As a rabid fan of only one team – in all sports – I admit I find a perverse pleasure in watching the Mets suffer with Jeff McNeil in the lineup.
This poor franchise has tried hard to marginalize him but in their drunk-stumbling-across-Queens-Boulevard-safely manner, they are stuck with him on the daily batting card.
As of Saturday morning, this late bloomer was batting .363 for the wobbly Mets. They keep stocking infielders and outfielders – Jed Lowrie's fabled arrival seems to be delayed; he’s never hit .300 in his life – while McNeil keeps defying the launch-arc wisdom that the stat wizards in the back room have foisted on managers and players.
The Mets showed a glimmer of hope early in the season when some of the hitters seemed to be listening to the old-school batting coach, Chili Davis, who told them it was really physically possible to flick the bat and make contact with the ball and put it where the fielders ain't (homage to Wee Willie Keeler. Look him up, kids.)
Lately the lads have been locked into their launch-arc stroke but McNeil keeps putting the ball in play in Wee-Willie territory.
The other day, Howie Rose, the Queens boy who has been calling games on the radio for centuries now, was rhapsodizing about McNeil, saying – on the air! – that McNeil is a “throwback” who is more of a credit to the real game than the launch-arc flailers. Good on Howie.
McNeil took a long time to make it through the Mets’ farm system. That happens. But when a guy hits .329 in 63 games in 2018, does he have to be treated like a supersub deep into the new season?
Not only that, but my friend Jerry, who played second base in the minors, tells me that McNeil was quite fine at second base late last season. Then the Mets got Robinson Cano, after his juiced-up years.
Maybe the Mets are still evolving under the strange combination of Brodie Van Wagonen, the reforming agent learning the general manager business, and Mickey Callaway, who comes off in New York as The New Art Howe. (I miss Terry Collins.)
Bear in mind, I am not around the team, don’t know the people or the gossip, but I watch and listen to a lot of Mets games and occasionally look at the web or read the tabloids so I can find the daily news on the Mets. This is essentially a fan’s rant.
Keep slapping the ball where they ain’t, Jeff McNeil.
All championships are miracles, somewhere, if you think about it.
Even if a team assembles a lineup full of Galácticos and runs away with a championship, it seems like a miracle for that time, that place, those athletes, those fans.
But here in New York, the Greatest Little Town in the World, we know that our miracles are bigger and better, more stupendous than any other miracles, just because.
Take 1969 – precisely 50 years ago, when the Amazing Mets won everything, which is why there is a year-long (more, in the planning) of celebrations and evocations and memorials, to say nothing of a one-event boom in the publishing industry, just as there was in 1970.
I have just read – and enjoyed -- two of the lunar tide of books cresting this spring.
One is “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: The ’69 Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History,” by Wayne Coffey.
See what I mean about New York being the center of the universe?
Coffey’s book is delightful because it replays the surprising surge by a franchise known for its goofy, even charming, failures. (Casey Stengel! Marvelous Marv! Bedsheet banners!)
Coffey also catalogues how the Mets firmed up before our unbelieving eyes under the talents and Marine steeliness of manager Gil Hodges and franchise superstar Tom Seaver. Some reporters (me) never believed it until Cleon Jones caught the last out and went to one knee in what only could be construed as prayer.
But….the very best part of Coffey’s book is the work he did nearly half a century after the fans stopped ripping up the Shea lawn for souvenirs. Coffey, it turns out, was a schoolboy playing hooky, in that scrum, on that day of days. Later he became a good and versatile reporter for The New York Daily News. Now he writes books…and works at them.
I loved, absolutely loved, catching up with people I knew half a century ago. Coffey discloses a previous link between Hodges and the mid-season acquisition, Donn Clendenon, who has posthumously become a more vital part of those Mets. Also, Coffey discloses that Clendenon was mentored at Morehouse College by a graduate named Martin Luther King, Jr., and was often a guest in the King home.
By 1969, Clendenon was also a salty vet who hit the Met clubhouse motor-mouthing, heckling everybody, the way the 60s Pirates had done. He told Gil Hodges, Jr., the teen-age son of the manager, to man up and defy his Marine dad. Gilly was wise enough to tell Clendenon: no way.
Coffey pays attention to the bigger picture – Karl Eberhardt, the self-proclaimed Little Old Signmaker in the stands, and Jane Jarvis, the hip jazz musician who played the Shea organ with wit and talent, and two batboys from my high school (the late, lamented Jamaica High) who were mentored by Joe Austin, Mario Cuomo’s legendary amateur coach.
With Shakespearean breadth, Coffey describes the major players and also the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of the Amazing Mets. Yes, it was a miracle.
The other book I have read is “Here’s the Catch: a Memoir of the Miracle Mets and More.” If the book sounds like Rocky, earnestly thundering to epic catches and humiliating gaffes, that is because he has been writing it on his own for a while. He describes himself as an average-IQ human and middle-of-the-pack major leaguer but his curiosity and zest have made him much more, over the years.
Rocky, going on 75 and vibrant, tells about departed teammates and soul mates like Tug McGraw and Ed Charles and Tommie Agee – guys with whom he competed and talked and drank and ate ribs and gallivanted.
Having known him since he was a teen-ager in Met camp in 1965, I know Rocky to be an autodidact (one year of being a jock in college) who often demonstrates his eclectic tastes. He follows the music of the Marsalis Family of his adopted home of New Orleans, and he also mentions classical music…and the Globe Theatre of Shakespearean time….and Jackson Pollock…and Monet….and Don DeLillo and so on. He means it. That is Rocky.
Maybe the best part of Swoboda’s book is growing up in a working-class neighborhood of Baltimore – relatives with tempers and guns and wit and opinions, two of them working in the morgue, pulling gory pranks on cops. Then there was the family flasher. Plus, the Chinese cook his earthy grandmother married, who smoked and drank and drove erratically and taught him how to make and eat Chinese food.
Swoboda writes about his lovely redheaded wife, Cecilia, and how Casey and Edna Stengel, childless, fussed over the Swobodas’ first-born, and his active scorn for the Vietnam War and the instant rapport when he visited the troops over there, very close to combat.
He laments behaving like a jackass toward Hodges, who was not just resolute with big hands but also a wily manager. All sports memoirs should be this earnest, this real.
On my incoming table are books by Art Shamsky about 1969, plus Ron Darling’s book, mostly about 1986, which was, of course, another miracle.
They all are, but some are more miraculous than others.
The Old Man.
I found myself thinking about The Old Man Friday night – how Casey Stengel always talked about The Youth of America, which was on its way, in 1962 and 1963 and 1964 and 1965 before he broke his hip, and time ran out on his gig, creating the New York Mets.
Casey would talk about young players as if they were the raffish hitch-hikers of the time, all gone to look for America, with live arms and fast feet and power and eyesight to “hit the ball over a building.”
For every young hopeful who put on a uniform, Casey indulged in wishful thinking that he would be ready to play for the Amazing (But Horrible) Mets.
“They ain’t failed yet,” Casey would say.
Ed Kranepool (above) was one of the first, a New York kid who signed and played a bit in the Mets’ first season, and turned out quite well. But dozens of the Youth of America never got to the Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium. Then, in 1969, Gil Hodges managed Seaver and Koosman and Ryan and all the others who won the improbable World Series, which we will celebrate all season.
Full of memories of that infant season, I watched Chris Hayes on MSNBC Friday evening, hosting a “town hall” of sorts, starring Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, from New York. She is smart and idealistic and impertinent and disarmingly candid, allowing as how the voters might “kick me out in two years.”
AOC – as she is now known – talked up the Green New Deal, which combines ecology with medical care with economic parity. (I recently heard her say that, at 29, she had gained health insurance for the first time when she was sworn into Congress in January.)
When prodded on Friday, she could be realistic about picking the right battles first. She also told some lout in the audience who had heckled another speaker that his words were “unacceptable.”
In that moment of truth, she channeled John McCain rather than the seedy bully temporarily soiling the office of the Presidency.
AOC is the Youth of America. So is Rep. Katie Porter, a freshman from Orange County, Cal. They both have distinguished themselves by being prepared in committee hearings, by asking questions. (Porter is a protégé of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Does it show?)
Reps. Porter and Ocasio-Cortez came to Congress unspoiled, able to put together 5-minute skeins of questions, backed up with research and logic and direction. They have not acquired the bad habits of mossbunkers of both parties, who waste their 5 minutes by talking about themselves.
Check out Rep. Ocasio-Cortez as she probed the great new American truth-teller Michael Cohen about the business practices of his former mentor and protector, Donald Trump.
Check out Rep. Porter as she probes the head of Equifax, like the prosecutor she used to be. The guy undoubtedly makes a ton of money for making tons of money for his shareholders, but about 15 seconds into the questioning he got the look of a lazy-minded fish that has bit into the wrong morsel.
For the past two years, we have watched inarticulate and servile slugs like Rep. Devin Nunes doing Trump’s dirty business. Now smart young women have arrived in Congress. They may strike out a lot. They may not last. But right now they are outplaying the sloppy old veterans.
They ain’t failed yet.
The Pulitzer-Prize-winning architecture expert, writing about ballparks, past and present?
What a way to start the season.
An advance copy of Paul Goldberger's book, “Ballpark: Baseball in the American City,” to be published by Knopf in May, kept me sane through certain other events in the past week. I learned about ballparks I had never seen, and I learned about ballparks I have loved, or not loved.
Ballparks are quirky, just like ballgames. Each one – at least now that the Cookie-Cutter Era is over – has its own human follies, like the alternating Sun Deck/Moon Deck at the funky (and vastly under-rated, Goldberger tells us) Crosley Field in Cincinnati.
Goldberger, who has graced The New York Times and the New Yorker with his perceptions, says David Remnick, the sports maven who runs The New Yorker, encouraged him to write about the two very different new ballparks in New York in 2009.
This forthcoming book follows the new Yankee Stadium in the “theme park” category and the erratic jumble of references and conceits of the Mets’ ball park, known to me as New Shea.
He manages to give us a primer on urban architecture – how baseball thrived in the 19th Century when new urban dwellers appreciated the rus in urbe of a green spot in a smoky city.
This is not your normal baseball book, not with Goldberger praising urban planners like Andrew Jackson Downing, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted – my wife’s master’s degree paper -- who dedicated Central Park to leisure and beauty rather than sports. (The softball fields sneaked in later.)
Goldberger follows the urban ballparks that grew bigger, moved from wood to stone and steel, some even having a clue about architecture.
My greatest takeaway from this book is praise for the beauty of Ebbets Field, created by an architect, Clarence Randall Van Buskirk, who had to hide the blueprints in his jacket to keep Brooklynites from sussing out the land grab in a hilly section known as Pigtown.
We Dodger fans had a boisterous inferiority complex, and we compensated with weirdos who played musical instruments wretchedly and spoke in a language called Brooklynese.
Turns out, Goldberger said, Ebbets Field featured “arches and pilasters and large, Federal-style double-hung windows with multiple square panes. There were concrete gargoyles and bas-relief medallions of baseballs, showing a degree of wit…”
He adds that “if Van Buskirk’s well-crafted, carefully wrought façade resembled anything, it was a cross between a civic building and a handsome, turn-of-the-century factory building. In this factory, the ornamental detail made it clear that the product was baseball.”
Who knew? We thought it was a lovable dump.
Goldberger also praises the rather majestic and urbane Shibe Park, later Connie Mack Stadium, in North Philadelphia. I must have covered 100 games there, and never noticed. Goldberger loves the funkiness of Cincinnati, with its 4-foot-high hill in left field, and spacious Forbes Field amidst the museums and campuses of the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. He has good things to say about Tiger Stadium (which I never noticed) and praises the two icons, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, with all the hexes of the teams and the fans. He speaks of a “golden age” of stadiums.
He is not as complimentary of the next stage – utilitarian, lookalike stadiums designed for the incompatible baseball and American football -- but praises the following stage, epitomized by Baltimore’s Camden Yards, with the factory behind right field.
Goldberger sounds downright dubious about the current trend, the Disneyfied faux urban gestures in downtown St. Louis and the new Braves complex, somewhere out there in the white ‘burbs, beyond the minimal Marta train system. Action. Reaction. Just like life, and history.
I was already killing time 'til the opening of the season, and now Goldberger’s book has raised my appreciation for (some of) the ballparks of North America. I haven’t found reason lately to visit the pretentious Yankeeland in the Bronx but I have made a few forays, admittedly closer to home, to the food courts and open spaces behind center field, with fish sandwiches and sausages—even if you can’t see the center fielder making a catch against the wall. Nothing’s perfect, and certainly not the Mets.
I’m looking forward to ballgames – plus paying more attention to ballparks, thanks to the master architecture critic, Paul Goldberger. Play ball.
Do you have a favorite ballpark, or one you couldn't stand, whether past or present?
* * *
About the book:
Here are two pieces I wrote for the excellent NYC real-estate site:
Two thoughts about Ichiro Suzuki, who just retired:
1. I can only speculate what would happen today if a player with similar skills arrived from Japan to the so-called Major Leagues. He might be turned over to the analytics types in their bat cave, who would "suggest" he could have more “pop” if only he had a better “launch arc.”
The numbers guy might see him produce long balls in batting practice – which he could do, any time – and insist he do the same during games.
The analytics crowd is currently retrofitting the new generation of hitters. I see how the Mets are doing their best to minimize Jeff McNeil, a late bloomer who made 74 hits and batted .329 in his debut last season, making him scramble for a utility job in the outfield.
Of course, Ichiro arrived in Seattle with the statistics of the greatest hit-producer in Japanese history. He also had the martial discipline of Sadaharu Oh, the greatest home-run producer in baseball history, who took time out to swing a Samurai sword to help him with his home-run cut.
Ichiro and Oh could do that because they had the security of a culture that prizes ritual and history.
Ichiro arrived in North America with his climate-control bat case and his pre-game snack of a rice ball. He was going to do things his way, and he had the advantage of a Japanese ownership with the Mariners. Nobody messed with him. He was already a force.
But young American hitters are hearing the “wisdom” of the age that is turning Major League Baseball into a dreary home-run derby, hard to watch, with players trudging impassively back from home plate with the secure knowledge they took their launch-angle cut, on orders from on high.
2. Ichiro was a force of his own, who would not have won a popularity contest in the clubhouse or the press box. He got along well with Ken Griffey, who traveled to Tokyo for Ichiro’s farewell -- superstars bonding via their respect for the game.
However, teammates noticed he never dived for a ball in the outfield and noticed his special care and handling in the clubhouse. He could speak street English in the dugout but maintained a reserve through an interpreter with reporters and other outsiders.
From the book "Life from the Press Box" by long-time Mariners beat reporter Jim Street:
“From the day Ichiro arrived from Japan, to the day I retired, he was exceedingly rude to American reporters, whether giving snide answers to good questions or making fun of ---‘s girth. I had one Japanese reporter tell me, ‘If you think he’s rude to you guys, he treats us even worse.’”
That said, Ichiro was a spectacle, to be observed and respected as one of a kind. His arm, his glove, his calculated speed on the base paths, his batting-practice homers and his gametime singles made him a legend.
Fans around the world got to see him excel at the highest level. And the launch-crowd types never got to mess with his swing. There’s that.
Three stories about Ichiro:
Two daughters who adored their fathers.
Julia Ruth Stevens died Saturday at 102. She was the adopted daughter of Babe Ruth and, as long as she lived, referred to him as “Daddy,” as Richard Goldstein notes in his masterful obituary.
Dan Jenkins, one of greatest sportswriters, died Thursday at 90. He was eulogized by many admirers in his business, the best coming from, of course, his daughter, Sally Jenkins, sports columnist at the Washington Post.
Sally, terrific writer that she is, described the hectic and eccentric life of a sports columnist who was usually at a golf tournament or football game when the family gathered for Thanksgiving and other holidays.
Her dad was as glib about the indignities of old age as he was about golfers who mis-read the terrain of the course. Sally tells about her dad wheeling himself down the hallway of the hospital heading toward a presumed quadruple heart bypass.
When he emerged, he was told he had needed only a triple.
"I birdied the bypass," he pronounced.
That’s it. I’m not going to try to duplicate the Jenkins family, father or daughter. Read Sally’s tribute to her dad. The Washington Post has a pretty strong paywall, bless its heart, but you might be able to read it there, or the Chicago Tribune. Or pay for it.
Plus, Bruce Weber’s excellent obit in the NYT:
Babe Ruth’s daughter also receives a brilliant tribute in the Monday NYT. She was the daughter of Babe’s wife, Clare Hodgson, and was adopted and treated royally, as a daughter by the gregarious, larger-than-life Babe.
No doubt she witnessed, and heard about, examples of Babe’s excesses, even after he stopped playing. As subtle as a diplomat, she discussed “Daddy” as she saw him – a man who made egg-and-salami sandwiches and took her golfing out in Queens. And when she started dating, he insisted she be home by midnight. Imagine: The Babe. Enforcing a curfew.
They lived on the Upper West Side, in a 14-room apartment; whenever I am in that neighborhood I envision The Babe, with a cap on his head, walking on Riverside Drive or thereabouts, just another West Side burgher.
She was an ambassador not only for “Daddy” but for baseball itself, waving to adoring crowds at the closing of “The House That Ruth Built,” waving to adoring crowds at Fenway Park, where The Babe first pitched shutouts and hit home runs.
When my alma mater, Hofstra University, held an academic conference on The Babe in 1995, she and her son, Tom Stevens, represented the Babe and gave out Babe Ruth bats to a few lucky people, including me.
But that’s enough from me.
Better you should read Richard Goldstein’s obituary of Mrs. Stevens:
Much has been made – deservedly – about what Don Newcombe accomplished on the field but much less has been written about how he saved lives.
Newcombe, who died this week at 92, put himself out there, as the rugged face of beating back addiction, day by day. He was one of the first public figures to talk about addiction – before Betty Ford, before other prominent people.
Newk was at his most formidable around the Los Angeles Dodgers, his old team. He was the Dodgers’ “director of community relations,” which meant he spoke about race and addiction and good citizenship, offering himself as a prime example, how he had wrecked his career as a pitcher (and pinch-hitter deluxe), by drinking. He gave testimony of how he had gone sober, on his knees, promising his wife he would never drink again.
The amazing thing about this tough guy is that he did it by himself – just stopped. Most alcoholics rely on daily reinforcement, the meetings, the written word, the prayer to a higher power. Newk just stopped. This guy was so tough, he would not take gas or injections at the dentist, to deaden the pain.
He never went to a rehab center, never went to AA meetings for himself, but he did not recommend that path for anybody else. He told other people that rehab worked, and that they should seek it, and sometimes he accompanied them right into the center.
He also stalked players, or at least they thought he did. My friend Bob Welch was having blackouts at 23, destroying a promising pitching career, and his life, during the 1979 season. When I helped him write his book about rehab – “Five O’Clock Comes Early: A Young Man’s Battle With Alcoholism,” Bob told me how he hated Newcombe, was sure Newk was stalking him.
And maybe Newk was. A big man, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, with a prominent jaw and nose making him even more formidable, Newk had the run of the ball park. He wore elegant suits and snappy straw fedoras and would wander through the clubhouse, chatting with people. He was hearing how Bob had passed out in public, how the Dodgers had sent somebody to get him into his hotel room.
At the end of the 1979 season, the Dodgers had a program with a major sponsor, and staged an intervention with Bob, and got him to The Meadows in Arizona.
Bob came back and pitched for more than a decade and won the Cy Young Award with Oakland; he was sober when he passed suddenly in 2014.
Newk was also there for Maury Wills when his life was crumbling and for Lou Johnson, the heart of the 1965-6 team, who came to the Dodgers for help. Newk said: “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Newk made public speeches, represented the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and other outfits dealing with addiction.
In between, he spoke about Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, his teammates and would-be mentors in Brooklyn. He told of the night that Robinson got weary of the black hotel in St. Louis with no air conditioning, and said, that’s it, I’m checking in at the Chase, with the white Dodgers, and did just that.
Jackie and Campy died young; Newk carried their flames; he did it his way, as the song goes.
In 1987, just before the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s debut, Al Campanis, the Dodger general manager (who was my friend), made some foolish and meandering statements about how black players lacked the “necessities” to be managers.
This was a chance to say, well, racism is everywhere, you never know about people, but Newk knew Al Campanis, knew how Al had taught Robinson to play second base in the minors in 1946, knew that Al hung out with Latino scouts at the ballpark.
During the uproar, Mike Francesa and Christopher Russo interviewed Newk on WFAN radio. and Newk said Campanis was no racist, he just bumbled a bit, and he labelled the end of Al’s career a “tragedy.” Newk was loyal to the truth as he knew it.
In recent years, whenever I thought of the Los Angeles Dodgers, my last link to Brooklyn was the big man in the elegant suits who had the run of Dodger Stadium. Newk was a staple on old-timers’ day and other days of remembrance but he was as courant as the latest celebrity caught abusing one thing or the other.
We have lost a good one.
* * *
Richard Goldstein’s obituary on Newk:
Newk and Lou Johnson:
Newk and Maury Wills and others:
Newk’s stats: check out the batting average and the home runs. The Dodgers usually have good hitting pitchers – the real baseball, none of this DH foolishness:
Another view of Newk’s work with the Dodgers:
Now the Mets have Jacob DeGrom's former agent working as a general manager, negotiating DeGrom's contract -- with an imposed deadline of opening day. What could go wrong, in a franchise that let Tom Seaver get away?
But at least many of the Mets were in Florida on Monday, stretching and throwing, scratching and spitting, doing what ball players do. We survive vicariously.
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right
---"Here Comes the Sun," lyrics by George Harrison, from "Abbey Road," 1969.
Say, what happened that year?
Mets, 1962-63: Ralph Kiner, a star slugger in my youth, was now an amiable broadcaster with the horrid new team in New York. One time in a press room or team bus, Kiner was asked about the great players in the National League in that time – Aaron, Banks, Clemente, Mays, Frank Robinson. He was positive about them all, but added that in the clutch, Robinson could find more intensity, more extra bits of talent, to beat you.
Orioles, 1966: Robinson, traded by the Reds because he was “an old 30,” sparked the Orioles in their first World Series to a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers. But that wasn’t the most impressive thing. In the Orioles’ clubhouse, the fringe players swigged Champagne and careened around the clubhouse, dousing anybody and everybody – except: In a dry corner, Frank Robinson was talking to the press. He spotted the lead sprayer, a big and boisterous pitcher, who had not appeared in the Series, and held up one index finger – and the reserve skidded to a halt like a cartoon character. Robinson waved the index finger as if to say, “Good boy,” and remained dry, very dry.
Cleveland, 1977: The first black manager became the first black manager to get fired, as Joe Jares wrote in Sports Illustrated. The job was offered to Jeff Torborg, the former catcher and now a coach, but out of loyalty Jeff did not want to replace Robinson. As I have heard it, Robinson told Torborg, and I paraphrase, “Are you out of your freaking mind? That’s the way baseball works. It’s your job. Take it.” And Torborg did.
San Francisco, 1981-84: Robinson got another managing job with the Giants, and I caught up with him at some point, maybe in the visiting dugout at Shea Stadium. Managers still sat around the dugout, pre-game, and talked baseball with reporters. (Few electronics; no instant social-media madness. I call them the good old days.) Musing about great baseball accomplishments, Robinson said that the statistic that floored him most was Joe DiMaggio’s career ratio of home runs (361) to strikeouts (369). I just looked it up: Robinson’s career ratio was 586 homers to 1532 strikeouts, so he was speaking with huge respect and humility. Of course, nowadays, our launch-arc lads are flailing away with total permission from the analytics types in the front office. I would have liked to hear him on that.
New York, 2019: I have a baseball-savvy lawyer friend in a major baseball town, who grew up in Dayton, just up the road from Cincinnati. He remembers the day the Reds traded Robinson, and, to this day, blames the DeWitt family, which owned the Reds back then. The DeWitt family (admirable baseball people, take it from me) now owns the Cardinals, and my friend, true to his Reds boyhood, roots against any DeWitt team, because they traded Frank Robinson because – oh, you remember – he was “an old 30.”
When I was a little kid, my father used to bring home baseball record books from the newspaper office, including photos of the first class of five players elected to the Hall of Fame.
How stodgy and old-fashioned they looked in old photos – faces and bodies and uniforms that seemed clunky by “modern” standards of 1946 and 1947.
Yet there they were, the first “immortals” – chosen in 1936 for the emerging Hall of Fame: Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.
I saw Cobb and Ruth at the first Old-Timers Game in Yankee Stadium at the end of 1947; Ruth was dying, in his camel’s-hair coat, his voice crackling on the primitive public-address system.
He was an immortal, but he was most surely mortal.
In 1947, we were also living in a time of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial – and Jackie Robinson. More immortals. When I saw them play, did I stop to study them carefully, so I would have an engraved memory of their swing, their mannerisms? Nah. Not smart enough.
We live in the moment, but I was minimally wise enough, as a young sportswriter in the ‘60s, to know I was in the presence of immortals -- Koufax and Gibson, as good as it gets; Mays and Clemente and Aaron and Frank Robinson.
And when I was around the New York Yankees from 1995 to 2013, it was a privilege to watch Mariano Rivera break off that cutter that was equal-opportunity unhittable. He dominated in a modest way, no gestures, no celebrating, because, as he often says, he “respects the game.”
I must add, it was also a privilege to watch Jeter and Williams and Posada and Pettitte, year after year; they soothed the ancient sting of my Yankee-tormented childhood as a Brooklyn Dodger fan. How could I hate a team that had those guys?
I recently met a rabbi on Long Island who raved about a trip he had taken to Israel in the company of the evangelical Christian Mariano Rivera.
I am sure Rivera’s rabbinical admirer is celebrating today, as Rivera has become the first baseball immortal to be elected unanimously. Considerating the cranks and crackpots and purists in my colleagues, this is huge.
I did not have the same surety about Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina (NYT writers are not allowed to vote for awards, and I follow those rules in retirement.) The voters have confirmed Halladay and Mussina as Hall of Fame pitchers, so congratulations.
And did you see Tyler Kepner’s absorbing insider explanation of what Rivera taught Halladay about the cutter? It would cost Rivera a few bucks in a clubhouse kangaroo courthouse.
In Rivera’s first season, 1995, I got to watch one of the best post-season series ever played, a best-of-five division thriller between the emerging Yankees and what seemed to be the emerging Seattle Mariners.
The difference in that series was Edgar Martinez, a designated hitter at the peak of his game. He was unspectacular in demeanor but dominant in hitting a ball.
Just before the fifth and final game, I wrote an “early” column – for the first national edition – quoting Reginald Martinez Jackson, Yankee star and by then Yankee advisor, raving about Edgar Martinez, no relation. Reggie’s raves are best read in context of my revised column, after Martinez had clubbed the Mariners into the next round:
Do I think of Edgar Martinez the way I think of Ruth, or Mays, or Koufax, or Rivera? No, but there are four or five levels of Hall of Fame players. I hate the designated-hitter rule; it has led to the current plague of launch-arc/strikeout flailers. But Edgar was not a launch-arc guy. Read how Reggie dissected his professional swings in that marvelous 1995 division series.
I cannot hold being a designated hitter against Martinez; he played where they told him to play. Designated hitters gotta live, too.
I remember Edgar dominating an epic series, sending Junior Griffey sliding home with a joyous cat-in-the-hat smile,
(Think Buck Showalter ever wonders why the Yanks did not activate young Derek Jeter for the post-season….or why Buck did not keep young Mariano Rivera on the mound after getting two outs?)
That epic coastal series was the time of Edgar Martinez, not Mariano Rivera. Now they go into the Hall together.
Like Johnson, like Mathewson, like Wagner, like Cobb, like the Babe himself – by definition, tightly monitored by baseball fans and players and officials and voters: immortals, all.
There are web sites with the 10 worst Mets trades, the 15 worst Mets trades.
Plenty of space for new ones in the vast reaches of the Web.
We think of the talent this franchise has let get away – Nolan Ryan. Amos Otis. Roger McDowell and Lenny Dykstra.
In their sketchy past, the Mets have gotten expensive and over-the-hill talent like George Foster, Jason Bay and Bobby Bonilla, to say nothing of Juan Samuel for McDowell and Dykstra.
We won’t know where this trade fits until the Mets, maybe, who knows, happen to have a lead in the ninth inning and Edwin Diaz remains the excellent save guy he was in Seattle.
I don’t expect much from Robinson Canó. He is 36 years old, comes with a five-year contract for $100-million.
“And I’ll give you one guess who Canó’s agent is, or was,” a Mets fan in my neighborhood texted me. (Same guy who, in 1989, called home from college and all he could rasp was, “It stinks. It just stinks.” I didn’t have to ask, “Who is this?” or what it was about – the Samuel trade, of course.)
Cano’s previous agent, Brodie Van Wagenen is now the general manager of the Mets. What ever happened to the great Jeff Sessions move of recusing himself?
As for Canó, he was an engaging young guy with the Yankees – named for Jackie Robinson by his dad, alert eyes, nice personality. But he missed 80 games with the Mariners last year after testing positive, which throws his power numbers under huge suspicion.
“But Cano might have something left,” wrote Tyler Kepner in the Times on Monday, adding: “He batted .317 in 41 games after returning from his suspension, and hitting is just what he does.”
Tyler is not a pushover, and neither is he overly droll. This is his judgment, and I am noting it, with great respect.
Plus, it’s nice to know the Mets have $100-million to spend on a 36-year-old post-suspension hitter. Maybe the Madoff Years are over.
But there is something else about acquiring Canó. Last year the Mets brought up Jeff McNeil, a late-blooming second baseman who had learned traditional baseball skills in the minors and proceeded to hit .329 in 225 at-bats with the Mets – with seven steals and three homers.
“And he’s a good defensive second baseman,” says a friend of mine who played two years at that position in the minors.
McNeil will be 27 next April. Oh, he is making around the major-league minimum salary. Did I mention that?
By making these moves, the Mets are showing they are mired in the generation of the launch arc – the identical swing in the same damn groove that sends most hitters back to the dugout regularly, with blank looks that say, Well, I did what they want. I took my hacks.
Right. Jacob DeGrom merely won a Cy Young Award by tricking the launch-arc pigeons, pitching up, up, up, inning after inning.
* * *
The Mets roster will continue to change. Jay Bruce was a mensch, a gamer, in his two stints with the Mets. Thanks, man.
As for the young talent, think Nolan Ryan.
Meanwhile, Wilmer Flores has been released. That is baseball, defensible. Wilmer does not have enough power to make up for defensive mediocrity, nor does he have what the broadcasters like to call “foot speed.” Who didn’t cringe when that indecisive third-base coach meditated in real time over whether to send Wilmer? Don’t Do It! we screamed.
Wilmer is a sweet guy, you can see that from the top row. He cried the first time they tried to trade him, now part of Mets lore.
Let’s pause for a chorus of: Don’t Cry for Me, Wilmer Flores.
The moral to the release of Wilmer is: don’t get too attached to charismatic Mets icons wearing No. 4.
Forget about old Dodgers Charlie Neal and Duke Snider in the first two years. Later icons, Ron Swoboda and Rusty Staub and Lenny Dykstra, all beloved, all wearing No. 4, were sent away.
The Mets would have traded Mel Ott (No. 4) of the New York Giants.
The Mets would have traded Lou Gehrig (No. 4) of the New York Yankees.
Wilmer should look at it that way.
Now they are spending $100-million for Robinson Canó, age 36.
As we say in New York, Oy!
We were watching MSNBC Friday evening, when they segued into quickie telephone tributes for George H.W. Bush, followed by Lester Holt narrating the prepared tribute.
One of the film clips was of a little boy in a back-yard rundown, lovingly getting tagged out by the right, gloved hand of an elder, presumably the Bushes we now know as 43 and 41.
It was so sweet, people playing the American game with great big smiles and sweeping tags.
Mister, I’m a baseball man--Ry Cooder.
My conduit to President Bush, the baseball man, came via Curt Smith, a speechwriter during the Reagan-Bush years, who in 1989 invited a gaggle of sportswriters and broadcasters to the White House for a baseball schmooze-fest. I wrote about the President’s glove in his desk drawer.
When I heard about President Bush’s passing, I immediately thought of Curt Smith, and his admiration for his former boss.
It is well known that President George H.W. Walker was a crier. Wept easily. Smith once told how he was assigned to write a speech for the visit to Pearl Harbor on the 50th anniversary of the attack that kicked off the Pacific war on Dec. 7, 1941.
On Saturday I asked Curt for his recollections of No. 41 – and the speech. This is what Curt Smith wrote back:
Bush truly loved the game: played, coached it in Texas, mentored players, captained his team at Yale. He made the first two College World Series in 1947-48. He accepted Babe Ruth’s copy of the Babe’s memoir in 1948 as Yale’s captain as Ruth was dying of cancer. He coached all four of his sons in Little League. He took Queen Elizabeth to a baseball game, staged a great event at the White House to honor Williams and DiMaggio on the 50th anniversary of their magical 1941, invited Musial and Yastrzemski to the White House as he prepared to go to Poland to, among other things, christen Little League Baseball there, on and on and on. He and I talked baseball, he had my Voices of The Game at Camp David. Our first meeting he told me, “I’d rather quote Yogi Berra than Thomas Jefferson,” and meant it. He knew more Berraisms than I did!
Pearl Harbor evolved from the fact that I generally did “values, inspiration, patriotic” speeches for Bush. I had always read a lot about World War II and was very conversant with Bush’s role in the War. I knew of his great modesty. As I kid he hit a couple homers once. His mother Dorothy eyed him and, referencing the grand Protestant hymn, said, “Now, George, none of this ‘How Great Thou Art’ business.”
Bush was naturally self-effacing and deferential, two of the reasons he drew people toward him. He hated to use the word I in speeches. Try writing speeches that way! In any event, our speech staff was constantly frustrated at how the country didn’t know the Bush we did—because of Bush’s dignity, innate reserve, feeling that the President should set an example. (What a concept!)
I wanted the country to see the man that we did. In talking with the President, I tried to subtly make this point. Bush, on the other hand, had been 17 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a Sunday. He had friends who had died. He had gone next day, a Monday, and tried to enlist. The draft board said, in essence. “Sonny, you’re too young. Come back when you’re 18.” He did, enlisting the day he turned 18.
Bush, at heart a very sentimental, emotional man—a softie, as he and we knew: again, a reason so many of us loved him — was concerned he would not get through the speech. “I don’t want to break down,” he said. I didn’t tell him I wanted him to break down: that would have been unseemly. I did say that “This will be a chance for you to talk about an event that will show the Nation the kind of person you are.”
As things turned out, he didn’t break down, but did choke up; his voice faltered; he was clearly moved. In retrospect, Bush, who almost to the end was unsure whether he could give the speech, was very glad that he did. And in the next 25 years, as a former President, the country came to see almost precisely Bush as we had—sentimental, giving, kind, funny, patriotic—one terrific person.
(With great thanks to Curt Smith)
Curt did not include this Pearl Harbor story in his terrific recent book, “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball & the White House,” published by the University of Nebraska Press. Bush, a .251 hitter at Yale, was surely the best player and biggest fan of all presidents who have tossed out ceremonial baseballs on opening day.
They were baseball people, the Bushes, part of the carriage trade that made the New York Giants the elite team of the big city. George Herbert Walker, Jr., uncle of the future No. 41, owned a piece of the Mets, starting in 1962 – a clubby gent who, as I recall, was fine with sportswriters calling him “Herbie.” They were easy to be around, the Bushes.
I was lucky enough to meet No. 41 twice, both in baseball settings. I wrote about my second meeting when Barbara Bush passed last May:
However, I did not get as close to No. 41 as my boyhood pal, Angus Phillips, did for the Washington Post. Invited to a dawn fishing trip on the Potomac, Angus reported to the White House a few minutes early and somehow was ushered into the living quarters where he discovered the leader of the free world padding around a hallway, clearly just out of bed. Angus’s classic tale of the visit…and the fishing….is included here:
George H.W. Bush was the last World War Two veteran to serve as president.
He kept his old George McQuinn mitt in his desk drawer in the White House.
Whatever else he was, he was a softie. And a baseball man.
* * *
The New York Times also prepared a magnificent spread on No. 41:
My friend Jerry Rosenthal was in his first spring training in 1961, being switched from shortstop to second base.
The coaches were swatting grounders during infield practice, concentrating on the double play with a bunch of strangers, trying to claw their way up the Milwaukee Braves’ farm system.
“I was figuring out the steps on my own,” Rosenthal recalls. Get to the base. Turn. Throw to first.
The stranger on line behind Jerry offered his critique: Jerry did not know jack about making the double play, and was going to get killed.
“You’ve got to cheat toward the base,” Ron Hunt told him, while executing his own double-play pivot. “Plant your foot and throw the ball.”
Jerry remembers the stranger as “very acerbic, but not mean spirited.”
It should be noted that the year before at Cedar Rapids, Hunt had batted .191 and committed 37 errors in 121 games. However, he offered advice -- even to a rival.
Hunt also delighted in patrolling the sparse training clubhouse, pulling adhesive tape off the bodies of teammates, but not in a mean way, Jerry Rosenthal adds. (An all-conference shortstop at Hofstra who came back from being hit by a pitch near the eye, Jerry played two years in the minors, admiring teammates like Rico Carty and Bill Robinson and opponents like Lou Brock, and later taught school in Brooklyn, and is great company for his love of the game.)
Ron Hunt became the Mets’ first young star – scrappy and opinionated, the epitome of The Youth of America that Casey Stengel swore was in the pipeline.
Hunt was in the news the other day, in a lovely article and video from Ken Davidoff in the New York Post, detailing how Hunt, now 77, is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, quite possibly the toll from being hit by 243 pitches in a 12-year major-league career, and throwing his body around in the field and sliding into bases.
Right here, you could switch over to Davidoff’s depiction of a grouchy but idealistic baseball lifer, now suffering:
I first met Ron Hunt in spring training of 1963 He had inched forward in the Braves’ system and the Mets had drafted him out of AA ball.
In those days, rookies were discouraged from being brash. Show us something, kid. Based in funky St. Petersburg – long before the move to eternally desolate Port St. Lucie -- the Mets played exhibitions on the Gulf Coast and inland Florida. Rookies got to ride the bus, so Hunt was designated for a game in Sarasota. I had already discovered that he was a blunt and willing talker, with opinions on anything.
Pitching for the White Sox was Herb Score, whose career had been disrupted by a line drive that hit him alongside the eye in 1957. Score was trying to hang on. After the game, I asked Hunt how Score looked to him.
“He don’t have shit,” Hunt told me. “He’s just cunny-thumbing the ball up there” – an old baseball expression for a junkballer.
The rook surely did not hold anything back. And he was right. Herb Score never pitched in the majors again. Three weeks later, Hunt jumped ahead of five or six other second baseman to open the season for the Mets, and he became a fixture, first with the Mets, later with four other teams. The Mets enjoyed him, called him “Bad Body” for the way he slouched and slumped his way around, infuriating rivals by getting hit by pitches, sliding hard into bases, bunting with two strikes, and other anti-social acts.
In the age of the Launch Angle, I must add that Hunt was the antithesis of today’s model player, who swings from his butt, every pitch, trying to propel a home run. Hunt hit only 39 homers in 12 seasons and today would surely be scorned by the analytics experts hunched in front of their computers. The Mets have a second baseman named Jeff McNeil who batted .329 in 63 games as a late-blooming rookie last season, and the last I heard the Mets don’t sound convinced he should be a major-league regular. I’d like to hear Ron Hunt’s take on that.
Hunt has opinions on everything. For a decade or two, he ran a baseball program in the St. Louis area, his own funds, his own rules, trying to make tough kids even tougher, while he also ran his farm.
Ken Davidoff catches him perfectly. Ron Hunt, with a nasty condition, sounds just like the opinionated teammate Jerry Rosenthal met in 1961 and I met in 1963. May he have a testy opinion about his illness, and tell it where to go.
When friends in Jerusalem and the Upper West Side send the same link, it makes sense to read it -- and pass it on. Roger Angell, 98, has some thoughts on election day and citizenship.
What could be more American than an essay on voting by a hallowed member of the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame?
(The art was a bonus. I found it on line, and consider my posting it here as an endorsement for any artist who can put these three dudes in the same work.)
World Series Is Over: Redemption; Regional Sweets; Chavez Ravine; Third-Game Marathon. Now What Do I Do?
Monday Morning: My wife asked, “Well, what are you going to do now?”
La guerre est finie.
Well, I said, family, friends, chores, read a book, get to sleep earlier.
The better team won, of course. That is what experts seemed to be saying about the Red Sox weeks ago, and it was obvious throughout.
Who doesn’t like redemption? I’ve witnessed two great Dodger pitchers, Don Newcombe and Bob Welch, both of whom I got to know, not win a World Series game, and that is no fun.
It wasn’t fun trying to pick between Clayton Kershaw and David Price, two left-handers in search of redemption, but I have never met Kershaw and I did encounter Price during the 2008 post-season when he was a thoughtful kid out of Vanderbilt, coming on for the Rays. So, in a way, I was rooting. His redemption was magnificent, on the tube, Sunday night.
So was post-season baseball because it allowed me to purge more of the Mets out of my tormented system. Better baseball. One play exemplifies: In the third desperate game, the Dodgers’ versatile Cody Bellinger, son of a former Yankee, wearing my good friend Bob Welch’s old No. 35, and wearing it well, was in center field, trying to avert what would be a devastating run.
Fly ball to medium center field. Bellinger backed up with those long legs of his and took a running start inward toward the descending ball, caught it and heaved it on a fly near home, just in time to cut off a runner trying to score from third.
Just the way the game ought to be taught. But after watching the Mets (except when the brittle Juan Lagares could play center) I forgot how people like Bradley, Jr., and Betts and Bellinger and Hernández and all the rest could play center field.
So a dose of much better baseball sends us off to the winter.
Early Monday morning, I had time and brain width to read two stirring obituaries, one on the playwright Ntozake Shange and one on the contemplative monk, the Rev. Thomas Keating, both exquisitely written. (My Appalachian pal, Randolph, now occasionally commenting on this little therapy web site, had sent me the link with a comment:
“I feel a sadness. He was such a good man. He really understood that religion was secondary and he tried to bridge the gap between Christianity, Buddhism and all religions: we are all humans....” Randy
The two obits: what a start to the off-season.
And don’t forget to vote next week.
EARLIER WORLD SERIES ARTICLES:
Date shake -- or Necco wafers?
This was the cryptic note from my older daughter, a recovering newspaper columnist, just like her dad.
Knowing that she is also a poet (a good one), I knew this was a simile or allegory or symbol, one of those things.
I got it. Southern California vs. Boston. The World Series matchup. Sweet tooth and clashing baseball instincts.
This was before the first two games in chilly, quivering Fenway Park.
On a clean slate, this Met fan pondered the two delicacies -- the sweet, freeze-your-brain specialty of Southern California or the traditional New England circular treat that fits right on your tongue. (The chocolate one!)
I flashed upon the great post-season games that Laura Vecsey and I covered.
Laura would place a fresh Necco package on my press-box table -- straight from the New England factory. (The company has since gone down, but an Ohio company seems to have rescued it.)
But then I thought about being a young baseball reporter in the mid-60s, night games in Anaheim, mornings driving out to Laguna Beach, swimming with the seals, (ruining my skin for decades later) and then searching the coastal highway for a utilitarian shack producing that thick substance laced with bits of chewy dates.
The Beach Boys on the car radio.
A date shake in my hand.
No brainer. I vote for date shakes.
The World Series is a different flavor altogether. The Mets are a distant horrible memory. I watch the three Boston outfielders and the Dodger center fielders, changing by the inning, all running down shots into the alleys. Good baseball, so rich, so filling, making the masochistic Mets fillings in my teeth ache.
I have to choose? Normally, I'd be partial to the team of my childhood, Brooklyn Dodgers, and even in the 80s I was doing a book with Bob Welch and became friendly with Al Campanis and renewed my admiration for Don Newcombe, still with them.
But it's a different age. I don't like rent-a-star Manny Machado, even with that magnificent arm and all the other skills. As a guy with a formerly red beard, now trimmed tight, I think Justin Turner's beard is, well, over the top. All I'm saying is, not my team.
I have never rooted for the Red Sox (well, maybe when they played the Yankees in the 70s), and I still do not, but I love Fenway Park and I love Boston, deeply love visiting there. And David Price was such a nice young guy in 2008 with Tampa Bay, not long from Vanderbilt, smart, open. I have been happy that he finally won a post-season game and now has won a World Series game.
That isn't rooting. It's just appreciation. None of this fits my Mets, need-to-suffer, pathology.
Plus, my agent is a fervent Red Sox fan. I always want her to be happy.
But in the scenario posted by my older daughter, I would choose a date shake -- Beach Boys on the radio -- coastal highway -- anytime.
Enjoy the rest of the series.
THEN THERE'S THIS:
It took a health walk on Friday with my head-set – listening to one of my all-time top-ten CDs, Ry Cooder’s epic “Chavez Ravine” -- to make me question my knee-jerk feelings about this World Series.
The album is a highly pointed look at the “acquisition” of the land for the Dodgers’ home park since 1962. As a Brooklyn fan, I hated the Dodgers’ move (and Walter O’Malley.) But the first time I saw the transplanted Dodgers in their pastel playpen, 1964, on a gorgeous spring evening, I shook my head and thought, “Hmmm.”
As a Queens-Brooklyn guy, I could understand, if not forgive.
Ry Cooder’s masterpiece talks about the people who lived in the ravine, and the establishment’s “UFO” that warned them to evacuate their homes. He wrote songs about the campesinos who lived there, but also the truck drivers and urban planners and red-scare politicians who were part of it.
And after all the disruption, Cooder presents a sweet song about the ghosts who inhabit the ball park:
2nd base, right over there. I see grandma in her rocking chair
Watching linens flapping in the breeze,
And all the fellows choosing up their teams….
The man parks cars outside the ball park and he concludes, “Yes, I’m a baseball man myself.”
I love that album. Play it all the time. (check out the beautiful Costa Rican poem, “Soy Luz y Sombra” at the end.)
So my question for the day, after my health walk: is, isn’t that beautiful and enduring place, even with its brutal beginnings, a worthy bookend to Boston and Fenway?
Friday Night's Marathon: Yes, I Went the Distance
Well, with a brief excursion to watch Burt Reynolds flirt with a blonde and out-drive Ned Beatty in "White Lightning." It had to be done. These post-season games, with their commercial breaks, make me crave a moonshiner in a car chase. Action.
Plus, I find the network broadcast to be hopelessly saccharine after a season of Gary, Ron, Keith, Howie and Josh on Mets broadcasts. I'm sorry. I am reminded of Mario Cuomo's description of Walter Mondale's candidacy in 1984: "Polenta." (Look it up.) Mario laid the observation off on his mom. Nice going.
The Fox crew deserves credit for stamina, as does the umpiring crew.
The game got better and better as the hours went on, and any fan had to wonder when position players would start pitching. All the front-office-driven analytics mandating pitching changes (and locked-in power arc swings) run through entire pitching staffs in extra innings.
Then Nate Eovaldi performed one of the great World Series relief performances -- 6 innings, 3 hits, 5 strikeouts, one game-ending home run by Max Muncy. His work should be a wakeup call to managers and general managers and analytics geeks everywhere that pitchers can still go multiple innings, getting into a routine, learning as much about the hitters as the hitters are learning about them.
The game lasted 7 hours and 20 minutes, took 18 innings, and became an instant classic.
I am wondering if some of our friends in far-flung time zones like Israel, Italy, Rio, Japan, etc. were watching or following on the web.
That game will blend right into Saturday's game, with the depletion of pitching staffs -- and stresses and strains on players' bodies -- having a major impact.
Rest up, you all.
The only time I ever interviewed Jackie Robinson, he bawled me out.
This is true. I was a 20-something reporter for Newsday and my boss assigned me to write an article about why there were no African-American managers in baseball.
Naturally, I needed to talk to Jackie Robinson, long out of baseball and doing community work for Chock Full o' Nuts.
I arranged to call him, I believe at home, and at the appointed hour I rang and began to ask him why, two decades after his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, there had never been a black manager. (Buck O’Neil and Gene Baker had been the first two black coaches earlier in the 60s.)
Robinson turned the conversation around.
“Let me ask you something,” he said, as I recall it from long ago. “How many blacks are there in the sports department?”
Uh…..none, Mr. Robinson.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” he said, or something like that, insisting that opportunity was a far greater issue than just for baseball managers.
Robinson’s tone was cranky, but it sounded like a hymn to me. I knew the man, from reading Dick Young and Milton Gross and Jimmy Cannon as a kid. This was why Robinson was a hero to me and my family, in Queens.
(I told that story to Rachel Robinson a few years back and she flashed that gorgeous smile and said, “That sounds like Jack.”)
Robinson died in Oct. 24, 1972, just after the World Series. He was 53 years old, broken by diabetes and the car-crash death of his son and namesake a year before. (Don Newcombe and others believe Robinson’s system suffered from the stress of being The First.)
(Please see Dave Anderson's article from 1972.)
Frank Robinson, a kindred soul and now a fellow Hall of Fame member, no relation, would become the first African-American manager two years later.
Now so-called minority managers are hired and fired just like anybody. Dusty Baker, one of the great people, has moved all over the place. (Hey, Washington Nationals, how did sacking Dusty work out?)
And now, 2018. The World Series will commence on Tuesday with Alex Cora from Puerto Rico and Dave Roberts, half African-American, half Japanese, managing Robinson’s transplanted team, the Los Angeles Dodgers – the first minority manager of the Dodgers, in fact.
(My friend Al Campanis, who taught Jackie Robinson to play second base in the minors, always grieved that Roy Campanella was disabled and Jim Gilliam died young. Both would have managed the Dodgers, Al said.)
The Boston sports sections, so deliciously local and vital in their passion and memory, have been heralding this reunion of two friends who embraced in 2017 when Cora was a coach with the champion Houston Astros.
Both Dave Roberts and Alex Cora are lifers in the major leagues – useful players who had their moments. In 2004, Roberts made one of the great plays in Boston Red Sox history – stealing second base in the ninth inning of the fourth game of the league series. The Red Sox had lost the first three and were behind in the fourth, against one of the great batteries, ever – Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada.
Having learned from the great Maury Wills, Roberts was safe. The Red Sox went on to win their first World Series since 1918.
Now Roberts will be in the dugout for the Dodgers and Cora will be in the dugout for the Red Sox – a franchise still remembered for giving a bogus “tryout” to Jackie Robinson in 1945.
Baseball wrings its hands at the drop in African-American players in the last generation, but baseball has players of Asian and Latino ancestry – and so does the World Series. I salute the contribution Jackie Robinson made to this week’s milestone.
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:
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: