Touring Traditions

“The Iron Horse” Lou Gehrig
Photo: New York Yankees

The Yankees have been tweeting pictures of popular players’ numbers to help gear up their fans for the start of Spring Training, beginning with Pitchers and Catchers’ Reporting Day this coming Tuesday. For a while, it was recent and even current players — Don Mattingly (#23), Curtis Granderson (#14), and Brett Gardner (#11). Now, getting into the single digits leaves us with mostly retired numbers (in descending order) — Phil Rizzuto, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra (over Bill Dickey), Mickey Mantle, Joe Torre (though not yet a retired number), Joe DiMaggio, and (today’s number) Lou Gehrig. This weekend we should see (and I’m following their pattern): Babe Ruth (#3), Derek Jeter (#2), and Billy Martin (#1).

When it comes to reverence of its organization’s history, there is no comparison to Yankee reverence or history. Most clubs recognize a handful of retired numbers on a wall in the outfield and maybe a plaque at some random spot in their stadium. But Yankees have an almost sacred respect for their history, and rightly so.

Last fall for my birthday, I was in the City and trying to figure out where to go that would really make my birthday something special. Honestly, I could only think of one place — Yankee Stadium. The team was in Baltimore on a road trip, but there are stadium tours you can take every day. They’re modified to suit whatever’s been going on in the stadium. Like on game days, they only run part of the day and are limited to a few locations to give the players and crew privacy to prepare for the game. The day I went there had been a concert the night before and the tour crew was still tearing down the stage and its complex lighting arrangements, and as the stage was right in front of Monument Park, the tour skipped it. (Side note: trying to see the Museum or Monument Park on a game day is nearly impossible unless you are at the gates the moment they open. We tried to do that too, to no avail.) But we did get to see the Museum, the Press Box, and the Clubhouse.

The funny thing was the only real Yankees fans were my mom and I that day. I have to wonder why someone would tour a sports park if you’re not a fan of baseball or the team that regularly plays there. Our tour guide was so excited to actually talk about current baseball with actual fans that we even discussed a blown call from the previous night and got a couple of updates on the game being played in Baltimore, which began as we were ending the tour, and they were already up 1-0 by the end of the 1st inning.

I realize at this point I must sound like I’m promoting the Stadium Tour, and maybe to some extent I am. But we all have days we want to remember and last forever. I’m sure every one of those names in Monument Park had one of those days playing at Polo Grounds or Yankee Stadium. I remember the look on Nick Swisher’s face the second game of the ALCS (the last game played last season at Yankee Stadium), as he looked around, smiling and taking it all in. Somehow he knew that would be his last game in Yankee Stadium as a Yankee, and it just seemed like he wanted that moment to last forever.

They won on my birthday last year, as they have for all but one year since 2000. They play in Baltimore again this year on my birthday, so let’s hope the tradition continues. And as we all know well, the Yankees love their traditions.

Go Yankees!

Go Team!

1927 Yankees
The 1927 World Championship Team

I was thinking this morning about teams. Baseball is always such a good analogy for life. Like I’ve said before, stars are made in the batter’s box, but teams are made in the field.

It reminds me of a question in one of those “Would You Rather…?” games: “Would you rather be the best player on a losing team or the worst player on the winning team?” I think most people answered that they’d rather be a star, but my answer was the winning team. Of course, I went on to explain my reasoning — if you’re only hitting .100 in the World Series, but your team wins, you still get a ring and you’re still the champions, even if you personally are horrible.

In fact, when the stars of a team flounder, it forces the other players to rise to the challenge and play for the team, rather than themselves. We got a taste of that in the Post-Season with Raul Ibanez.

So if baseball is an analogy for our lives and today’s topic is teams, who is playing on your personal team? Life is played out in various seasons, some winning streaks and some lonely days. But most of life is the in between, the mediocre attempts and the mediocre failures. This is our average. So when we are hitting average for whatever season we’re in, who around us is on our team?

In the short span of a year, friends and even family will come and go as far as influence and intimacy (call them your expendables, the ones who often get traded mid-season). The ones truly in it for the long haul (call them your contract players) will stick it out, rain or shine, win or loss; they’re there for you, with you, no matter what. And then there’s the ones who surprise you (your Ichiros, as it were), who come into your life as an expendable and end up staying for the long run.

As we Yankee fans prepare for a new season, 88 men are preparing for their new season in life, more than half will never see Major League play this year. But for this Spring, they’re a Yankee, they’re a team, and they’re our team. And as they say, “once a Yankee, always a Yankee.”

Go Yankees!

The Face of Baseball? The Face of the Yankees.

While scanning through Twitter this morning, I saw this Tweet from the MLB Network asking who was the “Face of Major League Baseball”:

21 years in the Majors vs. 22 years old

You might, as I did, have to Google one of the names listed. It’s not like the Astros are usually seen as a threat to the Yankees, due to their former National League standing. (Side note: we do play them first at the end of April and then on our last series of the season this September in the Minute Maid Park — I’d expect a mimosa over Budweiser at that stadium.)

Now, we Yankees fans have known the obvious choice of that question for almost as long as Altuve has been alive (he will be 23 this May). But it got me thinking about the Yankee tradition of being the face of baseball since (another obvious choice) Babe Ruth.

There have some fantastic exceptions to that rule — my personal favorite being the recently departed and lifelong Cardinal Stan Musial, a man of personal character and great passion for the game. But when the greater population thinks of baseball in general, their imagination takes them to the men in pinstripes first more often than any Sox or Stars or Bird.

The Yankee dynasty was arguably established with the nearly infamous 1919 sale of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. The Babe loved the attention he could conjure from New York’s large stage and knew how to play the crowd brilliantly, easily becoming the most well-known baseball player of his day. You could argue he was the first media darling of the game, one from which many current players need to take a lesson. By 1927, Ruth was one of six power hitters dubbed “Murders’ Row”: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri. Another media favorite of the time, Lou Gehrig was celebrated for his accomplishments and a life cut too short by a crippling disease.

Next up for the face of baseball: Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. Though he was known for liking his privacy (and his storied love life), the baseball part of him was always something to behold. In 1941, he and Red Sox great Ted Williams were competing as to who could bat over .400 for the season. DiMaggio ended up on a 56 game hitting streak, one that over 70 years later remains unbroken by anyone in the league. He led the Yankees to their 9th World Championship that year before heading off to serve his country in World War II. (And the Yankees still won the 1943 Series without him.) He was later named baseball’s “Greatest Living Player” at the baseball centennial celebration in 1969.

The face of baseball in the 50’s and early 60’s would have to be split between so many greats (and my personal favorite era of Yankees history): Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, and Roger Maris lead this generation. This was the era that cemented Yankees as the all-time world champions and brought baseball to television and thus into the hearts of every American. And they had good reason to love the Yankees: Berra, for example, would retire from playing in 1963 with 10 World Series rings and Mantle and Maris would compete for that 61st Home Run in 1961 (one more than Ruth’s record, achieved on the last day of the season by Roger Maris, who still holds the AL record).

It wasn’t until the late 1970’s when the Yankees were suddenly in the limelight again and not always for good reasons. But the face of the Yankees (and maybe all of baseball) would have to go to “Mr. October” Reggie Jackson for the Yankee comeback in 1977, the infamous “Bronx Zoo”, and World Series win. But the heart of the team would have to lie with Thurman Munson, who tragically died in a plane crash in the middle of the 1979 season.

The 1980’s slump still saw many classic Yankees in the making  like Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, and Dave Winfield. But none would be of any significance to rank up with the greats until the start of the 1996 season.

Joe Torre at the helm, the rise of the Core Four — Andy Pettitte on the mound, Jorge Posada catching, Mariano Rivera in the bullpen, and Derek Jeter at Shortstop — 1996 was the start of the 2nd Golden Era of baseball and a renewal of  the Yankees Dynasty.

So how does one judge one of the greats? I always say they must have three main qualities:

  1. Ability — from the batter’s box to the field, a player has to have the ability to perform, under pressure and professionally. Stellar numbers at the plate are nice, but not much if you can’t catch a ball in the field.
  2. Teamwork — there are two sides to baseball: offensively, it’s just the player with a bat, trying to hit a home run and get those big numbers; defensively, it’s about the team. And while stars are made at the plate, winning teams are made on the field. If you can’t work as part of a team, then what are you doing in a team sport?
  3. Character — with all the recurring news on drugs and philandering and just nastiness, it takes a lot for someone with character not to get caught up in the messy world around them. So I love to hear stories about how players stay out of that mess.

Stan Musial, as I stated above, fits this bill, as do many of Yankee greats listed. But only one of MLB’s nominees today has proven his quality over the past two decades and thus gets my vote.

Go Yankees!

Where it all began… for me.

I’ve been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember. Parents have a lot to say about how a child will be raised — religion, politics, geography, food preferences, and schools are all common knowledge and well-thought through in regards to a child’s development. On a joke usually, parents may dress up their babies in sports team colors, perhaps due a college alumnus in the family. Whether you realize it at the time or not, you have selected a child’s predisposition towards a particular sport and the team they will be bonded to for life, at least for the first decade and a half of that life.

I grew up in Florida with a Northeast Ohio mother. Florida is really a college football state, and by kindergarten, I had made my selection because all of my friends loved Florida State. Fast-forward 25 years and I’m still toting Seminole memorabilia, like that window decal on my car.

Northeast Ohio is solid baseball and thus Indians territory. My grandfather was one of those people who knew everything about everything, especially baseball. He could rattle off statistics from the start of the sport and compare them to what was going on in the clubhouse currently. For the first decade and a half of my life, this (following the logic above) then made me a Cleveland Indians fan.

In 1994, MLB players launched the biggest strike in their history against team owners over labor disputes. Cancelling 900+ games and nearly destroying all but the absolute loyal fan base, the 1995 season resumed and attempted to win back their fans. 1995 was also one of the 2 years in the last 20 that the Cleveland Indians have been anywhere near the World Series. The team they usually had to hurdle? The New York Yankees. And though it was the Indians I was rooting for in the World Series that year, I remember watching the playoff games of New York losing to Seattle in the Division Series and being in awe at such a team of history and legends (Mattingly, for example, retired following the ’95 season, and they quickly retired his number in Monument Park).

By April 1996, I was a secret Yankees fan, and they were ready to embark on a whirlwind dynasty, comparative to so many decades past (Ruth-Gehrig and the Mantle-Maris eras come immediately to mind). In 5 years, they won 4 World Championships (except for 1997, which was coincidentally an Indians-Florida match-up). It was a secret because I thought “once an Indians fan, always an Indians fan”, and a main rival for them is, who else, the New York Yankees.

It wasn’t until I moved out on my own that I began bravely waving my Yankee pride. By then, they were on top of the world with 4 championships and the “Core Four” (Pettitte, Posada, Rivera, and Jeter) leading the way.

Growing up in Florida, we saw so many minor league and Spring Training games. We didn’t even get our own MLB team until 1998 with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and like many expansion teams in their first few years, they weren’t good. And being in the AL East (arguably the toughest division in the league) didn’t help that fact. There was not much of a fan base in the beginning. And then they started winning… isn’t that always the case?

My first official Yankees game, I’m sorry to say, wasn’t until 2009 in the new Yankee Stadium. On my list of regrets is that I never got to see one in the “House that Ruth Built”, but a Yankees game is a Yankees game. I was surrounded by people who knew the game and the history and the players and everything I loved about the sport and the team. It was like finding a home and being with my grandfather (who had passed away the previous year) all over again.

I’ve always loved New York as a city, but the Yankees cemented their place in my heart. I got to see a world championship team that year and converted my mother to a Yankees fan as we celebrated in my living room their World Series victory that year. I should clarify (because she would want me to): my mother will always be an Indians fan first (it’s her foundation), Yankees second, and then the Rays (due to hometown loyalties). Even my brother became a Yankees fan (they rank 3rd, I think, behind the Rays and Indians) — further proof that a child is set on their loyalties because a parent is.

I think the Yankees are one of the few teams that you don’t have to be from that particular city to love the team. Much like the city they represent, you don’t have to be a New Yorker to love the City. And as 9/11 proved, New York is “America’s City”. The Yankees are “America’s Team”. And love them or despise them (depending on your childhood loyalties and subsequent rivalries), the Yankees are here to stay, in history and tradition, in the celebrating and making of legends, and in championships once won and yet to be won.

Go Yankees!