Yankees Family Values

Early this morning, his 79-year-old father died; minutes ago, Paul O’Neill and the Yankees swept their second consecutive World Series. In between, O’Neill hardly slept, but, ever duteous, he never asked out of tonight’s game. Now O’Neill’s face is ashen and he’s too tired to pull on the overpriced souvenir T-shirt that a baseball operative is shoving at all the Yankees. “When I was 5 years old, my father told me I was gonna play in the major leagues,” O’Neill says, never looking up from the floor.

He says he can’t talk anymore, starts to walk away, then stops. O’Neill’s gaze darts all over the chaotic locker room, not able to focus. “Did they let the families in yet?” he says softly and to no one in particular. O’Neill is so dazed he doesn’t realize the place is crawling with Yankees wives and children; baby strollers are bumping into news crews, and a female voice is singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Finally, O’Neill’s eyes alight on his own locker, where his petite blonde wife, Nevalee, is sitting on a folding chair, waiting. For probably the first time all day, O’Neill’s face cracks into a wide, blissfully relaxed smile as he strides over to hug Nevalee, whom he met on the bus to elementary school when he was a boy in Columbus, Ohio. Soon they’ll go back home, after a victory parade up Broadway, to bury Charles O’Neill.

It’s not nearly as snappy as the Best Team Ever, the nickname for last year’s champs. But 1999’s Yankees were the Dutiful Son Team: plenty of admirable hard work, shouldering of responsibility, and carrying-on of the family business; much less joy.

No doubt the Arizona Diamondbacks, say, experience their share of family tragedies, and we never hear about them. But the spate of paternal deaths that hit this group – Scott Brosius’s father, who ran a used-car lot, gone to colon cancer on September 12; Luis Sojo’s father, a cabdriver, to a liver infection on October 22; O’Neill’s father, a war hero and ditchdigger, to complications from a heart attack on October 27 – had a strangeness completely separate from the melodramatic hype. “It’s been a weird year,” Joe Torre says, his understatement referring also to his own prostate-cancer surgery during spring training. “But baseball is a game of life.”

Torre has become more sentimental recently, but he’s been fired too many times to descend into the maudlin Bart Giamatti&-Fathers Playing Catch With Sons nostalgia mode that attends so much writing and talking about baseball. O’Neill’s relationship with his dad was loving but complicated, with the former minor leaguer driving his fifth son to fulfill his failed dreams. The Yankees’ core players – David Cone, Tino Martinez, O’Neill, Joe Girardi, Chili Davis – are old enough to have learned baseball the traditional way, from their fathers. It isn’t the deaths of three fathers that define their Yankees sons; it’s their blue-collar lives that shaped the ‘99 champs (is it an accident that the highest levels of basketball, a far more improvisatory and exuberant game, are filled with the sons of single moms?). Torre already knew about the personality of his team. “We’re grinders,” the manager says. “This is not a group that ever takes it easy on itself.”

The Yankees’ rich history often provides inspiration for current players. But there’s a downside: O’Neill and Bernie Williams and Martinez never take a step on the “hallowed ground” of Yankee Stadium without the long shadows of Ruth and Mantle and Mattingly trailing them. “I was feeling really good about myself,” Cone says with a grin after the final game, having just won his fourth world championship, “until I saw Yogi, who says, ‘You only got eight more rings until you catch me!’ “

The grind this season included answering questions about whether the ‘99 Yankees could surpass last year’s record-setting club. I was surprised when these Yankees lately claimed to feel burdened by the number of comparisons to the ‘98 Yankees; the media seemed bored with that angle by June. But true to their self-flagellating form, whether the number of comparisons was high or low, the ‘99 Yankees heard and took every single one to heart. These are guys who’ve been well trained to try to live up to their inheritance.

The second story line to this season – Will Roger Clemens Finally Win a World Series? – always seemed forced. Clemens landed in New York because he’d bullied his way out of Toronto. In the clubhouse, Clemens remained aloof from most of his teammates, sometimes staying in a separate hotel from the rest of the Yankees on road trips. “He’s the stealth pitcher,” one clubhouse insider says. “Nobody knows him.” But who needs love? Daddy Steinbrenner adopted Clemens, and the dutiful Yankees took it as their mission to win a ring for Roger.

Even with all the human-interest dramas and two exhilarating comebacks, this World Series felt rote. Blame that on the Mets, who teased us with a hectic playoff run but no Subway Series, and the Braves, who staggered into the World Series and then stunk. Yes, the pitching of Orlando Hernandez, Cone, and Mariano Rivera – especially Rivera, who is making Metallica popular in Panama – was phenomenal. But was there one Braves infielder who did not kick a routine ground ball? The Yankees, opportunistic as cockroaches, get credit for seizing every opportunity, but to be tested as a team for the ages, they needed the Braves to play Frazier to the Yankees’ Ali. Instead, Duane Bobick showed up.

The Yankees did actually lose one game this October. It seems like a mirage, because it happened in the daylight instead of at the standard midnight and because Pedro Martinez is so good, he’s spectral. The Yankees were thrashed that Saturday in Boston, 13-1, and momentarily seemed vulnerable. After the game, George Steinbrenner was fuming and Brian Cashman was depressed as they waited in the minuscule visiting manager’s office. “Ayyyy, boys!” hollered Torre as he walked in, a smile on his face. “Don’t worry about today. Better to lose one than to lose four!” Meaning that Torre was sure the Yankees had dropped their only game of the series, and that the Red Sox would soon be history.

Torre’s calm and confidence have been spun into hoary myth by now; that doesn’t change the fact that daily doses of Torre seem to lower blood pressure. In game three, Torre tells relief pitcher Jason Grimsley, arriving on the mound to rescue Andy Pettitte, “Hold ‘em right here and get yourself a win.” Sure enough, Grimsley, who hasn’t pitched in a month, stanches the bleeding and the Yankees soon recover from a 5-1 deficit to win.

The Yankees under Steinbrenner used to be famously high-strung. It took Torre, the third son to an explosive New York&-cop father, and the fat-kid baby brother to the domineering star athlete Frank Torre, to lighten the load of a team full of anal-retentive self-lacerators. Much of what Torre tells the Yankees in private reads like bromides in print, but he’s better than Xanax for this team. He’s more wise big brother than detached dad. “Everyone is nervous,” Torre says. “The idea is that if you make nervousness work for you, it becomes excitement. If you let it work against you, it becomes fear and pressure.”

The one Yankee Torre doesn’t worry about relaxing is Derek Jeter. It’s Torre who goes to Jeter for a lift. Tonight, in the victory celebration, Torre rips off his hat as he arrives in front of Jeter’s locker. “I need to get wet!” Torre shouts, and Jeter doesn’t hesitate, splashing him with Inglenook St. Regis alcohol-removed bubbly. “Awwww!” Torre yells as he drips. “Now I feel like one of the guys! Now I feel like I belong!” Then Torre shivers happily. “Can’t you guys use warm champagne?”

Jeter, his hat backwards, a rare departure from Yankee decorum for him, dashes toward the clubhouse door. Two clubhouse aides separately tell him, “They’re in the dugout” – meaning Jeter’s parents. They know without being asked who Jeter is looking for. The shortstop pulls a Cohiba (courtesy of El Duque, and the second-best thing smuggled out of Cuba, after Hernandez himself) from his back right pinstriped-baseball-pants pocket as he dances down the tunnel to the dugout, leaping up to touch the sign with the painted quote from Joe DiMaggio, i want to thank the good lord for making me a yankee. Bounding up the dugout steps, Jeter embraces mom Dorothy, dad Charles, and sister Sharlee before turning to the cheering fans and soaking them with champagne, bringing a few more people into the family.

The effusions about the Yankees having heart and character grew bathetic even in the first hours after their victory. Not that they don’t possess those qualities in abundance, but Chad Curtis also showed the champs are capable of pettiness. Torre, who rarely criticizes any player in public, was quietly livid at Curtis for attributing the boycott of NBC’s Jim Gray to a team vote when none had been taken.

But the mini-controversy is quickly buried in confetti. At 1 a.m., David Cone is the last Yankee on the field and, as always, the last Yankee talking. Finally, Cone leaves the field and heads back up the dugout tunnel, but he stops halfway, not wanting to rush the night at all, after making the mistake of not fully celebrating his perfect game back in July. “This seems like the culmination of so much emotion,” Cone says, “from all the way back in ‘96 when I had the aneurysm to this morning with Paul O’Neill. And losing our manager in the middle of it all. You saw it – the clubhouse was eerie afterwards, eerie with relief. Grown men were crying, and not because we won. That’s why there was no loud music playing. You saw Paul’s reaction on the field; he was crying and then he kind of knelt down. Everyone surrounded him, almost like we were trying to protect him. Many of the emotions tonight had nothing to do with baseball. It’s tough to eloquate.”

Maybe by now O’Neill’s story has been turned into a gloppy Dateline segment, but I doubt it; chances are, we had our one glimpse of the inner Paul in those locker-room moments right after the final World Series out. And it’s his words that come back to me now. “I guess with an older club, you have older parents, and with everything that happened to our fathers, we brought a lot of everyday life into this season,” O’Neill said. “And everyday life is not always great.”

No, but it helped make a great team.

Yankees Family Values