I’ll be discussing my long relationship with Kentucky this Saturday in my town, Port Washington, Long Island – at the Dolphin Bookshop right after 3 PM.
Mostly I’ll be talking about how a few years of living in Kentucky gave me enough material to fill my head and my books and my articles forever.
I doubt I’ll get to all the stories, so let me tell how this photo with Secretariat came to be taken:
It started on May 6, 1989, when Sunday Silence won the Derby. At the media party late that night, a friend offered a tour of Stone Farm, where Sunday Silence’s sire Halo lived.
Oh, and on the way back up Winchester Road we could stop at Claiborne Farm to see Secretariat.
I am not a racing guy, never bet, have no clue who is running in the Derby on Saturday, but when I covered the Derby, I could learn the new cast of characters. Mostly, I loved the mystique of the Derby that makes Kentucky so different. I get misty when everybody stands and sings “My Old Kentucky Home.” I love the John Prine version:
Plus, nobody passes up a chance to see Secretariat.
First, we stopped at Stone Farm and visited Halo’s stall. I moved close to the wooden slats, only to feel the strong, insistent nudge of the groom, Handsome Sam Ransom, moving me back.
“He bite your head off,” Handsome Sam said.
The other horse people nodded. Mean SOB. I didn’t give Handsome Sam enough credit in my column that week:
We paid homage to Halo and his genes from a safe distance, then headed to Claiborne Farm. My guide, Fara Bushnell, who had some thoroughbred business with a couple of English buyers, handed me a couple of sugar cubes. Not supposed to feed the horses, she said, but….
We walked over to the fence, alongside a low hill of lush Kentucky bluegrass. I put a sugar cube on my palm. The hillside began to shake, better than an earthquake -- a 19-year-old, reddish of color, with a white patch on his nose.
Big Red lumbered over. He knew the drill. A wet nose nuzzled my palm, taking his present.Then he stood still, allowing me to touch his swaybacked side. My friend snapped the photo. Big Red could go now.
I never saw him run in person, but I have written about him dozens of times since, whenever some interloper tries to win the Triple Crown. I cannot tell you who the greatest baseball player or basketball player was, but I will tell you that nobody came close to Secretariat, the way he won the Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont.
Five months after my visit, Secretariat was put down lovingly at Claiborne Farm. Enough was enough. They said the earth shook when he went down. The great Bill Nack wrote an homage to him that you really ought to read:
Big Red is only one reason I revel in the legends of Kentucky – the miners, the politicians, the hard-shell county judges, the singers, the farmers, the complicated world of Louisville, the charming madam and collector of majolica in Bowling Green, Pauline Tabor.
Kentucky was endlessly fascinating. (Don’t judge it by McConnell and Paul.) I’ll talk more at the Dolphin Bookshop, down near the scenic Town Dock in Port Washington, this Saturday. Hope to see you there.
He was born April 23, 1564, this much we seem to know.
Whoever he was, he is our patrimony, the synthesist of the English language, creator not just of Lady Macbeth and Falstaff but of Emma Thompson and Monty Python, Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson. He saw it all coming.
I was introduced to Shakespeare in the late winter of 1956-57, the tail end of the basketball season, when I was the student publicist at Hofstra College. The gym was commandeered by a new cast of characters. Instead of housing Butch Van Breda Kolff and his motley band, the gym now held Shakespeare and his rollicking crew.
The annual Shakespeare Festival forced gym classes outdoors or into the Quonset Hut, and caused Butch’s basketball team to finish on the road.
Workers began to assemble what looked like a mix between a Lincoln Log and Tinker Toy construction. Beams and pillars and floors and balconies were lugged into the gym, and put together like a giant puzzle.
The Globe Theatre was the pride of President John Cranford Adams, a Shakespearean scholar, a trim older man with a vaguely British accent and wardrobe somewhat out of place in this informal suburban world. (The next year the festival moved into the new John Cranford Adams Playhouse, still the secular temple of my alma mater and soon to be refurbished, thanks to a benefactor.g)
One of the 1957 stagehands was a fellow freshman – Franny, he was called, in those days, not Francis Ford Coppola. He was a legend for not wearing the ratty gym outfit or olive-green ROTC outfit (years later he told me he had polio as a child and was excused from both.) Instead he wore a workman’s overalls, baggy, with pockets containing hammer, screwdriver and other implements of construction, preparing not just the featured play, “As You Like It,” but also odd little morality plays and musical concerts.
One afternoon I watched a performance, as students I had seen on campus wore gaudy ruffles and low-cut gowns, speaking a language so easy to parody, indecipherable at first but as the ear became accustomed to the cadence, perfectly clear, the wit, the drama, the poetry.
I cannot claim I loved it, had some kind of metamorphosis, but this was as good a reason as any to attend a college heavy on the liberal arts. Out of nowhere, William Shakespeare became my boot camp for language, my basic training for the mind.
Shakespeare has lasted this long, as I follow the academic debates about his journey from Stratford to the South Bank to everywhere in the world. In my years covering Wimbledon – all right, now I will admit it – I would sometimes find a way to join my wife at the National Theatre or the dismal claustrophobia-inducing Barbican.
And one wet June evening in 1997, after I had typed fast at Wimbledon, we bought groundling tickets and stood in the solstice downpour at the new Globe Theatre, watching Henry’s troops heading into battle, and we understood our job was to hiss and whistle at the French soldiers, and maybe toss the odd packet of crisps at them.
Years ago, we wandered into the National Portrait Gallery and spied a man with an earring smirking out at the world. It is the so-called Chandos Portrait (for a previous owner) and the artist may have been John Taylor. The subject is said to be young Will Shakespeare, down from Stratford, to write and drink with his buddies and snag as many women as possible. I take the young man to be Shakespeare because his leer matches the knowing lilt of the plays and sonnets.
Whoever and whatever he was, he doth endure.
Happy Birthday, Dude.
This very young baseball season has been so much fun, just to have the sport back but obviously for the 10-3 record through Sunday.
Then Jerry Blevins received a fractured arm and Travis d'Arnaud a fractured hand within minutes of each other as the Mets beat the Marlins.
Since the first weird days of 1962, Mets fans have known that following this team demands great mood shifts. But this is ridiculous, after promising the Higher Power, just get me through this nuclear winter of Little Anthony and the No-Names and let me watch Juan Lagares chase fly balls. .
Baseball is liberation from the yammering of cable news. .
It’s sticking up for Bartolo Colon’s right to start opening day and watching him win his first three starts – and driving in runs in two consecutive games – and fielding his position, for goodness’ sakes.
I went to opening day at New Shea, hordes of macho males (and females, too), whacked on alcohol or testosterone or who knows what, conducting the rites of spring that reminded me of Brueghel and Bosch, collaborating on their epic St. Patrick’s Day in the Lower Depths of Penn Station.
Nobody watched the game.
Back home, games are faster, so much faster so that you cannot click away and watch a snippet of a movie you never knew existed. Now, when you click back, there is already an out and a runner on first.
Congratulations, baseball, for making those lugs stay in the batter’s box.
The Mets and the Other Team in Town have opened with division rivals. This is a wonderful thing because the games have extra value for post-season possibilities, but more immediately because they bring home the familiar faces, the worthy oppositions.
In the Madoff Era, the Mets have been the soft underbelly of the National League. Now they are going through the first two weeks – Bryce Harper and the Nationals, Andrelton Simmons and the Braves, Chase Utley and the Phillies, Giancarlo Stanton and the Marlins.
But what is Ryan Howard doing lurking in the Phillies’ dugout? One thing I hate about contemporary big-biz baseball: the looming salary dump, further devaluing gallant players who got a bit old or a bit hurt.
After two weeks, the timid, repressed optimist dares to whisper, “Wait…those teams aren’t that great right now.” Spring. Early spring. False spring. Who knows?
Out-of-town box scores vanish from the printed page. You could spend an entire breakfast or commute checking the box scores. Now you have to read the front page. Yikes.
But at least there is the two-week glory of watching Soft Hands Lucas Duda hitting to the left side, playing grounders like a big cat. Sandy Alderson was right. This guy is no oaf.
Then again, how could the Mets send down Eric Campbell and open the season with a four-player bench? Campbell came back swinging hard -- and his throws from third base are special, too. Now the Mets have to replace two players who have been so vital in these early days.
Meanwhile, on the team from another borough, Alex Rodriguez, the man we love to hate, is keeping the Anonymous Yankees almost respectable. Maybe he will shame the owners into paying him his bonus.
Pay-Rod, the working man’s hero. Who woulda thought?
(This being the season of Passover and Easter and Opening Day, a time of rejuvenation of body and soul and spirit and good writing about sport, I am sharing the Charles Barasch poem about the first President to throw out the first ball on opening day.)
William Taft’s Dream
The players liked my ceremonial
pitch, so when Walter Johnson’s arm
gives out, he points, beckons me
from the stands. I hand my suitcoat
to Helen, remove my tie
and cuff links, roll up my sleeves.
An usher opens a gate, and when I step
onto the grass, for a moment
I’m confused, the crowd’s roar
surrounds me and I feel weightless,
as if lifted by an ocean surge. I’m afraid
I’ve gone down with the Titanic, but
then an urgent chant,“Big Bill,” shakes
the stadium. I wave to the throng
and ascend the mound.
Cobb has never seen pitches like mine,
the first two race past him
faster than Barney Oldfield,
and he swings over a drop-pitch,
my hummingbird. Frank Merriwell strikes out too,
and then it’s Booker T. Washington’s turn,
but W.E.B. DuBois pinch-hits, shoves him aside.
He glares as I wind up and uncoil
like a cobra, and now the pitch buzzes in
like an army airplane. He swings
and the ball sails into the sky, but I sprint
across the outfield and snag it.
Helen comes out of the dugout.
I ask her if I can stay and play baseball,
but she says no, I have to be president.
I throw my glove on the ground and follow her home.
(Poem originally published in “Dreams of the Presidents,” by North Atlantic Books -- 43 poems, each a president’s dream. Many of Barasch's other baseball poems are in the anthology, “Baseball, I Gave You All the Best Years of My Life,” also published by North Atlantic Books.
(Barasch and I played softball a few times back on Long Island; now he teaches and writes poetry in Vermont. Two years ago, into his 60s, he played hardball against Bill Lee. Yes, that Bill Lee.
"Luckily, he threw me a fastball; his curveball is impossible for me. I blooped it over the shortstop but the left fielder, playing me appropriately shallow, caught it."
So many baseball memories end with documentable failure which is why it is such a wonderful sport for writing or reading.)
The Rev. Gardner C. Taylor was 96 and in retirement in North Carolina. Once he was a giant in the pulpit of Brooklyn, the entire world. He was an intellectual who made bells ring when he spoke.
I was just thinking about Dr. Taylor Sunday afternoon as I pondered the closeness of Passover and Easter this year, remembering seders at the Kelman household on West End Avenue and the sermon by Dr. Taylor in Harlem during Holy Week. How lucky to be part of so many worlds.
To my chagrin, I had never heard of Dr. Taylor until 1978, when I was covering religion for the Times, although he was a pillar of religion and civil rights (if one can separate them) as pastor at the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I heard about a gathering of black pastors every Monday, when one preached and later they all went out for lunch, uptown.
It was the day after Palm Sunday, and Dr. Taylor was preaching to the committed, about the ordeal of Jesus Christ during Holy Week. For a time, he was intellectual, measured, logical, but then he raised the amps. I described the mood in the church:
“I say to every Christian, You have not even wrestled with temptation the way Jesus did. Where are the blood marks? What pain have you undertaken in the name of Jesus? What sacrifice...? We cannot even know the misery of our Lord.”
Then, with most people leaning forward eagerly, Mr. Taylor retold a basic truth of Christianity – that Jesus came back on Easter morning.
“He won!” Mr. Taylor exclaimed, and his own colleagues began chanting at the end of every sentence. “He won!” until he finished with the urgent, emotional message of the Resurrection, and ended abruptly.
I can still hear his voice pealing. Later I came to know how he and the Rev. Martin Luther King had formed a progressive black Baptist denomination to advance civil rights, and in 1993 Dr. Taylor preached during the inauguration of President Clinton. I grieved from afar in 1995 when Dr. Taylor’s wife, Laura Scott Taylor, the unsalaried principal of the church elementary school, was killed by a truck as she crossed a street in Crown Heights. (He later remarried.)
He was a great American, graduate of the School of Theology, Oberlin College , and lecturer at Princeton. He was on my mind the afternoon he passed.
Bartolo Colon makes me laugh. That doesn't sound like a good reason to endorse his pitching opening day for the Mets, but I think the two are connected.
Colon’s nomination to pitch in Philadelphia next Monday has caused a great amount of chatter in New York because Matt Harvey is acknowledged as the ace.
I say Colon held the Mets together – relatively, that is -- with his rubbery arm and impassive face, after Harvey went down and before Jacob deGrom and Zach Wheeler settled in. There is a place in the 162-game schedule for symbolic events like opening day, even on the road, to honor a pitcher for making them respectable in most of his 31 starts.
Not only that, but Colon made me laugh – not once but twice – in a revealing new book: “Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets,” by Steve Kettmann, published by Atlantic Monthly Press. (The most interesting figure in the book is Alderson’s jet-fighter pilot dad, John.)
There hasn’t been much fun about the Mets in recent years, but Alderson has been plugging along with what his budget allowed. He gave serious access to Kettmann, an astute reporter who has worked in Oakland, New York and Berlin and now lives in California. Alderson was an early advocate of computers and new ways of judging talent, and somehow he was flexible enough to recruit portly, much-traveled Colon as that handy-dandy implement, the inning-eater. No pitching staff should be without one. Now he lets the Mets coddle their young talent early in the chilly season.
We all watched Colon perform like a stubborn old work- horse last season, showing no interest in batting or running toward first base when he happened to make contact. For that matter, Colon is not that much interested in fielding his position. But Colon – who turns 42 in May -- pitched 202 1/3 innings, with a 15-13 record and a 4.09 earned-run average.
Early in the season, Kettmann, in the clubhouse, observed Colon and Gonzalo Germen “playing an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. Colon squeezed his porcine bulk just past me to hide in a corner locker, grinning as he pulled one door closed to hide himself within.”
So Colon has an inner fun guy, the fourth Stooge – El Gordo. Months later, Kettmann, who speaks Spanish (and German) introduced himself to Colon, with no purpose other than civility.
“Colon then grunted that he had to sign baseballs, as if that had anything to do with anything," Kettmann wrote. "I smiled at this, since we both knew how deeply redolent of bullshit it was, but moved away from him and there he sat, doing nothing, for the next half hour, not twitching a muscle.”
All reporters get stiffed. (Ask me about the Roman Catholic cardinal from the U.S. who popped a 180 in a narrow corridor, robes flowing, rather than talk to me.)
Kettmann sums up Colon’s evasive tactic: “That was the man’s genius: He didn’t think too much, and he didn’t care about anything except having a good time, making jokes, staying loose, and going out every five days and throwing a lot of darting fastballs. You could plug him in for twelve to fifteen wins and 180 to 200 innings, even on a sub-.500 team, but don’t ever expect him to go out of his way to try harder than necessary.”
Colon kept the Mets competitive last year – a su manera, his way. Whatever baseball logic this makes, this is the Mets’ way of thanking him for his version of respectability.
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.