Who would seek to bail on New York before his contract was complete? Someone who doesn’t need the validation. Someone who realizes what Alex Rodriguez would never comprehend: New York is a mistake.
Of volatile moods and cranky outings, credit Johnson for enough grounded self-awareness to understand how New York’s two-year tolerance period works for those who arrive amid the pop of flashbulbs: one year for acclimation, one year for reclamation.
This is the margin of patience. It takes a special player or coach with a strong back for scrutiny to transition from a wide-eyed country mouse to a position in a rat race of expectations without losing his marbles.
Yesterday, Selena Roberts wrote about the cauldron that is New York Sports (Times Select). As a resident of the city and as someone who has spent 35 of my 38 years in either Boston or the Big Apple, I have some perspective on being a fan in two of the more notoriously rabid and difficult environments for professional athletes. I remember growing up listening to the "Sportshuddle" on Sunday nights, with Eddie, Mark, and Jim, and now spend selective moments listening to Mike and the Mad Dog or Michael Kay, though surely I do so with fingers pressed softly in my ears, just enough to mute the crazy opinions that come forth from both the hosts and callers on occasion. Roberts’ article got me thinking about the reality of New York (and Boston, which I know from my youth), and the reality of the "mistake" versus the perception of the "mistake". I believe that Roberts is wrong. New York is not a difficult place to play or work. It’s only difficult for certain types of people. And those types of people have difficulty everywhere, particularly if they aspire to perform at the top of their profession.
There are only a handful of athletes who have failed in high-profile circumstances in New York (I’ll get to Boston in a moment). Ed Whitson comes to mind.
Steve Sax [EDIT – Chuck Knoblauch] and Mackey Sasser lost their abilities to throw manning second base and catcher. There are more, but I am not a scholar of New York history like others, and I’ll refrain from going further. But I do believe that the number of implosions is far smaller than the myth that Selena Roberts would have us believe. Roberts picks out Randy Johnson for his current willingness to engage the idea of returning to Arizona. But is Johnson a good example of New York shredding the psyche of an impressionable young tyro? Or is New York simply circumstantial in this case? Johnson came to New York a 41-year-old aging veteran with a championship ring, chronic back problems, and no knee cartilage. His performance, while somewhat disappointing to Yankees fans, is hardly inexplicable. Attributing it to the pressures of playing in the Bronx is giving far too much credit to the city, in this poster’s opinion, to the fans of the team and the press for being merciless and irrational. As this site demonstrates, many Yankees fans are hardly that. The press, well, that’s a different story. But the press, like the fans, is varied. And professional athletes are usually pretty good at ignoring the press or treating it with disdain, which would, to me, temper their impact.
As for Boston, I don’t remember growing up in a heated cauldron of public opinion. Granted, Boston has always been a big sports town, with two newspapers and plenty of verbose scribes. But when I was little (or, littler!), the Sox were pretty good, the Celtics had come off an historic run of greatness and fallen into a terrible slump (thanks, John Y. Brown!), only to re-emerge with Larry Bird. The Patriots were perennially disappointing (and hosed by the refs, let us not forget), and the Bruins were only a few years from the Bobby Orr era, so people were pretty forgiving. The sports press has always had it’s Ryan and Massarotti-types, but back then I remember Shaughnessy as a beat writer and Gammons wrote the Sunday Globe columns. Conceivably I have blocked out the nastiness of the press or it was just not as bad as it is now. Either way, my perception of Boston as a sports town (or, more specifically, as a Sox town) was not as it is portrayed today, of fans foaming at the mouth for the next (or first in a long-while) title, harsh to players (like Edgar Renteria in recent times), who just can’t hack it in the hot climes of the Fens. We had nothing but disdain for Jack Clark, but who in their right mind in San Francisco, or Milwaukee, or Detroit wouldn’t have had disdain for Jack Clark based on what he signed for, said, and then did? That’s just being a fan, not being a Bostonian. The same goes for New York and New York fans.
Selena Roberts’ column, in my opinion, perpetuates the myth of New York (and, by my own extension, Boston) and the myth of the harsh sports town. Certainly New Yorkers expect a great deal. Certainly Bostonians expect a great deal. Certainly the press is an ever-present entity in both towns that can’t be dismissed. But I do not believe that Randy Johnson has been crushed by the city, emotionally hobbled by the "mistake" of arriving in my adopted metropolis. There are rare athletes who are destroyed by environments like this. I challenge Selena Roberts and others here to name more than Eric Lindros or Ron Dayne (Lindros came with chronic knee problems, Dayne with questionable talent), to substantiate what I believe to be a fallacy, that New York ruins hugely talented athletes on ascent or at their peaks. New York (or Boston) ruining mediocrities or ex-superstars is nothing special. Even for special cities.