Homecoming

The last time I had gone to a New York Yankees game was in June, 2011. The commute from north-central Connecticut made going to a game a significant production that involved at least three hours of travel each way, whether I chose to use the train or drive. What I was missing, how much I missed it—these things I never considered until I had the chance to return.

I moved back to New York for a few reasons—some fairly obvious (it’s much closer to my family), some not—but I didn’t realize how much I missed it. It’s less about New York being perfect, but more about it being home, and I didn’t realize how much I missed home until I ended up at Yankee Stadium for three straight October nights.

Three games, three very different feelings when walking back to the D train after nine (or, err, 12 or 13) innings: first, there was sheer elation. The tagline is “legends are born in October”, and Raul Ibañez is doing his best to join them.  It’s kind of fitting, the way fans chant “Rah-OOOOOOOOOOOOl” in the weeks leading up to Halloween; Yankee Stadium should feel like a haunted house to opposing teams. Or, at least, that’s what we hope.

After the second game, there is silence. We waited thirteen innings for that?! Bench A-Rod. Bench Granderson. Bench the whole damn team. Oh well, CC’s on the mound tomorrow, it’s not over. We can’t possibly lose a series to the Orioles…can we? The thoughts roll over each other, wave upon wave, while we ride the late night local train back to our homes. Some dispair, some hope, but none are celebrating.

Then, there is Game Five. On the subway I meet two Australians who aren’t quite sure how to get to Yankee Stadium; I ask them if they’ve ever been to a baseball game before and the answer is no. Their initiation into the world of baseball is a decisive elimination game, and it takes every effort of mine to stop blabbing about CC Sabathia and the upstart Orioles and Alex Rodriguez-is-out-of-the-lineup, because the worst thing I could possibly do is try to overwhelm someone; better to let the game unfold organically and pray there is no anti-climax.

We expect that CC Sabathia will do his best to shut the Orioles down, but what he gives us—nine innings, and only in one (the eighth) did he look ordinary. Of course, Sabathia, the ace, is anything but an ordinary pitcher; as such he could pull a David Robertson/Houdini special and work himself out of a bases-loaded, one-out situation, Yankees’ small lead still intact. He is, far and away, the story of the game; the Yankees’ offense did just enough, but Sabathia gave the bullpen a day of rest, which, after two consecutive games of at least 12 innings, can not be understated. Yes, you do not manage the postseason like you do the regular season, but a rested bullpen is never a bad thing.

There are other stories, of course—Curtis Granderson, who had looked awful, hitting a home run to give the Yankees a 3-0 lead; Alex Rodriguez’s benching; Raul Ibañez coming through again—but this night is Sabathia’s night. The nine strikeouts are a lot, but the number seems a bit pedestrian when you consider that the Orioles did not get their second hit of the night until the eighth inning. There is no MVP award for the ALDS, but if there was, Sabathia’s name would have to be at the top of that ballot.

On the way home, I find myself once again sharing the same subway car as the Australian couple. I ask them if what they’ve seen has turned them into (albeit frozen) baseball fans. The reply: “Yeah, I guess we’re Yankees fans now.”

It’s good to be home.


Some Random Musings

This isn’t a perfect metaphor but here goes: if you’ve ever been in a play, or know someone who has, you know that what goes on behind the scenes can often be entirely different than what the public sees at large. I’m on a theatre kick, but to a large degree, this reminds me a bit of following the 2012 Yankees.

Don’t get me wrong, following the team as a fan is inherently different than those who really are behind the scenes (ownership, front office, even, to a certain extent, the credentialed media), but when you follow a team for 162+ games a year and do so year after year, you can’t help but feel that you know them—their stories, their warts, their good, and their bad—a little better than those who are fans of other teams or aren’t baseball fans at all.

I say this because a few days ago I had a twitter exchange with the wonderful @matthewhleach.

Yet, as a fan, I still see the warts. I see a team that’s missed their starting left fielder for most of the season, a team that’s gone without the man who should have been their number two starter for all of it, and a team that’s lost it’s hall-of-fame closer. This is a team that’s missed it’s starting third baseman, starting first baseman, and ace starter all for extended lengths of time. Even when the Red Sox have a down year and there’s an extra wild card slot, most teams can’t whether a storm like this. There’s no reason, really, the Yankees should be any different.

Still, somehow, the Yankees have 90 wins and trail only the Texas Rangers by one game for the best record in the American League. Yes, being only a game-and-a-half behind the Orioles on September 27th invokes a weird feeling, but that has more to do with how well the Orioles have played (or, perhaps more accurately, how lucky they’ve been) than the Yankees.

I’m trying to see this from the perspective of an outsider, like my friend Matt, and try to see the Yankees as the 90+ win team that they are, and perhaps because in the past I’ve written so much about the faults of the team, I’m not seeing the greater whole. A lot of baseball can depend on luck going one way or the other, but no team (not even the Orioles) gets to 90 wins if they are bad.

This doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on the postseason (heck, the 2000 Yankees won the whole thing with just 87 wins, so perhaps we should know better than most that all that matters is getting to October in the first place), but it should still mean something, as much as regular season baseball standings can mean anything.

I still won’t say I see the Yankees going all the way because I can’t say with 100% certitude that the Yankees are the best team in the Majors (unlike, say, in 2009 when it wasn’t close), but the cool thing about baseball is that you really don’t know what’s going to happen. What I do know, though, is that this year’s Yankees have thus far exceeded the expectations that I had at the beginning of the year, and I’m not sure if that’s worth anything to anyone else, but for me, it’s enough.


We Are New York

It’s organic, the way it happens. All it takes is one tweet, one facebook post, one person saying “I remember when…”, and then there’s a deluge, all of us desperate to share our stories, share things we’ve written, memories we have. It’s too much to take in on our own, even eleven years later, so we share our experiences because it’s a catharsis. Yes, it’s real, yes, it happened. There was a before; now there is an after.

It’s one of those things. Everyone remembers where they were on that day, how they found out, what their thoughts were. It’s hard, now, to remember that there was ever a before. As millennials our lives have been marked by this the way our grandparents’ (or, for some, great-grandparents’) lives were marked by Pearl Harbor. Whatever else divides us—politics, tastes in music, preferences of sports teams—this one event will always unite us.

We don’t have much to give the world right now, not in terms of income or politics in a world where Citizens United can determine elections, so we give ourselves. On Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, we share our lives. We can know more about someone who lives 3000 miles away from us than our next-door neighbor; we can be connected to the world even when it’s 4 AM and you live so far rural you can see the stars overhead as though light pollution was nothing but a myth.

We share our experiences of this day because this is how we remember, as though we are a community bound together by nothing but our oral tradition. We know some day we’ll be the last ones left who can remember, that the burden of passing on history to our grandchildren will be a heavy one for us because we remember what it was to see those buildings come down, to see the adults in our lives rendered speechless and reduced to tears, to know that our lives would be changed, but not how.

You would think we’d flee from this scene of horror but that’s not the case. We still come to this City in droves, migrating inwards because we have an unshakable desire to be at the center of the world because how can you change it otherwise? We go to Bleeker Heights and Blondie’s, we live in Williamsburg and Washington Heights, we pour our souls into baseball and basketball, we love this place so much that we’ll find a 500 sq ft studio and call it a mansion.

The thing is, we have something the terrorists never did—we have life, we have love, we have laughter, and as long as we have those things we know we’ll be all right. We share our experiences because this is how you create life, how stories shape the world and our understanding of it, but we still come back to this place because New York is our castle and we can make it our home with the sound of our music.


On Ichiro and Heartbreak

Ichiro Suzuki is no longer a Mariner. It happened so fast, with so little warning, that Seattle’s fans never got a proper chance to say good bye to their most recognizable player of the last 10 seasons. Seattle’s a bit like Boston and a bit like Chicago: a city where heartbreak in sports is far more common than success. Ichiro is a person, of course, but if a city can ever lay claim on a person, Ichiro was Seattle’s—what with the Ichi Rolls and Area 51—the way New York claims Derek Jeter or Atlanta Chipper Jones.

Maybe there’s some metaphor here about how no one ever stays with the same company any more and it’s no different for professional athletes than it is for Joe Businessman. Jeter is Jeter and Chipper is Chipper not just because they are first-ballot Hall of Famers, but because they’ve spent their entire careers in New York and Atlanta, and they are long careers.  Until a few nights ago, most of us would have probably listed Ichiro in this small but elite category, players so entwined with their team that imagining them in any other uniform was simply too weird to contemplate.

It still feels weird, even after a few at bats in a Yankees uniform. Those at bats still occurred in Seattle, almost as though we were given some sort of grace period, almost as if the teams’ front offices decided this would only work if Seattle got a chance to say good-bye. It doesn’t really feel like a chance, though. When Girardi’s batting you leadoff because it’s quite possibly your last-ever game in SafeCo, it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. David Ortiz hasn’t suddenly been traded to the Athletics, so why is Ichiro suddenly a Yankee?

Certainly, it makes sense for the Yankees: Brett Gardner is almost certainly done for the season, and the Yankees can’t afford to have Raul Ibañez’s defense in the lineup every day (and all of this before Alex Rodriguez breaks his hand). Ichiro fills a need, didn’t cost the Yankees much (D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar were unlikely to play significant roles for the Yankees, and Seattle essentially picked up most of the tab on Ichiro’s remaining contract), and remains one of the game’s most marketable players. For the Yankees, it’s a business transaction and one can almost imagine the Yankees as cold and ruthless as the proverbial U.S. Steel, conducting their affairs with ruthless efficiency.

It’s a bit different, I expect, if you’re the Mariners. One rather run-of-the-mill photo tweeted by @Lookoutlanding conveys a sense of unsettled-ness; the boy in the Ichiro t-shirt probably too young to understand what’s happened, and the neon-green sign that doesn’t seem nearly as impressive any more, even as it conveys a heartbreaking message seen all too often today, space made free because the rent has gotten too damn high. Life, of course, does go on—the fans on their smartphones don’t seem at all concerned—but maybe that’s the most heartbreaking part. After just over eleven and a half seasons (long enough that someone in elementary school when you debuted is now old enough to be your teammate), it’s all over, as though it was nothing more than an evanescence: a flash of brilliant lightning against a dark sky, for a moment illuminating everything, and then gone, with only ashes and memory to remind you that it happened at all.


Making Sense of the Senseless

I.

Four years ago, I was invited to attend a midnight screening of The Dark Knight. We waited in line at the IMAX theater (a real IMAX, mind, not one of those psuedo-IMAX screens a lot of other theaters have) for a few hours, and while I’m not generally one to get up in arms about non-Lord-of-the-Rings movies, for this, I was excited.  Really excited. It was the first time I’d been at a midnight release, but it was more than just that—it was being in a theater full of Batman (or at least Chris Nolan’s version) fanatics, almost all of us in our early or mid-twenties. It was like having that sleepover party you wanted as a kid, only without the adults telling you to quiet down.

This is one of those memories that has managed to stick with me, its edges a little sharper, its picture a little bit clearer than most of the others I have. Yes, the movie was fantastic, yes, seeing it in IMAX was worth it, but this isn’t the reason it sticks with me. So, while I had no plans to catch The Dark Knight Rises at midnight (the group of friends with whom I caught the earlier movie is now dispersed all over the northeast, such are the penalties of growing older, I suppose), I could understand the excitement. I know what it’s like to want to be one of the first to see the movie, to have one of those experiences that friends will remember five years from now when schedules no longer allow for a three AM bedtime on a weeknight, to be able to react to the movie in a subconscious unison.

I had no plans to catch a midnight screening of TDKR, but there was certainly a part of me jealous of those who were going.  I mean, if I had a chance to relive the time I saw TDK, there’s no question I would have said yes, and yet, of all the things I’ve done, of all the times I’ve been in large crowds or in confined spaces, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt anything other than safe at a movie theater.

The theater’s all about escape, after all. It’s one of the last remaining places where no one cares about what you’re wearing, who you’re friends with, where seats are first-come, first-served (except in Europe) and an adult ticket is the same price for everyone. Going to see a movie (or a play) is about immersing yourself in another world, dreamed up by a director or writer or producer, executed by the actors and the special effects or stage crew, and forgetting, even if just for a couple of hours, the problems in your own life.

That whole thing about shouting “Fire” in a crowded movie theater…that’s supposed to be something you can joke about, something you use as a metaphor for some other instance. It’s not supposed to actually happen.

II.

I’m on a visit to my parents and staying for the weekend, so it’s my mother who tells me when I wake.

“Did you hear the horrible news?”

“No,” I say. Email/reader/Twitter…these things I usually check the moment I open my eyes, but my iPad’s charging across the room and I haven’t had a chance to look.

“Well,” she says, “in Colorado, at a midnight screening…”

For some reason, call it intuition, call it cynicism, I know what she’s going to say before she says it. What I’m not expecting, however, is the sheer number: 12 dead, more than 50 injured. I only know a few people in Colorado, so I’m not expecting that I’ll have a connection to any of the victims, but again, here I am wrong.

One of the victims is a 24 year-old sportscaster whose last tweets were with someone I have been tweeting with for over four years. It’s amazing how small the internet can make the world, I think.

Some time later I realize that had I been there, my instinctual reaction—to flee for the exit—would have gotten me killed.

III.

After the news breaks comes the spin. It’s so formulaic now that you’d think mass shootings happened with the same frequency as a celebrity couple announcing their divorce. First, there’s the shock of the event itself, then the grieving, then the massive, insatiable crush to profile the shooter/perpetrator more fully than the BAU team on Criminal Minds.

We want to know the killer’s race, religion, political affiliation, state of mental health, traumatic childhood, even how the killer amasses his or her (but almost always his) cache of weapons and then we begin to debate what the Founding Fathers actually meant by the second amendment.

This is always the part that loses me, because in the end I’m not sure it matters. The problem, after all, isn’t one person—people unhinged, for whatever reason, people with a propensity for violence will exist in any society, regardless of gun control laws, religious sentiments or racial composition. If you wanted to get academic about it, you can argue that the problem is cultural—that we live in a culture so dependent on the military-industrial complex, so enamored of our military and the macho strong-man that we inherently condone violence even when we believe we do no such thing—but here’s the thing: as long as we focus on the killer and not the victims, we give the killer the attention he craves, and we do nothing to help the victims, their families or our society.

IV.

In The Dark Knight, Michael Caine’s Alfred says, of the Joker, that “some people just want to watch the world burn.” It is an unfortunate truism; there are people who thrive on havoc and chaos, not all of them evil at first glance. There will never be a way to prevent such people/corporations/societies/what have you from existing, so the question becomes, how do we respond?

The Dark Knight worked as a movie because it laid bare that the answer to that question is unbearably nuanced—that sometimes the only way you catch the bad guy is to become the dystopian police state, but, unfortunately, unlike Batman, we don’t build our surveillance monitors to self-destruct once our aims are achieved. In some respects, it’s gone so far as to be absurd—imagine a person from the 1960s time-travelling to a modern airport, with metal detectors, limits on liquids, pat downs, full-body scans…and heaven help you if you say the word ‘bomb’ or anything similar.

We put up with the airport measures because there’s not much that can save you if a plane is hit, but if we let this line of thinking—that it’s okay to put up with insanely harsh and reactionary security measures just in case—we end up wondering where we draw the line. Do the metal detectors really help in urban junior highs and high schools? There are reminders that violence in schools can occur in any setting;  Blacksburg, home to Virginia Tech, is a largely rural area. Would we be willing to put up with bag checks and pat downs at a movie theater? The chances of another mass shooting occurring at your local theater are probably miniscule unless you live in an active war zone, but they are not non-existent.

As long as we focus on reactionary measures, as opposed to changing a culture in which ownership of weapons is not merely tolerated but encouraged, we’ll still have to answer the question—how do we deal with the ones that want to watch the world burn—and it’s unlikely, if not outright impossible that we’ll find an answer that can satisfy everyone.

V.

As the day’s gone on I’ve seen a number of Facebook updates asking how to help the victims in Aurora. The sentiment is certainly laudable, and any help that can be given—in this case, I imagine needs are more emotional and spiritual than physical, though they are all equally important—should be given.

Still, my response to “how can I help?” isn’t the number for the Red Cross in Colorado; it’s something a little more mundane, something a little closer to home:

Even if you can’t help out much for a community in Colorado, you can certainly help out in your own. There are plenty of options, from donating blood to volunteering at a hospital; if the only thing you end up doing is to take a first aid or CPR course (from licensed professionals, please—or from the Red Cross directly), you can still arm yourself with knowledge that could save a life (even your own).

And yes, tell your family and your friends how much you love them. I’ve lost relatives and friends with no warning, and I know I’m not the only one. Life is short and we are nothing without each other, without the support networks we lean on even when we don’t realize it, and there are some things you can never say too often.

 


Don’t Stop Relievin’

Enjoy


Exit Light, Enter Night

IMG_2389
Photo by Rebecca Glass.

 

This isn’t supposed to happen. It can’t end like this. There is an overwhelming sense of denial that comes through: that we have to be dreaming, that this has to be some sort of joke. The Greatest Of All Time (or so we dubbed him), the one who seems immortal and impervious to all earthly manifestations of age and decline, is crumpled on a warning track in Kansas City, clutching his knee and writhing in pain. The game hasn’t even started.

I say it to anyone who asks: I started following Rivera’s career because I fell in love with his name. The subtle way the vowels melt with the R and the N…maybe it’s a foolish way to pick your favorite player, but I did it with every team I follow. I was rewarded in this case (and with the Devils, too, where Patrik Elias has had a long, extremely productive career). A 12 year-old girl doesn’t always realize what she’s getting into, that loyalties, if they are to be respected, don’t get thrown out or changed at will. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but Mariano Rivera makes it easy.

Days spent away from the internet are rare in today’s universe, but when you do so, you don’t expect to come back to the news that Mariano Rivera, of all people, was taken off the field on a cart after injuring his knee while shagging flies. In the ever-changing world of baseball, Mariano’s supposed to be your constant, your Penny while you’re Desmond stuck on the Island. Other players get hurt. Other players get ill. Other players age and decay. Not Mariano. Never Mariano.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Mariano Rivera pitch in person, but it took a while. The first few games I ever went to involved the Yankees losing or winning by too large a margin; but other moments I remember quite clearly. There was the streak of scoreless postseason innings in 1999 and 2000, the Game Seven heroics in 2003…I don’t need to go into details about these things. You’ll remember them quite clearly. 

We watch sports for various reasons. Sometimes it’s the thrill of the competition, sometimes it’s because it provides our deepest bonds with our parents or siblings or friends, and sometimes it’s our escape. The celebration, the glorification of what the human body can achieve in peak form is a distraction from a harsher truth: life is short, and youth is shorter. Now take that perfect human specimen, endow him with a sense of humility that will bypass most of us, and give him the ability to throw a pitch so good that he can make a nearly 20-year career by throwing just that one, and you can begin to understand the deification. Sure, there are setbacks and (very) occasional blown saves, but they are the exception that proves the rule.

I remember a moment from the 2009 postseason. It’s Game Three of the ALCS, the Yankees are in Anaheim—that place where the Yankees had so much trouble playing in the last decade—and Yankee Stadium has thrown its doors open for us to come and watch. In the ninth inning, after misplaying a bunt, Rivera is on the mound with runners on first and third with no one out and a tie score. Somehow, some way, he escapes the jam without allowing a run. Like the way Pippin ascertains that it’ll be okay because they have the White Wizard, we also ascertain that it will be okay somehow because we have Mariano.

When does a really good baseball player cross the line and become a legend? When did we decide Mariano wasn’t just the best at his job now but the best ever? Was it after his heroics in 2003? Was it later? Was it as late as his phenomenal 2008 season, where he walked just six batters all year? We remember, he needed shoulder surgery after that year; the greatest season he’s had since 1996, and he’s done it all with an injured shoulder. As die-hard baseball fans, we know how scary the words “shoulder injury” can be when concerning a pitcher; for any of us who have ever hurt our shoulders, we’ll know just how incapacitating it can get. You’re not supposed to be able to throw a baseball 90 miles an hour when you have calcifications in your shoulder (if you’re supposed to throw a baseball that hard at all); never mind have one of the best years of your career.

There’s a photo I took of Mariano in 2010. It’s the last time I saw him pitch in a postseason game. He’s standing on the mound, his back to the fans, holding the baseball, head down, as though he’s learning all of its secrets. Is he praying? Is he strategizing? Is he thinking of something that has nothing to do with baseball? It’s blasphemy even to suggest it, but part of you wonder, is this what G-d would look like, if he were human and a baseball player, and he was about to make some important decision? Mariano isn’t G-d, of course, and maybe if I knew him I would know his faults, but I don’t.  I am, after all, still a fan, and part of the fun is keeping the barriers in place. I can pretend he has no faults. We can pretend. On a team that’s no stranger to tabloid pages, to accusations of centaur paintings and less savory rumors, we can pretend that Mariano is our bastion of constancy, our refuge for when all else goes astray. He’s never given us a reason to doubt it—maybe we don’t even need to pretend.

It’s not news that 2012 was quite possibly going to be Mariano Rivera’s final season. He had stated that he made his decision prior to spring training, something that Mike Mussina did before finally winning 20 games in 2008. For the best, though, we only ever want the best. If this was to be Mariano’s farewell tour, we wanted MAR-I-AN-O chants at the Stadium while he was on the mound in the ninth inning of an elimination game in the World Series, needing just three more strikes for the Yankees’ 28th championship. You might say that we’re spoiled as Yankees fans, that we want an awful lot, but in this case you would be wrong. We didn’t want this for us—or, at least, not only for us. We wanted it for him, because of what Mo’s given us, because of what he’s given baseball, he deserved no less.


Inefficiencies

“The drunk” and “the rapist” are labels that sting, ones that once applied, can’t be torn off or rubbed away; they’re there to stick. As humans, we are prone to judging, and fitting things squarely into nice labels makes this a much easier task. Josh Lueke is an alleged rapist; Matt Bush is sitting in a jail cell until further notice. These are nice, simple labels, and they make further discussion seem pointless. Josh Lueke raped someone—why does anything else matter?

We’ve been conditioned to to extol the virtues of the Tampa Bay Rays.  They are Moneyball taken up a notch; unlike the Athletics the Rays compete directly with the Yankees and the Red Sox, so their disadvantage is that much greater. Everyone loves an underdog, especially if the underdog comes equipped with stories that are easy to like—the Legend of Sam Fuld, for example.

The Rays are the genius of Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon; they are lovable, they rise to the challenge, they can perform miracles (like the last night of the 2011 season, when, as you’ll remember, they came back from a 7-0 deficit to win the game, and the AL wild card berth). They (at least, the 2008-and-beyond version) are not supposed to be the team that hires players with dubious off-field records, ones that you have to work to root for, even if somehow you can will yourself over the moral hazard of doing so.

There is the argument that sabermetrics are about exploiting market inefficiencies, and one joke common among sabermetrically-inclined fans is that “____” is the new market inefficiency, with the blank being whatever the flavor of the day happens to be (speed guys, power guys, defense guys, guys who are supposed to be washed up..). The thing is, saying that baseball players with unsavory pasts are the new market inefficiency becomes problematic when these pasts involve criminal records—and accusations of offenses that qualify as felonies, not minor misdemeanors.

Baseball players—good ones, anyway—are celebrities, and celebrities often get a free pass where many others don’t. How many times has (insert young Hollywood star) been arrested for driving under the influence, and how many times has the result been actual, serious jail time? Other athletes in other sports have been accused of heinous crimes, but with the notable exception of Michael Vick, few ever seem to pay the full legal price. We put people we admire on a pedestal, and we forget that they, too, are not untouchable.

Neither Lueke nor Bush’s past legal troubles were unknown to the Rays. At some point, the desire to win, or at least the desire to field as competitive a team as possible overtook the desire to sign players who did not have such troubles. The Rays, of course, are not the first team to do it, nor will they be the last, but with so much emphasis placed on the Rays as a “likable” team, they may be the most striking.

The Rays need fans. This is one of the most well-known quandaries prevalent in the majors today on a team level. Despite the team’s ability to go from worst-to-first, there are still serious attendance problems. As Jonah Keri mentions in The Extra 2%, the location of Tropicana Field itself is a problem; few believe the Rays will be able to stay in St. Petersburg long-term. Winning is supposed to be the way to get said fans; the correlation between winning teams and attendance would be obvious to even the least sabermetrically-inclined audiences. Unfortunately, for the Rays, winning—even being American League champions as they were in 2008—has not done enough.

Last season, the Rays ranked 29 of 30 teams by average attendance, just under 19,000 per game, while the majors’ most successful team attendance-wise, Philadelphia, averaged over 45,000. If winning cannot help bring fans to the ballpark, a team’s options to increase attendance become limited, and whether the team in question can afford to take on less-than-savory characters becomes magnified.

It would be one thing if Bush or Lueke produced like Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera (indeed, one might argue that the latter’s legal troubles have, rightly or wrongly, been outweighed by his on-field production). This, however, is not the case: Lueke pitches out of the bullpen, and Bush is only the third player to be taken first overall in the MLB draft to have never made the majors (Brien Taylor and Steve Chilcott being the others).

The Rays ostensibly signed these players with the belief that they could help the team win in 2012, but the question that has to be answered is whether it’s more likely that the efforts of these players to help the team win will draw fans, or that their personal travails will keep fans away. Baseball fans tend to have a lot of patience and there’s no rule that says baseball players have to be saints off of the field, but one can’t exactly imagine running a marketing campaign centered around Lueke or Bush.

In fact, Bush’s troubles are such that Andrew Friedman has acknowledged he won’t play for the Rays this season:

“I think it’s safe to say that he’s not going to play for us on the field,” Rays executive vice president Andrew Friendman said (via the Tampa Tribune). “But even that, with the ongoing criminal investigation, with all of the different dynamics in play, it’s hard to talk about the 40-man [roster] spot and everything else, because until things advance more, it’s difficult to know exactly which way we will be able to go.”

Bush’s story might be the most tragic. Bush’s tragedy comes not from his crime, but because his attempt at redemption failed. Stories of redemption are popular (look at Josh Hamilton) and can become the stuff of legend, but they only work when the promise is fulfilled. It’s not enough merely to attempt to redeem oneself; one has to actually proceed to do so. Hamilton’s story works because not only did he work his way back, but because he became an All-Star, put on a Home Run Derby performance for the ages, and has helped his team make back-to-back World Series appearances.

Lueke’s story is not any easier to read. The alleged rape of a California woman in 2008 will follow him the rest of his life, though, on his acquisition Friedman stated:
We researched the 2009 incident that Josh was involved in thoroughly and in great detail. We’re satisfied that he is going to be the kind of person and teammate that we look for and we expect him to contribute positively to our group.

However, as Mr. Destructo argues, there is no easy way for a fan to work around the so-called incident:

A Rays fan can root for every batter to have a good day and for Josh Lueke to give up some walks, without penalizing the Rays offense or giving away a game on defense. But making choices like this unavoidably sounds like making excuses. A simpler fan choice is simply not rooting, not handing over money until Lueke is gone. An even easier choice awaits the Rays front office, which is to decide that the benefit of a marginal bullpen arm is neither likely to provide the difference between going to the playoffs or going home, nor worth the possibility of alienating fans.

Victim-blaming and non-reporting of sexual assault are issues in society at large, and Lueke’s talent as of right now does not appear to be such that the Rays would be paralyzed without him.

There is an interesting point to be made here: despite their off-field issues, Lueke and Bush are far from the first or only players of questionable character to be hired by the Rays. Jae-Kuk Ryu intentionally killed a bird, Elijah Dukes has a long history of domestic violence, as does Willy Aybar (the latter doing time in a Dominican jail for domestic violence while a member of the Rays). The first two were members of the Rays prior to the team’s 2008 turnaround, but Aybar was on the Rays from 2008-2010, firmly Friedman territory, and played at least 95 games each season.

Indeed, baseball history at large is littered with unsavory characters—Ty Cobb, for one, Ben Chapman another, and Marty Bergen was actually an axe murderer. There’s no character test necessary to pass for admittance to the major leagues; whether this could potentially create an image problem (as is occasionally assumed with other leagues) is of secondary importance to an ability to do things with a small spherical object that the vast majority of humanity cannot.

Earlier, perhaps, while the Rays were still a team synonymous with losing, the character faults of their players could be overlooked, the thought process being that the team wasn’t drawing because it wasn’t winning. Now, however, that excuse doesn’t hold. The Rays have finished clearly over .500 every year from 2008 on; they have won the ALCS, the AL East, and appeared in every postseason save 2009. They’ve been successful on the field, but, as noted above, they still don’t draw. Whether it’s because of the inaccessibility of their stadium, the by-consensus ugliness of the stadium, or because a city with a large transplant population has a hard time shedding their old teams for a new one, the problem remains.

Perhaps questioning whether the recent additions of Lueke and Bush will help the team is the wrong angle—instead, consider (with apologies to Mr. Keri) the dark side of The Extra 2%: maybe a team that doesn’t worry about keeping fans in the seats is the one most suited to a win-at-all-costs philosophy. The idea is slightly unsettling if only because it would indicate, to some extent, giving up on its ability to draw fans, and while acknowledging one’s weaknesses is important, there are few teams with the financial clout to be able to afford to pursue this strategy long-term. Still, for all their success, the Rays have yet to win a World Series, and that remains the sport’s holy grail. Whether Lueke and Bush are good enough players to push the Rays over this edge (well, Lueke, anyway, given Friedman’s statement that Bush won’t pitch for the Rays) is doubtful, but then again, there aren’t many who would have expected Cody Ross to hit five postseason home runs, either.

The Rays are still a young enough team to be building the mainstay of their fanbase; this includes not just the adults of the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, but the children as well—how many of us, after all, decided upon liking a team because it was who our parents or our grandparents liked? Maybe there are some parents out there who can figure out how to tell their children that it’s okay to root for baseball players accused of indefensible felonies, but it’s hard to imagine that’s a widespread skill.

The Rays still have a lot of talent and a lot of likeable players. Evan Longoria is a household name, Matt Moore is one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and few managers have received more praise in recent years than Maddon. Whatever the issues of their roster additions off the field, the team is unlikely to be hurt on it. Unfortunately, as we have seen, the team’s on-field success won’t succor their attendance woes, and some of their recent additions will have quite a long way to go before the team will be able to use them to help in this regard.

Note:  Lueke was optioned to triple-A Durham on April 14th.


Meditations on Yom HaShoah

In 1936, there was still time.

Kristalnacht was still two years away, and the Nazi empire had yet to reach its furthest expanses. Yes, the Jews were being persecuted, yes the Nuremburg laws had been passed and Jews were no longer citizens, and yes, the rest of the world at large seemed indifferent to Jewish plight, but merely being Jewish wasn’t a death sentence.

The Nazi persecutions were not an unknown to the outside world; by 1938 a conference had to be held to discuss what to do about the growing Jewish refugee problem. Thirty-two governments sent representatives, including the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom; of all of these, only one country agreed to take on Jewish refugees – Rafael Trujillo’s Dominican Republic.

In 1936, though, with the Evian conference two years away, there was still a sense, however delusional, that some veneer of a normal life could take place for Jews in Nazi-held territories. That year, the concern of Americans was not so much anti-Semitism (and indeed, with the likes of Father Coughlin on the radio, one could say that many Americans were anti-Semitic), as it was the Depression, and all that went with it.

Baseball was an escape from the Depression, and, as the 1936 season dawned, it was a Jewish player – Hank Greenberg – who was the reigning American League MVP.

No matter what, 1936 would have been an odd year for baseball – the first year since 1914 that Babe Ruth would not appear as a player in a major league uniform. Although the Black Sox scandal and deadball era were past, baseball would still need a superstar. It could have Lou Gehrig, who for so long played in Ruth’s shadow, but hit at least 30 home runs every year since 1929, or it could have Hank Greenberg, the Jew.

Greenberg’s Judaism was important enough to him to bring about his famous decision to sit out on Yom Kippur in 1934 – a move that might not have otherwise been so potentially controversial save for Yom Kippur’s mid-September timing. One wonders, as Greenberg sat in synagogue that year, how much he knew, and if word of the Nuremburg laws and intensifying persecutions had made their way to Michigan, whether or not he believed it.

The thing about the Holocaust that isn’t always made clear is that the Jewish population in Germany itself was so small that many ordinary Germans had no experience of Jews, so for them the minority remained only a distant concept. The worst crimes of the Holocaust would not be carried out in Germany; they were carried out in Warsaw and Lodz, Babi Yar and the Baltic. It might seem like a long reach from 1930s and 1940s Eastern Europe to Hank Greenberg, but it shouldn’t be: Greenberg’s parents were Romanian immigrants.

Although Greenberg wasn’t in danger of losing his United States citizenship, he was no stranger to anti-Semitism, even in a milder form: as Greenberg would later recall, “If you struck out, you weren’t just a bum, you were a Jewish bum.” It may be tempting to argue that when taunting, players and fans naturally gravitate to the opponent’s most apparent vulnerability, and in Greenberg’s case, this was his religion. The problem, however, is that 1930s America suffered from more than opportunistic anti-Semitism. While the American population may not have shared the Nazi viewpoint of Jews as rats trying to take over the world, universities, including the Ivies, still used a quota system to keep Jewish enrolment down, and America’s greatest folk hero at the time, Charles Lindbergh, was not shy about his views that Jews held too much influence in public sectors.

So in 1936, Hank Greenberg’s World Series win and MVP season the previous year did not absolve him of his great sin, which was that he happened to be born into a Jewish family. The anti-Semitic taunts and attitudes had disastrous consequences for Greenberg when, just 12 games into the season, the Senators’ Jake Powell crashed into Greenberg, breaking Greenberg’s wrist and ending his season*.

Powell was far from baseball’s most savory character – his comments about “beating n—— with a nightstick” provoked such a response that necessitated a reprimand, even while baseball still remained segregated – and he would meet a less-than-glorious end in a police station in 1948.

The injury to Greenberg, though season-ending, would not end his career, but the incident is more significant than that. Even though the probable knowledge that two years later pitchers would intentionally walk Greenberg to keep him from breaking Babe Ruth’s home record might, by some, be considered to be the bigger deal, the collision with Powell involved actual violence.

The line between teasing and taunting, and actual violence is often disturbingly thin. Blame mob mentality, blame human nature, blame an inherent need to “other” the outsider, but the pattern remains the same. In a prosperous world, deep-seeded prejudices remain hidden by a thin layer of decorum. The worse the situation, the more the veneer is eroded, until all that’s left is blatant hate.

The Nazis, who never hid their anti-Semitism, came to power at such an economically desperate time for Germany. In 1936, the dehumanization of the their Jewish minority was already well under way, and more than once the taunts turned to outright violence.  There was still time that year for Jews to emigrate from Germany — indeed, this was the Nazis’ preference — but, for those in denial, for those who thought that their middle-class way of life could last forever, the window was closing fast.

In 1938, a series of pogroms took place over one night that became known as Kristalnacht.  The synchronized vandalizing of Jewish synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses marked the shift from sporadic attacks to outright government-sponsored violence.  Kristalnacht, it can be said, was the night the Holocaust began.

That year, Greenberg would hit his 58 home runs and years later, analysis would be done to show that Greenberg was walked at a greater rate than other batters later in the year, ostensibly an effort to keep him from breaking Babe Ruth’s record.  That Babe Ruth’s record was involved has caused this incident to receive more attention, but this was not ultimately the most dangerous one Greenberg faced.

What if Powell hadn’t been such an unsavory character?  As it is, there’s no record of Powell having ever been reprimanded for a collision that Greenberg would later opine could have been avoided.  Was the violence acceptable because it was just a part of the game?  Was it acceptable because the teams and the umpires and the fans believed it was inadvertent?  Or was it acceptable because Greenberg was Jewish?  What if Lou Gehrig had been the first baseman then, or Jimmie Foxx?  Would it have been acceptable then?

There was never a Holocaust in America, but it would not have taken all that much to occur.  After all, the United States did intern Japanese-Americans, and while they didn’t build gas chambers, the concentration camp still denies its internees one of their most vital needs for emotional health:  their dignity.  American students are taught that the country is a melting pot, where all are welcome, but they are not taught that the man who came up with the melting pot term — Henry Ford — was himself a virulent anti-Semite.

Greenberg was baseball’s first Jewish superstar, and it’s tempting to think or teach that once Greenberg played and won the World Series and the MVP, all the anti-Semitism in baseball, and elsewhere, would dissipate because, well, Greenberg was just as good as the rest of them, but history isn’t a fairy tale.  Even after 1936, anti-Semitism still had yet to see its worst days.

*As an aside, that the broken wrist cost Greenberg the entire season so early on might, for those with an interest in such things, be interesting to compare to Albert Pujols’ broken wrist of 2011, and the advances sports medicine has been able to make in almost 80 years.


Up is Down

Well, this wasn’t supposed to happen. The Yankees weren’t supposed to have bad starts from CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, and then watch their offense get three-hit, all in the season’s first three games. The results create two camps—those who remember the Red Sox’ 0-6 start last season and are ready to panic, and those who remember the 1998 Yankees’ 0-3 start, and are still absolutely sure the Yankees can still win 110 games and the World Series. The truth is probably somewhere in between—the Yankees probably won’t get swept by the Orioles, and there is a reason a season like 1998 comes with the addendum “once in a lifetime”.

The series with the Rays was closer than it looked, perhaps a couple of defensive miscues the difference between winning two games and winning none. Baseball depends an awful lot on random chance, and that the Yankees’ offense only struck out 16 times over three games suggests making a lot of contact, and eventually some of that contact will fall in for hits. Yes, there are plenty of reasons one should be wary of an aging offense, but it’s not the reason the Yankees just got swept.

On the other hand, the team had better hope for improved pitching performances in Baltimore. Sabathia’s Opening Day struggles are nothing new—of the four times he’s pitched the first game of the season, the Yankees have won just once—and one poor start shouldn’t make Kuroda’s Yankees’ career, but the Yankees are now hoping Ivan Nova, the pitcher who had the worst spring by far, can play stopper. Nova was more than up to the task last year, so there is some precedent, although one gets the feeling there would be more confidence all around had Nova had a better March.

The Yankees aren’t the only “good” team slow to get off the ground—the Braves, Giants, and Red Sox are all 0-3 as well, while the Twins, Mets and Orioles are undefeated. Few, if any, baseball fans would think that the season will end with Minnesota and Baltimore hosting playoff games and the Yankees and Red Sox in their division’s basement. This is an indication of just how long the baseball season is, that three games into the season and there is not a single thing we can say definitively about any one team other than that in most cases they won’t got 162-0.

So, as you watch the Yankees take on the Orioles this week, you need not do so from your window ledge. Losing streaks happen; there is no team that won’t, at some point, lose three games in a row, and most will lose four or five at least once during the 162-game season. The phrase “any given Sunday” is football parlance, but it can easily apply to the baseball diamond as well—in any given game, any one team can beat another, and it’s not until the end of May that anything close to a picture of how the season might shake out will begin to take form.

Would fans have preferred the Yankees to start the season 3-0? Of course, that goes without saying, but 0-3 isn’t a harbinger of doom the way an 0-2 start in the NFL often is, and if one remembers that the Yankees played close games all three in Tampa (even if the second wasn’t close until the game’s end), it would seem that all the Yankees need is a little bit of luck.


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