A baseball passion revived

I regard the New York Yankees of the late Nineties as the greatest team of my lifetime, and the last baseball team I rooted for. I am an apologist in the mode of the writer and ESPN commentator Buster Olney, who argues that George Steinbrenner’s brief suspension from baseball at the dawn of the Nineties enabled the Yankee brain trust to assemble that legendary team patiently, unmolested by ownership and its bizarro Patton complex.

The ugly if glorious Bronx-Zoo years of Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin ended when Thurman Munson crashed a plane he had no business piloting. George then went on a wicked decade-long tear of paranoid megalomania, overriding his “baseball” people at each juncture and signing star after star, slugger after slugger, with no regard for balance or pitching or sensible baseball.

The Eighties were a dismal decade for the Yankees. I watched every night. Certainly, it was good fun to follow a lineup that went from Rickey Henderson to Steve Sax to Don Mattingly to Dave Winfield to Don Baylor before finishing off with a sequence of all-or-nothing sluggers headlined by Mike Pagliarulo, but the teams were out of the hunt by August 1 each year. Suddenly, George was talking about moving the stadium to the west side of Manhattan or Westchester.

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Then, in one of those glorious conflagrations in which the nadir and the zenith dance one, George hired an inveterate, addicted gambler, Howie Spira, to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, whom George had dubbed “Mr. May.” The plan surfaced somehow and became the prime evidence in commissioner Fay Vincent’s decision to ban the boss in the early Nineties.

Suddenly, the team’s baseball people were free to make decisions using Steinbrenner’s considerable resources but free from his considerable interference. Under the leadership “Stick” (Gene Michael), “Stump” (Carl Merrill) and others, they gradually nurtured the system that brought us Bernie, Jeter, Mariano, Pettitte, and more. They made the sensible deals and signings that brought us O’Neil, Nelson and Stanton, intelligent scrap heap claims like Scott Brosius, Tino, and a couple of marquee pitchers in Wells and Cone.

Anti-Yankee sentiment is nearly universal outside New York, and you will never get far arguing with a hater that the great teams of the Nineties were built, not bought, but the facts make it plain. And of course, after the ninth inning of Game Seven in Arizona in ’01, The Steinbrenners went nuts again. It started with Mussina, and then Giambi, Rodriguez, the Big Unit: an embarrassment of riches, a literal embarrassment. I lost my zeal for the team and for baseball generally.

I heard yesterday that weird, fan-free baseball — like silent EDM concerts — will be returning soon, and I am all in, ready for rapprochement and reconciliation with this lost passion of my youth. Go, Yanks? We’ll see how that sounds in the air the first time I yell it.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.

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