Hip-Hop 50: How Ghostface Killah made Graig Nettles cool again

Editor’s note: In honor of hip-hop turning 50, ESPN tapped the culture’s top voices to write about their favorite athlete name-drops in hip-hop history.

“Guardin’ the base like Graig Nettles” — Ghostface Killah on “Freestyle” with Raekwon (1995)

On the pothole-plastered streets of West Brighton, Staten Island, I spent the winter of 2008 scooping up ground balls and smashing tennis balls into parked cars with an aluminum bat whenever it was warm enough. My crouched batting stance was meant to mimic former New York Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano, and the casualness I tried to play the field with was to emulate Robinson Cano, the young replacement who was on the verge of superstardom. Both were Black Dominicans in a sport that I was beginning to notice had a shrinking number of players who looked like me, especially in the case of the Bronx Bombers, whom I worshipped. Cano and Soriano had played with so much swag and I was determined to be a second baseman by the time my final year of Little League baseball rolled around just like them.

In the early spring, I would walk 20 minutes to my grandfather’s crib to 1. Show off my coming-around glove skills and 2. Talk about the first Yankees season I would witness without Joe Torre in the dugout. After that, I would hang out in the basement where my uncle stayed to watch TV, flip through car magazines, and bang Wu-Tang CDs. I was fascinated by the WU, initially because they repped Staten Island, and then, because the lyrical imaginations of Meth, Rae and Ghost specifically began to influence the way I thought. My uncle would play me Ghost’s “Supreme Clientele,” and on one of my favorite tracks, “Mighty Healthy,” he would call himself the “Rap Derek Jeter” which was a complete fusion of my two interests at the time.

I was on the Shamrock Paints, a team in the Snug Harbor Little League that had the ugliest slime-green uniforms that have ever draped my body. As the season approached, the coach, a portly Irish man who was the dad of our star hitter, gave each player a chance across the field. I made sure to tell him, “I’m a second baseman,” but he didn’t seem too impressed. When he finally did let us know what positions would be ours, I was devastated to find out that I was the third baseman. In dramatic fashion, I wanted to quit. When I went home I flipped through my binder of Yankees baseball cards, trying to find a third baseman to attach myself to. A-Rod? I hated him until ’09 for getting traded for Soriano. Scott Brosius? Boring. Wade Boggs? Terrible mustache.

I didn’t quit, but was still pretty pouty about my situation. Though, I wouldn’t have admitted that third base was actually more fun than I thought — you got to be in your own world, compared to the middle infielders who depended so much on communication. I hugged the line, balls came fast, and I got to show off my arm which led to me getting pulled into the rotation of pitchers.

About halfway through the season, my uncle fired up YouTube and showed me a grainy throwback Rae and Ghost freestyle he had recently come across. In their flyest outfits, the duo’s chemistry is as locked in as anything on “The Purple Tape” (“Only Built for 4 Cuban Linx.”) Then, at one point, in unison, they rapped, “Guardin’ the base like Graig Nettles” as the beat fades out for a moment. It was so cold how they said it with so much intensity and swag, and it was a baseball reference, though I had no idea who Graig Nettles was, but given it was Ghost and Rae I figured that he was a Yankee. Later, I asked my grandfather, who seemed to have an encyclopedic memory of all the Yankee greats. I don’t remember a whole lot of what his opinions were on Graig Nettles, but he did mention that he was a Yankees third baseman, which was all I needed.

In my binder, there was no sign of Nettles, so I went to Google. He was a perennial All-Star, former AL MVP, two-time Gold Glove winner, and two-time world champ with the Yanks. Of course, he wasn’t Black or Dominican, but if he was cool enough to be name-dropped by Ghost and Rae, he was cool enough for me. He didn’t quite become my third-base idol, but the day I walked into a memorabilia store and saw his card behind the counter, I was stoked and had to buy it.

I played out the rest of the season at third base, growing attached to the position like I never imagined. One day at the end of the season, we were low on middle infielders and the coach asked me to move over to second for a couple of innings. The whole time I couldn’t wait to get back to my corner of the diamond.

Alphonse Pierre is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, Complex, Vice and The Fader.

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