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   L E A D I N G   O F F

NOVEMBER 7 , 2003

Confessions of a Yankee Fan
A Blast from the Past
, c. 1998

The following piece, written for a continuing-education class at the New School in New York City in November 1998, predates this website by a good two-and-a-half years. It was the first formal piece I'd ever written about baseball, and my first attempt at grappling with a conflict that — five years later — I've still never addressed to my level of satisfaction. I've gone back and forth over the years about whether to include this here, but despite a few hanging curveballs, I've decided to let it see the light of day, because this was as close as I've come to nailing that conflict. I have resisted any temptation to revise or edit it, though I've added a few relevant hyperlinks.

I didn't know how to break the news to my father, but I was certain I had shamed him. "Dad," I admitted hesitantly, "I've become a Yankee fan." I expected the horrible truth of my adoption to be revealed just then; surely, no true Jaffe could claim loyalty to the team that had tormented our family through three generations.

It's like this: I was born a Los Angeles Dodger fan not by dint of geography, but by the legacy of my grandfather Bernard Jaffe's loyalty to "Dem Bums," the Brooklyn Dodgers. Though "Pop" spent most of his early life in Baltimore, he was born in New York and visited on several occasions, attending baseball games at all three of the city's big league stadiums—the Dodgers shared the five boroughs with two other major league teams, the New York Giants (who called Manhattan home) and the New York Yankees, the Bronx Bombers. Though he'd witnessed the awesome power of the Murderer's Row-era Yankee legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Pop was drawn to the daffy Dodgers when he saw their star outfielder Babe Herman — a great hitter but a notoriously inept fielder — get hit on the head by a fly ball he was attempting to catch. Such blunders by the Dodgers were commonplace; another famous story has Herman hitting a triple and winding up on third base, accompanied by not one, but two of his teammates! The often hapless Dodgers were nevertheless beloved by their community, and offered an underdog "everyman" quality that the Giants — the class of the National League for years—and the imperial Yankees could not.

By 1941, the Yanks had amassed seven World Championships and the now Augusta, Georgia-based Army Doctor Jaffe had produced a son, my father. That year the Yanks and Dodgers inaugurated their rivalry proper by squaring off in the first of seven World Series matchups over a sixteen year period. The Bronx juggernaut quashed the Dodgers' dreams of glory all but once in that span; only in 1955 did justice — and the Dodgers — prevail. Against this often heartbreaking tableau, tucked in the sleepy farming town of Walla Walla, Washington, Bernard and wife Clara somehow managed to raise a family, instilling them with the faith in the Dodgers superiority by right if not might — the Dodgers challenged the segregated ways of the majors by signing the first modern black ballplayer, Jackie Robinson, and opened the floodgates to a changing America. The Yankees, meanwhile, remained lily-white for years, one of the last teams to integrate. But as the Yanks polished yet another championship trophy, the Dodgers — and the Jaffes — could only utter that mantra of eternal optimism combined with sworn vengeance that was their hallmark: "Wait till next year!"

My induction into the complex folds of this classic rivalry came as I sat at my father's knee and watched the 1977 World Series. While I couldn't appreciate the significance of Reggie Jackson's climactic three-home run game as the Yankees felled the long-since-relocated Dodgers, Dad instilled in me one basic tenet: the Dodgers were Our Team, and Yankees were capital-E Evil. A quick study, I followed the next year's pennant races with this in mind, subsisting on a steady diet of baseball cards and box scores. When the two teams staged a rematch in the Fall Classic, I knew exactly what the stakes were, and endured utter despair as I watched acrobatic Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles rob the Dodgers of hit after hit as the Bombers stole the Series yet again (last year, stumbling across a Classic Sports Network replay of that Game Three — the first two having been won by the Dodgers — I found myself shouting obscenities and tossing objects at the television as Nettles smote another rally). Unquestionably, the high point of the Series for me came in Game Two, when rookie pitcher Bob Welch struck out Reggie Jackson to preserve a Dodger victory. The next day, the newspapers carried AP Special Correspondent Jules Loh's update of Ernest Thayer's classic baseball poem "Casey at the Bat," preserving the Welch-Jackson showdown in doggerel; a clip of the poem still hangs on my bedroom wall in the house where I grew up, and I can recite the bulk of it from memory:

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Yankees in L.A.,
The score stood 4-3, two outs, one inning left to play.
But when Dent slid safe at second, and Blair got on at first,
Every screaming Dodger fan had cause to fear the worst.
For there before the multitudes — Ah destiny! Ah fate!
Reggie Jackson, mighty Reggie was coming to the plate.

In those years the Yanks were personified by their meddlesome owner, George Steinbrenner, who ushered in the era of extravagant player salaries by grossly outbidding other teams for the service of free agents. Evil King George reigned by terror, firing managers on a whim and tormenting players — even superstars — on a daily basis by magnifying their shortcomings in the press. During the 1981 World Series (in which my loyalty was finally rewarded, as the Dodgers avenged their previous defeats), Steinbrenner stole headlines by fabricating a story of being attacked by two Dodger fans in an elevator. The Dodgers stood in stark contrast to those Yanks, offering level-headed stability, continuity, and class —they rarely aired their laundry in public, kept their player nucleus intact, and never fired a manager no matter how bad things got (not too bad, usually; they were perennial contenders if occasional underachievers).

Fast-forward to 1996. Having relocated to New York City, I reacquainted myself with baseball through the bounty of cable television. I viewed more games in a month than I previously could in a season, though a disproportionate share involved either the Yanks, the crosstown Mets (yawn), or the ubiquitous Atlanta Braves, the self-appointed "America's Team." Braves games, with their fans' persistently obnoxious and insensitive "Tomahawk Chop" cheer, always raised my ire. Still a Dodger fan, I was frustrated by the futility of obtaining timely West Coast scores (which arrived a day late in the papers) and by the Dodgers' recent penchant for "folding the tent" come the October playoffs. As the season trickled by, I was drawn into following the Yankee beat in the local sports pages; for once the Yanks actually had a manager, Joe Torre, who could tame the megalomaniacal monster Steinbrenner, and the nucleus of the team contained none of the vocal malcontents, free-agent flops, or rap-sheet regulars of the '80s and early '90s — Steve Howe, Mel Hall, Luis Polonia, Danny Tartabull, et al. The World Series arrived: the Atlanta Braves versus the Yankees, America's Team against The Home Team, and suddenly I was staring into the abyss. My cable TV bill clinched the deal, and I knew the bandwagon upon which to climb.

Ted Turner owns the Atlanta Braves. He is also a cable TV magnate, and during the very month of that Series, had completed a massive merger and become the vice chairman of Time Warner Inc., the parent company of my cable provider. The company celebrated their new vertically-integrated arrangement by hiking rates, and suddenly the evils perpetrated by the Yankees and Steinbrenner seemed petty compared to those of the Braves. If the Braves are "America's Team," it is the America which robbed a people of their land while reducing those people to mascots, and the warpath of continued exploitation, in my muddled mind, extrapolates to the corporate consolidation of the information and entertainment universe. So I rooted for the Yankees, and took a small amount of satisfaction as their worthy team vanquished Atlanta in dramatic fashion. Still, I clung to the belief that the landscape of my fandom remained unthreatened; against those Braves, I would have rooted for a team fielded by Earth's alien conquerors.

Early 1998: The previous summer and fall had coaxed out of my pals a long-dormant enthusiasm for baseball, even as we watched the Yanks fall short of their previous year's pinnacle. My anticipation for the coming season was neatly summarized by a chalkboard displayed in the window of a bar on Avenue A the day after the Yanks elimination: "Only 116 days until Pitchers and Catcher — Go Yankees!!!" ["Pitchers and Catchers" denotes the first day those players are allowed to report to training camp; this rite of spring heralds, for the true fan, the start of baseball season]. With a bit of research, I devised a plan for our group to become partial season-ticket holders, splitting pairs of tickets to 15 games at Yankee Stadium among a quintet. It was the first time any of us had ever invested in a team at this level, and miraculously, our reward was a Team for the Ages.

The 1998 Yankees swept through the season with a dominance reminiscent of the Evil Empire my father was raised to abhor, yet they produced a team as endearing as any I'd seen in twenty years of watching the sport — as lovable (gulp) as those Dodgers of my boyhood. Infusing freshness into the hoariest of sports cliches, these Yankees were chock-full of feel-good human interest stories, men of great dignity, composure and professionalism. Men with whom I felt such familiarity and kinship that I was tempted, when attending my selection of games, to fill out my scorecard using first names and nicknames rather than surnames: Chuck, Bernie, Tino, Chili, Darryl, Scotty, Boomer, El Duque. The Yankees, as we followed them from the winter thaw through the dog days of August to the paydirt of October, became our conversation, their season-long march the background hum and foreground spectacle of our summer. The spoils of our victory yielded me a prized ticket to my first World Series game in the very stadium where my boyhood dreams were once shattered.

If I needed a sign from above that rooting for these Yanks was an acceptable pastime, the events leading up to Old-Timers Day offered an omen. For the first time in thirty years since leaving the Yankees, former pitcher Jim Bouton was invited to return to The House That Ruth Built. Bouton had enjoyed two years of stardom for the Yanks in 1963-64, then hurt his arm and struggled through several seasons with a front row seat to the decline and fall of the Yankee empire. He had been exiled for publishing Ball Four, a diary of a knuckleballing relief pitcher's tour of duty on the outskirts of baseball oblivion. The book was a surprise bestseller in 1970, for its salty locker-room revelations and its portrait of ballplayers, even hallowed Yankee greats such as Mickey Mantle, as all-too-human overgrown boys subject to the temptations of booze and broads.

When I was ten, my grandfather sent me a dog-eared copy of Ball Four among a batch of baseball paperbacks gleaned from flea markets, and within those pages I found — in addition to a goldmine of creative four-letter words — a portrait of ballplayers as human beings subject to the same insecurities experienced by those who never hear their names over the Yankee Stadium public address system. Bouton's iconoclastic wisdom cast him as an outsider in the game, yet I was drawn to his writing for the way he portrayed himself as just another person in a day-to-day battle for self-esteem and success. I internalized his observational style and no doubt fancied myself a writer long before I ever actually set words to print. Bouton would often say that he does not believe in heroes, but if ever I had one, it was Jim Bouton.

Anyway, Bouton's son Michael wrote an open letter to the New York Times pleading with the Yankee organization to invite Bouton back for Old-Timers Day as a gesture to help him heal from the wounds of his daughter Laurie's death in an automobile accident the previous year. George Steinbrenner, awash in a Summer of Love just as the rest of us, granted the request, and Bouton made an appearance, retiring his only batter faced in the Old-Timer's Game (ironically enough against a squad of Dodger old-timers, albeit a second-rate one given the current employment as coaches and managers of the most able-bodied vets). For a week, Bouton once again was the toast of the town and the national sports press, and I, who had first encountered the history of the Yanks unsavory fall from grace through Bouton's hilariously jaundiced prism, felt that much more vindicated by my love for these current Yanks.

My conversion to Yankee fandom has not garnered the acclaim from the Jaffes that the team has from the rest of the sporting world. When I broke the news that fateful day, Dad needled me — "What kind of son have I raised?" — and he still persists, but he's made clear that he approves of my ticket scheme in the same way he does of, say, my MOMA membership (taking advantage of the city's opportunities for cultural enrichment rates highly with him). With this quasi-blessing in mind, I accommodated him during my summer trip home by wearing not my authentic Yankees cap but a replica Brooklyn Dodgers hat. My grandparents regard my dance with the Yanks with less solemnity than they once held for a past six-year relationship with a non-Jewish woman. The primary heckler within my family is my younger brother Bryan, himself a part of our ticket plan. "Traitor," he reminds me, blanching upon sight of my wool Yankees cap and conveniently forgetting that in our youth he was regarded as the one fickle about team loyalty, climbing upon any passing bandwagon. He dismisses this characterization and refutes my own internal logic: "I can go to Yankees games, but that doesn't mean I'm going to root for them. Hell could freeze over first."

Now, as I gaze at the fan in the mirror and contemplate the Yankee-less void of the offseason (no game today? damn!), I wage an internal tug of war. During my trip home, I explained to my father that the Yankees were my team just as my East Village apartment was my home — a rental situation. A sports team in this day is a fragile balance of human psychology and economic circumstance, and the stars rarely align so perfectly as they have this particular season. Next year, logic dictates, the roster will change due to personnel decisions dictated by financial hardball, and the team will struggle to maintain the impossibly lofty standards of 1998. Crises and controversies sidestepped during this magical season will rear their heads in the form of unhappy players and debates about the future of both the stadium and the team's ownership, and the Yanks will fall back into the stratosphere of the ordinary-to-merely-good — the magic of a magical season, after all, lies in its rarity (if Yankee bench coach Don Zimmer, who celebrated his 50th season in organized baseball playing consogliere to Torre's don, said he'd never seen anything like this season in his lifetime, then we fans would do well to lower our expectations until at least the next time Halley's Comet passes through). Meanwhile, the Dodgers, having retooled after a particularly turbulent and lackluster season in which they were purchased by a media mogul even more loathsome than Ted Turner — Rupert Murdoch — will inevitably challenge in their own league and cause me no end of internal gymnastics and internecine debates should the two teams head for an October collision. But that is a quandary for another day, another season, another planet. Today, I am a Yankee fan, basking in the glow of the season of my life.