Monday, February 02, 2009

Paging Joe S-Torre to Re-write

I've liked what David Ulin has done with the book review section at the incredibly shrinking LA Times and I'm a fan of his The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Faultline between Reason and Faith, as if you're going to get poetic about anything, it's that huge acreage can go mushy. But there is a reason that a man of letters shouldn't write a review of a baseball book. This Sunday he wrote about the new Joe Torre blab-all The Eddie Stanky Years, un, I mean The Yankee Years, and more than tell us anything about the book he lets us know that his own love of story is how he wants to read baseball.

Here's the passage where he begins to suggest a drive for narrative is more important to him than a drive for clarity:

[Torre's] terrific on the day-to-day dynamics of the Yankees, the way the selfless, win-at-all-costs culture of the championship teams dissipated with the departure of Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez after the 2001 season, leaving a void filled by selfish superstars.

Such a trend began with the 2001 signing of Jason Giambi -- a move Torre opposed in writing, so he couldn't be held responsible if it didn't work out -- and it's personified by the contradictory figure of Rodriguez, perhaps the most talented and least endearing superstar in American sports, an insecure stat machine utterly unable to hit when it counts.


I'm no huge A-Rod fan, as for all his immense skill, he does seem joyless--give me a Jose Reyes any day. But this bit about Rodriguez being unable to hit when it counts is a bit of a myth (just ask Madonna, ba-dum-bump). Seriously, lifetime he's hit .274/.403/.486 with two outs and RISP, which is down from his usual performance, but still damn good and you have to assume if there's any time a pitcher is going to bear down, it's in that situation. His OPS in innings 7-9 lifetime is .911 (his career OPS is .968). Yes, he's stunk as a Yankee in the playoffs, but the whole team has stunk. Think back to Barry Bonds' brilliant (perhaps chemically assisted) 2002 postseason. Now recall who won the World Championship that year. One monster bat does not a winner make.

Ulin then goes on to write/quote:

"There's a certain free fall you have to go through," Torre says, "when you commit yourself without a guarantee that it's always going to be good. There's a sort of trust, a trust and commitment thing that has to allow yourself to fail. Allow yourself to be embarrassed. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. And sometimes players aren't willing to do that."

That's the key to Jeter, who has always done anything to help the team.


Except surrender shortstop when the Yankees signed Rodriguez, although Rodriguez was known as a far better fielder. Of course, the Yanks never even thought of asking the Captain move, as he was Jeter, the guy with 4 rings in his first 4 years. Seems everyone reads the game through its grand stories, and it was Jeter who made that Jeremy Giambi play against the A's that one year, which somehow made questions about his fielding impossible (and let's not bring up Tim McCarver's worship of the man).

But this really isn't about A-Rod or even Jeter, it's about perpetuating a myth that men of character beat men of talent, and that the talented who fail to win are characterless. Brosius is one of the patron saints of this view, as he was seen as the scrappy heart of the late '90s Yankee dynasty. But if we look at his stats, we find this: postseason .245/.278/.418, career .257/.323/.422. So he was a better hitter when the chips weren't on the line, after all, despite what Torre, Verducci, and Ulin want to remember, or reconstruct. For there's this:

Compare this with what Torre and Verducci cite as "the quintessential championship Yankees at-bat": O'Neill's 10-pitch walk in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 2000 World Series against the Mets. The Yankees were down to their last two outs, but O'Neill refused to give in, working the count, fouling off pitches, driven by a "desperation to win."

Ulin is self-admittedly a Yankee fan, so he reads the moment through pinstriped glasses. As a Mets fan, I see it through a different frame--goddam Armando F-ing Benitez, the man driven by a desperation to blow all crucial games. But my wanting to knight Benitez a choke artist is just another story we tell ourselves trying to make sense of what, after all, is a game, where the random is truly the 10th player on the field. Let's assume Benitez gets one more strike past O'Neill. The Mets win the first game of the World Series. But do they win the Series itself? If they don't even after winning the first game, does anyone remember this at bat? The Mets playoff run that year opened with a win against the Giants, a game in which Benitez gave up a tying 3-run shot to J.T. Snow. But they won the game in extras--Benitez even got the win after that. That's baseball.

Sure, writing isn't as much fun, and our memories aren't as satisfying, if we have to shrug our shoulders and say, "Meh, it could go any way." but it could--except for Pirates fans, as your team is going to keep stinking for awhile.

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3 Comments:

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8:40 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Great post, George. I agree with almost everything you say here.

goddam Armando F-ing Benitez, the man driven by a desperation to blow all crucial games

Amen.

4:37 AM  
Blogger Rickey Henderson said...

Argh, why'd you have to go and dredge up memories of the horrid Arrrrrrmando Benitez?

5:18 AM  

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