It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone – A. Bartlett Giamatti
I fell in love with baseball in the summer of ’78. My Yankees were busy playing out the string in hopes of finishing second to the powerhouse Red Sox. At the midway point of the season, Boston was on pace to break the Cleveland Indians regular season record of 111 wins. Led by a crusty baseball lifer in Don Zimmer, the Sawx were ready to put the pain of their agonizing World Series loss to the Big Red Machine in ’75 to bed for once and for all.
What a team it was. Fisk, Burleson, Remy, Rice, Lynn, Tiant, Eckersley, Hobson, Torrez, Scott, Evans, and of course there was Yaz. They were the modern day ’27 Yankees, and if I hadn’t sworn my allegiance to all things pinstripes, I would’ve been a Sox fan. No doubt in my mind.
As it was, my favorite baseball player happened to play for the hated rivals. Jim Rice. The man could hit a baseball with such ferocity that it defied imagination and put physics in its rightful place. I emulated his batting stance; compact and methodical before opening up into a bloody murder swing whose propulsion lay somewhere within the purview of NASA. He was my first baseball crush, and damn if I still don’t feel eleven years old when I think on that swing of his.
The Red Sox were the business of Rice and his hitman routine that laid waste to opposing pitchers, and it was the pleasure of a Bill Lee interview that spoke on topics that had not a blessed thing to do with baseball. Even then, I was plenty fine with giving it up to a team this interesting, this good. I wanted to see history, and as it ends up, I got the best of both worlds.
My Yankees made up a fourteen and a half game deficit to the Sox, which led to a one game winner take all showdown in Boston. Ron Guidry went against Mike Torrez. And then there was Bucky “Fucking” Dent hitting one over the wall, and then there was Fenway going quiet as church, and then there was Nettles cradling that mile high pop up down the third base line off the bat of Yastrzemski. And then it was the rest of my baseball rooting life, scavenging for moments like that one, and finding them.
A Yankee fan with favorite moments is like an Apple investor with pin money. It’s a no shit, tell me something I don’t know proposition. There was Don Mattingly’s MVP run in the mid eighties. Donnie Baseball was the left handed compliment to that Jim Rice swing. These men were more interesting striking out than most players are hitting home runs. There was the Jim Leyritz home run off Mark Wohlers in Game Four of the ’96 World Series that changed everything. There were a couple swings by Scott Brosius in the ’98 Series against the Padres that served as testimony to just how relentless a club they were that season. The Jeter flip against the A’s is iconic. There was this Johnny Damon moment that doesn’t get talked about nearly as much as it should, considering as how it won the World Series for the Yankees back in ’09. My opinion, and I’m sticking to it.
That’s probably what I love most about this time of year. Those little moments that may not get the same play as the great big highlight reel conversation pieces do. For every Mookie Wilson slow roller through the legs of Buckner, or Kirk Gibson home run smash against the backdrop of tail lights, or Joe Carter series clincher, there were preceding moments that helped forge the impossible.
A couple of my all time favorite baseball memories came in Yankees losses The first one is so innocuous, it almost embarrasses me to admit I remember it. It was a Paul O’Neill slide in Game Five of the ’97 ALDS against the Indians. The defending champs were down to their final out against the Tribe when O’Neill gutted out an at bat to keep our hopes alive, if only temporarily. He finally coaxed a single out of his bat, and then proceeded to take second base when the outfielder proved slow in retrieving the ball. The ENTIRE SEASON rested on his daredevil move, but his thinking was to get into scoring position, and damn if he wasn’t right to take that incredible chance. It ended up being a moot point soon after, but I remember thinking to myself, with players like O’Neill on our side? We were going to be back. The next year began a streak of three straight World Series titles, and I can honestly say I saw it coming with Paul O’Neil’s slide into second base in a game five loss in Cleveland. Plain as day.
I have nothing good to say about 2001. It was a year that began with surgery to remove cancerous growths and ended with me standing mere yards from a cauldron of hateful enterprise on the Southern tip of Manhattan in October. I was one of those people who would have been fine with the MLB shutting down its business after September 11th. The world had changed, and baseball seemed a triviality we didn’t have time for as we mourned the loss of 2.996 souls.
The dimensionality of something as simple as a baseball diamond would prove me wrong. Turns out, the routine of a baseball game was just the tonic for an upside down world . And it’s where I fell in love with how the Mets wore those firefighter caps and it’s where I became a fan of Bobby Valentine for life. And then there was the Jeter flip, and then my Yankees were in the World Series again. And then it was Game Seven, ninth inning in Arizona with Mariano Rivera looking to give his closing argument on the last three outs of a baseball season.
‘Mo was the gold standard of relief pitchers. It was like this: Death, taxes and Mariano Rivera in the ninth. Somehow, the Yankees had defied logic and an aging roster to make it within three outs of a fourth straight title. Before it was over, those three outs proved as elusive as a three bedroom condo on Mars and ‘Mo had proven mortal after all. The Diamondbacks- four years old- had taken down the establishment, they had toppled the King. I remember sitting in a sports bar surrounded by friends who all had one thing in common. They hated the Yankees. When it was over, they bought me one last round and I let them know I didn’t need their pity and they let me know I wasn’t getting it. And I remember thinking how great it felt having my friends ditch all the concern over my health and get back to giving me shit. And that Yankees triumph that had gone Longfellow in the span of a few at bats? That was alright too. Because a parade down the Canyon of Heroes would have been an absurd leisure given the fire that was still burning itself out where the World Trade Center had once stood. No, losing made all the sense in the world. Because it was testimony to the purpose that was engendered in the trying.
So this year happens, with all hell breaking loose across the MLB landscape. We have three clubs- Toronto, New York and Kansas City- with a combined total of eighty one years worth of title drought. And that’s not even mentioning the one hundred and seven years the Cubs are towing. And none of it matters right now, because it’s October, and the ‘anything can happen’ theme? . . Is happening. This is as delicious a postseason menu as I can remember.
Four teams standing, and you get the feeling that anyone can win this thing. Really, truly. There’s no prohibitive favorite to speak of, just four teams looking to win the last game of the season and provide history with a big fat middle finger in the process. The Yankees, are nowhere to be found, and you know what?
I feel like that eleven year old kid.