Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Some quality-- his life story, his triumphs and adversity, her talent or her beauty, the intimates she recalls and corrects perhaps-- seduces us and we fall in love with the idealized image we've projected out of our own unfullfilled need.
A bond then forms every bit as fast and deep and enduring as those we enjoy with friends, family, and loved one. Indeed, sometimes a purer and more potent bond because it remains untainted by the human failings that mark all our relationships with conscious or unconscious conflict and ambivalence.
I can't recall when I adopted Joe Torre for this role, or perhaps, more accurately, when I imagined Joe Torre adopted me for mine. I only know that when the Yankees scapegoated and then disposed of him in such a spiteful, petty, and undignified fashion last year, I felt the fury and indignation my own father would have aroused had the Yankees humiliated him, instead of a man I'd never met and never knew. (See my blog post, "The Golden Age of Joe," October 9, 2007)
A further irony is that Joe Torre probably recovered more quickly than I did. He'd secured a job in LA within the month. It took much longer for my anger to subside. But it did. As the year passed and Joe Torre receded from my TV screen and a new season began, I barely thought about him. Sure, on occasion, as the 2008 Yankees foundered and their new manager made a colossal ass of himself by acting the role of autocratic martinet, some momentary wave of nostaglic yearning would overcome me. I missed the other Joe on those occasions.
Yet through most of 2008, my plan to adopt the Dodgers as my surrogate team never really unfolded. Old allegiances die hard. They also are slow to be born. Sure I checked their place in the standings every once in a while. But the 3-hr time difference coupled with the new league inhibited much more than that. My heart wasn't into it. The vagaries of the Yankees' fate left no room for rival lovers.
Now that Joe Torre has returned to his familiar place in the post-season and I've seen more of him, I'm grateful to him because it has stirred some of the old fondness. There was the comforting Joe I watched after every traumatic loss, every bit as possessed of the old reliable power to console me.
Sure, I'm rooting for the Dodgers to succeed, if only to see Joe revel in a little malicious pleasure and retrospective vindication at Cashman, the Steinbrenners', and Randy Levine's expense. I hope to hell the press reports are accurate and it pains them to see Torre in the NLCS. That it should bother them only dramatizes just how small they really seem.
But that rooting interest only takes me so far. For the passion the Yankees summon, as it turns out, there is no substitute, however abject their front-office. Seeing the Dodgers win, turns out to be little more satisfying the seeing the Red Sox lose. It's a transitory pleasure, but hardly a satisfying one. In the end, unless, it's the Yankees, I'm just not invested, Joe or no.
And Torre himself now begets far more the detached fondness and residual sentiment I might feel for an ex-wife or girlfriend than a filial love or allegiance. Which of course has led me to wonder what it was about Joe Torre exactly that had inspired my devotion in the first place.
I think I now understand it. But to explain, if you'll forgive the digression, I only can relate a bit of my own story.
Dissolve 2008. Cue "Take a Chance on Me" by Abba. Cut to the North Edison Little League Field, a brilliant Spring afternoon in Central Jersey. The camera fixes on a dejected nine-year-old boy, sitting at the far end of the dugout, by himself sulking. He slides a pack of Pop Rocks from his back pocket, but he tosses them to the ground, inconsolable. After striking out for the twentieth time that season, he actually considers entertaining his teammates' fondest wishes and quitting.
However passionate my love for baseball as a kid, few things vexed me more than the gap between the player I was and the player I so desperately wanted to be. (In retrospect, it was probably through the game that I first attained the bitter wisdom that much as Americans love to pretend otherwise, you cannot be whatever you want to be.) So after four years of little league and shedding, for as long, copious tears of frustration, I hung up my cleats and called it a career.
Still, I enjoyed one season of near glory.
It wasn't the first season I allude to above; that one was disastrous. As an August baby, I didn't reach the age minimum until one year after most of my classmates. By third grade, they were entering their second year in the Piedmont League, I, my first. Although, for some reason, a friend of mine's father drafted me for his team, the Reds, notwithstanding. Perhaps, a team of nice, obedient Jewish boys he could manage mattered more to him than winning.
Mr. Bosco, let's call him, was a patient and forbearing manager, but he quickly discerned that I wasn't going to be much help to him either at the plate or in the field. I don't know what terrified me more, striking out or getting struck. Either way, I did a lot of both. Mr Bosco, as a consequence, batted me 14th or 15th on a team of 16 players, in accordance with the league rule that every team member had to bat. And in the few games, he had to cast an extra for deep, deep, deep right-field, I watched the game from a spot in outfield 250 ft. removed from home plate and where no ball, I suspect, ever landed.
At season one's end, my batting statistical line read something like this, .000/.100/.000. That is, I didn't earn a hit all season, and the few times I made it to 1st base was because the pitcher walked me or hit me with the ball. With the cruel blunt candor of nine-year-olds, my teammates delivered their estimation of my talent. "You suck," they told me often that season. And I believed them. Without a hit to my name, how could I imagine otherwise?
Only I didn't suck, not entirely anyway. I just didn't know it yet.
THE JOE I KNOW
During the off-season that year, I still believed anything was possible and I was determined to improve. Only I didn't now where to begin.
Most kids of course turn to their father. But my father, in this case, didn't have the resources to help much, however greatly he tried. He grew up poor in Manhattan's Lower East Side housing projects where kids aren't exactly encouraged to play baseball. And while he could probably identify the parts of a car engine with his eyes closed, to this day, he'd probably be hard-pressed to explain a balk or the infield fly-rule. He rooted for the Yankees, sure, but he never had the luxury of thinking all that much about the game, still less had anyone guided him on how to master it.
Fortunately, a genuine, real live, accomplished athlete existed among my parent's friends. Let's call him Joe Santos. Imagine a more introverted, more conciliatory Mario Cuomo. A star athlete in baseball and basketball in high-school, Joe might have played professional, low-A baseball one day. But his parents, like my father's, were immigrants and they envisioned a more practical and financial secure future for their son. So Joe filled prescriptions for a living and satisfied his love for the diamond, by teaching his sons the game and coaching little league in South Jersey.
That summer our families spent a few Saturdays together as they did every year. And after explaining my predicament to Santos, he took me out to the field and offered his sage instruction. He re-configured my batting stance, taught me how to plant the back foot and how to step with the front foot, how to take outside pitches to the opposite field and how to pull those inside. And for some inexplicable reason, perhaps sensing some untapped, unappreciated talent, he sent me to the mound to pitch to him.
"Do you know you have a natural curve?" he asked. Me? Me! A natural curve? "Yes," he said, "You're a natural pitcher. Next year tell your manager you can pitch." After which, he dispensed a veritable reservoir of tips on the art of pitching-- and of breathing.
And come next season, that's precisely what I told my next manager when asked my position. Pitcher, I said. The success followed from there. I swear, by season's end, I'd experienced the most dramatic improvement in North Edison Piedmont League history. I'd even registered my first official hit in the very first game-- a little blooper over Joey Gordon's head at 2b. And from that game on I never hit lower than 6th or 7th in the lineup and even hit 2nd and 3rd on a few occasions.
But my first taste of the exaltation athletic competition can bring the anointed came on the mound. I was a "natural" pitcher of sorts. I had two pitches in my repertoire-- a ball and a strike. I have no idea whether the ball curved on its own, but when I could throw strikes, only the Piedmont League's best hitters would tag me. When I was erratic, on the other hand, well...
Still, by season's end, I'd compiled a winning record and the manager chose me as an alternate to the Piedmont League's Eastern Division All-Star team. Alas, my brief baseball career peaked at 10. It was pretty much downhill from there.
Now, I'd like to tell you the adjustments Joe Santos made to my stance along with the pitching advice he imparted that summer account for the great transformation. However, I suspect, in truth, something more precious and less esoteric explains why I flourished that second year-- an explanation which, perhaps, brings us back to Mr. Torre.
Sure, I received an invaluable lesson in baseball mechanics. But Joe Santos taught me something more important. He taught me I didn't suck, after all. He put his arm on my shoulder and explained that great truth every baseball player, some day, discovers: that the very best in the game, fail more often than not. And he instilled in me, more importantly, the confidence that with every new at-bat and every forthcoming pitch, I had sufficient ability to overcome the last one.
In so many words the message rang, "It's a tough game and you WILL fail, but my arm will never leave your shoulder. My faith in you is boundless, unconditional and enduring."
In the superb film, "Searching For Bobby Fisher"-- adapted by Steven Zallian from the book Innocent Moves Fred Waitzkin wrote about his chess prodigy son, Joshua-- Fred Waitzkin (Joe Mantegna) and his wife Bonnie Waitzkin (Joan Allen), in a climactic moment, clash about the costs competition has exacted on their son. Bonnie has always bridled at it. However, she's indulged her vicariously competitive husband. (For a living, Fred Waitzkin, as it happens, covers the New York Yankees for one of the local newspapers.)
Josh has just suffered through a devastating losing streak and his father has been riding him hard, and in their dramatic scene, Bonnie, worried about the continued consequences for her increasingly sullen and withdrawn son, explodes.
"He's not afraid of losing," she cries, "He's afraid of losing your love. How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their father's love everytime they come up to the plate?" She asks him. "How many?"
"All of them," Fred shouts. All of them? All?
Look, I don't know if Joe Torre would ever qualify as the diamond's managerial equivalent of a chess prodigy. Lord know, his management of the bullpen left much to be desired in his years as Yankees manager, and as he was nostalgic enough to remind us the other night in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS.
But I do know what Derek Jeter has said about him ever since the Yankees and Torre parted ways. It has resonated with me ever since.
"Joe Torre was like a second father to me," Jeter said.
A second father, perhaps, whose love he never could squander; a second father whose unequivocal and infinite faith he could never lose. A second father to him, A second father to us.
How many Yankees grow up afraid of losing their second father's love?
For twelve years, none of them.
And for twelve years, through them, none of us.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
Listening to Brian Cashman is rarely a particularly informative experience, still less a consoling one. Rarely does one talk so much and say so little. Indeed, at the task of a Chief Executive to inspire confidence in the organization he leads and his stewardship of it, the Yankees' GM has never excelled. Perhaps, the old Steinbrenner gag rule compels him to mince words. Perhaps, he fears candor and elaboration will jeopardize future transactions. Perhaps, he just lacks the glibness the 30-second sound byte requires.
Whatever the reason, Yankees fans, by now, have learned not to expect tedium from his semiannual press conferences and obliqueness from the sporadic interviews he grants on talk radio. I wonder whether Cashman realizes that the opacity encourages the very distortion of his record about which he now complains. Because he chooses to veil the front-office's inner workings in secrecy and darkness, fans construe what the few select columnists and reporters with access to the inner sanctum reveal as the gospel truth.
So while Brian Cashman has held the title of GM for over ten years now, we're really no closer now than when the Yankees promoted him to a definitive evaluation of his performance. Did he advocate the Mussina signing? What about Carl Pavano, Jared Wright, and John Lieber? Did he engineer the trades for Javier Vasquez and Kevin Brown? What about the decision that precipitated them, i.e., forfeiting the exclusive negotiating period with Andy Pettitte that led him in 2003 to sign with the Astros? Was Cashman the same guy dissuaded by Pettitte's injured elbow in 2003 but not four years later when he chose to re-sign him instead of acquiring Johan Santana?
Between 1998 and 2005, when he held the GM position in name alone, the Front-Office's decisions occurred behind an impenetrable curtain of faction and unaccountability.
THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS CONTRACT
Still, the veil of ignorance persists largely because Brian, since assuming the title's full powers, has chosen not to lift it. Actually, he and Girardi, together, have intensified the organization's penchant for secrecy. Only now Cashman bridles at its consequence. For ever since the Yankees announced the GM's return earlier this week, Cashman has used the occasion of his press conference and the talk radio tour that follows to vent. The press, he complains, has distorted his record. So does Brian take the occasion to enlighten them by acknowledging which egregious over the last decade he did not render but the press nonetheless has unfairly attributed to him? No, of course not.
Actually, the indignation Cashman has affected and the defiance he has expressed, given how the Yankees fared this season, has caused me to wince more than once at its flagrant temerity. Joe Torre loses in the ALDS three years in a row and he incurs the organization's wrath, threats of dismissal one year, a salary cut the next. For some reason, the Yankees want their manager to apologize for not winning a World Series since 2000 and to agree to performance incentives to spur him to do better.
And the man who served as GM during the identical period? Well not only is he rewarded, not only is he not the least bit contrite, he is outright defiant. Evidently, he think he has performed brilliantly. What chutzpah!
Appearing on Max Kellerman's program on October 2, 2008, Cashman lambasted the media for not "getting their story straight." He didn't traipse into the organization in 1998 and inherit the championship core Gene Michael and Bob Watson assembled, he admonishes. No, says Cashman, people forget he was the Assistant GM under Bob Watson and the Assistant Farm director before that.
Too bad, Brian doesn't seem to understand where this logic takes him. Because if he deserves credit for the farm system's great successes in drafting and cultivating the dynastic foundation that won four World Series in six years, then so too, he deserves blame for the woefully deficient system that in the eight following years failed to produce a single commensurate talent. One accounting follows from the other. You are either responsible for Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, Bernie, Mo AND Dave Parish, John Ford Griffin, Danny Walling, Jon Poterson and C.J Henry or for NEITHER. Which is it?
Still, listening to Brian insinuate besides that he was instrumental in the Yankees' trade of Roberto Kelly for Paul O'Neil recalled to mind Tom Harkin's famous retort about Bush I: that is, "President G.H.W. Bush was born on 3rd base and thinks he hit a triple."
Likewise was Brian Cashman responsible. When the physical strain of working for George sent Gene Michael and Bob Watson around the bases one time too many, they retired to the bench and the Yankees sent Brian Cashman in to pinch-run. Sure he ended up standing on 3rd base, but it ain't because he hit a triple.
I'd grant him far more credibility if he acknowledged his mistakes besides. After all, when was the last time the Yankees GM allowed that about a major decision concerning the Yankees' future, he erred? (Confessing this off-season in Theo Epstein's presence that perhaps he didn't get enough talent in return for Mike Lowell ten years ago hardly qualifies.) More importantly, does Cashman admits to the errors privately? His recent display of unapologetic arrogance would suggest not. Actually, his farcical defense of Carl Pavano this year-- and implicitly thereby his signing of him-- begs the question whether Cashman ever believes he's wrong.
One would think that the season after the Yankees missed the playoff for the first time in fifteen seasons -- even if injuries largely explain why-- and with the organization nonetheless planning to raise ticket prices to new unprecedented heights, that their foremost public official would try to assuage his angry and exasperated fan base. One would think the Yankees' fate this season would counsel remorse, some solace or assurance from the GM it's an aberration, a contrite mea culpa perhaps. Cashman however is totally unrepentant. You'd think he just won the World Series rather than a contract extension.
Most infuriating still, with every passing day, the Yankees' prospect for signing CC Sabathia seems to dim. With every passing day, the Rays and Red Sox, increasingly show the signs of having dynastic pitching staffs. With every passing day, the Yankees' outlook for 2009 appears no more promising than their 2008. With every passing day, it looks more and more like the front-office squandered a once in a decade opportunity last off-season to acquire an ace in his prime and without surrendering their premiere prospect, Joba Chamberlain, to do so.
And yet, Cashman expresses no regrets, he issues no apologies, he instead insists, still, that in forsaking Santana, he made the right decision. Why? Because in 2012, when Mariano and Posada have retired and Jeter and A-Rod have devolved into average hitters, Phil Hughes, might, just might, be a 1 or a 2 starter. And if so, by then, will it matter? Will it matter if the Yankees' lineup produces as many runs as the 2008 Blue Jays.
The only thing missing from Cashman's public protests is the MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner hanging in the background, under which it would be fitting for him to deliver all his press conferences.
Then at least he'd have finished the picture his little fit of pique intimates. Then, the parallels with the Bush family would be complete.
Cashman and Dubya each would have arrived on 3rd base and tried to steal 2nd.