Yankee Ingenuity

Among the grand heroics and tragic disturbances of humankind, the performance of a baseball team is a puny thing. But it looms awfully large right now for a lot of people. Why, just the other night, in a saloon that shall remain nameless, I witnessed a bar-pounding, drink-spilling, shoulder-shoving exchange between two devoted students of history that typified the debate now raging everywhere over the rightful place of the 1998 New York Yankees in the achievements of Western civilization.

An excerpt, slightly sanitized:
Mr. Budweiser: "Yer outta yer friggin' mind. You kiddin' me? Scott Brosius? Scott Brosius couldn't carry Babe Ruth's dinner up to the room. The best team ever? You need to get your friggin' head examined. The '55 Dodgers would kick their ass outta New York City!"

Mr. Heineken: "They won 125 games this year, you half-wit! Tell me another team that won 125 games. Ever. And they swept the friggin' World Series. I don't give a shit about your '39 Yankees or your Big Red Machine. This is a ball team! You don't need six Hall of Famers on the roster to be the best. They did it with depth, not flash. You know what? You're a friggin' idiot! They oughta take your fan card away from you! Moron."

Budweiser: "Yeah, right. Same day you get outta the friggin' state hospital!"

While the high tenor and impeccable reasoning of such discourse should give us renewed faith in the power of the American mind, it probably can't hurt, in lieu of getting our friggin' heads examined, to take one last look at Mr. Steinbrenner's victorious Yankees and the Insoluble Argument.

Batting Against History: If there's a more moss-backed, memory-encrusted body of hobbyists than baseball fans, no one's bothered visiting the cemetery to dig them up. Absolutists of the most rigid sort, we defend our fortress beliefs--Fastest! Best arm! Hardest-hitting! Greatest!--with lists of numbers from our great-grandparents' day and banks of dimming sentiments from our own precious childhoods, when all the world seemed young. There's not a fan left alive who saw Honus Wagner play, but those who argue for the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates as the Greatest Team Ever--the only World Series champions with a higher winning percentage than the '98 Yankees--are sure to tell you that the Flying Dutchman hit .339 that year and had six RBIs in the Series. Adherents of the 1906 Cubs--the only team that won more regular-season games (116) than this year's Yanks--will say they did it in a shorter season, swinging at a dead ball: Chicago's slugger, Wildfire Schulte, hit just seven homers in 1906. In the face of impacted memory, which is the lifeblood of baseball, almost no contemporary team stands a chance to stand alone. But some would still hold a brief for the 1954 Indians, which lost the Series four straight to the Giants.

Starless in the Bronx: American celebrity worship, which has grown into a soul-crippling epidemic, began with our silent-movie actors and a ballplayer named Babe Ruth. Now it dictates that because the relatively anonymous 1998 Yankees have no Sultan of Swat, no Johnny Bench, no Willie Mays, they cannot possibly be unique. This theory holds that most valuable players and future Hall of Famers with shining careers make for great clubs, not mere stacks of team wins in a single season. This year, the selfless Yanks' best home-run hitter, Tino Martinez, hit 42 fewer dingers than Mark McGwire, and their finest pitcher, David Wells, ranked twentieth in the game in earned-run average. They featured a Cuban pitcher, Orlando Hernandez, who arrived in America clinging to a refugee raft, but no blustering Reggie Jackson; their quiet center-fielder, Bernie Williams, plays jazz guitar and avoids the limelight--a far cry from night owl Mickey Mantle; their most famous reclamation project, Darryl Strawberry, missed the playoffs and the Series because he had colon cancer. Still, the Yankees won 114 regular-season games and a record 125 wins in all.

Dilution Theory vs. the Race Card: Baseball's most iron-jawed nostalgiaphiles insist that several generations of expansion have diluted the quality of play (especially the pitching), that a livelier baseball has cheapened the home run and that performance-enhancing drugs have nullified the game's current power surge (a trend, by the way, to which these Yankees were curiously immune). Okay. Some truth in that. But the ancient-is-better argument fails to acknowledge two huge facts: Players today--even the Arizona Diamondbacks and the hapless Detroit Tigers--are bigger, stronger and faster than ever no matter what they put or don't put in their bodies. The expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays would out-run, out-hit and out-pitch the 1931 Philadelphia A's of Connie Mack and Lefty Grove. Major-league quality is also immeasurably improved because it's integrated. The 1927 Yankees--often cited as the Greatest Team Ever--were an all-white juggernaut led by Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Compared with post-Jackie Robinson baseball, those famous Yanks were ponderous, slow and not very deep on the bench. Comparing eras is the bugaboo of speculations like this one, but it's a very good bet that the 1975 Cincinnati Reds of Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan--the club usually ranked second behind the '27 Yankees, at least until this year--would positively thump and run any pre-1947 powerhouse right out of the park. So would the 1998 Yanks, I suspect.

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