Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yankees Win, Blah Blah Blah

Speaking of Philadelphia, weren't they just in a World Series? It's been only two weeks since the end of the baseball season, but the victory by the Yankees over the Phillies has already receded from front-of-brain consciousness.

For me, the iconic play of the postseason came in Game 4: Johnny Damon's alert steal of third base when nobody was covering the bag. That play showed verve and spirit. Other than that, not much comes to mind. Hideki Matsui hit a bunch of homers and doubles in the final game, and Mariano Rivera pitched more than one inning a few times. Andy Pettitte pitched with his usual Pete Sampras-like countenance. Derek Jeter got on base some, I'm pretty sure. Must have. A-Rod had a big game at some point, didn't he?

Ever the fair-weather fan, I tried to get excited about the Yankees win, which (unacceptably to some) was nine long years in coming. I'd grown up in Upstate New York during the losing Yankee seasons of the late 1960's and early 1970's, post-Mickey Mantle, pre-Thurman Munson and pre-Reggie Jackson. After pitching ace Mel Stottlemyre, graceful outfielder Roy White, and the late Bobby Murcer, the talent level on those teams fell off sharply. Recalling those lean years, I hold that a championship is never to be taken for granted -- even by a pinstriped franchise with a payroll large enough to fund NASA.

In that spirit, I caught some of the 2009 post-parade ceremony at City Hall. Honestly, I've never seen a more subdued, workmanlike celebration. With few exceptions, the players sauntered out when their names were called, most looking for all the world like they'd rather be somewhere else, or wanted a fee for their appearance. (In fairness, serious hangovers could have been involved.) Keys to the city were presented by Mayor Bloomberg to each Yankee player, including minor-league call-ups, as well as every last team employee down to the shoeshine kid. A few short speeches were made; a few onlookers cheered.

Most of the speakers credited Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, now in failing health, and his sons for their massive spending on star players that has driven and disrupted the economics of baseball for three decades. To finance astronomical salaries, ticket prices have risen over the years, and have now reached the level of the absurd in the new Yankee Stadium. It's no longer New York's barbers and cabdrivers who can afford to attend the games, especially in the seats closest to home plate, but bankers, lawyers and celebrity politicians. Perhaps this explains the curiously underwhelming response when the final out of Game 5 was recorded. "The-e-e Yankees win!" said the team's broadcaster. The fans cheered; the players put on special caps and t-shirts; the loudspeakers played We Are The Champions. All according to plan.

(Is noone aware that Queen's vainglorious winner's anthem was meant to be ironic?)

Excellence through expectation and execution is admirable in business and sports alike, but only in the corporate world is it enough. Sports requires passion as well as achievement to hold fan interest and build loyalty. As the Yankees report to spring training in 2010 and prepare to defend their 27th championship -- will Manager Joe Girardi change his number from 27 to 28? -- the best they can hope for if they succeed is not ecstasy but relief at meeting the annual plan.

Meanwhile, baseball enthusiasts everywhere else will hope that their team can stoke up, catch lightning, and take down the mighty Yanks. Explosive exuberance awaits the franchise and its fans whose players can, just once, overachieve wildly, steal a pennant and a championship, and reach the very pinnacle of their professional existence.

          Irrational, yes; impossible, no --
          We're in first place! Go, Brewers, Go!

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