Two years ago, if you told me I was going to willingly relocate to the Bay Area, I would have aggressively called your bluff.
Two months ago, if you told me the 2012 Oakland A’s would recapture my imagination and reignite my passion for baseball, I would have called for a drug test.
Pass the cup, because that’s exactly what happened.
Before anything else in life, if a young boy is lucky enough to be blessed with a caring and sports-oriented father, his first love becomes baseball. And while many other influences will fight for the stage, such as music, video games, other sports, bikes and eventually girls, nothing can ever remotely replicate the time when that young boy puts on his little league uniform for the first time, hits his first home run and eventually enters a major league stadium for the first time.
It is sheer bliss, a combination of amazement and intimidation, as the dimensions of the yard and roar of the crowd drown everything out. Immediately, I locked in on first base, fixated on my idol, Don Mattingly, hoping to capture every subtle movement to better emulate him in the street the next day with my buddies.
I used to light wine corks on fire, and as the flame died down, smeared the ashes underneath my eyes. Why? I wanted to look like a ball player. It’s really all I ever wanted as a kid. I just wanted to play ball.
I had Mattingly posters everywhere in my room, along with a few Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing posters. Ironically, Will Clark made the wall of fame, too.
But nothing topped Mattingly, and nothing topped the Yankees.
Keep in mind, during my final three years of high school, the Yankees managed to win 74, 67 and 61 games. Even worse, Mattingly’s back was deteriorating to the point where he was no longer explosive, no longer dangerous. His explosive coil was replaced with a loopy drag in an effort to prolong his career. He was the captain, and every true captain goes down with his ship. He could still gracefully work the bag, but his power was gone, and .330 was replaced with .288.
As I watched from a distance, from college, about 75 miles away from the Bronx, I still felt as connected to the Yankees, and the sport of baseball as I had 14 years earlier, when I was first introduced to the game. I was still competing, playing college ball, and proudly defended my turf in a locker room littered with Red Sox fans from Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire. It was a blast. We didn’t win much, and in hindsight, I was nothing more than a slightly, above-average player at a small, Division 1 mid-major school. But at the time, it felt so much bigger.
Sure, some of my girlfriends thought I was nuts, but I still had a baseball shrine in my dorm room. 90% Mattingly, along with some of the other players I truly respected from that era: Gwynn, Boggs, Ripken and you guessed it, Will Clark.
In 1996, the year I graduated college, following what morphed into a near two-decade drought, the New York Yankees finally won the World Series, and you better believe I was at the clincher, Game 6 against the Braves. Joe Girardi drilled a triple in the gap that night, and now, all these years later, he’s still wearing pinstripes, replacing shinguards with a lineup card.
The late 90′s were sheer bliss: World Champs in ’96, ’98, ’99 and 2000. Admittedly, the last one was extra special, as we buried the Mets. Quickly.
Slowly, however, as age set in, many of the old warriors left the game. Paul O’Neill and Coney and Tino, and eventually Bernie and Posada. Grinders, throwbacks. Ballplayers.
Still, somehow, without warning, winning became too easy, it became, almost…expected.
The emotional connection slowly waned during the regular season, only to be ratcheted up in October. If they win, great, that’s what they’re supposed to do. If they lose, dammit, it’s time to fire people, bench legends, trade icons and whatever else is necessary to stay on top. The calls I took during my 9 years on New York radio reflected that mindset. It was always about the next free agent, next big fish. The DNA of the team and fan base sadly, was changing, and not for the better.
I was changing.
Unless you are a Yankee fan, it’s probably tough to fathom how winning becomes a bit boring and stale, but when a 70% disparity in payroll exists between 3 of the other 4 teams in the division, it does feel different. It feels cheap.
Imagine Duke beating up on Bowling Green 30 times a year? How boring would that be? The intrigue begins during the conference tournaments before morphing into full-blown March Madness. That’s what makes college hoops so special.
Along the way, the Yankees became too corporate, too image conscious, too concerned with the almighty buck. The organic roots of the game slowly eroded, and in hindsight, I found myself conflicted on-air in New York. I never liked A-Rod, let alone Raul Mondesi and Kevin Brown and all of the 0ther high-priced imports the Yankees latched on to over the years.
I was at the fist game ever at the New Yankee Stadium, and the next day on-air, to the chagrin of many, absolutely blasted the cavernous feel and the corporate nature. The old stadium represented a street fight, the new one feels more like a polo match. People defended it, but in hindsight, they were defending it because they felt as if they had to, not because they were passionately driven to do so.
When I moved to the Bay Area, one of the first items I purchased was a framed Don Mattingly jersey. It’s right next to our main TV, which is where I do most of my work, charting games and taking notes. I’m not even sure if my wife realizes this, but many times, I just glance over at the jersey, and wish the Yankees were the Yankees I fell in love with so many year ago. Heck, she can’t possibly understand, even if I was able to articulate everything perfectly, I’m not sure she would fully get it. How could she? How does one sufficiently paint that type of picture?
Being in the Bay Area, and sounding different than anybody else on air (part volume, part accent), I was automatically labeled a hater. I couldn’t possibly relate to the A’s fan base and their stadium situation and low payroll, and entering the season, invisible expectations.
Actually, it wasn’t hate, but rather a distorted perspective. My view of the game was far different from so many other baseball fans. It’s part of the reason why for so long, I didn’t think the A’s were legit. They were winning with such a foreign recipe, it couldn’t possibly work.
One of the lowest team averages ever. A staff of rookie pitchers. It didn’t feel right because quite frankly, I was used to watching the Yankees bludgeon people to death on a nightly basis.
What listeners didn’t see, was how the A’s were slowly bringing me back to my origins as a baseball fan, connecting the dots to my baseball soul. For the first time in years, I enjoyed sitting in an empty stadium, cold beer in hand, wondering if this group of retreads and kids could find another way to shock the world.
It was refreshing being in a ball park with people who genuinely wanted to be there, rather than sitting with a bunch of suits who had to be there.
The New York Yankees will forever be stitched into my heart, but it doesn’t mean I blindly agree with everything they do. In a weird way, I long for a few seasons with Stump Merrill or Bucky Dent. It makes winning that much more enjoyable.
Think about the Rocky movies, and envision Rocky walking along the hardscrabble streets of Philly, bouncing a ball, leather jacket, dealing with loan sharks and punching slabs of meat.
Now close your eyes, and think about Rocky in a mansion, surrounded by affluence and security.
I’m from Brooklyn. Which one do you think I relate to more?
Thank you A’s, thank you for bringing me back to my truest baseball roots.
I owe you one.