It's not very classy to talk about classy, but sometimes it just can't be avoided. Class is what makes life worth living. But, like kicks, it keeps on getting harder to find.
Today I feel like a sports orphan. All dressed up and nobody to root for. Ordinarily I would be getting geared up for the NBA season, as I did for the twenty years I was a Knicks season subscriber. Ah but the storied franchise has fallen on hard times, and I have no sympathy. They still call and ask if we'd like our seats back, but I have to say no.
"Call me when Isiah's gone," I'll say. "Or, actually, call me when the Dolans are gone." I could take losing. I sat through years of it enjoying myself, like I did during the 1985 season when we went 23-59. Hey, we had Pat Ewing, and the future looked bright.
But when the classy Larry Brown was done in by the smarmy Isiah Thomas—that eye-rolling, baby-faced malefactor; the guy who froze rookie Michael Jordan out of his first All-Star game, refusing to pass him the ball; the guy whose leadership killed a whole league, the Continental Baskeball Association; the guy who presided over the team with the highest payroll and the worst record—well, I couldn't hang anymore. And as the recent sexual harassment trial rolled on I was hardly surprised as the once-glorious franchise was forever tainted by the behavior of an uncouth coach in cahoots with an uncouth owner.
Payback is a bitch.
I could be enjoying the NFL season, but that's been hard, since my team, the New York Jets, is 1-4. They could be 2-4, perhaps, had not America's greatest football coach, Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, demonstrated an utter lack of class by violating league rules and taping signals made by Jets coaches. The same Belichick who shunned his former assistant, Jets coach Eric Mangini, apparently for going out on his own as a head coach, refusing to speak about him or make eye contact with him. No class. But it doesn't stand out much in a classless league full of stars like Terrell Owens, Michael Vick, Tank Johnson, or teams like the Vikings—remember the seventeen players on a boat full of hookers?
That leaves baseball, and I'll continue to watch, but it's hard after the fall of the Yankees. I continued to watch them for several innings after I stopped listening. I had to turn the sound off during game four of their ALDS series with the Indians. It was a good game, although marked by questionable umpiring, but I couldn't stand listening to the commentators. All they could talk about was Joe Torre getting fired by George Steinbrenner if the Yankees lost, or Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and other players bolting from the team.
The Yankees are a team people love to hate, but you have to honor the achievement of manager Joe Torre, who took the team to the post-season twelve years in a row. Perhaps more than that, you have to honor the achievement of Torre in not only leading the Yankees to an unprecedented performance in an age of parity (none of the teams now competing for the world championship were in the playoffs last year), but in managing to more or less silence the volcanic ego that is George Steinbrenner. Torre led the Yanks to the post-season in each of his seasons with the team. In half of his seasons the team went to the World Series, and they won four of the six they played.
Steinbrenner has owned the Yankees for thirty-five seasons now. In his first 23, he changed managers 20 times. Torre not only transformed a team that hadn't won a series in 18 years, he actually transformed the owner. Steinbrenner's public side was ugly and vulgar, from his conviction for illegal campaign contributions to Nixon and obstruction of justice to his public explosions and vendettas aimed at employees and players, even widely beloved players like Dave Winfield. When Steinbrenner was "banned for life" by Commissioner of Baseball Fay Vincent on July 30, 1990—after it was revealed he had future Hall-of-Famer Winfield spied on—the crowd at Yankee Stadium gave the news a standing ovation.
But the exemplary gentleman Joe Torre managed to defuse the loutish Steinbrenner with calmness, patience, probity, grace, courtesy, frankness, and credibility. The more virtuous and modest Torre appeared, the less Steinbrenner was able to lash out. As a result "the Boss" interfered with the team less and less, leading to more and more success. This new Steinbrenner became almost loveably eccentric, appearing as a regular character on Seinfeld. And Torre was the master of using gentlemanly behavior to manage a team of millions, getting them to work together as a unit.
But when the Yankees fell behind the surprising Cleveland Indians in the ALDS this fall, Steinbrenner could no longer contain himself. He hinted that Torre would be dismissed if the Yankees didn't win game four. And that, of course, was all the media could talk about. That was all the TBS team of Chip Caray, Bob Brenly, and Tony Gwynn could talk about, even with innings left to play.
Sports has been destroyed by the gossip-mongering mentality of the media—who's making how much, who's maneuvering to move on, who's stabbing who in the back. We had shots of Don Mattingly, Torre's bench coach protégé. Would Don be taking over for Joe? What about the game?
More and more I find myself turning off the sound. Why? No class. The commentators are tuned to the lowest common denominator. Rather than criticizing Steinbrenner and praising the gentlemanly Torre, the media behaves as if Steinbrenner were some sort of Jaweh, an angry god who must be appeased, rather than the crotchedy misanthrope he is.
Joe Torre's post-game news conference was a primer in the art of being a gentleman. He gave thanks. He praised his team. He gave due credit to the victors. He teared up but didn't cry. He said all the right things. Torre exhibited pure class. He is an utter mensch.
And the next day the cover of The New York Post carried a large color photo of George Steinbrenner leaving the stadium. His baby-blue eyes looked blank, anesthetized. On his head was a baseball cap with the legend "Majestic Warrior." I later learned this is the name of one of his race horses, but I can't help but feel that this is also a sort of a tacky crown he put on, thinking of himself as precisely that. The majestic warrior who fires all losers for their own good, who rises while Kate Smith sings "God Bless America."
As I write this Joe Torre's players seem to be sticking up for him, suggesting that his retention as manager might be a factor in their resigning with the team. Good for them. For what it's worth, Giuliani, who has suggested that if he's elected he might name Torre to his cabinet, and Mayor Bloomberg have both come out in favor of Torre continuing as Yankee skipper. Perhaps the Mayor could put his money where his mouth is and buy out Steinbrenner, or perhaps the city could take the team, arguing public domain. If you follow the money the city has been paying the Yankees, supposedly for the new stadium, there might be an argument for that somewhere.
But it's all too sad. We grew up thinking that sports would teach us important things like, well, sportsmanship. Not to mention honesty, selflessness, teamwork, competitiveness, and modesty. Alas. Today sports seems to teach ruthlessness, hot-dogging, gamesmanship, self-gratification, and greed. Well, at least NCAA basketball starts soon. And even though golf is played for millions, self-penalization is still practiced by professionals, and club players frown on rule breakers and mulligan abusers. And we still have croquet, badminton, and bocce.
It's up to each of us, as gentlemen, to stand up and be counted. And together we count. Otherwise the Knicks wouldn't still be calling. So allow me to suggest that teams and their merchandise who do not adhere to our codes be strenuously boycotted. Take off that Yankee cap until the skip is back. You're on notice George, Hank, and Hal. And you too, Belichick and Kraft. And you Dolans, too. Send Isiah back to the Motor City. Maybe he can help GM fail. And all the rest of you knuckleheads. Pay attention! We're gentlemen, and we're not going to take it anymore!
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