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4/1: Big Apple Baseball, Past and Present

Baseball

4/1: Big Apple Baseball, Past and Present

Sports journalist Len Berman has been a fan of New York baseball since the 1950’s, when the city boasted three teams. He talks with The Marist Poll’s John Sparks about what Yankees’ and Mets’ fans can expect from the 2010 season.

John Sparks
Len, baseball season’s just around the corner. The Marist Poll conducted a survey of fans in New York State. They found that more [New York baseball fans] considered themselves to be Yankees’ fans than Mets’ fans. Now you’re a New Yorker, how about you, Yankees or Mets?

 

Len Berman

Len Berman

Len Berman
Well, I grew up a Yankee fan, but that was at the time when there were the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, and I was really a Mickey Mantle fan. I remember going to early Mets’ games at the Polo Grounds and Shea. So, I am one of those people that are from New York that like both teams. And, then when I got into the media, I couldn’t root for either team, but I’m not surprised that there are more Yankee fans because everyone loves a winner. I mean during the ’80s around New York, there were many more Mets’ fans because the Mets were winners and the Yankees weren’t.

John Sparks
I grew up a Yankees’ fan, believe it or not, down here in Texas because Casey Stengel was a relative.

Len Berman
Ahhh.

John Sparks
When did you first go to Yankee Stadium? Can you tell me about that first game you ever saw there?

Listen to the Interview, Part 1:

Len Berman
Yeah, I’ll never forget it. I was nine-years-old, and I think we couldn’t afford the box seat, which was $3.25 or $3.50. So, we sat in the reserve seat, which might’ve been $2.50, and I was just so excited because we had black and white TV sets and to see that green grass was just — it was the greenest grass I ever saw in my life. You would come up out of the dark, out of the subway, and as you approached, in the old configuration of Yankee Stadium, you could look in and see the field and as you came up out of the darkness, into the light and there was this green grass in center field, it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. And then my only memory of the game, I don’t know who played, but — or who the Yankees were playing, but I remember a foul ball was hit I believe by Hank Bauer, but I could be wrong, and it went ricocheting off those metal posts that used to exist in the old Yankee Stadium and I was scared out of my mind because I said, “Oh boy, I’d love to catch a foul ball.” And after that ball went ricocheting at about a million miles an hour, I changed my mind.

John Sparks
So, you were a Mickey fan and of course you followed Maris in ’61 and over the years there have been a lot of history that’s taken place there, what was your biggest thrill as a Yankee fan from all those years?

Len Berman
Well, I guess it was really away from the field getting to meet Mickey Mantle. I mean he was my idol. I mean I lived and died with Mantle. I remember as a nine- or ten-year-old sending him a self-addressed stamped envelope asking for his autograph and he actually wrote back to me with his autograph. Well, I read that he only answered fan mail from young women. There you go — my hero. So, I said to him, “Mickey, you answered my letter. What was the deal with that?” He said, “You must write like a girl.”

John Sparks
Love it. Love it.

Len Berman
That was really the biggest … in person, I don’t know, it was just a number of things. I mean I remember the 1961 World Series, the Yankees were playing Cincinnati Reds and we had the day off from school. I was in high school at the time, and so we just — I think there was some kind of standardized testing going on in the city. So, we just hopped on a subway. We went to the World Series. We didn’t have a ticket. It was ball one and walked into the bleachers and watched the World Series’ game. So, it just shows you how times have changed.

John Sparks
Now you mentioned of course growing up in the ’50s and of course the Dodgers were in Brooklyn at Ebbets Field and the Giants were in the Polo Grounds. Do you ever go watch them?

Len Berman
Well no, I was such a Yankee fan to the point where … my brother and my dad would go once a year to either Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds to see a Giant/Dodger game. I had no interest. I just hated the National League. I hated Brooklyn so much that I not only wouldn’t go to Ebbets Field, I wouldn’t allow my parents to even drive me to the borough. So, I have regrets now because I eventually I got to the Polo Grounds when the Mets were playing there. I never got to Ebbets Field. So, I really wish I had gone.

John Sparks
When you know in ’62 in those early days with Casey and the Mets, it had a lot of marquee value that had Yogi and Warren Spahn and I think Willie Mays even wore a Mets’ uniform, but it wasn’t until Seaver in 1969 that they emerged as a team, could be taken seriously. I’m just curious, even though you’re a Yankees’ fan, at what point did the Mets win a place in your heart?

Len Berman
Well, I always enjoyed them. I mean it was just a lot of fun in the early days. I mean it was just crazy with Marv Throneberry. I’ll never forget the anticipation of the Mets’ first game and then they lost and then they lost a bunch of them, and, then, next season opening day everyone’s excited and they lost again. It was just that “Let’s Go Mets” cheer started almost derisively and became really their mantra, and I think it was hard not to want the team to win. It was just… It was fun. I have a new kids’ book coming out next September called “The 25 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time.” And, there’s not a single Met in there unless you count Willie Mays at the end of his career and Warren Spahn at the end of his career, but that’s just so typical Mets. I mean they’re still the only team or one of the only teams without a no-hitter in their history. I mean they’re the longest running team without a no-hitter, so that’s just Mets. It’s just part of your fabric. It just doesn’t seem to change.

John Sparks
Well let’s fast forward to 2010, one of the things that the New York fans told the Marist Poll was that they believe the Yankees did just the right amount to improve the team over last year’s World Champions. I’m curious what you think. Do you think people like Curtis Granderson and Javier Vazquez and Randy Winn and Chan Ho Park will help bring about the first repeats since ’99/2000?

Listen to the Interview, Part 2:

Len Berman
That’s hard to say. It’s so difficult to repeat. The core of the Yankees is still kind of an older group, Posada and Jeter and A-Rod’s not getting younger and Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, I mean there’s a lot of, you’re banking on some older guys. I’m surprised that your poll determined that because I would’ve thought Yankee fans would’ve been disappointed that Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui did not return, so that poll result does surprise me.

John Sparks
Interesting. I was just about to ask you next about Damon and Matsui. I mean Matsui was a hero of the World Series …

Len Berman
Yep.

John Sparks
And Johnny Damon, even though he was a devil incarnate as a Red Sox, was great where the Yankees had them, will the loss of those two guys do you think really hurt the club?

Len Berman
I think on some level yes. Now that goes against my earlier argument about older players, but they made up a certain fabric of that clubhouse. They were both loved. They were both great spirits and great teammates and don’t forget Johnny Damon’s mad dash during the World Series where he stole second and third on the same play, which is a critical moment in the World Series. Yeah, I think that the Yankees took a little bit of a step back there, and I don’t know what’ll happen. I’m not … you try to be objective and really so much of it comes down to pitching and if CC Saba …  here’s a team that their biggest concern in spring training is who is the fifth starter? Most other teams in the Major Leagues, their biggest concern is who’s the second, third, and fourth starters. So, the Yankees have a leg up on so many people. But, yet, if CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte and Vázquez, and I assume Phil Hughes is the fifth starter, if they don’t deliver, then it’s a long season. So … that’s the beauty of baseball, anything’s possible.

John Sparks
I was going to ask you, you’re Joe Girardi, Joba or Phil Hughes for the fifth man?

Len Berman
Well, I put Joba in the bullpen. I always thought that he was just a great bullpen pitcher, and he’s a wild man who comes in and throws all these god for couple of pitchers or an inning or an inning in the third, and I think he’s more suited for the bullpen. The people that know baseball, the coaches and all the insiders, feel that since he has three or four different … bullpen guy usually has one or two great pitches, because he has the full repertoire, they want to see him as the starting pitcher. And, I just think he’s so well suited for the bullpen, especially on this team. I think he’d be a great weapon out there.

John Sparks
Girardi has a lot of left-handed hitters in the lineup taking advantage of the stadium, is there a downside to stacking that many in the lineup?

Len Berman
No, I think he’s got a bunch of switch hitters in there too. So, I think you’ll get the righty bats as well. The Yankees should score some runs. I mean the ball, we’ll see if it flies out as much as it did last year. That became an issue. They got a lot of money. They spend it. They’ve got a lot of talent, and it’s just throw them out there and see what happens. I mean there are always question marks. The second baseman, they don’t really know what they have. Gardner, I guess is going to be their leftfielder with Granderson in Center, and Nick Swisher is an interesting character in right field, and I know the fans like him. So, even with all that money, all those all stars, there are always questions, and that’s why they play 162.

John Sparks
Fans told Marist that they expect the Bombers to win again. Do you think that they will or what other clubs in the AL do you think we ought to be paying attention to?

Len Berman
Well, I certainly think they’re one of the favorites. A lot of people are looking to see what Seattle does. They’ve put together a nice ball club on the West Coast. The Red Sox are always an issue. Tampa Bay was not a fluke a couple years ago. Baltimore is improving. Yeah, if you had to put your hand on the Bible and say, “Who’s going to repeat?” You’d say, “Yeah, the Yankees probably would,” but they got a lot of talent, and they got a lot of money. So, I mean that’s a pretty good daily double right there.

John Sparks
Okay. Things aren’t quite so rosy over in Queens at Citi Field. The fans told us that only one in five think that the Mets can win the series. What seems to be the problem over there? They picked up somebody like Jason Bay. What’s going on over there do you think?

Listen to the Interview, Part 3:

Len Berman
They’ve really had a string of bad luck. The ownership’s heart is in the right place. They spend. They outspend just about every team in the Majors except for the Yankees, and maybe the Red Sox. Here’s a team that’s fighting for its identity and will always be number two in New York, or it seems that way, and they ran this incredible bad string of injuries last year. On top of that, they have so many question marks in their starting pitching. So, I can see where … my goodness, you said one in five thought they’d win the World Series. I think one in five might’ve said they had a chance for a winning record because Mets’ fans are pretty down over the way things have gone. They got a little bit of good news recently with José Reyes and it looks like he’s coming back and hopefully Carlos Beltrán will be able to return and be healthy, but they’ve just — boy, you talk about a snake-bit outfit. They bought a leftfielder when they really needed another pitcher. So, that’s why fans are a little bit skeptical.

John Sparks
Well you know they do have some bright spots. They got …   speaking of pitching, they got K-Rod and David Wright, I think is still solid. He hit .307 last year, but he did strike out a lot. Do you think that they have the potential to surprise some fans, or do you think the Phillies are just way too much?

Len Berman
Well, I think the Phillies are good. Don’t forget Johan Santana, he may be the best pitcher in the National League, and it all depends on … I joked about the second, third, and fourth starters, but let’s say Pelfrey and Oliver Perez and John Maine, let’s say all of sudden they start looking like Seaver and Koosman and Gentry. Then, gee, maybe they got something there. So, yeah, they’ve got talent. There’s no question. I mean I like Wright and Reyes on the left side and Bay and a healthy Beltrán, Francoeur seems to fit in nicely out there in right. I think first base and catching a little bit of question of marks, but bullpen looks decent. So, yeah, can they surprise people? Absolutely.

John Sparks
Any other National League teams that have caught your attention this year?

Len Berman
Well, you got to look at Philadelphia because they went to the World Series. I mean Atlanta, believe it or not, is making noises. You have to like what they’re doing. You always have to… I mean those long suffering Cubs’ fans, you have to look and see what’s going on over there. The Cards are always strong and the Dodgers too out West, so there’s some strong teams out there. There really are. So, the Mets not only have to overcome the Phillies, but they have to overcome those other teams as well.

John Sparks
I’ve told you before and I hear from people all the time that agree with me, just can’t tell you how much we miss seeing you on television, but I must tell you I really look forward to getting your daily Top 5 in my email. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came up with that and how folks can get it?

Len Berman
Thank you. I appreciate it. I don’t miss being on the nightly news. That’s for sure. I had some long hours and didn’t see my wife for a lot years, but I’ll do some future television. It just won’t be a nightly newscast. The Top 5, I always had this theory that not everybody is a hard core sports fan, and that’s how I approached my newscast at night. I think there are a lot of people who want to sort of know what’s going on, but don’t want to know all the gory details. So, I came up with this idea of sending out a daily email which is kind of a cheat sheet, water cooler conversation for people who don’t want to read the sports sections and don’t tune to all sports radio or ESPN TV, and they want to know what’s going on anyways. So, I send out a daily Top 5 I call it, and some of its serious. A lot of its frivolous and it has some fun facts and information. If anybody’s interested in getting it, my website is: thatssports.com, www.thatssports.com, and it’s free. Get it every day.

John Sparks
Great, we’ll certainly put out the word. Anything else on the horizon you want to share with us?

Len Berman
Well, I mentioned this kids’ book coming up in September, “The 25 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time.”  It’s really going to annoy a lot of people, because Sandy Koufax didn’t make the cut and Yogi Berra didn’t make and Nolan Ryan, and a bunch of great names did not make it. But it’s not my fault, because I had a blue-ribbon panel which included former players and some journalists and reporters and the producers. So, I had a pretty good cross section of panelists, and they made some interesting choices. There are only unanimous players in the history of baseball that people consider the 25 Greatest, of this panel anyway. Obviously Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Ted Williams, names like that.

John Sparks
Can’t wait to see it, and let’s make a day to talk about that as it gets closer to publication.

Len Berman
Great. Maybe we can have a Marist Poll and people agree or disagree with “The 25 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time.”

John Sparks
Great idea. Great idea. Len, it’s always a pleasure taking to you, really appreciate your time.

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