Last Tuesday evening, my mobile phone rang. “Call” the phone simply read meaning it was from overseas. It was my friend Sam who incredibly was calling from Yankee Stadium for the season opener. The new baseball season was starting. “Where you at, dog? It’s opening night and it’s the last at the House That Ruth Built before it moves across the street to the House That Taxpayers Built.”
I laughed but could hardly understand him for it gets real noisy up in the stands. Sam’s funny. He defies the stereotype. He’s a Christian from Cairo, Egypt, who moved Stateside a decade ago and developed an affinity for baseball. Plus he speaks with a Brooklyn accent after hanging out with all the Italian guys in the neighborhood. And baseball is what got us talking.
Take me out to the ballgame for the annual rites of spring have begun. And baseball is back. It has brought a spring into my tired sporting soul that refuses the already maddening intake of Pacquiao stories and the dog days on a long NBA season. Thank God for the NCAA Finals (too bad Ohio State lost) and the upcoming NBA Play-offs.
Before you react and say, “Those damn Yankees!” Let me try to explain something about New York and the world famous baseball team and its effect on man.
When America emerged a superpower from World War II, New York City became by default, the center of the globe. And right in the middle of that massive cultural and socio-economic change was the grand old game… baseball. And when you talk about the sport, there’s one team that has come to define the sport and cross borders – the New York Yankees.
Since 1903, the Yankees have accounted for 26 World Series titles and 39 pennants. Other teams like the Giants, the Dodgers, and later on, the Mets have had their share of the pie as well, but this is Yankee town no matter what anyone says. More than the Knicks or even the Rangers. Why the famous interlocking “NY” can be found on blazers, caps and jackets just about anywhere in the world? Whereas if you say “Met,” you have to clarify if it’s the Metropolitan Museum or that team that plays in Shea Stadium. This is not to denigrate the Mets (after all, they did foil the Boston Red Sox’s bid in ’86), but quite simply, the Yanks have transcended cultural barriers in more ways than one more than any other team since the Chicago Bulls of the 1990’s.
While New Yorkers take the success of their teams in stride (after all, life in the Big Apple is frenetic enough as it is), it doesn’t mean that they are no less intense or fanatic. While the real theater can be found in the stages of Broadway, Radio City, 42nd Street, the Lincoln Center or Madison Square Garden (where boxing matches, basketball games, hockey games, concerts, heck, even the greatest show on earth – Barnum & Bailey’s Circus -- play all year round), news and gossip about the team in pinstripes are in daily chatter fare. You see, while other teams are just happy to finish .500 or even make the play-offs, in New York, the Yanks not having won a World Series since 2000 despite making it to the play-offs every year since, is construed as a disaster. So it is never casual or faddish to root for the Bronx Bombers. If for some, it’s “we’ll just get them next year;” in New York, it ain’t necessarily so. It takes an entirely different mindset to always be the best and uphold a standard of excellence. There is nothing wrong with wanting to compete or to win (I’m sure that teams wish they had George Steinbrenner’s money). After all, if one is just angling to hover around .500 then they’re doing everyone a disservice.
If you figure that New Yorkers are arrogant because of this, they would surely digress. New Yorkers do not think their city is the most important one; they take for granted that it is. Things outside New York not that important? Maybe it doesn’t matter given all that happens to the city on a daily basis. And if New Yorkers don’t compare themselves to anyone or anything else, it’s because they don’t think there is anything else comparable.
Such is the New York attitude. Maybe that’s why Osama Bin Laden thought to make the city more than any other, save perhaps the nation’s capital, the object of his wrath.
New Yorkers demand excellence. Nothing more, nothing less. And the Yankees doing well is simply business as usual. There is pressure in playing in New York, not just in pinstripes – from the scrutiny of management to the judgment of media and fans; it’s like living in a giant fishbowl under the spotlight. Like the song says, if you can make there, you can make it anywhere. In his autobiography, Me and My Dad, former Yankee outfielder Paul O’Neill wrote of his trade from his hometown Reds to the Yankees: For the ultimate optimist, my announcement that I was no longer a Cincinnati Red but was being traded to the New York Yankees was regarded as one big party. The rest of us were all in tears, and my father was celebrating. “Paul,” he exclaimed, “this is going to be the best thing that ever happened to you.” He added that while Riverfront Stadium was wonderful; the House That Ruth Built was rocking every single night. And this was way before the Joe Torre era began.
Such is playing in New York if not the Yankees. Even the great Michael Jordan did muse to himself: “Although it would have been hard to play for another coach, I always wondered how it would have been to play in New York. I would have seriously considered playing for the Knicks during the 1998-99 season if I were single. New York fans appreciate good players and I always enjoyed playing in Madison Square Garden."
New York is home to two pro basketball teams, the Knicks and the Nets. There are two pro football teams in the Giants and the Jets. The Rangers, the Islanders and the Devils are the pro hockey teams while the Yanks and the Mets round out the reps for the fourth of the major sports leagues. And we haven’t even talked about the Brooklyn Cyclones or even the Staten Island Yankees. Or even the Red Storm.
Ironically, in a city of 12 million, there is room enough for everyone. When the Yankees were bushwhacked by their cross-town rivals the Mets to clinch the season series in 2004, I never heard the end of this from my friends and co-workers on 86th and Lex (and this is in the Upper East, a twenty-minute 4 train ride away to the Bronx) who were all Mets fans. In Elmhurst, Queens, home to a predominantly Indian, Korean, Hispanic and Filipino community, you’d think that you were in the Bronx the way pinstripes litter the neighborhood.
When the Yankees lost to the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS, it was painful and humiliating. But like New Yorkers after 9-11, the Yankees will surely arise from the ashes. After all, it’s a New York state of mind. And Sam, you old dog, I’ll be seeing you soon.
Check out my non-sports blog at http://1125pages.blogspot.com/. First one’s about my trip to Corregidor.