Sunday, November 08, 2009

These Are the Days

Well, the Philadelphia Phillies came a long way this year, all the way to the World Series, only to be out-played by the New York Yankees. Never going to be a Yankees fan, nor a Mets fan, nor a fan of any New York sports team. I firmly believe the teams you follow as a kid are the ones you stick with as an adult. (I really tried being a Yankess fan when I lived in the Bronx, but these were the Deion Sanders years of the early 90s, i.e., they were pretty bad, and my heart just wasn't in it, although there was plenty of leg room in the upper decks of Yankee Stadium back then.)

They had a ticker-tape parade for the Yankees on Friday in the Canyon of Heroes down by City Hall. For one day, it became the Canyon of Guidos. I could see them on NY1 when I woke up in the morning, already tipsy at seven in the morning, grown men wearing baseball jerseys and gold chains, Yankees hats set slightly askew in that dickhead style made popular by hiphop artists in the 90s, baying into the camera like senseless hounds at a full moon. I saw them on the subway train, too, going to and from work. Butch-looking guys in Yankees jerseys and sweatshirts. A lot of mustaches. Surprisingly, a lot of teenage kids, many with that surly “Uncle Vinny has a union job lined up for me when I flunk out of high school” look: a real strange, unfriendly vibe. People who normally don’t ride a subway train. You could tell by their pose.

But who am I kidding? If they were to throw a parade in downtown Philadelphia, I’m convinced the participants would be exactly the same, save the South Philly contingent of guys whose lives appear to be unironic glorification of Italian-American stereotypes. All that would change would be the team jerseys. Yankees fans strike me as being no more or less boorish than any grown man who would go around in a team jersey carrying on like a mental patient in the streets when his team wins. Fun, to a point, but, buddy, it gets strange and tired after awhile.

There used to be a white kid who lived in the apartment house across the street from me here, actually the kid and his mother: Fat Johnny and his White Trash Mother. At least that’s how I referred to them. Astoria used to be much more gritty; we’re talking less than a decade ago. That building now houses nearly all affluent white folks paying what I’d guess are outrageous rents – the only things that remain the same are the Mexican super and his gigantic family living in the ground-floor apartment, and the decrepit state of the building.

Johnny was a chunky little white kid with blonde hair, a real loudmouth, too, you could always hear him in the street. I note his skin color because he was caught in that unfortunate wave of 90s kids who were convinced they were ghetto gangstas, when they were just creepy white kids with no identity and a repulsively moronic view of what it meant to black. I don’t like using words like “white trash” (because I don’t call downtrodden black folks “niggers”), but, boy, his Mom had it written all over her. She was permanently stuck in the second-floor window of one of those apartments, calling down to Johnny to tell him to shut up. You could often hear her phone conversations from the street, most of which concerned her hassling with the Duane Read pharmacy to have welfare cover payments for various medications. She never seemed to move from that spot – you could see her bulbous face, hovering behind the screen, like a priest in a confessional booth.

She seemed like a nice person in general, but then again, she gave the world Fat Johnny. Fat Johnny’s Dad would come around once or twice a year – please see above references to Italian-American stereotypes. Just this roly-poly loudmouth of a guy, you could tell he was no good, yelling at his ex-wife while he picked Johnny up and dropped him off. And he’d always yell when he left in that thick Queens accent: “Yo, Johnny, hang tough! Hang tough, Johnny! Yo, Johhhnnnyyyy! Hang tough, Johnny!” This would go on for a good five minutes. And he’d finally leave. Not every weekend like a good father with visitation rights would demand. I can recall that guy showing up maybe a handful times in the roughly five years they lived over there. Thus, Johnny’s anger with the world, or at least the roots of it.

What’s notable about all this? Every time the Yankees would play, and they won, Fat Johnny would hang his gigantic head out their second-floor apartment window and bay out the “Let’s go, Yankees!” chant, for minutes on end. Every single time. If you recall, the Yankees were pretty damn good in the late 90s, thus Johnny had many opportunities to serenade the neighborhood. It was like the “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” scene in Network … replaced with an angry 11-year-old kid with a voice like a braying jackass.

Have you already read between the lines that I couldn’t stand Fat Johnny? I’ve always had a hard time with trashy white folks: I take it personally. Come from roughly the same socio-economic class. Feel a radical difference between working class white folks raised in rural and urban areas … notice a much worse edge on the urban variety. Or maybe it’s just New York and the 718 vibe … although I suspect I’d be catching the same vibe in Philly, or Baltimore, or Boston. Then again, these days, I go home, and it seems like the bar keeps dropping lower on the white working class and how they carry themselves, all those 90s kids raised on grunge and Limp Bizkit coming into their 20s, and man, they’re not changing or growing one iota, just like all those hair metal assholes from the late 80s who still seem to be hair-metal assholes in their early 40s now. People have just developed this innate, sickly desire to go through life with their teenage predilections and tastes, which seems like a radical error to me.

Don’t know when it happened, but one day, Fat Johnny and his White Trash Mother simply weren’t there anymore. I imagine their lease rolled over, and they got the “make way for the enlightened white folks with college degrees and money to burn” bumrush that so many people have gotten over the past decade. (Hell, I’ve got a college degree, and I’ll get this, sooner or later, too!) Johnny did seem to blossoming into a more normal teenager. He grew a few inches and seemed a lot less brash the last few months they were over there, so who knows, maybe that kindness I could sense fleetingly in his mother was starting to shine through on him.

Your average Yankees fan? Hardly. Most fans of a team, you don’t see them in the stadiums. Think about it. It costs a fortune to see any pro sport on a regular basis these days. You will find working-class guys, especially in construction, getting season tickets and such to their favorite football teams. But most people in those stadiums are burning serious money to be there routinely. Obviously, the crowd grows more gritty the farther away you get from the playing field, but even those nosebleed seats don’t come cheap.

No. Most sports fans, you never seem them on TV. They’re on the other end, watching the TV. A stadium at its largest for, say, college football, will hold just over 100,000 people. There are millions of people watching those games. Frankly, I would never pay to see a pro football or baseball game. Every now and then, I luck into a free ticket to a baseball game, but never football, nor basketball or hockey, which seem even more expensive. It just aint worth it, and if I’m really watching the game, you can’t beat the TV at home, not in a bar or restaurant.

Guys like Fat Johnny, or those vaguely creepy guys I was seeing on the subway and streets all day Friday during that parade, while I wouldn’t call them the “real fans” they do represent a sort of silent majority of sports fans, the guys who either can’t afford to go to too many games, if any, and spend all their spare time in bars and family rooms tying one on while their team hopefully does them proud. The Yankees make them feel like winners by extension … and I can’t fault them for seeking out that sort of positive emotional identification in their lives.

I guess I’m one of them, too, although you’d have to pay me to wear a team jersey. (That seems like such a fucking childish thing to me … honestly, kids wear that sort of shit, not grown men.) I’m just as informed as any slightly above average fan and have a sense of team history going back to the early 70s (which was much stronger then thanks to baseball cards and the tons of information noted on the back of each card). I’m not one of these Ken Burns/George Will baseball fans … waiting for Morgan Freeman’s melodious voice to say something profound about Babe Ruth over a George Winston piano solo while the camera slow pans a stock black-and-white photo … fuck that shit. Guys who feel that way about baseball tend to have never played the game at all. I’m not a historian or uber-fan. I just enjoy watching the games and feel some sense of connection in my life to trace this minor passion back to my childhood.

And one thing I realized, even watching the Phillies lose this past week: these are the days for Phillies fans. Think about it. When I was a kid, the Phils truly sucked in the early part of the 70s, they got Steve Carlton, guys like Mike Schmidt, Greg "The Bull" Luzinski and Larry Bowa came up through the farm system, and they slowly changed, so that by 1976, they were a very good team. Went all the way in 1980. Lost in the World Series like they did this year in 1983. And that stretch from 1976 to 1983, in my mind, are The Golden Years (of my life) for the Phillies, filled with legendary players, back when life was good, things were easier, made more sense, etc.

But I was a kid in a small town, and it was the 70s. The Phils have been playing on a playoff-quality level since 2007, and if all goes well, should do the same next year, and a few more years to come if they can keep their core group of good players (Utley, Howard, Rollins, Victorino, Werth) intact and pick up some good pitching. They apparently have a pretty good farm system with some new names that will probably be on the team next year to hopefully add to the long list of solid regulars. It feels pretty good to be a Phillies fan right now.

And, in my mind, these are the days, now, just like they were back then. Save the players are now almost half my age. I don’t look up to them – in fact, a lot of them seem a bit weird. Jayson Werth looks like he should be wearing a sheepskin vest and screwing a girl on a rock in some heathen ceremony in the woods. Shane Victorino, the Flyin’ Hawaiian, looks like he’s about to jump out of his skin every second of the game. Cole Hamels, last year’s ace and this year’s goat, has a permanent southern Cal surfer dude smirk on his face that works real well when he’s winning, but turned sour this year. I don't know what Chase Utley has in his hair each game, but it looks like a handful of Crisco.

But they’re not the bunch of miscreants who stumbled through a losing effort in the 1993 World Series. That team seemed like a 75 Pinto shot into space like a freak comet. Guys like John Kruk at first, who hit well, but looked like he should have been playing the field with a can of Pabst in his throwing hand. And Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams on the mound, working a serious mullet, as many of the guys on that team did. From Wikipedia, a great quote from John Kruk about that team: “The previous year, noting the presence of the clean-cut Dale Murphy, Kruk himself described the team as ‘24 morons and one Mormon.’” They were in last place in 1992 and would sink back into a long malaise after that season -- which was nothing new for long-time Phillies fans.

No, right now, things are pretty good, and it’s worthwhile for me to note that. The “good old days” are never the good old days when you’re living them.

No comments: