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June 18, 2012

When the Yankees Didn't Always Win

Bronx Banter founder Alex Belth became a Bombers fan back when they weren't dominant, which has shaped his deep relationship with the storied team.

Patrick Burns

The New York Yankees have the most name recognition in all of baseball, maybe of all sports. The franchise's name is associated with winning, greatness, tradition, and similarly grand ideas you'll hear about on those "glory boys" specials. That reputation makes the Yankees news beat, both online and in print, a crowded affair. It's easy for good work to get lost in a sea of corporate-funded mush, and sports-radio chatter disguised as "coverage." And because of the ease of starting a blog, there are loads out there. It can take years for people to notice and care about what you have to say.

Alex Belth
"The way you root for your team, no matter what team it is, is tied to your childhood."

Alex Belth

Alex Belth has managed to make Bronx Banter stand out in the clutter since he founded the Yankees blog nearly 10 years ago. Sure, Belth sometimes does the typical recap of the prior night's game, but he also interviews some of the best writers in baseball, and writes long essays about a current or former member of the Yankees.

Belth's essay on Hideki Kuroda, the Japanese pitcher the Yankees acquired last offseason, is an in-depth look at Kuroda's journey from Japan to New York and the majors. But, like most of his work, Belth blends in his own voice and thoughts throughout the piece, making the feature more than a simple profile of a player. It's a look at Belth, as a fan.

Gelf spoke with Belth on growing up as a fan, the oft-forgotten Yankees teams of the 1980s, what the future holds for the franchise, and, of course, A-Rod.

Gelf Magazine: One of the unique aspects of the Yankees, thanks to their long history, is how different generations identify with different players. Guys in their 20s—who grew up rooting for Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte—have an entirely different fan experience than do fans in their 50s who got to see Reggie Jackson, Willie Randolph, and Thurman Munson in their prime. And both will differ from the experience of fans who got to see Mantle and DiMaggio, and so on. How do those different perspectives affect the overall narrative of the Yankees?

Alex Belth: I never thought about it that way, but I think the way you root for your team, no matter what team it is, is tied to your childhood. At least for most of us. I have a cousin who didn't become interested in baseball until he was in his 20s, so that's his so-called childhood as a fan.
I was six years old when the Yankees won the World Series in 1977. My memories of that year, and of the following season, are vague but it is when I became a fan, so, yeah, guys like Reggie and Randolph, Guidry, Chambliss, Nettles, and Munson were my first Yankee heroes.
But I came of age during the 1980s when the Yankees, had good but flawed teams. What stood out to me as a constant during that time was that the enemy was George Steinbrenner—the way he thought he could arrange for success, as Roger Angell once put it. He'd get Davey Collins or Steve Kemp or Jack Clark and think that was all that needed to be done. And then he'd humiliate them when they didn't play well, never mind the scrubs he aired out in the press. Manager and general manager of the Yankees seemed like the worst jobs in the world.
I feel as attached to average players from that time, guys like Mike Pagliarulo, Dan Pasqua, and Bobby Meacham, as much as I do to Don Mattingly, Rickey Henderson, and Dave Winfield. I loved those guys, too. Maybe this is a romantic notion, but there is something that draws fans of a certain age together because they rooted for the Yankees when they weren't necessarily winning each year. It's the, "We were going to games back when Oscar Azócar was playing for Stump Merrill's left ass cheek." You know, back when Yankee Stadium was half-full on a good night, in the early '80s, when Melle Mel was leading the bleacher creatures, when dudes smoked weed casually in the stands, and when you were generally scared because, well, you were in the South Bronx. And then you start throwing out the names—Steve Balboni, Jerry Mumphrey, Dennis Rasmussen.
That's one reason I loved Dan Barry's essay in Damn Yankees, because he writes about the Celerino Sánchez Yankees of the late 1960s and early '70s. I'd like to think that fans my age don't feel the same kind of entitlement about winning as younger fans might, but who knows? I've got an uncle who is 80 and grew up with DiMaggio and then the great Casey Stengel teams, and he always assumes they'll win. Five-, 10-year dry spell? Drop in the bucket. They'll win again.

Gelf Magazine: Regarding Steinbrenner as an enemy of the team, even when they were back to winning championships again, there was still a contingent of fans who hated the guy. His story alone is the stuff of Hollywood: It's swept under the rug now, but an owner of a franchise was banned from baseball because he tried to dig up dirt on a player on his own team. Do you think he'll continue to be (mostly) remembered fondly, thanks to the '90s dynasty?

Alex Belth: Remember, George was suspended twice, the first time having to do with illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon's reelection. The irony there was that George had been a Democrat.
I think because of the great success in the late 1990s, Steinbrenner's legacy will be viewed differently than it might have otherwise. The Yankees won more championships during George's time owning the team than any other franchise. He spent the most money and won the most. Perhaps he will be viewed as a "character" in years to come.
Nostalgia is a funny thing. I am nostalgic for the New York of my childhood and that was a dangerous, unsettling place. Would I really want it back? It's easy now to laugh about George. He was a mixed bag. In some ways he was a terrific owner because he wanted to win seemingly at any cost. But he also was a nasty, vindictive, and cruel man. Charitable, too. But that doesn't balance out what a son of a bitch he was.

Gelf Magazine: You remarked, when interviewing Rob Fleder about Damn Yankees, that the book stood out to you so much that it should be required reading for not even a Yankees fan, but someone who just loves baseball. What was it about the book that stuck with you?

Alex Belth: Well, it's not a typical Yankee book with all the horseshit reverence. There are plenty of essays that are critical of the team, starting with Frank Deford's. Also, there's Charlie Pierce's story, which is about loyalty and ethnicity and why you root for teams, and it only is secondarily about the Yankees. Or Colum McCann's story about feeling like an American through watching baseball with his children. Yeah, the Yankees are his kids' favorite team, but it could easily be the Mets or any other team. And then you get an essay from Pete Dexter, who is one of our best writers and certainly one of my favorites, that is so strange and funny, you'd want to read it on principle. Of all the Yankees that he identifies, with it's Chuck Knoblauch. Might as well have been Hideki Irabu. Leave it to Dexter, man. And it's a great piece. So a book like Damn Yankees you read for the writing and the writers. I would have been as attracted to it had they all written about the Red Sox or the Toledo Mud Hens.

Gelf Magazine: Why do you think some authors are afraid to show anything other than the "glory boys" picture those Yankees books tend to paint?

Alex Belth: Blow-job books about the Yankees sell, that's why. I don't think it's fear, but common sense. If you want to make money, unless you are writing a behind-the-scenes-tell-all, which hasn't been done in earnest since the Bronx Zoo crowd (Lyle, Nettles, Reggie), writing pro-Yankees books is the way to go. Did you ever read Bat Boy, by Matt McGough? That was a nice Yankees book.

Gelf Magazine: I haven't, but I'm definitely interested now. Continuing on the subject of Yankees books, You've edited your own on Yankee Stadium. You were asked a few years ago whether the new Yankee Stadium would ever develop its own unique identity, or if it would just become another ballpark. What changes have you seen in the atmosphere at the new place in the last couple of seasons? Alex Belth: I'm not sure I've seen much change in the new park itself since it opened. It is an unremarkable place in many ways and even Yankee Stadium II paled in comparison to the original place, at least from what I've heard and can see in pictures. The new facility is a lot like other modern parks—it might be a little bigger, of course, but I don't know that there is much to distinguish it, at least aesthetically. The great hall is appealing, a nice open space. What it is, is more comfortable, and I've gotten used to that and like that a good deal. And what gives it any character that it has, of course, are the people who go there. Gelf Magazine: You started Bronx Banter back in 2002. It's been a somewhat tumultuous decade for the Yankees, with huge spending in free agency that didn't always pan out, the aging of the late '90s dynasty, a new owner, and, after an eight-year drought, their 27th championship. When Yankees fans look back on the 2000s decades from now, what will the overall narrative be, and do you think it will differ from your own take?

Alex Belth: Oh, jeez, I can only guess as to what the 2000s will be remembered for. The tough part is following up the first part of the Joe Torre Era, the 1996-2001 run. They signed stars like Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson, and Godzilla Matsui, and made the big trade for Alex Rodriguez. They had some bad deals in there like Steve Karsay, Rondell White, and Kei Igawa, never mind Carl Pavano. There might be a sense that the Yankees reverted to their old ways in that regard, but really, there was no place to go but down. Still, the team was still very good, made the playoffs all but one time, and made the transition away from Torre smoothly with Joe Girardi. More importantly, they continued to be a winning organization after the Boss stopped running the team.
Rodriguez is the most disliked great Yankee player in my lifetime—more than Reggie, more than Winfield—and I don't know that fans who dislike Rodriguez now will ever change their minds in the future. The impression—the false notion that he's a choker, that he hasn't been a "true Yankee," whatever that means—might harden with time. He's brought some of the heat on himself by having two left feet when it comes to his "image," but that clumsiness, no matter how off-putting, is what I like about him. "Like" might be the wrong word. But it's what drew me to him: his insecurity. It made me want to root for him. Plus, he's just a beautiful player to watch, with a great all-around game.
Anyhow, I think the feelings about the 2000s will remain mostly positive because of Jeter, Rivera, and Posada, Pettitte, and Bernie Williams. Especially Jeter and Rivera. The 2000s was still their time. And they did win another Series in 2009. When Rivera and Jeter leave, that is when things will change, emotionally, for the first time in a generation.

Gelf Magazine: It seems like, going forward, they're getting back to the formula that brought them the dynasty in the '90s: scouting, smart trading, building up their farm system through the draft, and acquiring guys in free agency only when they present a clear upgrade from their current situation.

Alex Belth: Yeah, they seem to have a model now and are a more stable organization than during George's days, when fear ruled. Part of the formula that brought them back was Stick Michael having freedom to bring up his minor-league talent without George trading them away at whim. In the 1980s, a fragile, late-developing talent like Bernie Williams would have been traded in no time. George wanted to trade Andy Pettitte. Let's face it, you need to get lucky, too. The Yanks had a great deal of luck during the 1990s—Rivera and Jeter are Hall of Famers and Bernie, Pettitte, and Posada are borderline guys. Even if you have a sound approach, like Cashman and company have now, there's no guarantee that you'll have a crop like that again. I'm curious about Cashman and how long he'll last. It's incredible he's been around this long as it is.

Gelf Magazine: As a die-hard Rangers fan, I'm baffled by the A-Rod hate. People blamed him, and him alone, for the struggles of the Rangers in the 2000s. It's not his fault Hicks offered him that deal. I mean, have you seen his numbers in his three seasons? He earned that money. And the funny thing is that he was actually not hated by teammates.

Alex Belth: I don't know that Rodriguez is hated by his current teammates either. When he first came to New York, I think it was tougher on him. They were an older team and Torre and Rodriguez never had an agreeable relationship, according to everything I've heard. There's been a ton of armchair psychoanalysis of Rodriguez, and I love that stuff. To me, Jeter seems like a guy who can go 0 for 4 and walk back to the dugout and tell his teammates, "This pitcher isn't shit." Rodriguez could go 4 for 4 and then be on the bench and ask a teammate, "Does my swing look OK?" Jeter was a natural fit on those 1990s teams because he was like the kid who always hung with an older crowd. Rodriguez is the older kid who surrounds himself with a younger crew. I think Rodriguez has been great with younger players, notably Robinson Canó. Hard to imagine that Rodriguez's been a Yankees for nine years now. We'll never hear the end about his decline and how he isn't living up to his contract and the Yankees made a mistake giving him a 10-year deal, for sure. I see him more like a .275/.360/.450 hitter now, 20-30 dingers, 80+ RBI, if he stays healthy. Will he ever be appreciated by a majority of Yankee fans? Probably not. Maybe if he had another good postseason run and they win another Series with him. He'll never be loved, that's for sure.

Gelf Magazine: A lot of your work on Bronx Banter balances traditional sports narrative elements, while also including some great writing using advanced and sabermetric data. Have you found it difficult to write something that creates a good balance between those two styles that (as we've seen with Murray Chass), tend to clash violently in opposition, and is the combination intentional on your part?

Alex Belth: I haven't written much using sabermetric data myself but there has been a lot of material on the blog that does use sabermetrics, and I'm open to it, for sure. I know our readers dig that stuff. Cliff Corcoran, who is now with SI.com, wrote from that perspective at the Banter for years and was great at it. I was given a copy of Palmer and Thorn's The Hidden Game of Baseball when I was a kid but never read it and I didn't read the Bill James Abstracts until much later, just before I started Bronx Banter, in fact. That was in 2001. A cousin of mine had all of the Abstracts and he wanted to get rid of them so I took them, read them, and enjoyed them, as much for James's wit as a critic as for the math. What appeals to be about sabermetrics is that it is supposed to be an objective and empirical way of looking at things. At least in theory. I think that some so-called sabermetricians have become as dogmatic as the traditional sportswriters they love to abuse for being close-minded.
There isn't much new or fresh in analytical writing from what I can tell, though I'm probably the wrong person to make such a sweeping statement because I don't read that stuff thoroughly. I'm not about their research so much as writing style. There's only one Bill James though Rob Neyer, his protege, has been good for a long time. So have Joe Sheehan and Steven Goldman. My pal Jay Jaffe is excellent, and Craig Calcaterra brings a sabermetric approach and a good sense of humor to the terrific Hardball Talk blog. Joe Posnanski, more than any traditional sportswriter, weaves sabermetric thinking into his work. Allen Barra has done that for years, probably more than anyone else.
I'm interested in storytelling more than anything else, which limits my interest in the numbers. My trouble with analytical writers is that their prose is often dull. Many of them are hacks, their work as full of clichés as any mediocre beat writer or columnist. That doesn't prevent me from reading them completely because some of the information is compelling and thought-provoking, but I often glaze over trying to make it through their prose.

Gelf Magazine: You've talked and written in the past about how important Reggie Jackson was to you as a baseball fan growing up. Knowing what you think about Reggie, do you have any thoughts on something Reggie said earlier this month about showboating in baseball?

Alex Belth: What is it they say about whores and politicians? Add hustlers and old ballplayers, too, right? Hell, for years now it's been amusing that Reggie's considered a respected elder statesman: Reggie, the biggest hot dog of his time, schooling kids on how to play the game the right way. Got to love that. It's funny, most of the old Bronx Zoo Yankees who fought with Steinbrenner—Nettles, Gossage, Rivers—they all came back, all happily pocket those nice Yankee greenbacks to do fantasy camps and come to spring training and old timer's day. The only holdout, from what I can tell, has been Sparky Lyle, though they did do a Yankeeography on him. Bouton was invited back a few times, but I'm sure we won't be seeing the Jim Bouton Yankeeography any time soon.

Gelf Magazine: What about Torre? I remember his book angering some people in New York after his book came out. Will the team and fans put that in the past, or is there still some bitterness in that relationship?

Alex Belth: I don't think Yankee fans are bitter at Torre at all. Maybe a couple, but not many. If there is any bitterness, it'd be between Torre and the Yankees (Randy Levine, Lonn Trost, Cashman). As far as the fans go—and there were a lot of Yankees fans who thought it was high time Torre left by 2007—he is Saint Joe now and forever. He's the Casey Stengel of our time.

Patrick Burns

Patrick Burns is a blogger and contributing writer for Deadspin, and a graduate of Texas Christian University.







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Article by Patrick Burns

Patrick Burns is a blogger and contributing writer for Deadspin, and a graduate of Texas Christian University.

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