Diego Armando Maradona died Wednesday at the age of 60.
Many of us have tales to tell about his genius, about his flaws, about his legendary burst through England’s defenses in the 1986 World Cup, and his other goal that day, a cynical punch of the ball: “The Hand of God.”
My friend John McDermott, an American now living in northeast Italy, often visits Napoli, the raffish city settled by Greeks long ago, known for its symbol, the scugnizzi, the street boys.
Playing for SSC Napoli, Maradona from Argentina found his spiritual home. The city of the scugnizzi understood him best.
John McDermott often visits Napoli, for subject matter, to teach photography, to enjoy the city.
On Wednesday, when word came of Maradona’s death, John send me some photos and he also wrote:
“Diego in his finest hour...the 1986 World Cup Final...RIP, Campeon. I first covered him in 1979 for Sports Illustrated, games against Holland in Bern and against Italy in Rome. He was a kid among men but was already acknowledged as an arriving superstar. There were to be many more occasions after that where I witnessed his brilliance first-hand.
“In his book ‘The Simplest Game,’ the distinguished soccer journalist Paul Gardner wrote, 'No player in the history of the World Cup had ever dominated in the way Maradona ruled over Mexico-86.'”
Of Maradona's legendary solo goal against England in that tournament Gardner described the run as “10 seconds of pure, unimaginable soccer skill to score one of the greatest goals in the history of the World Cup.” Such was his importance to Argentina that the country has just declared three days of national mourning. But he also belonged to Napoli and the southern Italian city is also in mourning. An ironic note, Diego died on the same day as George Best, fifteen years ago. If Maradona and Pelé were the greatest players of all time, Best was not very far behind them.” Photo © John McDermott.
You ask if I ever met Maradona. Sort of. To prepare for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the NYT Magazine asked me to write a profile of the stubby wizard who had hijacked the 1986 World Cup. I started doing my homework, as I wrote in my book, “Eight World Cups,” Henry Holt, 2014.
Somebody slipped me Maradona’s home phone number in Naples. I dialed the number and in my very modest Italian I explained my mission. A male voice at the other end immediately switched to a form of Spanish. All right. I switched to my limited Spanish. The man at the other end shifted back to Italian. He seemed to understand my message – I was a New York Times reporter, looking to interview Maradona – and he professed to take my number, and promised to pass it along. I did not get a call back.
In the spring of 1990, I went to Naples and with the help of a Cristina the NYT bureau translator/guide, I went to see Maradona play, meshing perfectly with Careca, a Brazilian forward, the two of them as smooth and swift as a Lamborghini
Afterward, Napoli held a press conference in a room near the locker room. To my delight, Maradona himself materialized, his thick curls showing a touch of gray, an earring glittering from his left lobe.
After they lowered the microphone for him – geez, he was short – Maradona began answering questions.
That voice sounded familiar.
Son of a bitch. That was the voice on the other end of the phone, the guy who kept switching languages on me. Cristina said his guttural Italian, with an Argentine accent, was not bad at all.
The obits will tell the sad and probably even sordid of a genius who fell apart before our eyes, banished from the 1994 World Cup for having a “cocktail” of drugs in his system.
His legacy is contained in the video of one screaming South American broadcaster, witnessing the romp of Diego Armando through the English defense. Never mind the Hand of God scam. This goal was human soccer brilliance, genius on the fly.
Bob Mindelzun was a great soccer teammate. He knew the sport, had played it in Poland, and was big enough and fast enough to be one of the best players on our team.
He laughed easily and was good company on the buses and subways that took us to road games in Queens and Brooklyn.
He spoke English with a thick accent, which was not unusual in Jamaica High School in central Queens. I remember teammates from Italy, France, Sweden, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and I think Greece. Our great captain, Bob Seel, had learned his soccer in the German-American clubs of Ridgewood.
We did not talk about backgrounds, not in the mid ‘50s, when the world was still processing what exactly had happened in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The wounds were so recent that words like “Shoah” and “Holocaust” were not part of our vocabulary, not yet.
After graduation, I kept in touch with many accomplished and interesting friends from Jamaica; five of my teammates became doctors, including Dr. Robert Mindelzun, radiologist and professor at Stanford University.
I have not seen him since graduation, but lately I realized that Bob came from Eastern Europe. Recently, we talked on the phone, and I asked a few questions, and he said, “Would you like to see my book?” Yes, I said. Please.
Bob wrote and published, in 2012, a book entitled “The Marrow of Memory,” about the terrible journey of his father and mother and their only child, from bombed-out Warsaw, thousands of miles further north into Russia, first to the Komi region, with its Finno-Ugric tribal history, near the Arctic Circle, to camps for refugees, the most endangered of whom were Jews, like the Mindelzuns.
In this time of pandemic….and a rampaging American president…it is easy to blurt that life has never been this dangerous. Bob’s book tells of other times.
This little cluster of family, which had lived a comfortable urban life in cultured Warsaw, now had to survive. The Jewish Poles were particularly vulnerable, including the little boy.
“They just had to see you with your pants down and you were done,” Bob said recently, a referral to the Jewish practice of circumcision.
Leon and Halina and young Robert stayed together as long as they could in hideous conditions – minimal food, terrible sanitary and medical conditions. Early in the war, his father re-enlisted in the Polish army – as a truck driver, for the relative safety, and for many months he was away, on duty.
“We did not know if he was dead or alive,” Bob said recently.
There was always danger. Bob’s mother loved to dance, and once went to a social evening in a camp, where she was asked to dance by a Russian officer, as acrobatic as a professional folk dancer. At the end of the traditional kazotsky, he landed gracefully at her feet, and kissed her shoes. She understood the danger, and never went back to the social evenings.
I was surprised by the number of photographs in the book – not just old family photos from vibrant Warsaw but also documents and photos from the war. Bob explained: The strength of rural life was the small villages, where even in wartime there were still amenities like photo shops, if you can imagine.
Somehow, through all the upheavals, they kept a trove of photos and documents, many in this book.
There was another advantage to living in the Arctic Circle: according to Dr. Mindelzun: up north there was much less disease than in the more southern regions.
At the end of the war, the family was reunited in Warsaw, now bombed out by the Nazis, and came to realize many in their family had died or been killed. Others were in hiding, depending on good luck, the kindness of strangers.
When the Cold War began to loom, the parents made the decision to emigrate to France – a tiny rented room in Belleville, a Paris suburb. They did not speak any French. The father, seeking a new trade, traveled all over Paris by Métro, the subway, only to be confused that so many stations had the same name: Sortie.
The mother explained that was the word for Exit; it became a family joke among the three of them.
For a time, the parents had to put their only child in an orphanage, but when they felt the menace of the Russians in the Cold War, they applied to several nations and were accepted by the United States. They arrived in Queens in 1953, still together.
And that’s where the book ends. Bob alludes briefly to his father opening a modest luncheonette in Jamaica but he does not write about Jamaica High, with its great tradition of education. (The geniuses who run the city recently terminated Jamaica High but the beautiful building on the glacial hill, built to last forever, houses smaller schools.)
He does not tell how he played soccer at Queens College and eventually took his parents with him when he began his medical career in the Bay Area. The father lived to 89, the mother to 93, and they told him stories of that awful time. He used great swatches of their tales in his book.
Our friendly and skillful teammate joking in the fourth or fifth language of his young life, later married Naomi, an artist in the Bay Area, whose shimmering versions of his way stations grace the book. They have raised two children, one of them a doctor and writer.
I asked my teammate to compare the time of his childhood to the dangers, medical and political, of today, and he said: “As unpleasant as this is, it doesn’t compare.”
He has seen worse.
This book is a memorial to all who perished, and those lucky enough to survive.
Speaking of survivor-athletes, my friend Leo Ullman and his parents survived in wartime Netherlands, and he is the subject of a prize-winning documentary, “There Were Good People Doing Extraordinary Deeds…Leo Ullman’s Story:"
(Leo also has a huge collection of Nolan Ryan memorabilia, now the subject of a webinar:)
Not bad for a child who was sheltered in the Dutch countryside while his parents hid in an Ann-Frank type garret in Amsterdam -- and with the good will of this country back then, they made a success here, like my teammate and his family have done.
When Kim Ng, of Chinese descent, was appointed general manager of the Miami Marlins on Friday, she became the first female to hold that role in top American sports.
Americans like to congratulate ourselves on being the land of opportunity, which it has been, although under duress from our child-kidnapper-in-chief in the past four nasty years.
When voters elected Kamala Harris, part Jamaican, part Indian, and female, as the vice president nearly two weeks ago, this was cause for celebration in the U.S. -- although not by militia-type worthies with rifles on their hips who came out of the woods to help "supervise" the polling.
As for the rifles -- only in America.
Oddly enough, this opportunity stuff goes on in other countries, too.
Currently in London, under the leadership of Mayor Sadiq Khan, of Pakistani ancestry, large-scale celebrations of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, are being held in public places. This is not new. Two decades ago, my wife and I were in London (for a Giants football game!) when we ran into a modest Diwali celebration, some music, some dancing -- and we saw four female police officers, in classic bobby uniform, dancing along with the celebrants. Only in London.
Canada has its own share of vibrant minorities. I was reminded of this in the Saturday NYT in a touching profile of an orphan, from India, who lobbied his way to adoption in Toronto and now runs a high-end restaurant there.
When he was 8, Sashi was a street kid, abandoned, taken into a home in Tamil Nadu, operated by a small Canadian outfit, Families for Children. There are places like that all over India. My wife, Marianne, used to escort children from Pune to the U.S. for pre-arranged meetings with their adoptive families. ("I am the stork," was her motto. I think her total of kids was 24.) The U.S. was not the only country involved in adoptions. Canada was, and Norway had a large presence in India.
Children in these orphanages know what is going on: they are on display. They are not shy about asking foreign visitors: "Take me with you." (My wife still talks about the sadness of a girl, heading to her teen years, who had realized she was not being adopted.)
But as Catherine Porter writes in her poignant story in the NYT, young Sashi, with the desperation of a survivor, spotted Sandra Simpson of Canada, a return visitor to the orphanage, and he persuaded her to take him to Toronto and adopt him into her large brood.
How Sash Simpson became a top chef, four decades later, is a tribute to his drive to get in the back door of a restaurant, and do any job, and keep learning. He made his own luck, with the help of the Simpson pipeline, and others. His restaurant -- Sash -- is hurting during the pandemic, but he gives the impression that he forced his way this far, and will survive.
Only in Canada.
Then there is Ireland, where Hazel Chu, of Chinese heritage, has become mayor of Dublin, replacing Leo Varadkar, of Indian heritage, the first gay mayor of Dublin.
With my Irish passport (courtesy of my grandmother), may I say: "Only in Ireland."
What a waste. Nearly four years, over 235,000 lives, untold damage to the environment, friends betrayed, alliances broken. What a waste.
But now we have a chance to start over, and I want to credit one source for the grace and vision and strength behind this chance to recover -- the Black public figures who made such a big difference.
In the same year that a white police officer openly ground a Black man’s life into the pavement, the best and brightest helped elect a centrist who might, just might, pull some disparate parts together again.
The tone of this election year was set by Blacks who have been preparing for years, for decades, for centuries, for this moment. One great part was former President Obama sinking a feathery impromptu shot as he strolled through a gym – one and done – and as he kept moving he said, over his shoulder, “That’s what I do” -- Just as when he sang “Amazing Grace” in a church honoring slain members.
The tone of this election year was set early by Sen. Kamala Harris who began a primary debate by reciting racial injustices to one of her competitors, former Vice President Joe Biden. He blinked and took it, seemed to be listening, and months later he had the grace to select this accomplished lawyer/prosecutor/campaigner as his running partner. Grace under pressure, by both.
* * *
Now I want to praise four others who raised the grace level in this country:
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland passed last year, after setting a high level of righteousness in Congress. I witnessed him leading some sports/drugs hearings years ago, and ever since I have referred to him as The Prophet. In his final months, he admonished balky witnesses, “We’re better than this.”
Rep. John Lewis also did not make it to this election, but he had been setting an example since the police beat on him back in the ‘60s, at lunch counters and on the Pettus Bridge. He survived that, served in Congress, seeming so innocent but actually a living holy man, tempered in the flame.
Stacey Abrams lost a narrow race for governor in 2018, and soon used her intelligent smile, her knowledge, her persuasiveness, to help register voters – Black voters – in the South, where the desire to vote means standing on line in heat or rain for many hours, by Republican plan. This week, Abrams’ work helped throw two Senate races in Georgia into runoffs, early in January.
Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina changed history by endorsing Joe Biden, who had just gone through two disastrous primaries in the frozen North. Clyburn is one of the most composed of politicians, no bluster, no swagger, just serene confidence. He read the mood of South Carolina perfectly, and gave the nation a Democratic candidate who could balance the disturbed posturing and fatal incompetence of Donald Trump.
* * *
The positive effect on this nation will carry over into the new year, the new regime. Trumpites gloried in their man depicting Philadelphia, any urban setting, as dangerous, but a white President and a Vice President who is part Jamaican and part Indian live up to the professed ideals of this country.
As it happens, my family has some Jamaican and some Indian ancestry, as well as Black American, and Latino, and Asian, all kinds of Europeans, including the lady I live with who can trace herself to William the Conqueror and early New England settlers.
One young man in the family – with some Black ancestry -- called his grandmother in a nearby Atlanta suburb on Saturday to deliver the news that Biden had won.
* * *
And Saturday evening, a joyous, liberated, masked, socially-distanced, horn-honking, all-colors-of-the rainbow-crowd in a parking lot in Delaware greeted the new look of the Biden and Harris camps -- people who seemed to like each other, and love their children and speak comfortably of making this country work for everybody. The mixed racial makeup in that crowd seemed to match the impromptu crowd in the streets of Minneapolis when George Floyd was murdered, only this time not to protest but to cheer, to smile, to breathe,
Maybe, just maybe, things get better.
For days before the election, I had this image, this memory, of a young woman crying on the phone to her father, in the midnight hours, in November of 2016.
How could this happen? She wanted to know. Well, so did we, and so did Secretary Clinton.
I must have been clairvoyant because late Tuesday evening, my wife and I felt the same way. Four years later, and now this again?
The best part of the evening was the stunning professionalism, on live TV, mastering the obscure counties of the U.S., handling the magic boards, like two pinball wizards, Steve Kornacki of MSNBC and John King of CNN. (We switched around.) My ballplayer pal Jerry switched to Judy Woodruff on PBS and raved about her calm neutral professionalism.
I fell asleep with Biden on the bad end of a lot of numbers, but I woke up five hours with reassuring tweets from Deepest Pennsylvania and Way Upstate telling me that there was a chance.
Trump was being Trump -- threatening to go to his judges on the Supreme Court. Twitter cut him off. Much too late for that.
So now we are waiting it out.
I still think of the young woman asking her dad from long distance: How? Why?
* * *
(Steve Kornacki got a great writeup in Variety today:
(One of his colleagues said they forcibly ejected him from the studio after pulling an all-nighter, sent him to a place with a bed and pillows. Well-deserved.
Other than that, I am poleaxed by the mathematical complexities, the suspense, the rumors, the threats. . Going back to the tube soon.
Your experiences and reactions the last 24 hours?
* * *
(This was my post before Election Day:)
I got nothing.
Maybe you have something.
This malignant earworm has been proposing and doing mischief since he loomed on the escalator eons and eons ago.
Now I am tapped out.
I’m leaving this post out there, starting Monday morning.
If you disagree with my point of view, please say so.
I’ve been typing about this guy for a while, reminding people that I grew up (on a busy street, houses close together), a crucial half mile from the Trumps. I resent the hell out of him being described as a “Queens guy.” I know Queens people, tens of thousands of them, who went into socially-redeeming lines of work.
Just check out the “Trump” category to the right of this. I’ve said my piece.
Nervous on the day before the actual Election Day? “Breaking News” on the actual voting day? Do Barr and the new Supreme Court pull some scam in the days to come?
Get it out of your system, here.
I’m already discredited. Pole-axed by the results in the midnight hours, four years ago, I kept telling people, “I know this guy. He will do something heinous, and will be out of office in 18 months.”
They let him go on, and now we have a pandemic raging because he was always incompetent, and now it has become fatal.
For all my blathering, the best two words of this endless campaign came from Michelle Goldberg in the NYT. On the night after the second and last debate, she wrote:
Mocking Biden’s concern for struggling families sitting around their kitchen table, Trump tried to position himself as being above political clichés, but he just came off like a callous schmuck.
A “callous schmuck.” I am so jealous.
I am sure that some of the good people who read my little therapy website, and respond to it will have your own angst in the hours and days to come.
Not too long ago, Harvey Araton and Ira Berkow were gracing the sports pages of The New York Times with their wise columns.
Now they are both issuing books with their very personal views of the world.
Harvey’s book is “Our Last Season: A Writer, a Fan, a Friendship,” about the bond between him and Michelle Musler, who for decades was a fixture in the stands just behind the Knicks bench in Madison Square Garden.
Ira’s book is “How Life Imitates Sports: A Sportswriter Recounts, Relives and Reckons With 50 Years on the Sports Beat,” which just about tells it all.
(In alphabetical order)
Araton praises the wise businesswoman who was always there – for the Knicks and for him. He describes himself as the child of a project in Staten Island, who earns his entry into sports journalism while battling his own insecurities.
As he works his way from the Staten Island Advance to the Post to the Daily News, his talent and earnestness impress not only editors and readers but also a fan literally looking over his shoulder in the Garden.
Musler saw all – could read the body language, maybe even read lips, of the Knicks and the opponents and the refs. She had put her people skills to great advantage in the corporate world, undoubtedly by being wiser than the average (male) executive.
The Knicks were her outlet, she freely told friends, her social life. Everybody knew her – the players, nearby fans, reporters, ushers, even the team PR man, who left a packet of media stats and releases for her before every game. How cool was that?
Musler more or less adopted Harvey, counseled him, shaped him up, told him to aim big. She became friendly with Harvey’s wife, Beth Albert, and sometimes met Harvey after a game to debrief him on what she had seen from her perch.
When he fretted whether he was worthy of the Times job being offered, she figuratively slammed him up against a steel locker and gave him what a high-school coach I knew called “a posture exercise.” And when his career took a sour detour, she shaped him up, to the point that in retirement he remains an extremely valuable contributor to the Times sports section. Harvey is still what somebody once called him: “The Rebbe of Roundball.”
In return, Harvey came to know Michelle Musler – her strange childhood, her husband leaving her with five children, her career, her need to make money, her love of the Knicks. Her decades of working with male executives prepared her for a searing analysis of James Dolan, the miserable owner of the Knicks.
As Michelle’s health deteriorated, Harvey would sometimes drive from New Jersey to Connecticut to the Garden to get her to a game.
And when Michelle Musler passed in 2018, Harvey wrote a beautiful obit for the Times:
Ira Berkow’s book is also personal – about a talented, ambitious kid from Chicago who made his way to New York and became a fixture in the Times and also in books, not all about sports.
Ira has touched on most stars of the past half century – Muhammad Ali! Michael Jordan! He sized up O.J. Simpson, before and after! He had lunch with Katarina Witt! He shot baskets with Martina Navratilova! He also shot baskets with a retired Oscar Robertson! He schmoozed with Abel Kiviat, then America’s oldest living medalist! And he scrutinized a brash real-estate hustler named Donald Trump!
One of my favorite segments is about Jackie Robinson – who broke baseball’s disgraceful color barrier in 1947. Ira recalls being 15, a high-school athlete himself, watching the Dodgers take on the Yankees in the 1955 World Series.
In 2018, with JR42 long gone, Ira was being interviewed on TV about Robinson and came up with a description of how Jackie Robinson had faked the Yankees’ Elston Howard -- a catcher playing left field -- into throwing the ball to second base while Robinson steamed into third.
Later, he remembered interviewing Robinson in 1968 about his thought processes in testing Howard, who was out of position because Yogi Berra was the catcher. Robinson seemed to deflect Ira’s analysis, but the audacious move remained in Ira’s fertile brain.
A few years ago, Ira looked it up in the official play-by-play for the 1955 Series: it confirmed that Robinson, by whatever logic, had victimized Howard into throwing behind Robinson.
This section confirms the instinctive genius of Jackie Robinson and also the enlightened journalistic observation powers of Ira Berkow.
* * *
Most of sports have been thrown off balance by the pandemic, but these very different books by Harvey Araton and Ira Berkow remind us how great sportswriters have enriched us by writing about the world, on and off the court.
Sunday 6 PM: Since this post began as a praise to baseball for keeping me sane, let's stick with this post through the end of the Series....even with peregrinations to college rivalries (?) and uniform numbers and love of La Belle Province. My dirty new little secret: I couldn't watch Games 3 and 4 because I cannot stand the two Fox guys. They display no wit, no change of pace. In the day hours, my baseball lunch companions have been conducting a web seminar in scoring, fielding, analytics pro and con. Anyway, I am on for Game 5 Sunday evening -- and any ramblings that may ensue. GV
While waiting to see if the United States can save itself on Election Day, I needed something to fill my socially-distanced time.
Once again, baseball has come through – with a 60-game mini-season that allowed me to have a familiar sense of angst and rage about the Mets.
Now there is about to be a World Series – with any luck, as taut as the two league series, seven games preferable to four – something to occupy house-bound fans like me.
My first hope is that the network types will stop bombarding us with “post-season” statistics. First of all, give the computer a rest. Enough with the arcane stats. Second, we are about to enter what used to be called the World Series but now seems to be morphing into “the finals,” like the other endless post-season “playoffs.”
True, the title “World Series” is a bit pretentious, even now with Latino and Asian players everywhere, but the title is baseball’s throwback to the days of two separate leagues that produced one champion each, to meet in early October.
The leagues were different. Starting in 1947, the National League got a head start with the majority of Black superstars, and the American League had the Yankees stomping on their supine league rivals. Then, more likely than not, the Yankees won the World Series.
Now baseball has blurred the rivalry between two leagues, but the separate identity of the World Series needs to be protected – including separate World Series statistics and achievements as homage to history, going back to 1903.
So much else has changed in baseball. The recent series confirmed that the age of great starting pitchers has been terminated. Pitchers are interchangeable parts, no longer expected to go long. As Tyler Kepner pointed out, a pitcher can have a 3-0 lead in only 66 pitches and still be replaced by the parade of relievers, as Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton was Saturday evening. That’s the way the Rays roll – right into the World Series.
Most managers seem wired into the dictates of the analytics hordes in some bat cave under the ballpark. Hitters are encouraged to swing for a launch arc, not putting the ball in play in some open sector of the field. Something’s been lost.
But I watched. And watched. As an alternative to endless sightings of a dangerous fool on the loose. And when the league finals came around, I found things to like about all four teams.
I fell in love with Houston a few years ago, because of their charismatic players, before we knew the organization was systematically stealing signals. Now the Astros have become the team people love to hate. Did you see James Wagner’s great piece about the fan who hectors the Astros at high decibels?
I get it -- the antipathy toward the Astros -- but Dusty Baker, age 71, a good human being who surpreisingly got to manage the Astros after the housecleaning, and I want him to win a World Series one of these years. Plus, I loved how Carlos Correa made clutch hits and showed leadership by lecturing his pitcher who was about to blow his top. I could not hate the Astros.
However, the Tampa Bay Rays played the Mets late in the regular season and I acquainted myself with a willful group of mostly interchangeable parts, managed by Kevin Cash. Some of them could even steal bases and hit for contact, not distance – a throwback to real baseball.
FAVORITE MOMENT AS SOME FANS WERE ALLOWED IN THE JUST-CONCLUDED SERIES: Justin Turner of the Dodgers picked up a foul ball -- and lobbed it to a fan in a distant seat. A sweet little custom, now revived
I couldn’t choose between the Dodgers or the Braves, either.
The Dodgers are the team of my youth, in Brooklyn. I love the uniforms and colors, although I have trouble seeing newcomers in blue Dodger trim. (Wait, why is Kiki Hernandez wearing Gil Hodges' No. 14?)
The Braves are the retooled power in the same division as my second-tier sad-sack Mets, and I am jealous about their talent and leadership.
The Dodgers had Mookie Betts making plays in the outfield. The Braves had Freddie Freeman, surviving an ominous case of Covid-19 and earning MVP honors – and chatting up any “opponent” who stopped at first base, including Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers’ star who would win the pennant with a home run late Sunday evening. (And dislocated his shoulder giving high-fives in the tumult.)
Now the two survivors are going to meet in what sportswriters used to call “the old autumnal classic.” (And I just did it again.)
Somebody, please tell the network yakkers: it’s the World Series.
Four superstars, overlapping.
I am referring to Rafa Nadal, one of the nicest people I have met in sports, who won his 13th French Open on Sunday. I am also referring to Chris Clarey and Karen Crouse of the NYT, who wrote about Nadal in the Monday paper. And I am also referring to Art Seitz, master tennis photographer, who has been snapping away, well, forever.
I loved reading about Nadal and seeing Art’s photos, having become a Nadal fan in 2011, the only time I met him. I had heard he was a good guy, a sportsman, and he lived up to his reputation on a miserable day, with the remnants of Hurricane Irene lashing New York much as the tail end of Hurricane Delta was drenching New York on Monday.
He had done his obligatory media conference and was eager to get back to Manhattan, but he was promoting his book and had promised me a few minutes for an interview. We got into a conversation, and I mentioned that I had covered eight World Cups by then, including my first, in his country, Spain.
I think it's fair to say that reporters do not expect their subjects to show much, or any, interest in them. But Nadal seemed intrigued that an American knew and loved soccer, even my modest dose of knowledge. I knew that his uncle, Miguel Angel Nadal, had been a mainstay for Johan Cruyff at Barcelona in La Liga in the 90s, and I had covered Spain’s World Cup championship in 2010. So we talked soccer…as well as tennis….as well as his penchant for cooking for himself and entourage on the road.
He could have ducked out at any time, but he stayed and talked, and my impressions of him since have been confirmed – a centered person who has willed himself to the top of tennis, and can speak with compassion about the pandemic, knowing it is more important than tennis.
My pals Chris Clarey and Karen Crouse caught him perfectly in Monday’s paper – Chris concentrating on the match and the career, Karen focusing on his values and his acquired trilingual abilities. When I first saw Nadal nearly two decades ago, he could not speak any English in public. Now he is eloquent, from the heart.
My article in 2011:
For a sample of Art Seitz tennis photos, check out his Facebook page:
The first Yankee player I ever met was Whitey Ford, who died Friday at 91.
I was a kid at Newsday, the great Long Island paper, covering the high schools, and my mentors would occasionally take me to Yankee Stadium, the only New York ballpark open during what I call the Dark Ages.
Either Jack Mann, the sports editor, or Stan Isaacs, the columnist, introduced me to Ford, in a corner of the clubhouse.
Ford lived in Lake Success, just over the city line, and he was identified as “the crafty Long Island southpaw.” We wrote about him a lot because he was a great pitcher and because he was friendly. Not all the Yankee players were.
I was not disappointed in the introduction. Whitey Ford offered his hand and fixed his alert eyes on me – a Queens guy, with accent to match.
“Nice to meet you,” he said, and he made small talk, and I got the impression that I could talk to him, win or lose, and I was not wrong. For the rest of his career, Whitey Ford was available. He liked the coverage he got from his hometown paper, of course, but he also deserved it. For six of his first seven seasons, the Yankees won the pennant.
I’m sure the Times and other papers will give proper respect to Ford’s marvelous career. I’ll stick to personal memories of Edward Charles Ford:
--- When Ralph Houk replaced Casey Stengel in 1961, one of the first things he did was use Ford in 283 innings, the highest of his career. Perhaps Casey had been wary of Ford’s modest size, did not want to wear him out, but Ford became more of a workhorse through 1965. Houk rarely gave incisive answers to young reporters – known as Chipmunks because we chattered so much – but one day the manager visited Ford on the mound, as if to take him out, but instead he left him in, with good results.
When we asked Houk later, he said: Whitey always told him the truth. If he was out of gas, he said so. If he still had something left, he said so. Houk’s answer seemed to me the ultimate affirmation of Ford, as pitcher and competitor and team player.
-- Distinct memory of Whitey Ford from my first year or two: I cannot replicate it from the records, but I know I saw it: Two outs. Two strikes. A runner or two on base. My boss, Jack Mann, nudged me: “Watch this.” A hellacious curve broke in on the lefty batter, who lunged at the ball, as Elston Howard caught it – and sprinted to the dugout – as the visiting manager screamed bloody murder from the dugout steps. The manager said the ball had been doctored by Howard’s ultra-sharp belt buckle, but when asked later by intrepid reporters, Elston and Whitey knew nothing. Nothing. Ford's stuff and brain were enough on 99 percent of his pitches. He said it was Howard who named him "The Chairman of the Board."
--- Ford was a good friend of Mickey Mantle, at all hours and all seasons – the city boy and the country boy. They called each other “Slick.” Ford would never try to explain his moody pal, but sometimes he could joke with Mantle, get him into a mood to talk to reporters. Life was so much easier that way.
-- In those days, reporters traveled on the same charter flight as the Yankees – it made travel easier, and Newsday and the Times paid their own way, of course. The Yankee plane came back from Kansas City or Minnesota long, long after midnight, and at the baggage claim, I offered a ride home to Ford, and Hector Lopez, who lived on the way. I just needed to get my car in a nearby parking lot, while they guarded my suitcase. But when I got to my car, there was a flat tire – and my spare was shot – so I needed help. There were no cellphones in those days, kids, so I couldn’t notify Ford and Lopez that I was stuck. Needless to say, they – and my suitcase – were not at the terminal when I finally swung by. Okay. Next morning, at a reasonable hour, I got a call….from Whitey Ford….who said he had my suitcase at his house, and I could pick it up when convenient. That made him a major-league mensch in my book. May I just say that not every ball player would be as thoughtful.
-- Ford’s body fell apart in 1966 and ’67 and he was sanguine about it. One day, in New York smartass humor, I jokingly called him “the game southpaw.” He twinkled as he corrected me: “the gamey southpaw.” But his career stats and his Hall of Fame stature smell like roses.
-- Ford and Mantle were friendly with a chatty clubhouse attendant out of Fordham University named Thad Mumford, who was smarter and funnier than any ball player or any reporter, for that matter. Munford moved on, but at subsequent Old Timers Days, Mantle and Ford would spot him and the badinage would pick up, all over again. One year, Mantle drawled, “Hey, Thad, would you get me a beer?” Ford, with city-cat patronization, advised Mantle, “Hey, Slick, Thad writes for “M*A*S*H,” and Mantle blushed beet-red, as he sometimes did. Munford loved it – and went to get a beer for his old pals. Mumford would have occasional bouts of nostalgia out in California, and would call some old-time contacts. Thad passed two years ago; he counted Ford as one of his best Yankee friends.
Now the Chairman of the Board is gone, but his records remain, and so does the twinkle from a friendly corner of the long-vanished Yankee Stadium.
* * *
I did not make the connection when President Trump went to the hospital.
But Laura Vecsey was right on it, sending out the best Youtube I have ever seen.
In fact, I wrote about it in May. But that was before Trump actually went to the hospital the other day -- touching off the same panic and misinformation and danger that John Mulaney's horse does in the confines of a hospital.
Just as he does in the White House, Trump was screwing up everything -- his doctors giving out bad medical explanations, his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, trying to be, how did the TV commentator put it, "a little less inaccurate."
There's a horse in the hospital. This one escaped Sunday afternoon to wave from a freaking motorcade of some sort -- at a huge cost and inconvenience to thousands of government workers. Then back in the hospital.
Since his self-destructive behavior in the debate debacle last Tuesday, I have been thinking Trump was doing it on purpose -- hastening his defeat through his erratic behavior. (From minus-8 to minus-14 in one poll, since his debacle.)
It also crossed my mind that he has been lurching around with no mask so he could pick up the Covid and get himself out of this nightmare -- plus, as revenge to society, passing it on to other people at that infamous reception who were talking to each other from inches away, with no masks on. (I'm talking about you, Kellyanne Conway and Bill Barr.)
There's a horse in a hospital. As of Sunday evening, the President was back, hooves flailing, nostrils flaring, a disruptive mammal out of control.
Take a bow, John Mulaney.
You had it, dude.
My first piece on Mulaney's masterpiece:
Bob Gibson passed Friday of pancreatic cancer.
He was one of the most competitive athletes I ever covered – a fierce, purposeful flame.
I wrote about Gibson (below) 26 months ago when he disclosed the fearsome diagnosis.
I would also recommend today’s obit in the NYT by my friend Rich Goldstein:
Also, you might want to see the piece I did in 2009 when Gibson and Reggie Jackson were promoting a book they had written (with Lonnie Wheeler) about the eternal struggle – that is, between pitchers and hitters.
I watched the rivalry play out over a power breakfast in New York, and when I asked a question Gibson considered cheeky, he verbally buzzed me, high and inside. I thought Reggie was going to choke on his oatmeal, or whatever he was eating. His look said: “And you writers think I’m a hard guy.”
I consider myself fortunate to have been around Gibson, in the tight little sanctums of the Cardinal clubhouse in the old, old ballpark. That kind of access to athletes is gone during the pandemic, with writers minimally getting sterile, mass interviews with a few principals, and I’m just guessing it never comes back. No writer today will see a star like Gibson, up close, the way I did in the tense last weeks of the 1964 season and World Series.
Finally, a word about superstars. My admired colleague Dave Kindred has a mythical mind game called “The Game to Save Humanity,” meaning “we” get to play Martians, or whatever, one game, Pick your team. My pitchers are Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, lefty and righty, even beyond numbers and longevity, but just, well, just because. I saw them.
RIP, Hoot. It was an honor to observe you.
From July, 2018:
Don’t Mess With Bob Gibson
Bob Gibson is fighting pancreatic cancer – “fighting” being the operative word.
Everybody knows Gibson’s combative pose as the best right-handed pitcher in the universe, starting in 1964.
I was lucky enough to be present when Gibson morphed from very good pitcher to legend, in 22 epic days at the end of that season.
He had been underestimated by his first manager, Solly Hemus, who had lost his black players by using a racial taunt to taunt an opponent in 1960. Gibson was still very much a work in progress after Hemus was canned in 1961, and replaced by Johnny Keane, who reminded me of the kindly commanding officer, Col., Potter, in the classic series, “M*A*S*H.”
After mid-season of 1964, Gibson pitched eight straight complete games – a statistic that probably would default the computers of today’s analytics gurus. Yes, really good pitchers really did finish a lot of games.
As the Phillies started to fold, the Cardinals and Reds put on a run.
On Sept. 24, Gibson lost a complete game in Pittsburgh. On Sept. 28, he beat the Phillies, going 8 innings. On Oct. 2, with the Cardinals in first place on the last Friday of the season, Gibson lost, 1-0, to the lowly Mets as Alvin Jackson pitched the game of his life.
Then on a very nervous Oct. 4, Gibson pitched 4 innings in relief, gave up two runs, but was the winning pitcher, as the Cardinals won their first pennant since 1946.
I can still see him on the stairs to the players-only loft.
“Hoot, how’s your arm?” a reporter asked.
“Horseshit!” Gibson said. Then he was gone, up the stairs.
When Manager Keane gave his pennant-winning media conference, somebody asked why he went so often with a certifiably fatigued pitcher.
“I had a commitment to his heart,” Keane said softly.
Those words gave me a chill as Keane spoke them; they remain one of the great tributes I have ever heard from a manager of coach about a player. Keane’s faith, his shrewd understanding of the man, helped Gibson demolish the stereotype that many black players had to overcome.
Gibson then started the second game (8 innings, lost to Jim Bouton), won the fifth game in 10 innings) and the seventh game in 9 innings to won the World Series.
He had pitched 56 innings in 22 days, become a superstar after some delay, just as Sandy Koufax had done earlier. In over 70 years as fan and reporter, I will take the two of them over any lefty-righty pair you want to pick.
Gibson never put away his testy edge. He was rough on rookies, rough on how own catchers and pitching who trudged out to the mound to counsel him. “You don’t know anything about pitching, except you can’t hit it,” he told Tim McCarver, who has relished that taunt ever since.)
He did not observe the fraternity of ball players, even chatty types like Ron Fairly of the Dodgers.
One time Fairly stroked a couple of hits off Gibson, who then hit a single of his own. But Fairly made the mistake of engaging Gibson in a collegial way. I always heard that Fairly praised Gibson for his base hit, but Gibson insisted that Fairly had raved about Gibson’s stuff and wondered how he had possibly made two hits off him. Either way, Gibson glared at Fairly. Didn’t say a word.
Next time up, Fairly observed Gibson, glowing on the mound, and mused to the catcher, Joe Torre, that he did not think he was going to enjoy this at-bat, was he? Torre wasn’t going to lie about it; he just smiled as Fairly took one in the ribs.
That is Gibson. Don’t mess with him. Torre later brought Gibson to the Mets as his “attitude coach,” as if you can coach attitude.
Gibson remains competitive. A decade or so ago, he and Reggie Jackson collaborated on a nice book about the age-old yin/yang of pitcher/hitter. They met me for a power breakfast in New York to discuss their book, and it went fine until near the end. Working on a book on Stan Musial, I asked Gibson if I could ask one question about Stan the Man.
“Absolutely not,” Gibson snapped. He and Musial had the same agent, and he knew that Musial had put out a fatwa against friends and family discussing him with writers.
Gibson’s abruptness caused Reggie to nearly choke on his bagel as he tried not to laugh.
This is the guy who is going to fight a formidable disease.
Knock it on its ass, Hoot.
* * *
(Below: video of Christopher Russo interviewing Gibson (Reggie in background) about the friendly little incident with Fairly, back in the day.)
(I've got nothing coherent to say at this moment about that "debate" or my sociopathic ex-neighbor from Queens. Perhaps you do. Please feel free to type away. The following was my open letter to Postmaster Louis Dejoy after I posted our ballots on Monday.)
Dear Postmaster General Louis Dejoy:
I just mailed our absentee ballots, both filled out correctly, to the county Board of Elections.
I could have driven to the board’s office, or even walked, or used certified mail, but I figured, that’s only 7.28 miles – that is, .2 miles per day. That shouldn’t be too hard for Louis Dejoy’s post office.
I know this is a stressful time for you, what with The New York Times’ blockbuster about your patron’s tax issues. He’s going to be looking for somebody to punish, and will not be happy if you let too many of those absentee ballots get through.
After all, you were hired to take a sledgehammer to the voting procedure, what with many millions expected to vote during the Pandemic. And from what I hear from USPS employees, you did a good job – slowing the mail down.
Where does he find people like you?
Just the other day, you said you could not use the sorting machines you took out of use. Either you demolished them, or you cannibalized them for parts -- sounds like the Louis DeJoy wrecking ball, either way.
As you may have been told, there are voters way out there in rural red states areas -- at the head of the holler in Mitch McConnell's state -- who depend on the USPS vehicle to bring checks and medicine. So either you serve the people of the country or you serve the anarchist Donald J. Trump.
Must be a stressful time for you.
Meantime, point-two miles a day.
You can do it, sir.
Comments? Please, You'll feel a bit better for a moment.
With absolutely no regrets, I faced the end of the “regular” baseball season, not that anything has been regular about it. The Mets lost Saturday afternoon, and were eliminated, but I have no complaints. . Baseball has done well enough by me this summer.
In a terrible time, baseball kept me reasonably sane, in a baseball-fan kind of way – that is, stomping upstairs at 10 PM, gritting the words, “It’s over. They stink.”
The “season” came at just the right time – when I figured out we weren’t going to take a drive or visit our grown children or hug our grandkids or go out for dinner or return to the city, my home town, until this poor bungled country figured it out.
For entertainment, for escapism, I would watch nearly 60 games’ worth of overmatched pitchers, erratic hitters, outfielders turning the wrong way on fly balls, base runners stumbling into outs, a catcher who couldn’t catch -- and that was only the Mets, the only team I follow.
I don’t watch the Yankees (nothing personal, I’ve gotten over my tormented youth, plus Aaron Judge is one of my favorite players), and I cannot stand network baseball, with its overload of gimmicks and just-learned drivel and bland “experts.” I watch only the Mets, or listen to them, and it got me through two months.
Besides, what were the alternatives?
--Following the smokescreens of a crooked and deranged President?
--Obsessing over a pandemic that remains unchecked in an inept "administration?"
--Keeping up with merciless hurricanes and fires?
I kept to the high road the first few months of the pandemic – reading good books, listening to classical music, watching National Theatre re-runs from London, keeping up with family and friends.
But when baseball gave it a try in mid-summer, I devoted myself to the Mets my team since 1962 (even if I had to feign neutrality while covering baseball.)
In a sick way, the Mets were fun this year, even as their pitching crumbled and Pete Alonso had a sophomore jinx for the ages.
As a fan, I enjoyed Jacob deGrom, the master, and somebody named David Peterson who finished with a 6-2 record Thursday night, as a rookie. I watched Jeff McNeil embarrass the analytics wizards who do not value a fiery throwback, a contact hitter who plays four positions.
It was a joy to watch Andrés Giménez, 22, show speed and savvy and great hands whenever they would let him play. Time is on his side.
It was also delightful to watch Dominic Smith blossom into a clutch hitter and get to use his glove at first base, and he learned to be a decent left fielder. But most of all, in a time of social awareness, as Blacks kept getting knocked off, Smith knelt to express his concerns, and wept with emotion.
. enjoyed watching the calm eyes above the mask of Luis Rojas, the accidental manager -- he's Felipe Alou’s son; that told me a lot.
I tried to ignore the counter philosophy that said we should avoid this goofus version of a season – 60 games, a tie-breaker gimmick in extra innings, 7-inning games in doubleheaders, no pitchers hitting in the National League, and, worst of all, no fans.
I heard baseball people say they are just beginning to appreciate the fans. Really? Just now?
The other day, I read an article by Tim Kurkjian of ESPN, the writer-commentator who knows the sport, lamenting a baseball season without “fun.” Tim is terrific, but I want to say that in my masochist world, “fun” involves suffering.
Fun? I was a Brooklyn Dodger fan in 1950 when Richie Ashburn threw out Cal Abrams at home, and in 1951 when Bobby Thomson hit the home run, and 1956 when Don Larsen no-hit the Dodgers. Was any of that fun? I missed it.
The real “fun” of baseball is thinking along with the participants and the commentators. I know more about the game since I retired and have been able to watch and listen to Gary and Keith and Ron, plus Howie on the radio, even though this year they did not travel with the team but made their calls, as well as possible, off the TV in an empty Mets’ ballpark. Hard for them and the audience, but it was still a game.
With the Mets not qualifying for the playoffs, I don’t plan to watch the long 16-team slog to a “World Series” but I might be a backslider I’m liable to catch the occasional soccer game in the winter months but I stopped watching football and basketball and hockey years ago. College football? I never had respect for the ugly alliance between colleges and football, and now the Pac-12 has joined the other major conferences in risking the health of the so-called students who will play during Trump's pandemic.
I think voters will get rid of this vile and ignorant President, and maybe more Americans will wise up about how to slow down this pandemic even before a legitimate vaccine arrives.
Speaking of change, prospective buyer Steve Cohen says he will bring back Sandy Alderson to run the Mets. This must mean Alderson's health is stable. But what does it mean for Brodie Van Wagenen, the agent who has been running the Mets the last two years?
In the meantime, the Mets got me through a long hot summer, and that is something.
Tim Kurkjian’s knowledgeable view of this weird season:
When Lou Brock passed more than a week ago, my friend Jerry Rosenthal flashed back to a summer evening in St. Cloud, Minn, in 1961.
Jerry was playing for the Eau Claire Braves, on a road trip to play the St. Cloud Rox, in the old Northern League.
Jerry was a college guy, all-conference shortstop at Hofstra, where I was a student publicist. I saw him take a fastball over the left eye in 1959 but he willed himself back for two more seasons before signing with the Milwaukee Braves.
Lou Brock was also a college guy, out of Southern University, academic scholarship, latecomer to baseball, and 1961 was his first season in the minors.
“Lou was a great guy!,” Jerry recalled in an e-mail the other day. “Very personable and smart! I ran into Lou after a night game near our hotel in St. Cloud. He was reading ‘The Long Season’ by Jim Brosnan. Lou was surprised that an active major leaguer would write such a controversial book."
Switched to second base in the Milwaukee Braves’ chain, Jerry got to see Brock up close in six games: “Not a big man, he was very muscular and had good power and blinding speed! Lou was at full speed on his second step, putting great pressure on infielders to getting rid of the ball as fast as possible! Needless to say, Brock turned singles into doubles and doubles into triples!”
The next year, Jerry moved up to Yakima in the Class B Northwest League. He recalls how warm and welcoming that town was, how fans would recognize him and ask for his autograph. He treasures his memories of teammates like Rico Carty and Bill Robinson who had so much talent it was clear they were heading for the major leagues. He says that Robinson, my late-blooming friend, “had the best arm I ever saw from right field" -- how he stung Jerry's glove hand when Jerry was the cutoff man.
Jerry also talks about his minor-league batting instructors, baseball lifers like Birdie Tebbetts, major-league catcher and manager, then a roving batting instructor at Wellsville. Tebbetts told him to go with the outside pitch to the opposite field -- and Jerry surprised himself with a game-winning home run to right, his second homer of the game.
Jerry also met major-league stalwarts who loved talking Brooklyn Dodger baseball with him -- Dixie Walker, once The Peepul's Cherce in Brooklyn, and Andy Pafko, the old Cub who was standing at the wall as Bobby Thomson's legendary homer soared over his head.
“In my rookie year at Eau Claire. I’m wearing uniform number 25, Bobby Thomson’s hand me down! How ironic is that? Pafko gave me his first-hand description of ‘the shot heard round the world’ and I was assigned to wear Bobby’s uniform! As a true-blue Dodgers fan, as a kid, that’s an occurrence that I could never have dreamt!”
At Yakima, Jerry was steamrollered by one Spencer Scott at second base and was on the bench a day later. But Rico Carty, the regular catcher, was hurt, and the backup catcher was injured during a game, so Jerry hit for him -- and slugged a homer. Jerry had never caught in his life, but he caught that game, and another, until the Braves could send another catcher.
The players were always competing against others in the Braves system. A brash kid from Missouri, Ron Hunt, informed Jerry in spring training that, as a former shortstop, Jerry did not know squat about the double play from second base, and Hunt, who loves the game as much as Jerry does, demonstrated the proper pivot steps -- then moved past Jerry in the chain.
By 1963, Hunt hustled himself into a regular job with the Mets, and a great career. By then, Jerry was out of baseball, teaching school, playing semi-pro ball and taking care of his Irish mom. However, he kept up with his old minor-league colleagues. In Shea Stadium, he said hello to Bobby Cox, who had played against him in the Northwest League and was now a successful manager with the Braves. Cox warmly greeted him and recalled the entire Yakima infield, including "Rosey."
Jerry never ran into Lou Brock until he went to a baseball dinner in New York many years later. In a crowd, he greeted Brock, who said he remembered him from the Northern League, but other people interrupted and they never got to chat.
Still, there is a bond between players who “made it” and those who did not: they all played the game. The backdrop is the minor leagues – the cruel classroom where a difficult sport is taught, where most dreams were destroyed.
Jerry, in retirement, lives in the city, is close to his sisters and many friends, catches good movies and knows restaurants all over town, reads a lot, and has traveled all over the world, usually by himself. He played in a senior hardball league, finally getting his Spencer Scott knee replaced. As a fan, Jerry adopted Jeff McNeil, the scrappy Everyman late bloomer who had fought to become a .300 hitter the Mets never expected.
Jerry is barely following this weird “season.” He has a raging contempt for the short-sighted proprietors of baseball and their still unproven commissioner, Rob Manfred, who are scheming to devour a number of minor leagues to save a few dollars. That rash move would be an insult to the history, the soul, of the sport -- fans who used to say they saw a rag-armed lefty named Musial pitching in the low minors, or fans in Trenton could say they saw a comet named Mays heading straight for the 1951 World Series.
That hallowed system allows old minor-leaguers like Jerry Rosenthal to display ancient box scores and mourn stars like Lou Brock, and sometimes able to say, with all due respect, "Back in 1961, I out-hit Lou in our six games."
* * *
COMMENTS PREFERRED ON THIS SITE RATHER THAN MY EMAILS--THANKS, GV
COMMENT FROM JERRY:
George, here are my comments regarding your fine piece.
George, it was an honor being the subject of your great piece, “My Friend Out Hit Lou Brock....in Six Games.”
I will always treasure my minor league memories ; the highlights as well as the lowlights. Your superb writing brought out how important the institution of minor league baseball is to the development of young prospects and to the small towns they play in! For over one-hundred years, the minor leagues and major leagues have had a mutually beneficial relationship. Sadly, that relationship no longer exists!
MLB ‘s arbitrary decision to “contract” 42 minor league, owner-operated, clubs could be the “beginning of the end “of the minor leagues! Clearly, the commissioner and the thirty MLB owners are only interested in increasing revenue, not preserving the traditions of the game!
George, you were right on target when you described the minor leagues as -“ the cruel classroom where a difficult sport is taught, where most dreams were destroyed.”
I played for three great managers: Jim Fanning, Bill Steinecke and Buddy Hicks. These “baseball lifers” taught me facets of the game that I was completely unaware of coming out of college!
Just as important, these fine men told us to view “self-doubt” and “failure” as just part of the game! They all emphasized the idea that mental toughness was as important as physical skill! My managers were very aware of how you dealt with adversity!
We didn’t know it at the time, but we were being taught “ valuable “life lessons”!
I will never forget their words of support and encouragement! These are just the kind of mentors organized baseball needs today! I’m sure MLB’s
response to that idea would be: “We are going in a different direction”!
George, thanks again for this wonderful piece!
Thanks for being a good friend for these many years!
* * *
Bad enough that epic ballplayers are passing. Now it’s Toots.
Our oldest, Laura, caught him two summers ago in Albany, the gateway to Almost Heaven, Adirondacks.
“Bucket list item for me,” Laura typed Sunday from Upstate, when we heard about the passing of Toots Hibbert, age 77, the lead singer of Toots and the Maytals, classic reggae group, which was around for, oh, forever.
I remember when I became aware of Toots. I was a regular listener on WNEW-FM, since it became the great pioneer rock station in 1967.
For years, Dave Herman had the morning drive-time show that ended at 10 AM. One morning he said he would have, live in the studio, the great Toots Hibbert. And kept telling us, as the final hour ticked away.
Finally, about 9:50 or so, Toots arrived in the studio. Only thing was, his mind and his voice had not yet arrived. Brother Dave tried to engage him on why he was in New York, where he was playing, plug his latest album, etc. etc., but Toots emitted only monosyllables.
About 9:58, Toots started talking…and talking….a deep-throated but lilting monologue, right up to the signoff music the universal signal that the station is about to move on to news weather, the next host.
Ultimately, click, the engineer cut Toots off, mid-sentence.
“I think I like this guy,” I said, and I went out and found his cassette (yes, it was that far back), “Funky Kingston,” with songs like “Pressure Drop” and ”Time Tough,” plus the adaptation of John Denver’s song, “Country Roads,” but in the Maytals’ version it becomes “Almost Heaven, West Jamaica.” I loved it, just as much as I love the ruined mountains of Appalachia, and I loved Toots from afar. Never saw him, but the cassette endured. Laura says she has replaced her copy two or three times.
Toots had a sound – I’ll let the pop music critics explain.
He wasn’t Bob Marley, whom I regard as musical divinity, but Toots’ earthly voice and rhythm told of joy and pain, good times and bad times. And made you want to move.
I never caught him live and never will, but Laura and Diane drove down to the Capitol Region in August of 2018 to catch Toots.
“Toots. Free concert. Diverse Albany crowd. Weather,” Laura messaged on Sunday morning as we commiserated.
The band had driven all the way from California and barely got there on time. The band played Toots in for a good 5-10 minutes before he finally walked on from the back. Then. It was ON. He was older and somewhat stiff but still totally commanding and powerful and totally adept at working the crowd.
I typed, “Got any photos?” and the cellphone quivered and hummed and buzzed.
She added: "One of the great nights out. Ever."
I was trying to write something about Tom Seaver that had not been said in the past few days.
Then our-son-the-newsman texted me on Sunday afternoon: “Omigosh, now Lou Brock.”
Immediately, immediately, I thought of a falsetto voice in the cramped old Busch Stadium clubhouse, piercing the hubbub of a great team:
“Chris going to America! Chris gonna find Lou Brock!”
That was Bob Gibson, the crabby but funny straw boss of the Cardinal clubhouse, emitting the punch line of Flip Wilson in his epic routine about Christopher Columbus:
Queen Isabel -- Elizabeth Johnson, that is -- is underwriting the mission of Columbus, and she is down at the dock cheering him on -- in American Black patois:
“Chris going to America!” the queen shrieks. “Chris gonna find Ray Charles!” (*-see below)
By inserting Brock, Gibson paid tribute to the player whose legs and brain and will helped the Cardinals win three pennants in the mid-60s, and for a while made Brock the all-time stolen base leader.
Lou Brock, who died Sunday, was the final piece of the 1964 Cardinals, coming over in a one-sided trade with the Cubs. (You got it: for Ernie Broglio.)
He gave the Cardinals one more star to go along with Gibson, Bill White, Curt Flood, Dick Groat, Tim McCarver and Ken Boyer, one of the great teams (and clubhouses) I ever covered.
Brock also gave Stan Musial one of his favorite punch lines during the World Series of 1964. Musial had retired after the 1963 season, and the Cardinals landed Brock in mid-June of 1964.
Why were the Cardinals celebrating in October of 1964?
“We finally got a left-fielder,” Musial would say with his giggle.
Brock did not come from nowhere. While the Mets were still waiting for The Youth of America, in Casey Stengel’s prophecy, the Cubs already had talent but negated by bad management.
In 1962, the Cubs promoted Brock to the majors, to his surprise. On His first at-bat in a Sunday doubleheader in the Polo Grounds, he lofted a drive that landed directly on top of the bleacher fence -- only the third player in history to hit a home run into those bleachers.
“You won’t ever do that again!” shouted Alvin Jackson, the Mets’ lefty, who gave up the homer. Brock agreed, he never would. (Two college men from the South they became friends.)
Brock soon acquired the reputation of an under-performer who was skittery in left field. The Cubs gave up on him in 1964, and the Cardinals’ manager, Johnny Keane, did the same thing with for Brock that he was doing with Gibson. (“I had a commitment to his heart,” Keane once said about Gibson, one of the most beautiful statements I have ever heard from a coach or manager. Overlooking old racial stereotypes was part of Keane’s life vision.)
After the Cardinals won the 1964 World Series, I had dinner with Brock in Chicago, for a profile of him for Sport Magazine.
“They needed a lift,” Brock said. “I had a history of not being able to help anybody. I think the ballplayers felt this. Nobody said anything to me but I could feel it.”
By 1967, Brock was an established all-star who had never seen Seaver closer than 60 feet, 6 inches. Their first encounter in the National League all-star clubhouse is a wonderful story that Seaver told many times over the years. (The Brock-Seaver part is about 60 seconds into it:)
Brock and the “kid” eventually faced each other 157 times, more than either faced any opponent. The record shows that Seaver got the better of Brock. (But Brock played in three World Series.)
Many years later, Brock made a great contribution to the Mets, without meaning it. He was a soothing older teammate to a hard-driving young Cardinal named Keith Hernandez, telling him to relax and play his game.
When Hernandez became the infield straw boss of the Mets in the 80’s, he often referred to Brock’s kindness and encouragement. I am sure Hernandez is gutted today, because his mentor has passed, after losing a leg to diabetes years ago.
Two giants, a few days apart. I was lucky to be around the Cardinals and Brock, just as I was proud to cover Tom Seaver on some of his epic days. I can’t claim I knew him well, but I had plenty of opportunity to observe. One of my last impressions was Seaver’s inner Marine joining Manager Gil Hodges to give the Mets’ self-image a posture adjustment in the late 60s. I wrote about it last year:
In this weird, truncated season, these two Hall of Fame players, linked by familiarity in their careers, are linked again.
*- Here's the origin of the Columbus/Queen Isabel (Isabel Johnson) /Ray Charles riff.
The above quotation came from Ronny Thompson, a Georgetown basketball player back in the day, describing the leadership style of his coach, that is to say, his father.
John Thompson, Jr., the long-time basketball coach at Georgetown University, died Sunday night at 78.
He did things his way, defying any definition imposed by others. If you praised some aspect of his leadership or coaching, he bristled, blustered, maybe even dropped an epithet.
I got a first-hand view of his bombast in 1984, days before Georgetown won the national Division I basketball championship.
I had called the president of Georgetown, Father Tim Healy, to assess the impact of Thompson on his players, almost all of whom were Black.
''This is a man from the Washington area who is taking kids who don't have two coins to rub together and is literally teaching some of them how to use a knife and fork,” Father Healy said in my column before the Final Four.
“He knows just what he's doing, “ Father Healy continued. “And we at Georgetown support him in what he's doing.''
At the press conference before the Final Four in Seattle, Big John went off, loud and clear.
I distinctly remember him denying that he ever taught anybody to eat properly and I distinctly remember him saying: “I ain’t no Jesus Christ.”
He did not mention Fr. Healy or The New York Times (or me) but it was clear he had read the column and was not amused.
John Thompson surely had a powerful role in the lives of many of his players. Of the players who stayed with the program, the graduation rate was said to be 97 percent.
Some left early, to be sure, but while they were there, they all had to play relentlessly, without any frills to their game. Thompson once said a certain player would be all right as soon as he dropped “the old Boogaloo” from his game – meaning, fancy moves, fancy passes. He expected people to know what he meant by “the old Boogaloo.” No definitions.
In Thompson’s time, Georgetown had an academic advisor, Mary Fenlon, a former nun, on the bench. Fenlon, who passed in late 2019, was said to be witty and sociable, but in public she was as inscrutable as Thompson.
His model player was Ronnie Highsmith, an Army vet who was four years older than the stars and would lend physicality on the court and discipline off the court.
The players succeeded, under Thompson's model of discipline and education.
As it happens, I am currently catching up with the biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” by David W. Blight, published in 2018. (I believe that I went through grade school through college without ever hearing a mention of Douglass.)
The book tells how Douglass, the escaped slave, educated himself to become a writer and speechmaker and caustic critic of Abraham Lincoln when he saw fit. His larger-than-life persona pushed America toward the Emancipation Proclamation.
America has gained from black critics and activists. Early in my career, I ran into powerful figures like Harry Edwards, the academic, and Jim Brown, the football player, and Bill Russell, the basketball winner (for whom Thompson was an understudy for two years.)
Nowadays, athletes like LeBron James and Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery are setting a tone, just as John Thompson did once as a protest. My friend and colleague, Harvey Araton, AKA The Rebbe of Roundball, has a knowing column on Thompson, the activist, in the Tuesday NY Times.
Like Frederick Douglass, John Thompson did not talk about his feelings, his inner reactions. He had a posture and he stuck to it.
Ronny Thompson’s evaluation of his father was perfect.
* * *
My column quoting Father Healy:
The city shimmers in the night sky.
I take my walk after the sun goes down, and sometimes a magnetic force pulls me to the crest of a hill facing west.
My home town is out there, but at the moment I cannot construct any excuse to visit, much as I miss it, blessed to live in a lovely close suburb, as far from the city as I can stand.
Sometimes I think of the great walks I have taken in recent years.
Last winter, just before the plague struck leaderless America, I took the A train, thinking of Billy Strayhorn's immortal song, saxophones racing uptown, and got off at 125th St. and strolled east to Third Ave. and then south to 80th St. for my monthly lunch with some baseball/writer pals. Every block was an adventure, now a distant memory of a lost city, Atlantis on the Hudson.
* * *
How is New York? Fortunately, The New York Times had one of its very best writers, Dan Barry, write the text for a section of photos by the equally artistic Todd Heisler, in Saturday's paper, also available online:
* * *
Their artwork in the NYT makes me miss New York even more.
Some losses are irreparable, including the fabled Irish baseball pub, Foley's, run by Shaun Clancy. When the plague hit, Shaun realized he could not recover the losses in the foreseeable future, so he put his memorabilia in a warehouse, and retreated to his home in Queens, my home borough.
As it happens, his home is -- that is to say, was -- exactly two miles north of my family home, both on 188th St -- his in Auburndale, mine in Holliswood.
Last week, as Shaun sold his house, we finally arranged our long-discussed socially-distanced meeting. I picked Cunningham Park, the park of my childhood, where my family had corn-and-hot-dog picnics and I played sandlot baseball and kept an eye out for a girl who lived a few doors from the park.
For our long-delayed meeting, Shaun and his companion, Kristie Ackert, baseball writer for the Daily News, and I sat at a picnic table in the shade and drank iced coffees and talked about Ireland and Queens and how Kristie covers the Yankees without access to the players. I told Shaun again how much Foley's has meant to my jock pals from Hofstra who are mourning our decade of occasional lunches at the back table. He's got a place in Florida, and Kristie will be there a lot when she is not watching the Yankees in empty ballparks.
I miss my friends...and I miss Foley's...and I miss the magic place that glitters off to the west on a summer evening.
* * *
I see your silver shining town
But I know I can't go there
Your streets run deep with poisoned wine
Your doorways crawl with fear*
*The Pride of Cucamonga, Philip Lesh and Robert Peterson. Sung by Lesh with the Grateful Dead.
Two promising things happened on Tuesday:
---Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate, a decision that seemed logical the moment it was announced.
(Update: Did you see her speech from Delaware Wednesday afternoon? Full of passion and concern and reality. Clearly, Joe Biden picked the right candidate. Back to my original essay.)
---And two of the major college football conferences called off their season, sending a message to the American public that a few sports administrators are smarter than the murderous and avaricious fools who keep talking about “opening it up” and passing false virus "information" to the public during a pandemic.
Because I am a reforming sports columnist, let me start with the football news. The Big Ten and Pac-12 Conferences will not be sending athletes out to maul each other, up close and personal, for our entertainment.
The remaining conferences may be shamed into the same decision, with other fall sports also postponed until a safer time.
This pandemic is dangerous. I just read it in the Times. But young people will congregate, up close, without masks and spread the globules of damage and death, because they are young. What is the excuse of government and business and education “leaders” who ought to know better? Instead, moronic governors and educators allow children to mingle and spread the virus, as happened in Georgia.
As for the naming of Kamala Harris, it was a decision that made a couple of Warren Wing Democrats exhale and say, “Well, of course.”
I did not like the way Harris went after Biden in the first debate, in such a studied, assassin-type way. Biden blinked and stared at her and took it....a sign of grace....and months later he chose her, maybe because of that.
Or, as Aretha Franklin sang, "What's like got to do with it?"
Hearing people describe Harris’ career gave me a more realistic feeling -- that she is a big-timer who has been preparing for this a long time, as prosecutor and state attorney general and senator.
Harris made a fool of Bill Barr in a Senate hearing, although he may be so far gone that he didn't realize. She will drive Trump crazy, and we are wondering if Pence's wife -- a/k/a Mother -- will have to sit with him during the debate, to make sure he is all right.
On Wednesday, we heard dozens of insiders describing Harris's sense of humor and political astuteness. And then there is this: Blacks are the soul of the Democratic party. This selection honors that, as well as all the considerable assets of the candidate herself.
(I know, I know, we shouldn’t write about the way female candidates present themselves, but we both saw hours of clips of Harris over the years, always dressed in smart sport jackets, or suits, giving an aura of power and purpose.)
Trump must be worried, since he called Harris "nasty" several times Tuesday night – a code word to his male followers, a sign that his pathological contempt for the female gender is kicking in. See how that works at the polls in November.
The rest of the country now has time to observe Kamala Harris carrying the case to the voters.
Much or all of the country will not have the normal diversion of college football, thanks to the courage and intelligence of sports administrators who have more sense than the old and inadequate Trump regime.
This baseball season may turn out to be a colossal gamble, but I am enjoying the cardboard fans in the stands, particularly these folks in Oakland.
I think I would like sitting with them in the stands on a warm East Bay afternoon.
Fact is, I miss human company, as my wife and I hunker down waiting for Jan. 21, when intelligent adults take back the country.
I miss my kids and I miss my grandkids. This elbow contact on our deck, when the weather cooperates, is not the same as hugging my family, or sitting indoors, or, imagine this, going out...somewhere.
Then I remembered the three people who inhabit our storage room in the basement -- present from our dear creative friend Rachel, who had these made up for her job, back a few years, when we all were younger.
(Let me add this: I have an Irish passport, courtesy of my maternal grandmother from Waterford, and I am very proud of it. My identification with the UK has way more to do with the National Theatre and Portrait Gallery than the royals, When I see these one-inch likenesses, I think of our friend Rachel, speaking up for Palestinians at a Seder on West End Avenue.
For all that, Queen Elizabeth II fits right in with our unused dining room. As I walk through, I find myself singing along with Paul:
Her majesty's a pretty nice girl,
But she doesn't have a lot to say. ...
Irreverent, I know.
Fact is, the Queen is one of the stable elders in the world today. What with Trump and Pence and Pompeo and Barr and that bunch, Americans are in no position to snicker at royals. Welcome upstairs for a while, Your Majesty. Let's sit and have a cuppa.
Did Charles ever look this militant on his best day? But he's doing a good job, guarding my wife's studio day and night.
Plus, as I walk past and give him a snappy salute from my ROTC days, I remember that Emma Thompson is a good friend of his, and always speaks well of him when she is interviewed. Whatever is good for Emma Thompson is good for me.
Until an adult leader takes control of the Covid virus and puts an end to this social-distancing, good old Charles serves a purpose,guarding the house, waiting, waiting, waiting...
It's true, Princess Diana looks a little stiff in our living room, but let me tell you about the time she and her two frisky little boys were guests in the Royal Box at the old Wimbledon, which was directly next to the open press area. Needless to say, we were all eyes for her, and the Beastie Boys of the British press were coming up with plummy accents and snide comments. And while we tried to covertly look at Diana, I noticed that her eyes, like lasers, were scanning the doings around her. She was looking at us! Curiously, like, who are those people, and what do they do, and are they having a good time? She was out and about, not at all rigid, clutching her purse, like in this cardboard version. Her eyes saw all.
So, welcome to our living room. May I take your coat? please, have a seat.
May we offer you a glass of wine?
What do you think of Brexit?
How do you like Boris Johnson?
We hear you are working to to sort out this Covid mess.
We apologize for our buffoon.
My wife's been working on our family trees: her roots in Lancashire include William the Conqueror; my middle name is the same as your family name --Spencer, from my mom, born in England.
* * *
We still miss our family and friends, but in a weird way, thanks to baseball, our living room lives again.
Thanks to our friend Rachel for these vital presences.
One of my favorite e-mail correspondents is Bill Lucey, a journalist and baseball fanatic in Cleveland. (We have never met.)
Occasionally, Lucey writes a blog, but he goes beyond the stereotype of the guy-in-underwear-slapping-together-a-pronunciamento.
He actually contacts experts for their opinions. The gall of him, working at his blog.
His latest is a very well-written look at the acceptance of the word "irregardless" by an alleged authority in grammar. He writes about other innovations, including one taking place in Major League Baseball is this very shaky season.
Ladies and gentlemen, readers of all ages, please open the following link and read Bill Lucey's erudite essay on the dumbing down of grammar:
* * *
*- My little joke. One of my pet peeves is the misuse of the word "hopefully," particularly by sports broadcasters, but also by many people who speak in public.
* * *
And while you're at it, check out this site for very short plays. This one is by my friend Altenir Silva, from Rio and Lisbon, Yankee fan, writer in English, frequent presence on this site. He has written a shortie about Godot, as performed by Abbot and Costello. Honest. Of course, it has allusions to baseball. I told you, he's a Yankee fan.
On Monday morning, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida was telling one of those money channels that the U.S. had to “open up” for business.
Sen. Scott knows a lot about business, having run a “health-care” company that paid $1.7-billion in penalties, while he personally escaped jail as the leader of the devious pack.
But there he was, a senator, urging American businesses to get back to work. At the very same time, Major League Baseball – as part of its patriotic duty to get back to business – was postponing two games scheduled for Monday because many members of the Miami Marlins, in the state Scott theoretically represents, had tested positive for Covid-19.
Getting back to business has its drawbacks, whether for endangered children and endangered teachers in schools being pressured to open, or ball players in their own little playpens.
Donald Trump, allegedly once the greatest baseball prospect in American prep-school history, has insisted the game be resumed as part of the economic re-opening. Then again, he felt the same thing about political rallies and nominating conventions. Poor schlub, he invited himself to throw out a first pitch in Yankee Stadium and then got disinvited. (Ever hear an empty stadium boo?)
Baseball is supposed to contribute to normalcy while a pandemic is going on, particularly in the presumably-red Sunbelt states being led into danger by clodhoppers like Abbott of Texas, Kemp of Georgia and DeSantis of Florida. (Where do they get these people?)
As of this typing, baseball was still planning to hold most games in its improvised season of 60 games. But ballplayers were starting to follow the new protocols, donning masks on the field, refraining from some bro hugs, and some were voicing their fears.
This puts these masked men ahead of many millions of Americans currently milling around unmasked at bars and beaches and back-yard parties, ignoring the warnings of scientists. It’s part of their constitutional rights, as Americans, to be independent knuckleheads.
This raises questions for me, hunkering in our cool cave at home, watching just about every pitch of the Mets'first four games.
How can I watch the runs, hits, errors, facial expressions and strategies in empty stadiums, while millions of people around the world are endangered by this pandemic?
We stay home as much as possible, we read, we watch filmed plays from London, we listen to the political yammerers on the tube, my wife makes great meals. And for the moment, I watch the Mets.
Every winter I wait for the season, and finally it is here, in its imperiled fashion, and I am watching Jeff McNeil’s fire and Jacob deGrom’s near-perfection and Pete Alonso’s power and Seth Lugo’s monk-like calm.
Am I doing something wrong? Am I encouraging baseball…and other businesses….to “open up?”
I took a random sample Monday night.
One fan, nameless, was at home in front of the tube, watching the Mets from Fenway Park, which was sadly not quivering with energy and history.
The game was not 15 minutes old when the Mets committed a blunder on the field. My phone pinged with a message from the aforementioned fan: “Not a very disciplined ball club.” So we pinged back and forth while the Mets held on for a 7-4 victory. For one more evening, we watched baseball, knowing it could be the last for a long time.
My sample was balanced by other pings from a good friend of mine, a former minor-league prospect who knows the game so well and shares my appreciation for the late-bloomer Jeff McNeil.
Except that my ball-player pal was not watching. He thinks baseball should not be open, should not be exposing players and those who serve them. He pinged:
“George, I refuse to watch this stupid circus! MLB has lost the little credibility they once had! The owners do not care about baseball’s image! They care only about taking in anti-trust-protected profits!”
So there you have it. One for. One against.
For the moment, I am watching the Mets.
What else I got to do?
This is how bad it got bad at the Mets’ home opener on Friday:
When Edwin Diaz walked into the game, the cardboard mockups of real fans began to head for the exits. I swear.
Edwin Diaz! Aaagh! Not him again!
Cardboard people began checking with the baby-sitter on their phones, began edging toward the rest rooms, began filing out toward the parking lots and the No. 7 elevated train – to get the hell out of there before Diaz torched the place, again.
Eight innings into the first game of this bizarre season -- a season I am not sure should exist, given the pandemic -- I experienced the mini-terror of the fan – with no ticking clock, with three massive last outs to achieve.
This is the same Edwin Diaz who was acquired by the Mets last year and had one of the worst years ever for a so-called relief pitcher. Fans groaned when they saw him flexing in the bullpen.
On Friday, as rigid and lifeless as the fans appeared, they knew a terrifying situation when they saw it.
It was a classic Mets’ game of recent seasons, Before Covid. Jacob deGrom pitched five crisp innings, looking like the two-time Cy Young Award winner that he is, reaching his pitch limit, and turning the game over to the bullpen.
All those vividly-colored one-inch-thick fans recognized the script – the paralysis of the Mets’ hitters whenever DeGrom pitches.
This opener had a subplot – the presence of Freddie Freeman for the Braves, after a terrifying siege with Covid months ago, when he admittedly felt he would not live. Later, he recounted his experience to Nick Markakis, a teammate, who promptly decided to sit out this season.
Freeman is back, one of those admirable opponents that even some Mets fans, in all their bilious loyalty, can respect. He monitored first base, and seemed to greet the Mets’ Brandon Nimmo with a tap of his glove after both of Nimmo’s singles.
This camaraderie would not have gone over back in the day, when an opponent would have fallen to the ground and called for the umpire to eject Freeman for menacing with his microbe-laden glove. In these nicer times, it was good to see Freeman’s hawk-like features back on the field.
The Mets got a post-deGrom run when Yoenis Céspedes clubbed a massive home run, and Diaz induced terror in Mets fans by striding onto the field, but somehow he procured three outs, around a walk (to Freeman), to secure a 1-0 victory, and the Mets remained undefeated 24 days into July.
This patchwork “season” may or may not last 60 games. But on Opening Day, with thousands of faux fans planted in the seats, a pyromaniac “relief” pitcher terrified the fans, in whatever form.
I know it is hypocritical of me to worry about spreading the virus -- (the Mets abandoned all pretense of safety when they greeted Cespedes in the dugout)-- but baseball, in this strange form, is back.
Cardboard spectators stared vapidly from behind home plate, their expressions never changing as the Mets and Yankees committed something akin to baseball.
This was the ambiance at New Shea Saturday night as Major League Baseball introduced Covid-Ball, a makeshift version of the great American pastime, or what used to be.
Cruel boss that I am, I assigned myself to stick it out as a preview, or warning, of what this truncated season will be, if it lasts its threatened 60 games. (Some wary big names have already dropped out for this season; others are trying to come back from a Covid attack. To be continued.)
This was only an exhibition, spring training in mid-July, and there was to be another one at Yankee Stadium Sunday evening before the “season” opens late in the week.
I will tell you up front that my biggest thrill of the night was seeing the aerial view of Queens, my home borough – the globe in the park, a glimpse of the wonderful Queens Museum, the No. 7 elevated train gliding through the neighborhood, as sweet as a gondola through Venice.
Oh, my! I am so homesick for Queens!
I thought of the joys within a mile or two of this sweet spot – my friends and the heroes at Mama’s deli on 104th St., other friends at the New York Times plant, just to the east, the food and the crowds in downtown Flushing, the Indian food in Jackson Heights, and so on. I miss all these at least as much as baseball.
There was a strange hybrid form of baseball taking place in New Shea. Yankee manager Aaron Boone was moving his jaws inside his soft gray mask, either chewing something or talking a lot.
The first home-plate ump (they mysteriously rotated during the game) had some kind of plexiglass shield inside his mask, to ward off virulent Trumpian microbes.
I was mostly watching the Mets’ broadcast, with good old Ron and good old Keith two yards apart in one booth and good old Gary in a separate booth, but their familiarity and friendship came through. Welcome to this strange new world.
Later I switched to the Yankee broadcast and realized Michael Kay and the others were not in Queens but were commenting off the same video we were seeing. Not sure how that will work out during the season.
Early in the game I learned that the Toronto Blue Jays will not be able to play in that lovely city this “season,” for fear of being contaminated by the virus the viciously bumbling Trump “government” and block-headed Sunbelt Republican governors have allowed to rage.
I don’t blame the more enlightened Canadian government – but a few days before the season opener? The Jays will apparently play in Buffalo, creating all kinds of logistical horrors for anybody in Ontario with Blue Jay business.
The highlight of Saturday’s exhibition was Clint Frazier, the strong-minded Yankee outfielder who plans to wear a kerchief-type mask during games, including at bat. Does a mask impede a batter’s reaction to a fastball, up and in? Maybe. But Frazier unloaded a 450-foot homer into the empty upper deck – (Sound of summer: Michael Kay: “SEE-ya!”) -- and some teammates in the dugout flashed masks in tribute to Frazier.
I obsessed about those cardboard fans behind home plate. The absence of real people takes away one of the peripheral joys of watching a game – demonstrative or even annoying fans, the occasional celebrity, and, yes, I admit, women in summer garb. Will these faux fans become part of lore? Will they be rotated, replaced by new faces during the “season?” Just asking.
Finally, there was the recorded crowd noise, an apparently steady hum. No pro-Met chants, no anti-Yankee jibes, just background, like the roar of the sea,
I caught the last inning on the Mets’ radio broadcast, where good old Howie was speculating that the home-team genies in the control room were raising the sound a bit when the Mets were rallying.
I stuck it out because I had assigned myself to “cover” the event.
But I wondered about the reaction of my pal, Jerry Rosenthal, one-time all-conference shortstop at Hofstra, two-year Milwaukee Brave farmhand, and now lifetime baseball purist and authority.
How did Jerry like the ersatz game? He texted:
“Watched one inning of the game. I am now watching ‘The Maltese Falcon” for about the 25th time. That should tell you something!”
Yes, it does.
I love baseball schedules --get all excited when they come out, months ahead. Look for big rivalry series, the odd day game, illogical road trips. Force of habit, from being an old baseball writer.
Lately, I've been fascinated by pandemic charts, like the current one above.
The makeshift 60-game baseball schedule also caught my attention, sucker that I am. I could visualize Jacob DeGrom keeping the batters off balance, Jeff McNeil smacking the first pitch of the season for a base hit.
But now, I realize I was wasting my time. This 60-game improv season may start, but it won’t finish.
This realization has been dawning on me for days, beginning when Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals said he was going to sit this one out, and growing when Mike Trout and others said they just weren’t comfortable going out to play ball in the time of the virus, when they had responsibilities to wives, to children, to family members.
Ball players, collectively, are clearly smarter than the governors of Texas, Arizona, Georgia and Florida, who followed the lead of the ignorant man in the White House, and decided to get back to business without a clue about the pandemic. Where do they get these people?
Now the infection is reaching the young louts who jumped up and down and exhaled on each other in close quarters at beaches and pools and bars in recent months, with no masks, just to prove a government could not tell them what to do.
Now, the cobbled-together “protocols” for players and staff members are coming undone. Players – and their colleagues in the other team sports – were supposed to live hermit lives when not socially-distancing at the stadium. Only they know if they did, and maybe it makes no difference. I saw soccer players in England hugging each other after goals on Saturday. Boys, boys, boys.
Even before the games start, baseball players have picked up microbes floating on the breeze in the clubhouse or the hotel lobby or the team bus or whatever. It was never going to work, not while this nation, relying on a fool who has sabotaged the federal government, was falling further behind the murderous path of the virus.
On Saturday, the Yankees announced that Aroldis Chapman, their ace relief pitcher, had come down with the virus. He joins two other Yankees expected to be vital in this theoretical mini-pennant race. May all the cases be mild. But the number has reached critical mass.
The players want to play, and the owners want to make money, and sucker fans like me want to watch games from empty stadiums. (It works pretty well with watching top-level soccer, I’m here to report.)
However, Europe appears to be more disciplined than our poor run-amuck country, forsaking science for the ravings of the Pied Piper of Mar-a-Lago.
This experimental season may start in less than two weeks. I miss baseball and I will watch the Mets when I can. However, 60 games are going to seem an eternity when more healthy young athletes come down with this virus.
Under the “leadership” of Rob Manfred, baseball is going to stick it to the players in labor negotiations next year. So even if somebody outside this government comes up with a vaccine and some leadership, baseball's traditional "wait til next year" is a long, long way off.
* * *
Current list of ball players who have already chosen to miss 2020: BC: Before Chapman.
Saturday's virus scorecard, including Aroldis Chapman:
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: