On May 29, 1983, Steve Howe, a 25 year-old relief pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, checked himself into a drug rehabilitation center to treat an addiction to cocaine. Howe was a promising young star, 1980’s rookie of the year, and endowed with the hyperactive, pugnacious demeanor of a natural-born “closer,” the pitcher charged with saving tight games in treacherous late-inning situations. He completed his rehab in late June, but was sent away again in September after missing a team flight and refusing to submit to urinalysis. He tested positive for cocaine three times that November, and was suspended from baseball for the 1984 season, one of several players caught up in the decade’s snorty zeitgeist. Howe returned to the mound in ’85 and over the next 6 years pitched sporadically for the Dodgers, the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers, as well as a Mexican League team and a couple of independent minor-league level clubs in the States. But June of ’92 found Howe busted again, and Fay Vincent, then the commissioner of baseball, banned him for life. An arbitrator later vacated Vincent’s decision, reinstating Howe, and the New York Yankees signed him to pitch in the Bronx. After Yankee relievers suffered a mid-season collapse in 1994, Howe stepped into the breach and, notwithstanding his caged pacing and myriad facial tics, recorded 15 clutch saves and a 1.80 earned run average, winning the enduring affection and respect of Yankee fans, who have a proud history of adopting the troubled and eccentric, just so long as they win.
Welcome to New York, perhaps the most prolifically redemptive island in human history. Granted, islands are built for redemption. Their isolation and exclusivity require new beginnings from their inhabitants, and they tend in general (and New York’s islands tend in particular) to transact life on terms different from other places. In the City, where the hybrid system runs on aggression, aplomb and sex appeal, fatuous Wall Street wizards and Upper-East Side tastemakers serve prison sentences and emerge hotter than ever, redeemed not by God or humanism but by the very fact of their fall from grace. It’s exotica, a matter of salacious interest and a perfect bluff for the social scene, where a big rep is all it takes, and the smart ones ride theirs all the way to a clubby write-up in Talk of the Town. Sure, a prison term is a nuisance, but it’s also useful (if bush-league) preparation for the more exigent realities of life in Manhattan. So it’s no surprise that we should admire the same things in our more middle-class heroes–our athletes and actors, and our politicians too. We want contrition, of course, and we must remember the children, but a little imperfection makes for a compelling character, and we won’t have that sacrificed.
The New York Yankees opened their 2005 season 11-19. It was the worst start anyone could remember, and it came on the heels of the greatest collapse (or comeback, depending on your regional perspective) in baseball history, when, in the second round of the 2004 playoffs, the Yankees were eliminated by the Red Sox despite winning the first three games of a best-of-seven series. In every one of the last nine years, they had made it to the playoffs, and in every one of the last seven, they had won the American League’s Eastern Division title, but 2005 seemed different. They were paying 15, ten and seven million dollars to three starting pitchers of dubious value–Brown, Wright and Pavano–and they had purchased the super-rich contract of Randy Johnson, once inarguably the finest pitcher in the major leagues, but now, at 41, a cranky and unreliable prima donna, whose 6’7 frame and acne-scarred face looked pained and out of place in Yankee pinstripes. Their beloved veteran center fielder Bernie Williams couldn’t throw anymore, and their traditionally solid bullpen hemorrhaged runs nightly. It was a difficult reality for fans who had been treated to a decade of near-constant success, but it was manna for the millions of Yankee haters, whose unfailing passion evinces the team’s historical greatness and cultural significance. In the wake of their ignominious 2004 defeat at the hands of the Red Sox, and finding themselves in last place in the American League East, the Yankees and their fans despaired. It was over.
Enter Jason Gilbert Giambi and Aaron James Small, high school classmates from California and unlikely Yankee teammates, whose personal redemptions spurred the 2005 Yankees to their eighth consecutive division title on Saturday. Giambi, a longtime star slugger, is one of the few known quantities in the recent steroid controversy (and Capitol Hill comedy, where the workout regimens of professional athletes have curiously attained massive political profile), whose leaked congressional testimony marks him as a confirmed (though not explicitly stated) user. Giambi spent most of 2004 on the Yankees’ disabled list, recovering from mysterious fatigue and a suspicious tumor, both of which, it seemed likely to pretty much everyone who gave it any thought, might just be the rightful wages of sticking a hypodermic needle in your ass and suffering nascent breast development, in exchange for increased strength and the ability to heal faster (a superhero’s tradeoff). But if nothing else came clear in 2005, at least Jason Giambi wasn’t on the juice. Never did a hitter look more helpless at the plate than poor Jason. He flailed and whiffed, and the earnest cheerfulness that once endeared him to fans and teammates curdled into delusive optimism. He was done.
But he wasn’t. Through the first two months of the season, Giambi claimed to be on the right track. He still had his good eye, he pointed out, referring to all the walks he earned, and it was just a matter of timing and bat speed after that. Fans and the media were indulgent but skeptical. The Yankees are a known rest-home for aging, overpriced talent, and Giambi’s story, though more dramatic than the trajectory of your average baseball player’s decline, did fit the profile. But, much to everyone’s surprise, he started hitting again, and what he started hitting were home runs–tall flies that took ages to land, and missiles that slammed into the bleachers moments after cracking off his bat. Giambi began driving in runs at a faster pace than anyone else on a team full of standout run-producers, and he continued reaching base on the walks that served as his crutch in those first miserable months, all of which amounted to league-leading slugging and on-base percentages. Jason was redeemed, and his legend is assured now as the star who wanted more, who lost everything to greed and arrogance, and who recovered his glory, which is now vastly more appealing for the fact that it’s tarnished. It’s a real New York kind of story.
As for Aaron Small, his is a story of redemption too, but one more suitable for middle America, which might not take so kindly to the resurrected likes of Steve Howe and Jason Giambi. Like Giambi, Small is a 34 year-old baseball veteran, but a veteran of the minor-leagues, whose only pro success has been the several “cups of coffee” (as baseball cant has it) he’s enjoyed in the majors in 16 years of playing–short stints in the bigs, followed by interminable bus rides back to the minors. This year, Small was called up to plug the holes left by the Yankees’ multimillion-dollar washouts, Brown, Wright and Pavano. Small, it should be noted, is the type of guy who thanks God for minor successes, a tendency not uncommon in local basketball and football players, but one that seems exceedingly peculiar in a glamorous Bronx Bomber. Nevertheless, he has been embraced by New York fans, and their acceptance has everything to do with the ten victories he compiled (against no defeats) in his partial 2005 season. This modest, Southern country boy outpitched every high-priced arm the Yankee millions could buy, and after every game he shucksed his way through interviews, praising his patient wife, praising his remarkably attentive savior, and just generally expressing his shock and pleasure at finding himself in the heat of a big-league pennant race after more than a decade-and-a-half of slogging his way from minor-league town to minor-league town. Small’s story is relevant here because his time is short. His 16-year patience, his redemption, will not remain in the minds of New Yorkers very long, not unless he does something colossally self-destructive–and he better do it quick. We like a little dirt on our heroes, a little vulgarity, because otherwise it’s all hearts and flowers and straight-laced (and -faced) fortitude, and what could be more dull? New York takes pride in its corruptions, and a hero isn’t a New York hero until he’s been dragged down and beaten (preferably by his own hand).
And this is why the 2005 Yankees have a shot at being the most memorable team to come out of the City in years. They’ve seized every opportunity to make things hard this season. Every potential run-scoring at bat, every pitching change and every difficult fielding chance has come with the sour taste of unavoidable failure, the sense that we’re almost out of gas now after a decade at the top. Our trusty veterans have lost their vigor and our big-name stars are compromised–by their egos, their paychecks and their tendency to choke. The obstreperous owner is lapsing into dementia, and even Yankee Stadium itself has entered its dotage. Indeed, what we’re confronted with is the last, limping formation of a great baseball team, occasionally disgraced by its swollen personalities and bottomless, ignorant pockets, trying to fashion for itself a true New York-kind of glory–one that climbs out of the depths, battered and ugly. This is our redemption.