The unthinkable is true: the New York Yankees, at the All-Star break, are by no means assured success. No air of inevitability propels the Imperious to dynastic conquest. Thomas Hardy would blame it on the machinations of a blighted star. It's not supposed to be this way.
The New Rudy points the way to the city's atavistic dark ages, and the surest omen of the impending collapse of New York City is the decline of the Yankees. When the Yankees returned to glory in 1996 after an 18-year drought, it felt like the correction of a cosmic injustice. The last plague of the city was cured, after crime, grime and the subway mime (well, I only saw him once). A Giuliani reelection campaign spot the following autumn showed the Mayor asleep at his desk in a Yankees cap, crowned in the majesty of the team's achievement. In the years since, betting against the Yankees has been like betting against the Harlem Globetrotters, and to root for anyone else has been sedition.
But it wasn't always this way; nor has a shaky spring meant a return to the ages of Dallas Green or Stump Merrill. The Yanks are still securely above .500. In the dark days of the late 80s and early 90s, when the infield showed the sort of hustle that said, "Ray Kelly is police commissioner," such a meager feat would have been wondrous. In 1990, the team finished in last place. Being a devoted Yankee fan was like announcing your homosexuality in Canarsie, a doomed thrill demanding impetuous bravery. I went to elementary school in Canarsie back then, and the schoolyard threats administered to suspected homosexuals and Yankee fans were indistinguishable.
I always wanted to be a Yankee. In 1986, I stuck with the Yankees past their statistical elimination. On the bus I adopted a position of neutrality when October rolled around. On pain of inconsistency, I could root for neither the Mets nor the Red Sox. I wanted to see the Pinstripes out on that field. No substitutes accepted. And if no one on the Yankees would perform, I'd start my own training as soon as I could.
The Beverly Boys Club little league teams played in Prospect Park, a 10-minute drive from my house down Coney Island Ave. This was not a respectable league. Just announcing the name in the schoolyard could merit a two-year conviction for buggery in the court of opinion. And the name was just the beginning: I wanted the sort of order I saw at Yankee Stadium, with each blade of grass a uniform length. There was no grass on the infields of the diamonds in the Park's Parade Grounds. To this day, when I pass a manicured suburban diamond in its pastoral splendor, I feel a visceral hatred born of envy.
Little league for eight-year-olds will always be a joke. The coach pitches to you underhand. There are 20 kids in the outfield and no one catches a ball. Someone starts to cry in the middle of the game. Some dainty kid gets hurt. After the first year in the intramurals, players were either tired of the game entirely or desperate to get serious.
I figured I could become a good ballplayer by exertion of will. Since I was seven, I studied at the feet of the giants. I read all of those John R. Tunis books. I read Lou Piniella's autobiography and learned the word "dago." I read Reggie Jackson's autobiography and learned "nigger." One day I would be the one in those pinstripes, like my heroes, calling people niggers, and spics, and dagos, and faggots.
But my game needed work. Around the time of the perpetual outfield, the Jew-lag archipelago of dust and third-graders, I was playing catch with my father after school and a ball he threw broke my nose. Blood was shooting out, and I lost all sense of balance and proportion, but still, Sharpton-like at an early age, I shouted to anyone in earshot that my father had broken my nose. So the outfield was a bad idea. I worked every day after school getting the agility to play second base, which in the semiotics of Little League denoted a respectable effort, but remained the cakewalk of the infield. I took the number 30 for the Beverly Boys Club Dodgers, after Willie Randolph, and played his position.
Now, the Dodgers were commandeered by a psychotic named Kevin, a marble-mouthed 19-year-old who had already managed to fail the police department exam twice. He had braces, a wild head of red hair and clearly nothing better to do than boss us around. Until Torre came along, Kevin was the best coach in the world. He could ease out his impressive anger by yelling for us to hustle, or pay attention, or something, which worked like "steam control" in The Bonfire of the Vanities, preventing him from getting too personal with a bunch of nine- and 10-year-olds.
A good thing, too, because Kevin could go too far. When our corpulent rightfielder, Effie, couldn't get past mid-thigh in a Herculean effort to touch his toes, Kevin lost his shit, screaming for Effie to pretend there was a burger on the ground. Effie walked off the field without turning around once, off like the bell had rung at school, and we were all doubled over in hysterics that Kevin could have just issued a truly sublime and perfect dis. We respected Kevin the most when he proved to us how much better he was at being 10 years old than we could ever hope to be.
I was happy just to be wearing socks with stirrups, like actual ballplayers wore. My teammates were not the sort of people so easily pacified. One kid, whose name was Kibacki or Tibacki or something to that effect?he stopped showing up to games?joined a gang, which fascinated me.
"What do you do in a gang?" I asked him one practice.
He shrugged nonchalantly and stared at his shoes. "Hang out. Jump people." Bear in mind he was maybe 80 pounds.
"Who do you jump?"
"Whoever. I don't know."
"You don't know?" Well, what sense did that make?
"What the fuck, man? Jump you if I feel like it."
It was not the last threat I would receive. Most of them came from Manny Morales, our shortstop. Manny tried to drown me in the Brooklyn College pool one summer, his gaze stinging worse than the chlorine?he was serious. To this day he lives on the next block. Only when I agreed to fight him did we get on with our lives. The fight never happened, thankfully, since he would have done me like Lou Savarese.
By 1990 we were playing real games. I was a decent second baseman but had been training like a maniac to become the greatest pitcher ever to play in Prospect Park, tossing Rawlingses to my crouching father in the driveway. I worked on my speed and control, dividing up the batter's box into nine invisible squares, each one a target distinct for the style of the batter. I was fast and accurate and I terrified my opponents. After one devastating start where I threw all seven innings, Kevin awarded me the game ball.
9/9/90 DIAMOND 5 9:30 AM SPENCER 2 RUNS 3 HITS 12 STRIKEOUTS 5 WALKS DODGERS BEAT RANGERS 17-2 SPENCER 2 FOR 3 2 SINGLES 1 RBI.
It was a Mike Lupica headline to me.
In due time I would play in the Bronx. These were the days of Chuck Cary, Pascual Perez and Scott Sanderson in the rotation. The other teams were afraid to face me. I would get greedy and sink a fastball into a kid's knee to see him buckle and cry. The Dodgers didn't have the hitting to win the Boys Club championship, and when I lost I lost big, but when the team came together it was a spectacle to behold: great base-running, nimble acrobatics, coordination, pitching psychology and the foulest set of mouths on the Parade Grounds. Like the Yankees in the late 70s, when the universe was as it should be.
But I took it too far. If there is one piece of advice I can extend to the pitching squad of the New York Press Bears, especially when facing the Village Voice Velveteen Rabbits, it is never to throw breaking pitches. I thought the admonition against curves and sliders was superstition, like the causal relationship knuckle-cracking has to arthritis. And even if someone could link breaking pitches to the incidence of leukemia in 10-year-olds, it wouldn't have stopped me. All that mattered was the twist of the jersey below a batter's solar plexus as he pivoted his entire body chasing my impossible pitches. With every hitter's grunt: I'm better than you are. Look in the catcher's mitt for proof.
And so in the game that would be my last on those diamonds, I threw one slider too many and sent my forearm through my elbow. By the time my arm healed I was in junior high school in my native Flatbush, and had more important things to worry about, like the Nirvana album that had just been released and not getting my ass kicked by Roderick Pinto.
Soon after my forced retirement came Giuliani, and with him the New York renaissance, the rebirth of the Yankees, and the recurrent disgraces of Louima, Diallo and Dorismond. The city may well be unrecognizable from 10 years ago, but cracks from the wainscoting make me wonder if the foundations are the same grimy disgraces, accruing filth from overburden and awaiting collapse. If the Yankees allow a pattern to develop, it may be more than the city can bear. I may have to start pitching again.