I became a baseball fan through being a Yankee fan. You wouldn’t think a little boy in Fort Worth, Texas, would have a religious devotion to the Bronx Bombers; but after CBS became majority owner of the club in 1964, The Game of the Week naturally wasn’t going to cover the Cardinals or Cubs or Tigers on Saturday afternoon (unless Detroit was playing New York). Dizzy Dean grew so livid over the monopoly that he couldn’t abstain from deprecating the whole arrangement over the air… which eventually cost him his job. I can still hear Diz disclaiming, “It ain’t my fault, it ain’t Peewee’s fault, and it sure ain’t good ol’ Falstaff’s fault.” (Is Falstaff Beer even brewed any more?)
So it came to pass, at any rate, that I knew the entire Yankee line-up by heart, and had photos of most of them yellowing away on my bedroom wall. Mickey and Roger, Yogi and Whitey, Moose and Cletis and Bobby… Elston Howard, Tony Kubek, Hector Lopez, John Blanchard… tall Ralph Terry, diminutive Luis Arroyo, Bill Stafford and Hal Reniff and… well, I could have gone on and on. My pride and joy was my Yankee cap. I never forgave my parents for emptying my closet of a 1962 World Series program, given to me by my grandfather, when they moved from our old house as I was away at college.
Then the Sixties wore into the Seventies. I lost track of baseball. I lost track of childhood. I got to worrying about being drafted into the Vietnam War; and, when that storm was weathered, I worried further about what I was going to do in life. I didn’t seem to be very good at anything that would actually make a living wage.
About all I remember of baseball from the Seventies was a young Cesar Cedeño. If my grandfather (the same one who had bought me the Yankee program) had the Astros going on TV as I wandered through his den, and if Cesar were at the plate, I stopped whatever I was doing. It’s not every day that you see a future Hall of Famer just hitting his stride. In retrospect, it wasn’t on any of those days, either.
In 1984, twenty years after the slimy Topping and Webb sold the Yankees, I was released from the University of Texas with a doctoral degree that would qualify me to teach any one of three or four dead languages to any one of the two or three colleges where they were taught. Practically speaking, I could go back to teaching high school, or I could take a series of year’s-contract gigs teaching Collegiate Freshman Composition and mopping toilets. I recall the 1981 Dodgers as a beam of light in my dismal grad-school years. They had finally beaten the Yankees! My grandparents now dead and gone, sitting in the lonely kitchen of an antebellum house that lingered quite a while on the market, I pumped my grandmother’s ancient rocker back and forth as the scrappy Lopes and Russell and the explosive Garvey and Cey redeemed themselves against—who else?—the Yankees! Reggie and Willie Randolph and Bobby Murcer were, for once, not enough. But… what had happened? What had transformed me, a monastic misfit squirreled away under his papers in Austin, into a Yankee-hater? Mickey, Yogi, Whitey… when had I abandoned you guys?
Of course, the answer was George Steinbrenner. The team that the boy had once adored was now essentially the American League All-Star team bought by the fattest wallet in the game. That was obscene, to my idealistic young mind. Any player who was a difference-maker and on the market ended up on George’s squad; and if they didn’t win everything, then George wasn’t happy at all. A turnstile of managers and scandals was always feeding the newspapers. Nothing that might make that beloved old game resurface seemed to have survived.
I wanted so much for Steinbrenner‘s teams to lose! I wanted them to lose every day—which, of course, they didn’t come close to doing. They practically didn’t lose once a week. I really wanted them to lose in the postseason. It was a ethical issue now.
Looking back, I realize that free agency was long overdue and that baseball players didn’t deserve to be slaves, any more than any other human being. But the game that I returned to as a young man had lost something of its charm, its magic. When I was a boy, really stand-out players remained with one team throughout most or all of their career. Norm Cash and Al Kaline were Tigers. Ernie Banks and Ron Santo were Cubs. Willie and Juan were the Giants. Stan Musial inked a hundred-thousand-dollar contract with the Cardinals before the 1958 season, even though Augie Busch and everyone else knew that The Man’s best years were behind him. Where was the new Ernie Banks now? The occasional George Brett won my devotion to small-market teams like the Royals… the Bretts were fewer and fewer; and, frankly, because of the owner’s skinny wallet, such teams seldom cracked the first division.
I remained a Dodger fan for a few years after the 1981 glory days. Once I got settled into my new professional life, however (or settled, I should say, into a degree of perpetual unsettlement), I discovered the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Cubs through TBS and WGN. Just as CBS’s Game of the Week had done for the Yanks, familiarity bred fondness. The team you see regularly is the team you get to know and like. So now I was a follower of Murphy, Zane Smith, Chris Chambliss, Bob Horner, and Jeff Treadway. Yet especially because the Cubs were starting to become pretty good about now, I became a more enthusiastic fan of Dawson and Sandburg, Leon Durham and Keith Moreland, Shawon Dunstan and Jody Davis, Rick Sutcliffe and Les Lancaster. I could have named practically that whole team, just as I could my beloved Yankees of twenty-five years earlier. They darn near went to the World Series, those Cubs. They should have gone; but the Giants discovered that Sandberg couldn’t hit anything but a fastball when he tried to carry the offense on his shoulders, and Dawson came within a breath of driving a pitch out of Candlestick that would have changed everything.
All of this is the long way around to making the admission that I just couldn’t get into the World Series this year. I, one-time Dodger fan, was now rooting for the Rays. From the start of this truncated season, I decided that I hated the Dodgers. I liked a lot of individual players: Kershaw, Turner, Bellinger… I liked them as ballplayers, and as human beings. But then, I’d liked a lot of Steinbrenner’s Yankees, too: yet taking them as a team, I found them detestable. So for LA in the Year of the Plague. I really wanted the Dodgers to lose last week. Their money paved the way to ultimate success: three cheers, hip-hip-hooray! Now we’re back to the fattest pocket book winning it all.
Unless you just happen to be linked geographically to the location where the richest owners are writing the fattest checks, it’s hard to cheer any one of the three or four bullies in the MLB. I know I’m not alone in registering that sentiment. Someone remarked to me the other day that baseball desperately needs a salary cap. Maybe. I won’t pretend to have the answer. My personal preference, though, would be to see the trade deadline moved much farther forward. It used to precede the All Star Game. What about fixing it on June 30… or even June 1? Seeing a radically transformed team take the field in September because a 55-year-old spoiled brat sold China a few islands to buy Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Max Scherzer… well, it isn’t sporting. It just isn’t.
There are a lot of things in our society that will never be the same again. I wonder if baseball is among the very few that might be revived?