(Anybody notice that the Mets have won four straight since I got off them?)
Everybody knows the Welsh can sing. We learned that from visiting our friend Alastair in the Brecon Beacons years ago -- concerts in the beautiful cathedral.
Nobody talked about Welsh soccer back then. Mostly it was about great rugby teams in one valley or another.
On Friday I learned that even Welsh footballers can sing, during the anthem before the quarterfinal against Belgium. The eleven starters all had good voices, as the camera panned them from a few inches away.
Then they stunned Belgium, 3-1, in the quarterfinals of the Euros -- merely the greatest result in Welsh soccer history.
During the match, I tried to text a friend from those long Wales summer evenings, but I could not make contact. Umm, ever try to find a David Thomas in Wales? Dude, I'm sure you were watching.
Oh, about the singing. When Wales went ahead in the second half, the choristers in the stands of Lille came up with a new ditty -- Are You Watching, England?
I want to thank the Amazing Metropolitans of New York for stumbling in recent weeks, to let me concentrate on the Euros -- with Iceland, Wales and Poland all making it into the quarterfinals of the Euros.
Iceland's demolition of England was even more of an upset than the Welsh victory. Check out this great article in the Guardian by Barney Ronay:
Now it's time for Italy against Germany on Saturday, followed by Iceland against France on Sunday. Wales plays Portugal in the semis. No time for any Mets angst.
* * *
(This is what I wrote after the recent Copa America in the U.S.)
The images overlap – the victories and the failures; the artistry and the butchery.
Even in the New World, we are starting to accumulate a national memory of soccer.
From sea to shining sea, epic letdowns for tragic princes.
Even the American team is starting to develop overlays, collective memories of better days in a nation still searching for technique and flair and gall. (More below)
But first, the disasters of the talented – Roberto Baggio of Italy skying the final penalty kick on a muggy afternoon in California in 1994, Lionel Messi of Argentina sending up a wayward drone on Sunday evening in New Jersey.
They were the designated geniuses, expected to weave and dodge their nations to championships, but in the brutal schedule of soccer, Baggio, playing on a wobbly knee, missed against Brazil in the World Cup final, and Messi -- worked to exhaustion like a coal-mine mule -- missed against Chile in the Copa América final.
Messi said after Sunday’s match that he will never play for his nation, and probably that is best, but his legacy will be zero championships for Argentina in his time.
By contrast, stubby, paranoid Diego Armando Maradona cheated and smirked – and won the 1986 World Cup, single-handedly, you could say. Gall counts. Maradona strutted like Al Pacino in “Scarface.” Messi carries himself like a workman, head down.
When Argentina fell short against oncoming Germany in 2014, I suggested – for the paperback version of my soccer book – that Messi was lacking the moxie of a truly great player. I caught some stick for my position but I believed it. In the long run, the grand sum of his goals for Barça may stem from the fertile brain of Andrés Iniesta.
In a recent unguarded moment, close to an open microphone, the aging lions, Maradona and Pele, mused about Messi.
-- I don’t know him, Pelé said. What is he like?
"He's a really good person, but he has no personality," Maradona said, adding: "He lacks character to be a leader."
Classic self-serving Maradona, of course, but probably incisive.
For all that, for Messi’s flubbed PK against Chile, Argentina also left the earlier impression of carving up the youths and graybeards of the United States, 4-0, in the Copa semifinal last week.
The very same players who hacked and dove and stumbled along with exhausted Chile in the final imposed a moving geometric light show upon the upstarts from North America. For one humiliating night, the Americans were back to the mismatches of the ‘80s into the ‘90s.
There are so many levels of soccer, and it changes from day to day.
But let’s move from Baggio and Messi to the Americans.
Beyond the failures in the semifinals and finals, Team USA has showed collective growth in the time of Klinsmann. They are now expected to be more brash, to take chances, to run the sidelines, to push the other team, the way adventuresome and fleet Klinsi did in multiple leagues.
Klinsmann has tried to implant his innate understanding of the game, at some higher level, in the psyches of his players.
Yet it may also be that Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, both under-appreciated because they are Americans, had better players at their disposal – world-level keepers in their prime, Donovan and Reyna, McBride and Dempsey, some of the defenders.
It may be time to move on – not for Klinsmann, who has a contract through 2018 and, to me, is not a failure, but for the core of the team. Fans keep suggesting that Dempsey’s time is over; good grief, he is the guts of the team.
However: in the second half of the third-place match Saturday night, needing a goal, Klinsmann pulled the captain, Michael Bradley, to get a fresh touch in there. It may have been a telling move.
Bradley was perhaps the best player in South Africa in 2010, young and hard and disciplined, but he hasn’t been the same player in 2014 or 2016. He and Jermaine Jones just don’t work in midfield; I love Jones’s brutish swagger – every team needs a hard man -- except when he overdoes it.
It may be time to move on. In the third-place match, in the final 15 minutes, Klinsmann went to 17-year-old Christian Pulisic, the kid from Hersheyland, (check out this terrific profile by Jacob Klinger) who plays for Dortmund, one of the great world clubs.
Due to the complexities of Fox, I could not find the match in English, so I listened on Univision, and heard one commentator say "Pulisic me encanta” – I love Pulisic. The kid ran out there and found a few openings, raised the tempo. The commentator added that Pulisic was neither a Landon Donovan nor a Tab Ramos, but himself. The future is out there, somewhere.
When I was a young baseball writer, Casey Stengel used to say that he was looking for the Youth of America. “They aint failed yet,” Casey said. Works for soccer, too.
But just remember this: Argentina and Italy are two of the great football dynasties in the world – and the price of that patrimony is two tormented geniuses, vastly different people and players, who failed in the ultimate moment, and understood, by the code of the game, the extent of their failures.
The United States can only hope to risk that kind of failure, somewhere out there in the future.
Went to two graduations on Thursday – middle school and high school.
Listened to graduates called up for diplomas – familiar town names over the years, Italian, African-American, Polish.
Meantime, mischief was being made in Washington, D.C, and Great Britain.
The Supreme Court was showing its contempt for the new wave of immigrants and British voters were choosing to leave the European Union, mainly because of immigration. (That's the thanks they show for the grand gift of curry and roti; they were eating bangers and mash before they let in the new people.)
The student speaker at one graduation had a Hispanic name, spoke perfect English in a witty talk.
The next generation. The Jordans and the Jennifers. America.
I heard names being called that came from India and Pakistan. Central America. Korea and China and Japan. Several young women bowed their heads, Asian-style, to their teachers on the stage,
I eavesdropped as three mothers greeted each other, one with a thick Hispanic accent. Their familiarity spoke of parent-teacher conferences, art shows, sidelines at soccer matches on nippy afternoons.
In Washington and Britain, people were building walls, you might say.
The same week a great moral leader, an American treasure named John Lewis, reminded some of us how to demonstrate for fairness. The sourpuss speaker of the house labelled it a stunt. Guess he never studied civics in Wisconsin.
The middle school graduates lined up in alphabetical order, with four years of order ahead of them.
In the late afternoon, the high-school graduates swarmed in no order whatsoever, clusters of friends, glimpses of cutoffs and shorts under billowing robes – all energy and brashness, more than ready to move on.
Taxes are brutal in this part of the world, but the school district has done its job. We heard these graduates had earned $2.2-million in scholarships.
In this one corner of the world, the system seemed to be working.
At one family gathering, both graduates brought friends with recent roots overseas. Nice kids. Bright eyes. On their way.
In Scotland, the presumptuous Republican candidate – who, by the way, looks puffy, pasty-faced, not well, about to explode – congratulated the Scots for the Brexit vote.
He somehow missed the point that the Scots had voted to remain in the E.U. The Scots are mocking him, big-time.
Guess Wharton didn’t teach civics. Or else Trump simply cannot assimilate facts.
Late that night, money people around the world panicked. That’s the way the lemmings leap.
Happy graduation. Happy world.
We drove up to visit Marianne's uncle Harold, 94, last October. Recently we returned. We wonder why it took us so long to discover Maine.
Every time I turn the wheel, the view changes.
The people are individuals.
It reminds us of Wales, another singular place we love.
That is high praise.
Friends from Long Island invited the three of us to their stone house on an inlet. Lena made an amazing Swedish specialty from fresh salmon and eggs and dill. Claes harvested rhubarb growing since they came here. (below)
Harold has been living on the same street for 70 years, since he met Barbara when he came to help dredge the Kennebec River, which flows behind his home. In between, he helped build facilities for the military. (His photos were recently displayed by nearby Bowdoin College.) About 60 years ago he gave away one of his yellow construction helmets. Recently, somebody gave it back. People have histories in Bath, Maine.
No sport carries a sense of community like tennis. Even with gigantic prize money and swollen retinues of today, the sport remains somewhat a caravan of gypsies familiar to each other, even though their occupations vary – players, coaches, hitting partners, significant others, moms and dads, agents and publicists, plus the specialists who cover the sport: the peripatetic photographers plus the scribblers and babblers, as Bud Collins called himself and his colleagues.
Arthur Worth Collins, Jr., was the center of one sport, more than any other journalist has ever been.
In his half century on the beat, tennis has been a movable feast, seeking warm spots year round – Monaco in April, Wimbledon in late June, Australia in January – jet-lagged regulars taking the rays during a desultory early-round match in some tune-up event.
Collins could doze in the sun with the best of them, as recalled by Bill Littlefield of WBUR radio, who spoke at the memorial service for Collins in historic Trinity Church on Copley Square in Boston last Friday.
Littlefield talked about Collins the writer – often overlooked amidst his garish pants and equally garish vocabulary – who could describe the sound of tennis balls being “punished,” yet make it a soft, pleasurable backdrop to life itself, like a heartbeat.
Collins was the heart of the sport for decades, back to the late 60s when he shifted from a general sports reporter who recognized the special ones, Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell and Billie Jean King, becoming a tennis maven.
He brought people together at events around the world, said Lesley Visser, once a Globe sports writer, now a broadcaster, who recalled how Collins could write a column and simultaneously answer questions from colleagues, always ending with some version of “ciao” in their native tongues.
(He addressed me as “VAY-chay,” which is how real Hungarians pronounce my name. Three Italian insiders – Gianni Clerici, Ubaldo Scanagatta and Rino Tommasi – in turn called him “Collini.”)
Collins, in failing health for years, passed on March 4 at 86, and his wife and protector and caretaker for two decades, Anita Ruthling Klaussen, spent three months preparing a ceremony -- on his birthday -- that was both elaborate and parochial in that most hamish of great American cities.
The service was both stately Episcopalian and randy jock. In the pews were familiar faces, and forehands, of Rod Laver, Stan Smith, Todd Martin and Pam Shriver, as well as tennis officials from around the world, and journalists who knew Collins both as friend and source (oh, and by the way, a very accomplished "hacker" in the tennis sense of the word.)
Two great champions spoke. Chris Evert recalled being a monosyllabic 16-year-old, feeling the kindness of Collins, and later, when she lost seven Wimbledon finals to a rival whose name she did not need to pronounce, Collins was always at courtside, doing a worldwide live interview “in those silly pants,” but with a kind smile that showed he understood the pain of being second on that day of days.
Billie Jean King, wearing a pink blazer in tribute to the people who died in Orlando a week earlier, captured the day, for me, because she was once again Mother Freedom – nickname courtesy of Collins – and like Evert she remembered being interviewed by Collins at 16 and finding she could talk to him.
King's talk was disciplined, smart and passionate. She remembered Ali once telling her that people had to always be ready for the moment. She found that trait in Collins, always in tune to the colors and tones and spins and bounces of that day, living in the moment, working hard, enjoying himself.
The congregation was elderly, many people moving slower than they used to. Hundreds of them came from a world where everybody followed the sun, hearing the brassy notes from the Pied Piper who was at the core of their world for so long, and so well.
Nice to be back in the NYT, twice in one day – courtesy of two hard hitters, Gordie Howe and Muhammad Ali.
The Times resurrected a column I did in 1996, the morning after Ali’s stunning appearance, carrying the Olympic torch.
Then by coincidence, they also used a column I prepared a year ago, when Gordie Howe had a stroke.
Two great athletes in vastly different sports, one expanding his strong personality over the years, the other subordinating himself to his sport and his home of Canada.
* * *
Some thoughts on the farewell to Ali:
I was asked to provide some color for the funeral for the lively New York television station, NY1, which, alas, I cannot access on Long Island due to cable rivalries.
I spent a pleasant afternoon with Roma Torre, the anchor (and daughter of epic New York Herald Tribune journalist Marie Torre.) She let me share some of my glimpses of Ali, in Louisville, where I lived for a few years, and at boxing events. In between, we watched the farewell to Ali.
It was fascinating to see Ali as touchstone for the religions and passions and politics of so many disparate people – the activist, Rabbi Michael Lerner of New York, Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation (unidentified as a great Syracuse lacrosse player and teammate of another Greatest, Jim Brown), and so many Ali women, with his verbal gifts and his beauty.
When I called home, my wife raved about Billy Crystal, for catching Ali (and Howard Cosell) just perfectly, telling how Ali stopped jogging at a swank country club in the New York suburbs after Crystal mentioned that the place was known to exclude Jews.
The one over-riding impression of Ali was a man who did righteous things, in small and hidden and often funny ways – in contrast to his public bombast and occasional cruelties. I liked him even better afterward.
* * *
My column on Ali at the Atlanta Olympics revived my memory of how it came about – as pure afterthought, blessed inspiration, the next morning, on three hours of sleep, when I had committed to covering the first gold medal of the Games, for shooting. My strongest memory is of an Iranian woman in full chador, competing, making it a truly universal Olympics.
But as I banged out my column smack on deadline for the first Sunday edition, I realized we (I) needed to get back to what it mean for Ali to materialize like that, high above the stadium, like a comet, glowing brightly. I consulted with our Olympic bureau chief, my pal Kathleen O. McElroy, and we got a short column done for the second edition, and for posterity. How sweet that the NYT would find it again this week (with a photo by the great Doug Mills, now taking photos of President Obama in the White House.)
* * *
It touched me to see Ali buried in Cave Hill Cemetery, in one of the most beautiful corners of Louisville – steep hills, limestone outcroppings, Beargrass Creek flowing through it, with tombs of many famous Louisvillians – veterans on both sides of that ghastly Civil War, plus George Rogers Clark, Joshua Speed, Barry Bingham Sr. and Barry Junior (who was so hospitable to me in my two-year stint as Appalachian Correspondent for the NYT) and Col. Harland Sanders (whom we once saw eating ice cream one night – in a Howard Johnson’s.)
We almost bought a house in that funky old neighborhood of the Highlands – always sorry the deal fell through -- and when I returned for the Derby I would duck the Oaks on Friday and go jogging in the Highlands, including through Cave Hill Cemetery. When it quiets down, I’ll go back and pay respects to Ali. RIP.
(Above: Bud Collins Interviews Muhammad Ali, 1968.)
When the Times called and asked me to write something about Ali, I stuck close to the theme of personal fleeting encounters with Ali – once upon a time in America.
There was no time or space for two other impressions of Ali, so I am getting to them here, both from 1996.
The Anniversary. In March of 1996, I drove down to North Philadelphia to Joe Frazier’s gym, to talk about the 25th anniversary of their first fight in 1971. I knew Ali could no longer discuss that fight, but Smokin’ Joe could.
I found him smoldering, resentful over the way Ali had pulled racial attitudes on him, calling him a gorilla and mocking the way he spoke.
"I won that fight," Frazier said about 1971. "Guess I won the other two, also. I'm here talking to you, right?"
He was crowing about still being able to work out and drive a car and talk to me, quite intelligently, his speech slightly difficult to follow because he grew up in a coastal region of South Carolina where the African dialect of Gullah was an influence.
I could understand Smokin’ Joe just fine. He felt that Ali – sometimes he called him “Clay,” his birth or slave name – was duplicitous, manipulative, vicious.
Two of Frazier’s children were at the gym – Marvis, preacher/boxer/companion, and Jackie Frazier-Lyde, his athlete daughter, now a municipal judge. Both were a tribute to Joe, and to their mother, adults with brains and compassion. They told him, Dad, you have to get over it.
I knew Joe and Marvis to be good people. They had recently driven from Philly to Long Island in a major January snowstorm to attend the funeral of a dear friend, arriving at the synagogue after the service and staying a long time.
I felt for Smokin’ Joe, who passed in 2011. In the mirror of time, Ali was diminished by his treatment of Frazier.
The Olympic Torch. A bunch of reporters were sitting in the press tribune at the Olympic Stadium, speculating on who would have the honor of carrying the torch on its final segment – a famous athlete? A King or a Carter? An artistic symbol of the new South?
I don’t think any of us were prepared for the slow, deliberate trudge of the figure in white, one hand quivering, one hand carrying the torch up a narrow pathway.
When we realized who it was, we gasped and then we did something banned in press boxes – we stood and exchanged high fives. Muhammad Ali. Perfect.
Everybody understood the forces within that diminished figure – the draft, the conversion, the hyperbole, the beauty, the fights, the path from alien radical to stricken native son.
That happened on a Friday night, too late for the Saturday paper. A few hours later for the Sunday paper I wrote this short, personal, emotional tribute less to Ali himself than to the Atlanta organizers who, perhaps to my shock, totally got it. (With a major nudge from Dick Ebersol of NBC.)
* * *
(Finally, my thanks to so many people who have responded to my column in the Times. My praises to the professionals who produced and distributed the Ali tribute in about 170,000 copies of the final edition of the Saturday paper – including one on my doorstep.)
Gary Cohen was weirdly prophetic Wednesday when he called for the end to the blight on baseball known as the designated hitter.
His Mets television partner, Ron Darling, sounded surprised at the conversational swerve, but Cohen had something to say. .
This was several hours before Matt Albers, a beefy relief pitcher with the White Sox, proved Cohen’s point with a solid double and some footwork on the bases to score the eventual winning run in the 13th inning. Real baseball.
It’s time, Cohen said in mid-game. Let pitchers be ball players. Cohen asserted that Bartolo Colon’s first career home run, at nearly 43, was probably the best single event of this season – a portly American League-type pitching specialist whacking a homer into the left-field stands.
After ludicrous hitting, fielding and running in his first year with the Mets, Colon has worked hard to bunt, make contact, field his position and even chug to first base a little harder -- to play National League ball, that is. His upgrade was behind Gary Cohen’s riff on junking the DH, a couple of hours before the Albers tour of the bases – just what baseball should encourage.
The Mets lost this game when Albers, a well-traveled pitcher, had to bat because the White Sox had run out of hitters and pitchers. Albers slugged a pitch over Juan Lagares’ head in center field – not easy – and rumbled to second base
Wonder of wonders, Albers then took third spontaneously on a wild pitch by Logan Verrett, who was no doubt shocked by the insult from a lodge member. Then Albers scored on a solid fly ball, for the eventual winning run in a 2-1 victory over the Mets.
Baseball the way it used to be, before the DH gimmick began in 1973 -- pitchers reverting to the actual athletes they were when they played high-school baseball and probably hit quite well, in addition to playing other sports.
Hitting pitchers have a long, if somewhat minority, history in baseball. My own childhood was enriched by watching Don Newcombe slug homers – 11 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, four afterward. These days Madison Bumgarner slugs homers – 12 in eight seasons, so far.
Also, National League ball is interesting, with its pinch-hitters for pitchers and other lineup finagling by managers, plus players asked to handle multiple positions.
Since 1973, the American League has been using the DH, and so has most of baseball, screwing up the the World Series and interleague play between teams built for different sports.
It’s true, the DH kept gallant old or injured hitters like Tommy Davis in the game, and made life easier for stars who could still play defense adequately like Edgar Martinez in Seattle.
Cohen made the point that the charismatic Boston star, David Ortiz is just about the last of the great career DHs. The position is now a safe haven for aging sluggers (Alex Rodriguez) or journeymen who cannot field or run very well, or regulars who need a rest. As long as Big Papí of Boston is about to retire, Cohen said, let’s retire the DH with him.
Darling more or less laughed out loud. What about the union, he asked, referring to the relatively high salaries earned by veteran DHs. Not so much anymore, Cohen asserted.
Cohen had obviously thought about his position. Let each team add two more spots on the roster, from 25 to 27, he said. That’s 30 more jobs in the majors. That should make the union happy.
Darling sounded dubious. Wouldn’t that just produce more fringe pitchers and reserves? Maybe, but it would also produce pinch-runners or defensive specialists who cannot exist these days in the two-dimensional American League.
With the emphasis on pitch counts and six-inning starters, teams overload on pitchers and often have only four or five reserves, one of them a catcher.
Hours later, Albers was a lumbering advertisement for the dormant athleticism of pitchers.
I totally agree with Cohen. Albers and Colon prove the latent athleticism of pitchers. Time to ban the DH.
* * *
In case you missed Gary Cohen’s call of Colon’s shot:
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.