It was the (only sometimes) unspoken question always in the background for the first season of the new Yankee Stadium, and it increasingly became the undertone as the post-season accelerated.
Even this afternoon, as the minions of the nation’s media capital tried to out-do each other with more and more speculative coverage of the victory parade, a reporter who has been on the radio here for nearly half a century insisted that the highlight of the day would be the “emotional moment” when Steinbrenner accepted his key to the city. A less-senior and far more skeptical colleague asked if this was actually going to happen. The veteran’s answer: “It’s right here in the program for the ceremony!”
This is, of course, the impression the Yankees continue to give: that all is not necessarily well with their venerable owner, but that he’s still frequently involved. There was even a very sad effort just last Saturday by The New York Post to palm off a series of e-mailed answers from infamous mega-flak Howard Rubinstein as an “exclusive interview” with George Steinbrenner. To paraphrase Churchill, the answers contained every cliche except “prepare to meet thy maker,” and “employees must wash hands.”
I have seen The Boss, with whom I have had a surprisingly warm and even conspiratorial relationship since I was a teenager, only twice this year, and the information gleaned from each encounter was directly self-contradictory. In March, David Cone and I were leaving the press box at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa when the place was frozen by security – it was George on his way out and they cleared the route for him. He was in a wheelchair and looked just this side of robust – twinkly-eyed and neither gaunt nor puffy. Cone whispered that he just had to say hello, and hoped he’d get a hello back.
This is what I heard:
Cone: (mumbled greeting)
Steinbrenner: Of course I know it’s you, David. Jesus! We could’ve used you pitching out there today. Who were those kids? Are any of them ready?
So much for Cone’s fear (and mine – to this day I think of George less for the chaos of the ’70s and ’80s and more for the letter he wrote to ESPN management praising my work on the 1992 Expansion Draft, in which I roundly criticized how his team handled the non-protection of its younger prospects, or the day he spent twenty minutes recounting to Bill Clinton, of all people, virtually every encounter he and I had had since 1973, right down to the story of my mother getting hit by the Knoblauch ball and refusing to ever go back to Shea Stadium even though the Yanks were playing World Series games there).
But just weeks later, during another lockdown, I saw Steinbrenner carted through the bowels of the new ballpark in the Bronx and lifted – not helped, but moved by a guy at each end – into a wheelchair.
Over the last few years, as his health has gotten intermittent, the volume of even rumors and whispers around the Bronx about how he is has declined. When the Yankees traded for Jeff Weaver, Steinbrenner poked his head in to the press conference and asked me “What do you think? How clear-headed does he sound? Is he going to be able to handle this?” – prescient questions, as it proved. A year later I was told that everybody knew there were “awareness problems” but that to my source’s knowledge, nobody in the Yankee organization had ever heard a diagnosis, a prognosis, or even a vaguely medical-sounding term. A year after that, when he recited our history to Clinton, his memory was so sharp as to include some stories that I had forgotten – but each time he tried to say my name, all he could come up with was “uhh… this young man.” After the 2007 season, there is no question that, to some degree great or small, he was behind the nightmarish, take-it-or-leave-it dethroning of Joe Torre as manager.
There are fewer such reports these days, and not even that level of source information. There’s a lot to be said against George Steinbrenner and lord knows I’ve said much of it. But something made me feel very sad today at that Yankee ceremony: contrary to what it said “right here on the program for the ceremony!,” The Boss was indeed not there to accept the keys to the city.
New York (American) opens 0-2 against what it likes to think is its weakest divisional foe. Sabathia’s ERA is 12.46 and is, by nearly five runs, the best among the starters, and Wang got two-thirds of his outs on the ground and still got torched. Oh, and Teixeira’s 1-for-9.
(Much of this post is based on a script written for tonight’s television show)
My mother passed away Saturday night.
This remembrance is not going to be a medical history – though lord knows Mom was the world’s foremost authority on her own health. Nor is it going to consist of me telling you she was the proverbial saint; although I can hear her saying: “go ahead; I‘m not going to disagree with you.Who’s going to contradict you?“ It is not going to be a full biography – suffice to say she was a gifted pre-school teacher and a legendary authority on opera and, somewhere, she is going to be genuinely disappointed that I didn’t get Placido Domingo to sing at the memorial service.I thought instead it was best to focus on something for which she became, and remained, pretty famous, literally until the day she died.
My mother was one of the best-known baseball fans in this country. She attended Yankees from 1934 through 2004, and she watched or listened to every one she didn’t go to, up until last month. My guess is, she went to at least 1500 of them, most in Box 47E in the suddenly “old” Yankee Stadium.
As recently as March 13th, Mets Manager Jerry Manuel came over to me before his team’s exhibition game against the Tigers in Lakeland, Florida, and asked me how she was. He was the fifth or sixth active baseball figure to do so, this year. They have averaged at least one or two a month, for nearly a decade. Last Saturday afternoon, not six hours before Mom died, a New York Yankees executive made reference to that which had made Mom famous in the ballparks.
And trust me: Mom loved being famous in the ballparks.
Even if that fame had to be achieved in the way it was, on June 17th, 2000, when the sudden, and growing, inability of the ill-fortuned second baseman Chuck Knoblauch to make any kind of throw, easy or hard, to first base, culminated in him picking up a squib off the bat of Greg Norton of the White Sox and throwing it not back towards first, but, instead, off the roof of the Yankees’ dugout where it picked up a little reverse english and smacked my mother right in the bridge of her glasses.
Chuck was in the middle of losing his beloved father at that time and though I thought I “got” what that meant to him, I didn’t really understand it until today as I wrote this, and struggled to find the right keys, let alone the right words.
In any event, for three days in 2000, Mom was on one or both of the covers, of The New York Post and The New York Daily News and Newsday. She was somewhere in every newspaper in America.
And all this happened, while I was the host of the Game of the Week, for Fox. Literally sitting in a studio in Los Angeles, watching a bank of monitors with a different game on every monitor and recognizing instantly what must have happened (based on a lifetime of knowing the camera angles in the ballpark in which I grew up). I said, maybe too matter-of-factly, “that probably hit my mother.” The crew laughed and I repeated it. More laughs. Then the next shot was of an older woman being led up the aisle towards an aid station – my mother.
I actually got to do a highlight cut-in for the broadcast by Joe Buck and Tim McCarver of a game at Dodger Stadium, and said, as I remember it: “Chuck Knoblauch’s throwing problem is getting personal. He picks up Greg Norton’s grounder, bounces it off the dugout roof and hits… my mother. I’ve talked to Mom, she’s fine, she’ll be back out there tomorrow. Joe? Tim?“
The next week we pre-taped an interview, me in our L.A. studios and Mom in my childhood home (the photo of her above is from that conversation, and my thanks to my old boss at Fox Sports, David Hill, for letting me re-run the interview tonight on tv). I concluded it by noting my status as a memorabilia collector and asked her if she’d give me the baseball with which she was hit. She said I could bid on it like anybody else. For the rest of the year, any time Fox broadcast a game from Yankee Stadium, Mom got on tv. We even talked about her during the World Series broadcasts that fall, during which began the ritual that continues still: players – players who were at the game, players who only heard about the game, players of all kind – ask me about my Mom.
Since the day it happened, I’ve been told Chuck Knoblauch has been mortified by it. Chuck: give yourself a break.You made her famous. She loved it. She couldn’t have been happier if they had let her pinch-hit for you.
A full circle, that is.
It was my mother who was the fan in our family. My Dad likes the game enough, but the Yankees traded his favorite player and he’s still mad at them. This happened late in 1948. But it was Mom who introduced me to the game, and in my teenaged years when we went nearly every day, it was she who trundled me and my sister to the ballpark. It was on her tv that I came to love the sport, and by her side that I began to understand it. And, sitting next to her, that I began to understand that I was not going to be any damn good playing it and if I wanted “in” – maybe I’d better try talking about it.
Thus was born a career, the results of which you see now. At least half of the ham comes from her – she was an aspiring ballerina – and when I keep talking and talking – for good or for ill – that’s pretty much all her. What I don’t have evidence of, are the thousand hours she spent driving me to and from school so I could work on the newspaper or announce the hockey game. In retrospect it’s obvious she was – to adapt a phrase — a Media Mom.
It was the proverbial “sudden illness” – in the best of senses: She had no apparent symptoms until two weeks ago; she was not severely afflicted until ten days ago; the treatment she received lessened her pain; and she never awakened and thus never had to hear – nor did any of us have to say – you have terminal cancer. I’m not going to end with a harangue about how you need to go see your doctor (because not feeling so bad does not mean you aren’t sick) though you should keep that in mind. Knowing that those who have watched or read my work have always overwhelmed me with their support, and how personally they take all this – if you are so inclined, instead of flowers or cards, make a donation to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, or St Jude’s Hospital, they do such important work there.
Marie Olbermann is survived by her husband – my Dad, by my sister Jen and her husband, and their two kids, Jacob and Eve – Mom’s grandchildren. She’s survived by her cousins Robert and Bill Schlumbohm, and their families; by just about everybody in baseball… and… by me.
Good night, Mom, and good luck.