The New York Yankees will be short a fan this year.
For the first time in 87 years, Margaret Yates will not tune her off-white, handheld radio to WCBS-NY 880 and listen to her beloved Yankees. She died in January. The tough and intelligent New Yorker religiously followed her team, often even with constructive criticism of their play and behavior. Caring little for braggadocio or selfish play, she frequently expressed her dislike for some players. Beyond her own personal enjoyment, though, Yates also spread her Yankee fanaticism, like her love, through her entire family.
Growing up in New York, Peggy, as she was called, frequented Yankee Stadium. Noting how the world, the league, and the game had changed, she would recall her trips to the Stadium years later. She saw the institution of the designated hitter and the popularization of closing pitchers — after all, she experienced first-hand Goose Gossage and Mariano Rivera, the first and the greatest, respectively. Moreover, she watched Yankees management at first resist and ultimately accept and embrace the integration of African-American players. Murders Row, Joltin’ Joe, the Mick. She saw Reggie Jackson become Mr. October and Derek Jeter become Mr. November.
In 1989, just weeks before opening day, Peggy was in a horrific car accident. Though strong enough to survive, she became less mobile, and the trips she had taken to the Stadium with her father became impossible. Rather, she used all possible resources to her advantage. A visitor found her lying in her bed, the New York Post at her side, the green and brown of the field lighting her television screen, and the radio tuned to John Sterling’s call, since she preferred both Sterling’s voice and commentary to that of the YES Network’s Michael Kay.
For Peggy and the extended Yates family, the Yankees served as more than entertainment: they comforted Peggy. The team, coaches and players also served as a daily-changing topic of conversation and research. More importantly, the Yankees occupied a powerful mind and soul that sat inside a body that in recent years was forced to lie idle.
Baseball had always had staying power in the Yates family. It was certain and reliable, almost as much as their Sunday night family dinners and summer boat rides in the Long Island Sound. Baseball’s and the Yankees’ reliability provided the greatest service. The heat and humidity of the New York summer accompanied hours of relaxation as Peggy and her husband, Doug, would sit, watch and listen. She refused to use the air conditioning on most afternoons, as if trying to reenact a trip to the Stadium for a July day game. She was a woman of routine, and this was her routine.
Last summer, when the Yankees sat more than seven games out of first place, the Yates family began to worry: they feared a Yankees team that didn’t make the playoffs would not only upset their beloved matriarch but would also shorten the season by at least two weeks. At season’s end, her sons and daughter tried to convince her to watch Yankees Classics or taped re-airings. She was too astute for that, however. She remembered each sacrifice bunt (well, that’s not too difficult for a Bombers team that only sacrificed 28 times last year), each error, each time Jeter leaped in the hole and sent one across the infield to her favorite Tino Martinez.
After the Yankees lost the 2001 World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks, management decided to part ways with the veteran Martinez in order to make room for newly arrived Jason Giambi, the 2000 American League MVP. Few questioned the move; they saw Giambi as the logical successor to an aging Martinez whose bat speed had visibly slowed. Giambi was someone who, in Oakland, had hit for average and had the left-handed swing necessary to exploit the short porch in right field at Yankees Stadium.
Yates, however, was infuriated. She questioned the need to bring in a younger player, one who had never faced the New York media and the pressure of being a Yankee. She wondered why anyone would mess with a team that had won five League Championships in six years. The Yankees of the late ’90s, as is so well documented, were not a team of superstars, but instead shared good chemistry (Mrs. Yates used to comment on how they always seemed to put together two-out rallies). Peggy respected Tino because he carried himself with class and a certain elegance that the long-haired, scruffy-faced Giambi could only dream of. The Yankees, in her opinion, ought to model themselves after Tino.
So when Martinez found a home in St. Louis, the loyal fan, Yates, changed her morning habits. Along with her toast, marmalade and coffee, she added a quick glance at the National League box scores. When, in 2004, Martinez ended up in Tampa Bay, Yates rejoiced as she awaited the 19 games between the Devil Rays and the Yankees. And finally, Peggy cheered when Tino again donned the pinstripes. His nine-home-run May, in which Martinez carried the Yankees and filled in for the struggling Giambi, did not surprise Tino’s most loyal fan. Now that she’s gone, a picture of Tino making a curtain call that had once sat next to her TV occupies a spot next to her grandsons’.
It will come as no surprise that Peggy escorted the Yankees through each and every one of their 26 World Championships. But get this. She was born on May 31, 1918. Months later, the Red Sox would win the World Series. It would then take them 86 years to win another. Have you ever been to Yankees stadium and heard the thunderous “1918” call (before, of course, that historic collapse in the 2005 ALCS)?
Few will likely realize the Yankees’ loss this year. After all, baseball is a sport representative of rebirth. With each spring comes a new season, a clean palate. Across the country, the smell of cut grass reminds people of the end of winter and of the beginning of a new season. Little Leaguers who played last year for the cellar-dwelling Pirates are re-assigned to the stacked Blue Jays. The Yates family, too, will try to start anew. Baseball for them and for the rest of the world endures. The optimism of a new season may help the Yates family heal. But they’ll start this season without Margaret Yates, and that will be hard.
Nicholas Thorne is a sophomore in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays. Margaret Yates was his grandmother.