When the photos started arriving from Crimea and eastern Ukraine, I had a flashback.
I’ve seen those guys, the ones in the leather jackets who emerge from the crowd, filled with venomous purpose.
A few days later it hit me. Moscow in 1986. Church.
We were there for the Goodwill Games, the Ted Turner sports jamboree, one of the great events I have ever covered. Crazy Ted, wandering around Moscow, the holy fool, screaming about saving the elephants. The city, warm and gentle in high summer, hospitable if threadbare in the time of glasnost. Older Russians getting tears in their eyes when they talked about the suffering in World War Two.
My wife and I decided to go to church one Sunday morning, found a neighborhood Orthodox church, still open under the terms of Communism.
There was incense, singing, a ritual up front, while in the back, older worshippers, mostly women, moved from corner to corner, bowing their gray heads reverently, kissing icons of their beloved saints. We were taken back to another time.
The mood matched the feeling we received out in the street. While I worked at sports events, my wife took municipal buses to lavish circuses in distant neighborhoods. Old ladies appointed each other to watch out for her, made sure she got off at the right stop. We had also seen the old ladies brandishing umbrellas at traffic police who displeased them. This was their city, their world, still. Now, in church, in the heady cloud of incense, they prayed and kissed the icons.
Then, a few young men materialized, wearing dark leather jackets in summer heat. Three or four of them meandered through the maze of icons and paintings, but not reverently, not at all. They stared at the worshippers, moving among them, nothing physical, but most intimidating.
People ignored the thugs. I felt, well, I am an American, they might not want to menace me. In my pocket was a press badge that said: Игры доброй воли. I can still read it in Cyrillic and pronounce it. Goodwill Games. My wife and I stayed close to the thugs, spoke to each other in English.
I have no idea if we affected them in the slightest. There was no recognition. They sauntered through the church, and left by a side door.
I had not thought of them in decades. (I think more about Chernobyl, which had taken place a few weeks earlier, and still casts its poisonous shadow on the world.)
But when the photos emerged from Crimea and eastern Ukraine recently, I felt a twinge in the pit of my memory. Putin kisses icons now. It’s a different time. Thugs still emerge from the shadows, thrusting their shoulders and elbows around.
When Michael Piñeda of the Yankees was caught with pine tar on the back of his neck the other day, my thoughts flashed back to a high-school football game I covered, oh, a few years ago.
In bright sunshine, with witnesses in the stands, a defender put the slug on an opponent – on the 50-yard line. The referee tossed him. After the game, the crusty old coach told the wave of reporters (that is to say, me), “Geez, I told the guy, don’t do stuff like that in the middle of the field.”
The operative phrase was, “in the middle of the field.” Whack the guy in the bottom of the pile. Knee him. Gouge him. But, geez, not in full view.
They all know. That’s my theory about sports. Coaches have a pretty good idea what their players are up to but cannot afford to “know.” During the great steroid frolics, owners and general managers did everything but administer the injections.
(Looking back, I heard one owner make creatine jokes before I knew what he was talking about, and one terrific player talk about a “major-league coffee” before a game.)
Some of the best people I have known in baseball relied on little tricks of the trade. Rick Honeycutt used a tack in his glove to cut the baseballs, alter their aerodynamics. Got caught by the home-plate umpire, Bill Kunkel, himself a former pitcher. Geez, not in the middle of the field.
Rick is a great guy, now in his ninth year as the Dodgers’ pitching coach.
I once saw Elston Howard set a world record for a lumbering catcher in full gear sprinting from home plate to the dugout tunnel after catching one hellacious curve from Whitey Ford for the last strike against the Tigers. Elston took the ball with him, I might add, and was on the George Washington Bridge heading home to the beautiful Arlene Howard before the Tigers could scream for the ball – and Elston’s belt buckle, which was filed to nearly lethal sharpness.
And so it goes. Briana Scurry moved forward from the line to smother a penalty kick during the shootout for the final of the 1999 Women’s World Cup. The referee did not notice, or chose not to notice, Scurry’s dancing feet. The U.S. beat China a minute later.
Donna Lopiano, then of the Women’s Sports Foundation, and one of the strong, ethical voices in sport, called Scurry’s move cheating. I called it gamesmanship and wrote a whole column about it:
Everybody in baseball knows what pitchers do, as Tyler Kepner writes in the Friday Times.
Piñeda deserved the 10-game suspension not so much for cheating but for a worse violation.
Geez, not in public.
Our aunt died on Easter Sunday, at 96.
When she was in her early 80’s, Angela would take a couple of buses through Queens, all kinds of weather, to visit my mom at home, in the hospital, in the nursing home.
Technically, she was not our aunt but a vibrant young woman from central Pennsylvania who married into the clan which is like family to us.
“She and Mom called each other ‘forever friends,’” my sister Janet said the other day.
Angela came into our lives right after the war, when she and Joe McGuinness were courting. For a time, she stayed at our house, going to work every weekday at the home base of Horn & Hardart – the Automat, where patrons dropped nickels into a slot to buy lunch. She worked in the office, and escorted me into the kitchen to watch the workers fill the shelves with sandwiches and pies.
One time she and Joe took me to Radio City Music Hall for a Doris Day movie and the stage show. I still remember the Rockettes dancing to the song, “Red Silk Stockings and Green Perfume,” which came out in 1947. They were young, and handsome, and in love, and it was very cool to be with them.
She and Joe settled in Queens, raising three children of their own, but always had time for the five of us. Each of us has stories about their kindness, their advice, how they were there for us.
In the past decade, Angela went to live with her daughter, Kathleen, in Oklahoma. My brothers and sisters who visited her in the nursing home out there described her tootling down the hall in a powered wheelchair, about to run a meeting on current events, still the life of the party, almost until the end. I can hear my siblings asking, “Whom can we call now?”
Because I am slow, I needed my son (and later, in print, Maureen Dowd) to explain to me that the Stephen Colbert I see in fragments is his entire act.
In my tangential relationship to much of television, I assumed this was one facet of Colbert’s persona, that sometimes he was actually Stephen Colbert.
But, no, I was patiently told, he does this all the time.
So now Colbert is about to replace David Letterman in the next year or so. As somebody who has grown older along with Letterman, I admit to misgivings.
Wait, they have given a terrific forum to somebody who mimics right-wing wackos?
How will that work in interviewing guests? Will Colbert switch a dial and draw out guests the way Dave does in his own twitchy way?
(My inner adolescent loves Dave talking about Martha Stewart and the justice system: “She shot a guy.” And how Dave made poor addled John McCain squirm for ducking him in 2008. And the quacking noises when Dr. Phil arrives. And Dave’s flat-out crushes on Julia Roberts and Cate Blanchett, and why not?)
Probably it’s just me, but I don’t find Colbert funny. (I know he’s a good, smart family guy.) I think it’s because, in addition to soccer and baseball, I watch mostly news on television and they are all over the place.
Ted Cruz? Louie Gohmert? Darrell Issa? Mitch McConnell? The Koch Brothers? The Fox lot? Rand Paul? Eric Cantor? Frothing preachers? Avaricious bankers? State legislators trying to make it harder to vote? Beyond satire.
The first time I saw much of Colbert was via the televised correspondents’ dinner in 2006 when he made fun of President Bush, who was there. My politics are the same as Colbert’s, but I still thought it was tacky. Remember this?
I have the feeling Colbert has created a role that may be hard to put behind him – much like another good man, James Gandolfini, who in his later work still seemed about to reach for his pistol. Not his fault. He had done too good a job creating Tony Soprano.
Next Tuesday, Colbert will appear on the Letterman show. The tastes of late-night audiences shift by the generation, of course. I tried watching Jimmy Fallon for his first few weeks. Love his band, but Fallon seems on a perpetual sugar rush. I dialed back to Dave, fiddling with papers on his desk, puzzling over electronics.
I’m hoping Dave, in his late-maturing way, will draw out the inner Stephen Colbert.
One thing I noticed at the conference at Hofstra University the past three days: the coming World Cup in Brazil is going to provide the biggest spotlight ever pointed at the soccer establishment.
Between the rampant scandals at FIFA and the protests in Brazil, the world is going to be watching in a different way than at all previous World Cups.
Now the journalists and academics and fans are asking, is this the right way to run a sport? Does soccer need to impose such harsh demands about expensive stadiums and infrastructure on people who have been told they really need this party?
There were already demonstrations in Brazil in 2013, and the favelas, the neighborhoods have been further disrupted for a six-week frolic for outsiders.
That conflict seemed to be the common theme among the mix of former professional players, journalists, academics and fans who mixed in esoteric panels. This really is the world’s sport. Yet it has gone ever further into the control of the corporations and networks and the murky home office of FIFA, the world soccer body.
Maybe the most telling sign was raised by David Goldblatt from the University of Bristol, U.K., who noted that the organizers in Brazil are banning musical instruments in the stands. (He’s a fan of the South African vuvuzela that terrorized eardrums in 2010.) Imagine a soccer game in the land of Jobim and de Moraes, Veloso and Gilberto, Gil and Costa, Ana & Jorge and Morelenbaum2Sakomoto, without a few drums and horns and guitars? But FIFA is tone deaf as well as opaque.
The restive state of Brazil was noted by Peter Alegi of Michigan State University, who recalled how home fans spontaneously sang the second stanza of the national anthem during the Confederations Cup – a sign of further independence, perhaps.
Every panel reminded me of the deep hold this sport has everywhere, including my alma mater of Hofstra, where the new version of the Cosmos is currently playing. Hofstra bestowed an honorary doctorate on Pelé, the greatest of the Cosmos. He lit up the place. He is Pelé.
The links between soccer success and national image were stressed by Alexander Kitroeff of Haverford College, who noted how his homeland of Greece was stirred by the surprising victory at the 2004 European championship. Greeks were also aware that the squad had been given shape by a German coach, Otto Rehhagel.
One of the nicest parts of the conference was the papers delivered by young people coming along as the United States matures as a soccer nation.
Christopher Davis of Florida International University gave a paper on “The New Germans: How the 2010 World Cup Showed the Evolution of Germany’s Immigration Policy” – the Turkish, African and Polish influence on the German squad.
And Lisa Quach, about to graduate from Hofstra and looking for a job in publishing, delivered a knowing paper on “Black, Blanc, Bleu: National Identity in French Football,” recalling how players from the vast diaspora of France played together in the glorious home championship of 1998.
One of the great spontaneous dialogues between true believers took place during the Q&A section of a panel. In the audience, Arnie Ramirez, the great former coach of Long Island University, said he preferred the short-pass offense; he wiggled his hand like a trout. Greg Lalas, former M.L.S. player and editor of MLSsoccer.com, responded, what about the laser long ball that lands on a striker’s chest near the goal? They debated for a few minutes. It was wonderful.
A defiant note was sounded at the final plenary session by Charlie Stillitano, Princeton star, World Cup 1994 official and first general manager of the MetroStars. Charlie said he doesn’t want to hear any more bleats that America is not a soccer country. There are now five major sports in the United States, Charlie said. Get over it.
I thank Stanislao Pugliese and Brenda Elsey of Hofstra who ran this conference, and all the other nice people who make Hofstra work. And I thank all the true believers who reminded us that, good and bad, the World Cup is almost here.
Before the World Cup arrives in June, I would suggest a refresher course on the world’s sport.
Starting on Thursday, Hofstra University – my alma mater – is holding the academic conference, Soccer As the Beautiful Game: Football’s Artistry, Identity and Politics.
It will run for three full days, including an appearance by Pelé on Friday, when he will receive an honorary doctorate. And on Sunday at Hofstra will be a clinic as well as a match by the new version of Pelé’s old team, the Cosmos.
I will be on two panels Saturday and on Thursday will moderate a panel about the original Cosmos, still the most famous soccer club in the history of the United States.
Right now, like any coach, I am sweating out the formation -- how to play Roger Allaway, the Soccer Hall of Fame historian, David Kilpatrick of Mercy College, Shep Messing, former Cosmos keeper and analyst for Red Bulls matches, and Leo Glickman of the Borough Boys. I will submit my lineup when the officials ask for it.
The academics are coming from all over the world. I am hoping they will wear period costumes like the Germans and Greeks of the famous Monty Python skit, but maybe not. More to the point, they will expand our understanding of the sport.
I spot one former men’s national player, Chris Armas, now the women’s coach at Adelphi, on a panel on Saturday. And I look forward to seeing – and hearing – friends and colleagues from around the soccer diaspora.
For a full glimpse of the program and information about tickets (and some free events):
One thing I learned from Wednesday night’s 2-2 draw between the United States and Mexico: a promising but small forward – Julian Green – is not going to help patch up the central defense for the U.S.
Watching Omar Gonzalez trudge around near the goal, suffering from Gooch’s Syndrome, I could not help but think there is more of that ahead in the Group of Death in June.
Yes, the Puebla club – in Mexico, oddly enough -- did not release DaMarcus Beasley for the Mexico match. Beasley adds a lot at left back, including courage, experience and offensive range, but the U.S. is still vulnerable in front of its fine keepers. No Balboas or Popes in sight. Steve Cherundolo just retired as a right back. Trouble ahead.
Wednesday’s match was also a reminder that Michael Bradley is the core of the team, as he pretty much was in 2010. He was able to attack from midfield against Mexico, which is not the Mexico of a generation ago.
The theme of the night on ESPN was who is going to make the 23-player squad -- a seat on the plane.
Junge Meister Green showed nice pace and speed and willingness to attack when he came into his first U.S. match in the 59th minute. He is now officially a Yank, while playing in the Bayern organization.
Green is 5-8, 160 pounds, nearly infiltrated the box on a challenging dribble, but is not yet a Neymar or a Messi. So far he has played 3 minutes for the Bayern varsity.
Coach Jürgen Klinsmann, with a contract through 2018, may feel he has the luxury of bringing Green along this time to prepare for the future. But if the U.S. hopes to get out of its hideous group this time, it will need every seasoned player who might poke in a goal -- Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Eddie Johnson and Chris Wondolowski.
Things happen in a World Cup. Injuries. Cards. Forwards out of gas at 60-70 minutes.
Klinsmann is fearless and has improved this squad. German fans thought he was a bit of a moonbeam in 2006 but he is not afraid to publicly challenge the Donovans and Dempseys. Show me. Get better. This week he dropped his long-time assistant Martin Vásquez because of conflicts. My guess is Klinsmann will let Bayern prepare Julian Green for 2018. They both have time.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.