Yankee Ball At Its Best

"In America, people sometimes hope New York will die before the close of the century. And so the spectre of another Yankee Frankenstein rising from the ash of urban blight is enough to turn stom­achs from Shawnee Mission to Walla Walla"


Contesting the Fix of Time and Space

In Los Angeles, movie stars gather at Chavez Ra­vine and click their smiles across acres of major-league turf. Dodger Stadium, host to this flash of white and green, also offers the common grace of traditional baseball drama.

Fronting for anything is a tough act in southern California; a World Series that starts here must follow legends that open with cavalry traveling by illusion and arriving by limousine.

“Nothing,” responds a friend, “has ever been real here.”

To the manner born, this year’s Dodger team approached the Series warmed by the shine of Hollywood gospel. First-base coach Jim Gilliam died two days before the opener, and, in its grief, Los Angeles gave his name as a spirit of temporary visitation, offering these October Games to his memory.

But sport is of this world and speaks primarily to moving flesh. Baseball is for the living. Music should be played for de­parting souls, tears shed, and poetry spoken. Dedicating ballgames to the dead asks too much of too few. October ball simply fea­tures world-class human muscle contesting the fix of time and space.

Here was a championship for the latter day: New York and Los Angeles, High John the Conqueror meeting Aimee Semple McPherson. Because there are few vibrations that can embrace both coasts; Laid Back and Uptight, Beauty and the Beast of Cities, or Sun Beyond Cement. An abstract, up-tempo rivalry. Strained relations between Coney Is­land and the San Andreas Fault… the Apple and L.A.

Somewhere below tons of news copy and miles of instant replay, Captain Davey Lopes of the Dodgers stepped up to the plate. Maybe this exceptional sorrow is always in his eyes. Tonight, however, he’s made it clear he wants to live higher and stronger for the friend and mentor he affectionately called the Devil… Jim Gilliam, who replaced immortal Jackie Robinson at second base in old Ebbetts Field.

Lopes, star-looking but unemployed by lo­cal movie moguls, a man with the most heroic moustache in the game, bops two hom­ers into a night of sad remembrance.

He leads his team and wins. Cheers thun­der for the Yankee loss. In America, people sometimes hope New York will die before the close of the century. And so the spectre of another Yankee Frankenstein rising from the ash of urban blight is enough to turn stom­achs from Shawnee Mission to Walla Walla. Citizens who have sent such men as Proxmire and Brooke to the Senate can hardly be ex­pected to welcome news of a Yankee Five-Year Plan for kicking ass.

On those first warm nights in Los Angeles, Davey Lopes played out the craze of affec­tion, and with a deeply bruised soul. Some­thing grand was necessary, something wholly honorable, to the extent the cameras would allow. To leave Jim Gilliam nothing but ashes might exact this quotation from Ameri­can playwright Bill Gunn: So far you’re just one of the play people. Don’t try and get real tonight…

Before the teams left Los Angeles, earlier than the superb moment when young Welch, a Dodger who can throw fire, brought death on Reggie Jackson with a second-game fast­ball in the top of the ninth, the word was Glove: Graig Nettles. Like a doughboy aris­tocrat near the Marne River shouting, They Shall Not Pass, Yank third-baseman Nettles got down. His body in full extension toward the foul line, he actually reached, in one in­stance, part of the way into left field to snatch a ball back from its flight, a play memorable enough to join, for sheer brilliance, George Foster’s flawless peg to home plate in the 1975 World Series against the Red Sox in Boston, when Foster cut down Denny Doyle trying to score the winning run. Few throws from the outfield have created more excite­ment.

In the second of the Games at Dodger Sta­dium, Nettles clearly established that he had taken away a vital portion of the field for the right-handed pull hitter, which was to say most of the Los Angeles team. He speared line drives, gobbled up screamers headed for the left-field corner and extra bases, and double-played the Dodgers into bad health.

A cold sweat seemed to settle early in L.A.’s dugout. Of course, there was the rea­sonable assumption that Nettles might not continue to matter that much. The Yankees, demanding more allegiance from an overworked miracle, fell two games down to the West Coast. With blessings from Big Dodger in the sky, Tom Lasorda, manager and loyal subject for all seasons, flew his team east for the march on Yankee Stadium.

Bronx Bomber pursuit of a second con­secutive world championship had already gone through waters where sharks were counted as victims. And for one whole por­tion of a fractured season, Bob Lemon was called to turn plowshares back into swords.

As mentor to some incorrigible athletic no­bility, Lemon wisely chose to play himself in the new adventure… he was what he is — a quiet, knowledgeable figure from the scram­bled world of out-of-work baseball managers loafing for one more shot.

There were many arias being sung in the emotionally volatile Yankee clubhouse. Bob Lemon came, shrugged away these improvi­sational shuffles, and played through.

Bob Lemon decided from the beginning to make a most important contribution to a troubled team by simply acting his age. Billy Martin, in contrast, had never understood that a man can’t be young in the company of the young unless he’s actually young himself.

Lemon is not, and knows it. He has been in this game for more years than any of his players have been alive. Calm, alert, he has the reflexes of a wise, aging Good Time Char­lie playing poker and the Blues while learn­ing from both that winning is about being able to lose, too, but mainly about showing up in either case.

Managing the Yankees has long been a job men would willingly die to have. To succeed in the Bronx ball yard is perceived as The Max… but ask Yogi… interview Bill Virdon.

Lemon stroked the man called Jackson into sitting down from right field to be the designated hitter. Grumbling, threatening again to quit, Reggie became the most magnificent DH October had ever seen.

In Mickey Rivers, America has a man who certifies the premise: There are answers in the universe we simply shouldn’t question. He is part Charlie Chaplin and part Charlie Parker, a mix of energy and relaxation that quickens the senses. In the third Game of the Series — Dodgers vs. Ron Guidry — Rivers hunches at the plate like a question mark, then sacrifices, a maneuver that brings to baseball its one truly beatific symbol.

This bunt by Rivers is moving well when Los Angeles catcher Steve Yeager grabs it, cocks his arm to throw, then, mysteriously hesitates — pausing in his night’s occupation to create still another cryptic Series footnote — while Mickey beats it out.

Why? cry the West Coast fans.

And they are premature in rolling their eyes toward heaven. The real nightmare is still forming up ahead. And since when have there been explanations?

Bill Russell may or may not know of Jelly Roll Morton, the American musician and oc­casional genius who died, chrism trickling down his chest, in a certainty he’d been cursed by demons punishing him for an offense committed in another life.… What does it matter? When you’re done you’re done. Wild pitches? Missing the cutoff man? (Steve Garvey, it is reported, throws a base­ball with considerable reluctance, and he’s the interior cutoff man for Los Angeles. If he doesn’t make the good toss, those clouds per­ceived by pessimists, floating over the Ra­vine… are real.)

Russell shakes. Ron Cey backs away from grounders like some timid mailman from a macho German shepherd.

New York was once home to a popular evangelist named George Baker. More widely known as Father Divine, be was a solid base­ball fan during New York’s glory days of the 1930s and ’40s. One of Baker/Divine’s ritual extravagances involved staring with eyes ablaze at a congregation of his advocates and demanding:


It wasn’t so much a question as it became an order. Divine must have adored the Yankees because they were winners, as he was, and overcame parades of obstacles on the way to achieving dreams. Some said George Bak­er could see things others cannot — how to be­come Father Divine, for example.

The dream established in the Yankee col­lective, though clouded periodically with misleading clues, was a simple term of victo­ry. They chose to win. And, with a masterful use of their late schedule, the Yanks tracked down the front-running Red Sox, beat them four straight in their own yard at Fenway, then refused to panic when they (the Yanks) were stomped on the final day of the season by the dismal Cleveland Indians. Like a gifted horseplayer who does not lose when it is absolutely necessary for him to win, the Yan­kees played their greatest ball when nothing else would do (witness Lou Piniella’s bare-hand pickup of a ball about to pass him in the sun of right field in Boston; it was, to that point, the defensive magic of the year).

As the Yankee victories clustered in The City, an impressive illustration emerged, and it should always remain in the mind’s eye. If pitching is the game’s heart, and homers ­under-pressure form its guts, then baseball’s character is determined in the deathless rou­tine of fielding plays. The Series is always tense, and for so many reasons. Seldom is there much margin for error. The Dodgers lived in that margin.

Shortstop Bill Russell had double-play balls crawling along his arms like runaway cottonmouth snakes. When the truth was apparent, of the trouble the Dodgers were in, they reacted like men who’ve seen the lights all vanish on the freeway, leaving them to grope their way to hopelessness and back. In the grip of Divine’s resolute mystery, Los Angeles went stumbling after an answer — a haven, perhaps — where baseball would again encourage the logic of sweat and righteous living, the honest work of true believers.

The Yankees believe in nothing. Yet it was not Chris Chambliss or Jim Spencer waving So Long to ground balls trotting near first base, bidding them godspeed into right field… that was Steve Garvey, impotent at the plate, tight out on the diamond. Ron Cey seemed at a point ready, at least, to quit. And Davey Lopes, as well, began conceding base hits as they left Yankee bats, in a sort of laissez-faire assumption that diving after baseballs is a way of paying them too much homage.

But Graig Nettles was diving. And Brian Doyle. Bucky Dent achieved nirvana by sec­ond base. Lou (as in Boo) went crashing into walls like a man who was anxious but unwel­come at some exclusive, catered affair. Thur­man Munson, with his throwing arm hanging like a canned ham, rose up to throw on run­ners he had no business throwing out, and said later it was:

Because I wanted to…

The Bombers played sonatas on the Yan­kee Stadium grass.

The Dodgers needn’t be perceived, inci­dentally, as recruits who disgraced their uniforms but only as men who failed. They may, in fact, be fortunate, living in a country where millions never complete the tasks assigned them, drifting instead between medi­ocrity and indifference, all the days of their time.

Pitcher Don Sutton of the Dodgers, who would lose the final, devastating ballgame at Los Angeles, brought a measure of reflection to the work when he told a reporter that he felt no exceptional pressure on him as he went out to face the Yankees.

“Try feeding six kids in America on a small paycheck,” said Sutton. “That’s pressure.”

Ball, said a one-time city mystic, is just ball, that’s all. But ABC, then NBC, and all the TV news departments in between have reminded us again just how easily the nation­al trigger can be pulled with jingles and the­matics, morose vulgarity and aging boyish charm. The World Series has always been sold without apology. If you don’t like the product, you can always turn it off. But how many of us have never been drawn back into those golden afternoons when we could shag fly balls three hours at a clip and swing evenly at curves for another two?

The memory clings to closets and attics all over this country, where dry leather presses, glove against abandoned spikes, and Louis­ville Sluggers lean quietly against the back walls, having seen no combat in a decade.

Sportscasters know how to remind if not inspire us; they are ghost vocalists through the walls of the night to tell us the game should never be confined to the simpler forms of personal recollection when there’s a fortune to be made.

The stars can be paid and their legends re­plenished beyond the century if everyone re­members the rules. Nobody gets hurt if we all embrace the concept of regulation. As in: Rule 7.09 (f), the Official Baseball Rules, which states in part that any player just put out (Reggie Jackson) then impeding any fol­lowing play on another runner shall cause that subsequent runner (Lou Piniella) to be declared out for the interference of his teammate (Reggie Jackson, one more time).

And Munson does not score in the crucial fourth game, when the Yankees win in the bottom of the ninth on Piniella’s clutch sin­gle. The larger rule, of course, is that the forces will always let the drama flow the way it wants to go. Piniella went to right field on young Welch, the Billy Budd of the Series, and the Mojo went along for the ride.

When they tied it, the Yankees had, in fact, won the Series. Visions of the Juggernaut lunged through Beverly Hills, where bets on the Games had been made with those chumps in the New York offices.…

How? wept the movie stars, canceling Game 7 box seats. When it ended, the rough­cut shows, the Dodger left-fielder, Dusty Baker, was daring Brian (Who?) Doyle to hit a ball over his head. When it came to performing their respective jobs of that moment, Doyle did, Dusty didn’t. And, at Yankee Stadium, young Welch threw a blazing fastball sailing over his catcher’s head… shortly after the rain delay… and a swirl of dust rose in a shadowy column around second base. Later, the winning run would score from there.

What remains to be remembered is not just Reggie’s agonized reaction to striking out with two men on, two out in an electrifying ballgame, but instead Reggie’s talk with Lou Piniella later, in the fourth game. Jackson could have said, simply, The time is here.

And Lou clotheslined a single to win, 4-3. Before that, the Yankees had trailed, 3-0.

The World Series also details how difficult baseball is to play, and how dangerous, or at least how passionately disposed to reveal itself in the deepest heat.

The Dodgers were simply not up to it this time. But, nonetheless, back in Los Angeles, the stars were smiling for the team’s return. Glitter fades, though, when an infielder reputedly as quick as Bill Russell is nailed stealing second base by a catcher who can scarcely lift his throwing arm.

Then, it’s time to be scared.

In the sixth game it seemed obvious from the outset that the Dodgers couldn’t take care. Even Lopes’s homering immediately off Catfish Hunter didn’t carry with it the sound of supremacy in full gallop. Though they went ahead 2-0, it was the Dodgers who were always behind. Until, finally, the freeway was jammed with disappointment riding away early, leaving tears along the dash­boards.

(The boxer Jack Jefferson, in Howard Sackler’s play and film The Great White Hope, demands of a humble group of Ne­groes outside a prizefight arena, just what difference it will make in their lives if he, Jefferson, wins the crown, the heavyweight championship of the world…)

Pride, fading slowly to dust, is all the poor seem to get. Those shimmering lights at the banquet, we are told, will not gleam into the bleachers.

The commons need to hear tickertape fall­ing on a ball team in precisely the same way they needed to hear the contents of Caesar’s will. Huge Rich Gossage was sending flame at the Dodger bats when all of it ended. He was cheered on lower Broadway, riding the slowest Manhattan flatbed. Catfish was in a distant stream, rod and line for his glove. Nettles remained in Los Angeles; it’s his home. Roy White, too. And the mysterious flight of Mickey Rivers was clearly into Flori­da. The wind scattered like the players.

Someone watching the final outs by Sony, aware of the tension simply draining away, said: It’s back to the old days, the clock just turned around, back to my father’s mouth being tight with anger for days because the Dodgers never seemed to beat the Yanks.

Of course, they were Brooklyn then, a uni­verse away from Hollywood, and of course the moods in the nation were vastly different. When Johnny Podres threw to Elston How­ard, who grounded to Pee Wee Reese, whose peg to Gil Hodges beat Howard by several steps, 1955 Brooklyn swept into space and history, in a time recalled today in city folk­lore. Yet, in those days, there wasn’t Don Sutton either, leaving however small a re­minder that ball, after all, is just ball, saying it aloud so that 500 years from now some an­cient-history buff will know that our pressure was in the coal mines, and in the guns that stacked up in our streets. The pressure is on us all to say why we have no answers. Ball is aspirin, too. And none of us should ever be allowed to forget we soothe ourselves at the expense of duties too staggering for calculation. We owe the world something, if for no other reason than we have so much. If we owe ourselves anything, let it be the making of some literate equation out of why the Yan­kees total payroll might feed hunger in the states of Mississippi and Idaho, for instance. So that once some moral sense can be made of the entries in the record book which may suggest, by that time, Reggie’s ability, before taxes, to purchase the school system in Coral Gables for a small down payment in cash.

Maybe, at last, the real part is in the eyes of Davey Lopes. In one of the sports maga­zines he can be seen looking toward a place on the playing field that has anchored Lasor­da’s fury. But Lopes is looking deeper, way past the grass and the sculptured ground of Yankee Stadium, beyond the umpire’s myopic call on Jackson’s interference. In Lopes there is the grimmest observation, and his eyes are the message:

We are not going to win…

After that proud start before the folk in the neighborhood, the Dodgers were blitzed in four. And, along the way to losing their World Series, the Los Angeles players left behind them 140 regular-season fielding er­rors. They’d won the pennant, curiously enough, when Phillies’ centerfielder Gary Maddox, steady as they come, dropped a soft line drive in his own park that eventually lead to the Dodgers’ winning run.

The players come home to score. They skip parades and wait for the money to be di­vided. In Boston, in Philly, out in Kansas City, too, their losses are slowly wearing off. They all looked into the fire (the same four teams made the playoffs again this year, not the greatest index around for the current state of the Bigs), but couldn’t hang on.

And again, except for the Yankees and New York, there seems to have been nothing seen…

The cost of bearing witness would seem to be connected to the pain described by poet Melvin Van Peebles in regard to those who have to: Trick by the pound to buy that ounce.…

Maybe more. Once, the power of the Yan­kees eased sores in New York’s condition. But not anymore. The city streets are more and more filled with the lost. Below the lights of the Yankee party, the fun for victors, New York has become the Dodgers on the other side of all the ditties and singsong where the city is a loved one serenaded by disorder.

When the rookie Jim Beattie had struck Los Angeles dumb in the fifth game, a crowd of several thousand pedestrians went up the long hill away from the Yankee Stadium, above the Harlem River, bordering the site where the Polo Grounds used to stand.


A Blood, young and savaged by wine, called out in a voice like a tuba from his perch by the side of the street:

Yo, how’d they do?

And several folks in a row answered, as of­ten as he asked: The Yanks won, man, they’ re gonna do it!

Wine offered a smile without teeth, scars on his face, and said:

Made you happy, hunh? Made you happy?

And then his tuba laughter thundered back down across the bridge to McCombs’ Dam Park, right by the Stadium, across the Latin Quarter established there on the hand­ball courts, and just went rattling, it would seem, right on up to the Concourse. Toward a city gritting its teeth…

Maybe, that is, it echoed that far…

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 1, 2020