Win or lose, I gotta love the New York Yankees. Sure, I’d have liked to see the Seattle Mariners in the World Series. But since they couldn’t handle the Yankees at all, I rooted for the Yankees down to that last fatal pitch that gave the Arizona Diamondbacks the World Championship. Not that the Mariners aren’t a class act themselves. Manager Lou Piniella’s speech congratulating New York on going to the World Series struck me as a perfect example of sterling pedigree.
What the Yankees may behave like in the locker room or off the field, I have no idea. I know on the TV screen they affect and inspire me in a profound way. I don’t say that lightly. Almost never do I feel any admiration for an athletic team, least of all a professional one. To me, pro basketball generates one endless yawn. In that opinion I have on my side John Wooden, possibly the greatest college basketball coach of all time. Pro football and basketball became games of thugs and crybabies. Hockey isn’t a game, it is the Arena of Doom.
But, ah, the Yankees. On the field or in the dugout, they continually intrigue me with their combination of gentility and scrappiness. They never lose their cool and they never lose their self-respect, even on the bad days.
I’ll admit, my distaste for the Arizona Diamondbacks influences my admiration for the Yankees. I hate the D-Backs’ uniforms. With those dark purple sleeves and knee socks, they strike me as a bunch of black hat villains, hired hit men. Their manager scowled darkly, reminding me of some sinister godfather.
I dislike intensely Randy Johnson, one of their two premier pitchers. Sure, Johnson is the Big Unit, an overpowering talent. But he coldly dumped out of the Mariners, who had nurtured him, to get more bucks from the D-Backs. This was after completely flunking out on the Mariners in postseason games.
Johnson illustrates one of my main peeves with Arizona, and, to an extent, pro sports today. Only four years in existence, Arizona spent skyscraper dollars to buy themselves a championship team. Johnson represented only one of those spendy acquisitions. Their second star pitcher, Curt Schilling, figured as another. Arizona aped the Florida Marlins of 1997, who bought themselves a one-year World Championship. The next year the Marlins sold off all their talent capital. I won’t be surprised to see Arizona do the same.
Saturday night, after Arizona utterly stomped the Yankees, the D-Backs unleashed some incredible pettiness. The PA system began playing “New York, New York,” which seemed like a sporting gesture, but the tune suddenly cut off, no doubt on orders from upstairs.
Back to the Yankees. I admire them in total, from bench to bullpen. I love to watch the cherubic face of Don Zimmer, the bench coach. I can visualize him as one of those sturdy Dutch burghers who founded New York. I marvel at the calm demeanor of Manager Joe Torre. He knows how to roll with the punches. Torre showed both his class and his foresight Saturday night. When his team fell hopelessly behind, he deployed bunches of his bench ballplayers, giving them a chance show their stuff in a World Series game. Meantime, his first line troops got a rest. His comments after that final game Sunday showed impeccable grace in defeat.
I like the ethnic mix of the Yankees. They’re a little short on Asians, but blacks and Latinos share the glory with whites. And who could ignore the mixed-race Derek Jeter at shortstop, a probable baseball immortal in the making? The TV camera caught repeated glimpses of Jeter’s superiority. On one play, a simple turn of Jeter’s body substantially hampered the progress of an Arizonan from second to third base. They relied on a black rookie, Alfonso Soriano, to complement Jeter in the middle infield. He delivered the home run that put the Yankees temporarily into the game on that final night Sunday.
How about Mariano Rivera, the pitcher who throws lightning bolts in the final innings of every close game? So, in the final contest the magic didn’t work. That didn’t cancel out a superb year. Rivera wears the mantle of being deeply religious and a spiritual support to the other Latino players on the squad.
Like many Westerners, I find a lot of New York residents rude, arrogant and callous. Yet even I was touched by the warmth these hard-bitten fans showed in the final appearance of Paul O’Neill in Yankee Stadium. O’Neill’s years of service brought out a profusion of banners saluting “Pauli” and other displays of love. As his aging legs shuffled him into retirement, O’Neill found himself the recipient of uncharacteristically genuine affection.
When the TV folks interviewed O’Neill on camera he added to that mystique by radiating an aw-shucks, gee-whiz kind of gawky charm. You could have visualized him as a throwback to the Gary Cooper charisma, if you can remember back that far.
The Yankees struggled through this World Series but produced some incredible heroics. They fought back from a two games to none deficit to muscle the world championship down to the seventh game. They came within a half inning of making it to the big trophy one more time. This was a team I won’t soon forget.