Of the Yankees and Alan Gibson

For those of us who waited for what felt like half a life-time to see the Ashes returned to safe keeping, a nine-year hiatus is a mere trifle. But for George Steinbrenner, head of the overbearing clan that owns the New York Yankees, the nine years between the Yankees 26th and 27th World Series triumphs was an itch that cost him approximately $1.4 billion in player wages to scratch.

Steinbrenner didn’t make it to his spanking new stadium in the Bronx to see the victory, although New Yorkers made up for his reticence with a ticker-tape pageant down the Canyon of Heroes that made the 2005 Ashes celebrations look like a cub-scout parade in comparison. An estimated two million people turned up to shower 36 tonnes of recycled paper upon the victorious captain, Derek Jeter, and his colleagues.

Civic joy, then, for sure and even amongst those of us not touched by the Yankee magic there was forced and humble acknowledgement, in part, that this was a victory over rather than for common sense. At the heart of the Yankees’ success was a core of old-timers for whom professional sport, by the standards of the age, ought to have been beyond them.

Mariano Rivera (39 years old), Andy Pettitte (37) Jorge Posada (37) and Jeter (35) were all veterans of the last Yankees’ World Series victory and were central still to this year’s success, as were Johnny Damon (35) and Hideki Matsui (35). As training methods change, so, too, do our perceptions of what is possible. Theirs was a victory for all middle-aged sportsmen with aching bones.

Even in the redemption of Alex Rodriguez, the preening narcissist of whom it was relayed by a previous girlfriend that he had murals of himself as a centaur on his bedroom wall, it was hard not to feel some of the shared joy. Rodriguez, the most expensive player in baseball, had developed something of a reputation as a choker on the big occasions: known not so much A-Rod, according to the book written by the former Yankees manager Joe Torre, as A-Fraud.

Bit of an A-Hole, too. In February, Rodriguez was forced to admit that he had taken drugs in what was seen as the final, painful chapter of a juiced-up age. According to Torre, Rodriguez was ‘an ambitious superstar impressed and motivated by stature and status, particularly when those qualities pertained to himself,’ the short-hand symbol for why the Yankees failed to lift the World Series in the years after 2000. Yet now, in 2009, his contribution was pivotal and he seemed almost humble as he celebrated with the team-mates who had stood by him during those grim pre-season revelations.

But these touching stories aside, those who believe in sport as one of the few battlegrounds where money can’t buy you everything will have taken little joy in this year’s outcome. Since the last success in 2000, the Steinbrenners have splurged, and then splurged some more, in one of the most outrageous displays of conspicuous consumption that sport has seen.

Since 2000, they have given the thumbs up to massive purchases, $433.5 million on three players during the last close season alone, so that before the start of the season, their payroll was a third as big again as their nearest rivals. Since the publication of Moneyball, the prevailing orthodoxy in baseball has been that money is not the be all and end all, but as what its author, Michael Lewis, called ‘market inefficiencies’ become harder to find, so those with the biggest cheque books will out. Steinbrenner helped bring about an inflation of wages, through his ruthless pursuit of the biggest stars, and now, with the deepest pockets, he stands to reap the benefits. His son, Hal, said ‘having the highest payroll in the majors doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to win.’ No, but it sure helps.

The picture of Steinbrenner the elder, as painted by Torre, is of an interfering, egomaniacal, sometimes bullying owner, the type of which we have become used to in English football, and who bring little credit to their sport. One commentator, referring to the owner’s controlling tendencies, said that he had seen Steinbrenner’s yacht and ‘it was a beautiful thing to observe, with all 36 oars working in unison.’

If you want sport to be a place where the rich and powerful get brought down to earth, or at least don’t start with a massive inbuilt advantage, then you should hope that next year the Yankees catch a crab.ends.


Part II

Older readers will need little persuading of the talents of Alan Gibson, who for many years covered county cricket for this newspaper. Those of us who came to these pages too late to enjoy him can now take that pleasure, too, following the decision of his son, Anthony, and the publisher, Stephen Chalke, to commit his pieces to book form.

In the title of the book, Of Didcot and the Demon, lies a clue as to why Gibson’s writing is worthy of re-publication. These are not dry match reports, rather a vivid snapshot of a lost world delivered by a writer who developed a memorable and distinctive voice, and who, despite being afflicted by depression and alcoholism, found humour and generosity in most things on and off the pitch.

The Didcot of the title refers to the train station at which Gibson found himself marooned rather too often for his liking on his travels between his beloved West Country and other county grounds. The Demon is Colin Dredge, the Somerset trundler, of whom Gibson awarded the moniker, the Demon of Frome, which made Dredge more well-known than his cricketing prowess perhaps deserved.

The Demon was one of a number of eccentric characters who became part of the Gibson, and therefore the readers’ world. It was the closet thing to soap opera in sports writing. As well as the Demon, Gibson gave us the Sparrow of Shoreditch (Robin Jackman of Surrey), The Old Bald Blighter (Brian Close), Magisterial Michael (Brearley), as well as characters who helped Gibson fill the watching hours, like the barfly, Purpureous Basil, and GRIP (glorious, red-headed, imperturbable Pamela), the barmaid at Bristol.

John Woodcock, Gibson’s senior partner on these pages, said that he wrote about the cricket, and Gibson about a day at the cricket, and it is in the characters and absurdities of the county game that Gibson’s funniest lines are found. Take this opening from one of his match reports at the Oval in 1980: ‘I knew it was going to be an interesting day when I entered the press box at the Oval and saw our cricket correspondent sagely installed. I am grateful for the clerical error which enabled me to meet him, a rare event in the season. It was decided, after a couple of quick snorts, that it would be best if I returned to the West to pick up what was left of the Gloucestershire match.’

It was a different time, for cricket and its writers: a time of rail strikes, of bibulous lunches, clerical errors, missed deadlines, plentiful jokes and generous expenses. It was time, too, when county cricket was regarded as important in its own right, rather than simply an adjunct of the international game. Gibson loved the county game and he painted a rich portrait of it.

His demise was swift and sad and it is a good thing he didn’t live to see what county cricket has become. He wouldn’t much have cared for it, if his report of Somerset’s match against the World XI at Ashton Gate in 1980 was anything to go by: ‘No doubt floodlit cricket has a future,’ he wrote, ‘for this is the age of the sporting stunt and it is only fuddy-duddies who remember it was once the meadow game with the beautiful name.’   Cricket has changed and cricket writing has changed and not always, as Gibson shows us, for the better.

Of Didcot and the Demon: the cricketing times of Alan Gibson by Anthony Gibson published by Fairfield books £20. ends