Night Lights Classic Jazz

Talkin’ Baseball: The Year The Yankees Won The Pennant

Music for baseball's Opening Day and a look back at a magical season for the most hated team in the game.

Opening Day

Photo: Kevin Ward

Batter up!

In honor of baseball’s Opening Day, this week’s Afterglow show Play Ball! The National Pastime in Popular Song, will feature musical trips to the field of dreams. Hear music by classic American singers, including:

  • Nat King Cole
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Count Basie
  • Dave Frishberg

And here, on the brink of a new season, is a remembrance of the one just past:

The Year The Yankees Won The Pennant: Confessions Of A Devoted Fan

I am a New York Yankees fan.

If you perceive a sense of confession in that standalone sentence-paragraph, you are correct. Among those who follow baseball — and even among some who do not — there is an onus placed on cheering for the Yankees. A few years ago a friend of mine inadvertently discovered my pinstripe loyalty and called me up on the phone. “So…you’re a Yankees fan,” he said, his voice curdling with disdain. I got the distinct sense that I might have been slightly better off if he’d learned instead that I was a portfolio investor who’d swindled numerous senior citizens out of their life savings.

Why are the Yankees so hated? So hated that a long-running popular musical, Damn Yankees, operates on the premise that a Washington Senators fan is willing to sell his soul to the devil in order to become a superlative ballplayer who can singlehandedly defeat them? David Halberstam’s classic October 1964 lays out many of the reasons, painting the franchise as an imperial corporate victory machine — an image that George Steinbrenner only furthered after buying the team in the 1970s and stocking it with high-priced free agents. With their two-dozen-plus world championships, the Yankees are generally considered to be the most dominant team in the history of professional sports. But I came to them through a strange mix of historical interest and pure chance that had nothing to do with any knowledge of their winning tradition. In fact, at the time they were just beginning to emerge from the death throes of the dynastic collapse that Halberstam foreshadows in his book.

In 1974 I was 8 years old, living in a leafy Indianapolis city-park neighborhood, and obsessed with the Civil War – militantly pro-North in my ideological sympathies. I was also playing Little League baseball and looking for a big-league team to follow. Perusing the sports pages one day, I came across a mention of the Yankees in an American League scores round-up and had my first eureka moment. Later that afternoon I bought a packet of Topps baseball cards at the neighborhood drug-store; when I opened them, Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke was at the top of the deck, bearing a chalky sprinkling of pink bubblegum dust. I’ve been a Yankees fan ever since.

There have been many memorable moments since that 1974 conversion: walking home from school on a warm autumn afternoon in 1978, listening to the Yankee-Boston tiebreaker playoff game on my transistor radio when Bucky Dent hit the home run that would ultimately win the Yankees the division — another storied chapter, along with Yankee Aaron Boone’s 2003 walk-off homer, in the “Curse of the Bambino” saga that haunted the Red Sox from 1920 until 2004, when they became the first team in baseball history to erase a 3-0 series deficit and finally defeated New York in an epic showdown. (How appropriate for the mythology of baseball, that such an unprecedented feat was required to ultimately snap the spell!) Then there were the incredible back-to-back 9th-inning, two-out, game-tying home runs in Games 4 and 5 of the 2001 World Series that helped a traumatized New York City, still reeling from the 9/11 attacks of a few weeks before, begin to recover a sense of itself.

Such moments, of course, have also helped make the Yankees the team that everyone loves to hate. (Not just Boston fans!) It’s easy to forget, though, that in the Steinbrenner big-bucks era New York went for many seasons without making the playoffs, surely proving that money can’t buy a championship, if sometimes it can help. In October of 1995 I was helping my father move back to Indiana from Austin, Texas, making the long last stretch of the trip in a single evening, and we were listening to Game 2 of the Yankees-Seattle Mariners playoff on the cab radio of a U-Haul truck. It was New York’s first postseason appearance in 14 years, and the game went into extra innings. The signal faded in and out and many times we could barely understand the announcers through the crowd noise and the static, as we drove into a seemingly endless American highway night, with the game itself going on and on until Jim Leyritz hit a home run in the bottom of the 14th inning to win it for the Yanks (who would ultimately lose what one author calls baseball’s greatest series). As elated as I was, I was almost sad that the game had ended–the darkness of the truck cab, the distant excitement of the broadcast, the unbelieving grins of disbelief my father and I exchanged as inning after inning passed etched themselves into one collective moment of memory that I cherish to this day.

Particular seasons stand out as well—manager Joe Torre’s 1996 debut year, which had enough human-interest and Hollywood-cliché storylines to make a boys’ sports fiction author blush. The seemingly invincible 1998 team. The brawling, Billy-Martin-led Bronx Bombers of 1977. And yet I think the 2009 edition of the Yankees might be my favorite one to date.

There was shortstop and future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter passing Lou Gehrig as the all-time Yankees hits leader, further ensconcing him in the team’s legendary pantheon of heroes that includes Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle. There were the lighthearted antics of new arrivals pitcher A.J. Burnett and outfielder Nick Swisher, who brought a much-needed sense of levity to the Yankee clubhouse. There was the continuing, still-staggering presence of the so-called “Core 4”—Jeter, pitcher Andy Pettitte, reliever Mariano Rivera, and catcher Jorge Posada (speaking of lighthearted moments), who have now all played for the Yankees going on 15 years (excepting Pettite’s brief three-year sojourn as a Houston Astro). Four such stellar players (all of them products of the Yankee farm system) staying together with one team for so long is unheard of these days, a real throwback to the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodger teams of the 1950s. But the most pleasing narrative was the redemption of third baseman Alex Rodriguez.

Over the past few years Rodriguez has become one of the most vilified athletes in professional sports, castigated for his huge salary, his racy night life, and most especially for his stunningly mediocre playoff performances as a Yankee. He got off to a terrible start in 2009—during spring training he was forced to admit that he’d taken steroids for several years while he was playing with the Texas Rangers. Then hip surgery sidelined him for the first month of the season. What happened next sounds like something out of a Hollywood movie like The Natural. Upon his return, Rodriguez hit a home run on his very first swing. In August, he snapped the worst power slump of his career and ended a scoreless 15-inning game with a home run against Boston that dashed whatever remaining hopes the Red Sox had for overtaking the Yankees in the American League East. Going into the last game of the season, Rodriguez had 28 home runs and 93 RBI, and it appeared that his streak of reaching at least 30 homers and 100 RBI for 12 years in a row would end. What happened? In one single inning, he hit a three-run homer, came up again, and launched a grand-slam, leaving him with exactly 30 home runs and 100 RBI for the year. Finally there was his astonishing performance in the playoffs, where time after time he came through with clutch hits that kept the Yankees alive or won games for them. He seemed a new man, and throughout it all he was happily in love with actress Kate Hudson (some wags proposed that she be given the Yankees’ team Most Valuable Player award). Most of all there was the sheer joy Rodriguez took in being part of a team, of something larger than himself—larger than his impressive stats, his intense but uncertain self-regard, and his freshly-tainted reputation.

I stayed up late into the cool autumn nights to watch the playoffs, keeping the window open the whole time, drinking coffee, shutting off the TV sometimes when the opposing team was at bat and following the game on the Internet instead, nervously pacing the room, because I wanted so much for this to be one of those years that teams sometimes experience in baseball, where a certain kind of karmic alchemy seems to intervene frequently, causing the team’s players to perform extraordinary feats and provoking their opponents to drop easy pop-ups, overrun bases, or make other careless mistakes that cause managers to chomp their gum with a ferocious, overly-studied look of nonchalance. The Yankees had indeed enjoyed such a year, and fortune continued to favor them throughout the 2009 postseason.

The things that I’ll remember from that postseason: Mariano Rivera’s slow, calm walk off the mound after striking out the last Angels batter in the deciding game of the American League championship series, his right fist raised in quiet triumph, his embrace of catcher Jose Posada that followed, like two long-running characters reuniting in a buddy movie. Joe Buck’s call of Alex Rodriguez’ extra-inning home run against the Angels as rain fell late into the New York City night, his elongated delivery as he followed the fly ball’s will-it-or-won’t-it trajectory, watching it shoot into the stands just over the outstretched glove of the leaping right fielder: “In the air to right… back is Abreu, AT THE WALL! That’s gone! Game tied!” The Philadelphia Phillies and the Yankees, two old-school major-league teams arriving in each other’s city for World Series games by train. Johnny Damon’s “what-the-hell-is-he-DOING?” double-steal against the Phillies that turned Game 4—and possibly the entire series—into a Yankee victory. And what Alex Rodriguez said to a reporter as the Yankees were celebrating their series-ending triumph in Game 6: “I wish we could just continue to play. Just show up and play for no reason. We have such a good group of guys. You know. No umpires, no scores. Just show up and have fun, like a softball game.”

Baseball fairy tales always come to an end. Perhaps appropriately enough, Rodriguez and Kate Hudson broke up just a few weeks after the World Series ended, and as 2010 spring training opened Rodriguez again faced questions, this time about his association with a doctor under FBI investigation. Series heroes Damon and Hideki Matsui have gone on to other teams. Lesser players who took center stage in memorable moments, such as Melky Cabrera and Jerry Hairston Jr., are also no longer with the Yankees. This past season, this particular mix of players, was magical, never to be repeated–like all others–except in a fan’s memories. What endures is the narrative, the theater that baseball offers. Of all American sports it speaks most eloquently to history, to the things and people that have come before us. Its season spans the beginning of spring to the end of autumn with 162 games, 162 fresh starts. It invokes timelessness and the possibility of an endless game (there is no clock in baseball), and yet anybody who follows a team for a number of years is painfully aware of how mortal the players are–how somebody can’t quite make a catch he would’ve made just two years ago, or no longer can beat out an infield hit. Ultimately, baseball provides drama after drama of pitchers and hitters, fielders and base-runners, all operating alone and at the same time as a part of something much larger than themselves. It reminds us of what it is to be human, of the wondrous feeling that accompanies the overcoming of any adversity, and of the temporal nature of victory. Prisoners of the self, we attempt innumerable escapes and are inevitably returned to the house of the individual. Redemption is never guaranteed, is never necessarily permanent; on any given day we will have to earn it all over again. The reward is not in the rest but in the striving.

Play ball.

(A slightly different version of this article appeared in The Ryder Magazine)

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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