He may have thrown a weak first pitch, but Barack Obama seems to have acquitted himself pretty well with that other presidential baseball ritual: honoring the World Series champs at the White House. Obama didn’t have to take a stab at What It Means to Be a Yankee during his (otherwise perfunctory) speech, but he did, and the result is a fairly compelling theory of Yankeedom as noblesse oblige:
being a Yankee is as much about character as it is about performance; as much about who you are as what you do. Being successful in New York doesn’t come easy, and it’s not for everybody. It takes a certain kind of player to thrive in the pressure cooker of Yankee Stadium -– somebody who is poised and professional, and knows what it takes to wear the pinstripes. It takes somebody who appreciates how lucky he is, and who feels a responsibility for those who are less fortunate.
Obviously if you think the Yankees are imperial malice incarnate you probably think this description is completely wrong, and that the president who made it is selling out his White Sox like they were Dawn Johnsen. (My friend Noah Kazis swears that “a real liberal would authorize the first unmanned drone strike of his administration, not in Afghanistan, but at Steinbrenner’s Tampa home.”) But whether or not you think it’s an accurate description of the current franchise, I think the president’s right that this is the way dominant sports teams (and players) ought to behave — and that they ought to be recognized when they do. I fully agree with Matt Yglesias that society needs to be more demanding of the super-rich and super-fortunate, but the flip side of shaming the greedy is honoring the gracious. Heck, it’s possible to use praise as a challenge: You know you’re not really this good. Be this good.
On another note, I’m not sure the president understands Yankee cool. Sure, there’s that line about being “poised and professional,” but later in the speech he talks about Jeter’s “high-school track team” hustle and totally loses the point. You’re expected to work hard as a Yankee, but you’re not supposed to show the exertion on or off the field, let alone the strain. To me, this is the most dangerous thing about the New York “pressure cooker.” I was as annoyed with A-Rod as anyone else in 2005, but I couldn’t help but be a little uneasy about the crap he took from the press when he admitted he’d been in therapy. Pretty much everybody who can afford it needs therapy to deal with New York! But while there are a lot of luxuries noblesse oblige confers, vulnerability is not one of them.