Two Yanks you must admire
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

You can hate the pinstripes and resent the legacy. You can hate the cocky over-dog stench that rises up out of the Bronx like a toxic cloud. Your heart can be full of loathing for mad King George, the Rocket, the beatified Mr. Clean at short, and even the smooth jazz peddler shagging flies in center.

You can wish the Yankees would disappear, wish they'd never happened, and wish a thousand sorrows would rain down upon their oft-crowned heads.

Outside Yankee Nation, nobody would fault you and most folks would fall in by your side.

Joe Torre & Mariano Rivera
Hate on the Yankees all you want, but you've gotta admire these two guys.
But if you tell me you hate Joe Torre or Mariano Rivera, I'll tell you you're just fronting, you've let your hate blind you, you've gone too far.

Because no matter how you feel about the Yankees -- even if you've gone to that special Caple-icious pit at the bottom of your bileful gut, maybe even if you live and die with the Sox -- you gotta like these two guys.

First off, Joe's a sympathetic character because he labors under the shipbuilder. You gotta like Joe because he ain't George; and because for seven years now, he's made George seem more or less irrelevant (and more and more clownish and stupid) just by bringing his cooled-out gravitas and patience to the park every day. They live in the same town and deal with same media and fan crush. But while Steinbrenner leads with his full-sail, bloated-ego belly, Torre leans his shoulders back against the dugout wall and lets the tide roll over him.

This difference alone should be enough to get Joe a pass from all of us who direct our super gamma rays of death at the walls of the Yankee fortress. But there's more ...

There's the way he shields his players from the circus by making himself available to the press.

There's the humble arch in the eyebrows and grateful sag in the cheeks from a guy whose record justifies a face full of aristocratic reserve and entitlement. His face seems open, common, the face of a man living his life rather than putting on a show. Folks talk about Joe and Phil Jackson in the same breath a lot. But Phil gives us a kind of calculated, smug mask in front of mics, cameras, and even on the court; whereas Joe comes more come-as-you-are. Is he holding something back, keeping a buffer between his true heart and the ears of the press and the public? Sure he is. But he's not making a point of letting us know that. He's making a quiet, ruddy point of letting us know that we're not so different, him and us.

There's the way he wears his cap up high on his head, with a slight slope down over the eyes.

Gotta like that.

Gotta like ...

That he'd pull Clemens after three the other night against Boston, with no panic and no hesitation.

That he still hangs with Zim even after the little man's clearly gone 'round the bend.

Joe Torre
The Boss has given Joe a few more wrinkles over the years, but Torre always remains calm.
That he ain't pretty.

And that in a town full of loud (remember Robin Williams on the echo in New York? "Hello!" "Shut the f--k up!"), he does the quiet thing, like maybe he's just Columbo, just shuffling and shifting and seeing right through you.

You can hate the Yankees but it's hard not to like Joe.

And Mariano, too. Though with Rivera, it starts different. With Rivera, it starts more with marvel than affection, more with awe and appreciation than feeling.

The guy has been scary-good for such a very long time. He plays the game at such a perfect pitch. To deny him is to turn away from some magical baseball something.

Years from now, when you sit your grandkids on your lap and tell them stories of baseball in your day, focus on the Diamondbacks and the Angels pulling longshot victories in the early oughts. Tell them about Bonds, Maddux, and Pedro. Gloss over the Yankee titles, downplay their run. But do linger long enough to tell them you saw Rivera pitch.

Tell them about weird, skidding cutters in pressure-packed air. Tell them about a wiry frame and perfectly calibrated physics.

In 18 postseason series coming into this fall, he had an ERA of 0.79 (and this year, it's hanging tight at 0.75). Tell them that.

Tell them about watching a guy who was consistent enough and dominant enough to make you think paradigm shift, to make you think hitting the target and fooling the hitter is easily done, no matter what the circumstances.

Tell them something as good as this is its own sweet thing, uniforms and allegiances be damned, and that, hokey as it sounds, you swear there was something inspiring, something we-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon inspiring about watching Rivera set 'em up and mow 'em down time and again.

Fifty pitches and three innings last Thursday night. Tell them that.

Tell them ...

He was too thin to do what he did.

He didn't have enough pitches to do what he did.

And he never, not once, looked as scared as he should have been.

Mariano Rivera
You can't help but marvel at what Mo does with that thin wiry frame.
Say all that.

Try your hand as a poet, get all imagistic. Talk about scythes cutting rye in the dying light, about cobra strikes snapping the air, and fish flying lean and low above the waves.

Trot out some pop, too. Invoke Batman's sculpted blend of grace and oomph, or maybe the searing, straight-to-the-heart voice of Thom Yorke.

Then explain that while all this stuff dazzled you, made you tip your cap in Rivera's direction, it had seemed so automatic for so long that you had a hard time coming around to really caring about it.

And then, if you think you're up for it, describe him crying on the mound at the end of Game 7 the other night. Say he was in child's pose, like the yoga master he is, and that those shoulders that lock and launch missiles were just shaking skin and bone then. Say the floodgates were open and the rush of want, fear, need and courage that went into every pitch he'd thrown came down the hill in a torrent. Say you didn't just admire him then. Say you felt for him. Say he was mighty likeable right that minute, mighty and likeable.

You're probably rooting for the Marlins in this series. Your contempt for the Yankee Deathstar has probably allied you with the rebel army in teal.

I don't blame you. I feel pretty much the same way.

But tell the truth. You're a baseball fan. You like these two guys. Don't you? Just a little. Admit it. You do.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.



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