It's World Series time here, and the reality of a Subway Series has transformed the city and its citizens. The city is no longer about Downtown or Uptown, West Side or East Side, outer boroughs or suburbs, Beekman Places or Adam Clayton Powell Boulevards. Because when the Yankees won the American League Championship Series on Tuesday, a day after the Mets clinched the National League Championship Series, New York was reduced to two distinct points, an axis buttressed by Yankee Stadium on one side and Shea Stadium on the other. Everyone has, quite simply, gone batty.
But despite the hoopla, or perhaps because of it, there is a distinct atmosphere of melancholia and loss in the city, particularly among its female baseball fans. Subway Series or no Subway Series, mid-to-late October means the end of baseball season, when Derek and Tino and Mike and Robin pack up their stuff and head back to Florida or California or Texas or whatever warm place it is that they live during the off-season. These men -- hardworking, loyal, humble -- provide the sort of excitement during the months of April to October that the women of this city find hard to come by in the males who saunter down its streets. And so, as the season ends and the baseball boys step off and ship out, many a woman's heart finds itself alone again.
I fell in love with the New York Yankees in 1996, after watching a playoff game at a friend's house over beer and chips. As the daughter of a football fanatic and girlfriend to a hockey nut, I was aware of the existence of the game but completely ignorant of its reality and the men who play it. The Yankees changed all that.
There was Chuck Knoblauch, the softspoken infielder and leadoff hitter blessed with a handsome, open face and gentle, long-lashed eyes. He was followed, of course, by Derek Jeter: 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds of sinewy muscle wrapped in smooth cappuccino skin and finished off by a pair of ripe buttocks like a voluptuous bow on a Christmas present. There was Paul O'Neill, the square-jawed, curly-haired Irish lad with the never-ending legs and a penchant for tantrums and the physical abuse of water bottles. And who could forget Tino Martinez, the smoldering, dark-eyed Cuban with the sort of sturdy lower body that makes a woman like myself want to fall to her knees and pray?
All of these fine young men still play for the Yankees, but I speak about them in the past tense as a way to distance myself from them during these last few days of the season. They have wives and girlfriends and children to attend to and I, like other New York baseball gals, have learned to repress my desires on cue, at least until the next season rolls around and the guys -- conditioned, well-fed and well-rested -- are back in town. The winter will be lonely for us. There will be barren, cold nights characterized by too many glasses of wine for too much money when, just months earlier, we shrugged off the same drink dates and after-work parties in order to be home in front of the TV with our boys. It will be -- as it always is -- a difficult winter without them.
When women speak of baseball players, we tend to talk of tight pants, of bats and balls, of butts and backs and biceps. We marvel at the curves of their Achilles tendons, the slope of their calves, the tautness of their hamstrings and the swell of their forearms. We giggle when the guys rearrange their testicles, dirty their uniforms or lean bat handles up against their groins while they readjust their gloves. We salivate and fantasize, even fetishize. When announcers like Bob Costas or Tim McCarver or Joe Buck speak of "slapping it to center field," or "a fastball high, tight and inside," or "barehanding" or "getting a piece of it," we bat our eyelashes and blush. But for all the preening, posturing and sexual innuendo that accompany the game of baseball, women, I believe, have come to love the sport because it is about men and their manhood. And manhood is not about muscles or penis size or aggression, but about those softer things: silence, anticipation, humility and loyalty.
This is the secret: For all our crowing over Derek's derriere or Andy's eyes, we are more attracted to the game of baseball and the men who play it because of what it says about their values. Unlike football, hockey or boxing, baseball says nothing about the primal, untamed, innate beastliness of man. Women are made aware of such things not only in organized sport but in such things as rape and murder, the lyrics of Eminem and the propensity for civilization's leaders to engage in war. Baseball shows, instead, that men are as capable of control as they are of creating chaos. For baseball players are required to sublimate the sort of primitive desires encouraged in other male athletes -- aggression, rage, dominance -- in favor of something approaching grace: a grace that can be found in the lift of a long, well-hit home run, or the efficiency of a perfectly executed double play, or the determination of a batter who fouls off one nasty slider after another. Or the grace in not throwing a bat after being struck out, of not challenging an umpire's call. A true baseball hero sucks it up and thinks about his next chance to contribute.
And baseball players come to play. A month ago, my new boyfriend and I -- both Yankees fans -- planned to watch a division playoff game together on my 27-inch television. He was scheduled to arrive at 8 o'clock, so at 7 p.m. I set about cleaning my apartment and shuffled down the street to the store, where I bought a six-pack of beer, two bags of chips, salsa and a box of Tastykakes. By 8:30, he hadn't arrived and the Yankees were in the midst of a second-inning rally. Nine-thirty came and went; still no sign of my boyfriend. Yankees up 4-2. By 10 I began to worry. By 11, I was livid, and I called his apartment to see where the hell he was. There was no answer and, as I slammed the phone down in disgust, Tino Martinez hit a double to right field and drove in a run. I sighed and settled back onto the couch, smiling. At least there were some guys in the world a girl could count on.
It takes purpose to play a game like baseball, and the type of man who plays the game is the type of man a woman wants both in her home and her bed. These are men who pay attention to how details fit into the larger picture, men capable of anticipation, men who move with swiftness and economy, men who appreciate the beauty of routine. If we are to believe the cultural anthropologists of both present and past, the human female wants a hunter, a provider -- and such men can appear in everything from bearskin to Jil Sander to athletic cups. The best hunters, like the best ballplayers, are those who know how to wait and when to make their move.
There are female fans of those "other" sports, to be sure, women who roar in the bleachers of Giants Stadium or throw towels and obscenities from the shaking seats of Madison Square Garden. But the athletes they root for are caricatures for the most part: padded, helmeted and masked beyond recognition, as unable to connect with their audience as they are with their own physical pain. Do these fans recognize the grimace that accompanies a miscalculated throw, or the humiliation in the eyes of a man who has missed yet another opportunity to score for his team? No. All they see are bodies tumbling, crashing, contorting, merging; all they hear are yells and grunts, obscenities and yelps; directions given, directions taken.
Baseball players do speak, although not in the classic definition of the word. Rather than speech, they communicate through actions, movements and gestures, through glances exchanged and avoided. Some, like O'Neill, aforementioned water-bottle thrower, wear their emotions on their sleeves; others, such as Knoblauch, transfer theirs to seemingly neurotic adjustments in gear; still others, like David Cone or Martinez, exhibit theirs in slumps and strikes, in balls dropped and misthrown.
Nowhere is pure baseball personality more on display than in the batter's box. It's been said that sport is like the theater, in that there are stars and bit players and, off to the sidelines, the watchful eyes of the directors, designers and architects of what we see onstage. The batter's box is baseball's stage, and it is in this box that we come to know the participants of baseball as individuals and not as the bit players or the members of a cleanup crew. Some players enter the box tentatively, with shuffles and awkward glances between the third-base coach and the pitcher looming before them on the mound 60 feet away. Some come charging in, chewing the scenery with a few well-placed practice swings and glares thrown from under the brim of their batting helmet. Some avoid acknowledging anybody altogether, seemingly more entranced with the details of glove-tightening and foot placement than the thousands of pairs of eyes following their every move, or the fact that a ball will soon come hurtling toward them at 90-plus mph. When we get to know a player's idiosyncrasies, we feel we've made a friend.
I'm losing my friends soon. It's the beginning of the end of the season for the Yankees and I'll be watching each player closely, soaking in their faces and their bodies; all those details will be memorized and memorialized in an effort to keep me company during the long winter months ahead, when life will be characterized by cold nights, too many carbohydrates and dysfunctional family get-togethers. During those times when a date goes horribly wrong, when the nightly news reports that another war has broken out in the Middle East or when the 300-thread count of my sheets is not enough to compensate for the lack of another warm body in my bed, I will think of Tino and Derek, of Chuck and Paul, of Bernie and Clay, and dream of spring training.