Roger Angell on Joe Torre

By JCB on Wednesday, November 7, 2007

I started reading the latest New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section this afternoon, which led with a comment entitled “ So Long, Joe.” Discussing the significance of Joe Torre’s exit from New York, the comment was so well written that I thought to myself, “Man, this reminds me of Roger Angell—it’s really good. I hope he writes a baseball essay this year, and I hope it comes out sometime soon.” Turns out, as I reached by byline at the end, it wasn’t his post-season essay, but the writer was Angell, and it’s better than really good.

There’s hardly a better writer about baseball than Angell, so when an occasion arrives for him to publish, it’s a pleasure. I mean, just earlier this year, Angell was the guy who nailed the feeling we all had—regardless of how we felt about the accomplishment— about Barry Bonds:

“An irritated non-reader (or non-fan) who happened in on this story three days earlier and saw Commissioner Selig standing up in his box in San Diego but not applauding Bonds as he circled the bases after his tying seven-hundred-and-fifty-fifth poke, against the Padres, would sense at the same moment that footnotes or a movie version would not begin to clear things up. You had to have read the books.”
It was all just so... complicated... and Angell captured this simple truth that was often lost in the shuffle of all the half-truths.

It’s no secret that I dislike the Yankees. It’s also nothing special. Like many of us, I inherited this from my father, who grew up hating them because they always won as he began to follow the narratives of Major League Baseball. Even had those of us not inherited this tilt, there are plenty of reasons not to like them anwyay, and the firing—technically, they offered him a much lower contract but who were they kidding—in many ways symbolizes the conceit at the root of what we dislike about the Bombers. As Angell points out, under Torre the Yankees “attained the post-season in each of his dozen years in the Bronx: a far greater achievement, all in all, in an era when the distribution of player talent and the intensity of team competition have been upgraded by a luxury tax imposed on the richest teams, starting, of course, with the Yanks.” The undercurrent is familiar: how can they be dissatisfied with what other teams would trade practically anything for?

But now that Torre has left and we no longer have to dislike him by association, we can admit that the conceit was never Torre’s fault. His demeanor was much more Zen, and in some sense, humble, or at least aware of the significant role that chance plays in the unfoldings of baseball. And, what manager wouldn’t want his owner to sign marquis free agents—mercenaries? It’s not his fault they can afford it.

So, leave it to Angell to capture yet again the tenor of the scene:
Baseball will stick it to you; it means to break your heart, and though old fans do understand that it’s losing, in all its variety, that makes winning so sweet, the departure of Joe Torre is something else altogether. Gone after twelve years at the helm of the Yankees, the longest uninterrupted run since Casey Stengel’s 1949-60 tenure, Torre was victim of a corporate midfield takedown: the decision by the owner, George Steinbrenner, and his nepotic front office not to renew—or not acceptably renew—his contract, after the team’s failure to progress beyond the first round of post-season play in the past three Octobers.
The era ends, but the ending was not natural. It was not within the patterns of baseball, or even the hybrid of baseball and business. It was just... selfish; and greedy; and petty.

In that light, another passage stands out:
Again and again in his long run, Torre would be asked by the writers about some slumping or hurting Yankee player, and he gave back just about the same magical reply. Pressed in late August this year about the veteran Yankee starter Mike Mussina, whose lost mastery had just cost him his place in the starting rotation, Joe said, “Yes, he’s not maybe as proud of his stuff as he’d like to be.” A silence followed, while the reporters saw the crisis afresh from the mind of the player. A month later, Mussina said, “I’d play for the guy anytime.”
So, it wasn’t because the players were unhappy with him. It wasn’t because the fans were unhappy with him, or at least most of them—and on that front, even those of us who can’t stand the Yankees admit that Torre is a class act. And, it wasn’t even because Torre did something wrong, unless you unhealthily fixate on winning so much that your standard of success becomes distorted. Oh, wait....

Focusing on the way Torre would turn the perspective away from the critics and toward the player—as with Mussina—reminded me of something else Angell wrote, titled “Up Close and Not Personal,” in the January 9, 2006 issue of the New Yorker. I quoted Angell’s essay at length in a piece I wrote on the way back from Buffalo, NY, last year for his discussion about the nature of celebrity in America, and athletes' entanglement in this. I quote again:
The dream of intimacy—it was always fantasy—is gone, and today’s players, so close to us on our plasma screens, are galaxies away from our own doings and capabilities. The loss hurts—no wonder the hosts and guests on the TV sports shows look so angry—and we are casting about to close the distance. [...] Gasping at the stars’ enormous pads and rolling acres and their outsized fridges (empty, for the most part, except for the obligatory bottle of Cristal) and snickering at such monumental garishness and infantile taste is all right for the sub-twenty age group that “Cribs” aims at, but it’s still not what we fans are after. What we yearn for may be contained in the question that every sportswriter keeps hearing from his readers: “What’s Willie Mays”—or Phil Mickelson or Andy Roddick—“really like?” Willie, as it happens, is cranky and private in person (he’s seventy-four years old) and passably complex, but this news, of course, is not what’s wanted. The desired, almost the demanded, answer is that he’s a great guy: he’s exactly like us.
This one struck me because I was just reading another essay called “Fallen Idols” by David Denby, in the October 22, 2007 issue of the New Yorker, suggesting in conclusion:
“Even before the celebrity machine made stars "the same as us," many of them were learning to cultivate modesty. [...] In some ways, movie stars now have a lesser hold on the public's imagination than the actors creating sustained characters in TV series or the athletes and rappers who are closer to profane liberty— the full freedom of the body in violence or beauty.”
(Note: Only an abstract of Denby's article is available to the public, although you can view full text if you have access to a good academic database like Academic Search through a service like EBSCO—a nice law school perk, I suppose)

So, athletes are not like us, and we do not want them to be because we want them to be better, except that they are like us, and sometimes we need them to be because after all, there must be the chance of greatness in all of us. It's the familiar paradox of this cultural arena in which our conflicting impulses feed conflicting desires. We tend to forget, sometimes, that we should admire the good players and the good managers not because they're larger than life and paid well but because it takes certain virtues not just of talent but of character—discipline and resiliency and even courage—to have success for as long as Torre did. We should all aspire to achieve these better qualities. The rest, though—the celebrity gloss—is just glitz.

Another observation of Denby’s not only rings true, but fits what’s going on with fans and Athletes as well: “At the movies, loneliness in the anonymous crowd liberates fantasy and a sense of possession.” That sense of possession and abstraction—and yes, fantasy—is what drives criticism and impatience with athletes, and losses. I can’t help but wonder if some of these things—the issues he took up in “Up Close and Not Personal”—were still rolling around Angell’s head when he chose to emphasize another of Torre’s comments in characterizing the manager:
He, at last, supplied the touch of class, the Augustan presence, that the Yankees had so insistently proclaimed for themselves and have now thrown away. For Torre, it was still about the players. Meeting the press at the Stadium after the third divisional game, the last victory of his regime, he said, “Every time we go to the post-season, there’s nothing that’s going to satisfy anybody unless you win the World Series. And that’s very difficult. . . . I understand the requirements here, but the players are human beings, and it’s not machinery here. Even though they get paid a lot of money, it’s still blood that runs through their veins.”
This, in the end, is the fundamental flaw in both the cultural machinery of athlete-as-celebrity and the machinery of baseball-as-corporation: these are real people, undergoing real athletic drama on the field, with all the unpredictability and human imperfection this implies. This is also the culture that Torre never bought into, or at least he refrained from participating in its arrogance, despite the fact that his organization was the worst at perpetuating both the culture of athlete-hero-worship and the culture of profit-worship. Maybe Joe Girardi can maintain much of the same. I certainly hope so, because heaven knows the Yankees need it.

Editor’s note: For pieces on other writing by Angell, see this post mentioning Angell’s “White Sox Nation,” and this post quoting his book, Five Seasons.
Posted Wednesday, November 7, 2007 by JCB

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