Friday, June 20, 2008

I'm A Free Agent

Baseball is king in New York City and has been for over a hundred years. So when the Mets fired their manager, Willie Randolph, this week it wasn't surprising that I had a few fares in which this was the topic of conversation. One fan, who happened to live in the building where Babe Ruth died on West 29th Street (the French Building, formerly the French Hospital), was particularly passionate about the turn of events. On and on he railed about the injustice of it all, the enormity of the incompetence of the owners, and the complicity of the players.

It was as if he was a member of the team himself.

When he finally calmed down, he noticed that someone was actually in the cab with him (me) and asked the question I love to hear from baseball fans: "So who do you root for, the Mets or the Yankees?"

The reason I love being asked this is because it gives me an opportunity to expound on my philosophy as a fan to the passenger, and hopefully create a convert. My answer is this: "I'm a free agent." It always brings a smile.

What is a fan who's a free agent? It's a fan who has thrown off the shackles of loyalty and set down conditions of his own by which he may choose to root or not root for a particular team. Yes, I know this kind of fan will be accused by some of not being a "true" fan or of being a "fair-weather" fan. Phooey. That's just manure that's been fed to you by propagandists. Let me tell you something. As a fan, you have a right to get your money's worth and you have a right to your own dignity. Listen here...

My history as a baseball fan has been a torturous one. I began life with the New York Giants in the 1950s for the very good reason that most people have when they become fans of teams: it was the team my father rooted for. Everything was fine until 1958 when I noticed that the first of many knives that were eventually to be found sticking in my back had been planted there by one Horace Stoneham, the owner of the team. He had moved my Giants, and my Willie Mays, to San Francisco.

Think for a moment, if you will, of the enormity of the betrayal involved here. Millions of little kids being told by their fathers that the heroes whose pictures they worship on their baseball cards were no longer around, they didn't play for "us" anymore. Little kids who had spent so many hours memorizing the most trivial details about these men - these Giants - were now being told it was all for nothing. Willie Mays, Don Mueller, Whitey Lockman, Johnny Antonelli - it was just a hoax. They don't really give a damn about you. Beat it, kid.

Nevertheless, when the Mets were created in 1962, I was first in line. Throughout all my teenage years I was devoted to the team, never deviating in my loyalty, never considering switching over to the Yankees even though they had great teams and the Mets were pathetic. And then they let Tom Seaver go because of a contract dispute. And then they painted Shea Stadium a garish blue and put five-story high neon stick figures of baseball players up as decorations. And then they installed a gigantic apple that comes out of a gigantic hat whenever a Met hits a home run.

I was developing issues with this team that were still unclear to me due to the blindness of my devotion. But in 1985, just before that season was about to begin, fate put a player of the Mets in my cab and a process of clarification began. His name was Rusty Staub, a veteran outfielder and slugger, who had been around the Major Leagues for over twenty years and was about to begin his final season as a player. Rusty was a popular figure in New York. He owned a restaurant on the Upper East Side and was reknown as a chef, even doing commercials for American Express in a chef's outfit.

Well, I of course was excited when "Le Grand Orange" (as he was dubbed when he played in Montreal due to his red hair) and the pretty blonde who was with him plopped themselves down on my back seat. As we set off for his destination (his own restaurant) I asked Rusty how it was looking for the Mets in the upcoming season. And I was pleased to see that he was quite willing to talk baseball. There was nothing aloof about the guy, and he went into quite a bit of detail about what had been going on with the Mets over the winter.

But there was something in the way he talked about the team that caught my attention. Whenever he spoke about the Mets, he always referred to them in the third person. He used the pronoun "they". Not "we" - "they". "They" signed this guy. "They" are going to give a certain pitcher a chance to make the team.

After dropping off Le Grand and the blonde, my attention fixed on this observation. The thought occurred to me that whenever I listen to a sports talk show on the radio, the callers invariably speak about the team they root for in the first person. We need pitching. We need to make a trade. As if they're on the team themselves. And yet here was a guy who was actually ON the team who didn't think of himself as a "Met". To Rusty the "Mets" were the people who acquire and release players and sign the paychecks. But he correctly knew who he was: he was a perpetual free agent who was currently leasing his services to an organization known as the New York Mets.

The psychology of this is fascinating. Apparently if you can get the potential fan to make an emotional attachment to your franchise you can lure him into forever living vicariously through the exploits of your players. Obviously, this is true. I had made that emotional attachment. But I couldn't get the thought out of my mind that if a guy who's actually on the team does not have it, then why should I?

I had reached an epiphany of sorts. My understanding had exceeded my emotion. I had become a free agent.

I started looking at baseball differently. I was appreciating the game itself more than I had before. And I looked at the Mets differently. Was this team worthy of my time? If I was going to pick out one organization to know thoroughly and to care about, should this be the one? After carefully evaluating my options, I decided that in fact the Mets and I were a good match. I continued to buy newspapers in order to read about them, to spend precious hours watching them on television, and to keep their station locked in on the radio dial in my cab.

But that changed in 1989. After assembling a championship team with a great cast of characters in the previous five years, the Mets inexplicably started to disembowel themselves, culminating in a bone-headed trade of star players Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell to the Phillies for an infielder named Juan Samuel. I exercised the option in my contract and traded myself to the Yankees.

Eventually I sat back and took a good, long look at what it is I expect of a team with which I was willing to enter into a committed relationship. Here are my four little rules:

1. Be competitive. You don't have to win. You don't even have to make the playoffs. But you need to come close. When September rolls around, you should have at least an outside shot at the wild card.

2. Assemble an interesting cast of characters and keep them. One of the great charms of baseball is that over time you can get to know some of the players extremely well. Good teams cultivate a core group of star players who are the backbone of the team. You don't trade these guys. If you lose them to free agency, okay. But you don't send them away.

3. Don't insult my intelligence. I don't come to a game to hear loud rock music, see fireworks, or watch a cartoon-character roll around on the infield. I come to see a game and to learn more about the game.

4. Don't allow criminals or cheats to be on the team. Somebody can throw a ball 98 miles per hour but enjoys torturing dogs in his free time? Pass on that guy.
Four little rules. If you own a baseball team and want to keep me on your roster, you'd better follow them. Otherwise, I'll walk. And it's always my walk year.


And when I walk, I usually wind up here (at Pictures From A Taxi).

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

How To Get A Taxi Driver To Slow Down

Being that I am perceived by so many to be the last English-speaking, American white guy to be driving a cab in New York City, I have often found myself serving as the default complaint department for the entire taxi industry. And the complaint I hear most often is about a ride from hell in which a cabbie drove 90 miles per hour on a highway, zigzagged between huge trucks, tailgated every vehicle on the road, and yet somehow arrived at the destination without an accident.

Interestingly, whenever I hear this story it is told by the survivor with a big smile on his face. Apparently danger is great fun if you come out alive. Nevertheless, I always ask these two questions:

1) Did you put on your seat belt?

2) Did you ask the driver to slow down?

Invariably the answers I get to both questions are, "Uhhh... noooo... ha-ha-ha-ha."

Now as far as the seat belts are concerned, what can I say, obviously anyone should have put them on when being transported by a maniac, and there's no point in belaboring the point. But it's this other question that intrigues me. What is it that stops a person who clearly feels his life is in danger (which it is) from speaking up?

Well, from what I can best perceive, it's fear. Fear that the comment will further anger the driver and that will make him drive even faster, and then there will be an accident for sure. So people just say a silent prayer and hold on tight to their rosary beads and the hand straps.

These passengers, however, do understand, even if it's just on an instinctive level, that asking a driver to slow down is entering a minefield of taxicab etiquette. The truth is that, although a cabbie routinely receives substandard wages and a lower social status than his job deserves, one thing he always feels he has is his professional pride. Like being insulted by a passenger who gives directions to simple destinations (see my last post), being asked to slow down clearly implies that the driver is deficient in the one thing at which he knows he has superhuman powers: the ability to drive an automobile.

And for the most part, this is true. In New York City, anyone who has been driving a cab for two years or more is very likely to have mastered the craft of controlling a car to a level that is not understood by the average driver. It's an ability not only to be at cause over his own vehicle, but to be able to predict the motion of all other particles in the playing field - cars, buses, police cars, trucks, fire engines, ambulances, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, maniacs on roller blades, pigeons, and dogs - and make adjustments to his own motion without even thinking about it. It can be compared to a pianist whose fingers can play concertos while what he's actually thinking about it is just how much emphasis he should give to a note that is still two minutes away.

Indeed, one of the most treasured compliments ever given to me as a driver was from a passenger in my cab who turned out to be an instructor of racing car drivers. He was aware of the nuances in my driving and commented to me about it. Music to my ears!

But what can you do when the driver you are stuck with appears to be not a maestro but a madman? Aside from calling your family to tell them that you love them, here's the solution:

1) Compliment the driver on his driving skill. I mean, heap it on. Say something like, "You know, I've been watching the way you've been moving through traffic and I gotta tell you, you have awesome driving ability. It's like you're an acrobat in the circus or something. Really amazing."

2) And then say this: "But, listen, I think I ate something a little while ago that's not agreeing with me. I'm feeling like I may get sick. Would it be possible for you to drive a little slower please? "

It will work, I guarantee it. You've removed the pride button and you've given him his own personal reason for cooperating with you. The three most feared things in the life of a taxi driver are death, paralysis, and somebody throwing up in your cab.

The funny thing is, I've been giving this advice to passengers for years and then recently I had a passenger ask me to slow down because she was feeling a little nauseous!


But that's what life is like, isn't it?

And life is also like this: clicking here for Pictures From A Taxi.