In a year full of pained semi-admissions of pharmacological tomfoolery, fans of Major League Baseball also heard this testimony: “Therapy is an incredible thing, and you might get to know someone you didn’t even know was in there.” This was Alex Rodriguez, Yankee third baseman, MVP shoo-in, and the highest-paid player in baseball, publicly extolling the therapeutic intervention that enabled him to conquer performance anxiety. As a result, he batted .321 with a league-leading 48 home runs and 130 RBIs, guiding the Bronx Bombers to their 27th . . . well, not quite.
The Yankees nearly collapsed under the weight of unprecedented scrutiny during the most agonizing—and thus exciting—season of manager Joe Torre’s 10-year reign. Stumbling out of the gates with an 11-19 record, the most expensive baseball club ever assembled—$203 million, all told—had turned into an underdog. Replacing injured cash cows with upstart rookies, battling a parade of negative press and passive-aggressive bullying from owner George Steinbrenner, the Yankees rallied to win their division on the penultimate day of the season. All year, media outlets offered amateur psychological inquiries into the Boss’s volatile hero experiment. “There are six shrinks on the mound right now,” noted Fox’s Tim McCarver during a midgame calm-down–Randy Johnson infield conference, a week before this band of aging mortals succumbed, poetically, to the ascending Angels.
Psychoanalysts could argue that many athletes unconsciously dread success. Some superstars equate superiority with greed and narcissism. After a monster season, A-Rod (A-Choke?) could barely hit a pitch in the five-game playoff series against the Angels. (His mother told reporters that Alex’s performance was hindered by the recent death of an uncle who acted as his surrogate father.) But to these eyes, the 2005 Yankees wanted the crown. They resembled a well-fortified mythical beast that promised and strived for immortality, but inevitably gave in to bodily limitations. Even on the highest throne in the world, man sits on his arse.
Why do non–New Yorkers, myself included, cheer so emphatically for a team we expect to succeed? Why do Democrats? Aren’t the Yankees the sporting analogue of doodle dandy U.S. imperialism, spending intimidating sums on colonizing the game’s greatest players, launching preemptive strikes on small-market teams with potential Weapons of Red Sox Destruction? In a summer of second-place soul-searching, Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning, post-Freudian psychoanalysis primer The Denial of Death provided me an answer to this dilemma and every dilemma. Best known, perhaps, as the butt of a joke in Annie Hall, this 1973 text universally reduces human anxiety to a single overarching fear, encapsulated in the title.
Because he fears death, man, per Becker, “must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else.” Cheering for the Yankees is an investment in a seemingly foolproof hero myth. (Conversely, cheering for the Chicago Cubs is an annual acknowledgment of mortality, and a textbook case of Rankian neurosis: “With the truth, one cannot live.”) To root for the Yankees is, simply put, to deny death. And because we deny death, we are all Yankees.
Does this season’s early playoff exit mark the death of this dynasty? Probably. But if you want to continue the
causa sui project, to fight off mortality neurosis by tranquilizing yourself with trivialities and hero myths (and yes, this is what sports is about), here are three reasons why I might be wrong:
1 Comeback Kid: The true pride of the Yankees rests on the notion that bodily decay does not exist—or rather, that it can be hidden from view. How else to explain the expensive acquisitions and subsequent demotions of Kevin Brown and Tony Womack, years past their prime, both scaling new heights of ineffectuality?
But then there’s Jason Giambi. Starting the season in Womackian fashion (announcers cautiously invoked a “depression” diagnosis) after a winter of allegations and “maybe I did and maybe I didn’t”s, the former MVP was asked to take a minor-league vacation by Yankee execs eager to sweep decay under the rug. He refused—a veteran’s prerogative—and re-emerged. Extra batting practice with Don Mattingly and a 24-hour looped screening of Rockys I through V molded Giambi into the fiercest, sweatiest lefty slugger the Yankees had owned in years. Pharmaceutical means be damned. Giambi denies death on his own terms.
On a personal level, Giambi reaffirmed my faith in the grand illusion. To liberally quote the bible on existential sports fandom, Frederick Exley’s 1968 semi-autobio A Fan’s Notes: Giambi, “when I heard the city cheer him, came after a time to represent to me the possible, had sustained for me the illusion that I could escape the bleak anonymity of life. . . . He may be the only fame I’ll ever have!”
2 Small Ball: Steinbrenner’s win-or-win business model remains both infamous and politically incorrect. Trade away young prospects for older, established superstars. Seek home run power, not relief pitching. And yet, some of the brightest stars in the 2005 Yankee lineup—Robinson Cano, Shawn Chacon, Bubba Crosby, Aaron Small—arrived fresh off the boat from AAA Columbus (or worse, the Colorado Rockies’ pitching rotation), chewing up less than one percent of the team payroll combined.
Aaron Small provided heartwarming proof that Major League Baseball is staged for maximum dramatic effect, to shelter the masses from their fear and trembling. A 33-year-old journeyman pitcher who considered retiring in AAA this season, Small joined the Yankees as an injury replacement and won 10 games without a loss. In his spare time, the happily married pitcher works with foster children and church youth groups. You can script this. (See: The Rookie with Dennis Quaid.)
3 Love Fest: The Yankees’ major off-season hurdle has already been cleared by an improbably fruitful session of marital counseling. “We didn’t use the word love, but it was pretty warm,” admits Torre about his hour-long sit-in with the Boss last month in Tampa. Steinbrenner never hid his mounting frustration with the stoic, revered manager over the course of this grueling season, going so far as to forcefully funnel his criticisms through the mouths of YES Network reporters. Torre and Steinbrenner had spoken only five times since spring training, and many speculated that the Boss would replace him with fiery Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella. (Torre has led the Yankees to eight consecutive division titles, but such is the burden of New York expectations.) In the end, the “talking cure” helped cooler heads prevail. “I had to not only hear it,” Torre adds, “but to hear the tone in which it was said.”
I didn’t pee during he division series against the Angels. Pure superstition—I hadn’t urinated during Game 1, guaranteeing the Yankee victory, so why not work my magic again? Superstition is a denial of death, creating an illusory sense of control over the uncontrollable. So instead, I justify the bladder control as a kind of penance (though masochism, of course, is another obvious denial).
See, I’m a lapsed fan, deserving of punishment. My wide-eyed Little League role-playing eventually gave way to hazier teenage pursuits. After years of adolescent alterna-vibing, when decoding Pavement and Pynchon replaced OBP calculation as a primary interest—dropping my math grades a full letter, but gaining me cred with the English comp teacher who thought my use of quasar seductive—I dismayingly noticed that Slanted & Enchanted was a common coffee coaster at my liberal-arts college, which stamps the motto “You Are Different. So Are We” on recruitment literature. Rebellion would now have to filter through a populist channel. Thus, my nightly devotion to the YES Network sent the same message as a teenager’s proclamation that Rocky Horror saved his life: I am different, you are not. (Illusion alert!)
Even with my parenthetical recognitions of the causa sui project’s Icarian futility, I am not exempt from Becker’s ineffable assertion that “our central calling, our main task on the planet, is the heroic.” Neither is A-Rod. Mere days after the death of a season and the death of an uncle, the
Daily News spied Alex Rodriguez (fresh from therapy?) manically recuperating with the ladies at a Chelsea nightclub, tipping the Grey Goose and loving his body, loving his life.
Akiva Gottlieb has written for the Los Angeles Times and Spin.