There is nothing in sport quite so public and naked as watching a tennis star trudging off the court after a first-round elimination.
Tennis fans have seen it twice in the past week, as Serena Williams and Andy Roddick were eliminated in the first round.
No place to hide. Just blindly stuff the gear in a bag, maybe manage a wave, and vanish from sight.
This is what draws people to tennis – the loneliness of the singles player, carrying a persona, a resumé, an expectation of still being able to dig something out of muscle memory.
In no other sport is the defeat so early, so finite. Tiger Woods failed to make the cut. Yes, the words still shock, but even the-artist-formerly-known-as-Tiger is performing in the pack, just another name on the board, his score outside the Mendoza line of the second-round cutoff.
Boxing? Yes, I’ve seen a very old Joe Louis training for what everybody (including Louis) knew was going to be a demolition by Rocky Marciano. (My dad took me to Louis’ training camp in New Jersey. Louis was solemn, and miserable, and old.)
Great boxers can run out of time in front of the world. But in that violent business, every fight has the potential for danger, for sudden ends. The first round of a tennis tournament? That’s no time for a star to be eliminated.
We all know that players go downhill. One of the most poignant – and funniest – columns I ever wrote was from Wimbledon in 1991 when Pam Shriver shared the shabby details of being an unseeded player, after all those years, and having to change in the No. 2 dressing room. This most human of players described the wallpaper in the locker room -- Stripes. Plaids. Flowers. Remnants. She made us laugh. She made us cry. That’s why she’s Pam Shriver.
I’ve posted it on this link.
As merciless as time can be, it is still a shock. Baseball players and basketball players can slip downhill, finish up on the bench, get released in a paper transaction in the off-season. But marquee tennis players are out there alone.
All right, so Roddick was – past tense, sort of -- a big-serve finalist at Wimbledon, a one-time champion at the U.S. Open. He still carries that aura, although clay was never his surface, even when he was a contender.
Williams has been a charismatic and powerful champion. It’s hard to see her without thinking of her outbursts at the U.S. Open in 2009 and 2011. That’s part of the package – an intimidator, who does not encourage sympathy.
That’s the thing about stars. We know them for their sarcasm and their bluster as well as for their victories. Then one day they are stuffing racquets into their duffel bags while the true fans give them respectful applause. Still a cruel sport, punctuated by those long steps off the court, alone.
The shame of the airline industry continues with yet another money grab.
The airlines are now pushing a separate $59 fee for aisle and window seats, forcing poorer families to be separated to middle seats throughout the planes.
This blatant appeal to the affluent, this slap in the face to the less fortunate, was criticized by Sen. Charles Schumer of New York on Sunday. Good for Schumer, a family man who can see the injustice of this latest fee.
Admittedly, the airlines are coping with the cost of fuel. But their response has been to give up all amenities. Many of my friends are turned off by flying, saying, “It’s nothing like it used to be.”
Unable to balance their budgets, the CEOs – with their gigantic salaries and payoffs when they fail – have come up with a system of fees.
This same class of lavishly-rewarded CEOs -- in the banking industry -- has come up with unadvertised $25 fees for services that had previously been part of banking. This is why I do not fret about Jamie Dimon’s little multi-billion-dollar shortfall at JP Morgan Chase. Dimon will keep his salary and his bonus and his pension when he finally goes – partially because you will be contributing hidden fees to his going-away present.
In fact, it is probably costing you a $25 banking fee just for having read the past paragraph.
Airlines have the fee disease, too. In recent years they got the smart idea of charging a $25 fee for each piece of checked luggage. This of course encourages passengers to carry their life belongings onto the plane.
I sympathize with people trying to save $25. But how much does it cost the airline in fuel and surcharges when the pilot misses his slot on the runway because somebody is still trying to cram a steamer trunk into a space designed to hold pillows?
Now the airlines are perpetuating class warfare by offering prime seats for $59 extra. The social implications are that a family of four may not have multiples of $59 to shell out for each good seat.
If the affluent can upgrade to aisle seats, airline agents are sure to cold-heartedly force families to split up on the flight. Children – and sometimes the elderly – need companionship even for an hour or two on shorter flights.
Goodness knows, a lot of people have $59 to spend for their comfort and status. But I say, let them stay in posh hotels and patronize chi-chi restaurants.
However, one thing might discourage the executives’ scheme to separate families. This possibility was pointed out by a lady with whom I travel on occasion: the yuppie in designer clothing who just paid $59 for an aisle seat gets to sit next to a squirming child many rows away from family supervision.
Inconvenience – plus, let’s say, a bout of projectile vomiting -- could hamper corporate avarice more than corporate shame ever will.
Your comments on airline greed?
(As everybody knows, I am a neutral sports columnist who never roots, ever. However, I happen to know this Mets fan who is suffering because of their new so-called closer, Frank Francisco. The other night this fan delivered a rant from deep in his tormented soul.)
I can’t stand it. Frank Francisco is the final straw. He has conditioned me to expect the worst, so now I suffer even when he gets them one-two-three the way he did Tuesday night and then again Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh. He’s setting us up for something horrendous, I know he is.
He even has Howie Rose making jokes. On Tuesday night when Francisco came in with a one-run lead on the road, Howe-on-the-radio was citing the Beatles’ Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite -- about a circus! How apt.
We’re all familiar with the frantic organ music and allusions to trampolines and fire and somersaults on the Mr. Kite song. That’s what this Francisco is, a human cannonball, with a 1-3 record and a 6.75 earned-run average after Wednesday.
Francisco seems so fragile and erratic, with bad fundamentals with men on base. But Mets fans are used to suffering. Fact is, we have been suffering for a decade and a half with every closer they come up with.
What makes it worse is that across town the Yankees have had Mariano Rivera. Never mind Jeter and Bernie and Posada. Rivera put the Yankees over the top while the Mets have had a bunch of high-wire acts.
I put some statistics together. Since Rivera became the Yankees’ top closer in 1997 (replacing John Wetteland) he has come jogging out of the bullpen, so calm and assured, and has saved 603 of 672 opportunities, including this year, and now he is injured. That amounts to 69 blown saves by the Yanks’ main closer in 15-plus seasons. The Mets, as far as I can figure it out, have had 86 blown saves in 573 opportunities by their leading closer from 1997 (the Mo Era) through Tuesday night. Somehow, it feels worse.
The whole jittery parade of them – John Franco in 1997-98, Armando Benitez had the most saves each year from 1999-2003, good grief Braden Looper for 2004 and 2005 – who even remembers him? – and then Billy Wagner for three seasons and Frankie Rodriguez for three seasons.
As far as I’m concerned, Wagner was the most reassuring of the closers because when he was on, he really could blow it past the batter. But sometimes he wasn’t on.
Meanwhile, in the Bronx, like a metronome, Mo trots in, they play his music, and then it’s time for New York, New York. Out in Queens, we drive into the night still shaking from fright, even when the Mets hold on. The damage to our nervous system. The damage to our collective psyche. All from the gap between closers. I can’t take it!
(The Mets are not about to switch closers this early in the season, not at those prices. A valiant little team, with a manager who seems to have a grip, must depend on a closer who makes people crazy. It’s an occupational hazard for all closers -- except Mo. Poor Mets fans, in such proximity to greatness. Makes me glad I do not suffer like that.)
It was just after the first hour when Didier Drogba moved in front of the goal and deflected a Bayern shot. That he was up front in the scrum told me he was taking over the match, that his aging body was up to playing the entire field for one more hour.
He was there at the end, too, with the goal that tied the match, and the penalty kick that won the Champions League final for Chelsea, just as he was there in the late minutes against Barcelona earlier in the month.
In the pandemonium afterward, one broadcaster, I think it was Gary Neville, was babbling about English courage and English pride and English moxie, but if I am not mistaken Drogba is a citizen of Ivory Coast and Peter Cech is Czech, and Roberto Di Matteo is (as I was reminded this week) Swiss-born although he played 34 times for Italy. And for that matter, owner Roman Abramovich is a Russian oligarch of Latvian and Jewish ancestry. That is the way it works in the most international of sports.
Drogba was always going to be there in the desperate moments of the match -- and for the fifth penalty kick. He carried this team after the captain, John Terry, disgraced himself with a sneak kick to a Barcelona player in the semifinals, and was banished for the finals. Terry should not have been allowed to receive a medal in the ceremony afterward.
Watching Drogba pull his teammates along was like watching Michael Jordan or Derek Jeter or Mark Messier play offense and defense in the biggest of games.
Bayern was at home, and had more flash, more offense, but Drogba held Chelsea together.
It sounds as if he is gone from Chelsea, at 34. Can you imagine his power and his will up front for all those nifty passers at Barca? And Abramovich apparently has some master plan that does not include Di Matteo to run the club next season. It’s nice to be the oligarch.
Because Drogba helped will Chelsea to be the first London squad to win the European Cup in the 57 seasons of its existence, Di Matteo should privately hand Drogba one token of his final months – a yellow captain’s arm band, just to take with him in his luggage. The player from Ivory Coast made Chelsea the toast of England.
The thing I remember most about Naked Came the Stranger is that Mike McGrady and Harvey Aronson shared the profits. This is such stunning behavior that it needs to be put in a separate category from Mike’s (a) being a superb journalist and (b) coming up with a noted publishing hoax or scram or prank or whatever it was.
When he passed this week at 78, Mike was celebrated not only in respectful obits in the Washington Post and New York Times but also in an editorial in the Times. It said he should be most remembered as a columnist; Mike went to Vietnam for Newsday in 1967 and his point of view was stated in the title of his series, later a book: A Dove in Vietnam.
When Mike got back, having sniffed out the hypocrisy of that mad endeavor, he and his colleague Aronson came up with an idea for takeoff on all the bad sex novels that sold zillions of copies. Proposing a novel about infidelity in the suburbs, they invented the main character, a scorned wife on a mission, and they encouraged co-workers to write our own steamy chapters.
(I was in the sports department at Newsday until 1968. Like many ball players, I have fond memories of my first team – a great newspaper back in those days, built by the visionary publisher, Alicia Patterson. Miss P. Harvey Aronson -- who called himself H. Casey Aronson -- was mostly the manager of the Nightside Softball Team. In his spare time, he sometimes edited and wrote and nurtured young talent.)
A lot of us received printed memos in the office mail, inviting us to take part. (Kids, this was before there was such a thing as e-mails, or computers.) Some of us contributed our foolish little chapters and became co-authors for life.
McGrady and Aronson cobbled together our efforts and sent forth into this land a cover, lurid for its time, and words that might have been erotic if they had not been so hackneyed. But at least we were trying to be ridiculous. It was not an accident.
The results are well-known – a novel under the Nom de Smut of Penelope Ashe. We were all Penelope Ashe, whether our scribblings were accepted or blended into one chapter, or merely noted with grace by Mike and Harvey.
Some in the so-called reading public – even reviewers -- were fooled; some suspected nothing could be this bad unintentionally; some people actually bought the damn thing and read it. We went on the David Frost show with a naked model based on the figure on the cover. Ultimately, somebody made a porn movie with the same title, and Stan Isaacs rented a hansom cab to take a few of us to the, um, grand opening.
But the most astonishing part was that McGrady and Aronson divided the income into equal parts – one-twenty-fifth, as I recall. The occasional checks financed the odd trip to the city, or milk and diapers for growing families, or an after-hour round set up by Leo at the Midway bar and grill in Garden City. Mike and Harvey had the idea, they did most of the work, they publicized it, and yet they shared the booty. I used to ask them about their egalité, and they just shrugged. This was the right thing to do. Tell that to people who collaborate in show business or web ventures or high finance or politics or lottery partnerships. Fairness is not a given.
A word about my own miserable efforts. While working an occasional shift on dreaded rewrite on the overnight sports desk, I was waiting for night baseball games to end on the West Coast. Having taken typing in junior high school, I batted out a chapter in an hour. Then the Dodgers beat the Giants, or vice versa, and I finished my excursion into soft porn.
I'm still not sure if this is a good thing or not, but mine is the cleanest, most tasteful, chapter in the book. For the hapless schnook in my chapter I gave the name Morton Earbrow. I remembered that Casey Stengel once said Gil Hodges was so strong that he could “squeeze your earbrows off.” I wasn’t quite sure what an earbrow was, but it sounded like a word I could resurrect in my one-hour career as 1/25 novelist. (Oh, yes, a sample of my dreadful prose -- intact, as I recall -- was cited in Mike’s Washington Post obit. Recognition at last.)
We all went our separate ways. Mike settled in western Washington State, and urged his pals to come visit. I wish I had, but I could never get further west than the pho emporiums on Aurora in Seattle. I’m left with fond memories of a colleague with talent and humor. And integrity.
The guilt pile teeters dangerously in my study, sometimes toppling of its own imbalance.
I have so many writer friends who write so many books that I cannot acknowledge all of them.
We writers are odd birds, as described by Roger Rosenblatt in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. We hunker in corners and rearrange words and offer them to a world addicted to flickering electronic images. But what else is a web site good for, if not to mention just a few books by friends that I recently read and enjoyed?
Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees From Before the Babe to After the Boss. By Marty Appel. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
This book is said to be “definitive,” and I would add “thoroughly enjoyable,” particularly when Marty unleashes his own memories, which by now are institutional. Marty started in 1968 as an assistant to Bob Fishel, the great Yankee publicity man, and he has grown into writer and man-about-baseball. He was not there in 1903, but Marty has surely done his homework, describing the arrival of a forlorn franchise from Baltimore, with Wee Willie Keeler playing right field on a makeshift wooden platform over a swampy area of right field in upper Manhattan. He brings us to the later years of Posada-Rivera-Jeter.
The parts I like best are the things Marty learned along the way from Yankee lifers. One of them is the mystery of who stole the ancient Mosler safe with individual drawers that once secured the valuables of Keeler, Griffith and Chesbro of the original Highlanders. The safe survived moves from Hilltop Park to the Polo Grounds and then to the first Yankee Stadium, but as the Yankees prepared to move to Shea Stadium during rebuilding in 1974-75, the safe vanished. I asked Marty to elaborate and he said the venerable clubhouse man, Pete Sheehy, just shrugged in his inscrutable Big Pete way. Marty doesn’t know that secret, but he surely knows the Yankees, particularly the Boss, whom he saw up close, with all his complexities.
The Longest Fight: In the Ring With Joe Gans, Boxing’s First African-American Champion. By William Gildea. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012.
I vaguely knew the name Joe Gans, but Gildea introduces us to the man and the era, the early 20th Century. Gans was so good and so dignified that some white boxing fans of that time actually managed to get past their blatant prejudices and detect his humanity. Gildea has done masterful research and writing, recalling a gold-rush outpost in rural Nevada, where in 1906 Gans staged an epic fight-to-the-finish with Battling Nelson. The match itself is re-created excellently, but I liked even better the way Gildea presents the details of the time – what people ate, how they traveled, how whites and blacks interacted in daily life.
Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball’s Greatest Gift. By Harvey Araton. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt. 2012.
My colleague and friend Harvey Araton knows a good story when he hears it – how Guidry and Berra, Yankee greats of separate generations, spend time together every spring, as special eminences in Yankee camp. Guidry dispenses his Cajun frog legs and Berra dispenses his Hill wisdom. Berra is a national institution; fans will discover the humanity of Guidry.
Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball. By R.A. Dickey with Wayne Coffey. New York: Blue Rider Press. 2012.
Dickey discloses his turbulent childhood and his own imperfections as he seeks spiritual and intellectual growth, until he becomes a very late bloomer with the Mets. This book contains raw stuff – abuse, addiction around him, how Dickey took chances with his life by sleeping in empty houses and trying to swim the Missouri River. Far beyond the usual sports diary.
(Caveat: Long ago I formulated a so-called policy -- a stuffy word, to be sure -- that I do not give jacket blurbs. These are not reviews, and not identified with The New York Times in any way, but rather personal georgevecsey.com tributes to friends who got good books published, and more power to them.)
On May 12, 1962, Craig Anderson won both ends of a doubleheader in relief for the expansion team called the Mets. He had every reason to think maybe he and the Mets were going to be all right.
Instead, Anderson never won another game in the major leagues, losing 19 straight decisions over three seasons.
By doing so, Anderson became a legendary Met from the early years, along with Marv Throneberry and Choo-Choo Coleman and of course Casey Stengel.
Fifty years is a perfect time for gauging this franchise, built on hope and dreams and irrationality and humor -- the veritable human condition, one could say.
Those first weird days flavor everything fans feel about these current Amazing Mets, who are somehow over .500 under their pepper-pot manager Terry Collins.
Norman Craig Anderson, epic Met, born in Washington, D.C., now 73, follows the Mets from Dunnellon, Fla., where he is an occasional substitute teacher, to keep his head young. He does not mind recalling the hopes that rose when he actually won both ends of a doubleheader.
Anderson, a solid 6-2, 205-pound righty, was a college boy from Lehigh who had quite a decent debut with the Cardinals in 1961, as teams prepared to give players to the new teams in Houston and New York. In spring training of 1962, Stengel told the world the Mets could be contenders. Anderson looked around at Rich Ashburn and Gil Hodges and Roger Craig and figured, well, why not?
As every Met fan knows, the Mets promptly lost 10 straight games at the start of 1962, but then actually came back to win a game here and there..
“Nowadays they never schedule a doubleheader, but they had a doubleheader scheduled for Saturday,” Anderson recalled.
On May 12, 1962, he was in the bullpen as the gallant Craig held off Henry Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves for seven innings. Anderson pitched the eighth and ninth innings, but the Mets were trailing, 2-1, with three outs left against Warren Spahn. Then Hodges singled and the instant folk hero, Hot Rod Kanehl, ran for him, and with two outs Hobie Landrith pinch-hit for Ed Bouchee. (Don’t you just love all these 1962 names?)
Landrith promptly hit a fly ball that would have been an out in most ball parks but which became a classic Polo Grounds game-winning homer.
The two teams came right back for a second game and staggered into a 7-7 tie going to the ninth inning. Anderson was the sixth Met pitcher, following Bob Moorhead, Bob L. Miller (the righty Bob Miller, not the lefty Bob Miller), Ken McKenzie, Dave Hillman and Vinegar Bend Mizell. He dispatched three Braves and then watched Hodges, the weary beloved idol of the Brooklyn Dodgers – Ulysses home from the wars – plop a home run into the friendly confines for another game-ending home run.
“I was still in the dugout,” Anderson recalled by phone the other day. “Judy was in the stands. I came out and held up two fingers and she held up two fingers.” Then he began the trek to the clubhouse in deep center field.
Anderson admits he was a little surprised when no reporter spoke to him, or did more than briefly mention his winning both ends of the doubleheader. This feat was not all that rare back in those manly days when pitchers were not protected by pitch counts. However, the doubleheader ended late on a Saturday afternoon, with early newspaper deadlines and the PM papers of the day not even having a Sunday edition. So Anderson showered and joined Judy and a Lehigh pal for dinner.
“They next day I figured Casey wouldn’t use me,” Anderson recalled. But when Jay Hook gave up two runs in the eighth to fall behind, 3-2, Casey waved in Anderson for the ninth inning.
“Classic Casey move,” Anderson recalled. “He’s thinking, maybe I’m a lucky charm.” Anderson held the Braves, but the Mets did not score.
The next weekend in Milwaukee, Anderson saved two straight victories for McKenzie, out of Yale, and then Roger Craig saved a victory for Alvin Jackson, giving the Mets a 12-19 record. As of May 20, Anderson had a 3-1 record with a 2.38 earned-run average.
“At that point, I really thought we were going to be competitive,” Anderson said. “What you don’t know is, it’s a long season. I was a young player and we had a lot of older players. If you had told me we would lose 17 straight, I’d have said, ‘no way.’”
They did lose 17 straight, falling to a 12-36 record, and they maintained that .250 gait right through the end of the season, for a 40-120 record. By that time, Anderson had lost 16 straight, to finish with a 3-17 record and a 5.38 ERA. He started 14 games, completing two, but does not blame his slump on the irregular role.
Anderson seems to have ambivalent memories of Stengel. Casey and Edna were childless, and were fond of some young couples, but Casey also seemed to harbor some old-school suspicion of players with an education. More than once I heard him grumble about college boys who had “ann-oo-it-ies” – he enunciated the syllables – meaning, I guess, in Stengelese, that they were a tad too secure.
The Old Man was not easy to decipher. In one game, Stengel came to the mound to visit Anderson when the opponent was obviously going to bunt.
“You know what to do,” Stengel said cryptically, and stomped off. Anderson assumed he was talking about covering first base on the bunt. Turned out, Casey wanted him to pitch inside, to move the batter away from the plate. The players came to realize Casey communicated mostly with his writers.
The Mets sent Anderson to their Buffalo farm club in 1963 – Marvelous Marv was also exiled there – but recalled him often enough for two more losses, and then brought him back for an emergency start in the new Astrodome in 1964, and he lost that one, too. With a 19-game losing streak going, he retired from the minors in 1966 and went back to his alma mater, Lehigh University, where he served as pitching coach and assistant athletic director.
In 2001, Lehigh inducted Anderson into its hall of fame. The ceremony was held on May 12, the anniversary of his last victory.
When the Mets’ Anthony Young went on a losing streak in 1992-93 that would stretch to a staggering 27 games, Anderson sent him a letter urging him to hang in there.
He remains a supportive teammate. Over the past winter, as the 50th anniversary loomed, Choo Choo Coleman emerged from the mists. Most of us had not heard from him in decades. Anderson made a few phone calls and made sure Coleman became eligible for the recent payout for players with less than four years in the majors, who did not qualify for a pension - a sliding scale of up to $10,000 a year for these two years.
“A few weeks later I received the most beautiful note from Choo Choo, thanking me,” Anderson said, sounding touched.
He is looking forward to the 50th anniversary of his last victory, which falls on a Saturday, the same day as 1962. He and Judy have never let the losing streak affect their self-image.
“I reached the top level of my field,” Anderson said. “Better to be a has-been than a never-was.”
Craig Anderson is much more than a has-been. In this milepost season, he is part of the DNA of every fan who agonizes over the Mets.
Tuesday is National Teacher Day, and people are being asked to salute a teacher who made a difference in their lives.
We’ve got teachers in my family – my wife, our daughter-in-law, a sister, a brother, a sister-in-law, two nieces, a nephew and his wife. I’m proud of all of them.
But the teacher I am thanking today is Irma Rhodes, who found me underperforming in high school and turned me around. She opened a world for me, after I had washed out of honors classes at Jamaica High in Queens.
I honor the teacher who did what teachers do – she made English exciting, or fun, or at least tolerable. She was, as I discovered, an educated woman with intellectual and literary interests, and she managed to transmit a bit of her enthusiasm to her class of juniors.
Early in the fall semester, Mrs. Rhodes assigned us to write a book report, any author, any subject. As the son of two journalists, I chose Stranger Come Home by William L. Shirer, a novel by a well-known journalist.
The book was probably lying around the house; my mother probably put it in my hand. (By that time she was legitimately worried that I would remain a slacker.) I did some minimal research and deduced that the plot pretty much matched the career of Shirer – a correspondent in Europe who had been pursued by the red-baiters when he returned stateside after World War Two.
Mrs. Rhodes read the report and asked me to me read parts out loud in class. She was so pleasant that she never transmitted the feeling she was turning me into a teacher’s pet. She just said, this is a book report, and people in the class seemed happy for me. She created a positive mood among the students, which is not easy to do.
She followed it up, talked to me after class, inviting me to work on the school yearbook, promoting me when openings came up. She held salons in her home for the yearbook staff – a bit of work and planning, plus piano playing, literary talk, refreshments. She organized theater outings to Manhattan on weekends – something at the Jan Hus Playhouse on the east side, Anastasia on Broadway.
Oh, yes, and I got a date for the senior prom, much to my shock. A girl, a year older than me, liked my essays when Mrs. Rhodes had me read out loud. (Jean, our class president-for-life, had to virtually order me to ask the girl out.) As Richard Price wrote in a classic essay in 1981, one of his earliest lessons was that being The Writer was a neat way to meet girls.
Mrs. Rhodes and I kept in touch long after I was actually accepted by Hofstra and started working for newspapers. I brought my wife to her home. I mourned when she passed much too soon and I mourned when one of her daughters also passed way too young.
I don’t mind saying I think Mrs. Rhodes was proud of me, the way my wife is proud of the smart young man she taught in her humanities group in the challenging late ‘60’s, who is now a national byline.
I see that same pride in our daughter-in-law who teaches English as a Second Language. I cannot describe how proud I am to see this dedicated young woman going to work every day with the new ethnic groups of my home borough of Queens.
Teachers do this. The vast majority of them care. It makes me crazy to hear taxpayers complain about the alleged high salaries and perks of teachers. “(They get the whole summer off.”) They didn’t see my wife doing lesson plans on weekends, or my sister's daughter using part of her modest salary to buy school supplies for the underprivileged children of her southern town.
About a decade ago, I got to reconnect with my old high school – the same rooms, the same hopeful faces as my contemporaries in the ‘50’s, in some honors classes I visited. I could feel Mrs. Rhodes (and Mrs. Kirchman and Mrs. Gollobin and all the rest) still in that building.
Yet the city of New York saw fit to cook the books so Jamaica High would look like a statistical failure. They are keeping the glorious landmark building open and are tossing out the institution in favor of the new fad of boutique schools.
The teachers of today remind me of the teachers who taught us back in the ‘50’s. I thank them all, and most of all I thank Irma Rhodes.
* * *
I should add: memories of favorite teachers are welcome here, under Comments. GV
This has probably never happened before, in decades of marriage: my wife was working the AM radio dial Sunday evening (trying to escape treacly classical music) and happened to pause on a Red Sox-Orioles game and realized it was in the 14th inning—and she left it on for me.
Usually I’m the one finding ball games on the car radio – harder these days because you cannot find crackling, fading games from distant cities in the rigid digital age. On the Bose radio in our living room, there it was, Orioles and Red Sox, both running out of pitchers, on Sunday, getaway day.
It was fun being in my own home – not being inconvenienced by extra innings on getaway day, been there, done that -- and hearing the Red Sox broadcasters speculate who would do the pitching if the game went any further.
Chris Davis, an infielder, pitched the 16th for the Orioles and the broadcasters marveled that he seemed to change speeds. Could he pitch from the stretch with a runner on base? The Orioles caught a runner at home, and the game lurched into the 17th. Darnell McDonald, a position player, gave up a three-run homer to Adam Jones in the top half of the inning and Davis induced a double play to end the 9-6 victory, just as normal as any top closer saving a game.
All of this was a delightful hour I never expected -- two positions, not just one. Baseball induces more surprises than any sport I know, with odd things happening as the game goes on and players and managers react to circumstances.
Casey Stengel used to say, “In baseball every day you see something you never saw before.” I believed him the day I saw a Met relief pitcher get hit square in the backside by a one-hopper, which I would have thought was impossible.
The sport is always surprising. I love to see pitchers play a position in an emergency or pinch-hit or pinch-run, forced to be athletes rather than specialists -- Don Newcombe or Don Drysdale pinch-hitting in old-fashioned, pre-designated-hitter baseball.
Why not have position players occasionally taking the mound, like in high school games?
Clearly, I was not the only person stimulated by the extra-inning improvisations up in Fenway. One reader, Tom Roberts of Lawrenceville, N.J., e-mailed me, raving about the game and adding, “Had Bud Selig allowed the ill-fated All-Star Game to continue with position players taking the pitching mound instead of cooking up the concept of a ‘tie,’ I have no doubt it would have been one of the most memorable games in baseball. I've never gotten over that decision.”
Roberts was talking about the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee, when both teams ran short of pitchers and Commissioner Bud Selig ended the game as a tie in the 11th inning.
They could have decided that All-Star Game with a home-run derby, the way world soccer sometimes decides big games with penalty shootouts. Or they could have called for position players to volunteer to pitch, the way Davis and McDonald did in Boston on Sunday.
Managers don’t want to let their stars pitch – Jose Canseco’s arm was never the same after he pitched in Boston in 1993. But the image of two journeymen players doing their best was enough to captivate me on Sunday evening, keep me by the radio listening to a game I never would have followed if my wife had not discovered it. Casey was right: the game always comes up with something.
The best thing, maybe the only thing, to do about Mariano Rivera’s injury is to give thanks – not necessarily in the spiritual sense, as he is surely doing in his pain and shock, but in the humanistic sense for having seen the best relief pitcher in history in our lifetime.
What a joy, what a privilege, for all of us to watch him play, to know that nobody was ever this good, this long, this consistently, this overwhelmingly, at that task of saving games.
Numbers hardly count. He might be the highest example of sheer excellence in the American majors in our lifetime -- a phenomenon, one of a kind. Marilyn Monroe. Abraham Lincoln. Mo.
Seeing Mo, bounding out of the bullpen with that athlete’s stride, one did not have to be a Yankee fan to love it.
The legend was that Mo was the best athlete on the Yankees – a team with Jeter and Williams and Rodriguez. They all knew it, the way athletes know these things, the accepted pecking order.
They watched him dart unerringly to fly balls during the pre-game shagging. They marveled at the speed and agility. Mo could play center field, they said. In fact, there was talk of letting him play an inning out there, before his career ended. This respect came on a franchise that has seen Joe D and the Mick and Bernie glide through those meadows.
How weird that Mo went down while shagging flies, his ACL torn. He was giving hints about having made up his mind to retire after this season, so my first presumption was that he could use the familiar rituals of baseball injury – the surgery, the rehab, the pain, the stiffness, the guys in the clubhouse in the Bronx or Tampa, and then retire at the end of the year.
After all, he's done everything he could do. Let him regain that beautiful deer-like rhythm and lope home to Panama. Basta ya. Enough already.
But when he got to the clubhouse on Friday, Rivera defiantly said he'd be back, this year, next year, count on it. If Mo says he's coming back, I wish him luck. Meantime, we have the memories, more visual than statistical. The save totals and percentages and earned-run averages can be looked up. What remains is the impression.
The clang of Metallica playing "Enter Sandman" as the Yankee Stadium bullpen door opened – this from a highly religious man (a Christian who did not creep people out with repeated witnessing; he stated where he came from spiritually and then talked pitching.) Heavy metal as he bounded across the outfield grass. No chest-pounding, no gestures, no smoke coming out his ears. Just Mo.
He induced a respectful frustration from batters. They knew what was coming, a ball breaking down, close enough to the strike zone that they had to swing, had to beat the ball into the earth, producing what high-school players used to call a worm-killer, a grounder. And when he broke a record, the players in the opposing dugout applauded for the gentleman who transcended all rivalries, all frustrations, all wins and losses. Mo.
What a treat to be following baseball as player or fan or writer and see Mo excel from decade to decade, three different ones now. The Nineties. The Aughts. The Teens.
At some point, Yankee fans and non-Yankee fans coalesced on the realization that we were watching two greatest Yankees at their positions at the same time. Perhaps this happens on lesser franchises (that is to say, all other franchises are lesser.) But on this overwhelming franchise for nearly a century, their greatest shortstop and their greatest relief pitcher came along together from the minor leagues (with the Boss blessedly grounded for bad behavior, unable to blow it all up with his impatience.)
There was Cap’n Derek, hitting a double and clapping his hands in exhortation, and there was Mo, with his spare, lethal effectiveness.
Mo has been more than a presence on the field, on the tube. He has been a presence in the clubhouse, too. He doesn't gossip much with reporters but in the large clubhouse in spring training he would speak softly and joke around with his fellow pitchers who dressed around him. The wise ones listen.
A couple of springs ago, a new pitcher – Spanish-speaking, at that – dressed near Mo. The new man did not listen. Looked the other way. Was in his own world. A colleague of mine caught that tableau and said, “That knucklehead doesn’t get it.”
One other thing. We are not going to have to rescind our opinion of Mo in a year or three because of scandal. His body never changed from the whippet rookie to the agile senior citizen. He is not going to be disgraced somewhere down the line like Roger Clemens, currently glowering in a courtroom in Washington.
Clemens is going to get off the hook because of the double inadequacy of the prosecution and the weak-mindedness of Andy Pettitte. Little Andy dabbled in illegal substances when it suited him but ultimately could not make up his mind what Big Rog told him in their gym sessions. Having doubts on the witness stand is bad form. You either know something or you don’t. Pettitte looks foolish, Clemens will get off the hook, but everybody knows what was going down in Clemens’ life.
This will never happen with Mo. He needs to rehabilitate his ACL but not his image. He was and remains exactly what we thought – a clean flame burning in the ninth inning, eradicating trouble, one-two-three. We have been able to watch. That is worth a cosmic thank-you.
He was very clean. The Beatles all agreed on that.
In the movie, “A Hard Day’s Night,” the lads discussed him as the five of them rode in a railroad compartment.
I did not get on the train with the Beatles at the first stop, so to speak, but one day in 1964 I heard William B. Williams, one of my favorite disk jockeys, break a Beatles record (vinyl), right on the air, WNEW-AM.
What musical trash, he said.
Good grief, how bad could it be?
My wife and I went out to see the movie a few nights later and were enchanted. Then of course their music became more complicated, more dark, and so did their lives, and we became fans forever.
Then I was young enough to have a grandfather. Now I am an actual grandfather.
Do my grandkids think I’m very clean? I’ll have to text them.
I’ve often wondered about Paul’s grandfather.
Now I know.
He’s still alive.
He was on the tube the other day. I’d recognize him anywhere, that bony face, that surly glare.
He was very clean, the lads used to agree.
Nowadays, it works the other way.
Paul’s grandfather assures us he’s very clean, in a legal sense, that is.
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.