Editor’s Note: In celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, ESPN reached out to culture’s top voices to write about the names of their favorite athletes in hip-hop history.
“Guardin’ the base like Graig Nettles” – Ghostface Killah on “Freestyle” with Raekwon (1995)
On the potholed streets of West Brighton, Staten Island, I spent the winter of 2008 picking up ground balls and hitting tennis balls into parked cars with an aluminum racquet whenever it was warm enough. My crouched punching stance should mimic the previous one New York Yankees second baseman Alfonso Sorianoand the nonchalance I tried to play with on the field was meant to emulate Robinson Cano, the young successor who was about to become a superstar. Both were black Dominicans in a sport I was beginning to notice that there were fewer and fewer players who looked like me, particularly in the case of the Bronx Bombers, who I adored. Cano and Soriano had played with so much swag and I was determined to be a second baseman when my senior year in little league baseball went just like them.
In early spring, I walked 20 minutes to my grandfather’s daycare to 1. show off my glove-playing skills and 2. talk about the first Yankees season I’d see without Joe Torre in the dugout. After that, I stayed in the basement where my uncle lived to watch TV, flip through car magazines, and listen to Wu Tang CDs. I was intrigued by WU, first because it represented Staten Island, and then because the lyrical performances of Meth, Rae, and Ghost began to influence my thinking. My uncle played me Ghost’s “Supreme Clientele” and on one of my favorite songs, “Mighty Healthy,” he called himself “Rap Derek Jeter,” which was a complete amalgamation of my two interests at the time.
I was with the Shamrock Paints, a Snug Harbor Little League team that wore the ugliest slime green uniforms that have ever covered my body. As the season approached, the coach, a portly Irishman who was our batsman’s father, gave every player a chance on the field. I made sure to tell him, “I’m a second baseman,” but he didn’t seem too impressed. When he finally told us what positions we would be taking, I was devastated to learn I was third baseman. In a dramatic way, I wanted to stop. When I got home, I flipped through my binder of Yankees baseball cards, trying to find a third baseman to bond with. A pole? I hated him until 2009 because he was traded for Soriano. Scott Brosius? Boring. Wade Boggs? Terrible mustache.
I didn’t give up but was still pretty sulky about my situation. However, I wouldn’t have admitted that third base is actually more fun than I thought – you have to be in your own world compared to the midfielders who rely so much on communication. I held on to the line, the balls came fast and I was able to show my arm which ended up being pulled into the pitcher rotation.
About halfway through the season my uncle launched YouTube and showed me a grainy throwback freestyle he’d seen recently by Rae and Ghost. In their flying outfits, the duo’s chemistry is as good as it gets on “The Purple Tape” (“Only Built for 4 Cuban Linx”) knocked, “Guardin’ the base like Graig Nettles,” while the beat dies out for a moment. It was as cold as they said it with so much intensity and swag and it was a baseball nod although I had no idea who Graig Nettles was but since it was Ghost and Rae I figured he was a Yankee was. I later asked my grandfather, who seemed to have an encyclopedic memory of all the great Yankees. I don’t remember exactly what he thought of Graig Nettles, but he mentioned that he was a Yankees third baseman and that was all I needed.
There was no reference to Nettles in my folder, so I went to Google. He was a perennial All-Star, former AL MVP, two-time Gold Glove winner, and two-time world champion with the Yanks. Of course he wasn’t black or Dominican, but if he was cool enough to be named by Ghost and Rae, he was cool enough for me. He didn’t quite become my idol at third base, but when I walked into a gift shop and saw his card behind the counter, I was hooked and had to buy it.
I spent the rest of the season at third base and developed a bond with that position that I could never have imagined. One day at the end of the season we were short of midfielders and the coach asked me to move to second position for a couple of innings. All the while I couldn’t wait to get back to my corner of diamond.
Alphonse Pierre is a New York-based author whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, Complex, Vice, and The Fader.