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17 July 2010

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to heaven!

I want to take a moment to reflect on the passing this past week of Bob Sheppard, the New York Yankees' longtime public address announcer, and George Steinbrenner, the former principal owner of the most famous sports franchise in history. 

Messrs. Sheppard and Steinbrenner were important figures during my growing up years in northern New Jersey, in a bedroom community of New York City. I loved baseball when I was a kid.  I was passionate about it.  But, frankly, I was really most passionate about the New York Yankees.  Sure, I was a baseball fan. But I was mostly a Yankee Fan.  There's a big difference.  During the years 1973 to 1981 I lived and died with my Yankees.  Mr. Sheppard and Mr. Steinbrenner were there for all of it and beyond.

The fact that Mr. Sheppard and Mr. Steinbrenner died the same week is, to me, an extraordinary metaphor.  Mr. Sheppard was the very public reflection of the Yankees' grace and beauty.  He was precise.  He was elegant.  He was clear.  He was understated yet charismatic. He was the quiet, intellectual, creative, artistic, and thoughtful side of New York.  He grew up there. Born and raised.

Mr. Steinbrenner was a bully. He was inelegant. He was brash.  He was all about winning and making money.  He was mean.  He was a narcissist.  He was the brauny, ugly, arrogant side of New York.  And he wasn't even a New Yorker.  He was from Ohio and he lived in Tampa, Florida. So, he was sort of a fraud. He bought everything and he thought that doing so legitimized him. He was a Republican and, by the way, not the so-called Rockefeller sort. He was a Nixon guy. I hated him.  Yes, yes, I know he was "larger than life" and all that, but I hated him. Of course, I didn't know him.  But I certainly hated the values he represented. When I heard of his passing, I did not feel badly.  I suppose I should have felt sorry for him.  He was a jerk.  An old man with a baseball team and lots of money.  No solid personal relationships.  His kids, who now own the team, seem like parasites.  But, I'll admit, perhaps I hated him so much because I envied him just a little. Perhaps even because I've got a little of that Steinbrenner-like narcissism, raw ambition, and meanness inside of me.
Did I mention that I hated him? One of the reasons I really hated Mr. Steinbrenner was that he -- and everyone else -- knew that he was the future of Major League Baseball; not Bob Sheppard.  Mr. Sheppard, who worked for Mr. Steinbrenner, of course, contributed style and grandeur to Hack Steinbrenner's team. But, make no mistake, it was Steinbrenner's team and Major League Baseball would come to be his game.

I suppose I should thank Mr. Steinbrenner for taking over the Yankees in the early 1970s and restoring the club to it's place as the World's Most Important Team. Certainly, as a fan, I benefitted from it.  When I first started paying attention to the Yankees, they were an unremarkable team.  They really had no superstars.  The team had a few solid, and up and coming players, like Bobby Murcer, Lou Piniella, and Thurman Munson, but they were pretty boring and the Yankees were losers. Mr. Steinbrenner changed that: He signed free-agent pitcher Catfish Hunter in 1975 from Oakland and paid him a million dollars -- the first million dollar player in professional sports.

It was the beginning of the beginning and the beginning of the end.  The beginning of the beginning of the Yankees' newfound winning.  The beginning of the end of the innocence and elegance of professional baseball.  Then came Billy Martin, Mickey Rivers, Willie Randolph, Billy Martin, and the inimitable Reggie Jackson.  And, oh yes, Billy Martin.

I attended several Yankee games during those salad days of my youth.  We'd drive the hour from New Jersey to the Bronx with my Little League buddies or just me, mom, and dad.  We'd sit in the nosebleed section. (Except once when my buddy's dad, who was a VP with the now long defunct Bankers Trust, had his office's first-base line box seats.  We yelled over to Sweet Lou who was warming up in the on-deck circle waving about thirty bats with doughnuts on them.  He glanced over to us and winked, or at least we imagined he did. Truly Sweet.) And we would munch on our dogs and slurp our Cokes and listen to the poetry of the Voice of God, Bob Sheppard: "Now bat-ting. Ing. Ing. Number For-ty Four. Or. Or. Reg-gie Jack-sun. Un. Un."  Yes, I had gone to heaven.

I watched and listened to every Yankee game on TV or radio.  I hung on every morning's report in the Newark Star-Ledger of the previous day's or night's action.  Jerry Izenberg, my mom's classmate at Newark's South Side High, wrote an awesome column in the Ledger's sports pages and, quite often, his topic was the Yankees' soap opera -- the Bronx Zoo, they called it.  It was great fun for the adult fans. They didn't take it seriously.  But for this boy it was just embarrassing and ugly.  How could adults behave that way? But I kept watching and listening because this team dominated.  They were exciting.  They were everything I was not: talented, muscular, big, powerful, handsome, athletic, and New York.

It was the team of Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Ed Figueroa, Mike Torrez, and Sparky Lyle.  Pity the batters who had to deal with their stuff. Louisiana Lightning (or the Rajun Cajun, if you prefer), threw two pitches -- a fastball and slider -- and he threw them very, very well.  That staff had multiple 20-game winners. It was the team of the New Murderer's Row: Rivers, Randolph, Munson, Jackson, Chambliss, and Piniella in that order. Pity the pitchers who had to face that onslaught.  The poor Kansas City Royals could not catch a break.

That team was assembled by Mr. Steinbrenner.  It was announced and honored by Mr. Sheppard. With the death of Bob Sheppard, the true elegance of the National Pastime has finally, well, passed.  It is gone. There are no more Sparky's, Goose's, Yaz's, Oil Can's, Joltin' Joe's, The Mick's, El Tiante's.  There is no more Bird, Spaceman, Mad Hungarian, Scooter, or Say Hey. Now we have vanilla, boring-as-dirt pretty boys. They need juice to feel good about themselves. Fine players many, to be sure.  But with no personality and little character.

Thanks to Mr. Steinbrenner and the new breed of baseball fat cat, we've got things like "naming rights" that allow us the great privilege of attending baseball games in corporate stadiums called "Coors Field," "Safeco Field," and "Citizens Bank Park."  Baseball stadiums were once places, primarily, of community. They are now, primarily, places of commerce.  Of ten-dollar beers and eight-dollar hot dogs. Cap nights with the Exxon/Mobil insignia emblazoned on the rear. Bat days with Burger King on the barrel. Whoops! I forgot, they don't really do bat days anymore.  Too expensive perhaps? More likely, the owners have been counseled by their lawyers that they would be too "exposed" if, for example, an irate fan who was mad as hell and couldn't take it anymore decided to use one of those bats to bash in the team boss's head as he and his clean cut chums chomped cigars and swigged single malt while sitting in those several-thousand-dollars per game corporate seats located behind home plate.

In the film, Field of Dreams, here's what the character,  ex-radical author Terrence Mann, had to say about baseball:

The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past... It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.

Bob Sheppard is gone and, with him, all that once was good about Major League Baseball and America.  It is over and it simply cannot be again.  George Steinbrenner,  gone though he may be,  is, sadly, very much the future of the major leagues and my beloved country. It is his spirit, alas, that will carry on.

[Note: The title of this post consists of words spoken by Bob Sheppard's son, Paul, as quoted in Mr. Sheppard's obituary from the New York Times, July 12, 2010.]