It is difficult to view the New York Yankees of George Steinbrenner in terms of fairy tale and baseball romance, yet that is the sort of rose-tinted treatment that they deserve this season.
Were it not for Boss George's cruel and clownish plantation pranks, constantly distracting the eye, these Yanks would be seen for what they are: an inspirational Cinderella team that went much further than it ought and didn't turn into a pumpkin until one minute before midnight here Friday night. d
No city is more parochial about sports than New York, more prone to apotheosize those things close to its heart, just as the smallest town might. The hard eyes of the Big City view the Yankees not with calculating cynicism but with the rawest naivete and boosterish enthusiasm. Put on pin stripes and you are wonderful, the best, the most expensive. Of course, you are not allowed to lose, not allowed to let New York down. Ask anything -- a Rolls-Royce, a Park Avenue penthouse. Just don't ask for a modest, balanced evaluation of your best efforts. You must succeed or fail on a larger scale.
Relatively few things work smoothly here in the most unlivable city in America. New York couples the inconvenience of Havana with a venality, violence and vitality that is brutally unique. The only excuse for this town is that it is a breathing, 'round-the-clock theater where the outer skin of sociable, polite life has been peeled back to expose all the psychic and emotional gristle and bone that is usually only revealed by personal crisis or impersonal art.
So, when New York spies a team of its own that functions, that wins, that gives reliable, comfortable on-field satisfactions, it hugs that club like a life vest. When New York teams have trouble breathing under pressure, it often seems that the affectionate, overly tight arms of the city are one cause of the choking -- a really Big Apple around the throat rather than it it.
This year, New York extended that big hug once more. In its enthusiasm for a great winner, an intimidating juggernaut of a champion, fans here often mistook a jury-rigged, aged team in pin stripes for that club of legend -- the Yankees.
No sooner did players like Bob Watson, Eric Soderholm and Rudy May arrive in those armored cars with Bank of Steinbrenner stenciled on the side than they were canonized -- made larger than their skills, than their past statistics, than any reasonable expectation of future performance. then, a funny thing happened, a strange phenomenon that may also be singulat to New York. The players believed what New York City said about them and made the town's expectations their expectations.
It's been happening for decades, from Johnny Mize to Hector Lopez to Brian Doyle. It's even part of baseball myth, a sort of perverse maximum: any player becomes better when he wears pin stripes. The reason isn't the uniform, and it isn't tradition, all that prattle about the monuments beyond the center field fence.
It's the city. This is the burg where the weak are plowed under, where the motto is, "Don't ask, 'How do I do it?' Just get it done."
No excuses suffice here. If the cabbie won't take you to the South Bronx at dusk, grab him by the throat. Suddenly, he'd love to go. He respects you. If the waiter insults you, insult him back. That makes him smile. Then give him a smallish tip. That'll make him even cheerier. "Hard guy, huh," he'll think. "I'll get a bigger tip out of him next time. I'll earn it."
The hard fact about the '80 Yankees is that they never were tremendously good and still aren't. They had no right to win 103 games. Which means it's twice as much to their credit that they did. When the Yankees met a good team that was playing well, they got smoked. Baltimore beat them six of eight in August and did it handily.
The Royals met the Yankees at their absolute percentage peak in July when the teams were healthy. In a fortnight, K.C. beat the Yanks two of three in Yankee Stadium and two of three in Royals Stadium, running up a huge 52-23 margin of victory. The Royals didn't catch the Yankees in a slump. It was the Royals who put the Yankees into their slump -- that flat 18-21 streak when Baltimore went from 11 back in the loss column to zero. the cause was simple. It shocked the Yankees to have the Royals smash them around at will as though they were a scarecrow club stuffed with straw.
When the Yanks came home on Aug. 28, they were worn to the nub. But then New Yorkers often feel that way. New York doesn't allow quitting. Back in Yankee Stadium, the club gradually revived. First, it won 10 of 11 at home. From that late-August nadir onward, New York was 20-4 at home and went 8-4 on the road, playing two-thirds of its last 36 games in Yankee Stadium.
Other AL teams traditionally complain about how the Yankees always seem to get a sweetheart late-season schedule, almost as though the league office wanted them to stay in as many pennant races as possible just because they are by far the strongest financial link in the league. What else is new? t
The most fascinating question in this Yankee year -- and one that won't be answered soon -- is whether or not the Yankee brass, particularly Steinbrenner, knows what a magnificent season this team had. New York won its division with a battered team that had a dozen players with an average age of 36, with a miserable outfield defense, with a bottom third of the batting order (Bucky Dent, Aurelio Rodriguez and Bobby Brown) as weak as any team in the league, and with a slumping cleanup hitter (Jackson) who didn't drive in more than one run in any game from Aug. 15 until Oct. 1.
Two hours after the Royals had removed all doubt about which team was better in head-to-head comb at, Yankee reliever Goose Gossage say by his locker, crying proudly and openly as he talked. "I let 'em all down," said this man who, more than anyone, carried the club on his back during the 23-4 streak when a division flag was won.