Once, not all that long ago, Pete Ottone was a die-hard New York Yankees fan. He could tell you that Hensley Meulens' full name was Hensley Filemon Acasio Meulens; that Ken Griffey Sr. was traded for Claudell Washington and Paul Zuvella; that Ron Guidry struck out 248 batters in 1978; that Roy Smalley had an almond-shaped mole on his left calf.
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Yankees fans are stunned, after another early playoff exit.
Now he just doesn't give a damn.
"Winning at all costs," he says, "is boring."
Ottone -- a Brick, N.J.-based chiropractor -- and I go back 17 years, to when we were neighbors in a freshman residence hall at the University of Delaware. At the time, Ottone was Exhibit A of the Annoying Yankees Fan. He spoke giddily of this prospect and that prospect wore Bronx Bomber T-shirts raved excitedly about his Yankees allegiance for life.
"Back then, you never knew whether the Yanks would make the World Series or finish third," he says. "Sure, I wanted them to win every game. But the truth is, I love not knowing what's going to happen in baseball. There's something fun about entering a season and not being sure how your team will do."
The past few years, Ottone -- like many other reasonable, intelligent Yankees fans -- has had the fun smacked out of him. Such is the byproduct of watching your team purchase so many high-priced free agents, then watching them beat up on the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Devil Rays en route to the inevitable -- and joyless -- postseason berth. Hence, when George Steinbrenner came out the other day with "[Joe Torre is] the highest-paid manager in baseball. So I don't think we'd bring him back if we don't win this series," Ottone neither laughed nor cried. He merely shrugged.
Quite frankly, Ottone no longer feels it.
Quite frankly, neither do I.
When did a baseball season in New York become solely about the finish line, and not about the journey? How can a team that clawed its way out of a 14½-game hole be deemed a failure for falling to a team -- the Cleveland Indians -- that features two of the league's top five starting pitchers? Do the memories of Alex Rodriguez's 54 home runs and Chien-Ming Wang's 19 wins and Derek Jeter's steely determination and Joba Chamberlain's meteoric rise fade to ashes without a diamond-studded ring?
Is this who we are?
Is this what we've become?
It had to have been cosmically designed that, shortly before Steinbrenner issued his decree, Marion Jones stood outside the United States District Courthouse in White Plains, N.Y., and admitted that her career as a legendary Olympian had been nothing but a big fat lie.
"You have a right to be angry with me," she told the assembled media. "I have let my country down and I have let myself down."
Like the Yankees, Jones had invested heavily in the modern American way of thinking -- that nothing but first place can be considered a success. That's why Barry Bonds allegedly broke the rules to snap the single-season and career home run records, why Floyd Landis and dozens of others apparently wouldn't mind winning the Tour de France with cheater's gold flowing through their veins, why Shawne Merriman can be suspended for using steroids and named a Pro Bowler in the same season and we're not shocked. It's why, whenever I pass a Little League ball field or a Pop Warner scrimmage or a gymnastics meet for 7-year-olds, there is inevitably a parent (or 10) chewing out his/her kid, not for a lack of effort, but for a lack of results.
From a journalistic/mediocre collegiate runner/father of two young children standpoint, it's hard for me to fully understand. If you're Jones or Bonds or Landis or Merriman, how can there be any satisfaction in knowing -- absolutely, positively knowing -- that you won via unfair advantage? And if you're a Yankees fan, how can there be any enjoyment in supporting a team that only celebrates if the season ends one specific, long-shot way?
"I hate it," Ottone says. "The first thing I ask my 6-year-old son after hockey games isn't about winning or losing -- it's whether he had fun. If you're a die-hard Yankee backer these days, fun means absolutely nothing. Fun is for failures."
But, beautifully, Joe Torre will be having fun again soon. Assuming Steinbrenner keeps his word, next year at this time the ex-Yankees manager will likely be sitting in a broadcast booth, snug and cozy and sipping a cup of green tea. And as his former team drops yet another playoff series, he will pick up a copy of a New York newspaper and read the inevitable "The New York Yankees apologize to the fans " Big Stein-sponsored decree.
And, finally free of strife, Joe Torre will laugh his head off.
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero," now available in paperback. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.