The Kavanaugh hearings have reminded me of two milestones in my own life.
One milestone came in my last few years of full-court basketball, in my late 30s, with players ranging from recent high-school varsity players to elders in their 40s.
From fall to winter to spring, every Monday in the late ‘70s, the players in “adult rec” changed in one wing of the locker room while the boys on the varsity changed in the other wing.
Over a row of lockers, I could hear the current jocks talking about life and times, but mostly girls – that is, who did what, and how often, and with whom. It was graphic and it was personal. This was before social media.
Whether it was true or not, it was out there. This did not sound like my high school jock experience in the 1954 and 1955 soccer seasons. I am told that teen-age sex had been discovered back then, but boys did not talk about it in open locker rooms.
I went home and told our two daughters, both coming along in the schools, “Boys will talk.” And some girls would be treated as prey.
My second milestone came up the other day when the nominee for the Supreme Court – the Supreme Freaking Court – was recalling his idyllic days as student-athlete in a prep school (a Jesuit school, at that.) He seemed to retain the impression that some girls were from their crowd while others were outside their “social circle.” (The Jesuit magazine, America, has withdrawn its support for Kavanaugh's candidacy.)
What happened to the dignified lady who testified is now up to the FBI. What a wonderful idea -- calling in professionals instead of relying on dotty senators.
The hearing reminded me of my week in a rehab center early in 1981, when I was 41.
I was working on a book with Bob Welch, the young pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had gone into rehab after blanking out in alleys and hotel corridors on the road. Bob was now sober – had pitched well for the Dodgers in 1980 – and I wanted to know what rehab had been like for him.
The center – The Meadows, in Wickenburg, Ariz., said I could attend for a week, but I would have to participate in group sessions, not merely observe.
One of the first things I noticed at The Meadows was that some people started off accepting that they were powerless. They were sad, and tried to deal with the feelings that made them drink or take drugs or abuse sex.
But others were adamant that they had no problem. Why were people saying these things about them? Why were they making up stuff?
And most of all – with volume rising and face distended and arms flailing – why the f--- didn’t people believe them? Why was everybody against them?
Bluster seemed to be their stock in trade. Ward off the accusations with a swat at the air, a sneer, a bellow.
I learned a lot at The Meadows. The sessions shook off a few memories of shame when I drank too much, smarted off too much. I learned I did not have to drink when I didn’t feel like it, which is now almost all the time.
I had a great teacher. My friend Bob Welch stayed sober (as far as I know), day by day, for the rest of his too-short life. He knew himself. He knew the nature of the beast.
One time he and my teen-age son Dave and I were in a restaurant in Montreal, and Bob was doing the play-by-play of the dining room.
“Look at that guy,” Bob would say. “He wants to pour for everybody. That’s so he can drink more. Watch.” Sure enough, the stranger would cajole his companions to top off their glasses, so he could refill his.
I learned from dear friends like Bob Welch and my recent pal (he knows who he is) who fight off the beast, day by day, and acknowledge it, and share the struggle.
The book, "Five O'Clock Comes Early." is still out there. C.C. Sabathia of the Yankees relied on it when he checked into rehab.
I thought about Bob the other day when I was watching a candidate for the Supreme Court who, when confronted with touching testimony (if murky external details), resorted to baiting senators: What do you drink, Senator? Did you ever black out, Senator?
Maybe that is the combative reaction of a former high-school jock who (as he reminded us a time or two) lifted weights and played hoops back then, all summer long. Doesn't seem very judicial to me.
Channeling my late friend Bob Welch, I reacted to the visceral bluster on the screen.
“Whoa,” I said. “Whoa.”
What you see in the left corner above is a captain, a real captain -- an old-fashioned concept, but then again, David Wright is an old-fashioned guy.
He learned his lessons well from Capt. Rhon Wright of the Norfolk police department, and for the past generation he has been one of the great leaders, one of the great players, in New York, or anywhere. Now he will play his last game on Saturday.
Summer of ’15. The Mets were upgrading for a stretch run (remember those days?) and had a trade in the works involving Wilmer Flores, sweet kid from Venezuela. During the game, Flores heard trade rumors from the fans in the box seats – classic Mets screwup – and he played on, with tears in his eyes.
Finally, Terry Collins removed Flores from the game and the young man, already a fan favorite, bolted from the dugout.
David Wright was directly behind him down the stairs, accompanied by Michael Cuddyer, a gray-haired gent finishing out his career with dignity. They stayed with Flores in the clubhouse and told him things wise old players tell younger players who are traded – it means somebody wants you, you will get a chance, blah-blah-blah. Then it turned out the trade had collapsed for other reasons, and Flores remains a beloved Met to this day.
Captains get involved. Forget about David Wright’s statistics, now moderated by his long series of back troubles that are ending his career at 35. He has been a presence in this town, a kind and polite leader who set a tone.
Ron Swoboda, an eternal Met, was recently asked about David Wright.
Swoboda wrote that he knows nothing about Wright except: “what most fans sense without ever having met him. Straightest shooter to lace up a pair of spikes.”
Swoboda added: “I first met David W when the Mets invited me to minor league spring training before Wright made the big club and what I saw was the most talented, decently mannered, hard-working prospect....all of which was substantiated in his all-star career.”
David Wright had role models in Elisa and Rhon Wright, who raised four boys (David is the oldest) with high expectations. Capt. Wright did not talk shop at home – how he was out in the city, working in some hard places. David was free to play baseball with his neighbor and pal B.J. Upton and other prospects in Norfolk.
Somehow the lesson was learned. Be vigilant. Set an example. Early in spring training of 2015, the Mets’ captain popped into the clubhouse during an intra-squad game and saw Noah Syndergaard, the huge young pitcher with the huge fastball, leisurely enjoying lunch while the rest of the team worked on the field.
Wright told him this was not done, and apparently reliever Bobby Parnell dumped the pitcher’s lunch in a refuse basket, just to make the point, and Syndergaard scampered -- a big dude, scampering -- out to the field.
Later, some media people heard about it, and Wright apologized to Syndergaard – not for the lesson but for the public exposure. This is the same Noah Syndergaard who currently has a 12-4 record with a 3.36 ERA for a really lousy team.
Leadership is different today from the time of players bound to one team as long as it wanted them. Stars come and go. Leaders come and go. But David Wright stayed.
New York has been lucky in its heritage of captains. Lou Gehrig was a captain, more for the honor than the activism.
Pee Wee Reese of the Brooklyn Dodgers, from Kentucky, treated Jackie Robinson with respect, and ran a good clubhouse. In the mid-'50s, Reese spotted a young player showering, dressing and rushing toward the door shortly after the final out. The captain told him, “If you’re in a hurry to get out of the clubhouse, you’re in a hurry to get out of baseball.”
Mark Messier came to the Rangers, pounded his chest, and helped win the 1994 Stanley Cup, ending the jeers of “1940! 1940! 1940!”
The great Knicks teams (remember those days, anybody?) had great stars, great egos, but only one acknowledged leader, Willis Reed, the huge and gentle center. When I used to see him around town, I would call him “Cap’n,” just because. Never called another athlete that.
The great Yankee teams of the past generation were led by Captain Derek Jeter, who would dive into the stands for a pop foul or lead off a late inning with a double and clap his hands at second base – rarely uttering words that could be gummed over by the press. (For posture exercises of hard cases, there was Jorge Posada. What a team they made.)
I’m sure there have been other great New York captains, other teams, other eras. One era is ending Saturday in a farewell game, coincidentally against the Marlins, managed by Don Mattingly, another lovely guy from out there in America, who had Hall of Fame potential with the Yankees until his back went out.
Somebody, get a photo of them together.
I don’t know what is in the future for David Wright, a class act, and now a husband and father. Let me put this politely about the New York Mets: I would not wish managing on him.
With any luck at all, David Wright’s example lingers.
* * *
David Wright's stats:
A couple of international articles about sports captains and leadership:
As of Monday morning, the Brett Kavanaugh hearing is still on for Thursday.
I find myself viscerally repulsed by the prospect of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford being verbally pawed over by part of the Senate committee.
I recently watched a documentary of the Anita Hill questioning in 1991.
Clarence Thomas was right, it was a high-tech lynching, only it was Anita Hill who was assaulted by (white) (male) senators.
With deadpan zest, they made her enunciate every vulgar detail about her encounters with Thomas – her straight-laced, old-fashioned religious decency being poked and prodded.
There in the clips is Joe Biden, good old Uncle Joe, (white) (male) (Democrat), blandly patronizing Anita Hill, oozing neutrality, handing off the ball to the big boys. (So much for Uncle Joe in 2020. Toastville.)
I get the willies when I see two senators, blasts from the past, still doing their thing – Chuck Grassley from Iowa and Orrin Hatch from the great state of Ephedra. (Look it up.)
Other senators are waiting to take their shot – Lindsey Graham, all the helium out of his psychic balloon since the death of John McCain, now just another (white) (male) Republican.
Graham’s mind is already made up. He said so this past weekend.
Then there is Mitch McConnell, probably the most outwardly vicious powerful senator I can remember, maybe going back to Joe McCarthy, supporting a cause I bet he doesn’t believe in, for the good of his party.
They are all waiting to have a go at Dr. Blasey, knowing their window is closing to get Kavanaugh voted onto the Supreme Court to appease their base.
Dr. Blasey’s allegation is tricky enough; we have all read and heard about the complications of memory, women recalling ugly things that happened, or that they now think happened. We also know many ugly things have happened. (See: Cosby, Bill.)
Kavanaugh deserves a fair hearing, the presumption of innocence. What he also deserves is a detailed investigation by the FBI, now badly maligned by President Trump, who has his own legal troubles, shall we say.
The New Yorker has published another article alleging harassment; a woman named Deborah Ramirez is claiming an ugly episode involving Brett Kavanaugh when they were both undergraduates at Yale. (The Times says it could not corroborate her claims in recent days, to the satisfaction of its own judgment.)
In the New Yorker’s layered article, another woman is alleging misconduct by a young, entitled prep-school frat boy named Brett Kavanaugh with a reputation for drunkenness, at that time.
None of this is easy. Reputations – lives – families – careers – are at stake.
Twenty-seven years have gone by since Grassley and Hatch ran up the score against Anita Hill in the service of their party. Twenty-seven years. Where did the time go?
I already had the creeps. They are getting worse.
In the Yankee clubhouse in 1967, a gaggle of sportswriters was waiting to interview somebody, standing around, cracking wise, or so we thought.
In a pause between our silly remarks, somebody dropped a droll remark, better than any of ours.
Wish I could remember it right now.
We “pressbox wags” looked around for the source of the witticism -- a lanky young man in a pinstriped uniform.
“Who….are….you?” somebody asked.
“The ball boy,” he said.
He was also an African-American, the first to ever work in the clubhouse of the team that had taken forever to bring up Elston Howard in 1955.
But these were not the same starchy old (white) Yankees of the past. The Yankees would suit up seven players of color in 1967 and had a number of free spirits like Joe Pepitone. So the lanky young man fit right into the be-yourself era of Lee MacPhail and Michael Burke.
But who was he? Thad Mumford was a student at Fordham University, from Washington, D.C., and he was funny and self-assured in talking to the knights of the keyboard.
We noticed he was also comfortable with the aging stars Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, and they with him. He did his job; he was….a presence.
* * *
Thad Mumford’s name was scrolled across the In Memoriam portion of the Emmy awards on TV the other night. He was honored as a trailblazing screenwriter for sitcoms in Hollywood – “M*A*S*H” notably, but many others. Thad died at 67 at his family home in Silver Springs, Md. on Sept. 6.
* * *
Thad had gone from dropping lines for free in the clubhouse to getting paid for putting lines out there for Hawkeye and Col. Potter and Hot-Lips Houlihan.
He would show up for Old-Timers Day every year and put on a spare uniform and shag flies and generally be part of the merriment, listening to stories from Joe DiMaggio or Tommy Henrich or Dr. Bobby Brown.
When Mantle and Ford became official Old-Timers, Thad gravitated to their corner of the clubhouse. They loved seeing him.
“Hey, Thad, could you get us a beer?” Mantle asked one time.
Thad was on his way, but Ford interrupted.
“Slick,” he said to Mantle, using the nickname they (and Billy Martin) used among themselves, “Thad writes for “M*A*S*H.”
Mantle was a loyal teammate and friend; he probably blushed deep red and started to apologize.
Meantime, Thad got them a beer, with joy.
* * *
At some point, Thad stopped getting gigs in Hollywood, but he stayed out there. He wrote some articles on blacks in hockey and other issues for Kathleen McElroy, then the deputy sports editor at the NYT.
“Oh, my goodness, I didn’t know, McElroy said in an email yesterday from Austin, where she is the director of the School of Journalism, Moody College School of Journalism, Moody College of Communication, University of Texas.
“Thad and I had grand plans to start a magazine – back when magazines had their heyday,” Kathleen wrote. “We talked about calling it ‘Langston’ – a production focusing on African-American art and culture. Maybe it was just a great three-hour lunch, but dreaming about that magazine with Thad was one of the most invigorating days of my life. Our talks were always like that: frenetic, ideas bouncing from here to there, almost like musicians riffing off each other. Never a competition about who was the most erudite; it was more like ‘You know that song, too? Cool!’ We didn’t follow up, but sometimes the energy spent dreaming is just as worthwhile as the creation itself.”
* * *
Too bad “Langston” never happened.
I know Thad kept up with Whitey for a long time, and I am told he was in touch with Bill White and Willie Randolph, who were nice to him.
He shrugged off the laptop/smartphone age but every six or 12 months, he would call me and chat about the old days. I tried to get him to talk about his family, his life in LA, his work, but he was pretty opaque.
I recently realized he hadn’t called in a while. I read in the obit that his father, a dentist, had passed in August and Thaddeus Quentin Mumford went back East for a visit….and died there. I don’t know anything more, except that I will miss his calls.
* * *
In her final days at home, Marie DeBenedettis propped herself in the kitchen of the fabled family delicatessen – Mama’s of Corona, Queens – and devoted herself to teaching her kid sister, Irene, how to cook.
Not an easy task, Irene would say. The three sisters had their roles. Carmela Lamorgese was now La Nonna, Grandma, caring for her own family after years of helping run the business. Marie was the chef. Irene had taught school and now her job was to “run around and talk a lot” – that is, coordinate the deli and their awesome throwback pastry shop two doors down.
It revolved around Marie – the sweetest person I have ever hugged, optimistic and positive, but a taskmaster in the kitchen as she tried to impart her knowledge to Irene and a few assistants.
“One day she said to me, ‘Irene, basil, lots of basil in everything, that’s what makes it taste so good.’”
So, that is the secret of life on 104th St. – the reason the tomato sauce, the daily specials, all taste so good.
Irene was trying, knowing their sister was not well, could not easily budge from her perch in the cramped kitchen.
I dropped into the deli in late spring and asked Marie how her protégé was doing.
“All right,” Marie said.
“She’s tough on me and the girls,” Irene said later. “She wants us to know everything.”
The time came for Marie to go to the hospital a month or so ago.
One night Irene counted 17 workers -- younger women with roots in the Bari area of Italy and Latinas from Corona – visiting Marie in a group.
“I didn’t know she had that many people working here,” Irene said.
One of the workers told Irene, “She keeps saying ‘cavatelli, cavatelli’” -- small pasta shells often stuffed with garlic and broccoli or broccoli rabe.
Irene deduced that Marie was reminding the assistant to prepare cavatelli for the regulars who would expect it on Thursday.
“She knew who liked what,” Irene told me the other day at the wake. “She would see somebody coming in the door and she would tell the girls to prepare an egg-and-sausage hero.”
All that love, all that skill that was Marie DeBenedettis passed away on Sept. 4. The funeral was held on Tuesday, Sept. 11.
The Mets, a mile away, where Mama’s has an outlet, held a moment of silence before a game last weekend, via Jay Horwitz, PR man and loyal keeper of the Met flame. David Wright, the captain, dropped into Mama’s to offer his condolences. The prince of Corona, Omar Minaya, who introduced me to Mama’s in 2006, is back where he belongs -- with the Mets.
(My first visit with Omar – here.)
Mama’s is a family place – new neighbors speaking Spanish, Italian and English, old neighbors who moved away but come back for mozzarella and cannoli, and a steady clientele from the FDNY, the NYPD, the schools and churches and seminaries, and assistant district attorneys from nearby Kew Gardens. (Mama’s is the safest place in Queens.)
The institution will go on. Mama’s is officially named Leo’s Latticini, for Frank and Irene Leo, who began the dynasty in the 1930s. “Mama” was their daughter, Nancy, who ran the store with her husband, Frank DeBenedettis. Nancy, who passed in 2009, was such a force in the traditional Italian neighborhood that the public school up 104th St. has been named in her honor.
(Please see the lovely article by Lisa Colangelo in that civic treasure, the Daily News:)
The family tradition continues. Carmela's daughter is known as Little Marie....and
she and her husband, Fiore Difeo, named their first-born Gina Marie, followed by Anthony and Dominic.
Mama's has reminded me that I am a Queens boy. I have introduced friends and family to Mama’s, watched World Cup matches (featuring Italy), chatting with my friend Oronzo Lamorgese, Carmela’s husband, as a guest in the private dining room behind the pasticceria – lavish plates, prepared by Marie and staff.
I am sure Marie was as good a teacher as she was a cook. Mama's goes on, with basil. My love and condolences to La Famiglia.
Barack Obama Gave a Speech on Television.
I had tears in my eyes.
I was sad for what we have surely lost – an intelligent, verbal president who speaks of values.
When the former president mentioned Michelle Obama and their daughters, I felt empty, as if thinking of good neighbors who have moved away.
He delivered a civics lesson at the University of Illinois, urging young people to vote -- clearly political but so rational and timely that it rose above partisanship, to become a warning:
Where have we gone? What have we done to ourselves?
He cited the white-power people who stomped in psychic jackboots through Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, in plain daylight, not even bothering with hoods. He evoked the man who is still president as of this writing, who claimed there were good people on both sides.
Barack Obama asked, plaintively:
“How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?”
My wife said that should be a bumper sticker.
A president who can write and read and speak his native language. Imagine.
On Friday in Illinois, he was at his best in the national and global bear pit -- Laurence Olivier performing Shakespeare’s speech for Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar:” “So are they all, all honorable men.”
The previous president spoke against stereotyping people, saying he knew plenty of whites who care about blacks being treated unfairly, saying he knew plenty of black people who care deeply about rural whites. Then he added:
“I know there are evangelicals who are deeply committed to doing something about climate change. I’ve seen them do the work. I know there are conservatives who think there’s nothing compassionate about separating immigrant children from their mothers. I know there are Republicans who believe government should only perform a few minimal functions but that one of those functions should be making sure nearly 3,000 Americans don’t die in a hurricane and its aftermath.”
Like Shakespeare, he was making a bigger point: there is a malaise loose in the land. At one point he said Donald Trump is “a symptom” and not “the cause.”
In other words, Trump is an illness that has been coming on for years.
I nodded grimly, in my den, thinking of the McConnells and Ryans, who have sat by maliciously, allowing a Shakespearean character, the worst of the buffoons, the worst of the tyrants, to tear things apart.
Was I imagining, the other day, that these politicians were squirming in their seats in the cathedral, along with their fidgety wives, listening to the orations for John McCain, wondering if anybody would ever confuse them with patriots?
On Friday, Barack Obama gave notice to the young people of many shades and facial characteristics in his audience: you are the largest population bulge in this country, but in 2016, only one in five of you voted.
“One in five,” the playwright emoted, enunciating his own words. “Not two in five or three. One in five. Is it any wonder this Congress doesn’t reflect your values and your priorities? Are you surprised by that? This whole project of self-government only works if everybody’s doing their part.”
The television showed the college students nodding, or averting their eyes. Will they remember this warning at mid-term elections in early November? So many distractions these days. So easy to get lost, twiddling thumbs in the social media.
Shakespeare was borrowing stories from earlier centuries but Barack Obama has been active in public life. On Friday he returned to the stage to deliver artful words, dramatically delivered, surely from the heart.
How many reminders, how many chances, do we get?
The transcript of Barack Obama’s speech (really worth reading):
We were upstate, visiting our daughter. Laura had three tickets for a concert in the park in Saratoga Springs – a group from Chad, now living in Montréal.
It was the last night in a Monday summer series -- called On Stage, because the chairs were on the stage of the large outdoor theater, an intimate setting for a few hundred people.
Four musicians, known as H’Sao-* -- three Rimtobaye brothers, Caleb (guitar), Mossbass (bass) and Izra L (keyboard), and their childhood friend, Dono Bei Ledjebgue (percussion) -- blended in intricate harmony, went off on solo riffs.
We caught bits of French, bits of English, and a lot of their tribal language.
The longer they played, the more we realized we were hearing a cri de coeur, a call from the heart – the life of the immigrant, trying to stay alive, seeking less dangerous corners of the world.
They have been in Montreal since the turn of the century, but have never left home.
One song, “For My Family,” began with drummer Dono Bei, rapping about waiting for a bus in Montreal, at 5 in the morning, reading a postcard from home, a cousin asking him to send him a car. The audience chuckled, but Bei’s piercing voice let us know this was serious business:
“You wanna make it happen so badly for your family,
“You keep digging, you keep digging.”
“I got ten brothers left behind,
“Their scholarships are all on me.”
The music was beautiful; it came from deep. One of the brothers explained why they had left home – childhood friends were having to choose between Christianity and Islam, with apparently ominous results. Their voices blended:
“I do this prayer to whoever’s up there,
“Jehova, Jesus, Allah, we need an answer.”
At times the group reminded me of the tight, intuitive “Buena Vista Social Club” from Cuba and at times it reminded me of the plaintive voice of Bob Marley cutting through the ozone. I thought I heard some of the South African chords Paul Simon incorporated into “Graceland” and at times I heard Sam Cooke on “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But mostly I heard these four brothers from Chad and Montréal, trying to work it out.
The musicians teased us: How do you know you are alive? Somebody in the audience said, “Because we are moving.” Exactly, the musician said. Prove you are alive. Get up and dance. Many people did; Laura stood up, made eye contact with Caleb, the closest to us, letting him know she was very into their music.
They wailed, they rapped, they talked about love. They told a tale about a rite of manhood, going into the wilderness to confront a lion.
(The band used to be bigger, or so they claimed.)
They prodded us to sing a chorus, in their tribal language. One band member chided us: we didn’t know what the words meant, did we. Something not very nice, he suggested.
After 90 minutes, on this balmy upstate evening, we were part of the rhythm, part of the harmony, part of the sadness, part of the joy, the front pages of the papers and the news on the television, immigrants drowning, Rohingya being slaughtered, children being ripped from their parents on the U.S. border.
After the show, the musicians stayed around, chatting softly, giving hugs. Dono Bei said the band was heading to Montreal in the morning; my wife and I would return to New York a day later.
“Bonne retour,” he said. Good return.
We bought all three of their CDs and rocked with them all the way down the Northway.
When I got back to my laptop, I looked up their site:
The group has been discovered by the Canada Council for the Arts, has performed in Canada, the U.S., Europe, Australia and also New Zealand with its rich cultural programs. But they have not been in New York since a visit to Lincoln Center in 2017.
I went poking around for a video: the first one that popped up showed them in choir robes, in a cathedral (see below.)
Exactly, my wife said. They are immensely spiritual.
Messieurs: quand allez-vous jouer à New York?
* -- H'Sao means the Swallow of the Sao, the people who were the ancestors of present-day Chadians. The group's origin is presented in its name: the musicians in H'Sao come from N'Djamena, the Chadian capital, a vast country located between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. -- www.festivalnuitsdafrique.com/en/artist/h’sao
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: