Monday, June 4, 2012

Damn Yankees: A Review

This is an absolutely true story.

It was the last day of work in December 2010 when I was on my way to meet a former colleague for dinner at Pete's Tavern on 18th Street in Manhattan. Just before getting there I noticed an array of books, hardcover and softcover, laid out on a ledge of one of the old buildings in the area. There were cookbooks, animal books, novels, and the 2010 edition of 'The Best American Sports Writing,' edited by Peter Gammons.

I said to myself if that book was still there when I finished dinner, than I was meant to have it, and I'd take it. That's exactly what happened, and I occasionally peck away at it still. It contains 26 pieces by 26 different writers about a wide variety of sports figures. All pieces were previously published. 'Damn Yankees' is nothing like that book.

'Damn Yankees' is an anthology by invitation of 24 stories by 24 writers about the New York Yankees; likes and dislikes. It is the brainchild of Rob Fleder, a former executive editor of Sports Illustrated who got in touch with a variety of writers and asked them something simple: deliver some writing about the Yankees; whatever you like. The pieces never appeared anywhere before being published in this book. Not your typical sports anthology.

You can't assemble 24 of anything and include everything. Significant to me is that none of the 24 writers in 'Damn Yankees' have a piece in the 2010 book I helped myself to from the widow ledge. Mission accomplished.

Mr. Fleder, in a talk at the Ossining Library several weeks ago explained that he was after writers, not necessarily sports writers, who would write something about the Yankees. Asked further about this, he explained he sort of avoided the beat New York sports reporter.

The advantages to this approach were not lost on me. Mike Lupica is nowhere to be found, and Dick Young is not there either, basically because death prevents him from getting back to anyone in the usual way. So, you've got good writers who happen to be writing about the Yankees. Some are sports writers, but others not.

There's something for everyone. And like a variety of pitches, some are hit out of the park, and some are wild pitches.  For the most part, anyone who has even been a sports fan of some small degree in New York, regardless of allegiance, will recognize the players and the times. It's fairly current stuff.

I've read several reviews of this book and there is common admiration for Pete Dexter's piece on Chuck Knoblauch, 'The Errors of Our Ways.' Chuck might be a bit of a forgotten second baseman who came to the Yankees in the late 90s. His last name is as bumpy and hard to handle as his throws to first became. He is particularly remembered by the Olbermann family, however.

My own least favorite piece is by Frank Deford, who for a seasoned Sports Illustrated writer only contributes something a little less than three pages as to why, despite being in New York for all these years, he absolutely hates the Yankees.

His piece sounds a bit like a schoolyard taunt by the husky, sweaty, spitting kid who tells you your mother "wears combat boots." This never worked on me. My mother really may have worn combat boots, since she was in the army in WWII, albeit as a nurse. But she had to have basic training, and who knows what they asked them to do or wear. She never said.

In keeping with the hate-Yankees-theme is Daniel Okrent's piece on the Fritz Peterson, Mike Kekich trade, something that you'll never find in the Yankee yearbook. I remember this story well, and when the wife swapping details (yes, like the 'Bob, Ted, Carol and Alice' movie) emerged, my friend Andy and I descended on John Sterling at MSG, who then only did a short sports show and New York Raider (WHA hockey) radio play-by-play. We asked John what did he think about that one? He had no answer.

Hating the Yankees, or expressing dislike for them is a bit of a common occurrence in New York, and not just because people might be Met fans. To hate, dislike the Yankees is seen as taking the higher road. There are a few pieces in 'Damn Yankees' that discuss this phenomena: being a better person by not getting sucked into the hype.

My own favorite story along these lines is my own. My mother, who came from an extremely small town in Illinois, who married my father during the war, and who never expressed an interest in any sport result before or after, leans out of the front door in 1955 and mockingly coos to me to tell me that the Brooklyn Dodgers have just beaten the Yankees in the World Series. I was six at the time, and was playing with my friend in a neighbor's driveway. I did have a rooting interest in the Yankees and why I wasn't inside watching the game was probably due to the fact that the TV set was "in the shop" where TVs in the 1950s spent half their existence.

This is a revelatory moment, and shows the extent of anti-Yankee sentiment as none other. A six year-old boy's mother is breaking his balls because the Yankees lost to the Dodgers.

I'll never forget it.

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