Thursday, April 21, 2011

New York and the Yankees

As I have been babbling to my friends for months, I am flying to New York City on the first Saturday in May. I’ve seen the movies and read the stories, but I’m sure the city is bigger than I can imagine. I come from a place that’s likely smaller than many can imagine. New York is the big town for big dreamers, the destination for those yearning to be free, the global hub of culture and commerce. It's Times Square and the Empire State Building and Central Park and Ground Zero and the Statue of Liberty.

As of the most recent population figures I could find, New York City has about 8.4 million people, with a metro area of 19.1 million. I’ll be staying in Manhattan. Can’t wait to see what 4,253 Gilman Citys crammed into its 23 square miles looks like. I grew up in a county without a traffic light (not counting blinking red lights); New York City has about 12,000 traffic lights.

So, yes, it will be an adventure. I think it’ll be fun. I’ll get to see my friend Brenna, whom I respect a ton, a young woman who is unmistakably “going for it" in the biggest arena of them all.

There are a lot of iconic things to see and do in the Big Apple. One of the most exciting will surely be seeing a baseball game in Yankee Stadium.

“Have faith in the Yankees, my son.” -Ernest Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea

The Yankees win. Or rather, “Thhhhhe YAN-kees win!” as their announcer yells/taunts. Of course they do. They are U.S. Steel. They are Standard Oil. They are the United States of America. They are the portrait of professionalism, poise, pride. Reggie “the Straw That Stirs the Drink” Jackson and the swashbuckling Nick Swisher aside, they are largely dignified, close-cropped, singularly focused. They don't mince words about being big-spenders. They are hated, loved, overcovered.

Since, oh, 1920, they have been arguably American sports’ only true dynasty, pretty much marching relentlessly from Ruth to Gehrig to Dimaggio to Mantle to Jackson (to Mattingly?) to Jeter. They have won 27 World Series titles and 40 American League pennants, each more than twice as many as any other team.

In the 1920s, Murderer’s Row was born. The 1927 Yankees are still viewed by many as the greatest team ever, going 110-44 (yes, they won 110 games with a 154-game schedule). They outscored their opponents 975-599. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. They swept the Pirates in the World Series.

On and on it went. Lou Gehrig said he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth even as he had the disease that would bear his name. Joe Dimaggio hit in 56 straight games, became larger than life with his grace and skill, and was included in Hemingway books and song lyrics to symbolize a particular era in American life. Jerry Coleman broke Boston hearts in 1949. The Yankees tormented the cross-town Dodgers. Mickey Mantle almost hit a ball out of the massive Yankee Stadium. Yogi Berra had a way with words. The Stadium became the wild “Bronx Zoo” in the 1970s. Bucky Dent broke Boston hearts in 1978. There was a 15-year pennant drought. The Yankees roared back in the post-strike era. America actually rooted for the Yankees in the electric 2001 World Series. Aaron Boone broke Boston hearts in 2003. They won the title again in 2009, the last World Series of owner George Steinbrenner’s lifetime.

“[The perfect afternoon at Yankee Stadium] is when the Yankees score eight runs in the first inning, and then slowly pull away." -Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert in the 1920s

The original Yankee Stadium, open from 1923 to 2008, was so often the home office for October baseball. To see it as Ruth saw it, or even as Jeter saw it, would have been great. Fortunately, the new Yankee Stadium, big, opulent, expensive, incorporates many elements from the original. As Jeter said at the last game in the older stadium, they took the tradition across the street.

Bizarrely, I almost feel like it will be familiar to enter the Stadium. Much of my formative baseball experience involves watching playoff baseball games at Yankee Stadium, back in the good old days when Fox had all the games. October was sensational for a sports kid with network television.

Like everyone, I got goosebumps watching those World Series games in 2001, when mystique and aura were not “dancers in a nightclub,” as Arizona Diamondback pitcher Curt Schilling said, but a real, almost living part of Yankee Stadium. With Ground Zero still smoldering, with hearts still in throats, a largely past-its-prime Yankees roster captivated the nation.

Game 3: President Bush became the first sitting President since Eisenhower in 1956, firing a strike from the mound. Seven innings of Roger Clemens, two innings of Rivera for a 2-1 Yankee win.

Game 4: On Halloween, Arizona took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth. With two out, Tino Martinez hit a two-run, game-tying homer off Byung-Hyun Kim. Then, in the 10th inning, Jeter hit an opposite-field, game-winning homer. My favorite sportswriter, Joe Posnanski, has called it the greatest baseball moment of his life. The crowd at the Stadium sang, “New York, New York,” over and over afterward.

Game 5: Lightning struck twice. With two out, down two in the ninth, Scott Brosius blasted a two-run homer to tie it, raising his fist triumphantly in the air almost immediately after hitting it. Yankee Stadium roared and roared and roared. The Yankees later won the game with a walkoff Alfonso Soriano hit in the 12th.

The gritty Diamondbacks ended up winning the great Series in seven games, but those three games hold a treasured spot in the attic of the memory for baseball fans and for Americans.

"I hated the Yankees. I mean that sincerely. I HATED those guys." -George Brett

"Of course we can beat the Yankees." -Buck O'Neil in the 1990s

It seems almost impossible to believe now, but the Royals and Yankees were rivals, or something like it, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Four times in five years, the two teams, the mighty Yankees from Gotham and the fiery Royals from Cowtown, clashed in the American League Championship Series with a berth in the World Series on the line.

In 1976, the Yankees won the best-of-five series with a walkoff homer by Chris Chambliss in Game Five. The Bronx Zoo of fans spilled onto the field, and Chambliss dodged through the bedlam to circle the bases. Royals fans might point out Chambliss never touched home, avoiding the mob there. He later went back to touch it, but it had been stolen.

The Yankees again prevailed in five in 1977, beating the winningest Royals team ever, and won again in 1978, this time in four games. Finally, in 1980, Kansas City broke through when George Brett smashed an upper-deck homer off Goose Gossage, completing the sweep. Years later Steinbrenner referenced this homer when Brett asked, “Why do you hate me, George?” The highlight and Brett’s “in-your-face” home run trot are frequently replayed to this day at Kauffman Stadium.

No less replayed is the Pine Tar Game, when Brett hit a home run at Yankee Stadium but was then called out for having too much pine tar on his bat. As Yankee manager Billy Martin asked the umpires about the bat, Brett said, “If they call me out I’m gonna kill those…” (You can imagine the rest.) Brett didn’t kill anyone, but he had to be carried/dragged screaming off the field. The commissioner later overturned the decision, and the last inning of the game was replayed, with Kansas City winning.

“I’d like to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee.” -Joe Dimaggio

The bullpen gate swings open. A 41-year-old pitcher from Panama trots out. The chilling opening of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blasts over the Yankee Stadium speakers. He is slender, carrying himself and playing with that hint of elegance that Dimaggio displayed. The game is almost always over when he comes in. Armed with a single spectacular pitch, his legendary cutter, he defines the best the closer role can be. No fake energy or theatrics (he didn’t know that “Enter Sandman” song; the Stadium sound people just started playing it), just that calm and those results. Bring on the Sandman. Go to bed. Rivera’s in; this one’s over.

I hope to see this scene. I admire Rivera’s calm no matter what happens, his religious devotion, his dignity. I also admire his skill: career numbers of 566 saves, 2.23 ERA, 1.003 WHIP. And, while he won’t pitch forever, he still seems as good as ever this season and last year. He is The Great Rivera.

* * *

It’s surely obvious now, 1,400 words in, how excited I am to make this trip. New York’s a city for the dreamers, whether you’re a girl from Farmington working for Goldman Sachs in Lower Manhattan, a guy from Michigan making the Stadium shake with a winning homer, or a slender Panamanian mystifying the best hitters on earth. Or a kid from Gilman City watching his Royals in Yankee Stadium.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Golden Bear in 1986

April 13, 1986. The crowd at America’s most famous golf course, Augusta National, was on the brink of exploding. A mixture of desperation and jubilation hung in the air, because an aging golfer was turning back time in the 50th Masters golf tournament.

That golfer was Jack Nicklaus, the greatest ever to swing a club. He had won 17 professional major tournaments, by far a record. For decades, he had been the golfer to beat.

Now 46, his prime had passed. His best finish in seven tournaments that year was 39th. He was 160th on the PGA tour money list. The Golden Bear, as Nicklaus was known, was in hibernation.

But, after going one over par through his first two games, Nicklaus shot a pleasant three-under round on Saturday to enter the final round at two under, four off the lead.

He treaded water through the first eight holes, walking to the ninth tee still at two under par, now five strokes back of the lead. Then, as Rick Reilly, who was covering his first Masters for Sports Illustrated, wrote, “All heaven broke loose.”

Nicklaus then embarked on one of the greatest charges in golf history. He birdied three straight, bogeyed No. 12, then rebounded with a birdie on No. 13, the culmination of Augusta’s fabled Amen Corner, to draw within two. However, leader Seve Ballesteros eagled 13 as Nicklaus made par on 14, pushing Nicklaus to four back.

With four holes to play, Nicklaus boomed a drive from his career’s highlight reel on the par-5 No. 15, which led to that moment of anticipation, desperation and excitement. Nicklaus’ son, Jackie, was his caddie. Jackie was about the same age as some of the golfers the elder Nicklaus was trying to beat. Nicklaus looked at his son before that second shot on 15 and asked, “You think a three would go very far here?” He didn’t mean club. He meant a score of three, an eagle. “Let’s see it,” Jackie said.

Nicklaus stuck a four iron from 202 yards to 12 feet. He buried the eagle putt as the crowd roared. Jack was back. Two off the lead.

At 16, a beautiful, dangerous little par-3 tucked in the trees with a pond next to the green, Nicklaus fired at the flagstick. “Be right,” Jackie said as the ball cut through the air. “It is,” Nicklaus said casually as he bent down to pick up his tee, even with the ball still in the air. The ball rolled within inches of the cup and stopped three feet from the hole. The crowd was thunderous, cheering and cheering as Nicklaus walked to the 16th green, smiling in wonder, his yellow shirt and hair shining in the Georgia sun.

Meanwhile, the leader Ballesteros kept hearing those roars ahead of him. It’s hard to tell how much that affected him, but he hit his approach shot into the water on 15 and made bogey. With a Nicklaus tap-in birdie on 16, the old man was tied for the lead.

As Nicklaus walked off 16 to the 17th tee, Jackie tried to stay behind his dad and not look at him, lest he lose control of his emotions. Course workers were leaving their posts at concession stands and running to see Nicklaus. Running is a no-no at Augusta, but fans ran anyway, climbing trees and shoulders to catch a glimpse. Before Nicklaus hit his tee shot on 17, he paused, fighting back tears.

Nicklaus willed in another birdie putt at 17 to take the lead, raising his oversized putter in jubilation as the ball disappeared in the cup. On the broadcast, Verne Lundquist whispered, then shouted, “Maybe… YES, SIR!” The grounds at Augusta National shook.

Nicklaus made a short putt for par at 18, basking in the applause, applause for the decades of his career, and for this most special effort. He hugged Jackie as they walked off the green.

With Nicklaus in the clubhouse, the course foiled all other challengers as though it was a living thing. Tom Kite and Greg Norman each missed medium-length putts on 18 to seal Nicklaus’ win, the last and most remarkable of his 18 major titles.

Nicklaus major wins spanned a preposterous 24 years. His record six Masters titles spanned 23 years. He was a relentless competitor, and he has more top-three finishes in golf’s majors than Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods combined.

Nicklaus had many special golf moments before the 1986 Masters. He even had a few after, including a four-under final round at age 58 in the 1998 Masters, closing within two of the lead despite a bad hip; and the final hole of his professional career, at St. Andrews, the Home of Golf, when he danced around the Valley of Sin and made a birdie.

But that epic charge, a back-nine 30, in 1986 was the most emotional win of Nicklaus’ career. For those who love golf, for those who have great memories with their dads and sons, for everyone looking to stay young, it’s a story to savor, even 25 years after that glorious day in the sun.