So, I have this New York tradition. Every time I come to town I buy a flimsy and wildly overpriced umbrella in some vaguely shady store that sells preposterous New York souvenirs like those miniature Statues of Liberty with Donald Trump's face on it. I call this a tradition; mostly it's a necessity because I NEVER remember to pack an umbrella, and then ALWAYS find myself caught in the New York rain about 27 blocks from where I need to be. I have, through the years, purchased enough cheap New York umbrellas to dome Seattle, not that these umbrellas actually WOULD dome Seattle since they are custom made to blow inside out roughly 12 seconds after purchase.
In any case, I walked into this store on Seventh Avenue to purchase TWO of these New York classic umbrellas (since this time I managed to get my whole family stuck in the rain with me). And I walked smack into the middle of one of those beautiful, sarcastic and movie-like New York conversations. You should know up front that I love New York. I love the little things, I love the rhythms, the crustiness, the smoke rising from the vents, the smells of whatever it is the street vendors are REALLY selling, the death-defying cab rides, the tabloid wars, the revolving doors, the ludicrous prices, the self-reverence, the way so many New Yorkers assume that everyone who lives outside of the city lives on a farm, the pastrami piled high enough to block the sun. And as much as anything, I love New York conversations. If you keep your ears open in the city you will catch Nora Ephron scenes, Bruce Springsteen lyrics and Martin Scorcese sequences.
Anyway, I walked in on this great conversation built around the Yankees and the signing of Mark Teixeira. As you might guess, there's a slightly different reaction to the signing inside the city than there is out. I would say that outside New York there are a few people who seem -- oh, what's the word? Let's say, "perturbed" by the Yankees recent spending spree. CC Sabathia for $161 million. A.J. Burnett for $82.5 million. Teixeira for $180 million. Yeah, it has inspired black plague panic throughout the land, mass hysteria, calls for inquiries and salary caps and the formation of brute squads. I guess the general hum is best summed up by Roy Firestone, who understatedly called the signing of Teixeira, "a dark day for sports in America."*
*Much like I love New York, I also get a huge kick out of the hand-wringing, town crying and generally overwrought reaction to the Yankees and these Brewster's Millions type of sprees. Sure it's unfair. Sure it's annoying and even a bit depressing to see a team like the Yankees (or the Red Sox, or the Mets, or the Angels -- hey, lots of teams try to buy happiness) rake in millions and millions more than other teams and then spend that money on securing the best players, not unlike Mr. Potter taking control of the bank during the Depression,**
**Mr. Potter: "You saved the Building and Loan. I saved all the rest."George: "Yes. Well, most people say you stole all the rest."Mr. Potter: "The envious ones say that, George. The suckers."
But I love the New York frenzy for two reasons. One, I think baseball is much more fun when the Yankees are a truly despicable team that every non-Yankee fan in America can hate without conscience. There were too many shades of gray in 1998, when the Yankees were a pretty likable bunch, and again in 2001 when the World Series was going on while Ground Zero still burned. It's more fun when the Yankees do stuff like this and give us a clear cut, pro wrestling type of villain.
Two, more significantly, it always gives me great comfort to see the following facts:
-- Over the past 10 years, eight different teams have won the World Series. In all, 15 teams made the World Series -- half of the teams in baseball.
-- Over the past 20 years, 14 different teams have won the World Series. In all 22 teams made the World Series. Now, we're at more than two-thirds who have reached the Series.
-- Over the last 30 years, 20 different teams have won the World Series, and only four -- Cubs, Mariners, Rangers and the Expos/Nationals -- have failed to get there.
That's extraordinary, if you think about it: Almost 90 percent of major league teams have reached the World Series in the past 30 years. And the four teams that didn't reach had their good moments, too. The Cubs have made the playoffs six times and, well, only their Cubbiness has kept them from reaching the Series. The Mariners won 116 games in 2001, the most for any team ever. The Montreal Expos had some excellent teams and might have won it all in '94, year of the strike, when they had the young Pedro Martinez, and a lineup that had an in-their-prime Moises Alou, Larry Walker and young Wil Cordero and Cliff Floyd. The Texas Rangers have made the playoffs three times and while there's some dark cloud simply hovering over that franchise, you never get the feeling that the Rangers are hopeless.
By comparison, NFL teams that have not made the Super Bowl the last 30 years include: The Jets, Browns, Chiefs, Saints, Cardinals, Lions, Jaguars, Texans and Vikings, That's 10, almost one-third of all the teams in the NFL.
I don't mean to make this sound like a defense of baseball's system. The system's lousy. The Yankees over the last 14 years have spent a half million dollars in payroll more than the Boston Red Sox or any other team (they have spent 1.2 billion more than the Kansas City Royals), and it has paid off, they have made the playoffs 13 of those years, reached the World Series six times and won four. So, money (to some degree) can buy you love.
But it is also amazing how baseball, the game itself, defies the takeover efforts of corporate raiders. The Yankees won their World Series when the team was, to a large degree, home grown. They famously have not won a World Series since paying big bucks to sign Mike Mussina and then Jason Giambi and then taking on the A-Rod contract. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay last year reached the World Series with the second smallest payroll in baseball; no Rays player made more than $6 million last year. And here's a beautiful bit of trivia for you, one you can definitely use at parties: According to the indispensable USA Today Salary Database, only one team in baseball history has won a World Series with a $100 million payroll. That team? Yep, the Red Sox (twice, 2004 and 2007).
I'm not saying that the Yankees will not win in 2009 -- that's an awfully good team now, absolutely the best that money can buy. But just remember that key fact: 20 teams have won a World Series in the last 30 years. And by comparison:
-- Only 14 teams have won the Super Bowl over the last 30 years.-- Only 14 different men have won Wimbledon over the last 30 years.-- Only 13 teams have won the Stanley Cup over the last 30 years.-- Only nine teams have won an NBA title over the last 30 years.
Back to the umbrella purchase.
The beautiful thing about most Yankees fans I know is that they tend to be largely untroubled by their team's spending and the national anger that surrounds it and even the basic questions of fairness and unfairness. I am, of course, generalizing here: Not everyone is like that. I know of many Yankees fans who appreciate that their team has an unfair advantage -- they might even be a little bit sheepish about it -- but, in the end, hey, what can they do? Stop being a fan? No. They'll live with it. Plus, Teixeira looks good in the three-hole.
I also hear from some Yankees fans who deny that the Yankees really have an unfair advantage. They point out that, hey, it's not the Yankees fault that Steinbrenner(s) spends money. The Royals, Pirates or Reds could spend that money too if they weren't so cheap. These people usually fail to point out that the Yankees (because of the size of New York, the enormity of the YES Network, corporate dollars and a new publicly funded stadium) pull in many, many, many times what the Royals, Pirates or Reds make.
But back to most of the Yankees fans I know: They are just kind of oblivious to it all. They are not defensive or proud of the Yankees free-spending ways. They are also not unfeeling toward other less fortunate teams. Truth is, they don't even think about any of that. They accept the Yankees' advantages as their birthright, not unlike the way someone born into a rich family must think that everyone has a maid and an 8 a.m. tee time at the club.
I'll give you an example: There were numerous stories written after the latest signing that hit upon the theme that Teixeira is a great fit for the Yankees and he will do the team a lot of good. Well, as we used to say when I was a kid: No duh. He's 28 and bland (in a good baseball way) and he has a good glove, and he switch hits, and he punched up 150 and 151 OPS+ numbers the last two seasons. Good fit? Maybe that's why he cost 180 million smackeroos. Good fit? Really? What was your first clue, Professor Plum? Who the heck are these stories written for?
And then I heard from a friend of mine, a Yankees fan, and I realized EXACTLY who is the target audience for those stories. My friend wrote, "I was a bit skeptical of the Teixeira signing, but the more I read about him, the more I think he will be a perfect fit for the pinstripes." That was what he wrote. It was mind-boggling. It did not seem to occur to him that at least 28 other teams would have loved to sign Teixeira (not sure where he would play in St. Louis). It did not seem to occur to him that while Teixeira might be a good fit for the Yankees, he would have been a MUCH BETTER fit for Kansas City or Pittsburgh or Seattle or any number of teams that need a whole lot more help than the Bombers.
It did not seem to occur to him that spending $180 million more to buy one of the best hitters in baseball for one of the best teams in baseball is excessive, overkill, and in the classic words of Andre the Giant: "Not very sportsmanlike." It is (as I have written before) like playing a computer game on cheat mode. My friend would not argue with these points because he simply DOES NOT SEE these points; he never even considered looking at this the way a non-Yankees fan might. He only wondered if Teixeira was a good enough player for the Bronx.
And that (finally) takes me back to the souvenir shop where I bought my umbrella. There were three guys arguing -- I caught the argument in progress so I sort of had to catch up. Best I could tell, the most talkative guy (named Manny) was a huge Yankees fan. He was arguing that next year is already over, the Yankees have won, give them the trophy now. The second guy (call him Darryl. I don't know his name but he looked a little like Darryl from The Office) was clearly either A.) a Mets fan; B.) a Yankees hater or C.) a Yankees fan who liked to argue that the Yankees are doomed for his own reasons.
Then there was was a third guy, a quiet guy, who I suspected is a lot like the Yankees fans I know.
OK, so, Manny was saying, "You add Teixeira in there, man this thing is OVER. They don't even need to play next season." Darryl, in response, was saying that the Yankees will be under tremendous to win.
"That [bleep] don't matter," Manny was saying quite reasonably. "There's always pressure on the Yankees to win."
"And when was the last time the Yankees DID win?" Darryl asked, another reasonable point.
"Doesn't matter. Now the Yankees got CC and Burnett and all that pitching, and the lineup's gonna score a lot of runs ..."
"The Mets got Santana and they didn't win (bleep) ..."
"Yeah, well, the Mets don't have Mariano Rivera in the pen. If the Mets had Mariano, they would have won the last two World Series."
And so on. It was pretty entertaining stuff in a Mike and the Mad Dog sort of way. And then I heard one of my favorite Yankees lines, the line that I think in many ways sums all my feelings about the matter. At some point, the argument had become so heated that Manny pulled out one of the tabloids and was running down the possible lineups. He was reciting all the names: Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher, Teixeira, A-Rod, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, Xavier Nady, Robinson Cano, and so on. And when you heard all the names together like that, it was ASTONISHING, all that opulence. all that money, all those stars, 32 All-Star appearances, home run titles, batting titles, Gold Gloves, everything else. There was a moment of reverent silence after Manny read all the names. And then the quiet Yankees fan behind the cash register, the one who hardly said anything at all, felt the need to speak up.
And here's what he said: "Wait a minute. Who the [bleep] is Xavier Nady?"