Abe Beame has been in this game for a long time. He’s not in it for a record.
As I’m writing this, backup catcher Austin Romine is pitching a ninth inning in the Bronx where the Yankees are about to lose a must-win game by a historic margin, and all I can think about is a seven year old movie about sabermetrics. The series is the resumption of a 120 year blood feud between two bitter rivals who share a coast and little else. It’s their first playoff meeting in 14 years, the last was a narrative smashing upset of logic and reason defying proportions and I would like to say I was forever changed but I wasn’t.
My life changed as a 10 year old during the NBA season ending in 1993, then subsequently in 1994, then finally in 1995. It was changed by the star crossed fate of two men, the two guys besides my father I can point to as role models, as heroes, as Gods. They were separated by race, by skill set, by oceans and cultures. They were united by their noble baring, their sense of duty, a city, and a tragic fate. One was Don Mattingly, the other was Patrick Ewing.
Both Mattingly, a baseball prodigy from Evansville Indiana, and Ewing, a kid from Kingston Jamaica by way of Massachusetts who redefined the Center position in college, anchored and defined their respective franchises in the 80s and early 90s. Ewing was the miracle baby, the prospect at Georgetown every franchise would’ve sacrificed their first born for, and to this day conspiracy theories persist entailing David Stern’s wrangling for his hometown team to land a messiah that would bring them back to the promised land. Mattingly was less heralded but no less spectacular, an incredible talent with blue collar sensibilities who was one of the all-time great defensive first basemen and won an MVP his second full season.
Unfortunately, both men were born at the wrong time. Specifically, the 18 months that separated them from April of 61 to August of 62. Historically, Donny was the more incredibly and irrationally screwed. The Yankees were a behemoth throughout the 20th century. Beginning in 1923, they won at least one championship, and often many, many more, in every decade besides one, the 1980s. They did make the playoffs once in the 80s. 1981, two years before Donnie’s debut. The Knicks as a franchise weren’t nearly as prosperous but probably better loved. Baseball spent a majority of the century as America’s pastime. Basketball was a grower.
But even in its infancy, even as it was created in Indiana, it was a game invented in Springfield but invented for New York City, and while the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants and later the Mets had to share the hearts and minds of New Yorkers, as did the Giants and Jets, and even the Rangers and Islanders, the Knicks were New York’s only child, and its favorite. There is a buzz in New York when the Knicks are good, pandemonium when they’re great, and the lone two championships the franchise has to its name, won in 1970 and 1973, inspired a generation of basketball diehards and sportswriters alike.
But Donny and Patrick’s teams sucked. Ewing should’ve been the ideal frontcourt mate of Bernard King, a do everything scorer reminiscent of Carmelo Anthony who had his career with the Knicks cut short by injury. Donny played through the nadir of the George Steinbrenner era. A period of fear, loathing and micro-management that was finally cut short by a bizarre spying scandal that had Steinbrenner banned from baseball long enough for management to retool and invest in a youth culture that would produce the core four of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettite and Mariano Rivera (and a little much needed shout to my guys Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neil among many others).
Both men had Icarus like brushes with greatness, with the pinnacle of their professions in the 90s. In 1994-1995, both men flirted with titles. Donny was on a Yankees team that finally had broken through. On August 11th, 1994 the team had the second best record in baseball at 70-43, they had a league leading 6.5 game lead on the Orioles in their division before wild cards existed. It was a great team, but then on that late summer day in 94 a strike was declared, ending the season and Donny’s best chance at his first career playoff appearance and a championship. A year later, they’d lose a heart-breaking series to the Seattle Mariners.
Ask any lifetime Yankees fan about it now and you’ll hear graphically recalled horror stories about some freak named the Big Unit coming out of the bullpen, an asshole with a stolen nickname the casual fans in Seattle called Edgar Baseball and Ken Griffey Junior coming around third to the strains of Wagner. Mattingly was a fucking hero in his first and only playoff series. His back had broken down long ago. In his final season he batted .288, a shadow of his former self, but in the playoffs, and I swear this is not a typo, he hit an incredible .417 against Seattle in a tragic losing effort. The next season the Yankees would win the World Series for the first time in 18 years, just long enough to skip Donny. The guy who played his position that year played for the Mariners team that ended his career the year before: Tino Martinez.
Patrick Ewing was similarly fucked by God. Many Lebron stans, in their case against Jordan complain about the lack of competition he faced (or at least the smart ones do. Some idiots think Lebron has had easier teams to wage war against). When they do, they generally bring up his foes in the finals. The Clyde Blazers, the Barkley Suns, the Kemp and Payton Sonics, the Malone and Stockton Jazz. The best team the Bulls ever had to face were the in their prime Knicks lead by Ewing. In 1992-1993 the Bulls pulled out a miraculous series they should’ve lost, games that are lost to time in the midst of the absolute worst of blow the whistle superstar treatment as Nike-powered Jordan launched to the top of the league as an icon and no one wanted to see an aggressively black, violent, boring, workmanlike team from a then scary and crime riddled city ascend to the top of the mountain. But I can’t blame the next year’s loss on marketing.
We choked against the Rockets during Jordan’s bullshit gap year. It was a 7 game war and Ewing played his ass off, maybe slightly diminished by his ailments and bested by a truly incredible Hakeem Olajuwon (who he edged in blocks and rebounds but whatever who is counting) but really if Starks hits one fucking shot history is rewritten.
I recounted all that pain to tell you this. In 2011, Bennett Miller made a movie set on the other side of the country about a failed former athlete turned General Manager who was tired of losing. His name was and is Billy Beane, and the movie, Moneyball is ostensibly about how two people (with a healthy scholarly foundation of statistical sports analysis) changed the way an industry appraised value in its talent. But that dry description doesn’t do justice to the real thrust and focus of the film. It’s about the inherent unfairness of life, its inequalities, its stupidity, the way we recognize, understand, discuss and appreciate greatness.
The film sets its narrative in overly simplified terms: Billy Beane was a highly touted high school athlete who skipped a Stanford scholarship to sign as a blue chip prospect with the Mets. The film traces his frustration with the small market Oakland Athletics and the aesthetic measures they use to evaluate talent. He recognizes the model for talent evaluation is broken and it will take a revolution to gain an edge in assessment.
This is a story everyone is familiar with at this point, but Miller frames the film using language that tips his cap that he’s after a larger story. For one, Northern California, one of the most beautiful places on Earth where the film is set, is shot like a an oil refining small town in rural Texas. It’s all gray, docks and smoke stacks, permanently overcast, the concrete ancient bowels of an underfunded baseball stadium that doubles as a football stadium.
Our one respite is his ex wife’s house, played by Robin Wright Penn with an unbearable step husband/father in Spike Jonze in a beautiful, white on white oasis where his daughter and only humanizing mechanism lives that either belongs to an affluent idyllic NorCal couple or DMX in Belly. The significance of this tonal shift can’t be undersold. Then there’s Beane, played by Brad Pitt at his absolute Redfordian apex. He’s all brooding introspection and restless anger. Pitt’s Beane is not a placid settler. He’s a pusher. With shaggy dog conviction and chill intensity he makes his intention clear: He wants to win a championship.
Beane fights the good fight and loses. The film builds itself around an incredible mid season winning streak because there’s no sunset to walk off into with the Athletics. Despite a ton of opportunity and innovation they have yet to reach a World Series in their sad recent history. Ironically their nemesis and counterpoint have most often been the Yankees. But what the film makes clear is the question of winning and losing is larger than intelligent design, roster construction, plate discipline and maximizing value.
It’s a small sample size open to a number of randomized outcomes. The film argues that despite never winning the last game of the season Beane wins by changing how the game thinks. But the film doesn’t even necessarily seem to buy its own moral. It taunts Beame in its last moments. The film is haunted by the spectre of loss. The looming dread that is ever present and prepared to confirm your darkest fears and biases when the chips fall against you.
Tonight [last night as you are reading this] I will be in the Bronx for what is likely to be a funeral. In the years since Donny retired I’ve seen success. In fact, I was in the old stadium on the night in 96 when the Yankees completed a miraculous comeback against the Atlanta Braves and won the first of several championships I’d see in my lifetime. But in many senses I could never shake the ghosts of Donny and Patrick, of Michael Jordan and Ken Griffey Jr. The thing I learned growing up worshipping great men who never could quite finish their arcs is life doesn’t always conform to your expectations. As Americans of a formative age this is a particularly potent message as we grow up expecting life to conform to certain narratives.
As losers, people who often face and have to contend with loss, we need to find ways to live in the margins of hero myth and narrative. There is redemption in the effort expended. The shot that comes up short, the silver medal. There is room in history for great men and women without rings and accolades. Don Mattingly isn’t in the Hall of Fame. His prime was too brief, they say. Patrick Ewing won’t crack many all time lists. This is wrong, and biased. It values final outcomes as a type of confirmation. It ignores the greatness and heroism that went unrewarded.
When we discuss greatness we count rings. Our myths teach us that winners simply win and losing is some type of character flaw. That victory is a decision we make if we have the iron will and tenacity within ourselves to cease it. There is no room in that narrative for randomness, for misfortune, for bad timing, bad calls, for teammates who let you down, for bad luck. I argue that to improve as fans, as people, as a society, we need to find room for valiant effort, for fallen heroes, for losers. Tonight I will celebrate a season of baseball on its own merits. The memories both bad and good, the agony and the ecstasy, the rings we’ll never win but we never needed. Rest In Peace, New York.