Like Joe Torre, the Yankees Won’t Give In to Private Troubles

The New York Yankees were deep to begin with, a tough team of veterans who knew the score on the field and in life, and the events of the ’99 season have only made them deeper and tougher. Like characters out of Homer, they’ve attained tremendous glory while absorbing tremendous loss–from the medical travails of outfielder Darryl Strawberry and manager Joe Torre, to the deaths of Yankee legends Joe DiMaggio and Catfish Hunter.

It will take more than the Atlanta Braves to scare this team. Before the season began, Mr. Strawberry, who had been battling colon cancer since last October, was arrested on drug charges and soliciting a prostitute in Tampa, Fla. Manager Joe Torre was diagnosed with prostate cancer on the same day Mr. Strawberry returned to camp. More recently while the Yankees were playing Game 3 of their division series against the Red Sox in Boston, Ambrosio Sojo, the father of utility infielder Luis Sojo, was being rushed to a New Jersey hospital for a heart operation. He died a week later.

In between, there was a season of baseball games, in which the Yankees displayed a cool confidence all their own. And when shady events–coach Don Zimmer feuding with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, the demotion of general manager Brian Cashman–conspired to turn this feel-good team into the second coming of the Bronx Zoo of the 70’s, something unusual happened. Nothing. Such is the power of these steady Yanks.

Players accustomed to the dream world of the major leagues kept having to deal with dark realities off the field. Charles O’Neill, the 60-year-old father of right fielder Paul O’Neill, had a heart attack shortly before spring training and underwent surgery in June. Second baseman Chuck Knoblauch’s father, Ray, has been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Andy Pettitte made frequent trips to Texas to visit his father, who had double-bypass surgery last fall. And on Sept. 12, third baseman Scott Brosius lost his father, Maury, to colon cancer.

Even Mr. Zimmer, who has spent 50 years in pro ball, limped around on a bad knee, and he got hit in the head with a baseball–the same head that is reputedly equipped with a metal plate–but he hung in there.

Sitting in front of Mr. Pettitte’s locker shortly before the team’s Oct. 25 workout, Mr. Torre’s brother, Frank, said: “There’s been a lot of tragedy on the team this year, and I think it takes a nick out of every player on the team, whether it’s the Pettitte problem, whether it’s a problem with Brosius or Strawberry or Joe Torre or Don Zimmer. They care for each other, and I think they all ache when something goes wrong.”

And when the Yankees ache, everyone knows it, which may be why, for what it’s worth, they’re the real team of ’90. They suffer and triumph, Oprah Winfrey-style, in full view of the public.

This is a team that engages in group hugs. In locker room celebrations, they drink nonalcoholic champagne, in deference to Mr. Strawberry’s alcoholism. Mr. Torre cries before the camera. A lot. He cried after the Yankees clinched the American League East in Baltimore this fall, and again when they beat the Red Sox to earn a spot in the World Series. He cried when reporters asked him about his family.

Mr. Torre, who missed the first weeks of the season for cancer treatments, learned to balance baseball and off-the-field troubles in 1996, when his team was making an improbable drive to a World Series title. That year, in July, his brother, Rocco, died of a heart attack. Later that season, his other brother, Frank, spent 11 weeks at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, awaiting a heart transplant.

If you can’t see wisdom in Mr. Torre’s dark dugout stare, then take it from his brother.

“He used to eat, sleep and dream baseball,” Frank Torre said. “The only time you could keep his attention was when he was talking about baseball. But when he had the birth of his daughter Andrea Rae, three, four years ago, once she recognized him, then he reached a point where he was ready to grow up with a child. That child made him realize his priorities, that there were more important things than going to the ball park. She could wrap her hand around his finger and she actually made managing easier for him, because when he came home, in two seconds she’d have him forgetting whatever the heck happened that day. Then you had what happened to me, and then my brother. And then it came to him just as he had the world by the tail. He had finally won it all, and then he won it a second time. He’s the king of the hill, and all of the sudden he’s into the possibility of his life ending.”

Mr. Torre may be more of a softy than he used to be, but he has his limits. When the Yankees were being awarded their American League Championship trophy in the visitor’s locker room at Fenway Park in Boston on Oct. 18, Yankees general partner (and son-in-law of George Steinbrenner) Steve Swindal attempted to kiss Mr. Torre on the neck. But Mr. Torre pulled away, and Mr. Swindal smooched the air. Mr. Torre, the kid from Brooklyn, still had his boundaries–and being nuzzled by the boss’ son-in-law was on the other side of that line.

Pounded

Once again, an attempt to honor Ezra Pound has led to a condemnation of his anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies, which were made gruesomely clear in his World War II radio broadcasts.

The battle over Pound is waged whenever his poetry comes up for public appraisal. This time, the occasion was the selection of Pound for induction into the Poets’ Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The Poets’ Corner’s board of 12 literary heavies–including John Updike, Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove and Richard Howard–selected him, only to be vetoed after the bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of New York expressed his fears of provoking the Jewish community; in addition, more than 100 congregants of St. John the Divine made a protest.

“What we are saying to the world,” said Marsha Ra, a warden of the cathedral’s congregation, “is that we have certain values, and this man did not have these values, and just because he is a great artist doesn’t mean that his name should be carved into the floor of the cathedral.”

The poets who wanted to honor Pound are befuddled. Grace Schulman, an elector to the Poets’ Corner, said, “We’re poets voting on the quality of a poet’s work and the stature of the writer. Political beliefs doesn’t really enter into it, I don’t think.”

Dana Gioia, another elector, was scheduled to speak about Pound at an Oct. 24 induction ceremony. “I think it’s naïve and foolish to equate literary worth with the current moment’s judgment of the moral worth of the person,” said Mr. Gioia. “One of the mysteries of art is how bad people can write magnificent work.”

Pound made 170 fascist propaganda radio broadcasts from Rome between 1941 and 1943: “The Jews have ruined every country they have got hold of,” he said. “The Jews have worked out a system, a very neat system, for the ruin of the rest of mankind, one nation after another.”

Pound was indicted for treason, but was never tried after he was found to be insane. He spent 13 years in a Federal mental hospital in Washington, D.C., before he was released in 1958 and returned to Italy. In 1967, five years before he died, Pound granted Allen Ginsberg a rare interview: “But the worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism,” he said.

The Very Rev. Harry Pritchett, Dean of St. John the Divine, initially approved Pound’s induction, after consulting a priest at the cathedral who wrote a thesis on Pound. But officials of the Episcopalian Diocese for New York were immediately concerned when they heard of the plan. The Pound question was put on the agenda for an Oct. 7 meeting of diocese officials, including Bishop Richard Grein. The Rev. Canon John Osgood, who was at the meeting, said, “It presents us with the problem that, seven years from now, for example, a tour coming through the cathedral might see the plaque for Ezra Pound and wonder how is it that the Christians are celebrating the life of an anti-Semite.”

After the meeting, Bishop Grein called Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, to discuss the matter. “They simply could not have been more relieved to hear what our response was,” said Mr. Osgood.

Unaware of the opposition from on high, St. John the Divine congregants laid plans for a counterattack. “There was a little sort of faint tickle in my mind: ‘Oh, wasn’t he fascist?'” Ms. Ra said. Over 100 congregation members signed an anti-Pound petition circulated by Ms. Ra and three others at the Sunday, Oct. 11, service.

Of course, the current members of the Poets’ Corner are hardly without prejudice. Among them is Pound’s pupil, T.S. Eliot, whose anti-Semitism has inspired an entire academic subfield. “The population should be homogenous; … reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable,” Mr. Eliot said in a 1933 lecture.

Ms. Ra said she didn’t know about Eliot’s anti-Semitism until a reporter told her. “It does raise a broader question of the Poets’ Corner and what gets honored in a place of worship,” she said. “Eliot I’m going to have to look into, because it is troubling.”

–Gabriel Snyder