Thursday, January 10, 2008

Baseball, Broadway and the Curse of the Bambino (2003)

“He looks up for a moment…at the people on the field. Those who are happy and dazed. Those who run the bases calling out the score…Those whose team has lost…Those who will light the city with their bliss.” –Underworld, Don DeLillo

It was a glorious September weekend in the city a few days before the second anniversary of the September 11th attacks and baseball, not terrorism claimed center stage. The Boston Red Sox battled the first place Yankees in a three game series at the Stadium.

I inquired about tickets for Saturday’s game, only to learn that bleacher seats were going for $500.00 a ticket. Bleachers? For a baseball game? I asked the scalper why. “It’s the oldest rivalry in baseball and we’re in a pennant race,” he grumbled in a Bronx accent. But this is major league baseball, a watered down version of its former self with scandals from steroids to ephedrine to corked bats cropping up weekly. The wildcard playoff berth has also helped lessen the drama. I can understand “Hairspray” tickets being so expensive. When is the last time a regular season baseball game meant anything?

I’m not a Yankee fan (partly because the world doesn’t need any more) but a trip to the Stadium in the Bronx is the quintessential New York experience. Never mind that the Yankees are baseball’s version of Walmart with their $200 million dollar payroll devouring baseball communities across the nation. Yankee Stadium is the Mecca of the baseball world. Few stadiums allow that first radiant glimpse of the outfield grass from the elevated train platform. Described in an early press release as a “field enclosed with towering embattlements, rendering the events inside impenetrable to all human eyes, save those of aviators,” it opened in 1923 with the Yankees defeating the Red Sox. Babe Ruth christened the park with a three-run homer. It’s a Roman Coliseum where gladiators and their ghosts battle it out. Spirits like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle lurk in the rafters. You can still envision the glory years of Ballantine beer, the copper façade of the grandstand and baggy pants tearing around the base paths. Now George Steinbrenner stands like a Roman emperor in the luxury box watching lesser teams be devoured. It has the same mystique of Fenway Park and Wrigley Field—and then you tack on 26 World Championships.

I’m not a Yankee fan but they rescued me from the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. I sat in front of my television for the entire month of October praying for the Yankees to pull out those games. I wanted them to win it for the city in the same way I wanted survivors to be found in the smoldering wreckage. The Yankees fought like the heroes who perished in the towers, clawing their way to the seventh game of the World Series and nearly winning it all. They battled for every out with their souls. Game winning home run after game winning home run. I remembered the parade in 1996, watching tickertape fall from the windows of the skyscrapers while attending a seminar in the One World Trade Center. A large ream of computer paper draped itself around Alexander Hamilton’s gravestone like a toga. What would the city have done if the Yankees won the championship? I wanted to know the answer.

Crowds thronged the streets of the Times Square theme park on Saturday afternoon headed for the matinees and it was chilly in the shade. September days in Manhattan, crisp and clear, filled with sunlight and blue sky, will never again be experienced as the welcome respite from summer that they are but will serve as a reminder for what happened on a Tuesday morning in 2001. Baseball can never change that.

Yankees fans are the most knowledgeable and devout worshippers of any sport in the world and the most openly hostile to both the opposition and to their own players. Once after a fly ball dropped in front of a Yankee outfielder on a cloudy day, I heard a fan shout, “Take off your sunglasses next time and you’ll make the catch.” On another occasion, I sat behind first base and watched fans berate former Yankee first baseman Steve Balboni. “Hey Bumboni,” they screamed continuously, and goaded him into a throwing error. Their merciless heckling made a small boy cry.

Only three and a half games out of first place to begin the series, the Red Sox routed the Yankees sans their star Derek Jeter on Friday night 9-3, and followed up on Saturday with an 11-0 drubbing of former Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens that trimmed the Yankee lead to one and a half games with only eighteen games left. The general feeling around town is that the Yankees are missing a consistent hitter and a strong middle-reliever to make a serious run in their annual all or nothing saga of “Win It All or Hit the Road.” The beat writers promise that heads will roll—including Godfather-like manager Joe Torre--if the crown isn’t brought back to the Bronx this year.

The Sunday Times sports page showed little patience. “Red Sox Pound Yankees Again,” the headline read. There’s no relief in multiple World Championships. It’s been a difficult year with injuries to Jeter and Bernie Williams, and the debauched biography by David Wells to start the year didn’t help things. However, the Yankees thrive on internal strife and chaos. Their line up still assaults an opposing pitcher like the replicating agents in “The Matrix Reloaded.” They also have the psychological edge of Mariano Rivera, perhaps the greatest closer in the history of baseball who vaporizes the opposition in the late innings. Hideki Matsui, a quiet newcomer from Tokyo, also known as “Godzilla” for his homerun prowess in Japan has carried the Yankees this year with his line-drive swing and persistent hustle. “He hits line drives and runs faster than Paulie,” a fan remarked, comparing him to the recently retired Paul O’Neill. Matsui has won the hearts of Yankee fans and also maintains a thriving fan base in Japan. He is solely responsible for the real-time Yankee telecasts played on cable in Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea. He is a regular fixture on the Jumbotron screen in Shibuya, Tokyo’s version of Times Square. Japanese fans in New York sit in the bleachers to be closer to their national hero.

Two home losses to the Red Sox and the world is coming to an end. Suddenly, Bernie Williams is too old, Giambi washed up. It would be more interesting if the Yankees didn’t win the World Series this year to see what would happen. Imagine the drama. What will Steinbrenner do? Brian Cashman, Yankee GM, has been wheeling and dealing players all year, including the 45 year-old Jessie Orosco who lasted only two weeks. All you need to know about the Yankees and their impact on the psyche of New Yorkers is contained in a two-hour dramatic event at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

The play is called “Take Me Out,” a jarring experience that examines issues of racism and homophobia from the vantage point of our national past time. One review calls it, “A look at the skeevy underbelly of baseball.“ The fictitious team is called the Empires, and the main character, Darren Lemming bears a strong resemblance to Derek Jeter. Like Jeter, he comes from a mixed racial upbringing, dates starlets, and is the soul of the team. It also depicts a modern day baseball locker room, similar to the Yankees, filled with a diverse melting pot of cultures that include born again Christians, African Americans, Japanese, and Hispanic ballplayers sharing the same shower. Lemming comes out of the closet mid-season and the team is thrown into turmoil. In the end, the Empires must overcome the racist remarks and actions of relief pitcher Shane Mungit, modeled after John Rocker.

“Take Me Out” reveals how baseball can capture the imagination of the most unlikely fan, a gay accountant named Mason Marzack assigned to manage Lemming’s finances. “Marz” discovers baseball from scratch, calling it a democracy outside of time. Baseball offers sanctuary from the horrors of civilization. There are the intricacies of the game from the hieroglyphics of the official score to the varying speeds of the pitches. But there’s also plenty of folly and sideshow to take comfort in. A numbers man, Marz becomes entranced by the multiples of three at work and puzzled by the home run trot. “The man has hit the ball out of the park, why should he have to run the bases?” He also realizes that baseball is a game where somebody loses.

The Boston Red Sox are perhaps the most famous “losers” of any sport. Their 1986 loss to the Mets in the World Series was the most painful. With two outs and a two run lead, the Red Sox had silenced the five boroughs and were on the verge of World Series victory. The streets were so quiet you could hear the announcer’s voice echoing off the concrete in ten stories of apartments with their windows open. The Mets strung together two singles and a walk, scoring three runs on a pass ball and a colossal error. “The game is everywhere,” Don DeLillo writes in Underworld on the occasion of Bobby Thomson’s homerun in 1951. “They got it in taxicabs and barbershops and doctor’s offices.” Taxicab horns erupted all over the city after the winning run scored. Anyone who lived in the city in 1986 remembers this moment—hundreds of thousands of people with no ties to baseball were instantly connected to the event and converted. “It makes people want to be in the streets, joined with others, telling others what has happened.” Red Sox fans compared this collapse to the Kennedy assassination. They haven’t won a championship since 1918. Will this year be any different?

Ironically, the Red Sox stayed at the Westin Hotel on 43rd, close to the theatre district and only ten blocks or so from where Babe Ruth breathed his last in a hospital run by the French nuns. They keep the Curse of the Bambino fresh on their minds. The story of the Red Sox is the longest running tragic novel in all of sports. Every year begins with promise and by now, post Labor Day, all hope has faded from the season.

Baseball is the breeding ground of fiction. It has a three-act story structure: exposition, development, drama. The batter steps in, the pitcher winds and delivers. There is confrontation on every pitch. Innings build into scenes. As DeLillo writes, “The difference comes when the ball is hit. Then nothing is the same…There are things that apply unrepeatably, muscle memory and pumping blood and jots of dust, the narrative that lives in the spaces of the official play-by-play.”

I managed to find two $75 dollar bleacher tickets for Sunday’s finale. David Wells pitched and Derek Jeter overcame bruised ribs to scratch his name in on the line-up card. Jeter is the personification of Yankee glory. He is cocky and brash and an all-star. He drew pictures of himself playing for the Yankees in high school. He is a man who knows who he is and why he is here.

Yankee Stadium reeked of playoff atmosphere. The bleachers baked in sunlight. “This is the biggest game since the 1996,” Jeter said. Wells glowered on the mound like a behemoth. He looked more like a professional wrestler than a baseball player. Wells nibbled in and out, then busted the Sox batters inside, always around the plate. He is pure Yankee, a booze-swilling throwback from the Mantle years who overcomes the hangover and twirls a gem. Manny Ramirez from nearby Washington Heights smacked a double over Matsui’s head in left. “He made chop-suey out of Matsui,” a fan yelled. Ramirez was left stranded on third.

The teams played seven scoreless innings. You could feel the tension grow in the throats of the Red Sox fans. The game had begun innocently enough, with both teams feeling each other out. Could the Red Sox complete an unthinkable three-game sweep of the Yankees and creep within a half game?

As the game wore on, the years of failure returned. Ruth purchased for money to stage a Broadway play in 1919. The 1975 series against the Reds. Bucky Dent’s 1978 home run that won the Pennant from the Red Sox. The 1986 debacle against the Mets. The Red Sox fans seated in the bleachers around me knew the history of their team in great detail. They grew silent and prepared for the worst. My wife, born and raised in New England, stood up. “I’m going for an Italian ice,” she said, code for “I already know something bad is going to happen.”

Bernie Williams took two level swings at the air and calmly stood in against Red Sox hurler Jeff Suppan with two outs in the seventh inning. He is the antithesis of Jeter, a quiet classical musician with a lethal stick. He worked the count full. I remembered following Bernie Williams in the minor leagues. The first day I saw him play at Yankee stadium in the early 1990s, he ran down an unreachable ball across center field like a loping gazelle. He wore glasses then and I left the game thinking the rest of the American league was going to be in trouble for a long time.

He jumped on a full count fastball and sent a towering drive into right field. I tracked its path into the shade of the upper deck, checking back to the fence to see if the ball had the distance to clear it. It reemerged into the light and landed several rows back in the right field bleachers. Before the ball left his bat, the Yankees were a team on the verge of collapse. The Red Sox had a legitimate chance to catch them. The hopes of a Boston pennant vanished in the long, dreamy flight of the Williams home run.
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