One Mo for the Road

I have been a sports fan for as long as I remember, the result of having a dad that wasn’t quite sure what to do with a daughter. Having grown up with five brothers, helping raise a little girl was not exactly in his wheelhouse. So he talked to me about sports and taught me how to play baseball, hockey, football and soccer (the latter he actually learned so he could pinch hit when my team needed another coach).  I was the only five year old girl I knew that could throw a spiral. I was totally amenable to being a tomboy and it gave my dad and I something to bond over.

However, with all this sports talk going on in my household, I was pretty late in declaring an allegiance for any professional teams. Growing up, I don’t remember there being a lot of sports on the television, but that could have been because we had one TV at the time and a mini-pop culture guru who tended to monopolize what we watched. I actually had no idea what teams my mom and dad rooted for; I think I was in college when I discovered that my father was a Steelers and Dodgers fan. The fact that he didn’t like local teams may have also contributed to the lack of games on at home; these were the days before NFL ticket and the MLB package, so if your team wasn’t from the area you didn’t get to see them much. My parents were pretty hands off in the indoctrination department; much like politics and religion, my brother and I were free to make our own choices. They distilled in me a love of sports, but not an affinity for any one team. This is why no one in my immediate family roots for the same team in anything. We all found our own paths (ironically, it turns out that most of my family hates the Yankees. You can’t predict baseball.)

After dismissing baseball as boring when I was younger, I fell in love with the game completely when I was in college. Being a native New Yorker, I gravitated toward the Yankees. This was the mid-nineties, which turned out to be a pretty good time to be getting on the Yankee bandwagon, as they would win 4 World Series in five years. I fell in love with the team and all the players from that era and completely threw myself into the sport and my fandom.

The timing of my drinking of the Yankees’ Kool-Aid also meant that I have a deep connection to Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter. Dubbed “the Core Four,” these players have played almost their entire careers with the Yankees (we like to forget about Andy’s little diversion in Houston).  We came into baseball together and I’ve spent my entire adult life watching them play. In a weird way, even though I’ve never met any of them, I sort of feel like they are family. We’ve spent 162 games together for almost 20 years; that’s more time than I’ve spent with people that are actually related to me.

But all good things must eventually come to an end; there is a natural decline in athleticism as you get older and as great as these guys are they were not immune to the ravages of time. Posada retired last year, setting in motion the realization that sometime soon, I would be watching the Yankees without these guys. I had been spoiled by their long tenure with the team, but this was the beginning of the end. Mariano Rivera announced that he was retiring at the end of the season, which was not unexpected, but a day I was dreading. When Mo was injured last year, I lamented the fact that he might not get to do his farewell tour and be honored by all of baseball for the great player and man that he was. While his retirement will be a huge loss for the Yankees – and for me – I’m glad that he had the chance to receive all the adulation that he deserved. Every team in baseball honored Rivera when the Yankees came to town; even the arch rival Red Sox sang Mo’s praises and the Fenway Faithful gave him a rousing standing ovation. It was beautiful to watch.

I knew that the Yankees would do something special for Rivera to honor his retirement, so when it was announced that his ceremony was going to be September 22, I had to be there. The Yankees may not be able to do a bobblehead giveaway, but they can do pageantry with the best of them. They’ve had a lot of practice. Since this was the day after my birthday, some friends were even kind enough to get me a ticket as a gift (shout out to Jen and Duff for their thoughtfulness and generosity!). I didn’t know if I was emotionally prepared to start saying goodbye, but at least I was lucky enough to be a part of it. Considering I bawled Opening Day when he was announced, the likelihood of me holding it together was nil. The day became even MORE emotional when Andy Pettitte announced that he was also retiring, making Sunday his last ever start at the Stadium. The Core Four were suddenly almost gone, with Jeter being the last man standing and the only member returning for the 2014 season (hopefully).

Arriving at the Stadium on Sunday, we weren’t really sure what to expect. There were a lot of rumors floating around – would they retire Mo’s number? Would Metallica show up to play Mo’s entrance music? Would there be any special guests? – but there weren’t a lot of concrete details. The fact that Monument Park was closed prior to the game was a clue that something was going on, but what that actually would be was still a mystery.

When we arrived at our seats, we immediately noticed that a stage had been set up in center field, all but confirming the attendance of Metallica. As a Metallica fan, that was an exciting development; I hadn’t let myself get excited for the possibility, since I didn’t want to be disappointed. I do not handle disappointment well.

IMG_4173

It was really nice to look around the Stadium and see so many people wearing the #42. Mo is pretty beloved, so it wasn’t surprising, but to see thousands of people united in their adulation of one man was really something to behold. I actually felt a little guilty that I was wearing my Paul O’Neill jersey. Even the grounds crew sported t-shirts in honor of Mo.

IMG_4172

The ceremony began and the Yankees immediately brought out the big guns – Jackie Robinson’s widow Rachel and their daughter Sharon. The number #42 had been retired throughout baseball to honor Robinson; the players that currently wore #42 were grandfathered in, so they could continue to wear it. Rivera is the last player to ever wear the number, an honor that he takes quite seriously. The Robinson Family has always been very supportive of Mo and his part in carrying Jackie’s legacy, so it was nice to see them be a part of Mo’s big day. The Yankees unveiled a new tribute to Robinson, apart from the Yankee retired numbers, to give him a special recognition.

IMG_4182

IMG_4184

They did this so that they could then retire #42 for Rivera as well; he was added to the list of Yankee greats like Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio and Berra. It’s unusual to retire a number while the player is technically still active, so I was skeptical that this was actually going to happen Sunday. If anything, I figured that the Yankees would do it at a later date just to milk this and have another special day at the Stadium. Once the number was unveiled, the Stadium burst into the longest and loudest chant that I have ever heard, playoff games included. The yells of “Mar-i-an-o (clap-clap-clap,clap,clap)” reverberated through a stadium that is not known for its acoustics. Every single person must have been yelling at the top of their lungs; I was clapping so hard that my hands actually started to ache. Rivera looked completely overwhelmed by this – the longer it went on, the more he just stood there beaming, but also slightly awed by the response. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of some spectacular moments at Yankee Stadium (both old and new), but I’ve never seen something as special as this. I had tears streaming down my face, but I’m sure I was not the only person. It was simply amazing.

IMG_4190

The show wasn’t over, however. Everyone wanted to be a part of Mo’s special day, so many of his former teammates came back to be part of the celebration. It was kind of like a mini-Old Timers’ Day; out came Jeff Nelson, John Wettland, David Cone, Hideki Matsui, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill (!), Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada. They all returned to pay tribute to a great baseball player and a great man. Former manager Joe Torre also returned, which prompted my second crying jag of the day. Torre gets me every time – he doesn’t come back to the Stadium very often, so when he makes an appearance it is a big deal for me.

IMG_4205

I had barely composed myself from the Torre appearance when Metallica took the stage to play Enter Sandman as Mo walked from the bullpen to the dais. That kind of snapped me out of my melancholy for a bit, since there is no crying in heavy metal. I’m always happy to see Metallica, though the sound quality of their performance was obviously more concerned with how it would play on TV than how it would sound live. The music was kind of muted and wasn’t hooked into the PA; it was kind of weird to see Metallica rocking out without much sound.

IMG_4210 IMG_4211

It turned out to be kind of a moot point, since as soon as Mariano stepped out on the field, no one cared about Metallica anymore. All eyes were on #42 as he strolled out; it was a bit odd to see him take such a leisurely pace after years of watching him run out. He earned the right to stroll out if he wanted to; he is, after all, almost a retiree.

IMG_4219

Rivera was then showered with gifts from the San Francisco Giants (that afternoon’s opponent), Metallica and the Yankees. Rivera then took the microphone to give a speech, thanking his family, his teammates and the fans for their support. I teared up a bit again when he said that he wished that George Steinbrenner was alive to be a part of the day; it was a nice tribute to the former owner.

And with that, the festivities came to a close. Now it was time to actually play baseball, which seemed a little anticlimactic after all that. Had it not been the last time I would see Pettitte pitch, I don’t know that I would have cared about the game at all at that point. I was emotionally exhausted – as apparently were the Yankees as they weren’t exactly setting the world on fire with their offense.

The late start of the game – the ceremony ran almost an hour – and sitting in the sun kind of threw off my sense of time, so when manager Joe Girardi came out to remove Andy Pettitte from the game I was totally unprepared for it. The stadium once again erupted to honor Pettitte for all his years, prompting me once again to get misty eyed as I said goodbye to another one of my favorites. I’m still hoping that the Yankees do something small to honor Pettitte – he already retired once, so anything for him will be more subdued – since he is a big part of the Yankees’ success. It won’t be the same without him.

 

IMG_4352

Rivera came in the game in the 8th inning and reminded us why he is so celebrated. Sadly, the rest of the Yankees couldn’t do their part and the team lost. It was a depressing reminder that with Andy and Mo leaving, the Yankees are going to have some problems. When it is the bottom of the 9th and you need a run, seeing Reynolds, Ryan and Murphy coming up to bat doesn’t instill a lot of confidence.

Regardless, it was an epic day that I am so thankful I got to be a part of. I’m actually going down to the Stadium Thursday for the last home game, just on the off chance that it will be the last time that Rivera ever pitches at home. The Yankees are pretty much out of the playoffs at this point, but I’m just not ready to say goodbye yet. If I can squeeze out a little more time with Rivera, I’m going to take it. Thank you, Andrew Eugene Pettitte and Mariano Rivera for all the wonderful memories. You will be missed.

IMG_4177

You can watch the entire pregame ceremony here.

 

42 – A Review

I seriously doubt that they could have made a movie that I was more in the tank for than 42. I love sports movies in general, but I have a special affection for anything baseball related. Throw in an inspiring story about someone overcoming prejudice and adversity and people standing up for what they believe in and you have pretty much guaranteed that I am going to enjoy the film. Sprinkle with a trailer that features a Jay-Z song (the appropriately named “Brooklyn Go Hard) and I was anxiously awaiting the release of 42; I was very upset when work obligations prevented me from going to the advanced screening and I had to wait and see the movie like a regular person.

 
42 is a solid film that I think everyone should see, especially if you don’t know much about Jackie Robinson.  His story is an important one and you don’t have to be a sports fan in any capacity to get a lot out of this film. His struggle was that of many people, just done on a much more public stage. That being said, it’s a very good movie but not a great one. The acting is uniformly well done, but I thought the film lacked some depth and nuance. The film has a tremendous number of things going for it, but subtlety isn’t one of them.

 
42 focuses on the historic 1947 Major League Baseball season when Jackie Robinson broke the color line and became the first African American baseball player to play in the big leagues. Prior to 1947, baseball was a segregated sport and African American players were relegated to play in the separate Negro leagues. There was clear prohibition to players of color playing in Major League Baseball, but it had been an unwritten (and mostly unspoken) rule since the 1880s. Branch Rickey, the President and GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided it was time to challenge the status quo and hand-picked Jackie Robinson for the daunting task at hand. It goes without saying that this was an unpopular decision and Rickey was very conscious of how the situation had to be handled. Robinson had to have the strength to never fight back, no matter how hateful or vile the language was that was directed his way. If he fought back, Robinson’s detractors would simply use his actions to justify their preconceived stereotypes; they wouldn’t see a man defending himself, rather they would see an out of control and violent Black man who was too uncivilized to be fraternizing with white folk. Robinson would have to show tremendous restraint and endure the scorn of not only his opponents but the fans in the crowd and even that of his teammates.

 
I think that they were very smart to cast a relatively unknown actor to play Jackie Robinson; a more famous face would have been distracting in this instance. As I am unfamiliar with Chadwick Boseman’s body of work, for all intents and purposes he became Jackie Robinson in this movie. Boseman effectively showed the Herculean task that faced Robinson as he took on this role of trailblazer and portrayed Jackie with the dignity and poise befitting the legend. Boseman has a nice screen presence and has such an innate charm that makes Robinson instantly likeable and helps make the pain and struggle he endured really resonate with the viewer.  42 lays on the hero worship a little too thickly, but Boseman does his best to try and make Robinson a slightly more nuanced character with the little opportunity he has. I’m sure that Robinson was a much more layered man who had his flaws, but 42 isn’t interested in any of that character development.  Boseman plays noble perfect well, but the most interesting and compelling scene in the film is when we see Robinson break down and have doubts. Boseman gets to show some range and Robinson because a far more human when he is allowed to stumble a bit and struggle with the burden he is being asked to shoulder. (This is why I also don’t have much sympathy for players who get upset when they get booed after poor performance.)

 
I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed Harrison Ford’s turn as Branch Rickey; I’ve found Ford’s recent performance somewhat hit or miss, but he really does a nice job in bringing the fabled Rickey to life. While 42 is clearly the Jackie Robinson story, it is also partially the story of Branch Rickey. While Robinson is the more restrained performance, Ford as Rickey gets to ham it up a little bit and I think the results were enjoyable. Rickey’s motivations for integrating baseball are not completely altruistic, but he cares about the man that he’s sending out there. Ford gets to yell and huff and puff, but he also gets some smaller moments as well. And for the first time in a long time, it looks like he is actually having some fun up there.

 
The remaining cast of supporting characters are all pretty broadly drawn and for the large extent are caricatures. They are either eventually supportive of Robinson or they aren’t and that becomes their defining trait. Christopher Meloni has what basically works out to be a cameo as the Dodgers manager, but he gets perhaps the most well rounded of the supporting roles. Nicole Behaire gets a lot of screen time as Robinson’s wife Rachel, but mostly she just gets to look concerned. The actors all do their best with the limited roles that they are given, but for the most part they are just there to provide some context for the events that are unfolding.
Alan Tudyk (Firefly, represent!) is given the inevitable role of playing the racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies and is part of one of the more uncomfortable scenes in the movie when he continuously heckles Robinson with racial epithets during each at bat. I had a tough time sitting through that ugly display, but it provides some much needed perspective on the restraint that was being asked of Robinson. I was becoming angrier and angrier as the scene unfolded; I can’t even imagine what it was like to directly endure that in person.

 
Some other quick thoughts:

  • T. R. Knight is in the house – I haven’t seen much of him since he left Grey’s Anatomy (and I stopped watching shortly thereafter as George was my favorite character), so it was nice to see him again. Hope this leads to a more high profile presence. I’ve missed him.
  • I don’t know how thrilled the people of Pittsburgh are going to be with this movie. This will make more sense after you see the movie.
  • Another nice cameo – John C. McGinley (Dr. Cox for Scrubs fans) makes an appearance as the Dodgers announcer.
  • Even though this story is based on true events, it is sometimes feels like 42 could be a made-up story as the events unfold. Of course there is selection in what they choose to depict, but if you didn’t know better you would think this is a work of fiction. 42 is far closer to the sports movie genre of storytelling than the biopic genre.
  • I couldn’t help but think while watching this movie that the next big challenge to the status quo in sports will probably happen sooner rather than later – the first openly gay athlete in one of the major sports. There are obviously gay men playing professional sports today that are simply not open about it, but that day is coming. I would like to hope that we as a society would be more supportive than we were in Robinson’s time, but I have my doubts. I hope whoever it is that comes forward will draw strength from the Jackie Robinson story. (My guess – it will be a hockey player; as the NHL has been far more open-minded than the NBA, MLB or NFL to date).
  • 42 is a PG-13 movie, so this is a highly sanitized version of what Robinson had to put up with. I don’t think that necessarily hurts the movie, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is what I like to call the Disney-vized version of history.
  • Jackie Robinson’s legacy is still felt throughout baseball; the number 42 is the only number that has been retired by all MLB teams. After this year, no active player will wear the number – the Yankees Mariano Rivera is the last to sport the 42 and he will retire at the end of this season. Once a year on Jackie Robinson Day, all MLB players wear the number 42 to pay tribute to Robinson. Yankee 2nd baseman Robinson Cano is named after Jackie and wears the number 24 to honor him.

42 is not a controversial movie and it isn’t particularly deep; there are moments when it is even a little corny. But 42 is immensely enjoyable and inspiring despite these limitations. I will admit to tearing up more than once during the film even though I know the Robinson story well. There is so much pleasure in seeing someone overcome adversary and change a few minds along the way. It’s a movie with an important message, but it is also a fun movie to watch. 42 is designed to inspire and it succeeds, while also providing a reminder of our not so distant past. I can’t imagine that 42 will be a contender come Oscar time, but it is a feel good movie that brings the Jackie Robinson legacy to a new generation and that may be more important.