Monday, October 19, 2009
Let's see. There's New York...
and Los Angeles... and nothing.
CROSSED FINGERS. I admit it. Nerves are getting a little raw around here. I'll explain that later, but let me begin with this slice of sports wisdom from the New York Times, courtesy of William C. Rhoden.
Remember him? Of course you don't.
The Yankees-Angels series gives baseball an East Coast-West Coast matchup. It's an intriguing showdown, as would be a World Series between the Phillies and the Yankees (they last met in 1950) or an Angels-Dodgers freeway series.
Still, what Major League Baseball needs is a great World Series, a Series for the ages. And with all due respect to those two other potential matchups, it's a Yankees-Dodgers World Series that could take the game back to its roots at a time when baseball desperately needs to recover a portion of the trust, if not the innocence, that it has lost in the steroid era.
There would be a number of interesting story lines in a Yankees-Dodger World Series, not the least of which would be the return of Dodgers Manager Joe Torre to New York to face the team that he unhappily parted with after the 2007 season. But the greatest attraction has to do with the history and traditions that the Yankees and the Dodgers represent.
Two venerable franchises competing in a World Series would recall an era in baseball when things seemed simpler and the game was more pure.
The teams would also bring a fitting final symmetry to the 2009 season....
In February, SI.com reported that Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez was among the players who failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003.
In May, Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez was suspended for 50 games after it was reported that he had tested positive for a banned substance....
If the Yankees were to face the Dodgers in the World Series, the season would end with two great players who had admitted culpability and moved on. It would represent a line of demarcation, that the game was ready to get past one of the most painful episodes in its history. [boldface added]
Aww. Let me restate that. AWWWW.
What a crock. How typical of a New York sportswriter to think that the most American baseball story consists of two New York teams (one of them transplanted from Brooklyn to New York's equally arrogant separated Siamese twin) rejoined in a ratings rig that ESPN and the other networks who deal in sports have been shamelessly promoting throughout the post-season, consistent with their habitual bias in season after season, with the equally gross exception of their obsession with the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry, which is eternal and eternally obnoxious and tiresome.
I can't speak for the Angels and won't try, though I note that the playoff build-up had them penciled in as central casting fall guys for the Red Sox, who had beaten them a bunch of times in the regular season. I congratulate them for sweeping the snob-slobs when it counted. Also, as far as I know, the Angels haven't had a steroids scandal. Too bad for them, I guess, if that's the new currency of "healing" baseball.
I can, however, speak for Philadelphia baseball fans, who are mightily fed up with a bunch of sleights, big and small, long term and short. If there's a true American story in baseball, Philadelphia has as big a claim to it as any city in the nation. Beginning with the fact that New York's endless trumpeting -- through its mighty national megaphone -- of the 1927 and 1961 Yankees as the greatest teams ever fielded conveniently overlooks the fact that the 1929 Philadelphia A's were better than either of them.
But that's only the beginning. Particularly now, Americans should be sympathetic to the fact that the awesome A's got dismantled because of economic downturns -- uh, like the Great Depression -- that left the city with one underdog team, the long hapless Phillies, who, just a couple years ago, became the first professional American team in all sports to have lost 10,000 games. Well, that's history for real, ain't it? And perseverance in spades. Because in 2008, the Philadelphia Phillies became World Champions of Baseball for the second time ever.
All the other breastbeating victims of various curses and bad luck streaks had it easier. Both the Cubs and the Red Sox have had some prior triumphs to fall back on while they wailed about their fate. Not the uncomplaining Phillies. Until the 1980 Phils, led by the greatest left-handed pitcher and the greatest third-baseman in modern baseball history, as well as the most tragic superstar since the Black Sox scandal, won the World Series 29 years ago, Philadelphia's National League entry endured a curse of its own, one against which Hall of Fame players like Robin Roberts (286 wins) and Richie Ashburn (lifetime .308 hitter, two batting titles) were finally powerless. The 1950 Phillies were as great a 1-0 shutdown pitching team as any L.A. Dodger team, but they got swept in four by the Yankees (who scored a total of 11 runs). The 1980 Phillies staged as great a late-season comeback as the New York Giants Gashouse Gang -- or the 2008 Phillies -- to put to rest all the heavyweight demons of the past the media never bothered to exploit because unless it happens in the Big Apple or Beantown, it don't matter in baseball.
Now, of course, the L.A. Dodgers are New York by extension, not really the left coast because they're still part of the only neighborhood that counts, the one surrounding the House that Ruth built (lately torn down and rebuilt with much cushier lockerrooms and more prohibitively expensive box suites for umpty billion dollars.) Oh, and, yeah, we'll take credit for Jackie Robinson while we're at it. 'Cause we're for civil rights and Jackie'd probably be doing steroids, too, in the stall next to A-Rod's if he were alive today.
Tired of this. To death. Let me give you a glimpse of two American baseball stories that don't have to do with New York (Bronx) or New York (NY) or New York (Brooklyn) or Los Angeles. Or steroids.
It may come as a surprise to William C. Rhoden, but there was a time when baseball scandals -- of which there have always been a bunch -- concerned the things players did that made them less rather than more fit to play. Babe Ruth was criticized for his drinking and gluttony. Former Philadelphia Phillie Hack Wilson, who played in the 1920s and 1930s, was denied entry to the Hall of Fame for 50 years after setting the record for most RBIs, 191, in a single season. Why? Because he drank himself to death and died, literally, in the gutter. He had to defend himself against the charge that his drinking hurt his performance, saying: "I never played drunk. Hung over, yes, but never drunk."
He wasn't the only Phillie whose personal problems long predated the current New York predilection for closing the book on personal foibles. Of the top ten winningest pitchers in major league baseball history, two are Phillies -- as long as one is willing to put an asterisk alongside the only Yankee on the list, laughable steroid denier Roger Clemens. Excluding him, as most non-Yankee fans would do at this point, puts Steve Carlton in tenth place at 329 wins and leaves another Phillie, Grover Cleveland Alexander, untouched in a tie (with Christy Matthewson) for third at 373 wins. [For those with a bias toward modern baseball, that puts Philadelphia's Carlton third all-time behind Warren Spahn (363) and Greg Maddux (355). with no Yankee, Dodger, or even American Leaguer anywhere but the rearview mirror. Not Whitey Ford (236), Catfish Hunter (224), Randy Johnson (303), Andy Pettitite (229), Don Sutton (324), Tommy Johns (288), Don Drysdale (209), Sandy Koufax (165), etc, etc, etc.]
Grover Cleveland Alexander. Unlikely that you know him from the photo up top. More likely that you know him from late-night showings of "The Winning Team" starring Doris Day and, yup, Ronald Reagan. A movie made in the early fifties that nevertheless shows the great Hall of Famer's drinking problem -- a thoroughly legal and perfomance-REDUCING thirst that probably prevented him from being the all-time winningest pitcher in baseball history. The movie is about, as the NYT reporter would like the next World Series to be, redemption.
THE PAUSE THAT REFRESHES (UH FACTS):
Alexander's 90 shutouts are a National League record and his 373 wins are tied with Christy Mathewson for first in the National League record book. He is also third all time in wins, tenth in innings pitched (5190), second in shutouts, and eighth in hits allowed (4868).
In 1915, he won his first World Series game, for the Philadelphia Phillies. It would be 62 years before the Phillies won another postseason game, a major league record.
In 1999, he ranked number 12 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and was a nominee for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
I know. We're in a new century now. It gives us all kinds of excuses to scrape off any inconvenient history. Now, the only politically correct unhappy history is about steroids. But here's the hypocrisy. William C. Rhoden wants to appeal to the entire illustrious history of the Yankees to diminish the scandal of athletes who used chemicals to make them better rather than worse on the field of play.
We're supposed to agree because New York and L.A. are somehow more symbolic of baseball and who we are as people than real history and real people.
Not buying. For multiple reasons. There's no right order to do this in. I've made the argument for why Philadelphia belongs in the baseball discussion as much as New York (and, uh, L.A.) I've hinted at the fact that Philadelphians as a group are mightily pissed at the powers that be, including ESPN and TBS. Now some specification.
The Phillies are the currently reigning World Champions of Baseball. Why is it, then, that their fans were mostly unable to see the first playoff series (scheduled in the afternoon or late at night), and why did the first two games of TBS NLCS coverage bristle with graphical highlights of the Dodgers' season and hardly any of the defending World Champions' season?
Why? Because the Phillies are supposed to lose. TBS agrees with the New York Times. The best series, the highest rated series, would be the Yankees against the Dodgers. It wasn't until late in yesterday's 11-0 hammering of the Dodgers that the TBS crew finally decided to acknowledge that the Phillies are a character story. Last year, the Phils had a miraculous bullpen that seemed to make all the difference. This year they had the worst bullpen among all playoff contenders. Their eleven blown saves actually led all of major league baseball. But they're still here in the playoffs. To its credit, TBS finally conceded this last night (at about 8-0) with a long lingering shot of the Phillies dugout, noting that 'character' was not a question mark about the World Champion Phillies. Their story was their own, a rock-solid record of overcoming obstacles and winning for the folks. Not a Red Sox story of superstitious counter-measures. Or a Yankees story of enough new talent purchased to overcome mid-season weakness. Or a Dodgers story of a movie plot publicized by the caption "27 outs" ("which the TBS crew has been selling, selling, selling since the series began...) Just a Phillies story of hard work and never-say-die persistence. A kind of private story. As private as the old Yankees stories are promiscuously public and legendary.
A few nights ago, the Phillies were behind in Colorado. As the innings ticked down to the last, their quiet leviathan, Ryan Howard, told his teammates, "Guys, just get me up to bat." They did. He won the game and the series.
That's the Phillie-Yankee divide in a nutshell. Babe Ruth pointed to the outfield in front of God and the press and and promised to deliver a homerun. Ryan Howard made a terse pact with his teammates and is now on the verge of overtaking Lou Gehrig's record for most consecutive post-season games with an RBI.
I'm pretty sure that's the more American story. The Ryan Howard story. The quiet man who carries his team on his back the way his predecessor Mike Schmidt did, both of them convinced (I'm certain) the other is the greater athlete, hero and leader.
It's really not about celebrity. Not about sportswriters. Ryan Howard is a throwback to a very old-fashioned essence of baseball. He's Babe Ruth all the way back in Boston, before the New York Times effort to lionize him, a force of nature who does what he does for the team, not the publicity.
And, uh, THAT'S what Major League Baseball owes America. Baseball as it was and might still have been if we'd lived before the age of media whoredom. A Yankee-Phillies series. In which the historical underdog finally triumphs because it works harder, cares more, and plays better than the richest players money can buy. And, by the way, have any of the "more American" teams sunk a harpoon deeper into the heart of their following than Philadelphia did upon the death of Harry Kalas, the voice and soul of the Philadelphia Phillies? In New York his death would have been a photo opportunity. In Philadelphia it was a mass wake -- and a hole that can never be quite filled in. Yeah, we're fatter and dumber than you New Yorkers. You're slicker and you're also people we'd never introduce to our mother. Yankees are blue, Mets are blue... Phillies are RED. And they don't even know why that's significant... '
Any way I can get more sick of the New York Times, in big things and small? No.
P.S. Maybe you saw Koufax had only 165 wins? Well, this is the nonpartisan section of the post. Koufax:
Somebody put Koufax on his list of "most overrated" Hall of Famers because his best years were few. Would you rather have the lifetime record of Steve Carlton? Or this five years?
Casey Stengel said this about it.
To the skeptics I say, "Go to Hell." I'd even endure the lifelong rheumatism pain to have been Koufax for one -- just one -- game.
And, uh, Go Phils!
UPDATE. Another unfair blow to the Brooklyn Los Angeles Dodgers:
Still trying to locate a playable audio file of the local Phillies announcer Scott Franzke's call of the game-winning hit. (It was great. Worthy of HK.) If you find a playable link to it, let us know. Here's all we could find. Also, Vin Scully did 30 seconds of silence to mark the occasion (also great.). Can't find that audio file either. Please help us out.