Plus, there’d be butts strewn in the grass

A history of baseball and chewing tobacco in Slate. How things change (emphasis added):

The sudden decline of former batting champion and career .308 hitter Michael “King” Kelly–he
hit just .189 in 1892 and was only able to play 78 games–was attributed
to his longtime habit of smoking while patrolling the outfield.

Never mind the chaw. Can you imagine Johnny Damon, chilling out in left field, with a cigarette dangling from his lip? How does a guy shag flies while smoking?

On being the bully (and a solution)

I was never much of a physical force growing up. Slowest in the 440 at school, always a few pounds overweight, I was more of a thinker, and made my way by being clever and omniscient, not all-powerful.
Which is why sometimes it’s hard for me to root for the New York Yankees. I get tired of seeing them outspend the league, overspend on players, and basically pummel the free agent market into submission every winter. Defending my team’s actions is tiresome, particularly since I don’t always agree with the maneuvers, despite being a loyal fan for 30 years.
More importantly, where has it gotten them? The most-expensive-ever Yankees of this season are the first in 13 years to miss the playoffs. The Yanks of the late 1990s achieved four World Series championships in five years with a foundation of homegrown talent. Since then the Yankees have proved (like the Orioles did a decade earlier) that a team can’t simply buy a championship.
The Yanks are determined to try, which is fine. But what particularly galls me is the level of disparity. Their 2008 payroll was 51% higher than the second-highest team and 140% more than the league average. I don’t exactly dislike the Yanees’ ability to spend, but come on. The system is surely broken that their budget can be $209 million when the average team is spending $90 million.
Major League Baseball needs to reconcile the Yankees’ payroll in a way that simultaneously appeases the players’ association and other owners. So the Yanks paid $26 million in revenue-sharing: that’s barely 12% of payroll, and didn’t slow them at all. At the same time, MLB must also continue to address parity; the Florida Marlins’ $22 million payroll, at 10% of the Yankees’, is equally embarrassing.
In lieu of a hard salary cap, which will be too hard to fit into baseball’s current economic model, perhaps a tether is in order. What if the maximum spend were set at, say, 200% of the previous year’s median? That would give wealthier teams room to pay, while preserving a realistic upper limit. It would allow the less wealthy teams to spend less, as is their wont. It might also realign teams’ responsibilities–the Yankees would suddenly have tens of millions of dollars of their own money freed up for other things. Like paying for their new stadium without begging for more public funds.
Last year’s median spend was approximately $80 million (between the Brewers’ $81 million and the Indians’ $79 million). If the tether were in place, the cap for the 2009 season would be $160 million. That’s more than $21 million higher than the payroll of every other team in baseball, but a good $40 million below the Yankees’ expectations. It would have allowed them to sign CC Sabathia or Mark Teixeira or A.J. Burnett but probably not all three. Which in turn would put, say, Teixeira in Washington, boosting the Nationals’ payroll by $20 million, which raises the median price, bumping the 2010 tether, and so on.
This is just one of many ideas, and it may not get noticed beyond this blog. But it would sure be nice to do something about this imbalance. Because like the bully in many a Hollywood tale, the Yankees keep proving that might does not make right. A little fiscal restraint might do them, and the rest of baseball, some good.

Last and first

Fan familyMy infatuation with the New York Yankees, and by extension Yankee Stadium, dates to my first game in 1978. I was five. My parents brought me–I believe with friends who had a son near my age–and someone (I like to pretend it was Reggie Jackson) hit a foul ball within a row or two of our seats. This being 1978, the stadium wasn’t all that full, and my parents encouraged me to chase the ball. I was too shy to do it. But I was amazed that I could be that close to the action, and I came home with a WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS 1977 pennant that hung on my wall for the next 15 years.
I’ve been a Yankee fan ever since. And I’ve been to scores of Yankee games, many during the Yankee dynasty of the late 1990s. I’ve chanted Roll Call from the bleachers, sung “New York, New York” more times than I can count, and even gotten thrown out of a game once.
In recent years, I hadn’t been to Yankee Stadium all that much, maybe one or two games a season, as priorities shifted and life intervened. Still, I remained a Yankee fan in full, soaking up multiple articles daily in the New York Times and following every trade, promotion and signing.
I’m a sentimental guy, so the closing of the stadium saddens me. The intentional destruction of such a historic location is a shame. I’ve had a heavy heart in recent weeks as my beloved Yankees stumbled toward a third-place finish and a quiet end to Yankee Stadium.
But I was surprised by just how much I wanted to be there. To soak up the atmosphere. To look at the scenery. To see the 4 train in the gap in right field. To feel the weight and pride of the Stadium as I did when I was five, and 25, again as a 35-year-old. So I got tickets to a game, once with my family, then again with a friend. But still I needed more.
And so it was that Saturday found me on the 4 train, my son, Nathan, in a carrier on my shoulders, him in a batting-practice onesie, me in my away jersey. My wife, Amy, packed the diaper bag and wore my cap as we headed to Yankee Stadium for one last game. A day game, the last one, on the final weekend of games, for Nathan to see for himself.
Nate was all of 115 days old as of yesterday, and his memories of the day will be slight, at best. But I can tell him we were there, enjoying a Yankee victory on a glorious September afternoon. How we had great seats in the lower level, just to the third-base side of home plate–“I think the best I’ve ever sat in,” said Amy–for a fast-paced 1-0 game, won on a Robinson Cano single in the bottom of the ninth. How we took lots of photos, and strolled close to home plate, and rode the 4 train like true New York fans. And how my little boy enjoyed it all: happily taking in the sights and sounds the first four innings, making new friends everywhere we walked, gamely braving crowds, sleeping on the subway. He even ate lunch at the game, just like Mom and Dad. It was terrific.
And Amy, bless her heart, indulging me and Nathan both, gamely changing his diaper in a stadium ladies’ room, feeding him in the mayhem of the ninth inning, lingering long past the final pitch to take pictures and soak up the moment: a more accommodating, loving wife and mother would be hard to find. I’ve lost track of the number of times I have thanked her this weekend. Yet the joy in my eyes tells her more than I could say.
The outing has made for an extremely emotional weekend. I hadn’t fully grasped just how important my Yankee allegiance is to me, or how much I revered the ballpark. Sharing that with my son, however silly it may be at his age, was truly special.
“Someday,” I’ve been telling people, “Nathan is going to thank me for bringing him to the old Yankee Stadium.” But that’s only part of the story. I owe him my thanks, for being such a good, fun little kid, for making our trip a success, and for being here for me to share with him.
I became a father on May 28, but on Saturday, I became a dad.

Bye, Joe

Torre turns down offer to return as Yanks’ skipper. Not much of a surprise that Joe Torre is leaving the Yankees, although the style raised my eyebrows. The Yankees’ not-really offer of a one-third reduction in base pay was, quite obviously, designed to shuffle Torre out the door without their saying he wasn’t wanted.
At the same time, though, this is a business, and Torre did not meet the Yankees’ business goals. For seven straight seasons he has been (over)paid to repeat his performance from 1996-2000, and the Yanks have a string of tough and not-so-tough playoff defeats to show for it. Tough-love Yankee fans will cite Torre’s overreliance on too few pitchers and some questionable decisions down the stretch, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Example: this season’s decision to play Chien-Ming Wang on short rest in their last game instead of the prepared Mike Mussina. Mussina had won his last three starts while Wang had been allowing nearly a run per inning, but Torre’s confidence outweighed the statistics. Result: Cleveland is battling Boston for the American League title instead of New York. Anyone making bad decisions like that at an ordinary job might be subject to far worse than a pay cut to $5 million.
So, like most fans, and probably the Yankees organization itself, I am both sad to see Torre go and in agreement that it’s a pretty fair decision. Many other intriguing decisions await this team.
As an aside, I found the online commentary interesting when reading about this news. SportsFilter has a remarkably well-considered dialog running, while the ESPN article linked above has, as of this writing, 1702 comments in the “conversation” area. Seventeen hundred comments in 12 hours! Is that a “conversation?” More like a cacophony, and interesting to note. I’d expect a community area might suffer under such mass but people just keep posting.

What is he, like, 40?

Baseball playoffs are back! And with them come misguided attempts to sensationalize players. This op-ed piece in today’s New York Times suggests that Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez is, to use the appropriate term, being picked on because he’s a) older than he admits and b) Latino. The rather upfront intimation here is that El Duque’s age is an issue because of a racist undertone.

But the author of the piece has it all wrong. Hernandez’s age is an issue because a) if he truly is older than he admits, b) it makes his pitching that much more impressive. Baseball fans know that a pitcher with good stuff and guile in his 40s is a marvel, and as the playoffs arrive and El Duque’s game face intensifies, speculating as to his true age becomes part of the legend.

The reason it seems tilted toward Hernandez and fellow Latin players is simple: most caucasian American baseball players don’t lie about their age. They can’t, because they’re drafted out of high school or college and their records are readily available. Arrive on a boat from Cuba, and pretend you’re 28 when you’re 32, and the subject becomes far more prominent, and interesting. The fact that El Duque has let it persist only makes it more fun.

So please, let’s drop the racial subtext and cheer on the ageless wonder as he takes the mound for the Mets tonight. He may be in the wrong uniform for me, but El Duque will have my cheers as usual. And that has nothing to do with race.

(Update, Oct. 5: El Duque is injured and not pitching in the playoffs. But I’m rooting for him all the same.)

(Update II, Oct. 17: Baseball’s collective marveling at the performance of 41-year-old Kenny Rogers this postseason reinforces the case.)

Does he even like this town?

“I think one of the problems here is that we have let down America,” he said. “The United States Olympic Committee selected us, New York, to represent the country. New York won because people had confidence that New York would be able to do things. And it turned out that we, unfortunately, are not able to do things.”

I very much like Mayor Bloomberg, but if he keeps up this myopic pouting about his lost billion-dollar boondoggle of a stadium, I’m going to be tempted to vote against him this fall.

Winners don’t quit

I have never understood why people expect good athletes to quit. These are the people with the most competitive spirit and determination in the world; why should they walk away from the activity that has driven and dictated their entire lives, especially if they still enjoy it?

Mean-spirited articles by journalists, like this one suggesting Jerry Rice get out of football, completely miss the point. Sure, Rice may not be the superstar he once was, but he’s still a powerful presence and a potential contributor who wants to be in the game (which is more than one could say about many pro athletes, and most journalists, for that matter).

So Rice wants to play? Good! Let’s see him push himself to new goals, see if he can be the first 42-year-old wide receiver to score a touchdown in the NFL. So long as he’s better than the worst receiver on a roster, he deserves to play, if he so desires.

This haranguing is the same thing Rickey Henderson has endured the past few years. Henderson, rather than quit the sport he loves, has played minor league baseball for two seasons, in part to campaign for a major-league job, and in part because he still loves the game and still finds ways to contribute. And for that, I admire him.

“I’m going to play until I get it out of my system. It’s still fun, and that’s the main thing,” Rickey says in the article linked above. “I still love the game of baseball. I’ve accomplished everything there is to accomplish, but I still want to win.” More power to you, Rickey, and to you, Jerry. Play hard and play proud.

Staying away

Like a jilted lover ignoring the phone when it rings, I am slowly but surely losing my baseball fanaticism.

Bill Simmons of ESPN proposes a fans’ strike against baseball. Technically, it would be a boycott, not a strike. But he’s right.

I have been offered Yankee tickets twice this month and turned down both offers. Normally, I’d make room for a ballgame; lately, my alternate plans have become more important, and not because they’re big, pressing engagements.

I would rather not go to Yankee Stadium right now. I don’t want to give Major League Baseball my money.

Take this for what it is. I’m not protesting; I’m not making noise. I have posted lots of baseball-related links this season. I remain a fan in my heart, and I still love the game.

What I don’t love is the business of baseball, the looming deadlines and the worthless negativity. In the labor talks, I don’t care who’s arguing about what; I am an avowed reader of sports business columns, yet I can’t bring myself to follow the strike news.

I no longer know who I think is right, and I no longer care. All I know is that the yapping has drained my interest in the season. I have stopped reading box scores. I rarely turn on a ballgame when I’m watching TV. I don’t know any Yankee pitcher’s ERA. And I’m not all that concerned.

Baseball is far and away my favorite sport. But it’s no longer the focus of my sports life. I have golf and NBA free-agent deals right now; in a few weeks I’ll have football and hockey games on TV.

Like a jilted lover ignoring the phone when it rings, I am slowly but surely losing my baseball fanaticism. It makes me sad, but it also makes things easier. If and when the strike hits, I will say, “Well, there you go,” instead of, “Oh, no.” Either way, I’m not giving the sport my money or my marketing-ready eyes and ears.

Maybe someday baseball will matter to me again. I hope it does. And I hope for Baseball’s sake the average fan’s disillusionment is somewhat less than mine.