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Damn Lovables

If you don't like the Yankees, it's very possible you don't really like sports

By Roger Rosenblatt

Sports Illustrated When Chad Curtis caught the final fly ball of the 20th century to give the New York Yankees their second World Series sweep in a row, their third Series victory in four years, their 25th Series triumph in a hundred, I sighed and thought, That's nice, but the Boston Red Sox are so tragically beautiful in their perpetual defeats, and the Chicago Cubs so adorable in their eternal futility.

The hell I did. I high-fived my wife, yelled, whooped, clapped, relived every inning with my kids, danced a little jig, stayed up half the night clinging to the shards of another triumphant year, put on Louis Armstrong and sang What a Wonderful World.

Exactly what is it about the Yankees that drives discerning people like Rick Reilly (see his column in last week's SI, The Team I Love to Hate) to displays of madness, in which they invent frail justifications for not loving the lovable, not admiring the admirable? How could Reilly write that "rooting for the Yankees takes all the courage, imagination, conviction and baseball intelligence of Spam"? As long as I'm asking: What is the courage of Spam?

There's something twisted about a culture in which a fan of the century's consistently best assemblage of professional athletes has to explain himself, but here goes. And I'll do it on Reilly's terms -- imagination, conviction, baseball intelligence and even courage.

To be sure, loving the Yankees in the 1950s and early '60s took little courage or conviction. Watching a seemingly endless parade of sluggers like Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Bill Skowron and Roger Maris, one's tense moments only came from wondering when the next ball would fly out of the park. A small amount of baseball intelligence was required to appreciate Casey Stengel's use of platooning and Whitey Ford's no-balk pickoff motion, but the way those teams won was straightforward -- good pitching, superb fielding, power. As for imagination, that actually was required -- one could not imagine New York's losing. There was even a musical comedy based on the preposterous notion that there could be a year in which the Yankees lost the pennant.

From 1965 and until '94, however, loving the Yankees required enormous reserves of courage and conviction. It didn't require much baseball intelligence, because the New York teams of that era didn't have any. One reason the decent young men on the current Yankees team shun their team's coronation as a dynasty may be that they recall that the Yankees of that 29-year period won only two World Series. Also, those teams consisted of individuals who were hardly easy to love. If you're looking for a test of courage and conviction, try embracing Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, Reggie (I'm not running to first as fast I can) Jackson and the consistently delightful and cooperative Rickey Henderson.

Compare and contrast that unsavory lot to Scott Brosius, David Cone, Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams. All praise has amply and correctly been lavished on these Yankees, the team of the 1990s. Only someone who regards baseball intelligence as an oxymoron could fail to marvel at a team that excels at all the little things -- working the count, going with the pitch, hitting-and-running, knowing which pitcher to use in every situation. (In my book Joe Torre was the Series MVP.) The lamest rap against the Yankees concerns money: They bought the best players. Plenty of teams spend buckets on players (how about those Baltimore Orioles?) but get nowhere, and the vast majority of Yankees greats, now and historically, came up through the system -- Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Berra, Ford, Mantle, Williams, Rivera, Jeter.

If one still needs a reason to love the Yankees, try this: In terms of talent, their position players -- other than Williams and Jeter -- aren't great. An objective assessment would have predicted a World Series loss in six to the 103-game-winning, superb-pitching Braves. So why did New York triumph, seemingly without breaking a sweat? For these Yankees winning is a feat of attitude, of character, of wonder. Against them the RBI-rich Texas Rangers can't buy a hit, Nomar Garciaparra suddenly makes errors, and Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz are hittable. Here's a team that makes gold out of Straw. What's not to love?

What folks seem to hate most about the Yankees today is that they win, but how sincere can these feelings be? Winning is why people take to sports ("If they don't win, it's a shame.... "), and deep down, Reilly and his fellow travelers like the game too much not to enjoy seeing it played at its best, with a touch of magic. I don't think Reilly hates the Yankees. I think he hates the Red Sox. Now that makes sense. Come home, Rick. It's a wonderful world.

Issue date: November 8, 1999


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