My anticipation for this time of year has been on pins and needles since April. Since the day this year's baseball season opened, and for me, a New York Yankee fan, it opened like it always has for the past 11 or so years, with the Yankees coming out slow, major injuries hitting them right off the bat, struggling, falling behind, and quickly this year falling way behind the red hot Boston Red Sox who took off like a house afire, leaving the Yankees 5 or 6 games in their dust early on and on up until after the All-Star game.
About a quarter of the way into the season, all eyes turned on the Detroit Tigers, the losingest team in the American for the past three years, losing a record 90 games a couple'a years back. All eyes on the Tigers wanted to know what the hell was going on, the Tigers were on a winning pace that swamped the other teams in the league--it looked like nobody could beat them. It was a group of wunderkind pitchers they had, the winningest pitchers in the league with the lowest team ERA in baseball. But the Yankees were mighty this year, not only the most expensive team in baseball history but also one of the greatest. Statistically, it didn't look like they could lose. F Detroit. They would fold. Everybody knew that.
And off it went. And over in the kiddy league, the Mets caught fire early, too, like a couple'a houses afire, and thus began for me a seven-month baseball trial, an absolute devotion first to the game and then to the Yankees--baseball to me the greatest game ever invented by human beings, a game of several skills going on in the space of 3 multifaceted-fun-filled hours, a game of the never-sure position, even if your team is up by 7 runs--several times this year, in fact it seemed like every game, the Yankees had a 7-run lead only to see it burn slowly away to end up a squeaky-close game right down to the bottom wire in the deepest depths of the last innings. Many times a game wasn't over until the raw hours of the morning; a true baseball fan hangs on in spite of several-hour rain delays, endless scoreless innings, bases-loaded innings where the highest-paid athletes in the world can't get the runs in no matter the lunging homer-hungry attempts they make to blow the ball clean out of the atmosphere much less the ballpark.
I listened to every damn Yankee game there was this year. We Yankee fans here in NYC are handicapped by big bucks and teevee rights squabbles because the Yankees went out and bought their own Cable channel and so you have to pay a hundred bucks a month to see every Yankee game, and then you get a truly boring bunch of fettered announcers that take more away from the game than they add to it. And I can't stand, hell, I hate old ex-ballplayers talking endlessly about themselves--unless it's ancient Ralph Kiner (is he still alive? he's sounded dead on the Mets games for 50 years), or old Dizzy Dean saying, "He slud into thurd with hiz spikes aimed right for that summbitch's eyeballs," or Phil Rizzuto "Holy Cow"-ing at every ball hit beyond his failing eyesight. Anyway, if you don't have Cable in NYC or if you have Cable but not the Cable the Yankees games are on, then you have to listen to the games on the radio. Oh they maybe televise 20 Yankees games a season on commercial television, poor man's television, but that's not enough games for that to be your only source of following the Yankees. But listening to the Yankees games on the radio is an experience in itself because the Yankee radio announcer is John Sterling who's been around since Mike Bossy led the old Islanders to 4 Stanley Cups in a row or something in-the-face-of-Canada like that-- and then he went down to Atlanta and did the Braves games for years before coming back to the Yankees a half-dozen years ago now. John's a great announcer; he keeps you pegged right into the game--except, of course, you have to get used to the constant stream of advertisements they ramble into during the course of the color palaver, every aspect of the broadcast sponsored--from "and now here's the Toyota Corolla scoreboard...." to "this trip to the bullpen is sponsored by Depends, the old folks's diaper all old major leaguers with weak bladders depend on."
I grew up listening to major league games on the radio way out on the bald prairies of West Texas. There were only 8 teams in each league in those days. Ted Williams was still playing when I started listening to baseball games on the radio--Stan Musial was still playing--Lou Boudreaux, Larry Doby, Harry the Cat Breechen, Ewell "the Whip" Blackwell, Hal "The Prince" Newhouser, Mickey Vernon, Eddie Yost, Bob Feller, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Shotgun Shuba--they were on every Saturday afternoon on the Mutual Radio Network; then every night I listened to the Dallas Texas League minor league team whose games were broadcast, at home or away, over a local radio station. The newspapers the next day would give you all the Major League and minor league box scores and recaps of the games. Statistics. Through following the game of baseball, through figuring out batting averages, Earned Run Averages, winning percentages, etc., I learned true statistics and my first year in college the highest grade I made, an A, was in my requisite Statistics course I had to take to become a sociologist/economist. I could give you baseball probabilities at 8 years age based on my little book of statistics I kept on all my favorite teams and players and they'd be pretty accurate. Besides by then I was playing baseball on the sandlots my gang built all around our neighborhood and when we could get a team together, 5-boy teams, we'd play other make-up teams from all over the area--once a visiting team from over on Scyene Road had a girl hind-catcher (it was still called hind-catching in those late 40s and early 50s) one time and I remember her clearly and dearly--I catcalled her, yes, but I was in love with her at the same time--and she played as good as any of us boys, well, except me and G-van, whose father was a stock car racer but who had once played baseball for the Greenville Majors of the East Texas League. G-van's old man had brought home a bunch of miniature bats from the Majors and G-van and I would go out on one of the gravel sidestreets--there were no houses around us then, just vacant lots--and we would throw stones up in the air and hit them with those bats. That's how we got to be good hitters.
Baseball still means more to me when I listen to it on the radio than it does when I watch it on teevee. Even when I watch a game on teevee I close my eyes to get a better perspective of the game; I can easily envision the whole playing field and all the players's playing positions listening to the game on the radio; the whole playing field is something you seldom see on television.
Teevee is awful. The only time you get to see actual baseball being played is when the pitcher goes into his windup and delivers the ball. After that action, either a strike, a ball, or the ball is hit and a play is made, the camera goes away from the game and up the nostrils of players and fans--huge zoomed-in closeups, moving from the pimple-bursting face of the batter over to the first base coach, then right up into the back nasal passages of the pitcher and only after the last nose hair is counted precisely does the camera pull back for the next pitch. Inevitably when these cameras zoom up into the faces of these players these players hawk a loogie and blow it out right straight at the camera. Every baseball player shown on camera spits. I don't give a shit what's going on, baseball players are spitters; and so are baseball managers--they spit like MFers.
When I was a kid listening to my favs on the radio, the announcer would say, "Here's Joe Gordon coming to bat. Wow, look at that wad of tobacky Joe's got pouched in his left cheek..." Ballplayers chewed tobacco. It was in the seventies I think when ballplayers suddenly became role models for kids--such bullshit--that the namby-pamby league bossmen made the boys quit cuttin' a chaw off a plug of tobacky and slip it into their cheeks--hell, they even made 'em stop dippin' snuff--and then there was no Snuffy Sternweiss.
Long gone is the spitter, too. I haven't seen a pitcher accused of throwing a spitter since old Gaylord Perry's days of throwing the "wettest" balls in baseball. Looks like the split-finger fastballs, the cutters, and the sliders have done away with a need for a sneaked gob of spittal on the ball to get that crazy dip-and-doodle advantage pitchers felt it was worth cheating to get in those days; just like the hitters got caught with their syringes shootin' up those muscle-enhancing liquid steroids. Can you imagine Babe Ruth on steroids? "Hey, keed, watch the ole Babe shoot up heer."
But it was one hell of a great baseball season. More people watched baseball this year than ever before. The Mets and the Yankees drew 8 million people to their home games this year, both setting team records, the Yankees going over 4.2 million this year, an average of 52,000 people a game. Phenomenal.
And it looked so good this year for us New York baseball freaks. Damn, I was perfectly sure the Yankees were going to be in the World Series this year, especially after they won 5 straight from the BoSox in August and broke the BoSox backs and left them spinning in the middle of the going-nowhere second-place highway for the rest of the year. And then how the Yanks would eventually pull 11 games ahead of Boston and Toronto to romp away with the Eastern Division championship.
And the Mets, too; no team could whip the Mets, none of them, and the Mets were wiping out every team in all the divisions, and even the inner-league play between the Yankees and the Mets this year was exciting as hell, with Beltran, Delgado, Reyes, and Pedro on hand and Glavine pitching, and later El Duque coming back to NYC to play with Willie and the red hot Mets and Mets fans could feel it. Yankees fans could feel it. We all could taste it, the greatest subway World Series ever, featuring the two winningest teams in the Major Leagues, both finishing with identical records; exactly alike teams; teams dependent on crafty offense, an exploding offense, and they worked, they were the best teams in baseball this year.
And that brings me to a point an old bookie of mine once made when I ask him about placing some baseball bets. He looked at me and said, "You cannot predict no baseball score." Baseball results can only be approximated statistically--baseball is full of statisticians; yet having all the statistics at hand and putting your batting order in a logical order doesn't really matter is your pitching statistics aren't holding up or maybe they are holding up--and the Yankees had a logical batting order, meaning hitters who can get on base leading off, then hitters who can drive in runs (RBIs) batting in the middle of the order and then your weaker hitters batting in the last three slots. The Yankees's ninth hitter all year, Melky Cabrera, hit .277 and played a spectacular left field up until the playoffs and then Joe benched him for Matsui who had missed most of the season with a broken wrist--oh well, so goes logic.
The Yankees seemingly had an invincible offense; a toss-up pitching crew, yes; unreliable until you got to their closer, Mariano Rivera, the smoothest, coolest, and best closer in baseball. Once the Yankees were 11 games up, it was smooth sailing from then on. So the Yanks were riding high; at one time near the end of the season, they were the winningest team in the Majors, surpassing the Mets in winning percentage by 2 points.
Baseball became fun, though the pitching kept getting worse and worse and worse. But the hitting stayed amazin' and the Yankees would let their starters give up 4 and 5 runs, in some instances 7 runs by the 5th inning, you know, get the club behind like 5-0, and then the mighty Yanks would come back, BAM, BOOM, and suddenly it would be 8-5 Yankees in bottom of the ninth and Mariano is striking out the side for another Yankee win.
We can't lose! Yankee fans were boasting.
Yet, here I sit tonight in my room where the radio is normally blaring out the cheering, cursing, hoopla-ing, boo-birding, yeehawing, ahhh shit swooning of a huge bowlful of baseball fans.... But there's none of that tonight. It's quiet as a mouse. There's no crowd noise. No incessant drums beating. No calvary charges being trumpeted, no "Bernie, Bernie, Bernie" being chanted...no big fat nutjob Kate Smith singing "Jehovah Loves Amurica."
Damn sad it is. I deserved better than this this year.
Must feel great to be a Tigers fan tonight. Must be great to be a Cardinals fan tonight. I never liked Tony LaRusso--he's too arrogant for me; never liked Jim Leyland either. I always considered Joe Torre the best manager ever in baseball. And I was hopin' Willie Randolph was coming right along in Joe's shoes. Why I could see Willie taking the Mets all the way and then when Joe retired Willie would come over to the Yankees and all would be hunky-dory. See how Yankees fans think?
Nobody hates losing like a Yankee fan. Yankee fans are looking for revenge for this year and we'll get it; old George Steinbrenner is a natural-born loser and those kind of guys depend on others to make them winners and when those others leave them standing naked as the losers they really are then these losers get really pissed and their ax chops the hell off a bunch of heads. Heads will roll on the Yankees.
The Mets. Wow. I could believe the Yankees lost--their pitching so sucked by the playoffs all Yankees fans had defeat in the far backends of their minds--it had to be considered. But the Mets. Jeez, those nice young men with that great nice manager, so wise, so New York, man.
Yankee Stadium is in a horrible darkness tonight, a cold, damp, overcast night. Shea Stadium is in horrible darkness, too, tonight--and it's the same cold, dank, dundrearied night out in Flushing. There is no life where just a few nights ago hundreds of thousands of human beings were screaming and believing and were getting their hopes up and then...shit, they were all dashed and then up again and then dashed again...finally, DAMN, LIGHTS OUT for both our New York City teams.
I'll forget the Yankees losing 4 straight to the Detroit Tigers in the playoffs; but I'll never forget the 2006 season; and I'll be right back in it again come April 1 in 2007, ready to go at it again come hell or high water, go at it again night after night after day after day for 152 long, grueling games. Come next October, as Red Barber used to say, "I expect to be sittin' high in the catbird seat" on the backs of my Yankees, on our way to another playoff series.
The Mets? I leave my Mets's fan friends to worry over them. I'm pretty sure it's gonna be another great year for our New York teams; and I'm pretty sure the Mets and the Yankees will be right there again at the end of the regular year this next year, again trying once again to go all the way the Amurican way.
But tonight. Damn, I don't know what to do. Guess I'll waste time and watch teevee.
for The Daily Growler