Thursday, March 6, 2008

Are the Yankees More Like The Godfather or Arrested Development?

I have a feeling this post is going to be long. I was on vacation when the New York Times' Play Magazine came out this month with its fantastic cover story on the disorganized House of Steinbrenner, Oedipus Bronx. Here's the first paragraph, which sets the tone for the wild ride:

Hank Steinbrenner was driving like he owned the place. “This thing’s got no pickup,” he said, gunning my midsize Hyundai down Steinbrenner Drive in Tampa, Fla. We had just finished lunch on a January afternoon at a Steinbrenner family favorite, an Italian restaurant called Iavarone’s, and were on our way back to his new office at Legends Field in my rental car, which Hank had insisted on driving. As we approached the ballpark, he steered the car up onto the curb, drove it on the main walkway, between the Yankees merchandise store and a small memorial park devoted to Yankee immortals, and came to a stop just a few feet from the tinted-glass door marked “Executive Offices.” “This is where I usually park,” Hank said, stepping out of the Hyundai and tossing me the keys.

The bombast, the self-importance, the power... well, it stirred up shit in some of my Yankee fan amigos. I received two emails. The first was merely titled "This is the Godfather — the allusions are ridiculous" and had the link in the body. The second read:

Subject: sword of destiny

how has it not occurred to me before that hank and hal steinbrenner are the gob and michael bluth of major league baseball?

a sort of concerned yankee fan

These guys were, in the parlance of our times, clearly onto something (One thing we know for sure is that the Yankees are no The Big Lebowski. They are, in fact, probably polar opposites, and we're all very fond of that). So, not even knowing what I'll decide, I will attempt to break it down: Are the Yankees more like The Godfather or Arrested Development?

Rather than break it down character-by-character, I'm going to discuss it in one huge mess. Sit back and relax.

The Godfather and Arrested Development are both about family businesses in trouble. The Corleone family is in trouble because of the mafia's changing and dwindling role in the world; the family still has quite a bit of power, but it's either adapt (by getting into the drug business, for one), consolidate (by offing other families) or go straight (not really an option) to survive. The family is failing despite its best efforts, though Sonny's occasionally careless and hotheaded ways can't help. In Arrested Development, the family is failing because of its gross incompetence. The patriarch, George, is in jail, and that right there is our first indication that this whole Yankees analogy has a fun bite to it, Papa Bear Steinbrenner having memorably served his own prison time. We never see — with the exception of the series finale, when we learn Lucille's been pulling the strings all along — how George ever actually made the business work. It seems to have been built from the collective strength of the family, picking up for each other where they failed, whereas The Godfather was a top-down organization.

In both cases, the burden of keeping the family afloat falls to the studious son named Michael, and not the bombastic oldest son, Hank or GOB, who would absolutely die to have the job as top dog, and quite obviously just to please their father. “Every son seeks his dad’s approval, obviously," Hank told the Times, responding to his suggestion that his dad had the same motivation. Hank's been in front of the cameras since his dad stepped out, in order to show he's got control, but it could just be an illusion magic. From a young age, the boyish-looking, conservative Hal was deigned the heir apparent, and seems to have settled into a quiet leadership role. So is Hal more Michael Bluth or Michael Corleone? (And you've got to love that the names are the same, again.) Look at the picture in the NYT. He looks just like Michael Bluth! But he's probably more like Corleone, in that all have accepted their roles out of necessity, yet Hal and Corleone have actually come to terms with them. The biggest joke of Arrested Development is that Michael Bluth is not all that much different than the rest of his family; he just hides his craziness behind sport jackets, khakis and a bicycle.

I guess what's at issue is whether the Yankees are ultimately a Serious American Institution or whether they're ultimately here for our amusement, on the field and off. For all the Yankees' huff about the total importance of victory, they've seemed to acknowledge the need for a slapstick edge to things, and Hank has cast himself into the starring role in Yankees theater. He told the Times, "The fans want the Steinbrenners involved," leading the article's author, Jonathan Mahler, seems to support that statement, writing, "Whether the team was winning or not, [George] always put on a good show, and with his brashness, overconfidence and egomania, he seemed genetically engineered for New York." That's the Bluth family right there — cue "The Final Countdown," or the Rock-Paper-Scissors model home — not the staid Godfather setting. With the cash-cow YES Network behind them, winning isn't the only thing, but the perception of being a winner is, and the Bluths are the ones concerned about perception. Maybe Sonny's ego would have puffed out the Corleones, but he made the huge mistake of not having exact change.

Still, there's a really strong correlation with The Godfather in the secondary characters. Could Brian Cashman be any more Tom Hagen? Is it possible? Randy Levine as Clemenza is perfect. Steve Swindal as Carlo, Connie's (Jennifer Steinbrenner) husband, primed to take a lead role in the family before he fucks up and is taken out completely? I mean, seriously? A-Rod as Jonny Fontane, the self-confident superstar who's an idol onstage but has to beg and cry for recognition and help off of it? Joe Torre as Moe Greene (the names even look the same), the man who paves the way for success, taking Fredo under his wing only to get shot in the head when he's no use any more? On the flip side, you've got Jessica Steinbrenner as Lindsay Fünke and Felix Lopez, her husband, as Tobias. You've got Michael Kay as the narrator (Ron Howard). You've got Chien-Ming Wang as Annyong (Annyong!), the Asian import who turns out to be far craftier than expected. And, of course, you have Liza Minelli as Liza Minelli.

Of course, it would be fun to introduce some of AD characters into the Yankees' story: imagine a fifth Steinbrenner child as Buster Bluth romping around Legends Field? Barry Zuckercorn sitting down with Scott Boras? Of course, when the Steinbrenners start unknowingly imitating the Bluths, they do the work for you. Jennifer channels Lindsay Fünke so powerfully in this absurd exchange that it's hard to believe she's not doing it on purpose. She talks about wanting to live right across the street from Yankee Stadium. As a rule, you don't want to live across the street from any sports stadium, but Yankee Stadium is a particular gem in this department. Jennifer Steinbrenner would not only NOT live across the street from Yankee Stadium, she'd take a cab to get there. And yet...

“Isn’t it thrilling?” gushed Jennifer, who was gamely navigating the construction site in a black fur-lined coat, high-heeled boots and a Yankees hard hat. “My dream is to own a little apartment over there,” she said, pointing at the tenement across the street from the main entrance to the new ballpark. “That way I’d only have to cross the street to get to the stadium.”

These are the people that will be making decisions for the Yankees in the future. They're smart and powerful, but erringly human. They have corporate vision and tremendous blind spots. They've got high-profile enemies who revel in their failures but still fear them. They are, in short, a family. I'm not sure they're more like The Godfather or Arrested Development. I guess with a gun to my head I'd say the Yankees are more like The Godfather. The Hank/Hal relationship reminds me too much of what would have happened if Sonny had lived. This was exhausting. Fuck it dude, let's go bowling.


Brad said...

Excellent article, but who does this make the Red Sox?

Bryan said...