Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
Inside Out
2007-03-28 09:35
by Alex Belth

By Emma Span

The day before I left New York to cover spring training, my editor at the Village Voice was abruptly fired. When I got back, I met the new editor for the first time… at which point he abruptly fired me, for reasons he declined to explain, other than that I wasn't his "taste". Ah, the thrilling world of print media! I knew I should've gone to law school.

In some ways, though admittedly not most, this is actually a bit of a relief: I could already feel, after only seven months on the job, some of the joy being sucked out of the game. Baseball writing is a grind, with few off days and very little time to relax, and sportswriters are quick to admit they're not fans. (This Joel Sherman post is one of the more recent and, I think, honest examples, but almost any beat writer will echo these sentiments). Nor should they be: they're supposed to be objective, and as Sherman says, his allegiance is to his column. But when you're neutral, a baseball game becomes an exercise in aesthetics and plot points. It can still be a pleasure to watch, but it lacks the visceral emotional pull that draws many of us to sports in the first place.

Seeing the players off the field humanizes them – watching Mariano Rivera examine a pair of new sneakers, or Endy Chavez trying and failing to tie a tie, or Farnsworth, Bruney, and Proctor feeding the waterfowl. But the fact is that half the fun of rooting for baseball teams lies with the larger-than-life personalities and storylines. With a game every day, you need heroes and villains, not regular people (incredibly fit and staggeringly wealthy regular people, but you know what I mean) with their mundane complement of merits and flaws.

In many ways I was less disillusioned by the players than I expected to be – our culture takes a dim view of professional athletes these days, but almost everyone I talked to was at the very least polite (even when clearly sick of answering questions), and more than a few came across as intelligent and pleasant. But that's not the point. The point is that if you're going to spend three or four hours of your life watching a ball game, you want to cheer for your heroes – not the actual human beings, but your idea of them. Melky Cabrera the person seems like a good kid. I got to interview him through a translator this spring, and he spent most of the time smiling warmly and thanking God and Joe Torre - roughly an equal number of times, which I suppose is probably about right. But I still prefer the Melky of the popular imagination who sprang into the city's collective consciousness last year.

Sometimes the real world is kind enough to give your imagination what it wants. One of the knocks against the Yankees in recent years has been that they don't appear to be having much fun. Not a few pundits actually blamed the 2004 ALCS loss on this, though I'd argue that was due more to the Red Sox's pitching, David Ortiz's hitting, and Dave Roberts' legs than any kind of magical positive attitude (FORP – Fun Over Replacement Player?). But as a fan, purely as regards entertainment value, it is generally more enjoyable to watch a group of guys who are having a good time themselves. I wouldn't say that "fun-loving" is the precise word to describe those 1990s teams, but they did appear to genuinely like each other.

Last year, the Mets often seemed to have the Yankees beat by miles in that regard, but in Tampa this spring the Bombers looked as if they were catching up. I think partly that's due to the youth influx – Cano and Cabrera together are an exuberant presence, even though (or maybe because) I usually can't understand what they're saying. But it's also a deliberate effort: Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi, in particular, are making loosening up a priority.

"It's been a slow turn but we're definitely getting it," said Giambi of the lightening clubhouse atmosphere. "When I first came over here it was just a different core of guys, they weren't like that. They were more businesslike, which was great because it was successful for them, as far as winning four world championships… I mean they had fun, but they were a little more businesslike. Whereas Johnny and I are a little more-" he paused to find the right word, and succeeded – "slapdick."

In the end, playing good baseball will make almost any group likeable. But as both juicy column material, and fodder for cheerfully irrational fandom, I say the more outsized personalities the better -- the kind of personalities who can make an impression from a distance. Cano and Cabrera did this last year, and I believe Giambi can do it again, regardless of what kind of artificial help he may have had in the past. Matsui does it without the benefit of speaking English. And hell, Johnny Damon is the master. We're down to the last vestiges of those 90s teams, if you'll forgive me for referring to one of the greatest closers of all time as a vestige, and the Yankees need to forge a new identity for themselves. I just want it to be an engaging one -- whether I end up watching this season from the press box, the stands, or the futon.

Emma Span is now a freelance writer, apparently, and lives in Brooklyn. She blogs about New York baseball at Eephus Pitch.

2007-03-28 09:41:29
1.   Alex Belth
I just love this peice Emma, proud to post it. FORP? Dude, you rock. That's a keeper.
2007-03-28 09:49:16
2.   RIYank
The Voice's loss is our gain. (Pssst, Alex, good job paying off that editor!)
2007-03-28 10:08:58
3.   Ben
I agree with my brother on this one. Another fantastic piece of writing. FORP sounds like a Bill Cosby sound effect.

Good luck with the job hunt.

2007-03-28 10:09:12
4.   Yankee Fan In Boston
emma, you're batting 2 for 2. great post.

sorry to hear about your newfound occupational freedom, but if that means that we're handed these gems more often, i can greedily accept that.


2007-03-28 10:13:52
5.   qveller
Slapdick is one of the greatest sports coinages of all time. It should be emblazoned on t-shirts and bumperstickers.
2007-03-28 10:21:15
6.   Count Zero
Thank you!!! Thank you very, very much for that.

IMHO, there are several gigantic problems with Joel Sherman's post...just to name two:

1) He has confused "objectivity" (a journalist's mainstay) with "disinterest" -- they are not synonyms. The radio reporter who said "Oh, the humanity!" as the Hindenburg burned was doing his job properly. So was Al Michaels when he asked his audience, "Do you believe in miracles?" And I don't think either of them were faking it.

2) No matter what profession you choose in life -- entrepeneur, computer programmer, graphic artist, or journalist -- the very moment at which your attitude about that job becomes "it's just a job to me" or "it pays the rent" you become less capable than the guy next to you who actually enjoys his work. He brings up Costas in his post, which is a crime because Costas, despite the fact that he is a consumate professional, truly loves the game of baseball. It's obvious every time you hear him talk about it. People who view their jobs in the way Sherman does never become one of the best at anything.

3) This is precisely why blogs like BB and the more recent player spin, 38 pitches, are going to put people like Joel out of work permanently -- and not a moment too soon I might add.

Thank you for caring about what you're writing about. Thank you for fearing that you might lose that in the midst of a daily grind. Thank you for thinking about "integrity."

2007-03-28 10:32:58
7.   Jim Dean
Great post indeed, Emma.

I have to say that I disagree with your basic premise though. Me, I think the fact that these are ordinary people makes their on-field accomplishments so much more remarkable. And sports journalists, I think, do the fans a disservice by allowing one aspect to overwelm all others. It leads into assuming the players have no foibles or tics that hinders their performance.

By contrast, with the opening of the media, I think we're seeing the players much more clearly and they feel the need to respond. A-Rod is the perfect example where he's basically having a personal evolution (I think) through the pressure of the team, the fans, and the game. His identity is seemingly changing, bouncing around, with all the nonsense. It's diffcult to watch because the man is having an identity crisis. And that affects his game. The two stories are greatly intertwined IMHO, but the sports writers shy away from questions about his character.

Last year at Camden Yards I had the good fortune of running into Bernie after a game in which I gave him a hard time from a few rows back of home plate. The conversation started with me apologizing for doing so and he seemed genuinely shocked. Then I proceeded to interrogate him on his splits and his approach at the plate. And good ole Bernie gave as good as he got. Seeing that fire, and his humanity, rounded out the public personna much more so than the typical stories about him (quite, aloof, etc).

The same is true of every player. Who they are greatly informs how they play. Me, I want to get inside their heads. Now just because there isn't much there for Damon doesn't change things. I think the best writers manage to do both - personal flavor of the professional player. What I've read of your writing, you do so very nicely. Me, I want more, not less, of THAT.

2007-03-28 10:36:54
8.   JasonO
Let me extend heartfelt sympathy for "the grind" of a baseball beat writer's existence.

Also may I remind you that a large segment of the population has to work for a living?

Brings to mind another sports coinage:
Suck it up.

2007-03-28 10:53:36
9.   Chyll Will
6 Yes, what he said. You've got a very good touch in your writing that is very engaging, despite what that idiot Voice editor might have said. Keep your recipe book, it'll take you farther than you think

Believe me, some things happen for a good reason; as I've had happen recently and over the past couple of years. Man I have stories to tell, but that's for another space. for now, keep your head up and bless you for the nice insights.

2007-03-28 11:05:08
10.   Sliced Bread

You had to know "Eephus" would have one of those Michael Jordan or Roger Clemens quickie/non retirements.

Hopefully, the Voice (or Village Idiots) sent you away in a shiny, orange Hummer, you know, for being such a warrior.

Keep up the great work. You'll be hired faster than Farnswacker can spell "Fux yeah."

2007-03-28 11:12:55
11.   Chyll Will
7 I gotta say, I admire you JD and that's probably why I tease you so much. You're steadfast with your principles, whether anyone agrees or not. And I'm not teasing you this time. Getting into it with Bernie on his splits? Freakin' hilarious!
2007-03-28 11:14:52
12.   Chyll Will
10 And then there's Sliced, the Good Humor god >;)
2007-03-28 11:34:55
13.   OldYanksFan
PeteAbe says: "Here's a trade I make right now: RHP Kyle Farnsworth to Philadelphia for RHP Jon Lieber and C Chris Coste."

Of 105 comments, I think 3 people agreed with him. Pete... don't quit your day job.

However, Coste could probably be have, straight up, for any of a number of our (non-stud) kids.

Is Coste a decent BUC for us? (Oh Jimmy.. where are you?)

2007-03-28 11:36:41
14.   Jim Dean
11 Oh, it was a great, fun moment. I somehow understood Bernie more after that three minute conversation than all the years I've seen him play and in interviews.

The briefest recap:
1. sitting behind home all game: "Bernie, try hitting from the RIGHT side!!! Hit from the right!!!!".
2. Me, on bike after game. Almost run over Bernie at the crosswalk.
3. Apology, then "why don't you try hitting from the right gainst righties!?"
4. Bernie - "Splits!? Have you seen my splits from last year? They were horrible!"
5. Me: Uhhh. You're great! There's Dimaggio, Mantle, Bernie.
6. Bernie: Timid glance away.
7. Reaches out HIS hand to shake mine.

2007-03-28 11:39:42
15.   Jim Dean
13 That's the Sausage King to you.

Coste? Meh. He's a small upgrade on what they have, so it depends on the price.

What about Bean? He's not going to pitch in NY anyways.

2007-03-28 11:46:20
16.   C2Coke
Great piece, Emma. Thanks.

15 Bean? I thought the Yankees are keeping him to carry bags no matter what.

2007-03-28 12:07:02
17.   Chyll Will
14 Bernie - "Splits!? Have you seen my splits from last year? They were horrible!"

That, my friend, is a classic. The fact that it rendered you near speechless affirms it. Best Post of the Day!

Right now I'm thinking that yeah, it's pretty damn shabby the way he'd been handled this year, which might be why Mo and Jorge started piping about their own futures. If they treat a humble guy like Bernie, who's only been the greatest postseason hitter hitter ever, like a sack of old clothes at the close of his career, they're both probably thinking about when they start losing their mojo and such. Cashman had better be planning the biggest cheesecake from Junior's you've ever seen at CF for Bernie Day.

I hate to say this, but from here it doesn't look good on Cash's end. Now that we have an insider in our midst, it would be a good question to ask him; what his take is on that situation.

Which brings us back full circle to Ms. Emma and the way she was treated. I was treated like that at a job I liked, so I have an idea what she's thinking. In that, maybe we have a clearer idea what's going through Bernie's mind? What an interesting set of circumstances...

2007-03-28 12:10:48
18.   Reader11722
Sounds like censorship to me. After all, business is just follow the government's lead on censorship. The US gov't (and their corporate friends), already detain protestes, ban books like "America Deceived" from Amazon and Wikipedia, and fire 21-year tenured, BYU physics professor Steven Jones because he proved explosives, thermite in particular, took down the WTC buildings. Good luck, Emma.
Final link (before Google Books caves to pressure and drops the book):
2007-03-28 12:21:58
19.   Jim Dean
17 If he was truly humble he would have at least have come to camp. Instead he doesn't realize he would replicate Mel Hall (except without defense).

18 Hi! How have you been?

2007-03-28 12:26:44
20.   Emma Span
Hey, thanks guys...

7 Jim Dean, good point, because I enjoy a good interview or trying to "get in a player's head" as well. Still, I'd argue that -- for me -- even a very good profile of someone, or interesting stories about them, made them more interesting, better-fleshed out characters... but still characters. Like HBO instead of network TV, if you you know what I mean. (Encounters like the one you had with Bernie, an awesome story by the way, are pretty rare).

8 JasonO, my point wasn't that sportswriters deserve pity. I'm just trying to explain how I think a dream job can become, over time, just another paycheck. (Though I should point out that there are some great writers out there who've managed to avoid this). Everyone has to work for a living, sure, but some people enjoy themselves while they do so: it's not always or even often possible, but I hardly think there's anything wrong with making it a goal.

10 Man, if I had a nickel for every time someone compared me to Michael Jordan...!

2007-03-28 12:51:15
21.   Chyll Will
19 mmph, thanks for reminding me. I did make that point earlier in the year.

18 We've been so, worrrrrried about yoo... (eeeeehhhh!)

20 Careful... is that the before or after version?

2007-03-28 12:55:16
22.   Sliced Bread
19 Bernie's humble, but he's also proud. Pride is what kept him away from the team this spring. Pride is what is keeping him from picking up the phone and returning Joe's call. Bernie's too proud to beg. Too proud to show his face around a ballclub that has no use for him.

Allow me to bore the class with my brush with Bernie several years ago.

I met him at a CD signing. I've been to precisely one CD signing in my life. His.
He was at the FYE near Radio City, which happened to be around the corner from my office, and I went against my nature to not attend such events, and lined up to meet Bernie, my lifetime favorite Yankee.

I'm not sure exactly how our conversation began, but I remember telling him that I looked forward to hearing his music. Here's pretty much what followed:

Bernie looked up at me, somewhat surprised, "Aww, you haven't heard it yet?"

Me: "Uh, didn't it (his CD) come out, like, today?"

Bernie: "Oh, right. Man, I keep thinking everybody's heard it."

Here I'm thinking, typical Bernie. Lost in space.

I lamely asked him what he thought about the Yanks chances that year. He shrugged and offered something like, "Depends. We'll see." (lame question, dude).

I immediately changed the subject, and asked him about the endorsement he got from Paul McCartney, which helped Bernie get his record deal.

I also asked him about playing with Bela Fleck and Rueben Blades on the album, and you should have seen his face light up -- proudly but humbly discussing his collaborations with artists he considered out of his league.

That brief discussion confirmed everything I'd perceived and loved about Bernie: his gentle nature, his odd combination of humility and pride. His spaciness. His soulfulness. He was every bit the cool cat I hoped he'd be.

Damn, I miss him already.

2007-03-28 13:03:49
23.   C2Coke
22 Great post, Sliced. I've been avoiding this part, but now (thanks to you!) I can't help myself to think, "man, he really left? how can there be no Bernie on the team next year???"
2007-03-28 13:19:49
24.   Yankee Fan In Boston
23 that was exactly the way i felt when mattingly hung 'em up.

perhaps in time bernie will find his way back to the bronx in a different capacity. coaching? broadcasting?

i look forward to bernie's big and well deserved "day" at the stadium.

nobody can play in the bigs forever, i'm just glad that bernie didn't make more of an issue of it or play on elsewhere, showcasing his decline. this was the time, no matter how much we and the team will miss having him around.

2007-03-28 13:26:23
25.   unmoderated
thanks emma.
2007-03-28 13:28:21
26.   Todd Drew
Excellent story. Thank you. I love the feel of the team this year.
2007-03-28 16:23:28
27.   nemecizer
I hope the woman I one day marry is as classy and baseball-savvy as Emma Span. What a great piece of writing.
2007-03-28 16:38:33
28.   dianagramr
Emma: bah on the Voice! Your talents will find you another gig in short time.

(also, was nice to meet you at the BP NYC event last Thursday)

On another matter ...

A friend of mine got two tickets for Monday from another friend who couldn't use them. So I get to go to my first Opening Day game in like 30 years, to see Pavanomas pitch against the guy traded for Victor Zambrano.

If anyone is going to the game Monday, I'll be in sec. 23 / 299 of the Main Box. Very tall brown-haired woman with glasses. :-)

In still other news .... I named one of my roto teams "Kazmir Sweaters"

2007-03-28 17:04:05
29.   mikeplugh
Two things...

6 I agree with you Count Zero. I think objectivity and passion are not mutually exclusive. The grind of any occupation is sure to dim the passion at times, but I don't think that it's necessarily a forgone conclusion. I've been blogging at a billion places over the last year, and I try very very hard to keep up on all of them. I love baseball and I love to introduce Japanese players and so forth to an American audience. Staying on top of it is a chore some days, but the thing is, I am a sportswriter who writes predominately for free. Recently, I've seen the fruits of my labor turn into a gig with BP, and some freelance work in other places. I also hope to follow in Alex' footsteps with a book down the road somewhere. I still do it 90% for free and I think my passion and objectivity are intact.

Emma, what on Earth could that new editor's "taste" be? Probably, jellied eel sandwiches with extra low-fat mayonnaise. I can understand if an editor wants to go in a different direction, but when they make it a matter of "taste", it boggles the mind. How is your style of writing not someone's "taste". Perhaps he's looking for something more "Lupica". Oh, wait. That is like jellied eel sandwiches with extra low-fat mayo. The people here are your loyal readers Em, and will follow you wherever you land. Tell that to your editor.

2007-03-28 17:20:39
30.   Sliced Bread
28 Kazmir Sweaters. Excellent!

Who's in right? Aaron Ar-guiel? (ack!)

Beware the St. Louis Cardigans. (wheeze!)

2007-03-28 17:29:26
31.   Eirias
Dear Lord, does nobody want to be the Yankees' fifth starter until Wang comes back?
2007-03-28 17:36:45
32.   wsporter
Emma, I thought it was a little strange that you hadn't posted since the 19th. To hell wit-'em. You'll be writting for pay again soon.

If it makes you feel even a little better I've de-linked the VV from my bookmarks.

Nice job above, keep em comming if you can.

2007-03-28 17:43:39
33.   mikeplugh
31 Maybe we can give Emma a shot at it.
2007-03-28 18:07:28
34.   RIYank
33 Why not -- after all that 38 guy is blogging. Turnabout's fair play.

28 You don't have glasses in that Shea Stadium picture. Vanity?

2007-03-28 18:16:14
35.   Jim Dean
20 Characters, no doubt, but rounded. Speaking of Jordan, imagine if we knew that he was a womanizer and a gambler - that's right in his character wheelhouse. Instead the man became a legend. Shoot, why's Jeter given so much distance. That man knows how to have fun. I'm surprised you and Suzy felt safe.

22 Great stuff.

2007-03-28 18:25:05
36.   dianagramr

just trying to decrease the geek factor :-)

2007-03-28 18:53:42
37.   dianagramr
Swindal may not be the next top dog for the Yankees after all .... (divorce pending)

2007-03-28 19:41:29
38.   Chyll Will
If that's the case, who's next? IIRC, neither of Steinbrenner's sons want to actually run the team after he's gone, but what of Felix Lopez? Could the sons change their minds and the children run the team as an oligarchy? Or would one of the limited partners (Swindal?) buy them out?

Meh. Soap operas, phooey...

2007-03-28 20:42:16
39.   weeping for brunnhilde
A very enjoyable read, Emma, thanks for it.

Sorry about the Voice, but I look forward to reading you here.

And I tend to reduce it all to Dave Roberts' legs, btw.


2007-03-28 20:46:05
40.   weeping for brunnhilde
22 Great story, thanks.

23 I know, I'm in denial about it too, I think.

It's kind of like he's just on the DL or something.

2007-03-28 23:10:32
41.   OldYanksFan
18 Reader11722... you may want to check this out. The absolute scariest thing I've ever seen.
2007-03-30 11:22:34
42.   notthetheo
// I say the more outsized personalities the better -- //

Like the Yankees are trying to copy the Red Sox of 2004 -- yeah, it's real obvious. lol

//And hell, Johnny Damon is the master//

I got bad news for ya'll. Johnny Damon was an EXTREMELY tiny part of all that - he was hardly a master (LMAO!) but that's the role Boras has taught him to use -- he happened to open his mouth about Idiots at the time the Sox were obviously hot and the papers ran away with it.

He isn't going to do anything for your team because.... it's so painfully obvious he is trying so hard to be something he's not naturally, it's really sad to see for some of his fans -- and he actually believes he had something to do with that chemisty in Boston... he had very little -- he was a quiet guy, did his job, and gave the rote lines to the media after the game... he wasn't goofy, he wasn't OUR clown, we didn't NEED him to be - like you guys do. It's not going to work. He & Giambi can call attention to themselves as "sexy" all they want -- but the bottom line is and always will be -- guys who have to tell everyone about it - aren't.

You'll see.

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