DROUGHT ON THE FARM
Derek Jeter‘s dislocated shoulder highlights a more ominous long-term trend for the Yankees: the continuing erosion of a once fertile farm system. Erick Almonte may prove to be a more than adequate replacement for Jeter—at least until major league pitchers force him to make adjustments his second time around the league—but the second coming of A-Rod he’s not. He shares one characteristic with that other famous Almonte (and most other Yankee prospects)—he’s a bit old for his league. Almonte is 25, hoarier than Nick Johnson and only a month spryer than Alfonso Soriano. The smart guys at Baseball Prospectus have summed up the Yankee system thusly: They’ve tabbed three Yankee properties in their top 40 prospects, but two of them—José Contreras and Hideki Matsui—didn’t earn their stripes on the Columbus Shuttle, and the third, Juan Rivera, will likely end up as a postmillennial Ricky Ledee. Moving down the list, you’re left with a bunch of lefty junkball pitchers, A-ball shortstops, and super-suspect Drew Henson (.233 average/.282 OBP in 741 AAA at bats). It’s easy to forget that this dynasty was built around a core of farm products: Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada. Flash forward to 2002, and the Yankees have again begun to overpay for veteran mediocrities like Todd Zeile, Chris Hammond, and Bubba Trammell. George Steinbrenner may not think that prospects are sexy—the Yankees’ Class of ’96 was largely developed while he was in exile—but GM Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankee brain trust need to realize that relying on free-agent help is the express route to Luxury Tax Hell. —Allen St. John
ANGELL’S IN THE OUTFIELD
How can you argue with a writer who starts an essay on the 2001 World Series with the plea “Come back, Shane Spencer“? In fact, Roger Angell (for it is he) rarely stoops to such one-liners—nor does he need to, given the copious column inches allowed him for decades in The New Yorker. Angell the stylist hails from a premodern era, before the snarky (though fun) Sports Illustrated/ESPN manner was invented; his prose flows with an easy, casual rhythm, ever eschewing flashy effects. What he lacks in humor, he makes up for in inquisitiveness: Talking to people—scouts, coaches, managers, more than the game’s superstars—is Angell’s strong suit, and his art is to relate their conversation so naturally (or to create the illusion thereof) that it feels as if you’re right there with them. He’ll insert whole chunks of apparently direct quotation, like Smokey Joe Wood on Ty Cobb, that perfectly capture the speaker’s voice, yet behind the scenes Angell must have reconstituted a shapeless verbatim account into the eloquent paragraphs on the page.
Reading his new collection, Game Time (Harcourt), edited by Steve Kettmann and covering 1962 to the present, it’s easy to envy baseball’s éminence grise (now a startling 83 years old) his dreamy job description, family connections (Mom: legendary New Yorker fiction editor Katherine Angell; stepdad: E.B. White), and unfettered access to anyone in the sport (apart from Barry Bonds, of course). To Angell’s credit, the older pieces still work, not as exercises in nostalgia but as social anthropology. Of one meddling club owner in the ’70s, Angell wrote: “His treatment of his players has been characterized by habitual suspicion, truculence, inconsistency, public abasement. . . . He also wins.” (It was Charles O. Finley, of the world champion A’s—plus ça change . . . ) Approaching from multiple angles and points in time, his portraits of characters as disparate as Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver have deservedly become classics. (Tom Seaver‘s dissection of mechanics, relayed within, taught us more about pitching than anything else we’ve read, including Angell’s previous book on David Cone.) If the author’s post-season wrap-ups increasingly seem less scintillating, perhaps it’s because he set the bar so high himself in the past. —J.Y. Yeh
BASKETS OF MONEY
What a treat that the NCAA tourneys’ best players, Diana Taurasi of UConn and Carmelo Anthony of Syracuse, got to play in the women’s and men’s championship games. Now that’s fresh—unlike all the grownups circling above college sports like so many vultures.
Take CBS yakker Billy Packer. Speaking to Fox jock John Salley, Fox jock-sniffer Tom Arnold, and others about the firing of UNC hoops coach Matt Doherty, Packer harrumphed about the attire of UNC players, who—gasp!—wear their ball caps backwards. What is this world coming to? Of course, Packer didn’t grumble at all about the mediocre Doherty’s deal with Nike, which annually paid him $500,000—more than he made as coach.
The greed of schools and coaches never gets equal time from fossils like Packer. Before you applaud the NCAA’s new push to raise graduation rates, look at it from a different angle—as sanctimonious crap from the college prexies to try to polish their image after an embarrassing season: The president of St. Bonaventure intervened to enroll a star player who had only a welding certificate, not the required credits. The president of the University of Georgia, who had pushed the hiring of his old pal Jim Harrick, saw Harrick run the basketball program into the ground. You can’t really take the NCAA too seriously. After all, the NCAA Foundation includes among its directors Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS, which makes millions off the NCAA’s players. As do the schools and their coaches. Cut the “student-athlete” crap. How about paying the players for their labor? —Ward Harkavy
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 8, 2003