Yanks a Lot

Baseball's fall is all New York.

From the beginning, we are instructed by our parents, teachers and clergyfolk not to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Never snicker at the girl who stutters, the boy who cannot catch the softball or, a little later, the poor classmate bewildered by algebra. In adulthood, do not ridicule the co-worker who mangles her verbs or the grinning boss with gravy on his tie. This is, of course, good, solid advice for conduct during a good, solid life. There but for the grace of God go I, you say. So you always keep the harsh word in check. Never know. You might get hit by a car and wind up acting like a head of broccoli for the rest of your life. How would people then talk about you?

To every rule, however, there must be exceptions.

What good is there to say, for instance, about the loan officer who gazes down his nose at your pathetic application for an impossible sum, barely concealing his contempt? Would you not gladly plunge him into misfortune -- a vat of boiling oil, say? How about the world's tyrants, past and present? Would you not smother baby Hitler in his crib or poison Osama bin Laden's baba ganoush? And how many Americans wouldn't love to see the cocky, strutting, full-of-themselves New York Yankees -- every last man -- stricken with a fatal dose of West Nile virus, or at least a case of clubhouse flu, preferably in the third week of October?

Mark Poutenis

This last scenario of happy misfortune comes to mind because the third week of October fast approaches, and the Yankees are continuing their inevitable advance through the post-season. Like global warming or soap scum on the shower wall, the Yankees are an implacable force. Little matter that they haven't won the World Series since 2000, or that they might dare to fail again this year. In baseball's mythical realm, they are the Big Dogs -- 26 world championships since the Red Sox handed them Babe Ruth -- and even when they don't attain the fall classic, they lurk in the shadows, pin-striped, sullen and scary. Their very ballpark intimidates as much as it enthralls. This is where Lou Gehrig stood, the young Tampa Bay Devil Ray marvels. This is the patch of green once roamed by DiMaggio and Mantle, thinks an awestruck Anaheim Angel in the outfield. Reggie hit the third one right there, the salesman from Omaha acknowledges from his $20 seat in the right-field bleachers.

Before the start of last week's American League divisional series with the Minnesota Twins, the Yankees' showy young shortstop, Derek Jeter, captured traditional Yankee attitude in a few words. "I love being a Yankee," he said. "I love being cheered at home, and I love being booed on the road. In baseball, people either love us or hate us, and that's great. This is the uniform I want to wear."

That Derek failed to mention the Yankees are sometimes booed at home as well as on the road is an understandable oversight. When your owner is paying you and your teammates a total of $175 million for a year's work, you can shut out a lot of things, including the taunts of transplanted Red Sox fans and the scent of buildings burning in the South Bronx. As is usually the case, the Yankees' initial stumble in the playoffs meant nothing. The Twins had gone 0-13 against New York in the two previous seasons, and Yankees starter Mike Mussina held a 20-2 lifetime record against Minnesota, but the Twins still managed a 3-1 opening-game win -- at Yankee Stadium, no less. Yankee fielders helped by butchering the ball. But when it was over, you could see New York center-fielder Bernie Williams gazing into the visitors' dugout with pure scorn in his eyes. Who do you farmers think you are, anyway? his look seemed to say. We're the Yankees!

Three games later, the amusing rustics from the Twin Cities were dispatched to their wheat threshers, while the regal, sophisticated, Chateaubriand-eating New Yorkers calmly regeared for their next little hurdle. That's the most irksome thing about George Steinbrenner's boys. They don't just expect to win. They see it as the divine right of kings, the natural order for a royal line that descends unbroken from Ruth to Mantle to Mattingly to Giambi.

Whenever the Yankees do taste a rare bit of misfortune (as when the upstart Anaheim Angels knocked them on their pin-striped asses last October, and when the Arizona Diamondbacks squeaked by them to win the fabulous, seven-game World Series of 2001), confirmed small-"d" democrats everywhere cannot but rejoice. Mantle was a hick, cries the truck driver in Cleveland. Don Larsen pitched a fluke, bellows the cafe waitress in Keokuk. DiMaggio was standoffish, and Clemens is a thug, goes the mantra in Oakland. What if Pettitte and Mariano Rivera -- hell, throw Whitey Ford in there, too -- what if those guys all had to pitch in Coors Field, what then? the Denver faithful shout. In baseball climes less cloaked in glory than New York, the sainted Lou Gehrig may be immune from abuse, but no remaining Yankee is. Yogi was a Yokel, Maris a flash in the pan. Among true Yankee-bashers, even George Herman Ruth gets his mug shot nailed up in the post office. Doesn't run too bad for a fat man, the notoriously sour Ty Cobb once said of his bitter rival -- and even today, hopeless Detroit Tigers fans grin at the gibe. And just wait till you hear what they say about Jorge Posada.

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