokester around the clubhouse, known for pranking teammates, reporters, and visitors alike. Last summer, Adam Rubin tweeted that Familia “brought fake dog poo to work today and was trying to fool people into thinking it was real.” This is all very charming, until, all of a sudden, it isn’t anymore.

But the fantasy of baseball is not only for women. More than any other major American sport, baseball trades on self-mythologizing; its entire stock-in-trade is a fantasy of a collective, nostalgic American past, emblematized by Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth — and of our own individual pasts. When I started watching as an adult, I was shocked to discover how much baseball had infiltrated my childhood, despite my best intentions. Baseball, inherently, feels like the past; as much as it may want to modernize, it depends upon our nostalgia to survive. When a player is suspended for allegations of domestic violence, then, it is in the best interest of the league to minimize the story and get back to making viewers feel good.

But that is not always so easy. For me, the experience of watching a player who has been suspended because of an incident that involves domestic violence, even an alleged one, is alienating. Baseball players do not play in a vacuum: When the Mets signed José Reyes to play baseball, they also signed up their other players, employees, and broadcasters — as well as their fans — to participate in his rehabilitation. I knew that nobody was going to speak out against Reyes’s signing because I understood that the team had made up their minds for them. The few players who did discuss it publicly — including David Wright, Matt Harvey, and even Familia — uniformly condemned Reyes’s actions but supported his being offered a second chance.

This was disappointing, but unsurprising. The central problem for female fans — or at least for this female fan — is that the myth of baseball has been written, for the most part, by men. I wanted somebody to decry Reyes’s return, or to even fully acknowledge the reasons for Familia’s absence, because a player or commentator taking such a step would mean a baseball professional fully acknowledging women as people. Most chilling to me last year was the sight of Reyes hanging out in the dugout with the rest of the team, working, as he had said, “to put this all in the past.” He was warmly received by seemingly all the members of the team to whom I had grown so attached. For the first time, they and their antics did not seem charming or merely silly — they, too, seemed alien.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you score it for Leonard?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Islanders Should Just Head Back to Nassau and End This Charade

The New York Islanders, the metropolitan areas vagabond hockey team, is possibly looking at a 2019 departure from Barclays Center. For anyone (anyone?) who has seen a game there, that’s not surprising. Games are sparsely attended, a good portion of the views are obstructed, and ownership has done as little as possible to alert Brooklyn residents that there’s an alternative to seeing the Nets at Barclays. Simply put, the marriage was not meant to last.

So what now? Since at least the summer, there’s been grumblings about the Islanders moving to New York City’s other borough on Long Island, and adding even more of a stadium glut to the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park area. As long as legal battles have simmered over Willets Point, which sits beside Citi Field, sports ownership groups have speculated over ways to cram another arena into an area that already has a Major League Baseball stadium, the preeminent (and newly expanded) tennis center in the country, and an olympic-level aquatics center. A few years ago, pols tried to cram through a Major League Soccer stadium in the heart of the park itself, only to see the soccer-loving communities that surround the park unify against it. The appetite for an arena is simply not there. And yet it keeps being brought back up.

The latest politician to get on board with a Queens hockey arena is Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who said during her state of the borough last week she’d like to see a hockey arena or soccer team on the Willets Point site. As my colleague Neil deMause points out, Katz has zilch power to move forward with that idea, so it’s more of a gesture than anything substantive. On top of that, Willets Point itself, while still being cleared auto shop by auto shop by the city in a torturous process that has dragged on forever, has to be decontaminated before anything can be built on the land. Right now, the current plan, spearheaded by the Mets ownership, is to put a parking lot on it, and replace the Mets current parking lot with a mall. That plan has been met with lawsuit after lawsuit over the alienation of parkland, and now the case is stalled in state court, with a possible resolution one way or another coming as soon as this spring.

So to throw a hockey arena into the mix seems like pure fantasy. Or is it? The battle over the Mets parking lot is over whether the parkland the parking lot currently sits on could be turned into a mall without violating the “public trust doctrine,” which limits uses of parkland and makes any development contingent on approval from the state. Shea Stadium used to sit directly on the land where the parking lot now resides, so there might not be a violation of the doctrine if a hockey arena were to be built there. And while that would surely also result in legal action as well, it certainly serves more a public and park-like function than a shopping mall. The Mets (and Islanders) parking lot could still head for Willets Point, where remediation (and future flooding) makes the development of a neighborhood challenging.

But that doesn’t mean it should happen. Flushing Meadows Park is already overburdened by sports facilities, and a soccer stadium or hockey rink is a poor use of badly needed public space. If the Willets West mall get approved by the courts, then a mall it shall be, with some talk of eventually building a mixed-income neighborhood on the site of the parking lot (which, because of bad deals cut by the Bloomberg administration and local councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, will never ever happen).

The Queens Islanders are a fantasy and a ploy, as a wayward ownership group tries to bilk New York City out of some taxpayer money or public land in exchange for another hockey team no one wants. But you know who does want the Islanders? Long Island. You know who just renovated an arena that has the capacity of what the Islanders consistently draw? Long Island. You know where they Islanders are going to be playing in 2019? On Long Island, where taxpayers smartly refused to publicly fund a new stadium until wealthy developers just went ahead and remodeled their old one. They deserve their hockey team back, and Queens is ready, once and for all, to let its fascination with even more stadiums finally die.

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The Faces of the NYC Marathon

More than 50,000 people ran the New York City Marathon on Sunday… and some of them did it with extra panache.

Photos by B.A. Van Sise for the Village Voice

 

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The Mets Think Female Athletes Are Punchlines

The first weekend in October, the Mets asked their rookies to squeeze into too-small dresses and parade around the streets of Philly, where they were holed up for the final series of the regular season. “Dress Up Day,” as the tradition is known, does not always put players in feminine clothes; last year the Mets went for children’s superhero costumes. But there’s a general theme to the antics — emasculation, with a little gay panic thrown in — and this year it was turned all the way up to eleven. The rookies were made to wear reproductions of the small-waisted, short-skirted rompers that Geena Davis and Madonna had to squeeze into for A League of Their Own, the 1992 film about the early days of professional women’s baseball. The players were then sent to fetch coffee for their more senior teammates, completing the domination ritual. The official Mets Instagram post tagged a photo of nine players, in pale pink and bright yellow, with “#StillBetterThanAAA,” as in: How awful for these guys, but at least it’s not the minors.

Whatever team spirit this tired male-bonding routine mustered seems not to have fortified the players sufficiently: A few days later the Giants crushed the team’s World Series dreams with a 3–0 win, courtesy of a ninth-inning home run off the Mets’ closer, in the NL wild-card game. And though USA Today declared that the team, some of whose members were also wearing cheap wigs, “won for best costumes” and were “totally own[ing] it,” very few outlets covered Dress Up Day. So let’s take a moment to revisit why a major professional sports franchise thought dressing its players up like women athletes was a funny idea.

These dresses weren’t just any dresses. They were imitations of the uniforms worn by the only women who ever got to call themselves professional baseball — not softball — players, the athletes who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League between 1943 and 1954. They were allowed to compete only because the men were off at war. And compete they did: In the years the league was active, more than six hundred women joined, fielding, at the league’s peak, fifteen teams. The game they played resembled softball at the start but evolved to become almost identical to men’s regulation baseball, save for a slightly smaller field. They trained, got injured, and won and lost with as much passion as anyone. But they were not considered legitimate athletes — that much is obvious from how little the women were paid (as little as $615 a week in 2016 dollars). And then there were the uniforms — hardly athletic, designed to prettify instead of protect — and the promotions for the games, which treated the women’s existence as a sweet-as-pie novelty. The league dried up not because no one had attended (they had, in the cumulative millions) but because sponsors moved back to men’s baseball when the war ended. It was a foregone conclusion that everyone preferred the status quo ante.

This is the history the Mets’ stunt mocked. That USA Today article also suggested the rookies were “paying tribute,” but if that’s what they wanted to do, they would have donated their time to a girls’ development team or voiced support for the women who want to play their sport professionally now — no women’s baseball league ever formed after the AAGPBL’s demise. Instead, the Mets took an already stale joke and made a laugh out of the few women who briefly got a seat at the table. Instead of seeing women continue to get to wear baseball uniforms, we see the inheritors of the men who took them away, donning them in a manner intended to humiliate the wearers.

Women are left, again, as an athletic afterthought. Women’s baseball — and basketball, soccer, hockey; everything besides sports like gymnastics and beach volleyball, at which spectators can comfortably leer — is still marginalized. Women earn less (or, as is the case with cycling, are guaranteed no income at all) and get less coverage; fewer people can then watch their games, only fueling the self-fulfilling stereotype that women are just not as good at sports. The only place a woman can play at the highest level of baseball this season is on TV, in Fox’s Pitch, where Kylie Bunbury’s hurler, Ginny Baker, faces a volley of abuse for being the first woman to join the MLB.

The Mets’ symbolically denigrating women is shocking, but not quite as shocking as the steady stream of news items about football or baseball players beating the women in their lives. And just as Dress Up Day escaped notice, male athletes accused of domestic violence often get off just as easy: According to a 2010 paper in the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, domestic-violence cases involving athletes result in convictions less than half as often as for the general population. The Mets signaled their indifference to this reality when they hired back José Reyes, who played in last week’s season-ending game. After allegedly throwing his wife into a sliding glass door, Reyes was suspended from the Colorado Rockies for just seventeen days this past May, and was forced to donate $100,000 to a domestic-violence charity (Reyes’s Rockies contract was for $38 million). But he skirted legal ramifications after his wife refused to cooperate in the trial and the charges were dropped. The Mets snatched him up as soon as the suspension ended, and their fans welcomed him back onto the field in July with a standing ovation.

If the Mets had wanted the hazing experience to be actually traumatizing, they could have also subjected their players to the same violence that people perceived as male often endure for wearing dresses in public. Trans women, gender-nonconforming people, or really any masculine-looking person who wants to wear feminine clothes out of doors does so at significant risk of harm — often from law enforcement officers themselves. The rookies, by contrast, have a multibillion-dollar sports machine to protect them. They’re not going to lose their jobs or get arrested in the bathroom for dressing a certain way. No one is going to beat them up or murder them. Because otherwise, the Mets would have to admit this joke isn’t funny anymore.