No Roots for the Home Team; But a Lifetime Spiced Up by Baseball
Last Thursday night was a magnificent one on which to spend a few hours at Yankee Stadium: the sky was clear, the temperature was in the mid-70s, the concession lines weren't too long and, most importantly, the Bombers lost, 11-9, to the Florida Marlins. Junior and I attended the game, sitting in box seats about 20 rows back, between the Yanks' dugout and first base, with my niece Zoe Smith and her boyfriend Andy Jaye, a fellow Red Sox devotee. The official paid attendance that evening was 33,324, but the ballpark wasn't nearly that full, and having watched two capacity-crowd Bosox games in the last six weeks, I could see how many season-ticket holders opted out on the Marlins, a subpar National League team that's lucky to draw even 10,000 fans in their Miami stadium. There were some Yankee comebacks during the contest, but the result was essentially decided by the third, after Orlando Hernandez?El Duque to you, bub?gave up three-run homers to Mike Lowell and Derek Lee.
Andy and I kept our eyes glued on the outfield scoreboard, following that night's game at Fenway, where Pedro Martinez was pitching for the first time since coming off the disabled list. Neither of us thought the Mets' Bobby J. Jones had a chance against Pedro, but watched dispiritedly as each inning showed the same score, the Bosox losing 1-0. By the time Junior and I left the Stadium at the top of the seventh?it was late for him and I was feeling the effect of two hotdogs?the Mets and Sox were tied at two apiece.
(By the way, one of the most enduring, and irritating, myths in American pop culture is that a hotdog always tastes better at the ballpark. What a bunch of hooey. As it happens, there's not much else to eat at Yankee Stadium, which has the worst food selection of any sporting facility I've ever been to, so you choke down a boiled dog or two out of desperation. I can remember from my three years as a vendor at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium how those pig-snout delicacies are prepared: a big vat of semi-bubbling water, maybe given the spice of a pissed-off worker's spit, and then it's off to the stands, to feed the suckers what they want.)
Junior and I haggled with a livery driver outside the gate?the guy wanted $50 and I whittled it down to $30, feeling for a minute like I was in Cairo rather than the Bronx?and listened to the Mets-Sox game on the radio while going home. We were racing down the FDR when the Mets' Mike Piazza singled; the visiting team took a one-run lead in the eighth. Off the highway, the car crawled along Houston St., due to the collapse of that building at 2nd Ave., where the scene was full of cops, ambulances, rubberneckers and nosy pedestrians. When we got home, I tucked in Junior, flipped on the iMac and decided to confirm the Sox's loss?as penance for what, I wasn't sure.
As it turned out, on the AOL scoreboard, where you can "watch" any Major League game with 30-second updates, it was the bottom of the ninth, two outs and two on, with slumping Brian Daubach at the plate. He doubled, scoring the go-ahead runner Jose Offerman, who'd reached base on an error by Melvin Mora, and the FINAL sign was flashed on my computer, Sox winning 4-3. What a weird way to follow a baseball game, I thought, but happily logged on to the Drudge Report for the last time that day, read 25 pages of Joe Eszterhas' hilarious, if outrageously self-indulgent, American Rhapsody, and quickly fell asleep.
It's always a pleasure to view a ballgame with someone who's in full command of the sport. Andy, in his mid-20s, not only has the Sox's history embedded in his brain, but also is knowledgeable about the other 29 teams in the Major Leagues today, an awesome feat if you ask me. As a semi-old-timer, I grew up when each league had just 10 teams?my brothers scoff at that, since they remember Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds, eight teams to a league and seeing Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Bob Feller, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in their primes, and a 154-game season?and there were no playoffs, designated hitters or wild card tickets to the World Series. I don't read the sports pages during the winter, so the Sox's roster is always a surprise?like every other team's?when I start to focus on the upcoming season at the end of March. It seems like half the names are different, and it's a chore to keep up. With the rare exception of a Cal Ripken Jr. or Tony Gwynn, say, there are few franchise players left, men who forsake a million or two on contracts because they've established homes and families in their communities.
I always thought Roger Clemens, following the lead of Williams, Yaz, Rice, Dwight Evans, etc., would start and finish his career with the Sox. Clemens, one of the five best pitchers of the past generation, was always a throwback player. He threw a deadly fastball, was a strikeout king and seemed to enjoy the game as much as when he was a teen. It was clear Roger wasn't too bright?I mean, it's pretty weird to give all your kids names starting with the letter K, for strikeout?but he played hard and seriously.
I didn't mind a bit when he wore war paint and gold chains in the playoffs against the Oakland A's in 1990; the guy was out of his mind, but he sure was colorful. When Clemens, having satisfied most of his personal goals, and assured a spot in the Hall of Fame, defected to the Blue Jays in '97, I was initially pissed. (He also demonstrated his Maxine Waters-like IQ by signing with Toronto instead of the Yanks that year.) But Clemens was, after more than 10 years in Boston, treated with ingratitude by the Sox's young general manager Dan Duquette, who claimed Clemens was washed up. When he went on to win two consecutive Cy Young awards with the Jays, that was evidence enough to the contrary.
So, unlike my friend Andy, who turns on a Sox player as soon as he departs Boston, I kept rooting for Clemens, even when he signed with the Yankees in '99 (except when he pitched against Boston). But on the night of July 8, after Clemens hit Mets superstar Mike Piazza in the head during the second inning at Yankee Stadium, my former favorite player meant nothing to me anymore. What an asshole.
Look, I love baseball players today who resemble those of another era, who play even while injured and razz the opposing team from the dugout instead of using a cellphone to gab with their agent or broker. The Bosox's current number-one draw, Pedro Martinez (with shortstop Nomar Garciaparra close behind), isn't adverse to plunking another player as a warning to the other team. But when Clemens beaned Piazza, laying him out on the ground, and showed no remorse, that was it for me.
Unlike Andy, and about 99 percent of Mets fans, I don't think Clemens intentionally hit Piazza in the head. It's inconceivable. If you throw a ball at 90 mph and aim straight at the batter's head, you might as well have a gun in your hand. I'm sure he meant to nick him, but the ball just got away. If Clemens intended on ending Piazza's career, and possibly his life, that would create a real crisis for me?and create a homicide case for the cops. (I wonder how Number One Yankees Fan Hillary... I mean Rudy Giuliani would react to that.) I can't believe it. The Yankees pitcher, responding to criticism, merely said, "I wasn't trying to hit him. I was trying to pitch him inside." Sure. As many fans have said, Clemens' strategy probably would've been different at Shea, where he'd have to bat against a Mets pitcher, not to mention face the wrath of the fans.
An Angryman.com poll showed that 57.14 percent of respondents believed Clemens deliberately nailed the Mets' catcher. In the July 11 Boston Globe, sports columnist Michael Holley wrote: "So, where do you stand? Did Roger Clemens bean Mike Piazza intentionally? If this were a court case?and I were Roger?I'd be calling Johnnie Cochran this morning."
And the Daily News' Mike Lupica, a smart guy gone to intellectual seed, did hit it on the button on July 16: "The Yankees say, 'Let's stop talking about this, we're tired of answering all these questions.' Fair enough. Then they should stop trying to make Clemens out to be the injured party here. He wasn't. Piazza was. Steinbrenner sounded as if he's the one who took one on the batting helmet when he suggested that the Mets' reaction to Piazza's beaning was a way to cover the embarrassment of losing three of four to the Yankees. Good grief."
A friend e-mailed me the next day about the incident, saying: "Don't forget that Roger Clemens is a mean fuck. No more talk about what a great Red Sox legend he was. He's in his doddering years. Beaning Piazza? Pathetic. And oh, he got his championship, all right. He bought it, tracking onto the Yankees? He's a coward."
I don't know that Clemens is a coward, but if the Mets face the Yanks in the Series this year, there will be more cops at Shea Stadium on the day he pitches than there were when John Rocker was in New York a few weeks ago.
It was a Friday night, Aug. 18, 1967, and I was lying in the bunkbed I shared with a brother, listening to the Red Sox-Angels game on a scratchy radio station. We lived on Long Island, so it was possible to pick up Boston signals. It was the days before ESPN and mass cable programming, and aside from when the Sox played the Yanks and I could watch them on Channel 11, it was only the rare "Game of the Week" when I could actually see my team in the flesh. It was the first summer the Bosox were in a pennant race in years. I remember Ned Martin doing the play-by-play, and the constant commercials for Naragansett beer.
Tony Conigliaro was the Nomar Garciaparra of his day. Just 22 in that incredible Sox season, Tony C. was already a star. In '64, in his first at-bat at Fenway Park, he hit the first pitch he saw over the leftfield wall. Three years later, along with Lonborg, Rico Petrocelli and Yaz, Conigliaro was impossibly leading the Sox in their pennant drive. As of that night, he was hitting .287 with 20 homers and 67 RBIs. At the age of 22, he'd already hit 100 home runs.
In the fourth inning, journeyman pitcher Jack Hamilton smacked Tony C. on the left cheekbone with an out-of-control fastball (although Sox players at the time insisted it was an errant spitball) and the batter fell to the ground. I could hear the sickening thwack even on the radio, and, at 12 years old, it was certainly the scariest moment I'd experienced as a sports fan. Come to think of it, I'm 45 now, and still nothing compares to that night after all these years of following the Sox. In newspapers the next day there was a picture of Conigliaro, his face swollen, a victim of horrible luck. He was lost for the season and never really recovered. The Sox went on to the Series, lost to St. Louis in seven memorable games and Tony C. sat out the next season, plagued by blurry vision. Inexplicably, in 1970, he rallied to hit 36 homers, but that was about it for the cursed player, who retired after the '71 season. In 1982, he suffered a massive heart attack and became a shut-in; he died in 1990 at the age of 45.
Of all the jobs I held as a youth before starting Baltimore's City Paper in '77?cleaning up rat shit at Princeton University when I was in high school, helping my father with his car wash's accounts payable, freezing in the winter as a parking lot attendant at the Johns Hopkins faculty club, manning the front desk of a retirement home in north Baltimore?none compared to my three years selling hotdogs, beer, peanuts, Cokes and popcorn at Orioles games in the mid-70s. I chanced into the job as a college sophomore, first week of school, when my buddy John Birdsall (funniest guy I'd ever met, a Writing Seminars student who later went on to live like a king in Iran before the revolution) suggested I join him as a vendor at Memorial Stadium. Baltimore was still fairly segregated in '74, and so even though there were 15-year veterans on the union force, if you were one of the few white workers, the odds were you'd have a better chance of being beckoned by a fan.
The money was good. It was all on commission, cash at the end of the game, no taxes and, on a crowded night?if the Yanks or Sox were in town?you could walk out of the park with $100 in your pocket. And remember, these were the days when bottles of National Boh went for 60 cents, and a Coke was just 35 cents. I had shoulder-length hair at the time, and wore a paisley bandanna and blue shoes that I'd bought in Denmark, so familiar fans would love to buy from the "Hippie Boy." If you were smart, you'd pay no attention to the game?you were working hard if you left the stadium without knowing the final score?and just hustle your butt off, whether it was in the upper deck, box seats or mezzanine. All of the stadium was fertile territory, and of course hotdogs and beer were the choice items to sell, since you'd get repeat customers. No one, after all, was likely to buy two boxes of K-corn during a game. There were pockets of heavy beer drinkers, and that's where the vendors would gravitate, since after a couple Natty Bohs the tips grew in proportion. Sometimes a stoner would offer up a joint as well.
The single worst aspect of the job was during the seventh-inning stretch, when John Denver's insufferable "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" would blare out throughout the park. Why that was the team's unofficial song I never understood. Maybe it was because even though Baltimore's racial make-up was around 65 percent black, a majority of the fans came from the suburbs or rural hamlets (which were far more Southern-feeling than the city itself), or even from the dreaded Washington, DC. I'd retreat to the commissary during Denver's anthem, or maybe to a bathroom, to get high along with several other vendors.
There was a lot of downtime before the games started, and I loved wandering around, seeing the O's take batting practice, watching as fans started to file in. (One of my buddies at Hopkins, now a CIA agent, left the job after working just one game. "Too much humping," he said, "and way too many niggers you gotta work with.") It's one of the reasons that today I'll go to a baseball game in any city, just for the communal atmosphere: the sport is so casual that you can even bring a book or magazine and read between innings, or better yet, strike up a conversation with neighboring fans. Even with today's absurd Hillary Clinton-like restrictions at ballparks?no smoking, beer sales cut off after the seventh inning in some parks, alcohol-free sections and even ushers chastising people for booing the ump or an opposing player in salty language?to me, there's almost no more relaxing place to be. You take in the rays at the beach, I'll be at the ballpark.
Patricia J. Williams wrote a sprightly column in the May 22 Nation about the lazy and glorious pace that defines preteen baseball in Manhattan. Although Williams says she's not a sports fan, her son is, and so she attends his games and puts aside any ideological differences?this is a Nation writer, remember?with other parents and concentrates on the action, or lack of it. She writes: "The first pitch is lobbed, the game begins. Well, sort of begins. As the ball arcs through the air, the batter stops to watch a flock of pigeons rise into the air. The first baseman stops to blow his nose. The second baseman stops to trade Pokemon cards with the enemy team. The center fielder sits cross-legged on the ground, apparently digging for earthworms."
Williams admits that a nasty competitive spirit sometimes emerges, especially among the fathers?who, in Nation class-warfare style, are described: "Their jeans are dry-cleaned, their shirts are weekend-casual?handsome button-down, denim-linen blends. Their barn jackets are from London Fog." But in general, it's a festival-like setting.
There are very few decent journalists who write about sports these days. The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell was once a master, but he's lost his juice; Michael Gee, years ago, was aces at The Boston Phoenix; and today, I love reading Tom Scocca's essays in Baltimore's City Paper?but Williams' conclusion to her column is splendid, if just a ton naive. Williams: "But when the din dies and the dust settles, we realize that a miracle has graced us: The batter has quietly, doggedly, trotted all the way around the diamond and back to home plate?past the bobbling first baseman, through the battle at second and under the nose of the third baseman, who is again chatting on the phone. The mothers whoop. The fathers holler. The pigeons wheel in fright. The sun breaks through the clouds; popcorn and Gatorade pour from the heavens. A rainbow appears in the deep water-blue spring sky, as joy in Mudville reigns."
Okay, so it's not Ring Lardner. Still beats any of the grunts who cover the Mets and Yankees for the Times, Post and Daily News.
Junior has two years of Downtown Little League under his belt?a pair of trophies on his shelf?and I have to say that Williams' bucolic description is bound to fade as the boys and few girls get older. This season, under the fine managing of attorney Jeff Marks, my son's team, the Bears, defied all expectations that we had at the opening ceremonies in April?the kids looked so small in comparison to other squads?and wound up with a winning record. Their confidence increased each week as the guys rarely let opposing teams get the ball out of the infield and, even though it was against the makeshift rules, exuberantly slid into any base they came in contact with. With growing skill comes competition, and as the schedule wore on you could sense that, in a few years, it'll get more serious and rivalries will form.
It was a breakthrough couple of months for my seven-year-old, as he discovered that it was actually fun to play a position in the field and catch ground balls. Last year, he paid no attention while guarding second base and just thought about his turns at the plate. Now we practice hitting and catching on our roof, or in the park, and he suits up in Red Sox gear for each occasion. MUGGER III, who wasn't old enough to play this year, gets his licks in too?he's a lefty with a ferocious swing. On the rare occasion that he makes contact.
I suppose it's the era we live in, with its Field of Dreams kind of gauzy "everybody's a winner" haze that makes growing up even in New York City a little less harsh. (You just know that Kevin Costner's Dreams is Al Gore's favorite baseball movie. I'll bet G.W. Bush's is The Natural. I'll take John Sayles' Eight Men Out any day.) My own experience with Little League was a horse of another color: cutthroat from the time I was eight years old until I retired at the age of 13. This was in the suburbs, in the 60s, and parents showed up in force and were often belligerent, not only to the opposing team but sometimes to their own children. Every game, some father or mother would dress down his or her son in public, humiliating the poor kid, who probably didn't even want to play anyway. "Loser" was a common epithet. "Sissy" was even more frequent.
My parents, sick and tired of athletic contests after raising my four older brothers, would rarely make appearances at my games, which suited me fine. But when they did, they were quiet, my mom reading a book, Dad just daydreaming on the bench, always saying at the end of contest, "Good game, Rusty," no matter what my performance was like. The older boys in my family were a bit more ruthless, although in a good-natured way. I remember one time when two of them called out, when I was trying to leg it out to third, "Get the lead out of your butt, pal!"
On the other hand, at the end of my best season, when I batted cleanup for the Marsh's Men's Clothes squad, our team's "palooka," as the coach said, I totally muffed the most important game of my career. Couldn't find the plate when I was pitching, and struck out four times; I never could hit Buffy Bowen to save my life. This was a championship game, and we lost. I waited till we got to the station wagon before I started crying into my mitt. My brothers, sensitive to the temporary pain, tried to cheer me up and we all went for a jaunt to the Walt Whitman Mall, ate fried chicken and bought some $1.99 mono records at Sam Goody's.
Just like every season, there's a lot of baloney in the press about the "haves" and "have-nots" in Major League Baseball. Owners of teams in small markets complain that the Yanks, Braves, Mets, Dodgers, etc., rule the game, since they can afford to buy up the free agents and make the most money in television deals. In an April 7 New York Times article, a Kansas City Royals fan, David July, complained to reporter James C. McKinley Jr.: "It's becoming plain to everyone in Kansas City that the economics have changed. Now someone would have to be able to lose $50 million a year to be a competitive team."
Hard cheese, Dave.
Seems to me that a lot of less-celebrated teams, and cities, have made it to the World Series, and far more often than the Red Sox have, for example. The stingy Minnesota Twins had a decent run not long ago; the Cleveland Indians have dominated their division for years. (Although age has finally caught up with the Injuns, as the Chicago White Sox, my father-in-law's team, are running away in the Central Division. Mrs. M, the boys and I are going to Boston this weekend for some historical sightseeing, fried clams and a Bosox-Chisox game at Fenway, late Saturday afternoon.) Besides, what else is new? Don't fans remember how the Yankees, the General Motors of baseball, completely ran roughshod over the competition for decades, starting with the acquisition of Babe Ruth? In fact, the Kansas City Athletics, relocated from Philadelphia, served as a virtual farm team for the Yanks in the 50s. Walter O'Malley's Dodgers, in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, were dominant, and the same complaints were heard back then. And besides, Gene Autry spent a fortune on his Angels, and never did wind up with anything but headaches.
In fact, anyone who's wealthy enough to buy a baseball team, no matter where it's located, knows the obstacles facing him and the slim chance of actually making money on the business. But in most cases, it's a boy's dream come true: owning a Major League club is the ultimate hobby, a grownup toy to show off to peers. All this malarkey about the disparity between teams is just that; anyone who can enter the baseball sweepstakes knows what he's getting into.
Now there's talk coming from baseball commissioner Bud Selig?an embarrassment to the game?saying that it's time to let struggling franchises move to other cities. The Montreal Expos appear to be the first in line for a change of venue, and, naturally, the politicians in DC are attempting to grab the team, ignoring the fact that the DC area just doesn't draw fans. I think it'd be smarter to place a team in San Juan or Santo Domingo, and, when the inevitable happens, and Cuba turns democratic, there'd be no better city than Havana to join Major League Baseball.
Fuck Fidel. I can't wait for the 2008 series between the Havana Stogies and Boston Red Sox. A true baseball fan's hopes never flicker; never, ever burn out.
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