Baseball and the Heart of New York City

92602595 Baseball and the Heart of New York CityMy parents moved to Brooklyn in 1955 when I was almost two years old, and by the time I was four, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants had played their last home games in the five boroughs. Until Casey Stengel and the Mets arrived in 1962, the only baseball team in town was the New York Yankees. It was during that time, while the Yankees held a monopoly on New York baseball, that  I developed my lifelong love for baseball. And that is why, despite growing up in Brooklyn, I am a semi-fanatical Yankee fan.

I grew up thinking that the natural order of things dictated that the Yankees belonged in the World Series. But Derek Jeter and I have both learned the hard way that other teams get to play and win in the Series too. Still, watching the Yankees in this year’s World Series feels to me like the planet has been restored to its proper orbit. What is there about baseball and New York that puts them in sync? I suppose some of it is that baseball is a 19th century sport, with plenty of time for contemplation and beer between plays. In the rest of the country, if people want to see smashing, crashing and fast-moving action, they check out football games or NASCAR. In New York, we just walk down Broadway.

For many, but especially for New Yorkers, the search for calm and a sense of connection to the past leads to baseball. That’s why some of us were so moved when Derek Jeter broke Lou Gehrig’s Yankee base hit record this summer. It was wonderful to see that someone whom we admire so much can somehow be connected to the guy who made the famous “luckiest man in the world” speech, way back when the world was filmed in black and white. The importance of baseball has never been better expressed than by the “Terrance Mann” character in the great baseball movie Field of Dreams:

“The one constant through all the years… has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past… It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again….”

Baseball appears again and again in our culture as a unifying symbol and set of images. Baseball is Jackie Robinson and the fight against Jim Crow. Baseball is the growth of the global economy and players from Latin America and Asia sharing a field of dreams with guys from Kansas. And baseball is the Yankees and New York City—from the “Bronx is burning” Reggie Jackson images of 1977 to the post-9-11 World Series against Arizona that was emblematic of the tenacity and toughness of New York.

This year, the cultural touchstone for the World Series may very well end up being the rap star Jay-Z. I admit that most rap songs don’t move me, but ever since I heard Jay-Z and Alicia Keys sing “Empire State of Mind” a few weeks ago.  I have not been able to get those lyrics or melodies out of my head.  As with all great art, the song has captured the sound and feel of this place perfectly. Jay-Z has created an indelible image of New York City in 2009.  Watching his performance at Yankee Stadium before the second game of the World Series the other night, with the Yankees looking on, was simply amazing.

New York City has a reputation for being a cold and unforgiving place, but those of us who have been here a long time know that is simply not true. This place gives and receives great loyalty and heart, and one sign of that spirit is the number of Yankee caps and A-Rod t-shirts you see all over town these days. Jay-Z may be able to “make the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can,” but all he’s really pointing out is that the cap and the team are just a part of this place. The “streets that can make you feel brand new” are bigger than the Yankees and bigger than rap music. They are what David Dinkins once called a “gorgeous mosaic.” Each community in the city is distinct and identifiable, but when you step back and look at the whole, it provides an image of great beauty. This is a unique place where the entire world gathers to meet, learn, have fun, make a living and, of course, watch the game.