Bloomberg News

Yankees Inspire Love, Loathing; Money Drives Youth Sports

May 15, 2012

On the first page of “Damn Yankees” (Ecco, $27.99), Rob Fleder sets out a great truth: “In the matter of the Yankees, there is no neutral ground, no Switzerland.”

Then Fleder steps aside and lets 24 celebrated writers describe their love and loathing of the greatest and most reviled sports team in the U.S.

Charging through these pages are the usual suspects: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, Don Larsen, as well as lesser figures. Even a Red Sox fan like me has to admit that this volume is a perfect game.

In an era when people are encouraged to share the love, I actually loved the loathing.

New Englanders aren’t the only ones who hate the Yankees -- there are Mets fans, too. Though as Nathaniel Rich argues, it isn’t necessarily “hate”: “There is not an animosity between Mets and Yankees fans so much as a profound philosophical abyss.”

So enough about the hating. You have to love the 1972 wife swap between Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson, which Daniel Okrent rightly describes as the “biggest trade in Yankees history.”

You have to love Yogi Berra, who Bill James decrees had the best season ever by a Yankee catcher (.322 batting average, 28 homers, 124 RBI in 1950).

And you have to love Jim Abbott, who read Hemingway, quoted Lincoln and did so much charitable work that George Steinbrenner wondered whether he might concentrate more on baseball.

An Imperfect Life

Which brings us to Abbott’s lovely memoir, “Imperfect: An Improbable Life,” written with Tim Brown (Ballantine, $26). It’s the remarkable, affecting chronicle of a ballplayer who was born without a hand, imperfect (as the title suggests) but perfectible -- on the mound, at home, in life.

It tells the story of how young Jimmy Abbott worked on fielding not just ground balls, but also tough questions and bewildered stares.

This is an unusually reflective sports book, dealing with unusually uncomfortable questions. Like this one, from Abbott himself, about the hand that wasn’t there: “I’ve wondered from time to time if I was carrying it, or it me.”

Or like this realization: “Baseball helped. It leveled the playing field, then placed me above it -- ten and a half inches above it, on the pitcher’s mound.”

Nowhere to Hide

Baseball was a haven, but for him it was also heaven. “If people were going to search me for deficiencies ... they wouldn’t find them at the end of my fastball, or in my ability to field a bunt, or on the scoreboard,” he writes. “If they expected the kid who’d hide in his own right front pocket, well, baseball pants had no front pockets.”

Along the way he played for the Angels, Yankees, White Sox and Brewers. He threw a no-hitter. He discovered that “what drove me were the low expectations people had for me.” Who cares today that his record was 87-108?

Indeed, it’s Abbott’s conviction that “sports had a spiritual and therapeutic place in my life, functioning to comfort and strengthen me” that puts Mark Hyman’s “The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families” (Beacon, $24.95) in such sharp relief.

In a book that is both investigation and manifesto, Hyman examines travel teams, college showcases, specialist private coaches, sports camps, expensive multiple uniform combinations, and sports for babies (we’re not talking Gymboree anymore) -- all of which warp family schedules, stretch home finances and pervert priorities.

Energy Drinks

There’s big money here, for companies and families. Snowboarding and skateboarding, for example, are inextricably bound to Mountain Dew. That’s without even mentioning the big bucks surrounding sports drinks and energy drinks.

Hyman is fair-minded enough to acknowledge that many youth sports programs are positive initiatives, especially when it comes to encouraging fitness and directing the energy of young people toward teamwork and skill building. But his conclusion is inescapable and incontrovertible:

“Some companies and shrewd individuals have colonized youth sports in ways that have made them much more stressful and expensive, turning parents and even kids into consumers of products they had no idea they needed -- or even wanted. In the end, what’s for sale usually isn’t eye black or any such thing. Instead, it’s hope -- hope that investing a hundred or a thousand dollars may advance a child’s sports career just a little bit.”

Where have you gone, Jim Abbott?

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and James Pressley on business books.

To contact the writer of this column: David M. Shribman at dshribman@post-gazette.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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