Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Fan Strikes Back


It's the one sport I am really a fan of, and I have suffered much because of it.

As a kid I was raised as a fan of the New York Giants baseball team by my father, himself a lifelong devotee of that franchise, and I worshipped the players. Then, when I was nine years old, they packed up their bats and balls and moved to San Francisco, taking my Willie Mays with them.  What a slap in the face to an innocent child who'd done nothing but love them!

It was the first in a long series of betrayals that were yet to come.

There followed four years of abandonment and bitterness.  The only baseball team left in town was the Yankees, but switching to them at that time was not an option, as I'd been thoroughly indoctrinated to see them as The Enemy.  So I trudged through empty days in some kind of baseball purgatory, left on my own to play second base for my Carvel 91 Little League team without a role model to emulate nor a guide to show me the way.

Strange thoughts of retribution began to creep into my universe.  I would find myself sitting in class in elementary school with my attention drifting to mental scenarios of Horace Stoneham, the owner of the Giants at that time, showing up at my front door and begging me for forgiveness.  I would insist that he move our Giants back to New York City and come to my school to make the announcement with me at  his side.  He'd give me a bunch of tickets to games.  He'd send Willie Mays over to my house to give me tips on hitting.  My friends would see me hanging with Willie and would be jealous.  Billy O'Reilly would offer to be my best friend if he could just get to spend time with Willie, too.  Of course I would not allow it.

Not surprisingly, my grades began to suffer.

But in 1962 it looked like things might be starting to turn around. The New York Mets were created as a new National League expansion team, and, although they were awful in terms of winning games, they served as an adequate replacement for the Giants.  Things went along smoothly until 1969 when they made the mistake of winning the World Series.  With their fans now expecting them to play like winners, they immediately began to implode.  Nolan Ryan, a rising star who went on to become one of the best players in baseball history (and today has thousands of kids named after him) was traded away.  Tom Seaver, who had earned the nickname "The Franchise", was let go in a silly contract dispute.  Mets management thought it would be a good idea to decorate Shea Stadium with gigantic neon stick figures of baseball players and to have a huge plaster apple rise from a huge plaster hat whenever a Met hit a home run.

I felt my intelligence was being insulted.  Hey, Mets, I'm an educated baseball fan.  I don't need flashing lights and electric apples to keep my attention on the game. Still, I followed the team and rooted for them even though they quickly descended into mediocrity and worse.

Then in 1975 free agency arrived, thus planting the seed of the fan's moral dilemma.  From a human rights point of view players of course should be able to be paid what the market will bear.  Who are the owners to prevent players from offering their services to the highest bidder?  Slaveholders?  It was actually heartwarming, for a while, to see the big stars making big money.

But things soon got out of hand.  Apparently what the market would bear, what with all the TV revenue, ticket sales, concession sales, trademark income, and so on, was more than anyone could have imagined.  The average annual salaries of Major League baseball players ballooned from $113,000 in 1979 to over $3,000,000 in 2006.   And that was the average!  The big names were making tens of millions per year with guaranteed contracts that paid them that money even if they had bad years or sat half the season on the bench.

The average working person began to have a hard time relating to this.  A teacher or a cop makes barely enough to keep food on the table and maybe not even enough to take the family to a baseball game, but some guy who can run a little faster, throw a ball a little harder, and hit a ball a little better can make... what?  Tens of millions of dollars for playing baseball for just a single season?  Some began to question the values of our culture -- a disconnect was setting in.

You would think that when some guy is making millions of dollars a year for playing a game that he'd be happy with what he's got, perhaps even thanking his lucky stars every day for his good fortune.  But no. In 1981 the players and their union thought they should get more.  So they went on strike, canceling 713 games.  In 1994 there was a lockout (this time the owners wouldn't agree to the players' demands) which abruptly ended the season in August and cancelled the entire post-season, including the World Series.

Then, to make matters even worse, in the late '90s we found out that many of the star players were actually cheaters.  Some guy whose name was on your kid's t-shirt was actually jacked up on "performance-enhancing drugs".  Aside from the betrayal of trust that it loudly proclaims, this even tore away at the history of the game. Now when a new record is being approached (such as the number of home runs hit in a season or in a career) the question invariably arises as to whether or not the new record should count in the record books if the player had ever been found to have been taking PEDs.

You know, with all of the perfectly valid things to become cynical about in this world, baseball should not have been one of them.  But it was.  I myself had become so disenchanted about the way things were going that I decided I was a "free agent" as a fan in 1985.  My loyalty was no longer a given -- it had to be earned. I had to wonder why I was even bothering to pay attention to these overpaid, pill-popping cheaters.  After some soul-searching I realized what it was.

It was the game itself.


It's the most intriguing, most theatrical, most balanced, and most intellectual sport ever invented.  Consider this:

In baseball...

--- there's no clock.  A game could theoretically go on forever.  There's no possibility of a tie.  I love that.

--- it's a game in which a contest between two individuals (the pitcher versus the hitter) immediately shifts into a game between multiple team players the moment the ball is hit.

--- it's a game of likelihoods, represented as statistics, which keep you thinking as the game continues, not just watching.

--- you don't have to have a huge body to play it at its highest level.  In fact this year a player on the Houston Astros, Jose Altuve, who stands at just 5 feet, 6 inches, won the Most Valuable Player award in the American League.  A player on the Yankees, Aaron Judge, who is 6 feet, 7 inches, came in second in the voting.

--- it's like a symphony, with diminuendos (moving slowly) building into huge crescendos (increasingly unbearable tension with every pitch).

--- you can get to know the players as individuals.  They're not hidden behind masks, like in American football.  They're not in constant motion, as in many sports.  Each player on a team comes to bat four or five times in an average game.  This gives the fan opportunities to become familiar with them as personalities, similarly as you would come to know a character in a drama.

And then there's this, as aspect of the game I find especially endearing:

Baseball is the only sport in which a fan in the stands can, in certain specific circumstances, become an active and legal participant in the game itself.  When a batter hits a ball in the air that is heading for the stands, once the trajectory of the ball crosses the point that separates the stands from the playing field, the rule book states that the fan in the stands has as much right to catch the ball as the player on the field who is also trying to catch it.  If that player is on your team, you should get out of his way and let him catch it.  But if he's on the opposing team, the fan should try to catch or deflect the ball himself before the player can get to it.  For that specific moment the fan in the stands is actually a player on the team!  

Every once in a while this magnificent aspect of baseball actually determines the outcome of a game.  October 9th, 1996, was one of those times.  The New York Yankees were playing the Baltimore Orioles in the first game of the American League Championship Series.  Late in the game Derek Jeter hit a long fly ball to right field that was descending close to the fence.  A twelve-year old kid named Jeffrey Maier reached over and scooped the ball into the stands.  It should have been ruled fan interference but the umpire called it a home run and a great controversy ensued.  Nevertheless, the call stood (this was before they used videotape replays to decide close plays) and the kid became instantly famous.  He was dubbed the "angel in the outfield" by the New York media and appeared on talk shows.  Not only that, but he went down in baseball history and to this day any good Yankee fan or serious fan of the sport knows his name.

Here's the video of the incident:

And this is what aired on The Today Show the next day:

Okay, all of the above is to set you up for what occurred in my taxi in the early morning hours of August 30, 2002.  Here is a story from "the vault", one I have told to many passengers in my cab but never before gotten around to writing -- a tale of retribution by a fan who just couldn't take it anymore...

I'd started my shift late that night and that, along with a few lousy rides, had dampened my mood.  Plus there was something else going on that night which was really bothering me  -- the deadline of yet another threatened baseball strike was set for midnight.  If an agreement wasn't reached by that time, the season would come to a halt -- there would be no baseball the next day and, who knows, maybe not for the remainder of the season.

I'd been following this on the radio, of course.  Just after the midnight hour an announcement came over the air that the deadline had been extended -- the negotiations between the owners and the baseball union were continuing on into the night. This was hopeful, but it was still maddening to me as well.  Just the idea of millionaires thinking their working conditions could warrant a strike...  it was infuriating.  This strike thing was really getting under my skin.

The night went on.  Business was slow.  According to my trip sheet, at 2:09 I picked up a guy and a girl coming from a bar on 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue and took them to 26th and 6th.  After dropping them off I headed back to 47th Street and at 2:24 picked up another fare, two young ladies, and took them to 89th and 2nd.  I then drove downtown to see if I could catch a fare at a club on 56th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues.  It was a good move.  At exactly 2:51 four people came out of the club and entered my cab.

Three of them were beautiful young women, well-tanned and well-cleavaged, wearing skin-tight party dresses.  They squeezed together in the back seat.  The fourth passenger was a guy who might be called a "cool dude".  He had on an expensive-looking suit and wore his hair in abbreviated dreadlocks -- not the full-length kind that would go down below the shoulders, but a shorter version that ended in mid-neck.  It was an unusual look that caught my attention.

As he sat down next to me in the front seat, he immediately took control of his new environment.  "Hey, man," he said, "let's get something else on the radio." Then, without bothering to ask me if that was okay, he reached over and changed the station from the one I had on ("oldies" rock and roll) to one he preferred (hip-hop). He then turned around in his seat and started carrying on with the girls.

It was a severe breach of taxicab etiquette.  Passengers in party mode often want some kind of dance music to keep them in the groove, and requests are always honored.  But to reach over and change the station without even asking... well, that's beyond rude.  It's belittling to the driver, as if he's not there, not really a person.  And, although it is a mode of public transportation, it's still my car you're in, buddy.

Nevertheless, I choose not to make an issue of behavior like this.  My thinking in these situations is, okay, this passenger is acting badly, but he will be out of my life in ten or fifteen minutes.  Most people are relatively polite and there are always a few who are too full of themselves to notice, or care, how their behavior affects others. That's how it is.  I can tolerate this.  There's no need to take a stand.

I pulled out from the curb and drove east on 56th.

"So where are you heading?" I asked, since no one had yet given me a destination.

"Just go downtown, man, we're gonna find another club," the cool dude said, then he turned around again and continued chatting it up with the ladies.

I made a right on Lex, which goes downtown.  The party was continuing as we drove along, the music loud, the laughter loud, and the driver not enjoying the experience. As we approached 34th Street I was told by the cool dude to pull over and stop beside an all-night deli.

"Just getting some cigarettes," he said, "back in a minute."  He got out of the cab and was joined on the street by one of the girls from the back seat.

As I watched him open the door to the deli, it suddenly hit me -- I realized who this guy was!  This was Tony Tarasco, a baseball player currently on the Mets, an outfielder, who had once played for the Baltimore Orioles.  Earlier in the season I'd read an article in the newspaper about him, about how he'd been in a gang in Los Angeles when he was a teenager and was able to leave that behind to become a big-league baseball player.  It showed a picture of him with this hair style, the abbreviated dreadlocks, which was why I recognized him.  And if you watched the above video you would already know that it was Tony Tarasco in right field in Yankee Stadium on October 9th, 1996, who was trying to catch the ball that was deflected into the stands by the young fan.

Well, wasn't this interesting!  Here it was, nearly three in the morning, a baseball strike pending, and I've got a baseball player in my cab who at the moment was buying cigarettes and was not yet done partying.  I looked at the two girls in the mirror -- beautiful, so well put-together, all that cleavage, a couple of Jayne Mansfields. They were making small talk between themselves. One of them, apparently, was from Sweden.

All these bits of information began to whirl around in my mind... my long-lost Giants, the hapless Mets, millionaire athletes living in bubbles, the steroids, the strikes, the magnificence of the game itself, soaring ticket prices, radios, the magnificence of the game itself, night clubs, cigarettes, the magnificence of the game itself, cleavage...

I was starting to feel emboldened.  I reached over to the radio dial and turned it back to my own station.  That was more like it.

The door opened.  Tony Tarasco and the other girl got back in the cab.  Right away he noticed the station had been changed.

"Hey, man, what happened to my music?"

"Oh, the girls didn't like it.  I turned it back."

A complete lie, but at the moment it seemed like the right thing to say.

There was a hesitation.  And then, in what can only be attributed to divine intervention, at that very instant a bulletin came on over the radio with the latest news about the baseball strike. Both of us stopped talking and, listening intently, we learned that the negotiations were still continuing on into the night.  Then, just as the report ended, I seized the moment.  Turning to my station-changing passenger, I went into a loud and angry mock tirade that went pretty much like this:

"If those MOTHERFUCKERS DARE go on strike, we're NEVER coming back!  NEVER! FUCK these over-paid millionaires! FUCK THEM!  Less than a year after 9-11 and THIS is what these MOTHERFUCKERS want to do?  Go on STRIKE?  Oh, boo-hoo, you poor little baseball babies, you only made three million dollars last year!  Are you KIDDING?  Go on STRIKE?   FUCK THEM!  I'm telling you, man, if they go on strike, we fans are NEVER coming back!  NEVER!"

He seemed to have enjoyed the rant.  With a big smile he said:

"Oh, man, you don't know who I am!"

There followed what in the theater is called a "pregnant pause".  If life were a novel, this would have been the moment of climax, when the hero knows that his war has been won, his journey done, his object of desire attained.  All that remained was procedural.

Savoring the moment, I flipped my own demeanor to cheerfulness and, with a big smile, I said:

"Oh, yes, I know who you are.  You're Tony Tarasco.  And I've got two words for you, Tony..."

He was stunned, truly, as if he'd been caught by a right hook to the chin.


I went for the knock-out:

"Jeffrey Maier!  That kid's more famous than you are!"

His bravado flying out the window, he seemed to have descended into an introspective spin and was at a loss for words.  Finally, he said:

"Well, I don't know about that..."

It took a few moments for Tony to regain his composure.  Then we had a civil back and forth about the pros and cons of the looming baseball strike.  My point of view was, among other things, that it was less than a year after the Twin Towers came down and thousands lost their lives.  Millionaire athletes going on strike in times like these would be the epitome of greed and disrespect.  His argument was that it's a short career and players need to be thinking about their grandchildren.

I looked in my mirror at the three curvy ladies in the back seat.  It was hard to imagine them as grandmothers.

By the time we arrived at the new club, any hard feelings that may have arisen from my sneak attack had dissolved.  Tony turned out to be a good sport.  At one point he showed me an electronic device he had attached to his belt with which he would vote either "yes" or "no" to whatever agreement might be reached in the negotiations.  I thought that was cool and pretended I was going to try to yank it away from him.  He enjoyed that, which I appreciated.   It showed me he was a guy who could be kidded around with.

"Vote 'yes'," I demanded as we reached their destination, a new club.  With a smile and a wave goodbye (and an excellent tip, I must say) he and the girls were gone.

The next day the news was that an agreement had been reached and the players had voted to accept it.  There would be no strike.

Later I learned that Tony had been quite correct about one thing he'd said to me -- it is indeed a short career, at least for most players.  Two days after he was in my cab, he played in his last game in the Major Leagues.  His career as a player was over, although he has remained in the game as a coach.

But I was correct about another thing.  I have told this story to scores of passengers in my cab, each of them describing him or herself as a baseball fan. I ask them all if they remember the name of the kid who deflected the ball into the stands.  The great majority of them do -- "Jeffrey Maier"!  But only one passenger so far (who turned out to be from Baltimore) remembered the name of the player who was trying to catch that ball.

So you can go to a baseball game, try to catch a ball that is heading right toward you and, if Fate decrees it, you can wind up being better remembered in baseball lore than many, if not most, of the players who actually played the game.

Baseball -- the magnificence of the game itself.