Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
Stocking Stuffers
2004-12-22 14:45
by Alex Belth

I love writing about rooting for the Yankees. That ain't hard to tell, is it? But yo, one of the most satisfying aspects of hosting this blog is having a community of readers who stop by, time and time again. I can't tell you how rewarding that is for me. Some of you make yourselves known in the comments section, while others prefer to just read along, keeping your thoughts private. I value both kinds of readers, of course.

Anyhow, I was thinking how I could best say thanks, while offering some small token of my appreciation at the same time. I've been absolutely swamped with my 9-5 of late, so the interview I recently conducted will have to wait until early next year (so much transrcibing, so little time). Instead, I contacted a couple of writers and asked if they would be willing to submit a guest article to help celebrate another fine baseball year. Lucky for me--and now you--a bunch of 'em said yes. So over the next week or so, I'm gunna post articles from some of my favorite Internet writers, who I'm also fortunate enough to call friends.

The first piece is by Tim Marchman, who writes for The New York Sun and The New Partisan. Hope you enjoy. Heppy holidaze guys. Thanks for helping make Bronx Banter a lively place to get together and shoot the baseball breeze.

Flawed Heroes: Then and Now

By Tim Marchman

You have to take all the recent talk about the death of the baseball hero in a fair perspective.

There are, apparently, hundreds of sportswriter’s sons tearing down Jason Giambi posters from their walls and pronouncing the disgraced slugger a cheat and a fraud. Giambi is both, and deserves in some measure the scorn of his young fans; but I doubt that these children will suffer too greatly from their disillusioning. They may even end up the better for it.

I grew up in Queens following the Davey Johnson Mets, probably the sleaziest team in living memory. Because it was Queens and because the Mets were so great and the Yankees so consistently second-best both in their division and in the city, to be a Yankee fan was usually a matter both of family inheritance and inborn contrarianism, and thus something fiercely clung to, like a threatened faith.

We smug Mets fans were merciless to our Yankee-cheering friends, not at all afraid to point out that not only were the Yankees a bunch of losers, but even broadcast on WPIX Channel 11, as ghetto a television station as has ever existed.

“Yeah, whatever,” the Yankees boosters would say as we derided the half-dead croakings of Phil Rizzuto. “You’ve got your little World Series—what’s that make, two of them?” This historical perspective was, to tell the truth, more unsettling than we let on.

Even before the ever-escalating scandals surrounding Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, though, one of the great trumps of the Yankees fan wasn’t the appeal to history, but rather the appeal to morality. When we’d mock Don Mattingly and argue for the superiority of Keith Hernandez, who had an MVP award and a ring, all the Yankees fan had to do was smugly intone the word “cokehead” to watch our faces fall.

I’m not really sure that when I was 9 years old I had any real idea of what it meant to be a cokehead. Probably I thought it had something to do with the toothless men stewing in their own urine I saw on the subway, and stockbrokers, and those ads that would run during ballgames where a guy explained that he did coke, so he could work more hours, so he could make more money, so he could do more coke. Probably, I thought that you could get hooked on the stuff just by looking at it. Definitely, I knew that to be a cokehead was very bad, and that however many ways Keith Hernandez was better than Don Mattingly, the appeal to his status as a slavering drug fiend was impossible to refute.

This appeal would, of course, only grow stronger through the years. Whatever exactly the Smithers Institute was, and whatever exactly Dwight Gooden had done to get locked up in it, is was clearly something very, very bad, something that went far beyond anything Ketih Hernandez had ever done, and something that reflected badly not only on him and his team but on his fans. Maybe Mets fans were all destined to grow up to be cokeheads like Hernandez and Gooden! (Yankees fans, at least those of them who hadn’t yet hit puberty, certainly seemed to think so.)

The thing of it is, though, that no one I knew ever stopped rooting for the Mets. No one even stopped rooting for Dwight Gooden. If I had had one of those “Dr. K” posters that, at least as I recall them, featured a stethoscope-wearing Gooden hurling an enormous ball of fire, I certainly wouldn’t have ripped it down from the wall when Gooden went into rehab; I would have looked at it before I went to bed at night and thought of how good the Mets would be with Dr. K at full strength.

It’s easy for adults to forget how intensely personal the experience of being a fan is for children; it’s also easy for adults to forget the good that can come of that when they’re expatiating on the feelings of betrayal and disappointment that can overwhelm a child when he learns that his hero isn’t much a hero at all.

My childhood heroes were a lot of shady characters. They did drugs, cheated on their wives, got into fights with one another and with fans, drove drunk and broke lots of laws. They weren’t, to say the least, good role models. All the better!

Defending Keith Hernandez taught me something about loyalty. Being his fan taught me something about how a man can become something more than the sum of his mistakes. Watching Dwight Gooden try and fail to overcome his own frailties taught me how easy it can be for a man to throw everything away. Rooting for the Mets every day taught me how easy it is for mistakes to pile atop one another and spin out of control, and how people will do as they will, no matter how much we care and no matter how much we wish they’d do differently.

None of this is to say that we should shrug our shoulders at the effects of athletes cheating their way to success, murdering and raping people, attacking their managers, or drinking away their fame on the grounds that children can stand to learn hard lessons. In a perfect world every athlete would be like Don Mattingly. They would make the most of their gifts, they would deal gracefully with the loss of those gifts, and they would behave honorably in victory and in defeat. But there are men like Keith Hernandez in the world too, and men like Jason Giambi, and something to learn from and admire in their failures as well as their triumphs.

Giambi may have been a cheat, but when called before a grand jury he didn’t claim that he’d mistaken steroids for flaxseed oil; he may have been a fraud, but he now has every chance to behave with grace and honor. Anyone worried that their son or daughter has been disillusioned beyond all hope by the fall of their hero would do as well to keep that in mind, and even to point it out to their child, as to bewail the fact that this hero has turned out to be nothing more than what he was all along—vain and desperate for success, no different than Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Dwight Gooden, you, and me.

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