It is a pleasure to watch post-season baseball -- if only to observe a better brand of ball than the wretched grade I have been following during the season.
I am referring to my twisted loyalty to the Mets. (Long retired, I can openly admit this sick little tendency.)
In the post-season, outfielders can track a ball and get in position to throw home. Infielders don’t always double clutch before throwing to first. First basemen scoop up bad throws. Catchers block errant pitches.
And throwback of all throwbacks, the occasional hitter can make the occasional adjustment and swat an outside pitch to the opposite field.
I love watching Houston play (Altuve!) and I love watching the Red Sox play (Betts!) – the ultimate truism; what’s not to love? – and I am only sorry one of them must go down in the American League series.
Even the Yankees were admitting the better team won in their concluded series, which is gracious but also blatantly evident.
The Yankees were built for their latter-day Ruthville and Marisville in right field. They also seemed totally committed to the Cult of the Launch Angle, which has taken over baseball in recent years like killer algae on the seashore.
Take-a-hack has informed the formation of teams. Sluggers slug with permission from the analytics bunch in the Bat Cave of baseball. No shame in striking out.
However, the Red Sox also have retro skills in making contact and stealing bases successfully, when strategically needed.
The smart ones adjust. Jacob DeGrom of the now mercifully hibernating Mets had an epic season because he figured out that hitters were swinging from their butts in arcs approved by the new breed of baseball – Pak Man baseball.
Hitters were hacking at pitches from ankles to waist to produce that beloved launch arc. DeGrom fooled them by pitching strikes up near the letters.
Imagine if DeGrom had a team behind him.
Sorry, it’s been a long season.
The Yankees went out and acquired Giancarlo Stanton, from their good pal Cap’n Jeter in Miami, and Stanton had a rocky Red Sox series.
This is quite enough to earn the nickname Mister December from a Yankee-fan friend of mine. (Stanton came to the Yankees last December.) The fans were booing Stanton as he struck out in the final failed rally Tuesday evening, and it may carry over.
(Imagine what the Boss would do about the snafu involving Luis Severino's rushed warmup on Monday or the whiffing of Stanton. You know which Boss.)
Now I get to watch George Springer of the Astros and some of those spirited, interchangeable Red Sox.
Plus, I confess, I still get a charge out of seeing “Dodgers” on a baseball jerseyI plan to enjoy good baseball the next couple of weeks.
Mets fans deserve it.
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:
Out of morbid fascination, I peeked at the Mets Friday night.
Much better I should have stayed with the news from the Manafort trial – his wardrobe, his cars, his crooked accountant, his toady work for oligarchs on both sides of the Atlantic. Manafort is going away.
Poor Jacob DeGrom; he should go away, too – but to a ball club on which somebody other than the pitcher can drive in runs. He deserves it. He has turned 30 and his club has no hope, no foreseeable future.
The other day I wrote the foolscap below, hoping the Mets could keep a facsimile of a major-league pitching staff. But watching this great competitor add to his league-leading earned-run average (1.85) but with a 5-7 won-lost record, I realized he has earned time off for good behavior.
With the money they save on his salary, they could sign six or eight other washed-up position players, since they don’t have enough right now.
Have a fun weekend, with the Yanks and Red Sox acting like the ‘70s.
(my previous screed:)
I confess, I was relieved when the Mets did nothing heinous on trading deadline. For Mets fans, this is a plus.
I always get morose about rumors of Mets trades, particularly for pitchers.
There are so many original sins in Mets history that I have stopped counting.
I still hear the voice of my 19-year-old son on the phone, over a certain 1989 trade that will live in infamy. (see below)
“It stinks,” the voice said. “It just stinks.”
Never mind the great deals by Sandy Alderson that got them to the World Series in 2015. Mets fans just shudder at various trade and waiver and salary-dump deadlines.
I was already depressed at the selloffs of Jeurys Familia and Asdúbal Cabrera in the past week. Familia pitched his heart out for the Mets and Cabrera was one of the most professional and social players the Mets have ever had. He was a pleasure to watch. I will mourn him the rest of the season.
I thought I might be mourning Jacob DeGrom. His once-laughing face has hardened into the stoic mask of a good soldier, but he still jokes with his pitcher pals on the bench. The Mets never hit for him. I won’t blame him if he forces his way out after the season. I can’t stand to watch his games any more – Sisyphus with shorn locks. Then his own teammates roll the rock down on him.
So when the front-office troika held on to the four Mets starters, for the moment, I relaxed and decided I could live with the horrors of the rest of this season. There’s always Weeping Wilmer, el hombre de la gente.
Then they lost, 25-4, on Monday. My Mets-text pals Pete W and Brad W and David V all decided that the two-game series would be decided by cumulative scores, like some Champions League soccer playoff. Our sluggers could overcome 25-4, we decided. In fact, they lost, 5-3, on Tuesday.
It’s all part of the Met-fan psyche. Nothing lasts for long. The Gil Hodges era. Doc and Darryl. Yoenis Cespedes’ heels. Curtis Granderson, one of the best people ever to play in Flushing. Enjoy the day. Things fall apart.
One moment you are enjoying Asdrúbal Cabrera, totally into his hitting and his positioning, with his positive impact on his teammates and even opponents, lifting the helmet off the head of Granderson after a home run. Now they are both gone.
The Mets ….to put it simply…are the meaning of life.
* * *
(Just a few horrors, off the top of my head.)
Dec. 10, 1971: Mets trade young Nolan Ryan.
June 15, 1977: Mets trade in-prime Tom Seaver.
June 19, 1989: Mets trade Roger McDowell – and LennyDykstra – for Juan Samuel.
Aug. 27, 1992: Mets trade in-prime David Cone for Jeff Kent in a new-age salary dump.
(Below: Eternal Met slugger with glorious launch arc but no contact.)
Catering to the Thumb Generation (of which I am a fringe member), Major League Baseball disappeared a game from television on Wednesday.
The business that still charmingly thinks of itself as The National Pastime has a new partnership with the dippy kid in the gray t-shirt, Mark Zuckerberg.
I think that means all information on Mets Nation -- all we scruffy, gauche losers who root for one miracle every generation – is now in the hands of Comrade Vladimir in the Kremlin.
Facebook was already chums with something called Cambridge Analytica which seems to have been in cahoots with various apparatchiks during the 2016 election including the possible next national security advisor, Mad Dog Bolton.
Baseball is letting the t-shirt guy put the occasional major-league game on Facebook so people can like or dislike what transpires on the field. The price for one MLB game a week is $30-million for the season – that’s what matters, isn’t it?
In real life, it’s not that hard to tell if baseball fans like or dislike something. Just the other day, Giancarlo Stanton struck out five times in his Yankee Stadium debut and Yankee fans faithfully gave him something called a Bronx Cheer.
Schnooky old baseball managed to distract from Wednesday’s Mets-Phillies game in Queens. James Wagner of the Times appropriately wrote an entire sagacious article about the t-shirt guy’s coup rather than the Mets’ bullpen or the clutch hit. (Tyler Kepner did write a column about the game itself.)
What with all the teeth-gnashing about baseball’s sellout, it seemed the game itself vanished into the dark hole of likes and dislikes.
Not true. I caught most of that game on this strange medium called radio.
The Mets’ game was on WOR – 710 on the AM dial – described by Howie Rose and Josh Lewin. Rose, aware the game had vanished from the tube, offered the observation, “I think radio is here to stay.”
Home-town fans get used to their TV and radio broadcasters. When the national broadcast pre-empts a Met game, I opt for radio. Mets fans don’t need national drop-in experts telling them stuff they already know.
Plus, the sellout by #ShamelessMLB on Wednesday meant that Mets-TV addicts were forever deprived of possible weird dialogues such as the one that ensued during Thursday’s game in Washington, with Gary Cohen monitoring the banter between old teammates from 1986, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling.
Darling to Hernandez on Good Old SNY: Were you this funny when we played together? You’re pretty funny.
Cohen: He was the Prince of Darkness back then.
That's what Mets fans expect – not twiddling of thumbs.
At least the t-shirt guy hasn’t sold all of baseball to Cambridge Analytica. (Memo to Mark Zuckerberg: when you are hauled into Congress next week, go find a suit. Play dressup.)
* * *
Speaking of Queens and baseball, my friend-the-writer, Rabbi Mendel Horowitz, has written about following baseball in Israel during Passover: Enjoy:
I am reminded of driving north from spring training that day, with black friends and white friends in two cars -- the looks of terror at some Holiday Inn in east Georgia, when they thought we were Freedom Riders rather than tired travelers, in psychic shock. How they hustled to accommodate us!
In January, Black History Month, I wrote an essay about Martin Luther King, Jr. -- based on a radio documentary about King's connection to music, by his fellow Morehouse alumnus,Terrance McKnight of WQXR-FM in New York.
That link is repeated as we approach the 50th anniversary of his death on April 4:
Other people are remembering Dr. King this week. My friend Maria Saporta, who grew up with the King children in Atlanta, now issues the Saporta Report, about the business and life of Atlanta. She was previously the business columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Saporta recently ventured to Memphis, where her friends' father was assassinated Her touching essay is linked here:
And Lonnie Shalton, a "mostly retired lawyer from Kansas City who writes about baseball and other assorted topics," and is a good friend of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in that city, wrote about Dr. King.
From Lonnie Shalton:
I felt the need today to take a break from my Hot Stove baseball posts.
Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King delivered his last speech: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The following day, he was assassinated.
I have written annual messages for the MLK holiday since 2002, and the one I sent in 2012 was about this speech.
(Lonnie mentions a 2009 trip to Jordan, going to Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have stood to view the Promised Land.)
Fast forward from biblical times to April 3, 1968. Martin Luther King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers who were marching with a simple message: “I AM A MAN.”
That night, at the Mason Temple, King gave what would be his last speech: "I've Been to the Mountaintop." King prophetically spoke of his likely early death and that he would not get to see the full fruits of his labor in the Civil Rights Movement. "I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."
One of the Memphis hosts for that speech at the Mason Temple was Reverend Billy Kyles. The next day, Kyles drove to the Lorraine Motel to pick up King to take him to dinner. He joined King in his 2nd-floor room with Ralph Abernathy and went with King to the balcony to speak to supporters in the parking lot. A few seconds after Kyles left King alone on the balcony, James Earl Ray fired his shot.
In the summer of 2011, Rita and I were in Memphis with our friends Larry and Diana Brewer. We visited the Lorraine Motel, which is now the "National Civil Rights Museum" featuring excellent exhibits on major milestones of the Civil Rights Movement. A compelling reminder of the times is a city bus that you can board, and when you sit near Rosa Parks, a recording is activated to tell you to move to the back of the bus.
The museum tour begins with an introductory movie narrated by Reverend Kyles. At the end of the movie, we were informed that Kyles was in the building filming a piece with CNN newsman T.J. Holmes in anticipation of the opening of the MLK Memorial in Washington. We went to the second floor to watch the filming and then had the opportunity to visit with the gracious Reverend Kyles at almost the exact spot where he had been at that fateful moment in 1968. In the photo below, T.J. Holmes is on the left, Kyles is in the center and the two gentlemen on the right are retired sanitation workers who were among those 1968 marchers wearing "I AM A MAN" placards.
The museum continues across the street to the rooming house from which James Earl Ray fired his shot. There are exhibits related to Ray's planning and capture, and we were reminded that Ray at the time was a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary.
You can hear and read the speech at this link.
Thanks to Terrance McKnight, Maria Saporta and Lonnie Shalton, for caring.
What a perfect sign of spring -- survival and hope.
Man, do we need that.
I’ve been moping with a head cold, or maybe it’s from the front pages, but along with Passover and Easter come the openings for the Mets and Yankees, and not a moment too soon.
Soccer-buff Andy Tansey took this photo at the Mets/Willets Point IRT station.
I remember the first day at funky little Jarry Park in Montreal in 1969. First game ever in Canada. I got there early and workmen were still touching up the premises.
* * *
Who doesn't love Opening Day? Lonnie Shalton, baseball buff in Kansas City, wrote his own appraisal of the big day. (He mentions a few things I typed -- and also lots of other baseball insights.)
* * *
Fresh paint may cover some of the flaws of the Mets. They have Syndergaard and DeGrom going in the first two games, and we’ll take our chances after that.
The Mets don’t seem any better than last year – scary thought, that – but the owners did bring back old-reliable Jay Bruce, and maybe Conforto will be ready in late April, and maybe Céspedes can make it through a week or a month.
At least the Mets are haimish – with familiar faces like Weeping Wilmer and Old Pro Cabrera and Prodigal Son Reyes. They are ours, for better or worse, or for right now.
Having seen the first home game in 1962 in the Polo Grounds, I know that to be a Met fan is to root for the familiar, with all its goods and bads.
The Yankees open in Toronto. Why is this Yankee team different from all other Yankee teams? Because they have a new look with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, both powerful, both charismatic.
I’ve been conditioned by the recent dynasty to respect and enjoy the Yankees, as much against my religion as that is. Judge is so mature and Stanton is so poised.
Plus, I read that good old John Sterling is working on his home-run call for Stanton – and that John had his cataracts removed and doesn’t have to fake his long-ball calls so blatantly. (What took you so long, dude?)
This is all avoidance, of course. The world is screwed up. Russia incinerated some of its young people in a mall fire through incompetence the way our lawmakers and their NRA patrons put our young people in shooting galleries passing as classrooms.
Did you see the faces of young Russians protesting the shoddy construction and careless operation that killed their contemporaries?
This masterful photo by Mladen Antonov of Agence France-Presse mirrors the mournful but determined never-again postures of American youth last week. The world is indeed small.
I can read a bit of Cyrillic – the young person with the long hair and olive jacket has a sign that says коррупция – Corruption. Can they haunt Putin the way protestors from Parkland are haunting Rubio and all the other “public servants” on Wayne LaPierre’s handout list?
In the meantime, may the paint dry in Queens by Thursday morning.
Ed Charles played only 279 games for the Mets but he touched New Yorkers – really, everybody who met him – with his humanity.
This was apparent on Monday at a farewell celebration of Charles in Queens, his adopted home borough. People told stories about him, and I kept thinking of all the ways, Zelig-like, he popped back into my life.
His 1969 Miracle Mets teammate Art Shamsky told how he and Charles and Catfish Hunter and Jack Aker were making an appearance at a boy’s camp “up near Canada somewhere” and how Ed Charles drove – “one mile below the speed limit, always. Ed never went fast. That’s why they called him The Glider.” When they finally got there, the players elected Ed to speak first to the campers. After 45 poignant minutes, Shamsky said they had learned never to let that charismatic man speak first.
Everybody smiled when they talked about Charles, who died last Thursday at 84. His long-time companion, Lavonnie Brinkley, and Ed’s daughter-in-law, Tomika Charles, gave gracious talks, and his son, Edwin Douglas Charles, Jr., made us smile with his tale of playing pool with his dad, and how the old third baseman never let up, in any game.
A retired city police officer alluded to Ed’s decade as a city social worker with PINS – People in Need of Supervision – and how Ed reached them. People talked about barbecues and ball games and fantasy camps with Ed, how it was always fun.
As sports friends and real-life friends at the funeral home talked about Ed’s long and accomplished life, I thought about how we connected over the years, in the tricky dance between reporter and subject.
---The first time was between games of a day-nighter in Kansas City, on my first long road trip covering the Yankees for Newsday, August of 1962. Old New York reporters were schmoozing in the office of Hank Bauer, the jut-jawed ex-Yankee and ex-Marine with two Purple Hearts from Okinawa.
Ed Charles, a 29-year-old rookie – kept in the minors because of race and bad luck – came to consult the manager, maybe about whether he was good to go in the second game. I watched Bauer’s face, once described as resembling a clenched fist, softening into a smile. “Bauer likes this guy,” I thought to myself. “He respects him.” (I looked it up: Ed went 7-for-12 with a homer in that four-game series.)
--- We met in 1967 when the Mets brought him in to replace Ken Boyer at third base. During batting practice in the Houston Astrodome, the first indoor ball park, Ed summoned me onto the field, behind third base, shielding me with his glove and his athletic reflexes.
“Look at this,” he said, pointing at the erratic hops on the rock-hard "turf" -- one low, one high, a torment for anybody guarding the hot corner. I must have stayed beside him for 15 minutes and nobody ran me off. I have never been on a field during practice since. That was Ed Charles. Easy does it.
--- We had a reporter-athlete friendship, but there are always gradations. During a weekend series in glorious mid-summer Montreal in 1969, somehow there were three VIP tickets for a Joan Baez concert. I went to a brasserie with Joe Gergen of Newsday and Ed Charles and then we saw the concert, with Baez singing about love, and the Vietnam War.
--- The Mets won the World Series and Ed went into orbit near the mound, but then he was released, his career over, with a promotions job with the Mets gone over a $5,000 dispute in moving expenses. But I was walking near Tin Pan Alley in midtown in 1970 and there was Ed, working for Buddah (correct spelling for that company) Records. He was destined for Big Town. He later had some ups and downs in business but patched things up with the Mets and settled into his groove as poet/Met icon.
---When Tommie Agee died suddenly, Ed was working at the Mets’ fantasy camp, and he took calls from reporters to talk about his friend. Ed Charles, as this New Yorker would put it, was a mensch.
--- In 2012, the 50th anniversary of the Mets, Hofstra University recruited Ed to give a keynote talk on his poetry and his deep bond with the Mets. I was asked by my alma mater to introduce him, and I suggested to Ed that I could help him segue into his poems. He smiled at me the same way he had calmed down Rocky Swoboda and all the other twitchy Mets kids back in the day. “I got this, big guy,” he told me – and he did.
--- Last time I saw him, a few months ago, I visited his apartment in East Elmhurst, Queens. Lavonnie was there, and I brought some of that good deli from Mama’s in nearby Corona, plus enough cannoli to last a few days. Ed was inhaling oxygen confined to quarters. I saw sadness and acceptance, He let me know: he knew the deal.
On Monday, The Glider had his last New York moment. There will be a funeral in Kansas City on Saturday and he will be buried, as a military veteran, at the national cemetery in Leavenworth, Kans.
The funeral home Monday was a few blocks from the first home owned by Jackie and Rachel Robinson in 1949. The first Robinson home, on 177 St. in the upscale black neighborhood of Addisleigh Park, has been declared a New York landmark, as written up on the StreetEasy real-estate site (by none other than Laura Vecsey, a sports and political columnist.)
Ed Charles often talked about taking inspiration from sighting Jackie Robinson as a boy in Florida; the proximity of the funeral home and Robinson home was a sweet coincidence, the family said.
The karma was unmistakable. Like Rachel and Jackie Robinson, Ed Charles encountered Jim Crow prejudice, but came to New York and won a World Series, and left a great legacy of talent and character.
(The Charles family has requested that any donations go to worthy causes like: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City or the Jackie Robinson Foundation in New York)
Big Al passed last Sunday morning.
What that means – what I think that means – is that I will not be getting any more emails out of the blue, like:
“Just asking. How good a clutch hitter was Yogelah, anyway? Ask your friend Newk.”
This was a very personal barb, aimed not just at me but at the admirable Don Newcombe, still working for the Dodgers out in LA, who got creamed by Yogi Berra for two – count ‘em, two – two-run homers in the seventh game of the 1956 World Series.
Oh, yes, Big Al remembered. And made sure to remind me.
Big Al was a loving member of his own family, but his special charm was getting on a point and pushing it. This made him a great lawyer for a major insurance company, according to Joseph LoParrino, for whom Al was mentor and friend.
“Al and I debated every major sports and news story since 1999 and since email was invented,” LoParrino wrote to me. “When the Tiger Woods scandal broke - my phone buzzed. His commentary made you fall over laughing. I could press his buttons in any category.”
Big Al was a master in button-pushing. My first contact with him was via his company envelopes and company stationery, before the advent of emails. Big Al would scribble – penmanship obviously not his forte in the public schools of East Queens – lengthy screeds about how I had insulted the current Yankees or, much much worse, The Mick.
Al – who was a decade younger than me – thought part of the problem was that I had attended Jamaica High in the 50’s whereas he had attended rival Van Buren High in the 60’s.
(He couldn’t blame college, since we both attended Hofstra as undergraduates.)
Al let me know, in six pages of briefs, that he knew more about sports than I did because he had played basketball and baseball for the demanding Marv Kessler at Van Buren.
I loved his descriptions of Kessler, vilifying him in Queens billingsgate, for sins committed in games or practices. (Many years later, Kessler praised Big Al as player and mensch; Al felt that praise was a tad late.)
Every journalist would be thrilled to have a critic like Big Al. We became mail pals, bonding over the long-lost Charney’s deli at 188th and Union Turnpike, and zaftig Queens girls, and Alley Pond Park, and the way the old Knicks played, and really what else is there?
Al became my Yankee Everyman, a stand-in for all of them. What he felt, they all felt. Eventually we met for a few dinners at the old Palm on the west side of Second Avenue. Al would deride me for ordering broiled fish and salad rather than the double primo beef and potatoes. Sissy. Weenie. And other Marv Kessler terms.
Sometimes he would order a full meal to bring home to his mother who lived in New Jersey.
He was such a Palm regular that his caricature was on the wall of valued customers, celebrities or just people who liked to eat beef. (Alas, that caricature seems to have been lost in the move across Second Ave.)
By then, Al was no longer the rail of a forward that Marv Kessler had berated back in Queens Village. He was Big Al, Manhattan bachelor, Eastside Al on one email handle. We would talk politics, and he would tell me tales about his service veteran/fireman/tradesman/paper hanger father who gave up his love of the Brooklyn Dodgers for his Yankee-fan wife, Ruth, who had seen Gehrig play.
Al was proud to tell me how his mother loved Andy Pettitte more than she loved him. He ascribed it to Pettitte’s schnozz but knew it was about Andy’s gentleness.
With no context whatsoever, Al dropped little e-bombs on me about or how Casey Stengel stuck with lefty Bob Kuzava against Jackie Robinson in the seventh game of 1952 and how Billy Martin raced across the windy, sunny infield to catch the popup. Always there was Yogelah, golfing homers off his shoetops, an endless loop of homers off poor Newk (one of the great people I have met in baseball.)
Al went silent one year, and I worried, so I sent a letter to his office, and somebody told me he was out on sick leave. When his mom passed in 2009 he took over her house in New Jersey and lived near his sister and her family -- and raved to his friends at work about the joys of the Jersey suburbs. Via the email, he never stopped taunting me, or raving about the Yankees and in particular The Mick. (He loved Sandy Koufax, too.)
One time he spoke for all New York fans who flocked to the ball parks on opening day over the decades:
Recently I sent an email: “Al, where are you?” His sister, Roberta Taxerman Smith, emailed me Monday morning saying Big Al had passed Sunday at 67 and the funeral would be held Tuesday in New Jersey. His paid obit was in the Times and on legacy.com:
I smiled when I noted that Big Al passed in the Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. He was a loyal Jew, and a most ecumenical dude, as many of us were in Queens. He and I exchanged greetings at Rosh Hashanah and Christmas and the first day of pitchers and catchers and other holy days. He knew I had grown up with mostly Jewish friends and he called me “landsman.”
When I found out, via DNA testing, that I am 47 percent Jewish, via my father, who was adopted, Big Al's reaction was: I told you so. Then again, that was often his reaction.
Roberta Taxerman Smith told me Al believed, to the end, that the docs were going to take care of him and he never complained. He had saved his complaints for Joe Torre’s strategies, and we argued over that, too.
Here’s what I really hate about losing Big Al: he I were both looking forward to seeing Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the same lineup, the same pinstripes.
Murderer’s Row, 2018.
If there is justice, on Opening Day they go back-to-back.
Maybe Big Al will send me an e-mail.
Need a baseball fix? Here’s one, right in the heart of Manhattan on Jan. 27 – a day-long festival of the summer sport, from SABR, the baseball research organization.
The speakers include many experts in baseball and/or research, including a librarian, a major-league umpire, a scout who played for the Philadelphia A's in 1953, and an outfielder who helped win the 1969 World Series.
Another speaker will be Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, who has been writing (excellently) about baseball since he was, I think, 3 years old.
Speaking of precocity, if you know a youthful baseball fan who follows all the trade rumors and knows the new analytics like WAR (I have no clue what that is, but I hear it all the time), this conference might make the young savant happy on a Saturday in January.
I spoke at this conference five years or so ago, and one of the highlights for me was a young fan who asked a good question and seemed to know just as much as the predominant geezers who had witnessed Carl Furillo and Monte Irvin and Whitey Ford in this city. (The rate for “students” is $20 as opposed to the rate of $35, still reasonable.)
Sometimes a young pheenom of a fan actually grows up to be Tyler Kepner. I witnessed that not long ago when a kid in Philadelphia started putting out an occasional baseball magazine, with features by him, drawings by him, layouts by him, headlines by him, circulation by him, marketing by him. The occasional journal was Phillie-centric, and it was charming.
The very same Tyler Kepner is now a great baseball writer for The Times, old enough to have four children.
Back in the day, Tyler produced his baseball magazine irregularly, to allow him to honor other commitments, like kindergarten. The late and lamented Robert McG Thomas, Jr., of the NYT wrote a feature about him in 1989:
Nowadays, in the time of the Web, when sportswriters are lashed to the 24-hour hamster wheel, Tyler keeps typing away, brilliantly. I recently heard how at the seventh game of the 2016 World Series he wrote an early column and then late in the game wrote a new column on Rajai Davis when it appeared Davis’s homer would win won the Series.
However, the Davis column never made the paper or the Web because, well, the Cubs won while Tyler was typing. So he started all over again, and then woke up the next morning and fed a few more columns to the beast – five columns within 18 hours, by the office's count.
The program for the SABR event does not specify Tyler’s subject on Jan. 27th but notes that he is currently writing a book. Oddly enough, about baseball.
The program will take place Jan. 27, 2018, from 10 AM to 3 PM at the New York Public Library, at 42nd St. and Fifth Avenue (you know, the one with the lions.) It will be held in the Celeste Auditorium, lower level of the South Court, of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.
The event is officially the New York City Casey Stengel Chapter’s annual meeting, as part of the Society for American Baseball Research.
The participants, recruited and moderated by Ernestine Miller, are:
Virginia Bartow, the Senior Rare Book Cataloger in the Special Collections at the New York Public Library, whose illustrated presentation includes photos, graphs, trade cards, newspaper features and other memorabilia of baseball in New York.
Ed Randall, moderator of a panel on: “Standouts of the Game”-- author and on-air personality for WFAN, Sirius and ESPN
Phil Cuzzi, Major League umpire who has worked for 22 years in 2,428 games including three MLB no-hitters.
Tom Giordano, age 92, long-time scout and official who scouted Cal Ripken, Jr., and in 1953 played 11 games for the 1953 Philadelphia Athletics under manager Jimmy Dykes.
Art Shamsky, who platooned with Ron Swoboda on the 1969 Miracle Mets, and remains the only player in MLB history to hit three home runs in a game in which he was not in the starting lineup.
Jon Springer, SABR research presentation on Edward "The Only" Nolan, the star pitcher of the 1884 Quicksteps, a team that played a role in the first battle of the Reserve Clause war, the establishment of post-season play, and the evolution of playing rules and equipment. Nolan was recognized for his unique pitches as well as his notorious behavior which led to fines, suspensions, being kicked off a team, and eventually, his being blacklisted from the league.
(I have never heard of Nolan. This is what SABR does so well: telling about fascinating players from long-ago times.)
Diane Firstman will make a SABR research presentation, “The Three True Outcomes,” shedding light on the relationships among walks, strikeouts, and homers from her research on “three true outcomes” (TTO). She will highlight trends comparing Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Aaron Judge in those categories.
After this warmup it will soon be time for that glorious annual event called Pitchers and Catchers. It’s coming, honest, it’s coming.
Please pre-register if possible, with David Lippman at:
I am ecstatic for Yankee fans, really. Happy they have Giancarlo Stanton to go along with Aaron Judge. More homers in the Bronx. The natural order.
Mostly, I am happy for good friends like Big Al, like Marty, who share their Yankee highs and Yankee lows with me.
Now I read that the Yankees have signed the aging warrior C.C. Sabathia for $10-million for another season. How nice to have owners who spend money like that.
But: it’s that time of year – the holidays, good will to all.
I must admit, I am feeling the opposite emotion of the holidays –deprivation, not getting enough toys.
As a Met fan, cooped up indoors at this time of year, I remember how Mets games helped get me through last season, trying to avoid unpleasant subjects I will not mention.
I rooted for Curtis Granderson and Jay Bruce and Neal Walker and the best defensive catcher on the team, René Rivera, and Addison Reed, with his cap cockily tilted sideways after a successful inning. Then they all got shipped out.
The Mets have a new manager I never heard of.
They just signed a long reliever I never heard of.
Now I find myself playing a mental game:
Name one position in the Mets lineup, offense or defense, that is really secure.
C: Travis d’Arnaud tries hard. Kevin Plawecki is big. The Mets are bringing Jose Lobatón into camp, as a non-roster catcher. Adds up to – what?
1B: Dominic Smith showed some power but other times looked like the second coming of Mo Vaughn.
2B: Nobody has mentioned Weeping Wilmer Flores, who is what we Brooklyn fans used to call “The Peepul’s Cherce.”
3B: Asdrubal Cabrera aged five years last year. Jose Reyes is unsigned.
SS: Amed Rosario showed youth and flash. But Ron Darling or Keith Hernandez were often saying (but nicely): “Oooh, he shouldn’t have done that.”
LF: Yoenis Cespedes was dragging in the first television spring exhibition. He kept breaking down. I suspect that football physio from Michigan only made Céspedes worse. Maybe terminally.
CF: Juan Lagares is altering his swing for more power. Three years ago he looked like Curt Flood. What went wrong?
RF: Michael Conforto was having a streaky year. Then he got hurt.
Pitching: Jacob deGrom. The best we have. Thor better stop lifting those freaking weights, or maybe it’s too late. The Dark Knight needs to leave Gotham City.
None of this is any consolation at the onset of bleak winter.
I cannot imagine watching this team, even as distraction from unpleasant subjects I will not mention.
I am happy for pals like Big Al, like Marty. Very happy.
But I am just asking: in the grand tradition of my home town, with all those gift packages heading to Yankee Stadium, would it be so terrible if something happened to, um, fall off the truck?
In a moment of weakness last week, I wrote the piece below that I liked this new version of the Yankees.
The ownership/management Ghost of Boss George reared its twitchy head and fired Manager Joe Girardi after the Yankees didn't win it all, again.
I thought Girardi did a good job, ushered in a new era, was patient with Judge and Sanchez, and got them to the league series. Anybody seen Houston? Better young players. Not Girardi's fault.
That's all I have to say. The rest of this post is the same as before. I've been watching runners and relief pitchers scamper across the screen late at night.
Your updated reaction to the World Series is appreciated.
* * *
Much to my chagrin, I really don’t mind that these Yankees are deep into the post-season.
This runs against my entire upbringing but I kind of like Aaron Judge and Todd Frazier and the rest.
I think it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but the other day I found myself identifying with Yankee tradition and not the petulant yelping of the social media and the hang-him-high posse mentality of arriviste playoff fans.
When Joe Girardi botched the potential challenge against Cleveland – probably costing the Yankees a game – the web mob was bellowing for Girardi’s scalp. I harrumphed: “He’s done a good job for a long time. Everybody has a bad game.”
I checked with my Yankee guru, Big Al, Esq., from Jersey, who's been busting me for years for being a Brooklyn/Met type. On this one, we totally agreed: Girardi should stay. Now look at them.
The bulk of my life experience has taught me to fear the Yankees – autumns as a Brooklyn Dodger fan, watching an endless parade of Joe Page, Tommy Henrich, Billy Martin, Mickey Mantle, Bob Kuzava, for goodness’ sakes, and Don Larsen in 1956.
And every fall, that golem that Big Al, Esq., calls Yogalah. A childhood of ineradicable pain, Doctor.
Covering the aging Yankees of the early ‘60s did not alter my impression of entitled and mostly grumpy champions. I finally got to like the Yankees, briefly, when they were terrible and they had good guys like Bill Robinson, Steve Hamilton, Gene Michael, Dick Howser and Ruben Amaro.
Then, I was off covering the Real World for a decade and when I came back there were new reasons to feel skin-crawly about the Yankees – George and Billy and their tempestuous co-dependency.
Then the Boss was forced to keep the young talent in the system – five admirable guys named Bernie, Derek, Jorge, Andy and Mariano. And I remember a catcher named Girardi, smart and positive, whom I once pegged as a future manager, maybe even in the Bronx. You could see it.
We were all getting older. On the night in 1998 when the Yankees swept the Padres in San Diego, the Boss came into the locker room and got his ritual Champagne dowsing from the new leader, Jeter, and then George M. Steinbrenner, III, while talking to reporters, began to bawl. (The Boss was a crier.)
What else was a 50-something columnist to do? I hugged him and congratulated him. Yikes. But I did it. Maybe this was a breakthrough, Doctor?
Now the Boss is gone. My old friend Bob Sheppard is gone. Jeter and Mo, impeccable old-line Yankees, are retired. There is not one player on this squad with the starchiness of an old Yankee.
Judge has the sweet, open facial expressions of a junior-high-school kid. He says all the right things. And he can play. Frazier runs around and leads cheers like a role player from some less-august franchise. And what ball fan would not love that bullpen?
I have never, ever, said this before: The Yankees are fun to watch.
Note: I ran this theory past a Red Sox fan whom I will not identify any further than as my agent. She sneered. (Over the phone, I can recognize a sneer.) She wouldn’t mind if the Yankee bus had a flat tire and they had to forfeit a game. I recognize the emotion. I never once expressed it in print because that would be unprofessional. But I used to feel like that.
However: what happens if the Yanks meet the Dodgers in the World Series? The Dodgers wear the colors of my childhood plus they have the admirable Curtis Granderson, whom I am calling The Last Living Met. Will I have flashbacks, Doctor?
I stopped watching the Mets a month ago, when they reverted to 1962 ineptitude. I normally don’t watch the Yankees or network broadcasts, but I probably will check out the post-season.
Meantime, baseball remains the best writing/reading sport of all. Here are four new books I recommend, in season or out:
The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic. Richard Sandomir. Hachette Books.
As a young Brooklyn fan and later as a young reporter, I could hear the melancholy echoes of Lou Gehrig’s farewell, echoing under the eaves of the old (the real) Yankee Stadium.
Gehrig remains a phenomenon for his 15 steals of home (all on the back end of a delayed steal but, with his thick legs, quite an accomplishment) and his 2,130 consecutive-game streak as well as the terrible way he died, from a disease that would bear his name.
The latest talented observer to write about Gehrig is Richard Sandomir, a friend and colleague from the New York Times, in his compelling new book, “The Pride of the Yankees,” which Sandomir calls “the first great sports film.”
Sandomir covered sports media for decades and now uses his talents in the prestigious obituary section of the Times. He conveys the man and the movie as a story for the ages, noting that producer Sam Goldwyn wanted to make a love story about a doomed man.
“Goldwyn didn’t see the value in a baseball story – a game he thought was played with twelve bases on a field,” Sandomir notes.
Goldwyn did not care that Gary Cooper looked like a 1962 Met when he tried to swing or throw or run. I learned in this book that Cooper, from Montana, had never played baseball, not once. But Sandomir quotes the noted director, Howard Hawks, as saying, “The grand thing about Cooper is that you believe everything that he says or does.”
Getting people to believe. How courant.
Sandomir brilliantly describes how myth-making is enhanced by bending reality.
Eleanor Gehrig was not the demure lass depicted by Teresa Wright; she was a daughter of privilege from Chicago who had done a bit of roaring in the Roaring Twenties before she met the shy mother’s-boy from a German section of Manhattan.
In real life, Gehrig, after months of stumbling on the field, told the manager in a hotel that it was time for him to stop playing. In the movie, Gehrig is replaced at first base in the middle of a game – because it is more dramatic.
Sandomir is the perfect writer to depict the murky border between reality and art.
Electric October: Seven World Series Games, Six Lives, Five Minutes of Fame That Lasted Forever. Kevin Cook. Henry Holt and Company.
Just as in a Shakespearean play, in a World Series involving Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson, the minor characters are fascinating, too.
Cook depicts six characters in epic World Series – managers Bucky Harris and Burt Shotton, Brooklyn’s Cookie Lavagetto who broke up a no-hit attempt and beat Bill Bevens in the ninth; Bevens, who would never be the same; George Stirnweiss of the Yankees, a war-time regular who managed one good World Series when the stars came back; and Al Gionfriddo of the Dodgers, who made a great catch on DiMaggio in left field, the last play Gionfriddo would make in the majors. (I once stood next to Gionfriddo at a reunion in the early 80’s; he was tiny, 5-6 at the most.)
Cook’s best work is researching the rest of their lives, after that antic World Series – faith, failures, early death, and a few ripe old ages.
The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age. Sridhar Pappu. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Wait, 1968 was the end of the Golden Age? Didn’t the Mets win the World Series in 1969? Sorry.
Pappu ably describes year of the pitcher, which forced baseball to lower the mounds from 15 inches to 10. Gibson was driven; McLain was corrupt; both were sensational. (Mickey Lolich became Detroit’s star in the Series.)
Pappu interviewed me at length about Gibson, whom I admire, beyond his testiness (or maybe because of it.)
Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey. Ila Jane Borders with Jean Hastings Ardell. University of Nebraska Press.
Borders managed to play in male leagues into high school, college and an independent league on a team owned by Mike Veeck in the late 90s. She had her moments as a pro and won the respect of most teammates and fans. Borders touchingly describes her personal and family life. I did not know much about her until this book and I have great admiration for her.
Enjoy the rest of the season.
In an age when ball players hold lodge meetings at every base and deliver fist bumps on every random encounter between “opponents,” it is refreshing to see old-fashioned crankiness, animosity – and even knucklehead thinking, as recently demonstrated by the Yankees’ C.C. Sabathia.
Sabathia, a competitor and generally rational person, spouted off about the Red Sox’ Eduardo Nuñez, for plunking down a bunt rather than trying to lash the ball into the seats of Yankee Theme Park in the Bronx. The nerve.
Sabathia was quite adamant that bunting on such a fine person as himself was bad form – showing up a colleague.
Nuñez, a former Yankee teammate, pointed out that he was trying to get on base any way possible, a quaint theory long scorned by players unashamed to strike out regularly. Be a man. Don’t bunt.
Where do they get these standards?
Jim Rice, the former Red Sox star, a member of the Hall of Fame, chimed in that Sabathia – listed as 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds – could go easier on the clubhouse food spread and perhaps he would be able to bend down and field his position.
This is wonderful stuff, reminiscent of the Fisk-Munson feud when the Red Sox were emerging as rivals in the Steinbrenner Sucks! Era of the ‘70s. Those were the days, star catchers rolling in the dirt.
Nobody knows what tribal rule Sabathia thought had been violated.
There is an old baseball belief that it is unsporting to lay down a bunt in the very late innings when a pitcher is working on a no-hitter.
Mets fans let Randy Hundley have it for bunting on Tom Seaver just before the Jim Qualls single broke up a no-hitter in 1969. Hundley pointed out, quite rightly, that the Cubs were ahead of the Mets in the division race. Who knows, if Hundley had been able to get to first base, maybe the Cubs would have won the pennant – and not have to wait 47 more years.
Players are so touchy these days.
Pitchers’ feelings are upset when batters “flip” the bat in celebration of some moon-shot homer they have just launched. But that feeling goes back to when pitchers virtually checked their stopwatch as sluggers performed the so-called Cadillac Trot around the bases.
And hitters do not take kindly to pitchers who launch a quick pitch, the way Hansel Robles did to the Phillies Darin Ruf in the 2015 season. To be fair, a hitter could be hurt if he does not know a pitch is coming in his direction. But ultimately, with all the dawdling that extends games, players are responsible for being prepared.
I don’t want to sound blasé about the dangers of flying baseballs, but I covered Bob Gibson in the ‘60s and appreciated his skill – and crankiness, cussing out his catchers for visiting the mound.
I swear I have heard Gibson, Ron Fairly and Joe Torre all tell the same story about the time Fairly dared to make conversation with Gibson, who had just smitten a single, and Gibson just glared at him.
When Fairly came to bat next time, he said to Torre, “I don’t think I’m going to enjoy this at-bat.” At which point Gibson hit him in the ribs – for praising him.
(Some savvy web fans seem to have proven that this never happened in an official game. But it’s still a good story -- indicative of the way the lads played half a century ago.)
The stuffiness by Sabathia can be traced to the gimmick of the American League, where pitchers do not hit for themselves, and bunting has no place. In the National League, pitchers are asked to bunt…and run the bases…and in general be baseball players.
Look, kids, don’t try this at home. Don’t act like the Yankees and Tigers did recently when they obviously threw beanballs and punches at each other – a throwback to the old times. Somebody could get hurt.
Still,the concept of dropping a bunt and trying to run 90 feet fast is a venerable and honored tactic. It is called baseball.
I’m proud to be on the program for the national convention of SABR, the invaluable baseball research group, on June 28-July 2, in New York City.
I’ll be on a panel about Yogi Berra – aptly titled “It Aint Over” -- with Dave Kaplan, Harvey Araton and Lindsay Berra, the oldest grand-daughter of Yogi and Carmen.
This means I can sit back and listen to Lindsay, a compelling presence who tells lovely stories about Yogi.
Kaplan, who founded the valuable Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, N.J., and my pal Harvey, still writing great stuff in the Times in "retirement,” also knew Yogi well.
I'm sure I can talk a bit about being a young reporter and asking a question of Yogi. Every so often my friend Big Al sends me an email, out of nowhere:
"Tell me, was Yoggalah some kind of clutch hitter?"
Just to rub it in to an aging Brooklyn fan.
Our time is 9:15 AM Saturday, July 1, at the Grand Hyatt Hotel at Grand Central Station.
SABR is an international treasure of well-researched articles about famous and obscure baseball people and is now a go-to source for analytics.
The program includes needs-no-introduction stars like: Jean Afterman, Claire Smith, Jim Bouton, Marty Appel, William Rhoden and John Thorn.
For information on schedule and rates, please see:
For full program, please see:
Carmen and Yogi. They met when she was a waitress at Stan Musial's restaurant in St. Louis. But what was Yogi wearing that one might not wear to a restaurant? It's in my Musial biography, and I will be glad to tell the story if somebody asks at the panel.
I counted on them. Just the thought of them got me through a horrible winter.
Every fan knows what I am saying: the unique place of baseball -- seasonally correct, holding promise of a new spring.
My team happens to be the Mets, already sinking toward the lower depths, but fans of other teams will recognize the angst: for this I dreamed all winter?
I see Curtis Granderson floundering and I see Asdrubal Cabrera falling apart – two of my favorite players, with intelligence and humor and a fine body of work, who were so fine last season. This is hard to watch.
I am allowed to root. One of the liberations of retirement is shucking professional neutrality. I obsessed about the Mets’ pitching staff, all those talented kids, and I saw the Mets beating out the under-achieving Nationals.
I needed the Mets to thrive, particularly since that sickening night in November when a candidate we New Yorkers knew as a damaged charlatan was elected, ick, but I cannot say it.
I tried to get through the winter with partisan television news -- squirmed through rude interruptions of guests, daydreamed through 20-minute rambles with two minutes of content, rolled my eyes at the harmless repetitions of the word “lies,” as if they did any good.
Everybody reacts differently. People I know are developing a cursing syndrome when McConnell and Ryan ooze into view. Tim Egan called Ryan an "Irish undertaker." I think he meant unctuous. With my Irish passport, I laughed out loud. Felt good. For 30 seconds.
I tried behavior modification. I cannot listen to my large collection of rock and folk and country and jazz on my iPod. No mood for The Band or Stevie Wonder or Iris Dement or The Dead.
Songs of lost love and rolling down the highway don’t do it right now.
In mid-winter I listened to chamber music and waited for DeGrom and Céspedes and Familia, when his mini-suspension was over.
Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. It’s all right.
But now we are a month and a half into this season, and the Mets look done. This is not their year. I know, I know, this is not the loyalty of a true fan, but I covered a zillion games of baseball and I can tell a team that has too many flaws. What’s up with the Alleged Dark Knight?
In the same way that I assess my broken ball team, I assess my homeland. I thought the damaged goods would be returned to sender, like some bad Amazon purchase, within 18 months, and it could happen sooner.
But the Democrats look like an expansion team – too old, too callow, no core. I scan the prospects among the majority party for enlightened, idealistic action: I see stirrings of conscience in Graham and Collins. I really like John McCain from having interviewed him once; if you spot him approaching 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with a couple of cohorts, let me know.
I watched Ben Sasse – a fresh face, a note of hope, like Michael Conforto of the Mets -- during the hearings the other day and thought, this guy could actually have intelligence and courage.
But I’ve been wrong before. I thought my ball team would give me spring-to-autumn diversion.
Now I peek at them, through spread fingers, like a child, for an inning here or an inning there. (I'm even happy for Yankee fans. First time in my life.)
It’s mid-May and I have lost hope for my team.
On Saturday, every major-leaguer will wear No. 42, to commemorate Jackie Robinson, the first African-American in the majors in the 20th Century.
This will be the 70th anniversary of Robinson’s debut in Ebbets Field, Brooklyn – the beginning of a grueling season, a grinding decade.
Jackie Robinson would die at 53. Many people think the ordeal heightened his diabetes, hastened his death. In a real way, he gave his life for a cause.
This sense of Robinson as vulnerable point man for equality is never more relevant than in a time when Americans seem to be questioning their direction – when the Roberts Supreme Court can negate previous civil-rights legislation, letting us know that things are just fine now, we don’t need all those rules bolstering people’s rights to vote.
By some cosmic happening, the Robinson anniversary and the return of baseball take place in the spring, in the time of Passover and Easter, celebrations of survival.
Robinson’s own beliefs – the power that kept him going – is currently explored by Ed Henry in his new book, “42 Faith,” published by Thomas Nelson. Henry is the Fox News Channel chief national correspondent (and a friend of mine.)
Henry is too young to have seen Robinson play or meet him but in his busy life he has admirably sought out people and places where Robinson’s history can be felt.
Henry explores the magnetic pull of the ball park that used to be in Flatbush; the vanished hotel in Indiana where Branch Rickey gave shelter to the black catcher on his college team, the still-standing Chicago Hilton where a wise Dodger scout named Clyde Sukeforth interviewed a Negro League player named Robinson. Holy places, in a way.
The story has been well told by Arnold Rampersad and Steve Jacobson and Roger Kahn, if not with this overt angle on faith: Robinson was a mainline Protestant who relied on his pastor, who taught Sunday school, who saw life through a framework of Christianity.
He was sought out for the Brooklyn Dodgers by Branch Rickey, a man of religious dedication – who did not go to the ballpark on the Sabbath -- who had no qualms about wheedling his best players out of a thousand here, a thousand there.
Aging Brooklyn heroes like Carl Erskine and Vin Scully recall the strength and complexity of Robinson, and aging fans recall the example of Robinson holding his natural fire, to establish himself, and his people.
This was a big deal, the coming of Jackie Robinson. I remember being home in the spring of 1947 when my father called from the newspaper office to say that our team, the Dodgers, the good guys, had just brought up Robinson from the Montreal farm team, that he would open the season in Brooklyn. We (white, liberal) celebrated.
Every year the major leagues celebrate with No. 42 on every uniform. Thanks to an inquiring journalist, the story goes on.
Here is yet another poll I don’t want to hear. According to the highly-respected Quinnipiac Poll, residents of New York City prefer the Mets to the Yankees by 45-43 percent.
I’m a Met fan, totally out of the closet since retirement as a thoroughly impartial, you-never-could-tell sports columnist.
I come by my National League/Long Island bias honestly as a boyhood Brooklyn Dodger fan who suffered terribly at the hands of the Yankees (to say nothing of, periodically, the New York Giants.)
Quinnipiac is undoubtedly more correct when it says residents of New York State favor the Yankees by 48-34 percent.
Those are the kind of odds I would have expected, what with all those World Series plus icons from Ruth and Gehrig to Jeter and Rivera.
I have come to assume a lot of perfectly nice people have been swayed by the echoes in the “Big Ball Park in the Bronx” (Red Barber’s alliteration, not Mel Allen’s) and all those championships.
Mets fans see their team as an occasional delightful surprise -- that World Series every decade or so, plus gallant efforts foiled by the 1987 Pendleton home run and the 1988 Scioscia home run and the 2006 Molina home run and the 2016 Inciarte catch – plus, the 2000 World Series when rich Yankee fans bought up huge swaths of Shea Stadium tickets. The gloomy words of George Orwell, personified.
Now some New Yorkers may be swayed by all those fine young arms and the power of Céspedes and the dash of the prodigal son Reyes and the professionalism of Cabrera. Mets fans have expectations? Dangerous.
I still want the Mets to be a minority taste which makes the Swoboda catch and the Mookie grounder all the more special.
Then there is this: I don’t want my life guided by polls. Not anymore.
Last autumn I was reassured by within-the-margin-of-error polls: the rational would squeak past the raging id.
No more polls.
* * *
Play ball. Which the Yankees did, indoors, at Tampa Bay, on Sunday. By the second inning, I was immediately delighted with the fine details of baseball:
-- Rays' LF Mallex Smith took a circular route but caught a fly in foul territory.
-- Then, Smith (new to that team) took a piece of paper out of his pocket to scan the defensive scouting on the Yankees. Don't know that I've ever seen that.
-- Between innings, the immortal voice of Bob Sheppard urged us -- stylishly, of course -- to follow the Yankees on the YES network. Nice touch.
-- As starter Masahiro Tanaka faltered, he was watched intensely by three people in the Yankee dugout -- manager Joe Girardi, pitching coach Larry Rothschild and trainer Steve Donohue. Their faces told me: the real season has begun.
With no clue about the glories about to unfold, my nerves were kicking in, 12 hours before kickoff.
I was obsessing about the starting lineup – and the formation – and the deep hole in the standings for the American men’s soccer team.
I could not summon any of this fear and trembling for the just concluded World Baseball Classic, but on Friday, as the U.S. prepared to play Honduras in San Jose, Calif., I was worried if Tim Howard’s injury and Clint Dempsey’s heart issues would allow them to go full-tilt-boogie.
I was looking forward to Bruce Arena’s return as head coach. I was worried about the injuries that have decimated Arena’s player pool.
This is true national sporting fear, known to soccer fans around the world, and now a very real tradition in the United States.
Then the U.S. displayed the get-out-of-jail-free card and welcomed back Dempsey and Howard and Arena with a 6-0 romp over Honduras.
How often, in motion sports like soccer, basketball and hockey, do players display initiative at the changing of a coach?
From the whistle, the U.S. was energized and creative. The first sign was relatively new players like Darlington Nagbe (speed, brains and low-to-the-road center of gravity) opening up the field. He was followed by Christian Pulisic and Sebastian Lletget, displaying freedom to find space, to take their shots.
And then Dempsey, his glower intact after a bout with arrythmia, scored a hat trick. And Michael Bradley turned and launched a long left-footed goal that reminded me of Jermaine Jones' surprise blast in the last World Cup. And Howard was back in goal, his bald head sweating in a prolonged pre-game practice, his eyes giving direction to his defenders.
What I am saying is, in my own home, liberated by retirement to be a fan, I loved it. Now I can start obsessing about the match in Panama Tuesday.
I could not summon anything like this for the final of the recent Classic Tuesday although I enjoyed watching a compelling young U.S. pitcher, Marcus Stroman, shut down Puerto Rico in an 8-0 victory.
From reading the terrific analysis by Billy Witz in the Times on Friday, I see the American players have reacted negatively to the emotion shown by fans and players from Latin America and Asia. The excitement is cultural….and it is the future of the Classic….but I can understand what the U.S. players are feeling.
They are from Major League Baseball, the best league in the world, and so are most of their opponents. In a few weeks they will be playing official games and I will have knots hoping Yoenis Céspedes can hold up all season and most of the young pitchers will be healthy and what adventures will befall our beloved Weepin’ Wilmer Flores.
Allowed to shed neutrality, I get tied into knots for my home-borough Mets, not for an all-star national team in March.
My friend Clemson Smith Muñiz, editor of a terrific new site on Latin baseball, explains my inner dichotomy:
“Hola, George, the irony of the WBC final was Latinos had skin on both side of the field. Team USA starting pitcher Marcus Stroman's mother is from Puerto Rico; third baseman Nolan Arenado's father is Cuban and his mother Puerto Rican; and first baseman Eric Hosmer's mother is Cuban. Yes, it took a ‘Half-Rican’ to beat the undefeated ‘Quarter-Rican’ Seth Lugo and the rest of the Boricuas.”
Plus, the stirring Puerto Rican team, with its dyed blonde hair and accent marks on the back of the jerseys, consists of beloved and respected players from the long season: venerable Carlos Beltrán and dynamic Yadier Molina, players we love to watch all season (except maybe when they help crush the Mets.)
Those emotions are ahead of us. But ever since Paul Caligiuri’s goal in Port of Spain in November of 1989, the U.S. has had the feel of the World Cup -- the men’s quadrennial struggle to qualify, the women’s reign of excellence, now in decline.
Qualifying is brutal – hard faces on Latin players, coming to American soil with much to prove, flying objects and language in ominous places like Azteca Stadium, inexplicable official decisions on the road. The stuff of horror movies.
Maybe the World Baseball Classic will get there some day.
Right now, I knew true sporting fear – meaningless, but tell that to my nerves.
Anybody else watching the World Baseball Classic on the dawn patrol?
It's hard to tell the players without a scorecard – and a genealogy printout.
National identities blur, and so do team and league ties.
Those two players who collided at home plate the other day? Why, they are teammates – Sal Butera of Italy crashing into Salvador Perez of Venezuela, both of them catchers for the Kansas City Royals.
In real life, Perez is the star and Butera is the backup but for these few weeks they are playing for national teams, and playing it hard, and playing it right.
Butera was trying to score a run that Italy had to have, and Perez moved into his path, and took a hit. The word from Perez is that his knee may not be as badly injured as was feared, but time will tell.
There was nothing dirty about the collision. In fact, it was a common sight in international sport: people who spend an entire league season together suddenly represent other nations.
Butera, an American, has Italian background and is entitled to play for Italy. Many of the Venezuelan players live in the States for safety and comfort reasons, as James Wagner pointed out in the Times, but they proudly play for their homeland.
Sometimes international play can get nasty, the way it did at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona when the American Dream Team of basketball met soon-to-disband Yugoslavia.
Toni Kukoc was about to join the Chicago Bulls after receiving a huge contract that frosted a couple of Bulls named Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen who hounded and trapped and jostled Kukoc with a fervor that could only be labelled personal.
Welcome to our world, they said, with their elbows and hands and hips and knees and hard stares.
(Read all about it in a story by the late Alan Greenberg in the Hartford Courant.)
The World Cup of soccer mixes friendships and rivalries and guild-member respect. Men who spend the entire season together in the same jerseys try to beat their pals for 90 minutes – and then exchange jerseys and hugs.
One great example was the 2006 World Cup first-round match between Italy and the Czech Republic. Gigi Buffon, the Italian keeper, was sticking with Juventus, which had been downgraded to the second division because of a scandal involving team officials and referees and gambling.
His Juve teammate, Pavel Nedved, was also sticking with Juve while other mainstays were exercising their right to leave. On this afternoon in Hamburg in 2006, they were opponents – who happened to know each other’s moves.
Three times in that match, Nedved took a shot on his pal, but Buffon stopped him. At the end of the match, a 2-0 Italy victory, they embraced with obvious respect.
“Oh to be a fly on the wall of the Juventus dressing room when this pair report back for pre-season training,” said the play-by-play on the BBC web site.
Italy went on to win that World Cup (remember the Zidane head butt on Materazzi, an old tormentor from Serie A?) and Nedved retired from the Czech national team but helped Juve's comeback through 2009.
Today, Nedved is a youth coach with Juventus and Buffon is still the emotional keeper for Juve and the Azzurri. Recently Nedved told a Czech paper that he hopes Buffon will play until he is 50. Their World Cup match against each other is part of their bond.
* * *
The subplots are also fascinating in this Baseball World Classic – including the tangled but verifiable ancestries of players, that produces an American named Ty Kelly (with a Jewish mother) playing third base for Israel. (Ken Belson’s stories in the Times have caught the mood perfectly.)
Israel won its first four before losing to the Netherlands in the Tokyo Dome on what I think was Monday evening. In their time zone in Israel, Hillel and Mendel, who often comment on this site, have been following Destiny’s Darlings.
Hillel Kuttler was interviewed about baseball madness in the Holy Land:
While Israel was 4-0, Mendel Horowitz cited great runs by Cleveland and the Cubbies in the World Series, the rally by the Patriots in the Super Bowl, the comeback by Barcelona in the Champions League, and, yes, even the shocking election victory by the candidate-whose-name-shall-not-be-spoken.
Israel was hammered, 12-2, on Monday but Horowitz still has his theme: “The Year of the Impossibles.”
Who thinks about Casey Stengel these days?
Mets fans should, because he basically invented the Amazin's.
Just the other day, a hit rolled into the right-field bullpen and a Braves outfielder flung aside a garbage pail to retrieve the ball -- a garbage pail! -- and I recalled what the Old Man used to say:
"Every day in this game of baseball, you see something you never saw before."
Still I might have thought history contains all it needs about Stengel, the quintessential figure on all four New York teams – “the Brooklyns,” the Giants, the Yankees, and the Amazing Mets.
Casey let a sparrow fly out from his doffed cap as a Dodger; he hit an inside-the-park homer for the Giants in the World Series; he won 10 pennants in 12 years as the Yankee manager; and he managed the Mets for their first four seasons.
Now, my friend Marty Appel has found good new stuff about Casey – and his times – in a new book, “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character,” to be published by Doubleday on March 28, just in time for a new season.
Appel uncovered some gems about Casey’s childhood in 19th Century Kansas City and his playing career in a Brooklyn so long ago there were no hipsters.
He has used computerized libraries and files not available to previous biographers of Stengel, including the late Bob Creamer, a luncheon companion of ours.
For example: Appel discovered that the Stengel family lived in the same neighborhood as Charles (Kid) Nichols, a Hall of Fame pitcher who won 361 games from 1890 to 1906. When “Dutch” Stengel was a rambunctious teen-age ball player, the old pitcher advised him to always listen to his managers.
“Never say, ‘I won’t do that.,'" Kid Nichols said. "Always listen to him. If you’re not going to do it, don’t tell him so. Let it go in one ear, then let it roll around there for a month, and if it isn’t any good, let it go out the other ear.”
This is wonderful advice. I spent a lot of time around Casey from 1962 to 1965 -- in his office and late at night in bars – and I never heard him mention Kid Nichols. But I now know that Kid Nichols helped Casey learn as a player – and teach as a manager.
Appel tells a great story (new to me) about a prospect named Mantle, who could run but was slowed down by his habit of looking at the ground. Stengel told Mantle he was no longer playing football in Commerce, Okla., that the major leagues had groundskeepers who created smooth base paths and that he should keep his eye on the ball and the fielders.
It made Casey crazy to see blank looks on players. The Old Man also tried to teach “my writers,” in murky soliloquys very late at night. Just when you were about to give up (or doze off) he would grab you with a stubborn paw and say, “Look, you asshole, I’m trying to tell you something.”
Appel has learned about Casey’s wife, Edna Lawson Stengel through an unpublished memoir made available by Edna’s niece, Toni Mollett Harsh. Apparently, the Stengels considered themselves too old – in their thirties – to start a family, but they were affectionate toward the wives and children of some of the younger players. (He bought a ginger ale for my oldest child, Laura, in the motel bar in Florida after his managing days. She remembers it vividly.)
I learned something else. Appel amends the legend that Stengel’s wealth came through his wife’s family, which owned a bank and businesses in Glendale, Calif. In fact, young Casey paid attention to a teammate from Texas who talked him into buying oil rigs.
Casey often barked, “You make your own luck.”
Marty Appel reminds us all that Casey Stengel made his own luck.
I’m having so much fun with spring training baseball, I’m sticking with it. On Friday I watched two of the Mets’ best prospects, Dominic Smith and Amed Rosario, enter an exhibition mid-way and lash hits (off a shell-shocked kid pitcher, to be sure.) They looked so confident -- the way Gary Sanchez did when he arrived with the Yankees during last season. (How nice for them.) This is the stuff of spring training. Some of them are strictly March pheenoms – who’s old enough to remember massive Clint Hartung of the New York Giants a zillion years ago? But sometimes young players are the real thing. Smith plays first base and Rosario plays shortstop. Gary Apple and Ron Darling on SNY-TV were chattering about how both were being groomed for 2018 – but maybe sooner, depending, etc. What baseball fan does not love this kind of talk? It sustains me in March. For the moment, I can even shut out the image of the blundering lout somebody elected president. Go Dominic Smith. Go Amed Rosario. Go Gary Sanchez.
* * *
We live on a flyway, between two bays. The other morning I went outside and heard honking – hundreds of geese, flying high, moving fast, in a V formation, heading north.
These guys must know something, I thought. And sure enough, the geese were soon followed by ball games, on the radio and on the tube, from a warmer place.
Bread and circuses? It’s time for diversion – baseball, even better than the caloric Hershey Kisses being ingested by the very funny Joyce Wadler in her Sunday column in the Times. (You know whom she blames for her chocolate binge: her mom…and Trump.)
I got something healthier for you. My email from my friend Big Al said:
Yanks-Phils 1 PM on YES. Life begins anew.
Big Al is a Yankee fan. What can I say?
I found the first Mets game on the radio Friday while idling in the horrendous traffic at LaGuardia Airport. The Mets brought mostly a B squad to Fort Myers, but there was Howie Rose with his haimish accent, straight-from-the-upper-deck-at-Shea.
Howie was filling us in on the 11 Mets who will be playing in the Baseball Classic, the world-cup-for-hardball, in March, including Ty Kelly playing for Israel. (Read Hillel Kuttler’s piece: Kelly’s mom is Jewish.)
It was delightful to sit in traffic with something important to think about that did not involve mental health and ineptitude and malice – the depth of the Mets’ system that has decent players like Kelly and T.J. Rivera scrambling for spots. Rooting for underdogs is so very baseball, so very New York.
Time for a viewing of the 2017 Mets. On Saturday, my pal Gary and I sat in his living room and watched on SNY as the Mets played a home exhibition in 86-degree Port St. Lucie.
The first treat was hearing the broadcasters, Gary Cohen and Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, the familiar banter and expertise.
As is only normal we heard about other preoccupations – Seton Hall basketball for Cohen, a delightful 1-year-old son for Darling, and a bad knee that may require replacement for Hernandez. The docs better make sure Hernandez can still scoop up a bunt and fire to third base.
But enough about the main act. There was also the undercard -- the 2017 Mets, a work in progress. Lucas Duda was missing because of injections into his aching hips. Jacob DeGrom was sporting a totally hideous mustache that negates his flowing hair and beatific smile. Good old David Wright, in yet another comeback, hit a fly ball and later beamed as he talked about his 1-year-old son.
Washington brought along some A-List sluggers, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, and lifer manager Dusty Baker in the dugout, working his toothpick.
A moment of terror as the Mets’ Kevin Plawecki had his knee put into reverse in a home-plate collision, followed by at least a dozen horrifying replays and relieved applause as he hobbled off the field, (Update: x-rays negative, better than could have been imagined.)
The broadcasters did what they do best. They digressed, about the new rule that allows an automatic base on balls. Darling pronounced it “nothing.” Better they install a time clock for pitchers.
Hernandez and Darling bickered over the use of colored grease pens for cast-of-thousands exhibitions. Cohen presided with a paternal sigh.
My pal and I watched the entire three-hour marathon. The players. The manager and coaches. The broadcasters. The fans – no politics in evidence – watching the long game. Life under the flyway, enjoying the first honks of spring.
We had 60 degrees Wednesday, a whiteout Thursday, frozen rain Sunday. But some of us take heart from the first robins of spring – pitchers and catchers sighted down south.
Then there are advance copies of baseball books, just being distributed to lucky media types like me.
My first CARE package was a literate and knowing little gem, “Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception,” by Terry McDermott, from Pantheon Books, which will be on the shelves in May but has already rejuvenated me.
McDermott, a writer on other serious subjects like terrorism, is also a baseball buff, stemming from childhood in Cascade, Iowa. He describes his first big-league game – a Yankee doubleheader at Comiskey Park, June 28, 1959, on a road trip that reminds me of a boy’s rambunctious bus pub crawl with Welsh elders in the classic Dylan Thomas short story “The Outing.”
Once a year, McDermott writes, the men of Cascade “would charter a Burlington Line train – who knew you could even do this? -- out of East Dubuque, Illinois. They’d fill the train with Knights of Columbus, cold ham sandwiches, and Falstaff beer – or maybe Schlitz in a good year – and head east. My father, known to everyone as Mac took me along as an early birthday gift.”
McDermott adds: “It was my first game, my first train, my first taxi, my first bus, my first time seeing grown men pass out drunk.” Also, his first time seeing and hearing black Americans on the South Side of Chicago.
The hold of baseball -- a rural game played in urban settings -- reminds me of the great book, "The Southpaw," by Mark Harris I wrote about it for opening day in 2005: The young lefty from upstate New York goes to his first game in the big city where he will one day pitch.
In his first pilgrimage to another great baseball town, McDermott witnessed Yogi Berra catching both ends of a doubleheader loss. The great source Retrosheet does not allude to it, but McDermott is sure he saw a foul pop drop untouched near Berra just before an Al Smith homer, 58 years ago. Fans remember stuff like that.
Cascade is a small town, 15 minutes from where Kevin Costner wandered in the corn fields in “Field of Dreams,” and it fielded a weekend team which won 64 of 65 games one season. The star pitcher was obscurely known as Yipe; every male in Cascade had a nickname.
McDermott could have written only about the enduring pull of baseball in a small town (which still has a team) –– and that would have been fine, in fact, beautiful. But the book does much more, economically – the dissection of a perfect game by King Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 15, 2012 – sunny day game after a night game, McDermott duly notes.
He has taken four full seasons to reconstruct that game, talking shop with the scattered principals, lifers who remember every pitch. He uses each inning to illustrate one of nine different pitches in baseball’s arsenal. Some of the old masters include Walter Johnson, Three-Finger Brown, Candy Cummings, said to be the inventor of the curveball, and Cascade's own Urban (Red) Faber, Hall of Famer and next-to-last (legal) practitioner of the spitball.
And more: McDermott was a ballboy one night in Cascade when Satchel Paige 56 going on 1,000, pitched a few innings. Satchel winked and asked the boy to please not clean the dirt off the balls being rotated back into the game. Let’s have some fun, Paige suggested.
This book taught me some things: hitters who start 0-1 in the count bat .230 on that at-bat but hitters who start 1-0 bat .275. Thirteen pitchers have had their perfect game disrupted with two outs in the ninth. And, in this affluent era when barely-used balls are tossed to the fans, the average game consumes 120 balls.
McDermott provides touching digressions about the numerous shoes in his daughter’s closet, and the time his headstrong dad cooked meat on the lid of a garbage can. (It was for the dog, he quickly adds.) He has a great ear for the verbal excursions and minutiae and great truths that baseball produces, more than any other sport.
“Off Speed” will be out soon enough, but my privileged early peek assures me: baseball lives.
I always thought Chaim Tannenbaum was from Quebec. He was the lanky male presence behind the beloved Kate and Anna McGarrigle, instrumentals and passionate tenor – particularly singing the lead on “Dig My Grave.”
Talk about soul: Chaim Tannenbaum, singing gospel.
One night the sisters decamped in Symphony Space or Town Hall or somewhere, and Chaim was nowhere to be seen. The sisters sang a song or two before a fan shouted lustily, “Where’s Chaim?” The ladies shrugged as if to say, deal with it.
Maybe Chaim had a philosophy class to teach at Dawson College in Montreal. That was his day job.
Kate passed in 2010 and the torch is carried by Loudon, by Martha, by Rufus, in their ways. And at the age of 68, Chaim released his first solo CD, “Chaim Tannenbaum,” last year. Never too late.
One of his songs is “Brooklyn 1955,” about, you know, Next Year.
Turns out, Chaim is from Brownsville. Who knew?
We fans thought Next Year would never come, but the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the dreaded Yankees in that World Series and bells rang all over the Borough of Churches. (I can attest; I was in a soccer match in Brooklyn that afternoon.)
In this tribute, Chaim strums and sings about the hallowed Dodgers long before pre-hipster Brooklyn, catching the mood of a borough finally having its moment.
He’s been in Montreal for decades, and his Brooklyn history is a bit vague: people were already committing white flight in the early ‘50s, and Brownsville is not the total hellhole he describes. But he is right. Brooklyn, 1955, was a time and a place.
Stick with the video because at the end the great Red Barber recites the defensive lineup from the 1952 World Series -- my eventual friend George Shuba in left, plus Billy Cox, “The Hands,” at third base. And Barber promises that sometime that afternoon the fans would be “tearing up the pea-patch” in Ebbets Field, one of his signature phrases -- a southerner talking about a pea-patch. In Brooklyn.
(Below: Young Chaim Tannenbaum sings “Dig My Grave,” a cappella, 1984, Red Creek Inn in Rochester N.Y. with Anna McGarrigle, Kate McGarrigle and Dane Lanken, bass vocal.)
The New York Times asked me to write a column for Monday about whether George Steinbrenner should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I remembered being a frequent critic of Steinbrenner, when I became a sports columnist in 1982. I often wrote that he should get out of town, go back to Tampa or Cleveland, because his crude bullying did not belong in Big Town. (Supply your own current punch line to that.)
He did odious things but over the years I developed a partial grudging respect for him as a big-timer who could take a certain amount of banter, like most politicians and public figures.
I looked at him from the perspective of a childhood Brooklyn Dodger fan who had suffered terribly, who never, ever, rooted for the Yankees. But at least the Yankees stayed in the Bronx, a symbol of domination and bluster and endless sentimentality with all their deities and trained American eagles swooping around the big ballpark during post-season games. Overkill. The Yankee way.
But when the Times asked me to write about George and the Hall, I decided he had upgraded a historic franchise, and was – in neutral terms – an epic figure in his business, and he belonged in the Hall.
When the column appeared on the NYT web site Sunday evening, many knowing readers criticized my reasoning, in the Comments section. Others wrote to my NYT address. (email@example.com.) I was impressed by so many arguments to keep him out:
--His meanness discredited anything the Yankees won.
---He broke rules, not as a player but as an owner, and that should count to keep him out.
---In fact, he went from 1978 to 1996 without winning a World Series, the longest drought since Babe Ruth arrived. How smart could he be?
---It was wrong of me to compare his splurging with cable and attendance money with the bargain-basement tactics of pioneer Hall of Fame owners like Connie Mack and Clark Griffith, both former players who helped build baseball.
--The Hall voters (NYT writers, including this pensioner, do not vote for such honors) have shunned known and suspected users of PEDs. If McGwire and Clemens and Bonds and Sosa are still outside, what about an owner who hired a gambler to dish dirt on Dave Winfield, who made illegal political contributions?
---He was a bully who mistreated many people, from baseball officials to players to humble workers. This was true. Some readers had one nasty brush with The Boss, and never forgot it. The first time I met him was in 1976, when I was still a cityside reporter and was sent up to the Stadium as the Yanks prepared for their first World Series since 1964. The Boss gushed over my work on Loretta Lynn’s book, but a minute later he reamed out a Stadium supervisor named Kelly for minute imperfections. It was a way for him to demonstrate his power to me. It was embarrassing to be present for this.
But four decades later I have come to think he was a giant as an owner, and should get in the Hall one of these years.
I love the readers’ comments – so informed, so passionate, and polite. But I think character has long been ignored by the Hall anyway. There are racists in the Hall, from players to commissioners; many great stars led terrible lives – drinking, carousing, misbehaving, to disgrace and early death. Some executives in the Hall are mere lodge brothers, voted in during a simpler time.
George Steinbrenner was complicated. He bought a failing franchise and forced it back to the top. He won 11 pennants. He made the Yankees big-time.
Finally, I made an allusion to a column I wrote in 1986 urging a burned-out Boss to sell the franchise to a local builder who needed a hobby, a focus in life. I did not mention Donald Trump by name but many readers compared Steinbrenner’s bullying with Trump’s.
As a New Yorker, who has met both men, I can attest that Steinbrenner was more centered, more educated, more generous than Trump.
It’s not as if anybody was voting for George Steinbrenner to be President, for goodness’ sakes.
I thank the readers who prodded my reasoning. Those who care to prod it here are welcome. The debate goes on.
On a murky, rainy Tuesday, I was with a gaggle of baseball-writer types at a friend’s apartment in the city.
Our hostess provided a nice lunch and we celebrated the 96th birthday of our colleague, who saw Lou Gehrig play.
Late in the lunch, I started getting texts from two rabid Mets fans.
“Céspedes back! 4 years!” one wrote.
“Finally, some good news!” the other wrote.
“This could get us almost all the way up to the next election,” the first one added.
I broke the news to the dozen writers, including Mets, Yankees Tigers and Orioles fans.
"Céspedes should play right field,” one of them said. "With that arm, that’s his best position.”
We debated that, and the $110-million price, for four years. Money well spent. (Not our money, to be sure.)
We talked baseball til it was time to go home.
Forty-five minutes later, I was driving through my home borough of Queens, in the dark, in the rain, right past the Mets’ ball park. (I know it has a corporate name, but I hate banks -- more since the crash.)
The huge message board was hawking stuff – probably a hazard for drivers trying to negotiate the shifting lanes and insane rush-hour drivers on the Whitestone Expressway.
But I took a quick glimpse anyway – commercials, some U.F.C. event, season tickets.
Céspedes, I said. Brag that you just locked up Céspedes for four years.
That would have been big-time celebrating – lighting the candle rather than stumbling in the dark, which the Mets have been known to do. But nobody in the Mets' office had pushed the button to tell the Whitestone Expressway about Céspedes.
I kept my eyes on the road but my mind was on April, when Céspedes, that imperfect star, will start swinging for the fences, and catching almost everything hit near him, and throwing out knuckleheads who run on his arm.
The Mets remain a contender particularly if their young pitchers recuperate.
I thought about the ball park buzzing, buying a hero at Mama's stand, watching Cabrera's sure hands and Granderson's smile and DeGrom's and Syndergaard's locks flapping in the breeze.
I felt better than I have in a month. We would get through the winter. Baseball will be back.
I suspect Yankee fans feel the same way about the prospect of the first full season of Gary Sanchez.
Yankee fans are human. They got to live, too. They look forward to driving around with John and Suzyn calling the game, the way Mets fans feel about Howie and Josh.
In the winter, in the red states, in the blue states, in the big markets and the small markets, fans are lying dormant, dreaming their dreams. (What dreams can Cubs fans possibly have, now that their tormented circadian rhythms have been forever disrupted?)
That's baseball. On a gloomy afternoon, somebody sends a text, and the ever-hopeful fan thinks, I can make it through the dark months. We will survive.
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.