Our next Pinch Hitter is Sean McLernon, a 28-year-old former newspaper sports writer who now works as a reporter for a legal news publication in Manhattan. Sean recently completed a two-year Peace Corps stint in the Caribbean and West Africa. “I would listen to static-filled Voice of America broadcasts on my shortwave radio in a (usually futile) attempt to hear Yankees results,” he wrote. Cheering for the Yankees came naturally to Sean, whose grandmother watched Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play in person back in the 1920s and 30s.
Sean comes from a long line of Yankees fans, and so his topic seems like a natural fit. For his post, Sean wonders what it takes for a player to become a fan favorite.
It’s hard to say when it started. Maybe in the 1950s, when that home run derby show was broadcast on television and players were forced to make idle chit chat with that stiff host while waiting for their next turn to bat. It provided a bit of a window for fans to peer into the personality of sluggers like Mickey Mantle.
But it was only a peek. Most, if not all Yankees fans back then had no idea that The Mick liked to frequently hit the bottle and go out carousing. There was no such thing as Page Six, and even if there was, it’s hard to imagine reporters publishing anything about pro ballplayers’ personal lives. Now, we see photos of A-Rod being fed popcorn by Cameron Diaz and read reports about him soliciting phone numbers from women in the stands seconds after being pulled from a playoff game.
These days, it’s nearly impossible not to see players as more than just figures on the field. We have a sense of their personalities, whether we want to or not. The noise is everywhere: Postgame interviews broadcast on ESPN, Twitter posts all over the internet for everyone to see, even video introductions on that supersized high-definition screen at Yankee Stadium. All of the exposure has changed the way that fans judge players, casting some in an unflattering light that would have never been shined on Yankees in the past.
Players like Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera are universally adored not only because of their success on the mound, but because they exhibit what is considered by most fans to be an exceptional level of professionalism and class both on and off the field, and New York fans appreciate players they believe are always taking the game seriously and who they can respect as people. Fans are more willing to make these judgments because there is so much more information available.
A-Rod’s antics aren’t the only reason why Yankees fans tend to feel disdain toward the third baseman who so recently played a major part in bringing home the club’s only World Series title of the last 12 years. There’s the bloated contract draining resources from the club and the seeming tendency to reserve his best performances when there is little at stake. But Derek Jeter grounded into more double plays than all but three other players in the American League last season, but it’s hard to find any Yankees fans grumbling about it.
That’s because the fans have much more patience with Jeter. He has earned their trust, not just because he has those championship rings and is still batting over .300 as he approaches middle age, but because he carries himself in a way that fans respect. Jeter has provided the tabloids with a bit of fodder himself (remember reports of him sending gift baskets to his one-night stands?), but fans see authenticity, intensity and passion in ways that they don’t from A-Rod. Fans see the same passion from Pettitte and Rivera.
What if Joe DiMaggio had to deal with the same amount of scrutiny? I see substantial similarities between the Yankee Clipper and A-Rod. Both dated gorgeous celebrities and had inflated fragile egos, with DiMaggio insisting on being introduced as baseball’s “greatest living ballplayer” later in life. But during Joltin’ Joe’s playing days, fans never got to really see his personality. They could only judge him for the numbers he put up.
We don’t know if DiMaggio ran out every single ground ball, but as soon as Robinson Cano pulls up before first base on a ground out, fans can complain about it on the internet and post video proof for everyone to see. And even though Cano was statistically the best position player on the Yankees last season and has been one of their most dangerous offensive weapons over the last few years, he’s going to receive some scorn from the fan base if he pulls up on a routine ground ball.
Is it fair for fans to be so harsh? I don’t have a problem with the high standards. It was DiMaggio, after all, who has that famous quote in which he thanks the good Lord for making him a Yankee. It’s supposed to mean something. Yankees fans believe that donning the pinstripes is a privilege that brings with it certain obligations. They expect those wearing the uniform to show they appreciate the opportunity by always playing hard and maintaining a level of dignity off the field.
It’s more difficult than ever for players to win the hearts of Yankees fans in the 21st century. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But with Rivera and Pettitte likely to call it a career at the end of this season, and Jeter coming closer to the end as well, it’s unclear if anybody is going to be able to attain a similar exalted status. CC? Teixeira? Cano? It’s certainly possible, but, fairly or unfairly, they still have work left to do.
And those exacting standards demanded by the fan base just might help make those players work that much harder and take their on-field performance to a higher level. Or it could cause them to crack under the pressure.
Associated Press photos