The 2020 Tokyo Olympics have already begun -- a year late and quite unwisely.
The American women soccer team got blasted by Sweden, 3-0, on Wednesday in Japan, in some early tournament action, before the Opening Ceremony Friday night.
So now the Games are official – gritting their way toward the finish line, in the face of a worldwide pandemic that humans of all nationalities and political systems have been too stupid to control.
This has been evident as the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese organizers willed the Games to begin, despite another surge taking place.
Athletes are already testing positive – and this is before they were shoe-horned into a dense city, into Olympic hideaways where athletes are theoretically sequestered.
But why should the IOC and the hosts show sense when most of the world is giddy on the concept that we are back to “normal?”
I already agree with the skepticism collected by the great reporter, John Branch, in the NYT this week. Branch talked to observors around the world, who wondered if it is time to end the Olympic Games.
After covering seven Summer Games and four Winter Games, from 1984 into 2010, I was veering toward the position that the Games existed mostly because of television money, blaring commercials around the world, but costing far more than they generate for the host countries and victimized host cities – all in the name of a faux ideal.
I know I became disenchanted with the Olympics when I saw cities and entire countries disrupted by the demand for specialized Olympic facilities. After the two-week festival, the traveling circus packed its tents and moved on, it mostly left the detritus and debt behind, as documented in John Branch’s article.
My first Games were in 1984, when Los Angeles and top executive Peter Ueberroth used existing facilities in the region, producing a profit for amateur sports groups, not debts for the host region. Some other host cities tried to think of leaving a lasting upgrade – Barcelona, in 1992, for example, and to my surprise, Atlanta's downtown was upgraded by the Olympic presence -- but others just spent and spent for a 17-day jamboree.
Having said that, I must add that some parts of the Olympics were wonderful to cover – great events intriguing personalities, in special places all over the world. I always tried to keep my perspective of whether these Games had lasting value for the cities that lusted to be the host, but I do have memories of events and competitors:
In Los Angeles in 1984, I had the good luck of watching a charismatic American volleyball team, with a lanky, thoughtful star named Flo Hyman, lose the tense gold-medal match to China. For me, that one tournament was as good as any sports playoff or tournament I have covered.
My first Winter Games – Calgary, 1988 – reminded me that I don’t like being cold, so I gravitated to events with a roof over them, like figure skating….and hockey…and speed skating, with rocking music and gaudy costumes as powerful athletes whizzed around the oval track.
The Olympic ceremonies often had the air of ersatz royalty – coronations! knighthoods! weddings! – but once in a while they touched the heart, as in 1996, in Atlanta: the final carrier of the Olympic torch, on a runway high above the stadium, turned out to be Muhammad Ali, already suffering from the Parkinson’s disease that would kill him way too young. We held our breath and prayed for him, as Ali willed himself to complete his mission.
In those same Atlanta Games, in the first Olympic soccer tournament for women, epic Americans like Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm won the gold medal.
In 2002, in Salt Lake City, Sarah Hughes, not yet 17, blended talent and will in her stunning gold-medal figure-skating routine. I had written about her family, John and Amy Hughes and their five other children, good people, who lived near me on Long Island. Sarah Hughes is now a lawyer in New York City; her dad, John Hughes, a great hockey player from Cornell, passed in August of 2020.
I admit, I often slipped out of the Olympic bubble, to see how real life was going on in the host nation. At the 1998 Winter Games in the modest Japanese mountain town -- Almost Heaven, West Nagano, as I called it – I watched residents sweep overnight fluffy snow off the sidewalks. In Athens in 2004, my wife and I played hooky one day, taking the slow ferry to Hydra and swimming off the rocks. In Beijing, Chris Clarey and Jennifer 8 Lee and I visited one of the old neighborhoods – a hutong – and ate in a restaurant run by Uighurs, the persecuted ethnic minority.
But maybe my best “Olympian” moment came in 2004 when the shot-put competition was held on the grounds of the very first Olympic games in 776 BC, in the Olympia region west of Athens. To inhale that dust was a grand honor.
Since I retired at the end of 2011, I admit, I have never watched a minute of Olympics Games, Winter or Summer – too much babble, too many commercials, too much else going on. In the next few weeks, I will rely on the NYT’s great staff to provide the words and pictures --- and I hope everybody gets through without calamity.
Colin Phelan is 23, a writer and teacher in Massachusetts, a recipient of a Fulbright-Nehru scholarship to India next year, and a friend of a family close to us.
Our friend raved about his website, so I volunteered to take a look and was knocked over by what he knows, what he cares about.
Back home in the States during the pandemic, Phelan has not lacked for adventures – taking his bike across country, going into Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado as fearsome sand tornadoes swirled ominously ahead, and so on.
Passing through St. Louis, he discovered a World Chess Hall of Fame – who knew? -- and perhaps because he gets hammered by his students in their early teens, he explored the museum. Of course, he did.
The exhibits fascinated Phelan with the various themes of chess sets around the world, and he also began to understand the role India played in the worldwide popularity of chess.
Phelan's blog also links warfare and chess, comparing the chess tactic of dominating the flank to one of the key moves of the Battle of Gettysburg, on July 2, 1863 -- how a professor from Bowdoin College in Maine, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, told his troops to fix bayonets and rush downhill, into what became the gruesome but decisive Battle of Little Round Top.
(Phelan caught my interest because, in my three years of college ROTC, Gettysburg was still being used as a key lesson in battlefield tactics, now of course outmoded, but still an object lesson in planning and reacting.
I have walked the battlefield with our grandson George, who lives not far away. I recommended that Phelan read the magnificent restored first section of the novel, “O Lost,” by Thomas Wolfe, which takes place north of Gettysburg, a few days before the battle.)
Phelan has done most of the teaching in our interchange. His blog includes copious photos of chess sets from around the world – including a fruit-and-vegetable set – as he veers into an appreciation of Anthony Bourdain’s lust for life:
“As a devotee to Anthony Bourdain’s ability to discover culture and companionship through food, I’ve for long tried to discover another means through which people wedged apart by language or other barriers can not only coexist, but catch glimpses of another’s personality and being,” Phelan wrote.
I would not have expected poor Bourdain to pop up in a riff on chess, but there he is. Colin Phelan is living at a fast clip, so many interests and observations and opinions.
Phelan has already had adventures on his first visit to Kolkata and Delhi, teaching English, learning the local languages. Now he’s back in the States for a school year, having adventures. Nice to be 23.
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I have not begun to explore all the corners of this website. Please explore and enjoy:
The Euro final lived up to the morbid expectations of half the participants.
Italy conquered its shootout demons, aided by a keeper, only 22 years old, who most closely resembles massive dinosaurs that roamed the earth eons ago.
England lost the shootout, after a 1-1 draw in 120 minutes of play, giving the nation another year, another generation, to talk about the lads from West Ham who beat the West Germans in 1966.
Italy, known for its dogged tactics, that include Giorgio Chiellini smiling and chatting up opponents, was consistent with its repuation, as Chiellini tried to yank an English arm out of its socket.
Unknown to much of the soccer world before this month, Gianluigi Donnarumma revised memories of hallowed keepers Dino Zoff, Walter Zenga and the retired anthem-bellowing keeper Gigi Buffon. Now there’s another one.
While England broods over the Euro tournament, like patrons of some national pub, fans will surely question the tactics of manager Gareth Southgate, who missed a penalty himself, as England lost the 1996 Euro final.
Having had 25 years to think about it, Southgate inserted two subs near the end of 120 minutes – so they would help win the shootout, if you follow that reasoning.
What really bothers me is that one of them, Marcus Rashford, has helped raise millions of dollars to fight hunger. He is 23 years old and plays for Manchester United, and could easily be focusing on accumulating sports cars, but instead he raises money for the poor. I’m sure this admirable young man wanted to be used in the match, but the manager was saving him and Bukayo Saka of Arsenal, who turns 20 on Sept. 5, for penalty kicks.
Both are Black; did I mention that? And while Southgate was consoling them on the field, the sneaks and cowards of the “social” media were making racial comments about the two late subs. So now that’s part of the legend, part of the complex.
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In my earlier post, I wrote about old failures that haunt ancient soccer dynasties.
Italy and England, two nations with a toxic mix of entitlement and disillusionment, will meet Sunday in the finals of the Euros, the second best soccer tournament in the world.*
Fans of both countries can recite the failures, going back decades, with more facility than they can recall all the triumphs.
Italy has won four World Cups and the first Euro tournament, but the nation has a long case of ansia from every missed penalty kick in between – sturdy Captain Franco Baresi and creative Roberto Baggio, both suffering on bad legs, bravely taking PKs in the 1994 final -- and missing. It never goes away.
But England. Oy. England is riding a streak of 54 years without winning either of these tournaments.
Yet England dared to adopt as its theme song for the 2018 World Cup a ditty called “Football’s Coming Home,” and then England lost in the semifinals to Croatia, and France won the World Cup. France!
These years of English failure were recited, over and over again on Sunday by the ESPN broadcasting crew, Ian Darke (born in Portsmouth, UK) and Stewart Robson (born in Billericay, UK). I don't detect blatant rooting, like homer baseball broadcasters, urging “us” to score a few runs.
No, they knew their stuff about all the heinous moments in the past 54 years for the English side, and I don’t blame them for reciting the disasters for the folks watching ESPN. They were telling true stories.
Because American and English people share a common language, more or less, we Yanks have accepted English accents (whether or not Prof. Henry Higgins would approve of them) as the true soul of soccer.
To be fair, England is given credit as the modern home of the ancient sport of kicking stuff around – British sailors and workers bringing the game to the ports of South America, in the second half of the 19th Century, etc. etc.
Every year, every tournament, since 1966 looms even darker because of the wonderful event – England’s overtime victory over West Germany in the finals – at Wembley, the national stadium.
That match is probably the best-known in history because it is represented in the best sports documentary I have ever seen – “Goal!” written by Brian Glanville.
If an event like this can happen, English soccer must be the truth north of the sport, or so the theory goes.
England turns out to be the victim in two of the most famous plays in soccer history, at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, when stumpy Diego Armando Maradona of Argentina elevated himself to the height of Peter Shilton, the English keeper, and obviously punched the ball into the net, stunning the incompetent ref into inaction. Nowadays, such villainy is detected by the official camera -- plus, goalkeepers tend to punch out the lights of an opponent who flies into their air space.
In that very same match in 1986, Maradona ran rings around all 11 defenders, or so it seemed, for the most circuitous and artistic goal in World Cup history.
Want more suffering? In 1998, in France, David Beckham, the matinee idol of England, was jostled by Argentina defender Diego Simeone, and flailed a leg at Simeone, who writhed, in apparent mortal pain, and the ref displayed a red card to Beckham, and Argentina advanced and England went home.
Every generation, England has its potential saviours -- Gary Lineker in 1990, and scamps who never quite made it happen like Wayne Rooney and Paul Gascoigne, known as Gazza.
Nowadays, English soccer has been upgraded from competition with wealthy European national leagues, as well as recruited talent from Latin America and Africa and nowadays even that longtime soccer wasteland, the United States.
And get this: the sparkplug for England on Wednesday was named Raheem -- Raheem Sterling. When I started watching world soccer, England's squad used to look like a Republican Party donors' picnic. All those white lads would dump the ball downfield and hope something happened.
As Wednesday’s match went into overtime, the broadcasters quite accurately recited, “just as it was in 1966!” As England won in a penalty shootout, the broadcasters talked about “England’s tortuous history.”
I almost felt sorry for English soccer – and I am a Mets fan since 1962. At least the Amazing Metsies have won two World Series.
Many Americans in my generation learned about soccer from my good friend Paul Gardner, a son of England, who came to America and wrote and broadcast about the sport he called “soccer,” not “football,” and he spoke of “zero-zero,” not “nil-nil,” to avoid sounding pretentious to the American ear. Andres Cantor, from Argentina, is known for his ululating “Gooooool!” call, but as a long-time resident of the U.S., he informs but never patronizes.
It would be great to have more “experts” in the U.S. with a broader, non-English viewpoint -- let's say an Italian bemoaning the missed penalty kicks over the eons or a Portuguese “expert” who can describe the drubbing inflicted on the great Eusebio in 1966 or a Brazilian who can discuss with passion the best team that ever participated in a World Cup – but neglected to win it, as beautiful Brazil did in 1982, while Italy purloined the World Cup with raffish zest.
As I have written in my book "Eight World Cups," that first World Cup made me an Azzurri fan for life. I got to interview Dino Zoff, the venerable keeper, and later met Claudio Gentile, who had beaten the daylights out of Maradona in 1982. I used to watch Serie A on some wavy-line TV channel in New York City, and a decade ago I met Gigi Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero (currently doing studio babble for ESPN) when Juventus paid a summer visit to the Stati Uniti. Del Piero told me, in English, "Your Italian better than my English" -- clear flattery, but charming nonetheless.
Yes, yes, I know, me mum was born in Liverpool, and spoke with English inflections for all her long and admirable life. Yes, I am proud of how the U.S. has, finally, developed world-level talent. But to this day, I love to watch the Italian players belt out the lyrics to the anthem, “Song of the Italians.” Long-time keeper Buffon is now retired but the Italians have another leader, Giorgio Chiellini, (with Buffon, above), who has the wrinkles of athletic old age and roars out the anthem, and jokes with opponents -- until the ref is not looking and he whacks and trips his opponents.
Yes, these have been terrible decades for sad, deprived Italy and England.
Now they will meet in Sunday’s final at Wembley.
Somebody will lose, and that nation will say: “Naturally.”
Somebody will win, and that nation will say: “Finally.”
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*- The best tournament, of course, is the World Cup. The third best is the Copa América, which held a dream final Saturday at Rio’s famous Maracana Stadium, with Lionel Messi's Argentina beating between Neymar’s Brazil, 1-0.
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(Complexes and failures aside, I am hooked on this video depiction of loyal, eccentric England fans; on Wednesday at kickoff, my pal Duncan-from-Arsenal sent me a terse email that said in its entirety: "Meat Pie." Do watch it.)
(This above masterpiece is from that innocent time when Robert Mueller investigated the goniffs.)
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Who doesn’t love a perp walk, when an alleged suspect has to walk past a raggle-taggle media mob?
As a news reporter, back in the day, I stood on a city sidewalk and yelled questions at suspects and lawyers. Sometimes somebody would even say something.
I’ve been waiting for the ultimate perp walk for over four years, when the alleged perpetrator would have to bluster his way through the scrum, the way Messrs. Manaforte and Flynn and Stone had to do.
The way the porcine little accomplice Barr will have to do one of these days.
At least once a day, I ask my favorite news monitor: “Did they get him yet?”
Every so often, I watch the Youtube masterpiece, “From Russia With Love,” depicting many of the villains of recent years (but not the racist Stephen Miller; why not the racist Stephen Miller?)
I love the Vampira smile of the blonde turncoat, lurking in the shadows.
Actually, a lot of us are waiting for the big one. It may just be coming. But on Thursday I had to settle for the dumpy accountant Allen Weisselberg to get hauled into court, although the NYT made it clear the charges included the the Trump organization, not just the figures guy.
Everybody knows Weisselberg is the major facilitator for the shady Trump and his family – the phony “university,” the crooked “foundation,” the real-estate scams that now have residents lobbying to have the chiseler’s name chiseled off crumbling Trumpian facades.
Now Weisselberg has been summoned by the district attorney of New York City.
By mid-day, I had not seen a sidewalk scrum like the ones that nice Michael Cohen had to endure, but still, there was Mr. Weisselberg, court-mandated mask on, hands cuffed behind his back, being guided through a public hallway -- no tie on Mr. Weisselberg. Trés déclassé
I am sure somebody has told him his interesting options.
To flip, or not to flip.
“Mr. Weisselberg, we know you were merely following orders, weren’t you?”
This isn’t even the worst stuff suspected of Donald John Trump.
The rape charge. The payoffs. The racist policies in those badly-made buildings he and his father slapped up. And, if some legal mind wanted to try, the potential charges of dereliction of duty in the half a million avoidable American deaths in the ongoing Covid pandemic. And the sending of thugs (or, as Republicans call them, tourists) down Pennsylvania Ave. to tear apart the American government.
That’s all out there, gettable, somehow.
But right now, white-collar crime will do. Just for openers.
Al Capone on tax evasion.
The timing is perfect – just before the birthday of an idealistic country, not always perfect, but a beacon to the world, nonetheless, and now, maybe again.
“Mr. Weisselberg, you’ll be doing your country a favor. You could be a patriot."
Something to ponder over the long weekend.
Happy Fourth of July, Mr. Weisselberg.
Long before he won the Pulitzer Prize, Stephen Dunn helped win basketball games.
His soft jump shots from the outside floated into the basket, often enough to earn him the locker-room nickname, “Radar.”
His game was soft, gentle. His poetry had the impact of a subtle elbow, making its point.
He found himself along the road from the Queens playground to the Hofstra College gym to the gatherings where he read his poems.
We watched him soar, higher in poetry than he ever did in basketball, but always one of us, a bunch of Hofstra jocks – student-athletes, actually – plus, one former student publicist who became a journalist.
The quiet bloke at our table at Foley’s, the great sports pub, was a big-timer, with the 2001 Pulitzer to prove it, not that he ever brought it up. Radar was always quiet, modest, observant, and accurate.
The last time I talked to him, months ago, he allowed as how he was now confined to a wheelchair from Parkinson’s Disease, and his voice was so badly shot that a good friend would have to read his latest work at some Zoom poetry gathering. Then it got worse, and Stephen Dunn died Thursday on his 82nd birthday.
Stephen was another advertisement for the Hofstra of the late ‘50s – when Hofstra was stretching from a suburban commuter college, making a pitch for city kids – Francis Coppola from Queens, Lainie Kazan from Brooklyn, Tony Major from Florida and Harlem, and Stephen Dunn from Forest Hills, Queens.
Stephen won a starting job as a sophomore, was the second highest scorer, but always quietly, hesitant to roar. He was a first-generation college kid, and did not know how it all worked.
But on one of our big-time road trips all the way to Allentown or Gettysburg, he was listening to two older teammates, Sam Toperoff and Dick Pulaski, talking about "Moby-Dick," talking with enthusiasm and insight and opinions.
Wow, Radar thought. He began to pay more attention in class, began to work at his writing. That was one epiphany.
The other epiphany was next season, matching up with a new player on the team, from a basketball family. “He could block my jump shot. He could steal the ball from me,” Stephen wrote in an essay, “Basketball and Poetry: The Two Richies.” (This lovely essay is in “Walking Light; Essays and Memoirs,” W.W. Norton and Co., 1993.)
“No one could free me from Richie Swartz. Richie Swartz turned me inward to where doubts are, and doubts, while good for the poet, are bad for the athlete.”
(The “good Richie” was another teammate, Richie Goldstein, who once fed Stephen for 45 points in a Press League game.)
When Stephen Dunn was a celebrated poet, he would often read from this essay, and when he was finished lauding Richie Swartz, Stephen would add: “You son of a bitch,” but lovingly.
Stephen was still a core player on the 1959-60 team that won 23 games and lost 1, and crushingly was not invited to any post-season tournament. Stephen surprised himself by playing a season in the Eastern League, crowding into a car with more celebrated former college players, for weekends in Williamsport and Sunbury, Scranton and Camden. He was a pro. Then circuitously, he became a poet.
Dunn’s life and career are best appreciated in the obituary by Neil Genzlinger, in The New York Times:
Stephen Dunn lived his final decades in an aerie outside Frostburg, Md., with his wife, Barbara Hurd, also a writer, specializing in nature.
They held occasional soirees, with friends from around the region, people who liked to write and read and listen and talk. And his legs gave out, and his voice gave out, and on Thursday, all of him gave out.
Happy Birthday, Radar. You can get off your feet, your jumper arching perfectly, into the basket.
Happy Father’s Day…Best Wishes at Juneteenth….and hopes for a good and healthy summer for all.
My first present – there are others – was a lovely essay in The New York Times written by one David Vecsey. The essay proved (once again, to me) that it is hard for me, being the least talented and versatile among the five members of our family.
Marianne is an artist (more on that momentarily) and has a dozen other skills.
Laura was a poet first and then a really good news reporter and sports columnist at four major papers around the country, and is now a real-estate maven upstate.
Corinna worked in journalism (in Paris, later in New York) and is now a lawyer and consultant to feelgood projects in Pennsylvania.
David could have (should have) been a sports columnist but after some time in the Web world, he learned newspaper editing from some good teachers at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and passed the editing test and tryout at the Times a decade ago, to our delighted surprise.
So….a father and husband can brag on Father’s Day.
My wife did it all. As David attests in his story, I was at the ballpark or typing in my room, putting in an appearance for meals or a catch or hoops or maybe a drive to Jones Beach or the city. I did take each of them with me on road trips to deepest America, not for games but for real life.
Marianne did the hard work, the parenting. And it shows.
They are all good parents.
They all can cook.
They all have spouses, Diane and Peter and Joelle, who match them, skill for skill, energy for energy, will for will, value for value. How blessed we are.
David is usually busy putting the last bit of polish on articles for the Print Hub (that is to say, “the paper.”) He’s been working at home the past year, and instead of riding the railroad he has been able to develop other corners of his brain.
In his younger days, he watched his mother cook, and sometimes went to the New York Philharmonic with her when I was away. He also watched her paint, in her “spare time,” late at night, her newest work materializing when we woke up in the morning.
Over the years, she won prizes, appeared in nice shows and galleries, sold around 300 paintings, some of them now around the world.
Recently, David asked if she had slides of her work, and yes, she had some tucked here and there. So he commandeered the slides, put them through the magic visual part of his computer, and turned some of them into posters and greeting cards, with themes and connections only his active mind could make.
He has put them online, displayed them at crafts shows on Long Island, placed them in some nice shops, mailed the work to Berlin, to England, and corners of the U.S. It’s all on a very modest scale, and by Dave’s decree, some of the money is going to charity. The point was never money, it was the art, the work, the product, the result.
I sit back and enjoy the smartphone pings from our scattered family.
They are the best gift, on Father’s Day.
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You should be able to open David’s story online today:
For information on David’s project, Marianne’s work:
Like many people during the pandemic, we have been eating at home for well over a year – not hard duty for me, since my wife is a great and adventuresome cook.
She’s mostly cooking and eating vegetables these days, cutting back on meat and dairy to combat allergies. That’s great with me, since I’d rather eat vegetables than meat, generally.
I watched her prepare lunch today, noticing how many steps it takes to cook vegetables. (How astute on my part.)
While she cooked, I did some scut work around the kitchen – and had time to free-associate with each dish, and the memories attached to them.
1. Okra Past. Soft and fresh, mixed with crispy breadcrumbs doused with an almond-milk version yogurt, in olive oil. The sight of okra brought me back to a friend many years ago, who had a house in rural Appalachia. The kitchen faced south to a sunny patch where two different crops grew right outside the window, plenty of sun. One crop was not my department. The other was okra, which he cut from the vine without having to walk outside.
2. Walnuts Past. In another pan, my wife mixed walnut pieces with onions and mushrooms, sprinkled with natural sugar.
Why walnuts? She told me that on one of her child-care runs to Bangkok, she and colleagues would visit the outdoor markets and restaurants, in the relative cool of late evening. You could also purchase fish or meat, whatever vegetables you wanted, and a chef would toss it together in a wok, right in front of you.
She said another stall specialized in shelled walnuts in a sweet sauce. My guess is, from memory, she aced it.
3. Corn on the Cob Past. Nothing makes me happier about summer than the arrival of fresh Long Island corn. While I chomp away, I think back to hot summer evenings while our father was at work: Mom would take our large family to Cunningham Park (in Queens), a few blocks up the steep glacial hill. We would carry a dozen ears of corn, or maybe two dozen, and commandeer a vacant fireplace and bench in the shade, and start a fire, and fetch water and boil the corn.
My wife also has corn memories. On Sunday she nuked fresh corn in the microwave, but other times she twirls them over a flame, scorching them slightly, and sprinkling them with paprika.
An Indian friend taught her that here on Long Island, but my wife also ate corn during her 14 child-care trips to India. She has memories of meals in affluent homes as well as shacks in the slums, where people shared whatever they had.
(The Web says corn – maize – is mostly ground up for flour in India, but my wife set me straight: maize is also street food, strongly spiced, from stands in busy marketplaces – part of the life she came to love on her trips to Pune and Mumbai and other cities.
Food is more than vibrant tastes on our tongue; food can be a Proustian reminder of seasons past.
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Got any vivid memories of food in other places and times? Please share.
Yes, yes, I know. I grew up (and suffered) when the Brooklyn Dodgers lived in the same town as the New York Giants and Yankees. (Bobby Thomson! Yogi Berra!) But that’s long gone.
I know all about the long Yankee-Red Sox rivalry, and the great football and basketball and hockey rivalries.
I covered Ohio State-Michigan football back in the day, and the glorious Lakers-Celtics finals in the mid-80s and Islanders-Rangers (The organ and the Potvin Chant in the Garden!)
But nothing is like Mexico-USA in soccer, for sheer nastiness, in a sport based on precious goals – and fueled by long-held stereotypes and resentments.
History lesson: you cannot be casual against the Mexicans. Planted in their memories is a computer chip from 1847 when Gen. Winfield Scott marched his troops from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. (“From the Halls of Montezuma….”)
The two squads had another episode of their rivalry Sunday night in Denver, in the finals of a regional tournament called the Nations Cup.
There were homophobic chants, apparently now a staple of Mexican “fans,” plus bottles and other stuff flying out of the stands, one hard object conking Gio Reyna, the 18-year-old wonderboy who had scored the first restorative goal for the U.S. ( Apparently, he is okay.)
All that stuff is deplorable, but the rivalry, the history, this great sport itself, is compelling. It held me for three hours in front of the tube Sunday night, watching the US rally twice for a 3-2 victory with repeated and late heroics.
The Mexican players are always fired up; sometimes the U.S. players need a reminder. At 60 seconds, an American defender made a super-cool pass to his right to clear the ball from goal mouth, but the Mexicans were in predatory gear and poached the pass for a goal, making the evening seem disastrous.
Hard lesson: You cannot be casual against Mexico, which has world-level talent, polished in some of the best leagues in Europe. The U.S. is just catching up.
Never forget. Three American former players in the pre-game TV booth remembered that lesson. In 2009, in a qualifying game for the World Cup, in that ominous, rumbling torture chamber known as Estadio Azteca, Charlie Davies scored against Mexico in only the 9th minute, and tore off toward the stands to exult, wherever American fans happened to be.
“See you later!” recalled Clint Dempsey and Oguchi Onyewu, his boothmates, two older players who also were on that field in 2009. They watched the talented, exuberant and innocent Davies strut into a barrage of debris from Mexican fans and quickly seek the safety of midfield.
(Oh, yes, Mexico rallied for a 2-1 victory in front of the home crowd that night. Tough place. I remember one U.S. match in Azteca, 2001, when the U.S. bus parked in a so-called secure area, only to be harassed by a lone heckler – a borracho, a drunk, a dwarf on a carpeted skateboard, given the run of the lot, rattling off Spanish and English maledictions at the visitors: Bienvenido a Azteca.
Every moment on the field is a battle. Personal. On Sunday, after a Mexican goal was disallowed because of a minimal offsides violation, Reyna, only 18, scored the equalizer in the 27th minute. In the stands, his parents, Claudio Reyna and Danielle Egan Reyna, both former American players, celebrated.
I immediately flashed back to the best game I ever saw cool, selfless Claudio play, in the round of 16 in the 2002 World Cup in Jeonju, South Korea. He distributed the ball and defended and overtly set the tone for a 2-0 victory – also the best game I have ever seen the U.S. play, knocking out their rivals and moving into the quarters where they would lose, controversially, to Germany.
(That score was familiar, from a World Cup qualifier in a storm with wind and rain and evil greenish clouds, in Columbus, Ohio, in 2001, soon prompting a chant: “dos a cero!”) There were three other dos-a-cero American victories in that decade.
Sunday night’s game was not 2-0. Mexico scored and Gio Reyna tied it.
The American keeper, Zack Steffen, went out with a knee injury in the 69th minute, and his replacement, Ethan Horvath, hastily warmed up, getting more action than Steffen had, and responding marvelously.
Late in the overtime, two Mexicans put the squeeze on Christian Pulisic, the aging wonderboy, now all of 22, who went down, and drew the penalty kick. Pulisic coolly placed the ball in the upper-right corner (“where the spiders play,” said one of the American ex-players in the booth).
Some Mexican fans promptly unleashed a homophobic chant – against nobody in particular – and the regional officials threatened to halt the match and replay it Monday behind closed doors. (NB: most of the Mexico fans, many residing in the U.S., are sportsmanlike.)
“Bonkers,” was the perfect description of the mood swings, by my friend Steven Goff, longtime soccer correspondent for the Washington Post.
In the closing moments, Horvath had to defend a penalty kick by the venerable Mexican captain, Andres Guardado, just off the bench, and he dove to his right to punch away the shot for the victory. Later, as quoted by my man Goff, Horvath said he had been well prepared for tendencies during the week by his goalkeeper coach, using films from other Mexican matches. (My long-time colleague, Mike Woitalla of Soccer America, rated Horvath a 9/10 for his spontaneous heroics. Reyna and Pulisic were rated at 8/10.)
The U.S. celebrated – mostly toward the center of the field. Always a good idea. But the giddiness will fade quickly: Mexico still holds a series lead of 36 victories, 16 draws and 20 losses – and keeps producing talent.
(I was struck, particularly, by the skill and gall of Diego Lainez, all 128 pounds of him, three days short of 21, who plays for Real Betis in La Liga of Spain. Mexico could afford to save him for the 78th minute; he did not score until the 79th minute, and spent his spare time lobbying the field official.)
The rivals are probably fated to meet again in the qualifying stages for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Whenever they meet, there will be epic plays and mistakes and oaths and missiles from the stands, as well as moments of world-level soccer skills.
For me, whenever the two squads meet, in a “friendly” or a World Cup match, it’s the best rivalry in North America.
Try to access my NYT article from 2001, from the testing grounds of Azteca:
See if you can access the wrapup via that great asset, Soccer America:
Ditto, the Goff article in the WaPo:
Wikipedia has all the details of the Mexico-USA rivalry:
However she did it, Naomi Osaka found a way to catch the attention of all the people around her.
She dropped out of the French Open Monday, saying she has been suffering from depression since 2018. Whatever the circumstances, however she did it, she now gets better help, I hope.
Osaka rang the alarm by saying she didn't want to talk to the media, but now it is clear this is much more than a tantrum by a young adult.
My one question now is: who knew about her trouble? Who let it get this far? Did she have a worldwide number for a qualified counselor who knew her, who was reachable 24 hours a day?
One more thing: Tennis -- with a capital T -- is also to blame. I once knew a doctor who was appalled at the lack of consistent care these great athletes receive. Nothing was available for the next doc-on-call in the next continent to make a diagnosis. Maybe it's better now. But there Naomi Osaka was, in yet another great setting, in yet another Slam tournament, needing to shut it down. Everybody's meal ticket.
Did her parents know? Her coach? Her agent? Her hitting partner? Her physio? I am way out of tennis these days and know nothing of her and her "entourage." But she had to draw the line somewhere, and the media is a fine target, I don't blame her.
The tennis writers and commentators I know would be the first to say: brave lady, get some help, then come back. If you can. If you want. Be safe.
* * *
Here is Matthew Futterman's breaking news story from Paris:
* * *
(The following is my earlier piece.)
How much is it worth to not speak to the scurrilous wretches known as tennis writers?
It is refreshing to know that professional tennis pays so well that Naomi Osaka can willingly pay $15,000 to avoid one short session with the assassins and cut-throats of the press.
This was the going rate when Osaka ducked the media after her first round at the French Open on Sunday. She had promised not to speak, citing the threat to “mental health” from exposure to the troublemakers with pens and recording machines.
Up to now, Osaka has been known for becoming the best female player in the world and also becoming the highest paid female athlete in history, making $34.7-million dollars last year, according to Forbes.
As the daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother, representing Japan and growing up in the United States, she has worldwide appeal, and has often spoken out maturely on gender and racial issues. But suddenly, at 23, apparently on her own, she issued a manifesto that she would not appear at the mandatory conferences after every match.
Having covered these post-match conferences since I was younger than Osaka is now, I can attest to the rambling and scattershot tone of these sessions. Most of the accredited media members are from the tennis press – they know the sport, they are solicitous of the players, asking questions about on-court strategy, questionable officiating, luck of the bounce, and upcoming tournament plans. (“Will you be playing at Indian Wells this season?”)
Of course, there are also outliers – columnists, news reporters, and nowadays people representing websites and electronic media, looking for a snippet of quote or tantrum or tears.
Over the years, I have seen most of the enduring players adjust to sudden swerves of questions just as they adjust to swirling winds or glaring sunlight or capricious surfaces. Nobody gets to major tournaments without learning to cope.
Serena Williams deflects questions and criticisms with a combative mode. Her older sister Venus Williams does it with a distant manner; she doesn’t really know anything about this or that. But when they want, both are mature activists for themselves and good causes.
Many of the enfants terribles had their own defense mechanisms – John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors ramped up their obnoxious level, Andre Agassi retreated into a “whut?” response, Ivan Lendl could get haughty. Guys being guys. It got them through.
The best female players were even younger when they came along, facing questions that often veered into personal issues. Some of the female prodigies seemed preternaturally poised – Chris Evert, of course, as well as Pam Shriver and Steffi Graf and Tracy Austin and Martina Hingis and Ana Kournikova most of the time, even when some male reporters seemed to be summoning their inner Humbert Humberts in person and in print.
Female players had marvelous role models – the pioneers who fought for respect and prize money, most notably Billie Jean King. Some women had to face sniggering sexuality questions, most notably from the Beastie Boys of the British press, at post-match press conferences. I remember one female player being asked whether she was wearing an engagement ring from the woman in the family box.
The volunteer steward at the Wimbledon interview room in the '80s was a mannered scion of a major British firm, who would wave off some personal questions – “please, tennis questions only.” I have seen John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova tell him politely they were more than equal to the questions. Which they surely were.
Up to now, Naomi Osaka has been able to handle herself – on the court and in the media conferences. Her manifesto seems to have come from within, without advice from family or agent or coach or friends. Nobody seems to know the origin of her phrase “mental health,” but surely Osaka has seen players be mad or hurt by questions after a loss or a dispute. Perhaps she has been, also.
I can only hope she is talking with people who care for her, including veterans of the tour – Evert and Navratilova. I would suggests she check in with a Black pioneer like Leslie Allen of New York City, who was on the tour back in the day when prize and endorsement money was measured in tens and hundreds.
Unless there is more to Osaka’s angst than we know, she needs to remember that if she can face down the great players on today’s tour, she can handle the Beastie Boys (and Girls) in the media room. We’re the easy part.
With a growing sense of relief, I watched an American president demonstrate dignity in public.
Sometimes it just comes around the corner and strikes me: we have a functioning adult as our leader.
I wandered into our TV room Friday after a busy week and saw President Biden holding a press conference with his counterpart from South Korea, Moon Jae-in.
The tone was positive and informed as President Biden read his prepared remarks and then answered media questions. At one point he chided a male American questioner to be nice; clearly, they have a history. But it was said with a smile on both parts – a far cry from the ugly retorts, usually to female questioners, from the ignorant, preening brute we had until recently.
Instead, Joe Biden seems to be telling the country (and the world): we’re all in this together, we can do better, we can get along.
President Biden (I feel better just typing that) often speaks of his motivation to improve life for Americans. As David Brooks wrote recently after a telephone interview, President Biden often talks about his father’s suffering from a business going down, through no fault of his. Our president transfers his compassion to people who are not doing well.
I hear a tone from my younger days, now long, long ago. I can see my mother crying when she heard that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her father figure, had died on April 12, 1945. (I was 6; I had seen him campaign in Queens on a nasty, drizzly day in October.) FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt had helped carry this country through a depression and then a world war. They are the gold standard, for me.
I am surprised to think of Joe Biden in these terms. I was not impressed with him when he was a senator or even a vice president. I thought he was politically dead when he left New Hampshire and went to make his last stand in South Carolina in 2020. But he has grown, and grown, and grown.
Sometimes Presidents surprise. Harry S. Truman was derided as an unknown, a mediocrity, an accident, but he carried the U.S. from wartime into hopeful post-war growth. Coming from a leftward Democrat family, I tended to mock Dwight D. Eisenhower – but how centrist, how prepared, Ike seems now.
Time changes perspective. I reviled Lyndon B. Johnson for Vietnam but now appreciate his domestic policies; I scorned George W. Bush but now I envision him as the leader who jauntily fired a strike from the mound at Yankee Stadium shortly after 9-11.
Plus Michelle Obama likes him, that’s good enough for me, Let me put it this way: W makes a very decent ex-President.
Time and legal investigations will take care of the poseur who called in American terrorists to attack the Capitol, and forces his toadies to lie for him.
Meantime, President Biden restores a spring cleaning of the soul: dignity in the White House.
This President can take in information. He can read. He can speak precisely, in diplomatic codes. On Friday, I heard a former ambassador to Seoul, Christopher Hill, on MSNBC, analyzing the President’s performance: the diplomat said the President was telling the world he has his eye on the dangerous leader of North Korea; he gave South Korea major attention early in his term.
For starters, President Biden offered to vaccinate South Korean soldiers. (My wife and I went to the DMZ with the U.S. soccer team during the 2002 World Cup; we still remember the impressive American and South Korean troops, ready for anything, just steps from the border.)
Joe Biden has seen pain strike three generations of Bidens. Now he acts like a healer.
I don’t envy him, all the eruptions coming at him. I’m a few years older than he is, and I want a nap.
But going into the weekend, I feel a bit better at the sight of Joe Biden an informed adult, who wants to heal, not pillage.
Chinese faces and Southern accents.
Jewish women with Southern accents.
Black chefs talking about their specialties.
These are some of the highlights of a great new PBS series, “Somewhere South,” starring Vivian Howard, a chef now starring in a role she was born to play – a wandering correspondent with curiosity, exploring the food and histories of the diverse peoples of the Southland,
Howard is one of the great teachers who have enriched our lives in the past year, along with Lidia Bastianich, la maestra della cucina, and Margaret Renkl, one of the best reads in the NYT, explaining nature, literature and her native South.
Howard has been on TV for a while, on reality television, as she and her chef-husband, Ben Knight, established contemporary restaurants in her native coastal North Carolina. From their adventures and misadventures, Howard branched out a season ago, getting southerners to talk about their lives and their food.
I cannot cook at all – not a thing -- but I live well because of my wife’s eclectic and delicious cooking. As a journalist, I have also enjoyed my wandering around the South – some politics, some hard news, and a lot of time feeling the complexities. Now I enjoy watching Vivian Howard, a daughter of the South with a charming accent and a lively curiosity, as she gets Southerners to open up about their food and their lives, (One favorite moment was when a Korean-American chef sniffed at southern dumplings as essentially just doughballs.)
Howard finds the way ethnic specialties survive: one show features Jewish women’s way of making matzoh ball soup, followed by Chinese chefs showing Howard to crimp the dough just right.
Howard, it turns out, is a born journalist, not afraid to ask questions, eliciting the histories of her subjects. Chinese elders discussed how the older generation made money running restaurants and delicatessens, so their children could get educated and go into professions.
In one thoughtful segment, Howard talked with modern Black chefs, some of whom seemed to test her for any signs of patronization….and then they all relaxed and had a good talk and a few laughs.
Howard loves the South, much in the tradition of fellow North Carolinians -- Gene Roberts, the great NYT national editor who let me loose in Appalachia, and Charles Kuralt, the CBS host who roamed the country with a camera and his curiosity.
At times I find myself thinking of poor Anthony Bourdain, visiting places like Bahia, Brazil, bringing his lusty appetite for unique places, food, drink, music and people.
Two other great voices enriching the air waves belong to Lidia Bastianich and Margaret Renkl.
Bastianich survived the upheavals in northeast Italy in World War Two and is now entrenched in northeast Queens, a staple on TV. My wife understands the fine points; I love the way Lidia tosses off vital tips about how to simmer, how to sprinkle, how to chop. She is never patronizing, always generously maternal, sharing her tricks.
As a wannabe Italian, I love her zest for Italian culture and history – and always look forward to the end of her session -- tossing off her trademark “Tutti a tavola a mangiare.” – Everybody to the table to eat!
Lidia’s shows usually incorporated her beautiful mother, Erminia Motika, who passed peacefully at 100, this past Feb. 14. Our condolences a la famiglia.
Finally, I want to praise the NYT editors for installing Margaret Renkl as a highly literate voice on the NYT website and in print. Renkl is at her best explaining the nature around her home in Nashville (one of my favorite American cities), as well as the ways of her native Alabama and the Deep South. I loved her recent poetic appreciation of the 17-year cicadas, and why they are good for the ecology. Who knew?
My thanks to Vivian Howard, Lidia Bastianich and Margaret Renkl.
Mille grazie, you-all.
So many questions from Friday night's Mets game.
Who was that guy wearing No.76 who plunked a 35-foot dribbler to win the game?
Back in the day, they used to talk about banjo hitters. This guy could be a guitar hitter.
And Patrick Mazeika's moment of glory came on the very same week that a hoax was circulating that ZZ Top's guitarist , Bill Gibbons, was rumored to have died in a car crash. Total hoax.
Speaking of hoaxes, something happened in the runway behind the Mets' dugout Friday night.
Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil, who had just botched a possible double play were the source of the commotion -- other Mets running down the steps to investigate something.
No problem, the lads assured reporters in the antiseptic pandemic press conference after the game. (No more sidling up to trusted sources in a crowded post-game clubhouse. Something precious has been lost in coverage of baseball and other sports. I always had a player or three in any clubhouse who would clarify stuff for me, quietly. Not gossip, usually....but a different perspective. Even for papers that cover clubs regularly, access is going, going....)
No fight, claimed Lindor, who had just crushed a game-tying homer in a season of grinding frustration. He and McNeil had been discussing, in raucous decibels, whether the giant beast they had both sighted was either a New York rat or a New York raccoon? Or was it a possum? Or one of our alligators from the marsh not far below the Mets' playground?
Nice try, boys. We New Yorkers can tell the difference, and so, I am sure, can you both.
Please coordinate your stories, and while you are at it, please coordinate your footwork around second base.
I can understand why Mets might be edgy these days. A few days ago, the Mets fired Chili Davis, a well-respected batting coach. (Reminds me of when the Mets fired my friend Bill Robinson to send a message to whom? the manager? the players?) Cheesy, either way, but Davis' firing highlighted the current make-it-up era. It didn't seem to dawn on the new owner, Steve Cohen, that fans will suss out the scapegoating of Davis. I guess that's how it goes in the hedge fund game. Now the Mets are being "run" by people who were second or third choices. No wonder tempers are fraught.
Plus, the domination by anonymous types in some underground bunker, running statistics through a computer. One result is defensive shifts, changing pitch by pitch, from hieroglyphics placed by the Analytics Crowd on plastic crib sheets, stuck in hip pockets, are confusing fielders.
Next time the mad analytics types are preparing their instructions for players who must react, in split seconds, to baseballs spinning in play, perhaps they could include photos to differentiate between rats (left) and raccoons (right.)
Meantime, fielders still have to deal with baseballs wriggling in play, put there by some new Met who looks like a ZZ Top musician. The human touch. That's our Mets.
It is dawning on me that the United States will never truly acknowledge the civilizations that were disrupted and ignored on “our” quest to take over a continent.
People who arrived here as slaves are one issue; I am talking here about the people who were here first – Native Americans, indigenous people, “them.”
The examples of ignorance just keep on coming.
I am thinking of some highly moronic words by Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, who has no respect for the civilizations that existed for many centuries before Europeans arrived.
I am also thinking of a stirring article in the April 19 issue of the New Yorker about an academic who spent a lifetime studying the language of the Penobscot people in Maine, helping save the language, to be sure, but in the end not giving a penny of his sizeable fortune to the Penobscot cause.
Let’s start with the blather from Santorum, who served two terms in the Senate, and recently spoke at the Young America’s Foundation “summit,” which was titled, “Standing up for Faith and Freedom.”
But whose faith, whose freedom?
“There was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture,” Santorum said.
Questioned about it, Santorum yammered on a bit. Never mind: we have had seen into his dark and ignorant heart.
“Rick Santorum is just saying what the majority of Americans silently believe – the only ‘real history’ is US history,” said Brett Chapman, a Native American attorney and descendant of Chief Standing Bear, the first Native Indian to win civil rights in the U.S.
“Everything centers around it,” Chapman added. “Many claim to appreciate and respect Native history yet know nothing about it. Let’s not act like he’s some lone wolf out there on this.”
I looked it up. Santorum’s father, Aldo Santorum, was an Italian emigrant, from Riva del Garda, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, and his mother, Catherine (Dughi), was born in Pennsylvania, of half Italian and half Irish ancestry.
As a proud carrier of an Irish passport, via my late grandmother from County Waterford, I think I can safely say: Irish and Italian immigrants were scorned by Anglo settlers who had already begun smugly looting North America, with God on their side.
As of today, Santorum still has his paid forum with CNN.
* * *
The other example of disrespect of Native Americans is the article by Alice Gregory in the New Yorker: “How Did a Self-Taught Linguist Come to Own an Indigenous Language?”
Gregory describes how Frank Siebert, a quirky scholar, became fascinated with the dying language of the Penobscot, whose reservation is based on Indian Island in the Penobscot River in Maine, north of Bangor.
Siebert arrived on the modest ferry from the mainland, sought out an elderly keeper of the language, and began keeping records by his own quirky methods.
Admirably, Siebert hired assistants like Carol Dana, a member of the tribe, who shared his interest and energy. Leaving his wife, Marion, and two daughters behind, he was based on the island, cataloguing the language but apparently without forming the bond or identity with the people.
The research and the memory of Carol Dana, now 70, , inform this stunning article, nine pages long, which I devoured in one sitting, and which I recommend most heartily.
When Siebert died on Jan. 23, 1998, Gregory writes, his collection was auctioned off by Sotheby’s: “The sale brought in more than $12.5 million. As stipulated in Siebert’s will, his daughters split the sum. Each bought a house for herself, and together they bought one for Marion. No provision was made for the Penobscot people.”
Gregory drily notes that Siebert “bequeathed his dictionary and his field-work materials to the American Philosophical Society, a scholarly organization, founded by Benjamin Franklin, in 1743, which is housed in a stately brick mansion in Philadelphia, a nine-hour drive from Indian Island.”
Gregory also notes that the society retains the intellectual property rights, and that visiting hours and conditions are rigidly controlled. She adds:
“In copying down the grammar, the stories, and the vocabulary of the Penobscot, Siebert made them his. In dying, he made them the American Philosophical Society’s.”
Siebert’s lack of generosity, the absence of respect, sounds cold,
However, former Sen. Rick Santorum, no doubt speaking for a huge segment of the white majority, could reassure us all, there was nothing much in the Native American culture when we invaded, and surely there is nothing worth bequeathing to the Penobscot people now.
Alice Gregory’s article in The New Yorker:
The Guardian's article about Santorum's ignorance:
Pep Guardiola has had a great week.
Fresh from his blazing show of independence against the owners’ assault on soccer, Guardiola sent his Manchester City team into Paris on Wednesday and beat PSG, 2-1, in the first leg of the Champions League semifinal.
Two goals and a victory give Man City a huge advantage going into next week’s return leg in Manchester. And the away victory just may be a karmic reward for Guardiola’ criticism of the owners’ grab for a separate, elite season-long “Super League.”
“It is not sport if you cannot lose,” Guardiola said last week, when the owners announced their own closed league.
The owners – including three Americans -- would have threatened old rivalries and done away with relegation and promotion, the deliciously cruel system of the European leagues.
However, fans took to the barricades, many players spoke out, and even a highly successful manager, Josep Guardiola i Sala, led the voices from the sideline.
Perhaps he comes by his own sense of justice through being a proud Catalan, whose family still lives in Santpedor, two hours north of Barcelona, and speaks the Catalan language in their home. Guardiola has played for Spain during his grand career as a defender but never lost sight of the Catalan goal of total independence.
After winning two Champions League club titles with Barcelona, he took the challenge of raising Manchester City to something more than the subservient club in Manchester and in the Premiership in England.
Guardiola is one of those soccer lifers who accumulate languages and knowledge as they move from club to club, from nation to nation – like Vincent Kompany, former Man City captain, now managing Anderlecht in his native Belgium, or Lilan Thuram, originally from Guadalupe, championship defender for France and longtime staple in Serie A of Italy, or Peter Cech, longtime keeper for the Czech Republic and Chelsea and Arsenal, who is said to speak seven languages fluently and four or five others partially.
Even though the world soccer system scoops up talented children into “academies,” essentially making a college education impossible, players like these (and Roberto Baggio of Italy, I just thought about him), manage to learn and grow and often speak out against injustices.
Pep Guardiola has been an admirable figure since his playing days, and it was not a total surprise that he voiced his criticism of predatory owners, who include the potentate of Man City, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates.
Guardiola’s idealistic stance is relevant as his club tries to win what the Man City owners would have intentionally and selfishly tried to devaluate.
The wrapup of Man City's victory on Wednesday:
Guardiola's remark in context after the owners declared war on the Champions League:
A good profile of Josep Guardiola i Sala:
INFORMED ESSAY ON THE OWNERS' PLAN
(From GV: My friend Duncan Irving is an Arsenal fan – family members back home worked in the actual arsenal – and he has written for Soccer America and The New York Times. He now lives in Brooklyn, and tends to see soccer through a double prism, as shown in his essay here.)
By Duncan Irving
As soon as the European Soccer League was announced on TV last Sunday — just as Arsenal bundled a 96th-minute equalizer over the line against relegation fodder Fulham to cement the Gunners’ position among the European Elite — I turned to my wife and said, “Well, that’ll never happen.” And thankfully, I was right. This time.
Sure, I could see the appeal of a European Super League to the club bosses. The Americans at Liverpool, Man U and Arsenal have long been skittish about relegation and the revenue losses they’d incur in the highly unlikely event they went down. Why not just eliminate the risk, once and for all?
After a year-long pandemic, and even longer periods of mismanagement, Barcelona and Real Madrid badly needed the cash (Spurs, too, with a spanking new state-of-the-art stadium sitting empty) and the ESL offered a healthy instant injection of funds. I’m guessing Chelsea and Manchester City, owned by an oligarch and a nation-state respectively, went along with it because they didn’t want to be left out. It wasn’t surprising that they were the first two to bail.
Still it’s been hilarious to hear the EPL and UEFA work themselves into a state of high dudgeon about all this, particularly as they've employed strong-arm tactics themselves in the past. And it’s also curious to see the likes of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher frothing indignantly away behind the very costly SkyTV paywall, a network that thinks nothing of scheduling games at the most inconvenient times, with nary a thought to the fans they purport to love so much.
And when you cede the moral high ground to the likes of Jeff Bezos and Boris Johnson … you know you’ve screwed the pooch. I’ll give a little credit here to Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy, who took advantage of the astonishingly bad publicity to dump his own festering pile of bad news, Jose Mourinho, and nobody batted an eyelid. Well played, sir!
I’m not sure what kinds of sanctions UEFA and the leagues can put in place, because sadly the EPL and UEFA need those clubs more than the clubs need them. Three of the four entrants in the CL semis are ESL renegades, as are two of the four in the Europa League. I’ve watched some real sludge from my Thursday night Europa League follies these past few seasons, and it’s painfully evident that they need those teams.
Same with the Premier League, which chucks up an outlier — Blackburn, Leicester — maybe once a decade. They also know that fans won’t watch a diet of (pundits always toss this fixture out as an example of one to avoid) Crystal Palace vs Burnley, indefinitely.
Why was I so convinced that this idea was a non-starter? Firstly, my natural pessimism as an English-born fan. Soccer is a game predicated on failure. At the end of every season, there are a handful of winners (if we’re lucky) and a whole lot of losers. And as American sports writers (notably never George) loved to tell us, there wasn’t enough scoring in soccer.
As fans, we thrive in gloom culture. There’s nothing quite like the gallows humor surrounding a club when it’s performing poorly. And it’s offset by those rare occasions when everything falls into place, and with it comes the release of tension and emotion we experience when a goal is scored, or our team wins a game it really doesn’t have any business doing. The specter of relegation is something that hangs over most teams, a kind of bogeyman of failure. And also, as fans, we all love a healthy helping of Schadenfreude — who hasn’t hooted with derisive laughter at the camera focusing on the crying kid wailing into a replica jersey when their team is relegated? We’re a perverse bunch, and we like it that way.
Put another, gentler, way, “It is not a sport if success is guaranteed or if it doesn’t matter when you lose.” Pep Guardiola said that on Monday. In other words, we like it just the way it is, thank you. And to be honest, the American in me (he’s been here 30-odd years and soaked in American sports so I have to listen to him once in a while) just shrugged at the prospect of a closed-shop league, while my family across the water was figuratively sharpening pitchforks and lighting torches.
The fans may have won this round but I fear this is just the opening salvo in a longer, uglier battle. Florentino Perez et al (or somebody very much in their image) will be back with a larger, greedier proposal before long, with more clubs willing to take the plunge. I think the hope when the ESL was launched was that other clubs would rush to join what turned out to be a radioactive idea, and that the sheer weight of numbers would force it through. Perhaps the next time the Germans and the French will join in. Perhaps the next time, someone might think of asking the Portuguese clubs, too.
As fans we’ve suffered a lot through the past 12 months — a pandemic, ghost games, fake crowd noise, a brief experiment with limited crowds (as an Arsenal fan, I was delighted to see the 2000-odd spectators lustily boo the team off the field after a 1-0 loss to Burnley), the occasional audible F-bomb, Juergen Klopp gurning on the touchline ... so it’s good that we’ve all found something we can despise together.
We saw them, wealthy club owners – three sets from the United States – with their paws in the cookie jar, like rabid raccoons raiding a woodland camp.
Can’t blame a billionaire for trying. After buying their way into fabled soccer teams that grew on the affections of humble fans all over Europe, a dozen club owners showed their contempt for the fans…and the players they have “bought”…and for the history of the best soccer leagues in the world.
It’s our toy. We can do what we want.
In case you are not up on this spectacular pratfall by rich people, let me say briefly: twelve of the best clubs in England, Italy and Spain were plotting a separate mid-week tournament involving 15 “permanent” members and five annual “guest” clubs. They would defy the structure of European soccer because…well, because they are rich guys, and they wanted more.
But their heist sputtered immediately in the past few days, and now the owners will be forever remembered for their blatant stick-em-up.
It is quite fitting that three of the rapacious owners who would have undermined European soccer are from the United States-- John Henry of Liverpool, Stan Kroenke of Arsenal and the Glazer family of Manchester United.
Other ownerships come from other countries -- Middle Eastern potentates and Russian oligarchs and other such worthies from Italy and Spain. No negotiations. Just a power grab in the middle of the night. Shame.
European soccer has become so big that even rich Americans began buying into hallowed clubs that have evolved from local lads pounding a muddy leather ball, on rudimentary fields for the entertainment of friends and neighbors. The fans and players created nasty local/regional rivalries, known as “derbies” like Liverpool-Man U or Arsenal-Tottenham.
For decades, fans who supported these clubs -- mostly men – were herded into dismal stadiums, forced to stand, putting up with rudimentary “restrooms” and grubby “food.” Fans were herded behind locked gates, and if a fire or riot broke out, they were left to work it out for themselves, sometimes at the grotesque loss of life.
Via television, and the creature-comfort example of American football and baseball stadiums, European soccer has evolved, with more luxurious settings and sometimes even “family sections” where men dare bring their wives and daughters.
As European clubs relaxed their quotas for foreigners, the best players in Latin America and Africa and Asia and even this distant soccer outpost of North America flocked to western Europe. The leaders noticed the success of the Super Bowl of American football and created ways to make money via all-European mid-week tournaments and calling it the Champions League.
Good grief, wasn’t that enough, all that money and all those epic games, with the best players in the world traveling and running like well-paid hamsters on a wheel?
One reason the Champions League had succeeded in recent decades is that it was based on a meritocracy. True. Clubs could show some brains and ingenuity and upgrade themselves to the top ranks of the national leagues, thereby qualifying for the Champions League.
You may notice that six of the 12 willing teams of La Cosa Nostra (Our Thing) – to be called the Super League, how creative – were from England. Arsenal. Chelsea. Tottenham. Liverpool. Manchester United. Manchester City.
I looked it up, and in recent decades, other clubs in England managed to qualify for the Champions League tournament – Leeds United, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle and Leicester City.
But some owners wanted more. They got together and dreamed up a Super League of the in crowd and invited guests.
What Messrs. Henry, Kroenke and Glazer never saw coming was the rage of fans who survived the nasty old pits, who stood in the rain and snow, to create these leagues. Nor did the American owners and their arrogant colleagues dream that their hired help – mere players and even cheeky club managers like the Spanish (Catalan) Pep Guardiola of Manchester City – would go public, immediately.
The rest of this epic pratfall – rich and arrogant men, tripping in muddy streets -- is in the newspapers and on the air waves and the Web. I am quoting Rory Smith, the European soccer correspondent for The New York Times, as he updated the epic failure:
“But it was not only how quickly it all dissipated — Sunday’s future of soccer did not even make it to Wednesday — but how easily those who had designed it and signed on to it seemed to capitulate.”
The schemers are probably not embarrassed. Also, they are still rich.
* * *
These people in the video made English soccer, not some Yankee carpetbaggers looking to make more money off other people's sport. (These blokes are rooting for the national team, but you get the point of who built English soccer.)
(This just in: fan makes cheesy catch of home run ball.)
* * *
Clearly, baseball missed its fans as much as the fans missed baseball.
Now we fully understand the pandemic pall of the truncated 2020 season -- no fanatics, no diehards, no leather-lungs, no lunatics, adding color and noise to the play on the field.
Never again underestimate fans.
Even with the modest percentile of fans allowed in ball parks in states where governments respect the murderous potential of the virus, baseball feels more like baseball this year.
Fans with distended facial features and thrashing arms try to summon a rally. Fans stand and applaud a gallant catch, a timely hit, a strikeout pitch by the home side.
Even back in our solitary dens, staying safe, we enjoy the game more this time around because some of our fellow fans are out there, doing what we do not yet dare to do – cheering, booing, beseeching, heckling, though their masks.
Those fans are there for us. This was apparent Wednesday night as the Mets won their third straight game on a manic homestand.
Some fans even displayed mid-season form in the skills of the game.
James McCann, the experienced catcher who has already picked a runner off second base – first time in eight years for the Mets! – slugged a long fly ball to left field. Two Phillies made frantic runs to the wall, one digging his spikes into the padding, but the ball was over the railing – and into the glove of a fan in his socially-distanced position. The fan looked like a latter-day Mickey or Willie or The Duke as he softly squeezed the ball.
Heroes all around us. Seconds later, a fellow fan applauded the catch, and the TV announcers duly noted the brilliant positioning and soft hands of the civilian.
Better yet, somehow the Mets’ TV crew located his wife, Jessica, and their twin sons, celebrating McCann's first home run with the Mets. Last year that family moment could not have happened.
Baseball has life again -- despite the mad-professor innovations in majors and minors: the goofus runner on second base in extra innings, the threatened extra foot from the mound to home plate, other silly little gimmicks in the fevered minds of Major League Baseball executives who apparently hate the game for which they are allegedly stewards.
But at least there are fans again – cheering, heckling, groaning, applauding.
Some fans can even catch a major-league fly ball.
I learned the game from 1962 on, in the company of Casey Stengel, as he managed The Worst Team in the History of Baseball.
Casey's first young star with the Mets was Ron Hunt, tough country boy and master of getting hit by pitches.
Casey knew the odds were stacked against the Mets. He said the umpires “screw us because we are lousy,” only he said it more graphically.
So his Mets had to do something. He had a club rule – anybody who got hit by a pitch with the bases loaded would make $50.
On May 12, 1963, Rod Kanehl, scrappy itinerant, took one for the team – and for his wallet – by managing to get hit by the Reds, scoring (NB: delightful Mets names about to appear) Tim Harkness, with Jim Hickman moving to third and Choo Choo Coleman moving to second. It is said that Rod virtually skipped on his way to first, laughing at the manna from heaven, or Casey, either way.
How much would $50 be today? Kanehl’s protégé in 1964 was Bill Wakefield, rookie pitcher. Being a Stanford guy, Wakefield crunched the numbers the other day and figured the windfall for his late pal would be worth between $600-750 today. “We were all making $7K - $10K a year,” Wakefield wrote.
Plus, the Mets went on to win the game, no small achievement then, or ever.
Casey’s belief that you gotta do something was not lost on Ron Hunt, who used to wear floppy flannel jerseys a size or two big, so they would hang out and absorb a pitch. Hunt even dared the fates by getting hit by Bob Gibson, the surliest pitcher in the universe, and proud of it. Hunt went on to set a modern record by getting hit 50 times in 1971 (for Montreal.)
Being around scrappers like Hunt and Kanehl and enablers like The Old Man, I still think it is part of the game to bend the rules until the umps wise up. One ump who may have wised up by now is Ron Kulpa, who ruled Conforto was legitimately hit, and the game was over, but later admitted Conforto had his arm in the strike zone and should have been called out. (Every sportswriter in American promptly dubbed him Mea Kulpa, obviously.)
Having been around tough birds like Casey, Hunt, Kanehl and Gibson, I have some advice for the admirable Michael Conforto: in the next two games against Miami, you just might want to hang loose.
* * *
PS: Talk about mood swings: the Mets were down, 2-1, going into the bottom of the ninth. Howe Rose, on Mets radio, said he knows the mindset of Jeff McNeil, intense second baseman (when management leaves him alone) who was hitless in his first 10 at-bats this season. Take it from an old-timer, McNeil has some Rod Kanehl and Ron Hunt in him. Howie Rose said McNeil would try to pull a home run -- which he did, tying the game, prompting a celebratory bat flip, seen as bad form by opponents these days, Soon came Conforto's bases-loaded heroics. If I were McNeil, I also might want to hang loose in the next two games.
* * *
Rod Kanehl’s $50 plunking in 1963:
Lovely profile of Ron Hunt:
It took exactly eight innings for the 2021 baseball season to veer from glorious to horrendous.
This is the lesson for Mets fans: Don’t get too chipper.
We learned that in 1962 when the Mets loaded up with aging stars because, as Casey Stengel told us, he was expecting to make a run for the pennant.
Ha! Record of 40-120 that year. It’s in their DNA.
Two offspring and I were gloating, via smartphone messaging, in the early deGrom innings Monday evening. The Mets had missed the opening weekend because the Nationals had a Covid scare. Now Jacob deGrom was at his brilliant level, down in Philadelphia.
* * *
NB: A special treat in this article is a comment from JimH – otherwise known as Jim Henneman, longtime sportswriter in Baltimore. Jim assesses the career starts by Jacob deGrom, with the eye of a journalist with respect for stats as well as the emotion of the game. Please see Comments below:
* * *
Offspring 1 sent a snapshot off the tube, of deGrom throwing the ball past some hapless batter.
Offspring 1 soon noted: “deGrom batting 1.000.”
Offspring 3 added: “He was amped up.”
Offspring 1 replied: “Wow. We may have to watch the Mets all season.”
Not so fast. DeGrom threw 77 pitches in six scoreless innings and the three familiar TV broadcasters were at their best, attuned to his every pitch. But then there was a sighting of deGrom pulling on his warmup jacket and departing the dugout.
Foreboding in the universe. We know how these things end.
Before long, a collection of new culls and rejects was trooping out to the mound to collaborate on a 5-run eighth inning, with a defensive sub making a brutal error, and the Mets soon lost, 5-3, bringing us back to the defeatism from 1962 that is necessary to root for this team.
New owner. New superstar. New faces in the bullpen. But same old rage.
I’m sure there are fans of other teams out there -- in the only sport that plays every day, pandemic excepted -- who know instant disappointment. But Mets fans feel it is our birth curse.
Jacob DeGrom is probably the best pitcher in baseball right now. He has won only 70 games in his career because a collection of geniuses has decided that even the best pitchers must be coddled and protected.
In his short career, he has left a game 31 times with a lead that would be squandered. How does he not display the rage that bursts from Mets fans?
A former Met I know, emailing sometime in the middle of the night, added his professional reaction to deGrom’s quick hook:
“I know. I know. Protect the arm. Limit first start to 6 innings. We traded to get strong bullpen guys!
“But opening day loss. 77 pitches! Wasted effort again. 31 times to the guy!!
“Time for a little old school. Leave the guy in!!!????”
Now the question is: whom do we blame for this oh-so-Metsian loss?
Is it the fault of the analytics types who postulate that pitchers lose their edge the third time around the lineup?
Is it the fault of a novice manager who doesn’t want to be remembered as the genius who burned out the star pitcher on a windy opening night in Philly? (The same young manager who somehow kept Dom Smith from hitting even once on opening night?
Are the Mets suffering from a new ownership and a front office that has once again been assembled on the fly?
I’m still repelled by having watched the Tampa Bay manager yanking his best pitcher in the last game of the 2020 World Series because, apparently, that is the way the game is played these days.
Our little family web chain went all sour among us:
Offspring 1: “We were all in!!! And now this!!”
Parental Unit: “I hate this season.”
Offspring 3: “Winter’s back.”
I love this game. I hate this game. All on the same night.
The cicadas are preparing to click and clack, as they do every 17 years:
This Is The Year!
Kind of like Mets fans.
I can relate. (1969, 1986, for example.)
But generically, baseball fans are way luckier than cicadas.
We start buzzing maniacally every year at this time.
I was planning a serious rant about baseball being taken over by the analytics mob, and how I don’t trust Major League Baseball after it arbitrarily trash-canned dozens of minor-league franchises.
But with a potentially full season about to start on time, it turns out that great minds think alike: my incoming queue was full of Good Stuff from fans who actually know and care about the game.
---The first stimulant came from my friend Tyler Kepner in the NYT, when he reminded us that the National League is reverting to Real Baseball this season: that is, pitchers will hit. I was happy, thinking of Don Newcombe and Bob Gibson and Madison Bumgarner and other hitting pitchers, but Tyler raised this horrifying scenario of a great pitcher-athlete: “How would a Mets fan like it if Jacob deGrom shattered his fingers on a bunt attempt?” Good point, Tyler. I am now having second thoughts.
--- The next missive was an email from Bill Wakefield, who pitched for the Mets in 1964, and we have remained in touch. He sent a link from the San Francisco Chronicle, which had three – count ‘em, three – savvy baseball columns by my esteemed colleagues Bruce Jenkins, Ann Killion and Scott Ostler.
Scott’s column was about the two Bay Area managers -- Bob Melvin of Oakland and Gabe Kapler of the Giants, both contemporary guys who give thoughtful answers to reporters’ questions and would never, ever, spit tobacco juice on reporters’ shoes.
Wakefield, who still trades Casey Stengel memories with me, wanted to know if I ever had a manager spit on my shoes. I replied, no, but Ralph Houk of the Yankees used to direct neat little sprays in the general direction of a colleague now and then.
Plus, Herman Franks, the absolutely miserable manager of the Giants, (who liked to call reporters demeaning names in Spanish for the amusement of his Latin players) apparently couldn’t spit very far, but he did drool tobacco juice down the front of his undershirt or even his uniform shirt, apparently to hasten reporters to seek more sanitary interviews elsewhere.
--- Next, Wakefield found a photo online of right field in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Having briefly been a teammate of Duke Snider with the Mets in the spring of 1964, Wakefield wrote that after seeing the short porch in right field, he could understand why The Dook hated to leave Brooklyn. I told him how Casey had escorted a rookie named Mantle to right field before a pre-season exhibition between the Yankees and Dodgers in 1951, to show him how to play ricochets off the concave wall. Later, Casey told “his” writers that Mantle didn’t seem to process that Casey had once played right field in that very ballpark. “He thinks I was born old,” Casey said.
-- Then, my man Mike From Northwest Queens sent me a copy of the Mets’ Covid rules for fans planning to attend a game under the 20 per cent limit this season: fans must present written proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for the virus. These rules reminded Mike of the iffy nature of going anywhere right now – sports events, restaurants, theatres, travel. Mike typed: “After reading this, I’m fairly positive I’ll be seated on my couch this year again for baseball.” I hear you, dude.
-- Ebbets Field lives in the souls of ball fans. The aforementioned Mike From Northwest Queens discovered this photo online of the Boys of Summer, standing around the batting cage, just talkin’ baseball. A glossy copy of this photo used to be taped in our house when I was a kid. Just seeing Jackie and Gil and the rest, I feel 12.
---Next, Lee Lowenfish, New York polymath on baseball, jazz, movies, et al, sent along a blog by Steve Wulf, longtime Sports Illustrated star, dissecting every name and reference in the Dave Frishberg jazz song -- elegant riffs about the long-ago Brooklyn pitcher with the mellifluous name of Van Lingle Mungo.
Wulf’s treatise, with photos, is the reason the Internet was invented. He describes how Frishberg “plumbed The Baseball Encyclopedia for the names, some of which are delightful rhymes; Max Lanier and Johnny Vander Meer; Barney McCosky and Hal Trosky, Lou Boudreau and Claude Passeau."
Frishberg chose the names for poetry rather than dismal analytics. May there always be music in the loving associations of baseball, now blessedly emerging from hibernation.
* * *
Steve Wulf’s long and loving assessment of “Van Lingle Mungo.”
Ladies and gentleman, David Frishberg:
My friend Mendel Horowitz, who frequently comments here, has published a lovely piece about dishes that survived the trek from post-war Germany to Philadelphia and will now be used in Jerusalem at Passover this weekend.
Mendel is a writer; you may want to read his touching article right now:
Mendel’s article reinforces connections I recently made between seders and my family’s Easter dinners decades ago – holy days in the early spring, with a touching similarity: the stranger, the visitor, in our midst.
I met Mendel through this little therapy website – a rabbi and counselor of men, in Jerusalem, a long way from his childhood home in Queens. He is also a volunteer on emergency calls, never knowing whether the distressed people will be speaking Yiddish/Hebrew/English/Arabic, and it doesn’t matter. Oh, yes, he and his dad, Ahron are Mets fans.
Last week I had the honor of “attending” the wedding of Mendel and Michele’s daughter, Leah, on a hilltop in Jerusalem. It was a vibrant, touching ceremony – with young women greeting virtual friends and relatives in distant lands, and the men singing familiar hymns. I was there.
This weekend, for the seder, the family will use Rosenthal china that Zaidy Victor and Bubby Bella, Michele’s grandparents, bought and took with them as they escaped with their lives after the war.
Last year, Mendel and Leah lugged two knapsacks filled with dishes, bubble-wrapped, on the long flight, just ahead of the pandemic shutdown. (Another stash of dishes is waiting on Long Island for when flying is more feasible.)
Sometimes, the dinnerware and familiar furniture are part of the seder. I never attended one as a kid with many Jewish friends in Queens, although I must have gone to half a dozen bar mitzvahs. When I covered religion for the NYT, I was invited to the warm, welcoming Upper West Side apartment of Rabbi Wolfe and Jackie Kelman, our friends and teachers.
The tables radiated with people from all over – a Japanese couple one year, a Caribbean couple one year, lapsed Jews, observant Jews, and Christians like us. One year, as guests were asked to sing, I delightedly recalled a Hebrew hymn I learned in the chorus at Jamaica High School; the next year I sang a bit of “Amazing Grace.”
Many of the celebrants stressed the Passover concern for the stranger, the marginal, people who suffer.
Only recently have I made the connection with Easter dinners when I was young, when my mother cooked the specialties of England, where she was born – roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, mint sauce.
There was one tradition, if you will: at Easter, at Thanksgiving, at Christmas, a family often dropped in for dessert -- a father and his three children.
Missing was the wife, my mother’s dear friend at Jamaica High; she had died young, and this good and sad man was raising their children. I don’t recall us ever talking about the absent friend during that visit, but she was there.
In every civilization, the stranger is respected. My wife talks glowingly about meals served her in humble homes in India; my sister Janet and I were recently invited to visit (with lavish snacks) our family home in Queens, by the accomplished Muslim family that now lives there.
My wife and I are still holed up, waiting for the blessed vaccines to take hold, waiting for “normal times” to return. All three of our children have dinnerware with family histories, and Marianne brings out the Limoges china given us by her Aunt Emma, a sweet old lady who had no children. (Well, except for a dinner on Christmas Eve, years ago, when we entertained Jewish friends who kept Kosher, and Marianne used glass and paper plates. Warm memories.)
It makes me happy to think about the Horowitz family celebrating their seder with china that once belonged to their elders – a ritual of continuity, a celebration of survival.
This was always one of my favorite weeks, when I was working – the first round of the NCAA men’s tournament, when weird things could happen, and did.
I loved being in some arena, with eight – count ‘em, eight – teams still alive, still dreaming.
Teams I never heard of during the long season, teams with fresh nicknames and gaudy colors and wired coaches and peppy cheerleaders and sassy mascots. Sometimes we were seated near the college bands, with their own characters and sizes and shapes and hair styles. Sometimes they were more fun to watch than the game.
I have other events I love – any match in the World Cup of soccer, the U.S, Open of tennis in my home county, and just about any Mets game, because. Oops, almost forgot epic Stanley Cup finals of Islanders or Rangers, plus The Derby in Louisville, where we used to live.
I remember my pal Charlie Pierce always loved the Saturday of the Final Four, but I hold out for the opening day, for the unknowns, the upsets, the slippery slopes.
Take the first round in 1986. I was there, Perpetual contender Indiana was playing outsider Cleveland State. Before the game, Bobby Knight swaggered out to shake hands with his counterpart, Kevin Mackey, chubby little dude out of Boston. Some words were spoken, followed by cranky words and gestures from the terrible-tempered Knight.
''I said, 'Hey, take it easy on me, Big Guy,''' Mackey told reporters later. ''But, hey, he's no fool. I'll paraphrase his answer for you. He said: 'I'm not gonna give you any breaks out there.' ''
I’ll bet he paraphrased Bobby Knight.
Then, Cleveland State, seeded 14th in the region, promptly beat Indiana, seeded third, 83-79, and Knight, who liked to lecture reporters, said any fool knew that Cleveland State was loaded, with a guard named Mouse McFadden, New York City guy, who had somehow wound up at Cleveland State with an outlaw/outsider tag.
I have to tell you, it was fun. And the fun continued to the next day when Cleveland State showed up early for its off-day media conference and witnessed the players from Navy – particularly David Robinson, close to his ultimate 7-foot-1 height, in spit-shine shoes and uniform and polysyllabic vocabulary and braces. Mouse and his mates were clearly impressed by Robinson's polished interview.
Ten years later, double upsets on the first day: defending champion UCLA sleepwalked against Princeton, which cut them up with crisp interior passing, and I re-named the school “The University of Catatonia at Los Angeles.”
The same first round, tiny Earl Boykins, looking like somebody’s sixth-grade kid brother, helped Eastern Michigan stun haughty Duke, 75-60. In the closing minutes, Boykins dawdled with the ball, staring into the stands while dribbling. It was his night.
In the next round, little Boykins (admitting he might not even be his listed 5-foot-7) was beaten by Connecticut, whose coach, Jim Calhoun, raved that Eastern Michigan reminded him of his first coaching stop, with Northeastern in Boston -- outsiders, bootstrappers, who never gave up.
You didn’t have to be at the game. In 1991, I turned on the television and watched Richmond, seeded 15th, coached by Dick Tarrant, city guy out of Fordham, play a brainy, resolute game to knock off Syracuse, 73-69 – the first time a 15th seed had defeated a second seed.
The last barrier fell in 2018 when the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, defeated Virginia, 74-54. For a list of major upsets, see this.
Last year, there were no upsets, no nothing. My alma mater, Hofstra, reached the finals of its conference tournament against Northeastern and Coach Joe Mihalich called a timeout and delivered an impassioned speech about playing the best five minutes of their lives – which they did, with baskets and stops and rebounds, and celebrated the victory for the next 24 hours….until the NCAA called off the tournament because some people in the country had figured out there was a pandemic going on. I later told Mihalich – a lifer, who made some of my old jock friends feel welcome -- that this was a great five minutes of coaching that he would always remember. Now Mihalich has missed this season for health reasons, and Hofstra fell short. Joe, you know what my Brooklyn Dodger fans used to say: “Wait til next year.”
I pay almost no attention to college sports these days, but I have memories. At this time of year, when fellow Irish-Americans celebrate, I know it’s time for the NCAAs. This year’s entire tournament is being held in Indianapolis, a traditional center of basketball in this country. The players will keep the game going until the world gets back to some semblance of normal, when we can pay more attention to stomping coaches and high-flying players and acrobatic cheerleaders and crowded stands – and wide-eyed student lunatics in the pep band blaring saxophones. Plus, upset time.
* * *
My 1986 column on Cleveland State:
My followup column on Mouse McFadden and how he got to Cleveland State:
My 1996 column on Earl Boykins:
When Indiana gave its heart to underdogs Princeton and Eastern Michigan.
On my daily walk, I pass the end of the line, where trains are idling more than they should be. We live 45 minutes from The City, my hometown.
I hallucinate about getting on the train, masked, at social distance, passing familiar sights I have not seen in 13 months – the high overpass between Manhasset and Great Neck, the tidal inlet between Douglaston and Bayside, the crowds in Flushing Chinatown, the skyline up ahead, the new high rises in Long Island City, the tunnel under the river, and then we arrive in the insulting dump known as Penn Station.
In my daydream, I get off at the front, rush up the stairs to Moynihan Train Hall, which opened this January, the instant landmark that has risen in the poisonous air of fear.
* * *
With one shot in my arm, and another on the way, I dare to dream again.
In the name of sanity, I have repressed memories of things we used to do, back when.
Our widespread family is mostly okay. My wife and I are blessed in many ways, including family and friends and the means to pursue projects and interests at home during this pandemic. This is hardly a lament. She got wise to the pandemic right away and we agreed: Don’t take chances.
But now the urges and the memories come flooding back.
I’ll admit it, I am stir-crazy. My daydreams multiply.
--- My wife and I have been hard-liners, repressing the urges to hug our kids, our grandkids, in a year of elbow bumps, quickie chats in driveways, emails and phone calls, a few furtive visits across a deck or a large living room, the door cracked open for ventilation, even in mid-winter.
We have been united mostly by a chain of eight text-message addresses, known as Family Bigs – snarky politics, music links, family gossip, sports updates. But in my daydream, there is the chance to settle in, tell stories, laugh behind a mask –at long last, hug.
-- I am a realist. I know these daydreams could be destroyed by another surge, brought about by simpleton governors like the guy in Texas who does not seem to comprehend what the scientists are saying. These politicians and their followers want to “open up” the businesses, even at the risk of lives. I understand the urge for normalcy, after the vicious ineptitude of the previous president. Now we are close to being able to imagine the past. We can dare to dream. But don’t screw it up.
-- In this daydream, we are upstate, visiting one daughter’s home in the woods, and I take a walk up the hill, and look out over a long Adirondack ridge. I cannot hear a human sound. Hawks glide below. Way over on the other side, a car pulls up to a house in the woods, but at this distance I cannot tell if it is a modest cabin or a luxury hideaway. I have missed open space; all is mystery, all is serene.
--- In another daydream, we slip into a booth at one of our local favorites, let’s say Gino’s, and order pasta for my wife, Gaby’s salad (fresh farm vegetables) for me, those great chewy rolls, and then one slice of Cheesecake a la Nonna with coffee. Or maybe we are in Diwan down by the bay (Bobby C's amazing roasted cauliflower!) or DiMaggio’s on Port Blvd, or Little Dumpling in Little Neck. My wife has cooked so well over the past 13 months; for reasons of safety, we cannot see ourselves going out for a meal anytime soon.
--- Waiting for the second dose of vaccine (I hear tales of chills and aches), in my mind I start making overdue appointments -- a recall on our car, the dentist, the dermatologist, the optician, maybe even the barber. Then there's the furnace/AC spring tuneup plus a capable carpenter who can fix everything that is falling apart. And what about the telephone company that is threatening to install an “upgrade” on our service. (Or is it really time to ditch our landline?)
--- In this daydream, I am walking around The City, any neighborhood will do. I bet I am pulled to the Met Museum, for a pilgrimage to the Goyas. I also miss my friends from high school, from college, from work. Zoom and e-mail and phone calls have served their purpose but maybe soon, in early spring, I meet one good friend or another on an outside bench, for a coffee, just to encounter a familiar voice, familiar eyes, over a mask.
--- We drive to visit our other daughter in Deepest Pennsylvania -- the ridge of Blue Mountain, on our right, accompanying us for more than an hour. Barns and hexes and old farmhouses alongside I-78. Then a meal on the patio, laughter, gossip, work updates, maybe the grown grandson and granddaughter materializing. Real life.
--- Sometime in the near future, we sit in a den with our son and his wife, rooting for deGrom and McNeil, enjoying the banter of Gary and Keith and Ron, in their cloisters up in the booth. Real life.
----These are just the starters. I daydream about new National Theatre presentations in the revived Kew Gardens Cinema; I daydream about a run up to our late-in-life discovery -- Maine; I daydream about seeing my siblings. Real life.
What do you miss?
How do you imagine it coming back, in some form, maybe soon?
Please feel free to share, in the Comments section, the things you imagine when you close your eyes.
In the news, the American soccer federation has officially dropped its ban on players taking a knee during the pre-game Anthem, which made sense, inasmuch as many women on the team were doing it anyway.
One of the leaders of that gesture was Megan Rapinoe, the charismatic and inventive force for this generation of championships and public prominence.
As it happens, I have been reading a new book, “42 Today: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy,” edited by Michael G. Long, which goes from the bad old days to the time of Colin Kaepernick, the ostracized quarterback.
(I have a chapter in Long’s book, a labor of love for JR42 and all the positive things he wrought.)
One of the many great chapters is “The First Famous Jock for Justice,” contributed by Peter Dreier, whose second paragraph lists a history of activist-athletes after JR42: starting with Muhammad Ali and Roberto Clemente and noting Billie Jean King, and moving into current outspoken athletes – LeBron James, Sean Doolittle and Kaepernick.
The last name on the list is Megan Rapinoe, she of the hair that blends pink/purple/platinum/lavender into a Megan-esque one of a kind. She also draws notice with her imaginative forays from the left wing, dismaying her coaches until they realized she opened defenses and won championships with her copious supply of quick wits and gall.
What would Jackie Robinson think of Megan Rapinoe? That is the question for today, and really the question posed by this thoughtful and knowledgeable book. In Michael Long's introduction, Rachel Robinson, named “The Queen Mother” by the late Joe Morgan, is not sure how her patriotic, ex-Army-officer, pro-business, one-time Nixonite Republican late husband, would feel about taking a knee during the anthem.
Then again, what would Jackie Robinson have thought about a seditious President organizing and goading a raggle-taggle army of thugs and lunatics and racists into a murderous assault on the Capitol? What would JR42 have thought about the death-by-knee of George Floyd and the shooting of a jogger, Armaud Arbery?
In his chapter, Dreier supplies Robinson's point of view, as presented in his 1972 book, "I Never Had It Made," with Alfred Duckett: "I can't believe that I have it made while so many of my Black brothers and sisters are hungry, in adequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity, live in slums or barely exist on welfare. I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world."
These are pertinent issues in Long's brand-new book as contemporary as outing the Golden Globes for having zero, count-em zero, voters for Sunday’s awards (with numerous black winners.)
It is always useful to take a fresh look at historical figures, every decade or two. My chapter, “Jackie Robinson Ball,” recalls how Robinson imported the dashing, disruptive style of the Negro Leagues into the so-called Major Leagues – Chuck Berry and Aretha Franklin playing on the same card as Doris Day and Bing Crosby, if you will. He caught the “major leagues” flat-footed.
The other chapters are stimulating and courant, by writers familiar to me, like Howard Bryant and Gerald Early and Jonathan Eig and others with academic and political outlooks. One illuminating chapter looks into Robinson’s spiritual life as a Methodist; another looks into the failure of white mainstream journalism to make a big deal of Robinson’s first tense spring, 1947.
One chapter that taught me a lot was “I’ve Got to Be Me,” by Yohuru Williams, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Williams’ great feel for the shifting tectonic plates of public life comes through as he delineates how Robinson, the wannabe pro-business Republican, navigated the borders of Martin Luther King, the NAACP, the Black Panthers and Malcolm X.
Robinson was inclined to oppose the black-gloved display by two Olympic medalists in 1964, but later he remembered Malcolm’s prophetic charge: “Jackie, in days to come, your son and my son will not be willing to settle for things we are willing to settle for.” Years after Malcolm’s assassination, Robinson added: “I am certain that this is correct and that this is the way it should be.”
Jackie Robinson is not confined to the memories of aging Brooklyn Dodger fans like me. Michael Long’s book makes JR42 a living and evolving presence in the age of Kaepernick and Rapinoe.
* * *
Ladies and gentlemen, Woodrow (Buddy) Johnson with Count Basie:
What would Saturday night be like without the great Kate McKinnon? This time, she was Dr. Fauci, demonstrating the national/worldwide roll-em aspect of getting a vaccination. However, to our surprise, in recent days, my wife and I got lucky. This is our updated story:
Until a few days ago, my wife and I were preoccupied with trying to stay alive, with no coherent program from national or local governments.
Every morning, millions of Americans play the game of going online and pretending we have a chance for a Covid shot.
It kills the time, what with the wintry weather.
I know things would be better organized if the cretini who were in charge of the country for four years had any ability to organize, or even read the playbooks left them by the Obama regime. But grifters operate outside rules, outside structure.
Then our luck changed. I got an email -- a "random call" -- from the health powerhouse in our area, saying I was qualified for a shot. Bingo. On Tuesday I got my first jab. But my wife could not find anything even though she has had more contact with that regional mega-chain in recent years.
Then on Friday afternoon, our dear friend Marie called and told us of a program run by the great heart hospital, St. Francis, at a public park only 20 minutes from our house, and after a few clicks with the phone my wife had an appointment for Sunday-- earlier today, as I type this.
Until our double strokes of luck, I would go on line every day and play tic-tac-toe with the local hospital chain and the drugstore chains, and eventually all efforts are funneled into the “system” of Gov. Cuomo. Once in a while, the site says there just might be appointments within the state, like Potsdam or Plattsburgh. (In other words, Canada South.)
What makes it worse is that the New York Times issues a daily advisory that the county where I live has a high infection rate. Gee, do you think it has anything to do with superspreader parties that self-indulgent suburbanites tossed during the holidays?
So we wear double masks and I make quickie runs to the grocery store – people are uniformly masked and polite at the Target Market I frequent. My wife and I get furtive glimpses of our loved ones. You know the drill.
Meanwhile friends my age in the city tell me tales of getting shots at their hospital or the Javits Center. One pal was visiting a medical building and the elevator stopped at a different floor and he saw a sign: “Covid Vaccinations Available.” He doubled back and the lady with the clipboard said they did indeed have vaccine. (It was 3:15 PM.) “How would 3:20 be?” she asked. He said, he thought he could make it.
He tells me that every time we talk, the smartass.
On Thursday, President Biden noted the country had given 50-millon inoculations in his first 37 days, but that progress does not help those with no way to register as seniors, entitled to the drug.
I credit the governor and the mayor -- the odd couple -- for the state’s placement of vaccination centers only for residents of urban centers, including Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn (right where Ebbets Field used to be) and York College in South Jamaica, Queens (where Mario Cuomo’s dad ran a grocery store.) This is called doing the right thing.
* * *
Now I have my own strange little tale of how we lucked into our shots:
Last Sunday, around 4:45 PM, the following message popped onto my phone:
We’re happy to let you know that we have recently received a small quantity of COVID-19 vaccines for eligible Northwell patients. You are currently eligible to be vaccinated, according to New York State guidance.
To book your COVID-19 vaccine appointment, call….
Next morning at 8 AM, I got right through and signed up for a shot. Amazing. Then I inquired for a shot for my wife, saying that nearly two months ago we both filled out forms for appointments with New York State; we have the printouts, with our serial numbers and all.
“It is strictly a random call,” the lady said.
Could my wife get a random call? “She might get one at any time.”
Last Tuesday, I went to a large, clean, brightly-lit room in the Northwell complex in New Hyde Park, where a couple of dozen workers were wielding needles or pens. In 20 minutes, I was out the door.
I felt a surge--not of medication but of love and respect, first for the scientists who jumped into battle while the previous “president” was lying to his country.
I was thankful for all the medical workers who have saved lives and comforted family members; those workers deserved first crack at the vaccination.
The first nurse to get inoculated was an administrator, Sandra Lindsay, who lives in the same town we do.
My left arm ached a bit for a day, but according to the experts, one shot of Pfizer means even if you pick up a stray bit of Covid, you will not go to the hospital, you will not die, particularly if you wear double masks and minimize contacts.
My wife got her shot of Moderna on Sunday; you take whatever they are giving. We are sad for the people without computer skills, without friends who know somebody.
The whole thing sounds like the eminent scientist – Dr. Wenowdis -- on “Saturday Night Live,” last week, played by the brilliant Kate McKinnon, who summed up national vaccination procedure: “Dis we don’t know.”
The President of the United States leaned forward, to speak to a nation, maybe even a world.
This much he knew, he said. We will get through this.
He was speaking at the White House Monday to honor 500,000 Americans who have died, so far, in the pandemic.
He was speaking like a parent, like a leader, like a healer.
“I know it’s hard, I promise you. I know it’s hard, I remember,” Biden said. “That’s how you heal, you have to remember. It is also important to do that as a nation. To all those who have lost loved ones, this is what I know: They’re never truly gone. They will always be part of your heart.”
Everybody knows about his losses – a first wife and a young daughter, a grown son.
And he seemed to know about their losses, all half a million.
“This seems unbelievable, but I promise you, the day will come, when the memory of the loved one you lost will bring a smile to your lips before a tear to your eyes…I pray for you that day will come sooner rather than later.”
This reassurance was unlike anything the United States, the entire world, had heard from a President in the previous four years. No need to elaborate or explain -- just that he cared.
During this speech, I had a flashback, to my earliest memories, when my parents and grandmother would turn off the lights and put up dark shades over the windows, in case of a bombing raid. And when my family was reassured by the same crackling voice on the radio that had sustained people during the Depression.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt did it like the patrician he was. Joe Biden is a man of the working people. But nobody has quite aimed for the heart of the collective "we" as FDR did.
My mother cried the day FDR died in 1945. She had lost her father to an auto accident as she entered her teens. FDR came along a few years later.
Now Joe Biden is trying his imperfect best to be a leader to this fractured country. He says there are no Republicans, no Democrats, in this fight against the Covid virus.
Biden has been taking on stature since Rep. Jim Clyburn rescued him from the snowbanks of Iowa and New Hampshire, and presented him to the hearts of Black voters, not just in South Carolina but all over. This was more than a political move; it was a move of faith.
Now Biden speaks to everybody who will listen, not about him, but about them. He is elderly, and he speaks as an elder.
"You're gonna be okay. You're gonna be okay."
After presiding over a moment of silence in front of thousands of lit candles, outside the White House, Biden returned past the military guards, into his new home.
His shoulders seemed to be sagging from the pain of all those deaths, but Jill Biden would occasionally touch him, so tactile, so caring. And through the window the TV camera picked up Doug Emhoff, the big-time lawyer and husband of Vice President Harris, putting his hand on Joe Biden’s right shoulder, patting him, several times, reassuring the healer.
* * *
And speaking of dignity, Merrick Garland was interviewed by the Senate Monday, regarding his nomination for Attorney General. This is the man who was shafted – as was the entire nation – by Mitch McConnell in the final year of the Obama regime, keeping Garland from the Supreme Court.
Now Garland was speaking of the values he would bring to the Attorney General. Without mentioning the servile Bill Barr, the previous attorney general, Garland emphasized that he would be serving the country, not the President. He is clearly a man of intellect and character.
We have real people, people who feel. All of us are being liberated.
* * *
(President Biden's speech. The most wonderful part is around 6;00.)
Hansen Alexander passed on Dec, 22, 2020, and I just caught up.
He was a smart and passionate writer and lawyer, who often tried to educate and inform me. I am proud of his
interview with, of all people, me:
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV