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Queering the Baseball Playoffs

October 22nd, 2010 1 comment

It was too fabulous to be true, but there it was:

I’m sitting in a devoutly straight bar watching the Phillies-Giants game last night with a bunch of (gay) swim teammates after practice, only one of whom (with outrageous glasses, strategically dyed hair, and (unseen) toenail polish) visibly defied the establishment’s apparent conventions.

It’s a great game, and, by the seventh inning, a cautious but raucous optimism, born of equal parts fact (a 3-2 Phillies lead) and alcohol consumption, was ambient. Then came this scene, converting the (post 9/11) traditional “God Bless America” 7th-inning stretch song into an incredible, gawk-inducing spectacle:

Tammy Nelson from the San Francisco musical 'Beach Blanket Babylon' sings 'God Bless America' during the seventh inning stretch of Game 5 of the Major League Baseball NLCS playoff series between the San Francisco Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies in San Francisco, October 21, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL ENTERTAINMENT)

That’s one Tammy Nelson, resplendent in a headdress from a reputably ageless musical revue called “Beach Blanket Babylon,” which has been playing in North San Francisco for some thirty-seven years. I’ll confess ignorance here: Neither I nor anyone else at our table had any idea who this (or the show) was, and we all thought that maybe, just maybe, the singer was in drag. Not so, as it turned out, but this is an eleven on the 1-10 Queer Image scale.

So what was the reaction from the crowd? Let’s face it, the image of someone in this kind of get-up singing this (usually dreary) iconic song is startling, no matter one’s sexual orientation. There was some laughter and a few disbelieving statements (“What the hell….?”), made even more understandable given that all we had as reference points were the visuals (the sound was either off, or simply no match for the decibel level generated by the besotted patrons). At least we had something interesting to look at. Oh, here’s a close-up of the hat itself:
Tammy Nelson from the San Francisco musical 'Beach Blanket Babylon' sings 'God Bless America' during the seventh inning stretch of Game 5 of the Major League Baseball NLCS playoff series between the San Francisco Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies in San Francisco, October 21, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL ENTERTAINMENT IMAGES OF THE DAY)

So straight, yes: but maybe not as heteronormative/homophobic as one might have expected from an inebriated sports crowd. An obviously gay man in a strange land, an over-the-top (and I’m not just talking about the hat) queer image — and little discernible negative reaction. (For an opposing view, see this blog, where the writer testily says: “It’s God Bless America.” Take off the goddamned hat.” No, the hat is the point; a kind of celebration of a slice of America…even if not the exact slice that the author favors.)

A sign of progress? Yes, but I’m still glad that ace Roy Halladay won the game. Testing the waters in an angrier crowd might be a more dangerous experiment.

By the way: Go Phillies!

“Boss” Reality Check

July 14th, 2010 No comments

Leave it to Maureen Dowd to unearth the story that perfectly captures the essence of George Steinbrenner. It comes from “Seinfeld,” where the blustering “Boss” was voiced (but never seen) by the brilliant but thoroughly annoying Larry David. Link to her column and read of Steinbrenner’s caprice, almost wilful ignorance, and plain stupidity — followed by a casual retraction of everything he’d said. Many a Yankees employee (players, front-office administrators, and especially managers) can recount stories with similar patterns.

You’d never know that from reading the hagiographic accounts of the man. Derek Jeter described him as a friend. Maybe that’s true in this one case, because Jeter floats in an unbreachable bubble created by his mix of talent, good looks, media savvy and (faux?) modesty. But others should know better.

Let’s give the man his due: He wanted the team to win desperately, and often (especially in the 1990’s) got what he wanted. He was willing to put his vast money where his even bigger mouth was. But let’s be honest: When you’re sitting in your thousand dollar-plus seats (the priciest originally went for $2,500 per seat, until even the Yankees realized the market wouldn’t bear it), remember that Steinbrenner — and the organization he created in his image — was really spending your money, not theirs. And that working for him was, for many, hell.

The Outfield Door

November 6th, 2009 No comments

Someday, the New York Yankees will make a call to the bullpen in their hour of greatest need, and he won’t be there.

But that day still seems a long way off. For now, whenever that outfield door opens, Mariano Rivera — by consensus, the greatest relief pitcher who has ever lived — runs to the mound and then quells the threat. Bats splinter as hapless professionals engage in a usually futile effort to center a ball bearing in on them at an impossible angle.

Nor does it seem as though there’s any limit to how often Rivera can do this, nor for how long. While other managers follow the robotic script of having their closers pitch no more than one inning, Rivera often pitches two, especially in the crucial play-offs, where — as a cascade of humbled relievers can attest — humiliating failures are the norm.

So, while Hideki Matsui and Derek Jeter led the team in offense during this World Series, with Matsui’s exploits triggering an unappreciated text to a Phillies fan (“Godzilla Destroys Philadelphia”), it was once again Rivera — now 39 — who put the clamp down on the final innings of two of the Yankees’ four wins.

He can’t do this forever. His velocity is down, and teams are starting to get hits (but, crucially, not runs) off him. But it’s still a marvel to watch, and Yankees fans will squeeze every drop of enjoyment out of it. Apparently, so too will Rivera. In the zany post-game celebration, he said that before the Series he “was going to retire, but now I think I’ll pitch for five more years.” Opposing managers, break out the anti-depressants.

Jeter and Federer, Inside-Out

September 13th, 2009 No comments

By an uncanny stroke of luck, I was at Yankee Stadium last night when Derek Jeter delivered base hit number 2,722 for his career, surpassing the tragic Lou Gehrig for the all-time team record. This NY Times tribute by George Vecsey sums up my feelings pretty well. At-bat for the second time during a lull in the squalls that fell throughout the day and threatened to postpone the game, Jeter smashed a single inside the first-base line. A righty hitter, he’s made a living by “inside-outing” the ball to right field. This isn’t the easiest way to get hits, but it works with relentless consistency for him; it’s an underappreciated kind of motor genius that’s allowed Jeter to pile up a mountain of (mostly) singles that will likely place near the very top of the all-time heap in number of hits.  I’d be shocked if he didn’t finish at least among the top ten in that category.

I typically attend exactly one game per year, at the invitation of an old law school friend who’s had season tix forever. This was my game for 2009, arranged a couple of weeks ago and, by great fortune, turning into an event I’ll long remember. I’ll have lots to say about the Yankee organization in an upcoming post (most of it not very good, I’m afraid), but for today I wanted to pause to acknowledge the relentless, consistency cum excellence of Jeter that sometimes covers a multitude of institutional sins.

So there I was in a cafeteria-style diner this morning, reading about Jeter and looking for news about the sodden U.S. Open, when I ran across an article about Roger Federer’s charmed year. More than one sports yakker (OK, all of them) have focused on one shot that the precise Swiss delivered at this year’s French Open as the inspiration for Federer’s renaissance. Down by a couple of sets and a break point to German Tommy Haas and on the verge of being bounced out of the tournament, Federer took a decent return of serve by Haas and converted it for a winner by running around his backhand side — and crushing an inside-out forehand within millimeters of the line. After that,  a renewed Federer ran out the match, the tournament, and then Wimbledon. Oh, and he and his wife then had healthy identical twins just in time for his return to the U.S. for the hardcourt season, where he’s continued to thrive all the way through to the U.S. Open semifinals.

And among Federer’s many ridiculous motor skills is the ability to hit this inside-out forehand, again and again, with lethal accuracy.  Doing so requires footwork and timing that the other players just can’t duplicate. For the sake of comparative elegance I’d like to say that this is his signature shot  in the same way that the inside-out base hit is Jeter’s, but Federer has so many options and so much expression in his game that one can’t really designate a signature shot.

But Jeter’s better and more complex than his inside-outing facility, too. Because he also has the ability to play his best when the stakes are highest. (Compare: Alex Rodriguez.) Sitting in a hotel room in State College, PA, with David asleep on the bed, I was startled from my drowsy hazy during the playoff game with the Oakland A’s in 2001 when Jeter appeared — from who-knows-where — near the first-base line to cut off a throw from right field and then shovel the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who then applied a tag at home plate to the lumbering Jeremy Giambi, nailing him by an inch. Game saved, sweep averted, and the Yankees then went on to win the series. What on earth was the shortstop doing there? “That’s where I’m supposed to be,” I recall him answering, as though puzzled by the question.

What’s inside Jeter and Federer comes out in ways that continue to delight and amaze. Given the brutal logic of physical decline, neither can be expected to remain at the top of his game for much longer. Enjoy them.