Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bronx in Mourning

Got sidetracked on my way to writing the story of the week yesterday, first by my day job and then by my Prospectus column, which continues my epic series on strikeouts. I was actually in the act of submitting my Prospectus column when I heard the news, that Phil Rizzuto, the Scooter, the 1950 AL MVP, the voice of the Yankees during my youth, the guy on Paradise by the Dashboard Light, was gone.

It wasn't really unexpected. Rizzuto'd been sick for quite a while, and wasn't well enough to appear in public for some time now. Last fall, when he auctioned off a lot of his memorabilia collection, it felt like an admission of mortality. And while all of us at Old Timer's day this year hoped he'd be well enough to do a quick stand-and-wave along with Yogi, none of us were surprised when the emcees read a prepared statement instead.

We've had a lot of that lately. I didn't comment on the Conde Nast story by Franz Lidz--mainly because I was worried about slipping on Lidz's slime trail--about the Boss's deteriorating health, as well as the many armchair diagnoses it prompted of Alzheimers or senile dementia. (Who knew the field of geriatrics was so simple you could master it without taking so much as a correspondence course!) I, for one, don't fault Steinbrenner for doing his public communications through a PR guy and through written statements if he doesn't feel up to interacting with the press personally.

Old age comes for us all, eventually, and how hard it hits seems directly proportional to our vanity. I don't know if what Lidz did was a violation of journalistic ethics (or if that term has any meaning, at all); but I find it hard to stomach any argument that says that Steinbrenner isn't entitled to whatever privacy he needs to maintain his dignity.

Alex Belth was dead on before this season when he said that 2007 was all about a sense of impending loss in Yankeeland. Joe Torre's lame-duck contract, the Stadium's impending demise...the Bombers Faithful have good reason to wonder if, by the time the new ballpark opens in 2009, there will be anything left to recognize this franchise by, other than the pennants. So Rizzuto's death, while not really a shock, is a huge step away from the Yankees we know, and toward an uncertain future.

I'll remember Phil Rizzuto mainly for his voice, and his laugh. There was a wonderful excitement he brought to the broadcast booth, almost always sounding delighted to be watching baseball, even when he got so caught up in one of his stories that he'd forget the teams were still going at it on the field. Scooter had a wonderful air of naivete about him that kept him oblivious to the fact that he should aspire to some professional neutrality--unlike some of today's schemers (I'm lookin' at you, Sterling!), he was a homer because it simply didn't occur to him to go about his job any other way. In the end, the homerism didn't really matter--he made people like baseball, and that was what mattered.

That's part of why I don't mind his place in the Hall of Fame, which I feel was secured as much by his broadcast career as by his accomplishments on the field. Even if his performance record doesn't quite stack up, that wasn't the limit of his contribution to the game.

If God has a sense of humor, I have to think that a cow was stationed at the gates of Heaven today, to meet Phil Rizzuto. Rest in peace, Scooter, our love and condolences go out to your wife Cora and the rest of your family.

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