The Yankees make it very hard to root for them sometimes. One of the challenges that any fan of the team has, and has had for something more than 50 years, is to try to remember that the players on the field are paid by ownership and management, but don't necessarily reflect their values. That is to say that Yogi Berra spent half his career starring for a team that had no African Americans, but that doesn't mean that he should have been tarred with the same brush as George Weiss, Dan Topping, and Del Webb, who perpetuated the team's color line until 1955. Dave Winfield and Reggie Jackson took George Steinbrenner's money, but that didn't necessarily mean they endorsed the way Steinbrenner treated this secretaries.
This calculus became very personal for me at certain times. In the 1990s and early 2000s, I got a very up close and personal look at the Yankees off the field -- the upper management. There were good people there and some people whose behaviors trouble me to this day when they are mentioned in some official connection to the team. What I had to remind myself then is the same thing I remind myself now: You can enjoy a Bernie Williams or a Robinson Cano or an Andy Pettitte for their own sakes, in the same way that perhaps one can enjoy a McDonald's hamburger without thinking about American obesity, labor exploitation, or the deforestation of the Amazon to feed the animals they slaughter (I say "perhaps" because I actually can't; it has been about 25 years since I've given McDonald's a dime).
The impression of Yankees management I was left with from those years (again: as distinct from Yankees players) was of an organization that was making a great deal of money and therefore could afford to enjoy a great deal of contempt, sometimes for their fans or for their own employees. In the latter case, there were so many people eager to be associated with the brand that they always had replacements lined up should someone choose to leave. In the case of the former, they could build a ballpark that was a Las Vegas/Disneyland-kitsch recreation of their old stadium, fill it with concrete moats to separate the swells from the plebes, as well as surly security guards who insisted you had to respect dead, canned Kate Smith during the seventh-inning stretch, and like it.
I know it's old hat to criticize John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman's radio work nowadays -- we've had nearly 25 years of Sterling to perfect our commentary and eight with Waldman as his partner. Still, I find them to be one of the most visible expressions of the contempt in which the Yankees hold their fans. A serious team should have quality announcers. The Yankees don't. The examples are too numerous to list here, so I will supply but one from the weekend just past:
Waldman: John, did you know that Minnesota has lost 10 in a row?
Sterling: No. I don't pay attention to them.
Pro preparation there. I actually find that exchange more concerning than the misapprehensions outlined in this one from the top of the second of Friday's game against the Rays. Jayson Nix had just stolen second base:
Sterling: I know that Suzyn and I overload the compliments to Nix, but you just have a good feeling when he's playing. When he's batting, when he's on the bases, when he's playing short, second, or third, he just seems to do a lot of things right. I think he's a good player.
Waldman: You know what he is, John, he is the opposite of what all those statistics people would think is a good player. You have to watch the games.
Waldman: Everybody's saying, "Suzyn, what are you talking about, he's hitting .220, one, and nine." You have to watch the games. He does something every time.
I was used to this kind of talk from Sterling and Waldman regarding Miguel Cairo, a .269/.319/.370 hitter for the Yankees of whom the broadcasters were so enamored that they seemingly had to constrain themselves from claiming he could heal the sick, walk on water, and play the vibes better than Milt Jackson. Whenever Cairo got a hit, their commentary became so overheated it reached well past the point of self-parody, like the 1980s college rock band Camper Van Beethoven's description of why they decided to cover Ringo Starr's "Photograph:"
In March of 1987, after exposure to dangerous levels of X-rays, CVB developed some strange ideas about ex-Beatle Ringo Starr. Some of them came to believe that Ringo was in fact one of three supernatural beings responsible for the creation and continued existence of the universe as we know it. Although not all the Campers shared this view, they did all agree that Ringo Starr can fly through the air; has a kidney made of a top secret aluminum alloy; wears a special pair of socks that allow him to communicate with David Rockefeller; and can say the word regenerative even after going to the pub and drinking eight pints with the BBC sound engineers.
Miguel Cairo (Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE)
Sterling and Waldman weren't too far off from that, despite the fact that Cairo had considerably less to offer than even the oldest Beatle, and that remained true even when Joe Torre got in the occasional habit of confusing him with a starting first baseman. Don't get me wrong -- Cairo at his best was a useful player. He could play anywhere on the field, steal a base, and hit enough singles that he wasn't a complete loss at the plate. A team needs players like that, and should value them, but that doesn't make them super-heroes. When a commentator can't distinguish second-stringers from brave Ulysses, never mind first-string players, it tends to undermine their credibility. If Miguel Cairo or Jayson Nix is a great player, then what was Derek Jeter in his prime, God?
I'm not going to bother giving you the defense of Waldman's straw man, "those statistics people," except to say that she has misunderstood what statistics are. There's no hocus-pocus associated with them; they're merely a record of what happened so that you don't make a mistake like saying, "He does something every time." The statement is accurate insofar as a player who appears every day usually gets to do something; he might have a hit or have a ball hit to him. If you want to get more specific than that, then we know that Nix does something on offense about 31 percent of the time and does something on defense about as often as the average shortstop does something. He's more valuable than some players and less valuable than others.
To say that Nix does something every day would be defensible if intended as hyperbole, but it wasn't; it was meant to draw a contrast between those aficionados who watch the game and can appreciate a player like Nix and those statheads who, by implication, watch only the back of the player's baseball card. Again, that's a straw man, but in this case it's an aggressive comment meant to denigrate one group while giving the speaker a pat on the back for being one of the truly perceptive elect.
But let's face it, it's ignorant no matter how you construe it for the same reason that all the Cairo-love was ignorant. Like every player, Nix doesn't do something "every time," he does something sometimes. Mike Trout doesn't do something every day, Miguel Cabrera might have the odd tired weekend, and every once in a while Buster Posey has an 0-fer and makes an error. If they don't do something every day, where do you get off saying Nix does? Would the Yankees be playing him if they had any choice about it? Hell no. That you cannot tell this story accurately calls into question your ability to tell any story.
I'm all for unearthing cult classics -- I'm a fan of Preston Sturges films and Randy Newman records. Nix isn't that -- he's not even a Ken Phelps type, one of those players that should have been better appreciated in his prime. He's a guy who wouldn't be playing if Derek Jeter and Eduardo Nunez were healthy, who is hitting .213/.255/.303 against right-handed pitching, which is actually far better than his career mark against righties. He's not a championship-quality regular, he's not a second-division regular, he's a "break glass in case all your better options are dead" guy.
Again, it's better to have that guy than not have him -- Yankees offensive production at shortstop isn't the worst in the AL, it's just the runner-up. That's largely due to how well Nix has played. It's still not good, and that's why you ration your praise -- if he's so good, what was he doing coming off the bench for his fifth organization, anyway?
Waldman used to be an excellent clubhouse reporter for YES and WFAN, and I presume she knows better, or knew. Sterling, I don't know if he knows better and I don't think I care, because he clearly doesn't. It's not just "I don't pay attention to them," but the pathetic, attention-begging home-run calls that have become baroque non-sequiturs ("Lyle hits one a mile! I love it! I Lyle Lovett!"), the misunderstandings and confusion. Their perpetuation is an insult, one that the Yankees could end in an instant should they choose to do so.
That they don't, that they think so little of you that they keep this going, is all the proof you need of how the Yankees think about their customers. Again, root, root, foot for Joe Girardi and his charges, but as for the rest of the operation, they're the ones that brought you an act that gives old radio a bad name... And heck -- they brought you Jayson Nix, too.
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