By Peter Richmond
I'm not blaming Alfonso Soriano for being traded back to the Yankees. It might be a smart pickup. Then again, it might not be. If he can provide runs for a team that's lately shown as much power as a two-hamster generator, that's cool. If a terrible team was ready to let him go because he's done at 37 and the Yankees got him for the ticket-selling memories of years ago, that's uncool.
No -- what dismays me is what's suggested by the arrival of another past-his-prime former Big Name. That this dysfunctional team ruled by a dysfunctional family (and its ghost) is still unable to wean itself off the Steinbrenner fiefdom's eternal addiction: buying and trading for name-power and neon-numbers, no matter if the glow is dimming. To win games, sure, but just as much, to fill the seats and clamor, as always, for the spotlight.
I'm not saying that in the current marketplace, if the Yankees want to win, they shouldn't grab at all the CCs and Kurodas they can buy. I'm just saying they long ago lost me. And to lose someone who grew up 11 miles from the old stadium, with pinstripes flowing through his little-kid veins, is a pretty remarkable thing.
For the record: as late as Oct. 14, 1976, when Chris Chambliss' home run daggered the Royals and put us in the Series, I was on board. Then, as early as a month later, after we'd been swept by the Reds, when George signed Cincinnati's Don Gullett because he'd beaten us in Game 1, I took my first steps toward debarking.
Gullett won 14 for us in '77. I rooted against him -- for his disloyalty to Cincinnati, for his love of the buck, for George's grandstanding. Two years later, he signed Tommy John because Tommy had beaten us in the '78 Series in one game and pitched well in another. He also signed a real enemy, Luis freaking Tiant. This all seemed, well, at the very least … unseemly. As if it were flying in the face of sporting decorum. (I know, they've probably forever been mutually exclusive terms).
And then, there were the purely mercenary signings, which -- as soon as Catfish, a North Carolina tobacco-farm kid, signed on the dotted line -- would hereafter and forever stamp my team as the dominant player in the marketplace, the corporation that held the cards. Riches begat wins, and inexorably drew the mercenaries out of their previous cities like moths to dangerous but spotlit flame.
Hey, of course George had to have Catfish: the guy could pitch. And super-ego Reginald Martinez Jackson. The guy could hit. And superstar David Mark Winfield. And wonderfully humble -- but Biggest Prize Fish in that year's free-agent pond -- Don Baylor. Yes, it all made business sense. But it began to smack of a sea change (from which, as the Red Sox and Dodgers and Phillies have joined the checkbook pack, we've never recovered.)
For me, the disembarking was getting serious; I was beginning to desert the opposite of a sinking ship … but I didn't like the feel of its ride anymore. And then, one day, I stood in the locker room, with a few dozen fellow notebooks, as we watched Rickey Henderson make his first entrance after signing. He walked silently to his locker. We parted like the Red Sea, poised our pens, and recorded his famous first words. History has recorded them as, "I don't need any press now." (I swear it was actually, "Rickey don't need no press now," but that notebook's long gone, so I'm probably wrong.)
But with the utterance of that dismissive and patronizing quote, with its assumption we were there to serve him at his behest -- spoken in the locker room of Roger and Elston, Babe and DiMaggio, I think that's when I stepped off onto solid ground, my former fan's feet now planted, forever, firmly on shore. I went back and wrote the Henderson first-day story, as the newly arrived sportswriter in the Miami Herald's New York bureau, ready to cover a lot of my childhood team's games that summer, from the inside … and beginning to think of the anonymous axiom, "Be careful what you wish for."
Then Wade Boggs (Boggs? Really? The archenemy was now helping us win?), then loveable former-archenemy Roger Clemens … and then the ultimate tragedy, the acquisition of the train wreck that has become Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez, a truly troubled puppy, as worthy of Gehrig pinstripes as Barry Bonds was to play for the team of his godfather (a man by the name of Mays.) That they'd re-sign Rodriguez as cavalierly as they'd signed, say Kei Igawa, seemed to confirm it. To the Yankees, there was one way to ensure greatness: Get the best out there. It didn't look like the stamp of genius to me. It looked like a stain.
Yes, of course general manager Gene Michael found glittering gems who did much of the heavy lifting at World Series time: Rivera, Posada, O'Neill … and Derek Jeter. Privileged to have profiled him for two separate GQ covers, I put Jeter right up there with Cal Ripken Jr. as the top two baseball men I have ever known. But Gene Michael was forever fighting the insistent -- and oft-rude (Winfield as "Mister May?" Hideki Irabu as a "pussy toad"?) -- mercenary tide from the tone-deaf king. (Please: what kind of baseball owner with the slightest sense of class would hire a megalomaniacal announcer in love with the sound of his own voice to succeed Allen and Barber and Messer and Rizzuto and White? Why is John Sterling still employed -- unless the kingdom is now a carnival that needs a barker?)
Years from now, baseball surface-myth will say that the Yankees played by the rules and won a whole lot of rings in my lifetime. But there was never a moment from the Gullett signing on when I doubted that the Yankees were forever looking for theatrical star power over sport.
Funny thing about Michael: As a shortstop, he was one of my all-time favorites -- with Horace Clarke and Jerry Kenney. There were others, our stars: Roy White and Joe Pepitone. Steve Hamilton and Mel Stottlemyre. All of them were splayed out far below from my teenaged upper-upper deck perch, where we sorry dozens looked like the last Rice Krispies clinging to the top of an empty, gray cereal bowl -- the color provided by the "Buy DiNoto's Bread" sign beyond left-center, painted in bright yellow atop a field of red, green and white on the back of the top two stories of a six-story, yellow-brick apartment at 845 Gerard Avenue: a beacon of greeting to we few faithful, a beacon that spoke of family and neighborhood baseball.
The weekends when a single victory in a four-game series against the Orioles -- usually on a Pepitone 3-for-4, with a three-run home run? Heroics.
I've long given up hope of ever glimpsing that metaphoric neighborhood and family again, of course. The Mara Giants are my sporting family. I'm still a solid Knick and Ranger fan. But as to my first team? Michael to Fredo, Godfather II: "You're nothing to me now."
And up in that actual neighborhood, in the retro palace that has the gall to evoke the old greats -- where a Legends ticket behind the plate includes a pregame meal of cracked king crab legs on ice with assorted sauces -- might A-Rod (now 38), Jeter (39), Granderson (32) and Soriano come back in fine form, and CC, 33, regain some velocity, wherein they all win an unlikely title?
If it happens, I say to you the faithful, the ones who follow the uniform, not the men who wear it, enjoy it. Honestly.
Me? Ever since DiNoto's shut down in the '80s, I've been out of there. I'm on safe, symbolically solid ground from here on in. I'm drawn to interesting teams. Go Pirates. One-third the payroll, three times the baseball.
Heretical? Apostasy? Loyalty -- to the unwritten rules.
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Peter Richmond has written for five newspapers, been featured in 14 anthologies and spent 13 years on staff at GQ. He has written about everything from sports to murder to movie stars to vasectomies, and has published six books, one a New York Times bestseller. His most recent, "Badasses," a history of the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, has been released in paperback.