Today’s Pinch Hitter is Fred Gaudios, a 30-year-old market researcher living in Somerset County, N.J. with his wife and a Cairn Terrier named Suzy (who’s named after Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman). Here’s Fred with the story: “To be clear, we did not ourselves name this dog after Suzyn Waldman. Her previous owners, breeders on Long Island, named her and her male littermate, Johnny, after the Yankees radio announcers.”
Fred explains that his career and interests have led him to an intersection of social psychology and marketing. From there, I’ll let him handle the rest of the introduction.
“I’ve always been very interested in the interplay between players and the fans,” Fred wrote. “Baseball is a business predicated by winning games, but as fans, we sometimes don’t see it that way – we see it in terms of the players we like and the players we don’t like. When the team you love signs players you don’t care for, it can get ugly pretty quickly (as we saw with the unfortunate Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, et al., experiment in the mid-aughts). This is the story of my favorite baseball player, and what it means to be accessible and relatable to fans.”
There’s a minor cold war lurking beneath the surface of the Yankees Universe. Both factions agree on most things — they both want to see the Yankees succeed, and they’re equally devoted to the team — but it’s a civil war, too. Where they disagree is on the importance of their players being approachable and accessible. Let’s call one faction Team David Cone, and the other Team Derek Jeter.
Team Cone respects the hell out of Derek Jeter, and Team Jeter respects David Cone, as well. But the Team Cone people will always prefer the Yankees to be more accessible, and they agree with the notion that having an enjoyable group of characters around is as important as winning. Team Jeter represents the ethos of Jeter himself: winning is literally everything (and if you could drop your iPhone in the basket when entering his mansion, it’d be much appreciated). Team Cone would rather cheer on a hometown hero, while Team Jeter wants to worship unapproachable Gods.
I am very much on Team Cone: Cone was my favorite player while growing up, and oddly enough he became my favorite player during his worst year as a professional athlete (2000, when he went 4-14 with a 6.91 ERA). I can only speculate as to why this was the case — perhaps as an awkward high school student, I felt a kinship to someone who was failing consistently on such a big stage (Cone was about as good at getting hitters out that year as I was at getting girls to go out with me, so I suppose there’s that). But in retrospect, it was really about how accessible he was; how open he was about his struggles.
If you’ve never read the intensely personal book written about Cone’s 2000 season, Roger Angell’s A Pitcher’s Story, it’s worth a read. Originally intended to be a story about the art and technique of pitching, it turned into part biography, part blow-by-blow account of Cone’s disintegration. Through the access Angell receives from Cone, it becomes clear what a devastating physical and emotional toll the season took on the guy. Without spoiling much, there are plenty of references to painkillers, cigarettes and whiskey; the book succeeded in humanizing Cone.
Most of this audience remembers the 2000 Yankees quite well, so I won’t belabor how terrible that season was for Cone. I’ll simply write this – I’m convinced we will never see a scenario again where a starting pitcher on a playoff-contending team would be allowed to earn 20 starts, let alone Cone’s 29 starts in 2000, with those numbers. As good as CC Sabathia’s been for the Yankees over the years, would Joe Girardi send him out there, turn after turn in the rotation, if he had a 6.91 ERA (since we’re using Cone as a literary device, let’s also throw in a -0.9 WAR as a sabermetric nod) in late August? And if this somehow did happen, would we ever get to read a book about it?
It’s been a tough decade for Team Cone. Even though we have all this supposed access to athletes, it seems we only get to see the “real” versions of them when they somehow mess up. I suppose you can’t blame professional athletes for being more guarded these days. One false move on Twitter or at a hotel bar, and anyone who knows how to access the sports underworld of the Internet (pick your favorite website; you know you have it) will know about it in virtually no time flat.
So the athletes you see on Twitter are generally posting canned stuff, likely approved — if not written — by their PR people. Perhaps it sounds good from a distance, but somehow it lacks substance. Of course there are exceptions. Who knew, for instance, that of all people, Chipper Jones actually has some personality? But in general, you could argue the Internet’s done little for making athletes more visible besides turning each of them into a brand.
Branding is an important part of being a professional athlete, but any form of branding needs to be genuine in order to be maximally effective. That genuine part is where Cone succeeded (likely without trying), it’s probably the reason why Cone remains so popular among Yankees fans a decade after his retirement, and it is a place where most of the Yankees teams since 2000 frequently fall very, very short (certainly compared to the late 1990’s teams, which — in addition to Cone — had David Wells and plenty of other guys it’d be interesting to have a beer with).
If you agree, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The Internet’s a good place to start, but you could blame baseball as a business if you want. You could blame the exponential increase in player salaries over time (after all, didn’t many of the Yankees sell suits during the offseason in the 1950’s? Now that was approachability). Blame the organizational approach toward signing high-priced, often mercurial free agents over developing talent in-house. Or even blame the new Yankee Stadium, with its stone walls that seem to keep all but the highest-paying fans far away from the players.
Or just blame each of us getting older and recognizing each of the items in the preceding paragraph as facts of life. No matter where you fall on the Team Cone/Team Jeter spectrum, you should agree that at least some part of what makes us fans is the personal attachment to the players themselves. Here’s wishing the Yankees can, while continuing to win, hopefully recreate some of that late-90’s magic with respect to player accessibility as well.
Associated Press photos