The individual most responsible for the increase in baseball ticket prices over the last several years, George Steinbrenner died yesterday afternoon of a heart attack in his native Tampa. He was 80. Steinbrenner had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease since at least the early part of the zeros. Convicted felon, full-blown sociopath, on-and-off owner and figurehead of the New York Yankees, Steinbrenner would outbid any other team for free-agent talent – as well as for scores of players who were considerably less talented. Steve Kemp, Rawly Eastwick, Chuck Knoblauch, Bob Shirley and Ed Whitson may only be remembered today by diehard fans, but they cost Steinbrenner millions. To keep pace, other teams joined in the bidding wars, and their team salaries rose – as did ticket prices, since club owners passed those costs on to the fans. Meanwhile, the family firm that Steinbrenner inherited, American Shipbuilding, struggled and eventually filed for bankruptcy in 1993.
As Alzheimers set in, Steinbrenner’s sons Hank and Hal kept with the program: when Yankee third baseman (and admitted steroid cheat) Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract in 2007, the Yankees rewarded the pumped-up slugger with a new $275 million, ten-year deal. The Steinbrenner sons also engineered the construction of a brand-new Yankee Stadium (this time using taxpayer money), to replace the fully functional, architecturally exquisite original ballpark that Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Yogi Berra once called home.
George Steinbrenner’s felony conviction stemmed from illegal campaign contributions to the 1972 Richard Nixon campaign; Steinbrenner copped a guilty plea and was fined. In 1989, he hired a smalltime con artist, Howard Spira, to spy on the Yankees’ future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, ostensibly to get out of an onerous, multi-year contract with the star. Spira eventually went to jail for extortion; Steinbrenner was not criminally charged, but was banned from baseball for life by then-commissioner Fay Vincent. He was reinstated by Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig after Selig led a cabal of owners to oust Vincent in 1993.
Steinbrenner’s spendthrift ways frequently met with success: the Yankees won several pennants and World Championships under his ownership. But there were just as many lean years where losses outnumbered wins. In good times and bad, Steinbrenner waged war with his players, his front office personnel and pretty much anyone with whom he came in contact. This was best exemplified by his codependent relationship with five-time manager Billy Martin, a favorite verbal punching bag and chronic alcoholic who died drunk behind the wheel. Steinbrenner’s ability to find fault knew no bounds: the most trivial matters, such as the state of a player’s facial hair, would spark tirades that often veered off into incoherence. He went through publicists, general managers, coaches and stadium personnel like he went through players: his employees cursed him even as a relative few of them enjoyed the benefits of his lavish spending. If there is a hell, he can look forward to spending time there with fellow owners like the Cincinnati Reds’ Marge Schott.
When someone offers you tickets to the most beautiful ballpark in the majors, there’s only one conceivable response. Fenway Park is still a shrine, still pretty much lost in a time warp before hip-hop, before cable tv and especially before the game itself took a backseat to advertising at most sports venues. At the new Shea, the ads bombard you between innings at top volume, and everything that happens on the field seems to be sponsored by some corporation. Not so at Fenway. The digital screen above the leftcenterfield bleachers is tiny by comparison to other parks, and the old manual scoreboard at the base of the leftfield Green Monster still draws the eyes far more quickly and comfortably. And sightlines are minor-league quality, in other words, terrific -ordinarily you have to go to a minor-league stadium, like Keyspan out in Coney Island, to feel this close to the action.
The crowd was also almost shockingly mellow – then again, watching your team enjoy a winning season for the last fifteen years will put you deep in the comfort zone. Fenway these days is just as expensive, maybe even more expensive than the other Major League Baseball stadiums, but the crowd is strikingly blue-collar, although sadly less racially diverse than either the new Shea or Yankee Stadium (then again, Boston has a far more odious history of segregation than New York does). Concessions are expensive, but not as outlandishly priced as they are in Flushing or the Bronx – and there were some bargains. Our crowd went wild over $12 lobster rolls (if you haven’t had one lately, restaurants sometimes charge twice that much), simple grilled hot dog buns filled with generous chunks of meat tossed with a light layer of lo-fat mayo – no excess, gooey mayo filler or cheap, distracting celery. The vegetarian contingent gave the thumbs up to the pricy ($4.75) but tasty veggie dog with the works, including fresh chopped onion. And a $6 bag of caramel popcorn was easily the equivalent of a couple of boxes of Crunch N Munch, just sweet enough that the caramel didn’t overwhelm the saltiness of the popcorn.
Interestingly, the most popular name on the many, many Sox uniform jerseys throughout the crowd was not slugger David Ortiz, or weirdly charismatic closer Jon Papelbon: it was steady, soft-spoken catcher Jason Varitek, followed by overachieving second baseman Dustin Pedroia, with speedy, injured outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury (a special favorite of the girls) close behind. So much for the assumption that all fans care about is home runs or pitchers who throw 100 MPH.
About the game: when veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield resorted to throwing one of his 71 MPH fastballs just six pitches into the first inning, it signaled that he might not have his best stuff. As it turned out, he did, save for one bad inning, the fourth, when the slumping Phils scored all the runs they needed, rapping out four consecutive hits at one point including a two-run homer into the rightfield bullpen by leftfielder Raul Ibanez. Meanwhile, Wakefield’s counterpart, lefty Cole Hamels kept the Red Sox’ hitters off balance, mixing a devastating 78 MPH changeup and a slow curve in along with a blistering fastball that consistently hit 95-96 MPH on the stadium gun. The only damage he allowed was a second-inning solo homer into the Monster seats in left by third baseman Adrian Beltre. This Sox lineup, banged up as it is (first baseman Kevin Youkilis took a Chad Durbin fastball off the wrist yesterday and was out of the lineup; Ellsbury and leftfielder Jeremy Hermida are both out with broken ribs from collisions with Beltre) proved over the past couple of days that it’s capable of mauling a bad pitcher. Today they proved they’re not up to the challenge of overcoming a good one. Hamels stifled the one threat he faced after shortstop Marco Scutaro doubled in the third, then mystifyingly stopped at third base after a Pedroia single. Catcher Victor Martinez (who used his first baseman’s mitt masterfully in corralling the elusive Wakefield knuckler) was then induced to swing at the first pitch, resulting in a harmless infield popup.
Wakefield made it into the eighth on a day when the Sox relief corps, depleted from yesterday’s heavy workload, really needed a lift. Lefty specialist Dustin Richardson, up from the AAA team at Pawtucket for insurance, made a strong case for a longer stay as he made short work of the Phillies’ lefty sluggers Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, with some help from an overshifted infield.
In the top of the eighth, with reliever Ramon Ramirez on the hill, the Sox’ battery picked the worst possible time to fall asleep on the job. Phillies rightfielder Jayson Werth walked and stole second, then took a big lead off second that nobody except the crowd seemed to notice – and then took third without a throw. He scored with a perfectly executed if ultimately unnecessary hook slide on a flyball to shallow right by designated hitter Ben Francisco as J.D. Drew’s throw to the plate was up the first base line.
In the bottom of the ninth, David Ortiz, of all people, manufactured a run when he doubled into the rightfield corner, took third on a shallow fly to right by first baseman Mike Lowell and then scored on a wild pitch by his old pal J.C. Romero. Romero then walked Drew and was replaced by Brad Lidge. Since Lidge Time has become synonymous with Funtime (for opposing batters), it looked like the Sox might be able to send a sold-out crowd of 39,000 or so home happy, especially when rookie leftfielder Daniel Nava (who’d hit a grand slam the previous day on the first pitch he saw in the majors), singled Drew home. But the normally patient Scutaro couldn’t deliver – even though Lidge was having trouble locating his slider, Scutaro swung early in the count and popped out harmlessly to third.
And when there was music, at least it wasn’t offensive – most of the time (that Neil Diamond ditty is no less awful than it was in 1967, or whenever it came out). Lowell’s signature song, as it turns out, is London Calling (just like the Mets’ Aaron Heilman, before the pitcher chose another to play over the stadium PA at home games – and his career went south). And after the game, organist Josh Kantor ushered the crowd out with a wistful version of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.
Diehard Mets fans are not an easy sell when it comes to the the promotion of a highly touted prospect, especially during such dismal times as these – so often a Timo Perez or Victor Diaz will come up, make a quick splash and then turn into…Timo Perez or Victor Diaz. Yet there wasn’t a Mets fan at the ballpark tonight who in his or her heart of hearts didn’t leave with the secret hope of one day having bragging rights to the night Ike Davis made his debut. Most impressively, in his first trip to the plate, the lefty first baseman who tore up the Grapefruit League this spring battled back from a 0-2 count and smacked a sharp single to right field. He also displayed power with a long fly to the warning track in right in the sixth, drove in a run in the seventh and nonchalantly handled a towering Alfonso Soriano pop fly – although he wasn’t able to dig an Alex Cora throw out of the dirt in the sixth, resulting in an error being charged to Cora for allowing Cubs catcher Geovany Soto to take third on pitcher Randy Wells’ infield hit.
For the first four innings, the game was a classic cold April Flushing pitchers’ duel between Wells and the Mets’ Jon Niese, the one extra-base hit being a wallop off the 415-foot sign in right – a homer anywhere else in the league – by Soriano. Wells’ slider bamboozled the Mets’ hitters until an improbable rally in the fifth. With two outs, Alex Cora singled to right, Niese muscled the ball through the left side of the infield and the free-swinging Angel Pagan was then presented with a four-pitch walk. Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot held the Mets to a single run by corralling Luis Castillo’s slow grounder behind second at the edge of the grass as Niese held at third. With the bases loaded, Wells – who also excelled at the plate, with two hits – made quick work of David Wright, whiffing him with a succession of sliders.
All but abandoning his signature curveball, Niese pitched magnificently for five and two thirds, in and out of trouble, freezing the Cubs’ lineup with a live, moving fastball. Scattering eight hits with seven strikeouts, he turned over a slim 1-0 lead to Fernando Nieve. That lead disappeared in the space of about fifty feet as Cubs centerfielder Marlon Byrd hit a Texas chop off the turf – by the time it had returned to earth, Soto, who’d walked and then gone to third on the Cora throw that Davis couldn’t dig out, had come in to tie the game. Nieve managed to stop the bleeding by getting Jeff Baker on a comebacker.
Cubs manager Lou Piniella turned over the game to rookie lefthander James Russell, who began the bottom of the seventh by plunking pinchhitter Jose Reyes, then went 2-0 on the next pinchhitter, Gary Matthews Jr. before getting him to chase a 2-2 slider out of the strike zone for the first out. The next hitter was Angel Pagan: Piniella had Jeff Samardzia warming in the bullpen but left Russell in for a matchup that looked auspicious and proved every bit as much when Pagan launched one into the seats in straightaway center for a 3-1 lead. Luis Castillo then drove a scorching opposite-field liner into the glove of an immobile Soriano and Piniella had finally seen enough.
Wright greeted Samardzia, the former Notre Dame wide receiver and Heisman candidate, with a solid single and then stole second, scoring on Jason Bay’s double off the left-centerfield wall. Lefty Sean Marshall then took over on the hill but the damage continued, a fourth run scoring on Davis’ second hit of the night and another on a wild pitch that Rod Barajas mystifyingly swung at and missed.
Jenrry Mejia held the Cubs scoreless the rest of the way with a seemingly effortless over-the-top delivery, mixing in an effective changeup to complement a fastball that clocked as high as 95 MPH on the stadium gun, catching pinchhitter Kosuke Fukodome looking at a 2-2 heater on the outside corner to end the game. Unlike at Yankee Stadium, there aren’t a lot of Fans from Hell at Mets home games; in our case, we had just the opposite seated close to where we were in the front row up in the third tier down the rightfield line. Over the course of three hours, the big guy must have had about six beers, onion rings, a footlong hot dog and something else. When he wasn’t eating, he provided a running color commentary that kept the entire section in stitches. Barajas became Rod Basura when he fanned for the first time; as the game was ending, phonetic theory came into play, specifically how to pronounce Fukodome’s last name (try it – it got better as it went along).
First time at the new ballpark. The first thing that greets you – after the shock of seeing the parking lot where Shea (a dump, but it was OUR dump) used to be is the facade, striking in its cheap resemblance to a roadside stripmall or an ATM. It isn’t even worthy of a little league team, let alone a major league franchise, all paper-thin brick and metal overlay and spray-on faux-adobe. The cheapness is even more evident once you get inside. In an even more brazen display of cost-cutting while ratcheting up ticket prices, there’s vastly less fully enclosed space than there was at Shea, the sky visible from below decks upwards. Meaning that when it’s hot, you’ll be hotter, when it rains, you’ll be wetter and when it’s cold, as it was last night, you’d better bring a jacket or else.
The concessions at Shea were pretty nasty, let’s face it. The new stadium’s are even less inviting, several on the field level with their winding, labyrinthine lines roped off and therefore vastly more difficult to escape should you tire after standing in the same place for half an hour waiting for that $7.50 12-ounce plastic cup of beer (wine is $10). Instead of the anonymous Shea vendors, several national chains are featured along with a local pizza place and numerous bracciole stands. The bathrooms are no nicer than at the old place, although to the Mets’ credit they pipe the radio broadcasts in there now.
And that new rightfield overhang is a nightmare for outfielders, fans and umpires (more on them a bit later). Situated way up on the third tier, about 3/4 down the rightfield line, it was impossible to see anything happening in foul territory down the line, or for that matter about fifteen feet foul behind first base. Was it really worth it to design the place as a graveyard for their current rival Phillies’ lefty power hitters? Call it the House that Utley Built. And he doesn’t even play here more than nine games a year unless you (doubtfully, at this point) count the playoffs.
And about the game. Johan Santana started, a cold mist rolling in along with a nasty garbage-dump smell from somewhere between Flushing and the Rockaways. Although he struck out the side in the first and the third, it didn’t look like he was getting a good grip on the ball, perhaps an explanation for his unusually high walk total (six in six innings along with eleven K’s). The low point was the fourth inning where Johan came unglued after giving up a Strawberry-esque two-run laser shot by Adam Dunn deep to right-center. After walking opposing pitcher Jordan Zimmerman (batting average: .000) to load the bases, he then missed with a 3-1 fastball to the free-swinging Christian Guzman to force in a run and tie the game. He managed to get out of the sixth courtesy of two marvelous, sprinting catches by backup centerfielder Angel Pagan to get Dunn on a ferocious liner and then the pitcher, making an impressive attempt to make his first hit of the season a grand slam. Could have happened – anybody remember Felix Hernandez last year? Against Johan, no less?
Jordan Zimmerman is a star in the making with mid-nineties heat countered by a nasty slider. He made it into the bottom of the sixth in a 3-3 tie as the hapless Nats (a phrase that’s too apt to avoid copying from every other sportswriter out there) threw the ball all over the place. Catcher Wil Nieves dropped an easy pop fly but managed to throw to first to get Ramon Martinez, and Josh Willingham misplayed a Ramon Castro drive into a double that bounced on the chalk down the leftfield line. And then there was the incident along the other foul line, a shot by Daniel Murphy initially ruled a double with Gary Sheffield (a juicer, but he’s OUR juicer) being thrown out at the plate trying to score from first. Then an interminable wait while the umpires reviewed the play, which stumped us as well since all we saw was the bounce after the ball hit…somewhere. Didn’t look like it made it into the visitors’ bullpen, that’s for sure, as the umpires eventually ruled after an least seven-minute delay. But anything that’s good for the Mets is good with us.
The Nats’ bullpen is a joke, and the Mets capitalized, Nats manager Manny Acta mysteriously leaving righthanded one-pitch wonder Jesus Colome in to face the lefty-hitting Murphy with the bases loaded, even though he had Mets nemesis Joe Beimel available. Murphy predictably responded with a liner that bounced on the warning track in center to drive in a couple of insurance runs. Which turned out useful when with two outs in the ninth, Murphy ably lunged for a Guzman grounder that Carlos Delgado wouldn’t have been able to get to, but then misplayed it. Guzman then stole second without a throw -and what’s with the stupidest new official scorer fad, “defensive indifference?” The guy scored on Nick Johnson’s single. Guzman rightfully deserves credit for taking the initiative to get into scoring position. K-Rod finally got Ryan Zimmerman (no relation to the pitcher) to take a dubious slider for a called third strike and put Washington out of their misery, 7-4. Go Mets.
This past January, John Rossi, owner of Lowen’s Pharmacy in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn killed himself in the wake of a steroid probe. As the investigation uncovered, some of the customers purchasing steroids at his pharmacy were NYC police officers. The question of whether multimillionaire baseball superstars like Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte or Jason Giambi are on the juice becomes pretty meaningless by comparison to how many members of the NYPD – or members of police forces around the country, or even around the world – may be addled from steroid abuse and suffering from “roid rage.” With this in mind, we uncovered a list of potential juicers whose possible steroid abuse may have proven fatal to several innocent civilians.
- Justin Volpe, the NYC cop who infamously sodomized Haitian immigrant Abner Louima with a broomstick. Odds of being a juicer: high. Volpe was a mohawk-wearing, swaggering presence in the station house, and his behavior is consistent with roid rage.
- Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, Kenneth Boss and Richard Murphy, the team of NYPD undercover officers who may have been partying with cocaine in the minutes before they showered innocent African immigrant Amadou Diallo with a hail of bullets, 41 of which struck and killed him. Odds of being on the juice: pretty high. Roid rage causes extended, unexpected outbursts of violence and is a frequent “pathway” to the abuse of other substances, as the death of baseball star Ken Caminiti demonstrated.
- Indicted but acquitted NYPD officers John Kostick, Anthony Piscola and Henry Boerner, who were initially charged in the murder of graffiti artist Michael Stewart, whom they arrested in the 14th St. L subway station in September of 1983. Odds of being juicers: slim, since this was 1983. But steroids were available in those days.
- NYPD officer Anthony Kianka, indicted in the strangling death of Dane Kemp of Brooklyn in 1990 following an arrest (the indictment was later dismissed). Odds of juicing: a little better. Steroids were just starting to get popular around the time Kemp was murdered.
- NYPD officer Anthony Paparella, who was acquitted of strangling Frederico Pereira of Queens in 1991. Odds of juicing: even better, considering the violence of this particular crime.
- NYPD officer Francis Livoti, who was convicted of asphyxiating innocent Anthony Baez with a chokehold in 1994. Odds of juicing: almost 100%. Livoti was five foot ten and 170 pounds; his victim was several inches taller and almost fifty pounds heavier. Only steroids give people the kind of superhuman strength it takes to commit a violent murder like this.
- Donald Brown and Gregg Gerson, the NYPD officers who escaped charges of killing suspect Ernest Sayon the same year. Odds of juicing: less, but remember, this was when the steroid era was just getting started in baseball.
- Atlanta undercover narcotics investigators Gregg Junnier and Jason R. Smith, who in a classic case of miscarried justice were allowed to plead guilty to “infringing the civil rights” of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, whom they gunned down after breaking down her door without a warrant in the middle of the night. Odds of juicing: high. It has been estimated the one in three high school football players in the southern US is on steroids, so, extrapolating that, it isn’t a stretch to assume that a similar contingent of southern police officers may be on the juice.
- Officer Don Falks, who escaped murder charges after admitting to shooting 17-year-old Daniel Castillo in the face in another no-knock drug raid in the middle of the night in Wharton, Texas. Odds of juicing: same.
- NYPD detectives Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper, currently on trial in the shooting death of unarmed Sean Bell and the near-fatal shooting of the passengers in his car last year. Odds of juicing: same. Bullets were flying all over the place. At least one person here was really pumped up, possibly because of steroids.
Drug testing in baseball? Sure, why not. That way we can keep a handful of juicers out of the Hall of Fame and Roger Maris’ hallowed home run record will be left intact. But how about football? The 800-pound gorilla in this room is that virtually EVERYONE in the NFL is on steroids or human growth hormone or something equally maddening (just ask Reggie White. Oh yeah, you can’t – he’s dead). And while we shouldn’t ride rampant over the First Amendment rights of police officers, we also ought to devise a procedure that would severely discourage and punish those who are supposed to protect and serve but instead go on the juice and ride rampant over our rights, with deadly results.