In 1949 I was 8 years old when Aunt Josephine got the first television set in our Italian family. Her husband, Uncle Ken, was a judge. My father was a gambler. But still, we had a house in the suburbs, while most of our relatives lived in tenements in the Hollow, the Italian ghetto across from Nanny Goat Park, in Bridgeport, Conn.
Every Sunday after Mass we all went to Aunt Jo’s for a big Italian meal and to watch the Yankees play baseball on her big, round-screen, black and white Motorola TV. My uncles, my father and Grandma DiMenna, “The General” as her daughters called her, but never to her face, watched the game in the living room. My mother and my aunts cooked in the kitchen. I drifted back and forth between the kitchen and the living room. I was not yet a Yankee fan.
Aunt Jo held up a huge sausage link before she dropped it into the pot of sauce. She glanced at me before saying, in Italian, the sausage reminded her of Joe DiMaggio. My aunts laughed. My mother said, “Joe Di carries a big bat.” They all laughed louder.
In the living room the men argued over who was the better catcher, the Yankees’ Yogi Berra, or the Dodgers’ Roy Campanella. My father settled the argument saying, “What difference? They’re both Italian.” Uncle Ken said, “Not always. When Campanella hits a home run he’s a paesano, but when he strikes out he’s a melanzana.” Melanzana is the Italian word for eggplant, and slang word for black.
We loved the Yankees because they were the best team in baseball, but mostly because they had so many Italian players
Everyone in my family loved the Yankees, even “The General,” who knew nothing about baseball until the first time she saw the Yankees play on Aunt Jo’s TV. The Yankees were in the field. A long, fly ball was hit to left-center field. The Yankees’ center fielder loped after it swiftly, but gracefully too, seemingly without effort, and caught the ball on the run, his head lowered in humility at the fans’ thunderous applause. Grandma said in Italian, “That must be the great DiMaggio.”
We loved the Yankees because they were the best team in baseball, but mostly because they had so many Italian players. DiMaggio, Berra, Raschi, Crossetti, Rizzuto. The greatest to us was DiMaggio. Ted Williams, his 20 year rival, once said of Joe Di, “He was the greatest all-around player I ever saw. Joe DiMaggio had a profound and lasting impact on the country.” What Ted meant was that Joe Di re-defined Americans’ view of Italians. We were no longer short, loud, dark, greasy, uncouth immigrants who belonged to the Mafia. Joe Di, and his Italian teammates, were soft spoken, classy (a WASP virtue), graceful and humble.
Who else were we going to root for in the tri-state area? The Red Sox? Those Irishers we hated? Quinn, McDermott, McCall, O’Brien, Williams, McCarthy? Those earlier immigrants ground us under their thumbs for years when they were cops and judges and politicians. As for the Giants, they were all white-breads, plodding Germanics or haughty Anglos. Hoffman, Lockman, Thompson, Bowman, Haas, Hausman. Hadn’t we just fought those Germans in World War II?
If there had not been Italians on the Yankees we all might have become Dodger fans. They were like us, ridiculed, working class strivers after the American Dream, immigrants too, in a way. But they’d arrived much earlier and not of their own accord. Newcombe, Black, Campanella, Robinson: the Melanzana whom we had always had an affinity toward, their darkness like us, and their suffering, too, but so much greater than ours. When I started dating girls at 14, my mother told me I could bring home the ragazza melanzana, but I could never bring into her house the detestata ragazza Irisher.
At 8 I was not Italian like my parents or my brother, 14 years older than I. They belonged to a generation rooted in their Italian past, its glories and its slights. I was the bridge generation, an Italian-American, more American than Italian. My father, Pasquale Giordano, had changed his name to Patrick Jordan one week before I was born. Which was why I never really became a Yankee fan until the early ‘50s when I became a star Little League pitcher myself. Now I identified with the Yankees, not only because of their Italians, but because of their new American stars, the thickly muscled, blond Oklahoma cowboy, Mickey Mantle, and the dark-skinned, bull-like Allie Reynolds, the Oklahoma Creek Indian they called “Superchief.” Mostly, however, it was because of a prissy little blond, pink-faced Irisher from Astoria, Queens named Whitey Ford. Whitey was my first baseball hero, a crafty little southpaw with a big motion and the kind of guts my father had. (When my father was in his 20s he past-posted a bookie in Montreal. The bookie put a knife to my father’s throat. “Go ahead,” my father said. “Let’s see if you got the moxie.”)
I loved Whitey’s cool under pressure. He had all the controlled unemotional qualities I struggled to possess despite my hot, sweaty Italian nature. I can still see Whitey standing on the mound, his feet primly toeing the rubber like a schoolmarm, the bases loaded around him, his freckled face showing nothing, bored, as if he were waiting for a bus he knew would be on time, just as he knew the batter would grind his big curveball into the dirt for an inning ending double play. All through Little League and high school my uniform number was 16, in emulation of my hero whom I was nothing like in nature, or as a pitcher. I was more like the “Superchief” — big and burly, pounding my fastball pitch–after-pitch without thought. I was right-handed too, but that didn’t stop me from imitating Whitey when I threw left-handed in Wiffleball games on the street.
When I graduated from high school a number of major league teams wanted to sign me to a bonus, including the Yankees. They invited me to Yankee Stadium to throw for their scouts. Afterwards I went into the locker room wearing my Yankees uniform, a big kid, 6’ 1, 200 pounds, shaving since the fourth grade. I saw all my Yankees idols around me; Yogi, so small and squat, Mickey, square-built, but so much shorter than the six feet he was claimed to be. And then Whitey, taller than he was supposed to be, more substantial, but not so cool now, laughing with Mickey at his locker like a kid, his Irisher blue eyes actually twinkling like a leprechaun’s.
But I didn’t sign with the Yankees. I signed with the Milwaukee Braves because they offered me a much bigger bonus. I began my minor league internship in the summer of 1959, and by the spring of 1962 I had left baseball, or rather baseball had left me, handing me a pink slip in the swamps of Waycross, Ga. I returned to Connecticut to support my new, young wife and then my children, eventually five of them, working first as a mason laborer, then a ditch-digger, soda jerk, school teacher, and in the later ‘60s, a newspaper reporter.
I had soured on baseball after it had betrayed me and I could not bear to watch a game on TV
I didn’t have much time during those years to follow the Yankees. I had soured on baseball after it had betrayed me and I could not bear to watch a game on TV or even read the game results in the newspaper I wrote for, the Bridgeport Post-Telegram. It was painful to know that many of the big league stars of the late ‘60s had been minor league teammates of mine; Phil Niekro, Joe Torre, Tony Cloninger, Ron Hunt. Their success was a bitter pill to swallow. Besides, I didn’t have the heart to follow my aging Yankees in the late ‘60s, with my beloved Whitey Ford suffering through the aged pitcher’s downward spiral of sore arm after sore arm, and The Mick, limping in centerfield, then humiliated and positioned at first base.
When I became a writer for Sports Illustrated in 1970 and my financial worries abated, I became a baseball fan again. Only this time my favorite team was the young Mets, not the Yankees. The Mets were young, brash, and joyful about the game they played, the way I was as a boy. Tom Seaver became my idol. When I interviewed him for an SI profile in 1973 Tom and I ate steaks on the deck of his farmhouse in Greenwich, Conn., and his wife Nancy called us “boys.” Then he and I would go play one-on-one basketball games at the Greenwich Y. They were bruising, often bloody games that went down to the wire. Out of consideration for Tom I let him win the last game. He said, “Jordan, you never let anyone win at anything in your life.” Once I drove him to Shea Stadium through a persistent rain in my gold Corvette whose T-top leaked water on his head. He looked up and laughed. “It leaks,” he said. “No shit,” I said. He turned on the defroster. “It doesn’t work,” he said. I glared at him.
not the only reason I abandoned
the Yankees of the ‘70s
Tom was the kind of pitcher I should have become if I’d had his discipline and ocular block. He had the talent for focusing all his attention on his pitching. My attention was always splintered, darting everywhere, which is death for an athlete, but not a bad quality to have as a writer. Of course, even though he was my idol, I never failed to remind him that years before I had thrown harder than him. But he would never admit that then, or even now. To this day when I call him and remind him of my superior fastball he says, “In your fucking dreams.” I say, “But it was, Tom.” He says, “Yeah, and between you and me we won 311 big league games.” I say, “Precisely. I tell everyone that.”
Seaver was not the only reason I abandoned the Yankees of the ‘70s. The real reason was that I could not stomach what they’d become: all those preening egos fighting for center stage, the “Me” generation passed down from Ali and Namath, so antithetical to the humility of those Italian Yankees I was raised to emulate, the “good” Italians. I was taught at an early age the difference between “good” Italians and “bad” Italians. “Bad” Italians were loud, obnoxious, and arrogant like Frank Sinatra, or criminals like members of the Mafia. “They’re guineas,” my mother told me. “What’s a guinea?” I asked. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You’ll know one when you see one.”
Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson -- they spent the ‘70s constantly fighting, squabbling with each other, informing the world that they alone were, in Jackson’s words, “the straw that stirred the drink.” It all came down from Steinbrenner of course, a no-talent boor and bully who inherited money from his father, money he used to upstage his players and remind them that he was “The Boss,” the padrone at the head of the table. He fired Billy Martin as manager four times and hired him five times, as if Martin (once described by writer John Schulian as “a mouse studying to be a rat”) was nothing but a rat on a string. Steinbrenner always thought that being a bully was the epitome of being a man. He must have been proud of himself when he fired his secretary for bringing him the wrong sandwich for lunch.
Then there were Martin and Reggie, two egomaniacs, one a sneak, a liar and a sucker puncher (until he met Ed Whitson, who broke his arm), and the other a narcissistic game-player. It was embarrassing to me to know that Martin, with all those qualities I was taught to despise, was an Italian. (It was only years later that I learned his father was Portuguese and felt better.) He and Reggie hated each other and almost came to blows in the Yankee dugout in Fenway Park until Billy wisely let his coaches pull him away from the much more muscular Jackson.
In those days my childhood friend, Doug Holmquist, was a Yankees coach under Martin. When he went to spring training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., I’d go to the clubhouse every morning to pass the time with my old Little League buddy. His locker was next to Jackson’s. Jackson knew who I was, and the first time I stood there talking to Doug, Reggie yelled out, “Fucking reporter, hanging around, looking for shit to write.” I assured Reggie I wasn’t writing anything about him, just catching up with my old friend. The next day when I talked to Doug without acknowledging Reggie, Reggie bellowed out, “You don’t even say ‘hello’ Pat! Man, I thought we were friends!” That was Reggie, playing games whose rules shifted with his whims, meant to keep everyone confused.
Of course those Yankees had Catfish Hunter too, a self-effacing North Carolina country boy, and “Sweet” Lou Piniella, one of the game’s good guys. Once I was drinking alone in a motel bar in Hagerstown, Md., while Lou was drinking at the end of the bar with some minor league Yankee coaches. He bought me a drink and waved me down to him. When I joined him he said, “Nobody should drink alone in Hagerstown, Maryland.” Now Lou was the kind of Italian my parents would have loved; he had class. But when I asked him one day at spring training what part of Italy his ancestors were from, he looked at me and said, “Italy! Italy! I’m Spanish!”
The ‘80s were a lost decade for me in many ways. I left SI to write books that I thought would make me rich, but didn’t. I muddled through a divorce that took five years and buried me with debt. I fled Connecticut for Fort Lauderdale where I tried to remake my life and my career. I married again, started selling stories, paid my bills, my alimony and my child support, which gave me no time for trivial pursuits like rooting for the New York Yankees. Besides, I’d never heard of most of them -- Tolleson, Pasqua, Kittle, Tewksbury -- all except Sweet Lou, their manager. But nobody watches a baseball game because of a manager.
WHICH BRINGS ME TO MY FAVORITE YANKEE TEAMS OF ALL TIME, THE 1996-2002 YANKEES
Which brings me by a long and circuitous route to my favorite Yankee teams of all time, the 1996-2002 Yankees. Homegrown guys like Jeter, Bernie Williams, Posada, Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and the free agents and smart trades that brought the Yanks Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, Chuck Knobloch, Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanley, Paul O’Neill, El Duque and Roger Clemens. I never liked Clemens as a pitcher ever since he asked to be taken out of a World Series game with the Red Sox in ’86. I felt that he was a self- aggrandizer like Pete Rose, lusting only after personal records. When Clemens’ mother was dying he told me that he hoped she’d stay alive long enough to see his 300th victory.
To understand my infatuation with those Yankee teams, one has only to know what other major league clubhouses were like in those days – players arguing over card games, or the clubhouse music, country or rap or Latin. But not the Yankees clubhouse. It was muted, all soft music and conversation.
I can still see Tino, standing at his locker with a bat in his hand. He assumes his stance. O’Neil, standing beside him, studies Tino’s stance for a long moment. Then Paul reaches out a hand, puts it under Tino’s elbow and raises it one-half inch. Paul nods.
At Mariano’s locker, he and Nelson are sitting on their stools hunched forward, faces close, talking quietly as if they were surgeons about to perform an operation. Mariano has a baseball in his hand. He fiddles with it, and then shows Nelson his grip for his cut-fastball. Nelson tilts his head as if he doesn’t quite understand. Why should he? He’s not Mariano.
One day in the clubhouse, I had to ask Bernie Williams a question for a story I was writing. He stood before me at his locker, tall, bespectacled, soft-spoken, and said, “Whatever you need.” Bernie was a talented musician, guitar player, and like many of the Yankees then, one of the good guys. I asked him my question and waited for a ballplayer’s rote answer that would mean nothing. Bernie thought for a long moment and then gave me a perfectly insightful answer in lucid prose.
A $200 MILLION A YEAR COLLECTION OF OVERPAID SUPERSTARS
On the field those Yankees were gamers, not stars. They’d do anything to win. The best example of their attitude was Paul O’Neill’s at bat against John Rocker in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the 1999 World Series against the Braves, with the bases loaded and the score tied 1-1. He shouldn’t even have been playing. His father had suffered a heart attack and O’Neill had cracked a rib and was in pain swinging a bat. And now he had to face Rocker, a side-arming lefthander with a 100 mph fastball and an unhittable 92 mph slider to a lefty. O’Neill, swinging and grimacing with pain, worked the count to 3–1. Then he pulled a Rocker fastball in between second and first to drive in the winning runs. The Yankees went on to sweep the Braves and even though his father passed away before Game 4, O’Neill played.
Today’s Yankees, a clueless aggregate of one dimensional talents, have no personality as
The Yankees of that era had the best manager possible for their selfless players. Joe Torre, my old minor league catcher, considered clueless as the manager of the Mets, Cards and Braves, was signed by Steinbrenner because Joe was a company man who came cheap, challenged no one, and was a New Yorker. He was the perfect interim manager until Steinbrenner found some high profile guy. But Torre fooled The Boss. He hung on for years because he knew, like Rousseau, that the manager was best who managed least, and the only manager to manage less than Torre was Walter Alston. Torre was smart enough not to get in the way of his veteran players and fuck them up. He just let them play, and they did, winning four World Series in five years.
But Torre’s laissez-faire managerial style was no match for the conglomeration of over-priced, prima donna head cases that Steinbrenner and his sons began to saddle Torre with beginning in 2000, a strategy the boys follow to this day. The Yankees are now an embarrassment of riches, a $200 million a year collection of overpaid superstars who have trouble beating the underpaid kids from Tampa Bay and Oakland. The list begins with A-Rod but doesn’t end with him. He’s just the most visible manifestation of a major league baseball team gone mad. Today’s Yankees, a clueless aggregate of one dimensional talents (see Granderson’s home runs), have no personality as a team. I once had an argument with Justin Verlander about the relative merits of ballplayers from my youth, Joe Di, Rizzuto, Berra, Mantle, Whitey Ford, Spahn, Williams, etc., etc., versus the ballplayers of today. I said my youthful heroes were better. Verlander shook his head no. He said today’s players are more physically talented, stronger and faster. Maybe so, but their talents are often one-dimensional. My guys could do everything – run, throw, field, hit for average, power, hit behind the runner, bunt him over. Then pitchers threw an assortment of pitches (see Spahn’s change-up screwball) while most of today’s pitchers are one-pitch pitchers (see the Phillies’ rotation) which is why so few of them can finish a game. By the seventh inning opposing batters become wise to that one pitch even if it is a 100 mph fastball. When batters faced Spahn they faced three pitchers in one game. He was a fastball pitcher in the first three innings, a breaking ball pitcher in the middle three innings and a change-of- speed pitcher and a fastball and a curveball pitcher in the last three innings.
What the Yankees have become today as a team is not the fault of the players. A- Rod didn’t steal the $28 million he’ll make next year; the Yankees forced it on him. That’s the philosophy handed down from The Boss: Throw money at a weak position, preferably at a star. (So what if he tanks? See A.J. Burnett, Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown ... oh, the list is endless). There’s always more to throw at the next one. The Yankees can afford to make a $40 million mistake in a way the Oakland A’s and Tampa Rays can’t. And still, those two low budget teams can give the Yankees fits with their younger, eager, underpaid players. David Price, this year’s Cy Young award winner, is making $4.35 million. Burnett was making $16.5 million when he couldn’t win games for the Yankees. Evan Longoria made $4.5 million in 2012. A-Rod is a good third baseman but Longoria is the best third baseman in the American League. (Miguel Cabrera is a hitter who happens to be playing third base.)
And finally, these Yankees are my most despised of all Yankee teams because they aren’t really a TEAM. They are like the Hessian mercenaries during the Revolutionary War, who never had their heart in the battle. For what? It wasn’t their country they were fighting for. Yankees manager Joe Girardi is a young, recycled, spineless version of Joe Torre, a company man as demonstrated by his humiliation of A- Rod when he benched him, probably under his bosses’ orders, in this year’s playoffs. I’m no A-Rod fan (I remember when, after his first major league season at 19, he returned to his Miami high school to sign autographs for his former classmates and charged them 10 bucks a signature), but even he didn’t deserve that humiliation.
Today, that’s the Yankee way: punish the players you picked when they underperform. That doesn’t even seem to bother the players much, as evidenced by A- Rod’s attempt to pick up a woman in the stands during the game that he was benched. Why not? He was still getting paid.
The Yankee heroes of my youth had more pride than that, which is why those humble, classy Italians, and in the ‘50s and ‘60s that cool, gutsy Irisher with the pink freckled skin (even my mother loved Whitey Ford!) were my idols. Those guys, and the Yankees of the late ‘90s, those quietly efficient gamers of understated talent and personality, all had one thing in common – they were all devoted to the game they loved and they showed their devotion by their effort to win.