Jan/Feb 2008 Salon

Damned Yankees-Yanquis

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Photo by Steve Wing

In October, 2004, the New York Yankees lost the American League Championship to the Boston Red Sox after having beat them in the first three games of the series, allowing the Red Sox to make a comeback unique in the history of post-season baseball. In October, 2001, just a few weeks after hijackers flew airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Yankees lost the seventh and deciding game of the World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks when, like 911 itself, the unthinkable happened: The Yankee ace closing pitcher, Mariano Rivera, blew the opportunity to save the game and win the Series for the Yankees by allowing the Diamondbacks to score the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

The Yankees have not won a World Series since 2000 when they beat the Mets, their New York crosstown rivals. Since then they have spent more than a billion dollars on payroll, acquiring one of the most powerful lineups ever assembled and perhaps the highest paid pitching staff in the major leagues. Last year, 2006, that lineup and that pitching staff when confronted by the Detroit Tigers whom the Yankees were supposed to dominate in the playoffs, failed to advance beyond the first round and were eliminated from post-season play. This year the Cleveland Indians accomplished the same feat. Unable to fire their multi-million-dollar ballplayers, some of whom performed at All-Star levels during the regular season, the Yankee ownership dismissed longtime manager Joe Torre.

For the Yankee team, its owner George Steinbrenner and Yankee fans, qualifying for post-season play is almost meaningless, something the team is supposed to do just as the trees are expected to shed their leaves each autumn. Even winning the American League championship scarcely counts for more than a necessary stepping stone to their true goal: a World Series ring.

Yankee might of a military kind is more powerful than all the rest of the world's armed forces combined, just as the baseball Yankees payroll is quadruple that of other teams, one of which knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs this year. How could a bunch of "gooks" in black pajamas defeat the invincible American armed forces? How can a bunch of "malcontents," to use former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's phrase, frustrate the will of the American government and its agents? How can the Detroit Tigers, the Cleveland Indians葉he Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim葉wo of which the Yankees owned in the regular season, defeat the mighty Bronx Bombers and do so decisively, even in humiliating fashion?

These are questions that were asked in both the sports and editorial pages of our national newspapers but asked for the most part rhetorically, because the events themselves are too preposterous, even considered decades after the fact in the case of Vietnam, to be considered in a dispassionate, critical way. Rather, they are cries of outrage, protests against the dark forces of a blind and irrational fate that we would prefer either to deny or ascribe to sinister forces, traitors in our midst葉he peace movement, Alex Rodriquez, God or the devil葉han to a sequence of cause and effect like everything else.

We "lost" in Vietnam for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most critical was that the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies wanted to win more than we did. They were fighting for their country. We didn't know what we were fighting for except perhaps, ultimately, not to lose. We are losing today in Iraq for much the same reasons, with a good deal of incompetence on the part of our political leadership thrown into the mix.

Political leadership, the government, is always the responsible agent, whether the nation is a democracy where civilians are in control of the military or a dictatorship where the government and the military are the same thing. When our representatives cede their authority for oversight and criticism of the executive, and the citizenry fails to hold those representatives accountable for their responsibilities, the president and his advisers will run things as they see fit, rarely admitting to committing mistakes or reversing course. Think of the military government in Argentina in the 1970s that foolishly went to war with Britain over the Falkland Islands; think of Saddam Hussein taking on Iran in the 1980s.

George Steinbrenner, the principal owner of the New York Yankees, used to be a very visible and vocal executive for the first couple decades that he owned the team. For most of the last ten years he has remained very much behind the scenes. But the formula that worked for the Yankees so well in the latter half of the 1990s and brought them four World Series championships in six years by combining talented young ballplayers brought up from within the organization and a selective, expensive acquisition of proven talent through free agency, changed to a policy of spending more and more money on superstars even when they were past their primes and would not last as long as the terms of their multi-million-dollar contracts. Even so, this strategy, most recently through the use of overwhelming force both in the batter's box and on the pitcher's mound, has all but guaranteed the Yankees a trip to the post-season followed by a swift conclusion of their expectations for another World Series victory.

"Overwhelming force" has also been the guiding principle of the US military leadership in recent decades. And it almost goes without saying that virtually no limit is to be placed on the amount of money to be made available to obtain and maintain that force. Power in the form of intimidation, the threat of catastrophic violence, is the engine that drives imperial influence and its expansion, the ultimate policy tool whether in geopolitics or baseball, at least when it is practiced by power-hungry American presidents or a sports franchise like the Yankees, a team as unique in the sports world as the lone superpower is among nations.

Both the Yankees and the United States have that kind of power in abundance, but when it comes to the crunch after the preliminary stages of a campaign have been surmounted葉he regular baseball season or the air and ground wars against conventional military forces溶either of the superpowers seem able to impose their wills. Why not? Could it be there is something that is effective even against overwhelming physical power?

We Americans have had a love affair with violence for most of our history. Even the game of baseball, seen as a slow-moving affair in which chance and skill seem about equally in play, is really an exercise in violence. It may have been less so before Babe Ruth "saved" the national pastime by turning the home run into something variously described as a "bomb" a "shot," a "mighty wallop," a "blast" or, more recently, an "A-Bomb." Since his time it has become the signature of the game. In recent years players have taken to using performance-enhancing drugs to increase their firepower, and the result has been a toppling of home-run records set by the Babe himself surpassed only once before, by Roger Maris in a 162-game season rather than the old 154-game season, and by Hank Aaron whose cumulative home run total for his career exceeded Ruth's own achievement. Aaron痴 triumph was resisted, in some cases with threats of death, as if Ruth's mark where a point of national honor, not to say a demonstration of white supremacy.

It seems probable that the game of baseball was played with more skill than power before the age of Ruth. The remarkable pitching records set in those pre-Ruthian days indicate as much. And the well-placed single or double rarely seems to occur in the contemporary game, where the idea is to swing as hard as you can "in case you hit it," and holds as true in the bottom of the ninth inning when your team is behind by six runs as it does if it is ahead by ten. No one gets fined or criticized for that kind of batting, at least not with any sincerity, because having a "good hack at a pitch is considered the appropriate and even manly thing to do. In any case, there is always tomorrow蓉nless, of course, there isn't. Even pitchers who do not throw fastballs, "hard stuff," are regarded with disappointment if not suspicion. It is as if getting the batter out by cunning and deception rather than by raw power, "power against power," is unsportsmanlike.

The parallels of this kind of philosophy with a nation's use of force are obvious. Our enemies should confront us out in the open where our superior firepower can annihilate them. That's the right way to fight a war. Planting roadside bombs, using oneself as a vehicle for an explosive device, flying commercial airliners into buildings or destroying naval vessels with explosives concealed in fishing boats, all of these seem unsportsmanlike and cowardly to Americans who forget that their own revolutionaries once hid behind trees to shoot at British redcoats.

The best consistent hitter in the game of baseball today is Ichiro Suzuki, a phenomenal singles hitter and superb fielder. It is arguable that a lineup exclusively made up of Ichiros would be a run-producing machine that even Yankee bombers could not compete with. But we will never see such a lineup in the big leagues, and Ichiro plays for the Seattle Mariners on the West coast where there is little danger of his contaminating the values of the Yankees.

To be fair, the Yankees may be as much a New York phenomenon as an American one, despite the fact that New York is usually seen as the least American of cities. In New York the establishment that controls its business and cultural mentality believe that quality and excellence are commodities that can be bought like anything else. It came as a shock to Gotham痴 culture czars several years back when five different world-class conductors turned down the directorship of the New York Philharmonic because they did not want to be bothered with the non-musical distractions that come with the job. Nor should it be a surprise that the most original and innovative opera is produced in places like Houston and San Francisco, not the Metropolitan Opera House.

A similar combination of big bucks and winning at all costs informs the mentality of the Yankees and, to a lesser extent, other New York sports franchises. Some players collapse under the pressure of the media and the fans' expectations, just as I once saw a famous tenor all but withdraw from the stage at the Metropolitan under a chorus of booing. What keeps wiser heads away from this "market" in the first place, though, is not just the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the town but the realization that very little latitude will be granted to anything innovative or controversial. Not for nothing the Yankees are known for their "corporate" look, i.e., no beards, mustaches or long hair.

But imperial power, whether wielded by nation states or sports franchises, are becoming very retro in the early decades of the twenty-first century. In his essay "Those, Those Were the Days" about his childhood experience in a British boarding school, George Orwell tells us that the school bully預t least, that's what we would call him today謡as admired by the school痴 administrators because of his ability to impose his will on others. This type of behavior, Orwell reminds us, was called "character." Those were the waning days of the British Empire, though it probably did not seem so at the time. It was also still the heyday of other imperial European powers, most notably in Africa. Imposing one's will on others, especially when those others were inferior races, was not something to be ashamed of.

The mood shifted after the First World War to more liberal ideas like self-determination, but the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. continued to practice imperialism under the guise of "liberation" or bringing democracy or socialism to the oppressed. The Nazis, themselves a pretty retro bunch, covered their imperialistic motives by portraying Germany as a victim and their acquisition of neighbors territories as protecting endangered minorities or reuniting them with other German-speaking peoples under the rubric of self-determination.

But power of this kind, whether wielded in the cause of the Master Race, the Proletariat or Democracy, is only effective when it has an easily identifiable enemy and a clear field of fire. Confronted by an insurgency, that strategy sends a message to other potential revolutionaries: attack us and your entire nation will be destroyed or so disabled that it will take decades for you to recover. The U.S.-South Vietnamese policy of assassination on a wide scale during the early years of the conflict there, eventually killing tens of thousands of communist cadres in the south, was in effect for years before the massive bombing of the north. But the response to these mass assassinations was the Viet Cong, the military if not the moral equivalent of today's roadside bombers in Iraq有enin's 砥seful idiots."

For those for whom victory at any human, economic or moral cost is the only acceptable outcome, whether the game is played geopolitically or between the white lines of a baseball diamond, there is no contravening standard, no matter how much they lay claim to Christian or other religious principles or pay lip service to secular ideals like democracy and self-determination. For the principal owner of the New York Yankees, a World Series ring is the only acceptable conclusion to the baseball season. And his attitude is reflected throughout his corporate culture, just as his prohibitions against long and facial hair are dutifully adhered to.

But isn't victory the appropriate role for a baseball team that spends more than $200 million on its payroll or a nation, if not an empire, that spends a comparable part of its treasure and has worldwide interests to look out for, not to mention enemies who want to cut off the supply of its raw materials and global markets?

The answer to that question depends on who gets to set the goals. Does the military and government set them, or are they determined by a consensus of the people those agents are supposed to serve? All sports franchises want to win every game they play, but not all teams are obsessed with winning like the New York Yankees. In St. Louis, for example, last year's World Series victors, the fans support their Cardinals loyally whether or not they make it to the playoffs and rarely if ever boo a player no matter how many days it痴 been since he's got a hit. They are even reluctant to boo players of an opposing team. New York, by contrast, is notorious for its impatience with slumping hitters and ineffective pitchers, effectively running them out of town if they don't produce.

Is St. Louis less well served by their beloved Cardinals than New York is by their perennial lineups of super-millionaires? Are the people in St. Louis wimps, or are they on to something that New York fans could learn from, assuming they would be willing to learn from anyone but themselves?

If the Yankees continue to lose, i.e. fail to make it to and win the World Series, they may be forced to rethink their corporate strategy, just as the United States government, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats, should rethink its international strategy before it bankrupts the nation financially and morally. Unlike a sports franchise, a nation, even a great imperial nation, cannot simply retool and wait for spring training. We may not get another chance to be all we can be, a unique experiment in democracy. If we opt instead to be just another imperialist power, not very different from the ones that have preceded us, we will eventually lose that pre-eminence as any such power must. After a certain point, there is no tomorrow for a nation that has overextended itself, not in a world where there are other up-and-coming nations more than willing to make bids for pre-eminence. Like the Yankees, we can go on believing that we can bludgeon other teams into submission蓉ntil we wake up one morning and find ourselves confronted by other bullies who are not impressed by our claims that we only act this way for the sake of bringing the joys of democracy to the rest of mankind.


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