|Roger Angell, NYC, 2014|
Zooming out, he adds, "Among other things, it has made us realize how rarely these days we encounter a public news item that strikes us personally."
Now that this city has become the capital of the world, we have grown habituated to significance, attuned only to the long view; the cry of a siren in the street below us, once the herald of some small neighborhood excitement, now only marks the passage of a statesman speeding toward crisis and the history hooks. Casey was different; we have cared about him as we used to care about our local celebrities—with pride and laughter and a fond recognition of detail. Watching him, memorizing him as we have done—the rubbery, humorous mouth between deep parentheses, the thumbs oddly pointing outward above half-clenched fists, the torso bent forward during the labored walk toward a pitcher in trouble, like that of a mountain climber on a steep trail—we have been increasingly grateful for the sight of a rarely complex man who was sufficiently preoccupied with his trade to develop eccentricities that were wholly unconscious.Angell gently criticizes New York media for its patronizing tone toward Stengel's "difficulties with the spoken language—his total recall, his addiction to the non-stop sentence, the unattachable pronoun, and the multiple non sequitur." With precise knowledge of the game and with a mastery of describing its nuances, Angell defends Stengel's in-game expertise, so often misunderstood by the outsider. "The manager on his way out to the mound or on the point of selecting a pinch-hitter is a man beset," Angell begins.
This is great stuff—smart, funny, disarmingly (and charmingly) devastating in its defense of Stengel. Angell concludes by wagging his finger at a favorite target, greedy and clueless owners "who would prefer to believe that their field leader is not a manager but a management expert who has been hired simply to administer their personnel." Angell ends the brief tribute with this wonderful, evocative image: "We can think of no more heartening sight for a squad of suggestible, nervous, and incurably superstitious young athletes than that bowlegged father-figure—the tribal juju man, wise in battles—hobbling off the mound after having made his impossible decision, muttering to himself and rotating his fists, and then executing his cabalistic little hopping dance in order to avoid stepping on the foul line."
Disgusted with management, sympathetic to a manager besieged by pressure, Angell ends by describing Torre's graceful way of dealing with the rigors of managing in The Bronx:
The shock of Torre’s departure will not soon go away, but of course we should have known how it would play out. Only the owners, down in Tampa, seemed startled (at times, anyway) by his decision, but if they knew anything about him how could they not have known what would follow? Is it possible that they have no sense of the calamity to the franchise and to the fans and to baseball itself that the departure of Joe Torre from New York represents? He, at last, supplied the touch of class, the Augustan presence, that the Yankees had so insistently proclaimed for themselves and have now thrown away. For Torre, it was still about the players. Meeting the press at the Stadium after the third divisional game, the last victory of his regime, he said, “Every time we go to the post-season, there’s nothing that’s going to satisfy anybody unless you win the World Series. And that’s very difficult. . . . I understand the requirements here, but the players are human beings, and it’s not machinery here. Even though they get paid a lot of money, it’s still blood that runs through their veins.” There was a little more in this tenor and then he brightened: “For a guy that never got to the post-season as a player, I’m having a hell of a lot of fun when you look back on the whole thing.”Note, beyond avaricious owners and Stengel and Torre's lengths of tenure, what links these two comments over thirty-seven years: the image of a manager and his long walk to and from the mound. It's a journey that Angell has witnessed and considered thousands of times, in meaningless chilly games in March and in engrossing chilly games in October, its narrative embedded in the game's mythology. It's just a man at work: Stengel in the team's mid-century glory years, Torre in its late-century rebirth. To Angell that work, and that walk, tells a far greater and enduring story than of a strategy session, pep talk, or pitching change, it tells the story of a team and its young and old fans, of everyone's need to fasten on to someone, in good times and bad. So long.
Top photo via The New Yorker.