Because the happiest kind of Mets fan is a rabid Mets fan, part of me welcomed the news, announced a few months ago, that the Yankees are coming to Broadway. When a fan's team is failing—and the Mets look to fail for the conceivable future—the only solace is sports hate, and there is no fatter target than the Bronx Bombers. I thought that Yankee narcissism was maxed out in 2010, but a Broadway play, produced by the same team responsible for Lombardi, promised to take tone-deaf hagiography to the next level.
But what would it be about? Would it give Act I to Murderer's Row, Act II to Mickey and Maris, and Act III to Big Stein and the Core Four? Would it focus on an imagined father-son-duo, who learn to love each other by rooting for the easiest-to-root-for team in sports? Or would they take the Moneyball route, let Bill James write the libretto, and treat the audience to three hours of songs about the poetry of UZR, BABIP, and 162WL%?
New details emerged today about the play that is tentatively titled The Yankees. Well, they sort of did. The off Broadway Primary Stages announced their 2013-14 lineup today, and The Yankees is batting second. But beyond that, we learned little. To wit:
The Yankees tells the generational story of a most extraordinary baseball family, and the game itself. Follow the revered New York Yankees Yogi Berra as he struggles to keep the focus on the team, transgressing the tricky world of dreams, celebrity, and the ever-changing landscape of this beloved American pastime.
A few things are clear. Mentioning this "most extraordinary baseball family" in the first sentence suggests that this play will paint the Steinbrenners in as affectionate a light as the United Scenic Artists can provide. The story will be pegged to Yogi Berra—as good a choice as any, due to his quotable charm and stubborn refusal to die.
(As an aside, let me present my favorite Yogi Berra story, from a Joe Posnanski profile from a year or two ago:
Or the time in Boston that it was so hot that Berra decided to get thrown out of the game. The umpire that day was Cal Hubbard, a former football player who did not listen to much talk before throwing players out of games. Berra figured it would be easy. So he made a few cracks. Hubbard didn't say a thing. Then, Berra started openly arguing about balls and strikes. Again, Hubbard didn't say a thing. Finally, Berra turned and tried to show up Hubbard, the surest way to get thrown out of the game. Hubbard calmly said, "Berra, if I have to be out here in this heat, so do you."
But that one paragraph description raises questions. If the story is pegged to Yogi, does that mean we skip Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio? What does a "generational" story mean, exactly? Generations of Steinbrenners? Generations of Berras? Generations of Yankee fans throwing beer at generations of Sox fans?
As a Met fan, I'll hatefully feast on whatever they put forth. As a theater-type, I'm less gleeful. On the one hand, I'm all for theater companies producing work not targeted at typical theatergoing audiences. It's a fabulous way to make money and introduce new people to the art form, and both of those are nifty things to do. In a way, this kind of fawning sports dramatization is in the tradition of movies like Knute Rockne: All American and Pride of the Yankees.
(Fun fact: when shooting Pride of the Yankees, Gary Cooper could not, no matter how hard he tried, bat left handed. Rather than force the star to be uncomfortable, the director got him a uniform with a backwards 4 on it, and had him run up the third baseline when he hit the ball. They reversed the image in editing, and everybody was happy.)
But there's something about a project like this that smells like a rat. Will it be cynical? Will it be lazy? Well, it depends on how tough the creators are on the Yankee legend. My dream Yankees would be nothing but the franchise's dark side. Here are a few moments that I would pay Broadway prices to see on stage:
1925. After half a decade of blistering play, Babe Ruth barely made it out of spring training. Severe gastric distress tormented him for the entire train ride back from Florida, forcing him to have intestinal surgery just after the season began. Ruth claimed he upset his stomach by eating "too many hotdogs," but it's long been an open secret that the "stomachache" came from some combination of boozing, whoring and overeating.
Mickey's Outstanding Experience. In 1972, the Yankees sent form letters to ex-players, asking them to relate an "outstanding experience" from their time at the Stadium. Mickey Mantle replied, "I got a blow-job under the right field Bleachers, by the Yankee Bull pen." As the invaluable Letters of Note relates, his recollection got filthier from there. And by filthy, I mean filthy, so the delicate among you should cover their eyes.
It was about the third or fourth inning. I had a pulled groin and couldn't fuck at the time. She was a very nice girl and asked me what to do with the cum after I came in her mouth. I said don't ask me, I'm no cock-sucker.
Signed: Mickey Mantle, The All-American Boy
The Wife-Swap. 1973's Spring Training opened just as cheerily as 1925's, when pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich announced that, as was the style at the time, they had decided to trade wives. It's a well-known, rather sad story, which Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have talked about turning into a film. Based on the superb '70s hair that distinguished Argo, I imagine Affleck would do a knock-up job.
The 1980s. If postseason success were chest hair, the Yankees would look like Austin Powers. But despite their tradition of smothering success, there are a few bald patches. They never played in the World Series until 1920, when they picked up Babe Ruth, and the decade between Mantle and Jackson was a dry one. But there was no more impotent stretch than the '80s, when the Yankees were, briefly, the second-best team in New York. Also, this happened. I doubt the slow roller towards first will get much stagetime.
Howie Spira. New York sports were more fun when George Steinbrenner threw his weight around. In 1990, he was banned from day-to-day management of the team for paying gambler Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, a big-name player who Stein felt was underperforming. The magnificent pettiness of that action, which saw him kept away from the team for three years, is the kind of savory delight that could keep The Yankees from giving audiences a toothache.
Despite their squeaky-clean, sideburns-free image, the Yanks have their dark places. (Particularly the spot under the right field bleachers.) The irony of a show like The Yankees, or whatever it ends up being called, is that is the dark side that makes a character, or a team, palatable. A whitewashed stage show may sell tickets for a few months, but will only be as memorable as Babe Ruth's 1925.