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Lucky Sons of Riches 07/19/2010 - 3:10 PM

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by Pete Bodo

Howdy. I'm a little bummed that it's supposed to thunderstorm this evening, because I plan to attend the World Team Tennis match between those Gotham rivals, the New York Sportimes and the New York Buzz. It's part of my "out of the box" thinking about tennis these days, which began when some friends visiting from out of town expressed a desire to go see a New York Yankees baseball game, and the famous stadium—the House that Ruth built and recently deceased George Steinbrenner renovated. In fact, it was the first Yankee game (against the Tampa Bay Rays) since Yankees owner Steinbrenner's death.

For starters, the tickets weren't exactly cheap, at least not via the convenient StubHub website. A hundred and twelve bucks a pop, and that was for seats in the upper deck, overlooking the third-base foul line. It's not like that C-note-plus is all you're going for, either. A large Heneken (16 ounces, I think) was $11. Hot dogs and popcorn I don't even remember. But the concessions were excellently and strategically placed, and the entire stadium looked like it had been put through a pressure-washer it was so clean. We met friendly and courteous "greeters" at various locations; they help you navigate, direct you to the rest room, or simply say, "Welcome to Yankee stadium."

Steinbrenner happened to die at almost the same time as former Yankees Public Address announcer Bob Sheppard, who was dubbed the "voice of God" because of his magisterial tone. Bob Sheppard's voice seemed to embody all the grandeur and glory that the very name "New York Yankees" implies. It's odd that a city that so prides itself on its rough-and-tumble diversity, social mobility, and emphasis on achievement over breeding—let's remember, baseball is the "everyman" sport—would express its love for the Yankees in a way that has so many overtones of royalty. The Yankee pinstripes have a strange affect on almost anyone who dons them, investing him with a measure of elegance. Heck, even herky-jerky Mickey River looked aristocratic (sort of) in Yankee kit. Who says the clothes don't make the man?

Indeed, there's something pompous about being a Yankee, which undoubtedly is why Yankee-haters abound, even in New York (here, they're known as Mets fans). But this deep identification with the team, which cuts savagely across racial, ethnic and socio-economic lines, just goes to show that people have a yearning for associating with something that has that amorphous quality, "class." And even if they can't be bothered cultivating the manners, discipline, self-control and humility to be classy, they know classy when they see it. And they respect it. Even the loudmouth, tattooed, sunburned and muscle-bound guys from Joisey and Lawng Island seem kind of harmless when they're wearing one of those signature short-sleeved, front-buttoned Yankee jerseys, with the name of Mantle, Jeter, Cano or Martin on the back.

Anyway, in honor of Sheppard, there would be no comforting voice of a PA announcer to tell us who was coming to bat, out after out, inning after inning. Instead, we were given snatches of mostly pop and hip-hop music between batters, or during a pitcher change. Our attention was directed, at the outset, to the center field Jumbotron where we watched a video tribute to "the Boss" (Steinbrenner), after which Yankees ace reliever Mariano Rivera laid a pair of red roses on home plate, and captain (and ultimate Yankee) Derek Jeter spoke briefly but with quiet, crisp dignity about Steinbrenner. And throughout the game, when the ball wasn't in play, they played video clips of various Yankees from over the years, talking about Steinbrenner.

I was struck by the degree of devotion to and interest in Steinbrenner among the fans. After all, most owners of ball teams are thought to be lucky sons of riches, in it for their egos as much as anything else. Steinbrenner clearly had transcended that. One constant theme in the testimonials was how much "the Boss" cared for the fans, for what Yankee success meant to them, and the city of New York.

Over time, Steinbrenner became "New York" in the same way that ex-mayors Ed Koch or Rudy Giuliani or Spike Lee are New York. Tennis sometimes generates visibility for tournament promoters, the closest thing we have to "owners." But it's a lesser order of magnitude. Our best and most entrepreneurial advocates (a Charlie Pasarell [Indian Wells] or Butch buchholz [Miami] just simply don't achieve the same degree of cultural penetration. But there's no surprise in that.

The view in the horse-shoe shaped Yankee stadium, chock full of fans bathed in the hard electric lights, was a breathtaking sight - especially as we had a bird's eye view from the "cheap" seats. Our friend Maia asked the capacity, and I guessed 70,000-plus. I overestimated by about 15,000, which tells you that the place is enormous and feels even bigger. But we didn't feel like we were missing a lot by being so far removed from the action; there was the view, for one thing, but also the enormity of the immaculately-groomed, cool green field, upon which those dozen or so tiny men ranged throughout the game. It was satisfying; a part of me had no great desire to be any less closer, because it would have diminished the effect. We basked in the simple being-thereness of it all.

Tennis suffers a bit in this comparison, because the court is a relatively small place and, except at Wimbledon, the field of play isn't nearly as bewitching or aesthetically satisfying. The foul lines in baseball extend out from the point of home plate, ever-widening the field between them to some distant, theoretical infinity. The infield is a masterpiece of geometric design; it's by nature alluring, like certain symbols or designs.

By contrast, a tennis court looks utilitarian and hints of repression; after all, rule No. 1 demands that you keep the ball inside a severe, clearly defined rectangle. A tennis court is confining. But a ball field hints at liberation, and infinite possibilities with all those wide open spaces between the fielders, and those foul lines creating an ever-widening cone that just keeps increasing "fair" territory. Hence the premium in baseball on the home run that sails over the fence, beyond everyone's reach, often seeming to take forever to get there. In tennis, you have to keep the ball in play; in baseball you try to knock it out of there. It's a big difference, psychologically.

But even that isn't as different as the mindset of the respective fans. Going to a Yankees game brought home a somewhat painful point about tennis. It lacks the wonderful, tribal sense you get at a ball game where the vast majority of fans are rooting for the home team—a uniform, not the meat puppet inside it. Baseball fans are believers in a cause larger than themselves and the peculiarities of their personal taste, and a cause larger than the players on the field.

102939361 How different tennis is! When you buy a ticket to the final, you have no automatic rooting interest because you don't even know who's going to be playing most of the time. It's not about your team, your home. It's about which individual you prefer, for any number of reasons from his nationality to the color of her eyes. This is but one of the reasons that "true" tennis fans attend the early rounds at a tennis tournament; they know what (more precisely, who) their rooting interest is, and want to make sure they can express their support.

And while certain tennis players have huge followings, loyalty to even them is merely personal, a matter of taste. You like Federer or Serena Williams or Rafa Nadal or Maria Sharapova the way you like Coldplay, the Killers, Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. You may even resent some of your fellow Roger or Serena fans for the way they view your mutual paragon; strains of selfishness and jealousy run through your devotion. And when you don't identify with a particular individual, you may look at the players like different vintages of wine; they taste better or worse, but you don't live and die by them. Tennis has an audience of connoisseurs, baseball has a base of partisans.

Baseball has a few other dimensions that enhance this tribal atmosphere. It's a slow game. A very slow game. Tennis is a fast (almost violently so) game which demands the spectator's attention, all the time. This puts tennis at a disadvantage when it comes to the social dimensions of the fan experience. But that's another reason that those true fans of tennis attend early rounds at tournaments, and spend a lot of time at field courts. You can have a fine social experience out on Court 11, with chatty neighbors and your legs stretched out over the empty bleacher seats before you. You can lazily watch a doubles match and visit with friends as the molten sun drops down below the horizon. But generally, the more important the match and the bigger the stars, the more it becomes a theatrical—as opposed to a social—experience.

My son Luke is seven, and pretty out-to-lunch when it comes to understanding and following sports. Once the hot dog was eaten, the popcorn devoured, and the lemonade sucked down, he  quickly grew bored at the ballgame, and began to pester the young couple seated right in front of us. They were awfully nice, and got a kick out of Luke. And that was partly because they could interact with him without having their spectating experience spoiled, even during what turned out to be an excellent, close game between the best two teams in the baseball.

I found myself thinking that some of these elements help explain why tennis doesn't present a threat to any of our other major spectator sports in the U.S. It lacks that powerful glue of community for all but that relatively small group (like yourselves) for whom tennis is so compelling that it creates its own community. The game doesn't especially encourage socializing, except in self-selecting groups. Taste, or whim, plays a much larger role in the selection of idols in tennis than in baseball. Every tennis fan who has a favorite player automatically erects a perimeter that can be difficult for others to penetrate. Tennis fans are basically "loners" in the same sense that theater goers are loners; the experience is a shared one only for logistical reasons that can't be avoided.

On the other hand, there's a proximity about the tennis experience that is rare and valuable. One reason baseball has some of these other dimensions is because the game is so. . . big. You sit up there in the bleachers and those little figures scurrying around on the field are, in a very real sense, mere symbols with whom you have only the most remote engagement. Thus, it becomes less about them than about what they represent, the community of fans.

Tennis players are far more accessible; they enable us to develop a real, first-hand feel for their personalities and talents. We regard them more as individuals and personalities because we get more of their individuality and personality, right there on the court. Tennis looks best when it allows an intimacy to develop between fans and players, even if that also inhibits the growth of any sense of overall community. At the ideal tennis match, you feel like you've gotten to know the players. At a ballgame, you feel like you've watched representatives of your community do great things for it. The court is for relationships, the coliseum is for heroics.

So it was last Friday night at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees trailed, 4-3 late in the game - a game that you could call a "must win" because of the occasion. Boston Red Sox fans are well aware of the Curse of Ruth. If the Yankees lost on the night they gave Steinbrenner his final send-off, it could certainly be interpreted as an uncomfortable omen.

Never fear, Yankee fans. Nick Swisher ended game game in the bottom of the ninth inning with a two-out single to give the Yankees the 5-4 win. Riding the jam-packed subway car back to Manhattan at 11 p.m. on that sweltering night, three inebriated Yankee fans sang a few stanzas of the local anthem, New York, New York. The sense of community was palpable.

The Coliseum is for heroes, larger—and sometimes smaller—than life.


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Posted by spacenoxx (Vamos Rafa) 07/21/2010 at 03:36 AM

I have to say I agree with Jamaica Karen. Sarena is at an age where she may not be physically fit to play every mom and dad tourney but can play at highest level only at slams. IMO multi slam winners have earned the right to save themselves for Slams only. They are the events that draw the most attention.

Remember folks that Sampras (and others) also concentrated mostly on slams around their 30s and I say its fine. Its not like they were given any special seeding. They still had to fight their draws no matter their poor seeding/ranking. Remember all those Henin/Sarena and Venus/Sarena matches in 4th rounds and 1/4s?. They had to face stiff competition during the earlier rounds because of their poor ranking/seeding and they still came out on top. I say they more than deserve their "injury excuses" after having won multiple slams to conserve their strength and health only for Slams. If down the road Roger and Rafa do the same, I am OK with them too.

Its also good for the Soderlings and Caros of the world to improve their raking by doing good in non-slams and getting better seeding at slams so as to improve their chances of winning a slam. ATP/WTA may not like it in terms of revenue generation, but they have to find ways to improve it despite the top players absence.

Posted by Samantha Elin, Caro to the haters, don't you wish your pusher was hott like me. 07/21/2010 at 06:32 AM

Rafalicious, Serena has apologize many time for the incident,and said she was wrong, it's long over with and everyone needs to move on. As far as Rafa is concern I don't see alot of people questioning his numerous injuries and nor should they. There has always been a double standard where both Vee and Ree are concern. I just hopes she comes back and plays the open because I think it would be horrible for the reputation of the WTA to have someone with JJ's credential assuming the World's no l when she was voted by fans has the worse no l in the history of the game. Serena needs to comeback and defend her points and maintain her status has World's no 1. Go Caro, Scandinavia's no 1, world's no 4, reigning USO finalist, winner of 7 WTA titles. Du er den bedste, Kom sa, Caro!!

Posted by Sunny nine 07/21/2010 at 07:46 AM

Well, Pete, this was a true article. I wish you would write more of these rather than the pro-Nadal, anti-Federer, creating controversy articles you usually write. You are a good writer-journalist when you free yourself from the obvious Fedal controversy. I have been a Cardinal baseball fan since birth. But a tennis fan since a kid, although back then there was not as much televising. But I played it as an amatuer and enjoyed the mano y mano aspect. But then baseball pitcher vs batter is also mano y mano. I have also recently got into "international football" which is not that appreciated in the USA. Gees, what perseverance of those players running around for 45 + minutes at a time. I guess I feel privileged to enjoy both team sports-mostly baseball (hate American football) and tennis. I have the best of both worlds and understand the attractions of both. It is FUN rooting with your com padres in baseball but also it is fun watching the intensity of the gladiator style of tennis. Sometimes it has to do with the familiar. I played "soccer" and tennis as a kid but was born into the Cardinal Nation due to my relatives that preceded me. So it is lovely to experience the tribal sense vs the individualist sense. I like Tignor's article about no one being objective about their particular tennis idol. The only thing about tennis is that it gets so nasty regarding individuals whereas with a baseball team the whole team takes the hit of subjectivity. BTW, I can't believe the cost of Y Stadium that you alluded to. I spent my youth getting free tickets to the Cardinal games because I made "A's" in school. To pay that much at Y Stadium would be so difficult but so worth since I adopted them as my husband is from one of the Burroughs. Well that is all. But I wish you would write more like this than assuming that you know what Fed, Nadal etc are thinking.

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