Much of my childhood was spent learning the history of the New York Yankees. I spent many great evenings at Yankee Stadium, where my father and I learned more about each other on those blue wood seats than any other place on Earth. There, he instilled in me the values of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. He showed me that being a Yankee fan did not just mean rooting for a team but being part of a long tradition.
I feel great knowing I can instill in my children the values of Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez and Derek Jeter alongside the greats of the past. The tradition of the Yankees as a feared opponent is still alive and well in the 1990s, and another generation of Americans is proud to stand behind the Yankees.
Say what you will about owner George Steinbrenner. He has done some crazy things in the past, and I (and Frank Costanza) will never forgive him for trading away Jay Buhner. But Steinbrenner has something that other owners could learn from – a desire to win. He wants his team to win as much as the fans want it to and he has consistently tried – in some pretty strange ways – to put the best 25 men in pinstripes that he could.
Too many teams and their owners are interested in the almighty dollar. It makes me nauseous that franchises are being sold yard sale-style to save a buck. The use of the fans as bait for a new stadium and higher revenues is a trend that is killing the game. And the fact that you need to take out a loan to purchase tickets and a hot dog at the ballpark is steering young fans away from the sport.
Things change. I can accept Roger Maris’ place in the record book being replaced by Mark McGwire. I certainly have no problem with the 1998 Yankees making their mark on history with their half-season performance. But I do have a problem with teams that are of World Series caliber one season being auctioned off the next. That change is not for the better.
I long to return to the days when a franchise was built through the draft instead of bought on the free-agent market. The days when players stayed with a team because they were part of the city instead of leaving for another million dollars elsewhere. The days when teams were rewarded for their skillful acquisition of talent with several years of pennant-chasing instead of being threatened with disbandment if they don’t make it to the World Series. The days when ballparks weren’t named after corporations.
Maybe that is what I like about these Yankees – they all want to be Yankees. O’Neill didn’t test the free-agent market because he liked being in pinstripes and wanted to finish his career in New York. David Wells, whose perfect game this spring will put him in the record book next to his idol Babe Ruth, dreamed of wearing pinstripes as a kid.
Too many people in baseball are thinking about how much money they can make off the loyalty of the fans. Baseball would be nothing without the fans; players would be washing cars for a living and owners wouldn’t be making nearly as much in other investments. Baseball is a successful product because of its fans, and the fans are being used.
It scares me to think about how I will explain baseball to my children. “Back in the 1990s, teams were named after cities, not companies,” I might tell my son as we watch the AT&T Astros take on the Disney Angels. “When I was a kid, advertisements weren’t allowed on uniforms.”
That is if I can afford tickets to a ballgame. On a journalist’s salary? That may be something else I’ll have to remember about the old days unless baseball shapes up.