September 27, 2012
In A Pickle
Free to Be We
The "we" debate is a weirdly durable one among those of us who enjoy meta-baseball arguments, those fights that aren't so much about the game as they are about how we interact with it. You'll see the topic spring up on Twitter every so often, as surely as you will discussion of the serial comma, The Wave, and whether Budweiser is an acceptable alternative to water for adult humans. By "the 'we' debate," I mean the question of whether it is "OK" for fans to refer to a team as "we." "We won last night, but it was awfully close;" "We need some power in the heart of the order if we're going to make any noise in the playoffs;" "We stink."
My experience of the two sides of the debate is that many people feel strongly that the "we" is illegitimate, a putting on airs, a usurpation of the rightful ownership of the victories of the men who actually play the game. Those who say "we," by contrast, seem often to not be wedded to the word so much as they are following long-formed mental pathways. They know they're not on the team, and I imagine most of them will admit that no matter how loud they cheer, they don't really have any effect on the field. But they say "we" and they see their use of the word as harmless. The players know full well who drove in the game-winning run, after all, and the first general manager who will be fooled into giving a fan a seven-figure deal to yell real loud hasn't been born yet.
I was put in mind of the "we" by Ray Negron and Sally Cook's recent book, Yankee Miracles: Life with the Boss and the Bronx Bombers, published a few weeks ago by Liveright, a W.W. Norton imprint theoretically dedicated to "progressive literary sensibilities."
I raise and link to Liveright's puffery because Negron and Cook's book does not at first glance seem to fit beside works by Gail Collins, J.G. Ballard, or George Orwell. Unfortunately, that impression of incongruousness remains at second, third, and fourth glance. The easiest way to describe Yankee Miracles is to say that it is a recounting by Negron of his time in and around baseball, from the day he was plucked off the streets (literally) by George Steinbrenner and given a job as a clubhouse attendant, through his work keeping Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden on the straight and narrow, to his community liaison work with the team now that has him taking Brett Gardner to visit cancer patients.
You can imagine, if you have great powers of creativity and plenty of free time, such a work treading literary paths unknown, charting new territory in baseball nonfiction. It will come as no surprise to the reader, however, that Cook and Negron attempt no such adventure. I'm no expert on "reading levels," but I'd imagine plenty of average middle schoolers having no difficulty with the prose contained in Yankee Miracles. (Parents may want to screen the book first given the light cursing and occasional sexual theme, though there is no outright debauchery — in fact, for a book about the behind-the-scenes world of baseball, it's awfully, even suspiciously, clean).
Returning to my phrasing above, though: I referred to "the easiest way to describe the book," implying to the eagle-eyed reader that there's something else going on. And indeed there is. The problem is that articulating the nature of that "something else" is difficult. The chapters are mainly organized around individual Yankees — Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, and the aforementioned Brett Gardner each have their own chapter, though there is overlap between some of them. Munson's in-season death by plane crash and its effect on the team, for instance, is recounted in both his own chapter and that of Bobby Murcer. The book does not read as a collection of essays, however, giving the overlap the feel of unnecessary repetition rather than the intentional product of events being explored from multiple angles in independent pieces.
As for the actual content, Negron mostly operates on anecdote and, despite the book not being a memoir, the anecdotes always seem to involve the author playing some significant role in the lives of these players. Negron claims friendship with a wide cast of famous people whom he namedrops shamelessly (Chazz Palminteri, Francis Ford Coppola, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Henry Kissinger are among the non-baseball personalities Negron rubs elbows with). The interesting aspect of the barrage of Notable Names is that his simultaneous awe at being in the presence of such titans and his descriptions of his indispensability to many of them (he helped Reggie go from surly outsider to integral part of the team; he kept Doc Gooden from using drugs) paint a portrait of a psychologically complicated individual. Too bad, then, that Negron does not explore that psychology in an attempt to discover why he feels the need to get inside the lives of his idols but is instead content simply to recount tales of the true inner goodness and sensitivity and intelligence of the men with whom he has spent his career.
It is the height of unfairness to judge a work against the standard of what I want it to be rather than what it sets out to accomplish, but I think it is important to accurately describe for you my subjective experience of reading the book: I found myself, page after page, wishing that Negron had written an actual memoir and exploration of his inner self. He seems, from the glimpses we get, to have lived a fantastically interesting life, one worthy of a book without reliance on the reflected glory of the ballplayers and actors he has spent that life in close proximity to. Instead, we get lionizations of everyone from George Steinbrenner and Alex Rodriguez (who need it) to Derek Jeter and Thurman Munson (who don't).
As you might guess from the fact that this article exists in the form that it does, as well as from my description of Negron placing himself in important roles at big moments in Yankee history, Negron refers to the team consistently as "we." He does this not only in reference to the organization, but also when discussing the team — the collection of players and coaches that stand on the grass in front of thousands of people and play the game, or direct the playing thereof. Negron's status somewhere in between "player" and "fan" on the hierarchy of importance to winning baseball games allows us to move past the usual "you're not on the team!" argument and really explore what "we" means in baseball.
First, Negron is and was an employee of the New York Yankees, though there was a middle period that goes largely undiscussed in the book during which Negron works for other teams and undertakes other ventures. (How his work on sports psychology with the Indians really came about is one of the fascinating topics that is simply left by the wayside due to the book being about the Yankees rather than about Negron. Oh well.) As he is an employee, you might say that Negron is completely justified in using the word "we" in discussing victories and defeats and pain and joy.
On the other hand, second: Negron's original job involved washing underwear, running errands, and organizing socks. No player wants to play in dirty underwear, obviously, but the job is not (or at least does not seem) integral to the wins and losses on the field. Baseball games have been and could be played without batting practice pitchers and community liaisons and clubhouse attendants, so people in those positions are more akin to fans (the game will go on whether they're in attendance or not) than players (there is no such thing as a game without them).
Let's make a list:
Presumably no one could begrudge any of these people their status as members enough of the team that they're allowed to say "we" without scorn or derision even though the games could go on without them and their effects on wins and losses are either attenuated or nonexistent. Indeed, if you heard a GM refer to the team as "they," you might think something weird was going on. And if that's the case, then the principle by which we're decided who can say "we" must not be "who wins and loses the games on the field?"
Let's make another list:
These people are paid by the team but I posit that many of us would think it was weird to hear the guy setting up Billy Beane's email account referring to the team as "we." Thus simple employment by the organization is not enough.
One last list:
The point of this list is to show that not only is employment by the organization not necessary, it is also arguably not sufficient. Would you begrudge Amanda McCarthy her right to call the A's "we" because it's her husband Brandon who throws the pitches, not her? Given the sacrifices significant others have to make to accommodate the players they are bound to and given that loyalty to a team other than the one the significant other plays for would be entirely unacceptable, I would find it unreasonable to tell such a person that they cannot refer to the team as "we."
These three lists show, I think, that the "we" question isn't easy to answer. It might well be impossible. If some people can say "we" and others cannot, then that implies that there's a line somewhere — is that line at clubhouse attendant? At batting-practice pitcher? At trainer? At in-house substance abuse counselor? I don't know, and I can't identify any principle by which we can figure out the answer.
And if that's the case, that there is no such articulable principle that fits our innate concept of what's right in this area, then maybe it's time to fight that innate feeling and let go entirely of the notion that there's any right or wrong, any weirdness, involved in fans or janitors or batting-practice pitchers saying "we." Ray Negron may have a creepily high opinion of his own place in Yankee history (he attempts, at the end of the book, to be the last person to hit a home run there, albeit in wee-hours batting practice), but if he wants to call the Yankees "we," who am I to stop him? Who am I to stop you from doing the same?