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.
The New Curse of the Bambino: Ironically, the New York Yankees usually wind up competing mostly against themselves for primacy in the history books. The franchise has won 24 world championships, and because of that, the no-name 1998 Yanks (go ahead, name three or four of manager Joe Torre's rotating left-fielders this season) are, in the saloons and next to the hot stoves at least, already suffering by comparison with their legendary forebears. Aside from the 1927 team (which also won the Series in 1928), the New York dynasty featuring Joe DiMaggio, Tommy Heinrich and the late-career Gehrig won all four World Series from 1936 through 1939, and the post-war Yankees won six of seven championships between 1947 and 1953--empowered by the likes of DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra and Mize. In some quarters, the 1998 edition also comes up short against some old arch-rivals--the 1953 and 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers clubs that featured stars like Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges and Pee Wee Reese. The 1961 Yankees will always loom large--Roger Maris's home-run record stood for 37 years, after all. But none of those Yankee teams won 125 games (50 of them in come-from-behind fashion) to go 75 games over the .500 mark, and there hadn't been a four-game Yankees sweep at the World Series since 1950. The Greatest Team Ever? Even manager Torre felt he had to hedge his bet. "This is the greatest team team I've ever seen," he said amid the champagne-drenchings of San Diego.
The Dynasty Test: In September, baseball's self-appointed jury of millions announced that the 1998 Yankees could not be judged a great team unless they won the World Series--that anything less, in fact, would mean rank failure. Now that Torre's bunch has demolished the Padres in four straight, the jury is saying they can't be the greatest of all time unless they do it again next year. And maybe the year after that. Meanwhile, there has been precious little mention (don't you think?) of the fact that the 1996 Yankees, with a slightly different cast of characters, beat Atlanta in the World Series. Does a one-year absence constitute a break in a new Yankees dynasty? Maybe so, but those who claim the Charlie Finley Oakland A's clubs that won three straight championships from 1972 to 1974 were a more gifted outfit than Torre's guys might do well to check back next October. Don't tell Mr. Budweiser, but a verdict hasn't yet been returned in the Bronx.
How many "yes" votes do you suppose John Elway churned up Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati? How many fence-sitters did Number Seven bring over to Pat Bowlen's side of the field with those fourth-quarter heroics against a club the Broncos should have blown away?
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This is not to say that the stadium-tax issue needed another shot in the arm. Given last year's Super Bowl win, the Broncos' 7-0 record prior to facing Cincinnati and the pro-stadium forces' relentless advertising blitz, Bowlen and company were already in the catbird seat. But isn't it nice to think that Elway and his teammates have a sense of drama equal to the occasion?
Consider: Two days before an election that might have dictated their future in this city, the undefeated Broncos found themselves trailing an aroused Bengals team 18-13. Like clockwork, like history revisited, Elway put together a three-touchdown fourth quarter, pulled out a 33-26 win and reminded citizens here what he has meant to them all these years. To wit: He's the guy who twice beat Cleveland in the fourth to reach the Super Bowl, who in sixteen seasons has mounted 46 late game-winning drives--twenty of them with less than two minutes left on the clock. He's the man who managed to tie seven games late in the fourth--and go on to win six of them.
The final fifteen minutes of play Sunday at Cinergy Field was vintage Elway and, in all likelihood, the most dramatic TV spot the Broncos' most famous pitchman could dream of improvising. Elway will never play in Pat Bowlen's new stadium. But in more ways than one, it will be The House That John Built.