Two kinds of people inhabit this country: Yankee fans and Yankee haters. A moment's reflection will make clear that there is no in-between. If you're indifferent about the New York Yankees, then you're not a real baseball fan; and if you're not a real baseball fan, then it should go without saying that you're not a real American.
I won't reveal which camp I call home. As a wise old Tennessee politician once told me, "I have friends on both sides of the question, and I always stand by my friends."
But you don't have to be a Yankee-hater to love the fate that so far has befallen George Steinbrenner's team, whose listless start has given new meaning to "Bronx Bombers." All you really need is an underdog's appreciation of time and justice. In fact, you might say that dogging the Yankeesor the "Yank-mes," as my pinstripe-loving friend Tim has started calling them againat this particular time is quintessentially American, regardless of your usual loyalties.
There's no mystery about why so many people beyond New York love the Yankees. They want to root for a winner. The Yankees have won more World Series than the next two teams combined. It's no coincidence that there's no Broadway show titled "Damn Marlins." The Yankees are to the rest of the league what America is to France, Germany and Liechtenstein.
The Yanks also represent tradition. And if you live in New York, you're pretty much obligated to be a Yankee fan, because the alternative is to admit you root for the Mets.
Of course, I also understand why so many other people would seriously consider pulling for the French if they ever got up a baseball team and played the Yankees. They resent the Yanks for the same reason that other fans adore them: they always win. They resent Steinbrenner, who almost makes Donald Trump seem personable. They resent that, while their own favorite teams labor to develop and keep players, the Yankees simply whip out the checkbook to buy whomever they please. They've done it so often that VISA could make a very funny TV ad about Big George straining his check-writing arm.
Most of all, of course, Yankee haters hate that the Yankees are from New York, whose superiority in every respect to all other cities is taken by New Yorkers as a given. I've observed that many New Yorkers really do view American geography like that famous New Yorker cartoon map, in which Manhattan occupies about two-thirds of the territory, with California and Texas as distant afterthoughts along with some vague area labeled "Nebraska."
Just as with our politics today, the I-Heart-Yankees-vs.-I-Skull & Crossbones-Yankees argument really revolves around the definition of a real American. You won't see Bill Frist blathering on a megachurch's jumbotron about it (unless research shows that one side or the other votes as a bloc or, more important, dangles some ungodly wad of cash in front of him), but this is pretty much what it boils down to.
For example, were I so inclined, I could make a pretty strong case that the Yankees are downright un-American. Throwing money at every problemthe need, say, for a fifth starter in the pitching rotation who's better than the No. 2 on most teamsdoesn't exactly embody the American virtue of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.
Besides, the Yankees are the ultimate overdogs. We Americans root for underdogs. At the risk of sounding Fristian, I could even argue that God His Own Self champions underdogs, at least based on his biblical track record, and could be quietly rooting for a Cubs-Rangers World Series.
The more I ponder it, though, I think the stronger case is that the Yankees beautifully exemplify what our country is all about. It's the only logical conclusion, once you recognize that what we're all about and what we publicly stand for look about as similar as a ham sandwich and a hairball.
George Patton observed that Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Underdogs mostly lose. What could be more American than equating second place with failureand with spending however many gazillions it takes to make sure you never finish as low as second? By that measure, Steinbrenner should be our permanent president, not Bush or whatever feckless dweeb the Dems trot out next. As for God, another general once noted the coincidental way that the divine seems to favor the army with the biggest weapons. Sentimentality is nice, but we're bottom-liners from way back. We start caring about underdogsthe Tampa Bay Devil Rays, remember, are underdogsonly when it looks like they might actually win.
Of course, that's why it's perfectly in our national character both to ride with the Yankees while they're winning and kick them when they're down. We ignore never-wuzzes; we crow over suddenly vulnerable has-beens. We respect the mighty; but when the mighty have fallen, we're on them like a horde of ants on a wounded wasp.
And that's why, unless you're a lifelong Yankee fan (in which case you're excused under the immutable laws of baseball fandom), this has been a glorious spring for baseball and for America.
As of Monday night, after a modest two-game win streak, the Yankees were still six games under .500, eight games behind Baltimore and struggling to stay ahead of the bottom-feeding D-Rays. This is the best team Steinbrenner's money could buy. Their combined salaries surpass $200 million. That's the highest in the history of the game. It's six times higher than the payrolls of teams like the Pirates, Royals and Devil Rays. In fact, the Yankees pay more in baseball's luxury tax than those other three teams pay in salary.
Before April was half gone, Steinbrenner had issued rumbles of warning against Joe Torre, perhaps the best manager in the game, who has become accustomed to fending off The Boss's bluster the way horses switch their tails at biting flies.
But the Yankees are also the oldest team in baseball, with an average age of 34. Not even the masterful Torre can alter that. Mariano Rivera, the untouchable closer, is suddenly touchable. Bernie Williams has wilted. Kevin Brown, the high-priced replacement for Roger Clemens, is getting lit up every night like Baghdad during the invasion. Trying to play third base, Alex "A-Wad" Rodriguez, the $250 million wunderkind, often looks like Ned in the first reader. (You have to wonder how long it will be before The Boss trades shortstop Derek Jeter, the team's captain, heart and soul, so A-Rod can play his natural position.) Jason Giambi is diminished not only by injury but, even worse, team officials fear, by the absence of steroids in his system.
Last weekend, at least, the beleaguered team got a respite. Steinbrenner was in Louisville for the Kentucky Derbyand so flummoxed by the out-of-the-money showing by his heavily favored horse that he was diverted from his other thoroughbreds in New York.
Of course, nobody expects the status quo to hold. Big George has too much money. If his pricey stars don't perform, he'll dump them and buy more.
Now that the Red Sox have broken the Bambino's curse, we can all go back to seeing them unsentimentally for what they are: mere rivals who aped the Yankees' blowout-payroll strategy and whose fans are more abrasive and way more in need of therapy than the much maligned Bleacher Creatures of the Bronx Zoo. Once the Yankees begin winning againand they willplenty of non-New Yorkers will be back on the bandwagon.
Meanwhile, like the mule who'll plow your fields for 20 years for the chance to kick you once in the head, the rest of us can exercise our American duty to bash the former champions during this interregnum. Voting with our feet, you might call it.