Saturday, September 5, 2009

This is My Team

Despite my earliest baseball memory being the 1973 World Series—the New York Mets vs the Oakland A’s; which the latter won in seven games—I’ve been a Yankee fan practically all my life. Because my father, who nurtured my love for the game, followed both New York teams I shared my love for the Yankees with the Mets. This ended rather abruptly when slugger Darryl Strawberry left the confines of Shea Stadium for his hometown of Los Angeles to play for the Dodgers and I concentrated solely on the Bombers, whose Bronx residence was some 20 odd blocks from the apartment where I’d spent the bulk of the first 10 years of my life. (I was actually born in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, a predominantly Dominican neighborhood.)

I vividly remember, as a little kid, every trip to and fro on the 4 train as just another excuse to gawk at the mythical home of Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, Yogi and DiMaggio. Then, in late June of 1976, we left the country. (My parents did not want to raise their two boys in the drug and crime infested mess that was NYC at the time.) Thankfully, I would frequently spend summers back in New York, and occasionally make the trek to Yankee Stadium. The 1977 and 1978 championship teams were the first collection of Yankees to have my unwavering allegiance: Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, Bucky Dent, Graig Nettles, and of course Reggie Jackson, were my favorites, but Mickey Rivers, Ron Guidry, Lou Piniella, Bobby Murcer, and Thurman Munson were also on board. To this day, it’s the mention of the ’77-’78 alumni at the team’s annual Old Timer’s Day celebrations that elicits the most wistful but effusive of nostalgic responses from me.

The Yankee teams of the ‘80s may not have been a feeble bunch—they actually won the most regular season games of any MLB team during that stretch—but they didn’t hold much of my interest. And during the ‘90s, for the most part, I was too busy with my marriage and subsequent divorce, while immersed in a fledgling music career that never really took off, to pay much attention to my beloved Yankees or baseball in general. Yeah, I was acutely aware of the Sosa-McGuire home run race—what fan of baseball wasn’t?—and the acquisition of defector and legendary Cuban pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez by the Yankees, not to mention their ‘96, ‘98, ‘99, ‘00 World Series victories. But it was an admiration from afar and not any real devotion.

For no particularly defining reason I went to my first Yankee game in decades during the 2005 season. I started going on a more regular basis with each subsequent season, randomly coinciding with a few games started by pitcher Chien-Ming Wang (one of which, against then A's ace Barry Zito, is the best pitching duel I've ever seen in person); witnessing beloved centerfielder Bernie Williams' final season; and the last hurrah of Yankee Stadium itself. (For the record, I really like "The House that George Built" despite its flaws, even while decrying the use of tax payer money for its $1.6 billion construction tab.) Through it all, I cheered the team on and enjoyed the outcome of each season—although the third place finish of the '08 Yankees was such a let down—but this year, for the first time since the '77, '78 clubs, I feel I can call the current roster of Bombers my own.

Of course it's sweet that as I write this they hold a 7.5 game lead over bitter rival the Boston Red Sux. But that's not it at all. It's the looseness of the team after years of a corporate-like atmosphere; the liveliness brought about by the ebullient likes of recent arrivals A.J. Burnett and Nick Swisher, among others, in an effort to make this team their own.

Watching this group and the contagious nature of its current vibe has been nothing short of a joyous experience for me. To see Melky Cabrera, Robinson Canó and Nick Swisher dance in the dugout after a recent Johnny Damon-Mark Texeira one-two HR punch was a pure delight. However, this kind of fun and games—especially the Burnett-initiated pie-in-the-face for the protagonists of walk-off wins—can only come about on a winning club. And these guys, with solid pitching and a powerful offense up and down the lineup, have done their fair share, as they find themselves on track to win 100 games or more. Tellingly, this has evoked recent comparisons by both the great Mariano Rivera and manager Joe Girardi to the championship dynasty of the late '90s, especially the '98 team, on which they both played and is considered one of the best Yankee teams of all time.

So, for the first time in 30 years I feel I can identify with a current pinstripe roster in a big way. Regardless of what happens from here on in, this is my team. And I couldn't be happier. Well, unless they reach the ultimate goal in October, of course.

One last thing: I sincerely hope against it but there is a possibility that the Yankees won't re-sign designated hitter Hideki Matsui after this, the final season on his contract, and he may return to Japan immediately after. But if that happens to be the case, I say, Arigato, Matsui-san. How 'bout sending him back home with a World Series ring? Now, that would be sweet.