It has taken nearly a month of mourning, but I am finally paying attention to baseball again.
The World Series has gotten interesting, after five games. Anything can happen, just like in real life.
Of course, my avid interest in the fifth game may have come from fear and withdrawal, because of the assorted ghouls floating in late October air -- fright masks of Donald Trump and Anthony Weiner, perfectly matched, like twin Rasputins, scoundrels that never go away.
Seeing Weiner crawl out of the crypt (with help from the FBI) to invigorate his soul brother from the other party drove me to watch the fifth game Sunday night.
Before the Series began, I wrote on another site that I had no dog in this fight,
since the gallant Mets went down in the wild-card game. That still goes.
(Hard to feel much sympathy for a franchise that traded Lou Brock or a franchise that traded Rocky Colavito. Then again, I root for a franchise that, gulp, traded Nolan Ryan.)
It would be easy to rationalize being a National League fan and root for a team that has not won a World Series since 1908, but what’s another year or 20? I also root for the Rust Belt, for old river towns like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati -- and Cleveland would qualify for underdog status ahead of Chicago.
But that’s not the point. Escapism is the point.
Things I have noticed about this Series:
Jason Kipnis of Cleveland personified the ambiguities of this Series after his three-run homer Saturday. He’s from a Chicago suburb, and would not exult on TV about what it would mean to win a World Series. He’s going home, either way, after the Series, and did not want to insult his home town. Nice guy.
I love the antiquity of Wrigley Field (blessedly still named after the chewing-gum family that used to own the team, not cursed anew with some geeky corporate logo.)
Wrigley is one of only four ball parks in which pitchers warm up in foul territory, bless its heart. The Cleveland bullpen was slow to clear out for Jason Heyward to chase a wind-blown popup in the first inning Sunday night.
I flashed back to Pat Pieper, the public-address announcer for half a century, who worked on the field, behind home plate. And I noticed the low-slung brick wall behind home plate from when my Brooklyn Dodgers traveled to meet Bill (Swish) Nicholson back in the day.
I love Wrigley the way I love Fenway Park – a reminder of the past. But that doesn’t mean I am rooting for the Cubs.
Pardon my smirk, but I love the two recent Yankees dominating out of the bullpen – lefty Andrew Miller of the Indians and righty Aroldis Chapman of the Reds.
This is the time of year for Mr. October (Reggie) and Mr. November (Derek.) Now these two ex-Bronxites will be rested for longish duty in the sixth game. The Yankees won’t know if they made good deals, unloading these relievers for young talent, for several years, so this Series must be a lot of fun for Yankee fans, what with A-Rod preening in the overcrowded Fox gallery.
(How I miss the Mets’ broadcasters, known commodities, not overloading the listener with detail and gab.)
Any World Series only gets really interesting when it goes to a sixth game, full of developed plot lines, when anything can happen from here on in. For somebody who has been taking a month off in sympathy for the injured Mets, these are fresh faces, fresh arms.
Thanks to long-suffering Cleveland and long-suffering Chicago and the long slog of post-season baseball for prolonging the World Series, for giving another day or three of diversion from twin Halloween horrors.
In the end, the Mets’ final game had nothing to do with ancient failures and curses on the Brooklyn Dodgers and early Mets. The Mets lost to a great pitcher, a great October pitcher.
I saw Madison Bumgarner’s expressionless face as he trudged out to the mound nine times. I was visiting my friends Gary and Nancy, and I explained to them that he was a mountain man from western North Carolina, neither north nor south but Appalachian. He had a job to do, and he had the tools to do it.
Later, when the job was done, he submitted to an interview, and I could hear the mountain accent; he comes from a hamlet full of Bumgarners, for generations. One tough, self-reliant dude, with great arm, great purpose.
My friend Big Al from Queens, who used to pitch off the scruffy mound in Alley Pond Park, wrote me this morning that as a former hurler he marveled that Syndergaard could bust in 98- mph fastballs, with admirable location, but that Bumgarner’s 92-mph pitchers went even more precisely to the right place, where Céspedes and others could not harm him. Big Al thinks Bumgarner could have gone 11 or 12.
I’m just sorry it was Familia at the end. He’s such a nice guy, gave us such a good season.
Then there is Granderson’s catch. He is already the favorite Met to so many people. (I know a few women who refer to him as “my boyfriend” when he smiles and hits home runs.) On Wednesday night he ran straight to the center-field fence knowing he could make contact, and he held the ball for the third out.
My son David wants to know how Granderson’s catch compares with Endy Chavez in 2006 and Tommie Agee and Rocky Swoboda in 1969, and I say quite equally.
Big Al had to bring up – he always does this – Mantle’s catch off Hodges to preserve Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956, and I retort with names like Gionfriddo from 1947 and Amoros from 1955. But that’s old stuff.
Right now it is 2016 and Bumgarner evokes names like Ford and Gibson and Koufax.
For me, la guerre est finie. I got no dog in this fight from here on in. I’ve seen all the baseball I want for this lovely surprising gritty season of the Mets. I’m checking up on the Premiership and Serie A, and books, and classical music.
Big Al suggests Chopin and Schubert. I’m thinking Dvorak and Bartok. As we said in Brooklyn, wait til next year.
(Your comments on the game and 2016 are welcome; my earlier premonitions of gloom and doom are below.)
Brian Savin asks if I have any thoughts about the Mets in the wild-card game Wednesday.
Oh, yes, doctor, I have thoughts. I also have fear and trembling on this 65th anniversary of something terrible.
It happens every October, when I feel that something terrible is going to happen in a ball park near me. I mean, it’s only baseball terrible. Henrich terrible. Thomson terrible. Sojo terrible. Molina terrible.
This has nothing to do with Syndergaard vs. Bumgarner, Mets vs. SF Giants. They are on their own and will perform what they perform. I am talking about the miasma of gloom that hangs over an old, I mean old, Brooklyn Dodger fan at this time of year.
Let’s start with Oct. 5, 1949, first game of the World Series (still played in sunlight, before the current long march toward freaking November.) I race home from school, turn on the radio, just in time for the bottom of the ninth, and Tommy Henrich blasts a homer off Don Newcombe, first and only run of the day.
Traumatic? And not just me. Let us fast forward half a century or so. My good friend and Newsday colleague Steve Jacobson is typing in the press room of Yankee Stadium on old-timers day. He sees Tommy Henrich, still spry, heading toward the men’s room.
Steve accuses Henrich of ruining his childhood with that home run. From that point on, Steve laments, he could no longer study, and therefore had to drift into the sordid life of sports columnist.
“Tough shit,” Henrich says genially. “What were you going to be, a doctor?” (Perfect Noo Yawk inflections and gestures.) And like a man taking a trot around the bases, Henrich continues to the men’s room.
Next stop: Oct. 3, 1951. I am in shop class in junior high. The teacher lets us put on the radio. My Dodgers have a lead on the annoying New York Giants in the third game of a playoff for the pennant. A classmate, a Yankee fan, says, “I can’t imagine how you will come to school tomorrow if the Dodgers lose.”
I take the subway home. Bobby Thomson hits a home run. Perhaps you have heard of it. I go to school the next day. Giants fans and Yankee fans jeer at me.
The only good that comes of it is Don DeLillo’s great “Pafko at the Wall” segment of the otherwise murky (to me) novel, “Underworld.”
Later, the New York Mets will be formed, and the collective angst of the Dodgers and Giants will be infused into the Mets’ DNA. The Mets will know glory in October, but also despair, as in 2000 when Yankee fans outnumber Mets fans for World Series games in Shea Stadium and Luis Sojo dribbles a crushing hit up the middle, and in 2006 when Yadier Molina hits a two-run homer as the Cardinals beat the Mets for the pennant.
Now my friend asks if I have any thoughts about the Mets’ game on Wednesday.
This has been one of the most enjoyable baseball seasons I have ever had, with the Mets playing beyond all hopes and expectations in the final six weeks or so. I will always glory in Granderson and TJ Rivera, Cabrera and Familia, and the prodigal son Reyes.
But I am writing this on the 65th anniversary of Bobby Thomson.
The game will be played on the 67th anniversary of Tommy Henrich.
I have thoughts.
I didn’t remember, until a nice guy named Bob sent me a link that noted the 75th anniversary of Stan Musial’s first game, Sept. 17, 1941.
This reminded me that baseball -- for all the steroids and designated hitters and the deafening blare of ball-park commercials – is pretty much the same game.
Teams battle all season, and then in September new boys come along to alter the pennant race.
You never know.
In New York this week, the Mets won a game because an obscure callup named T.J. Rivera, out of the Bronx, hit a home run, and the Yankees almost won a game as a recently dismissed hitter named Billy Butler flew across the country to drive in runs in his first game.
Shades of Stan Musial, now known as a career .331 hitter but in 1941 not known at all, even in St. Louis. He was just a kid called up from Rochester because a few Cardinals were hurt as the team tried to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers.
My Brooklyn Dodgers. I was 2, but I was rooting. Years later, our fans would dub him “Stan the Man.” He moidered us, but we loved him all the same.
Nobody knew him when he came up. There was no web-o-sphere, no blab-o-sphere. He just showed up in St. Louis, as ordered, took the uniform No. 6 (he was not a star prospect, but the uniform was available) and in the second game of a doubleheader he tried to hit Jim Tobin, a pitcher known as Abba-Dabba because his knuckleball fluttered with occult mystery.
Musial popped up the first time but then calibrated for a double and single and two runs-batted in. The Cardinals didn’t catch the Dodgers, but Musial pretty much hit like that right through 1963.
The Boston Braves’ manager, named Charles Dillon Stengel, was so jealous of the new talent that he kept telling people, “They got another one,” or words to that effect. Thus was born one of baseball’s most beautiful bromances, two men who positively adored each other for life, but never got to work together.
The Cardinals loved the kid’s swing, and decided they shouldn’t run him out of the batting cage, the way veterans did.
On a subsequent train ride, Terry Moore, one of the great baseball captains, sat next to Musial in the parlor car and asked him who he was, and Musial said he was the lefty whom the varsity had bombarded in a spring-camp game. Right, he started the year as a rag-arm pitcher.
It’s all in the biography I did about Musial, “Stan Musial, an American Life,” published in 2011.
Musial passed in January of 2013 and I wrote about him in the Times -- the 475 homers, the exact same batting average at home and on the road, the friendship with John F. Kennedy, the identification with his hard-times home town, Donora, Pa., and his adopted home of St. Louis, where he could be his aw-shucks self.
Players still come up in September and perhaps affect pennant races, but not necessarily anybody quite like Stan the Man.
* * *
Musial’s first box score:
The link in the web site of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Never have I appreciated defense in baseball as much as I do this season.
Watching Asdrubal Cabrera – why did I know nothing about him until this year? – cavort at shortstop (and in the dugout) has been an absolute treat.
(Parenthetically, I am enjoying the mere fact of Gary Sanchez, without even having the time or psychic energy for the Yankees.)
What a fun September for both New York teams, no matter how they ultimately do in their wild-card pursuits – action every day, scoreboard-watching every day, crowding out U.S. Open tennis and soccer and any other sports that might happen to be in season.
* * *
Saturday Update: Defense played a huge role Friday night as Mets did it again in Atlanta -- down, 4-0, winning, 6-4, with some defense from an improbable source.
Skipper Collins used Loney and Flores in logical switches and needed a first baseman in the eighth. Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez were curious who would get the call – and it was Eric Campbell, in the minors since the end of May.
Never known for defense, Campbell stopped one smash in the eighth and another smash in the ninth – “protecting the line in the late innings,” as Hernandez often says.
Campbell is a big guy out of Boston College with a nice attitude, crowded out by more talented players. He saved a game. With his glove. Will we remember those plays in October, or next year?
* * *
Cabrera has been a revelation all year. People are saying how much José Reyes has revitalized the Mets, but in my opinion the Mets were already a better team with Cabrera at shortstop this season.
They have currently won nine of 11 after the comeback Friday. I have not seen the Mets improve so drastically on defense since 1964 (How’s that for dropping a season on you?) when Roy McMillan came over from the Braves. Suddenly, balls that got through for two-plus seasons were being handled smoothly. The Mets still finished last, but they were, finally, respectable, at times.
I never paid much attention to Cabrera in his peregrinations from Cleveland to Washington to Tampa Bay. There are lots of Cabreras and lots of shortstops. But from the first day, he has been terrific.
Recently, Cabrera he gilded his hair. Nice touch. He hits and fields and has appointed himself the greeting committee when a teammate else hits a home run, lifting the helmet off the slugger’s head.
And when it is Cabrera who hit the homer, René Rivera does the honors. Rivera is a career backup, so good defensively that he has been assigned to a quorum of starters. What a joy to watch him throw to second, call signals, take control of jittery pitchers.
Cabrera and Rivera are part of the Latinization of the Mets, a very positive sign, from players who know and respect and love the game. They are leaders the way David Wright and Michael Cuddyer were last year.
Cabrera leads his own way. He acknowledges the fans, a great idea in Big Town. In one game, he made a catch near the stands and patted the head of a kid in the first row.
In another game, he backed up Reyes on a tricky roller past third, and dove to third base, beating the runner. When Cabrera came out for the next inning, my grown son, sitting behind third, applauded, and Cabrera understood it was for him, and tipped his cap, showing all of that golden hair.
The man is not a hot dog, in ball player parlance, but he certainly is a master draftsman, with a flair.
The Mets have also improved at first base with James Loney and second with Neal Walker until his back went out. You could make the case that Reyes is better at third base than the gallant Wright.
Plus, Terry Collins, the dandy little manager, is now one of the best managers the Mets have ever had.
This team has never quit on Collins. Never. I personally quit at least twice this season. Now the Mets are winning with starters up from the minor leagues. I thank Cabrera and his dugout mates for another long and enjoyable season.
Our son was moonlighting as an assistant clubhouse man one summer in Peoria, Ill., where he went to college and worked for the Journal-Star. (He’s got lots of good stories about shagging flies when Jim Thome was visiting his home town, and chatting with Jimmy Piersall, the roving scout.)
One day the Appleton team bus arrived after a long haul from Wisconsin, and Dave was impressed that the young bonus baby sprang for pizza for the entire team. It was not hard to be impressed with Alex Rodriguez.
The Appleton hitting coach collected opposing ball caps, so Dave said he would trade one for an A-Rod ball. They walked into the visitors' clubhouse and the coach had A-Rod sign.
Dave still has it, on an official Midwest League ball – clearly from A-Rod’s first pro season. I emailed Dave the other day and said, the ball’s value has gone up.
* * *
Our older daughter, Laura Vecsey, became a sports columnist in Seattle as A-Rod arrived later in 1994, a slender kid with power. Nobody predicted 696 homers – but maybe 500? He couldn’t miss.
They got along, in a quirky kind of way, with A-Rod treating her like an older sister. He had mood swings, sometimes chatty, sometimes silent. When his contract was up, he insisted that his next move would not be predicated on money, but rather on comfort level, on loyalty, both ways.
When he signed with the Texas Rangers, Laura reflected the attitude of that lovely city that had fallen so hard for A-Rod. She gave him a new nickname - Pay-Rod. He did not much like that.
* * *
He could have led Seattle to the World Series but Texas was the wrong place for him. He jumped to the Yankees after three years, sticking a conversational shiv between the shoulders of his erstwhile pal, Derek Jeter. By this time, Laura and he were talking again.
“Dad,” she said, “he’s always asking what it was like to have a father in the same business. He doesn’t have a father. You ought to talk to him.”
She was talking about possible access to A-Rod – all journalists think like this – but she was also talking about a human being who, she felt, was trying to learn, to grow.
That spring in Yankee camp, I introduced myself to A-Rod, and we chatted for a while. Nobody is fooled about this dance, but I was always looking to write about the human side of players. When adults like Bob Watson and Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira came to the Yankees, I enjoyed learning about them.
In the early days of the first season, I was walking in the narrow corridors of the old Yankee Stadium, long before a game. A-Rod was walking toward me, nobody else around. I smiled, said hello. He never made eye contact. Just kept walking. Oh-kay. It was a small thing, but it told me he was in his world, I was in mine, and adult politeness was not part of the equation.
I never did see him open up in New York. Sometimes he pretended to open up, but he had too many secrets. His teammates seemed happy for him when he finally helped win a World Series in 2009, but I could not help noticing the disdain Derek Jeter let slip in spring training of 2009, when reporters came around to ask about A-Rod’s latest apology for drug usage.
“One thing that irritates me is that this was the steroid era,” Jeter said. “I don’t know how many people tested positive, but everybody wasn’t doing it.”
Jeter casually said he had been counseled by his parents as he was growing up.
“You’re educated,” he said, adding, “If you do some things, eventually the truth will come out.”
Jeter is not the type to let his feelings show. This time they did.
My feelings about Alex Rodriguez as he retires from the Yankees? I hope he will be all right.
Gary Cohen was weirdly prophetic Wednesday when he called for the end to the blight on baseball known as the designated hitter.
His Mets television partner, Ron Darling, sounded surprised at the conversational swerve, but Cohen had something to say. .
This was several hours before Matt Albers, a beefy relief pitcher with the White Sox, proved Cohen’s point with a solid double and some footwork on the bases to score the eventual winning run in the 13th inning. Real baseball.
It’s time, Cohen said in mid-game. Let pitchers be ball players. Cohen asserted that Bartolo Colon’s first career home run, at nearly 43, was probably the best single event of this season – a portly American League-type pitching specialist whacking a homer into the left-field stands.
After ludicrous hitting, fielding and running in his first year with the Mets, Colon has worked hard to bunt, make contact, field his position and even chug to first base a little harder -- to play National League ball, that is. His upgrade was behind Gary Cohen’s riff on junking the DH, a couple of hours before the Albers tour of the bases – just what baseball should encourage.
The Mets lost this game when Albers, a well-traveled pitcher, had to bat because the White Sox had run out of hitters and pitchers. Albers slugged a pitch over Juan Lagares’ head in center field – not easy – and rumbled to second base
Wonder of wonders, Albers then took third spontaneously on a wild pitch by Logan Verrett, who was no doubt shocked by the insult from a lodge member. Then Albers scored on a solid fly ball, for the eventual winning run in a 2-1 victory over the Mets.
Baseball the way it used to be, before the DH gimmick began in 1973 -- pitchers reverting to the actual athletes they were when they played high-school baseball and probably hit quite well, in addition to playing other sports.
Hitting pitchers have a long, if somewhat minority, history in baseball. My own childhood was enriched by watching Don Newcombe slug homers – 11 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, four afterward. These days Madison Bumgarner slugs homers – 12 in eight seasons, so far.
Also, National League ball is interesting, with its pinch-hitters for pitchers and other lineup finagling by managers, plus players asked to handle multiple positions.
Since 1973, the American League has been using the DH, and so has most of baseball, screwing up the the World Series and interleague play between teams built for different sports.
It’s true, the DH kept gallant old or injured hitters like Tommy Davis in the game, and made life easier for stars who could still play defense adequately like Edgar Martinez in Seattle.
Cohen made the point that the charismatic Boston star, David Ortiz is just about the last of the great career DHs. The position is now a safe haven for aging sluggers (Alex Rodriguez) or journeymen who cannot field or run very well, or regulars who need a rest. As long as Big Papí of Boston is about to retire, Cohen said, let’s retire the DH with him.
Darling more or less laughed out loud. What about the union, he asked, referring to the relatively high salaries earned by veteran DHs. Not so much anymore, Cohen asserted.
Cohen had obviously thought about his position. Let each team add two more spots on the roster, from 25 to 27, he said. That’s 30 more jobs in the majors. That should make the union happy.
Darling sounded dubious. Wouldn’t that just produce more fringe pitchers and reserves? Maybe, but it would also produce pinch-runners or defensive specialists who cannot exist these days in the two-dimensional American League.
With the emphasis on pitch counts and six-inning starters, teams overload on pitchers and often have only four or five reserves, one of them a catcher.
Hours later, Albers was a lumbering advertisement for the dormant athleticism of pitchers.
I totally agree with Cohen. Albers and Colon prove the latent athleticism of pitchers. Time to ban the DH.
* * *
In case you missed Gary Cohen’s call of Colon’s shot:
This is the 59th season of the Brooklyn Dodgers out west; I think I am adjusting.
I’ve been staying up late watching the Mets and Dodgers, the two teams in my life, do battle in distant Chávez Ravine. The shock now is the familiar numbers on the home white jerseys -- with strange people wearing them.
I know Seinfeld said rooting for a team is “actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it." So be it. I admit: I am still attached to the Dodgers’ laundry – or more specifically the numbers on them. But who are these new people?
The Dodgers have retired 10 numbers, including Jackie Robinson’s No. 42, but they fall way short of the Yankees, who have retired 22 numbers, including Robinson’s, and a duplicate No. 8 for Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey. The Yankees are always looking for more numbers to retire for another one-day jolt in attendance. Eddie Whitson Day is coming up soon.
By contrast, the Dodgers have been conservative – Gil Hodges’ No. 14 is still used and so is the No, 36 once worn by Don Newcombe, who still serves their community and anti-addiction efforts.
I am sure the shock is not confined to old people like me. Kids who became fans in the 1980s are stunned to see somebody else wearing Pedro Guerrero’s No. 28.
I’m on my third or fourth shift with the Dodgers’ laundry.
Let’s take No. 3. In my childhood, it was worn by Billy Cox, with his ratty glove, picking everything at third base -- Clete Boyer and Brooks Robinson before they were invented. Cox played only seven seasons in Brooklyn, from 1948 through 1954, but it seemed like seven decades. Kids, that’s the way it is when you are young.
Fast forward to the 60’s, when I was a young reporter and the Dodgers’ center fielder, Willie Davis, could manufacture a run with a few long strides – walk, steal, bad throw, sacrifice fly. Davis had one bad World Series game in the sun in 1965 but he was a terrific player.
I also remember Willie Davis for coming after me in the clubhouse in the tense days after the Watts disturbances in 1965, because he didn’t like my questioning.
John Roseboro, noble knight of a catcher, stepped into Davis’ path and calmed things down, or I might not be typing these words. (Roseboro’s reward was being bopped on the head by Juan Marichal that August.) Nowadays, No. 3 is assigned to Carl Crawford, sliding downhill from his early promise.
I did some research on all the Dodgers who have won No. 3: In the wartime season of 1944, No. 3 was worn by two infielders, Al Campanis and Gene Mauch, who would later become a general manager and manager in the majors. In 1977-78, No. 3 was worn by Glenn Burke, who years later revealed he was gay, and who died young.
One other Dodger No. 3: Pete Coscarart, an outfielder from 1938 through 1941, who nearly half a century later was among the old-time players virtually begging the Players Association to include them in their lush pension plan. Pete once wrote me: “George, they are waiting for us to die.” Just to annoy the association, he hung on until June 24, 2002, when he died, at 89, without the Association budging on pensions.
I could tell you about No. 10, which, from the very first season of numbers in Brooklyn, was worn almost exclusively by catchers. I have never heard of one number being dominated by one position like that. From 1932 through 1970, the catchers included Al Lopez, Bruce Edwards, Rube Walker and Jeff Torborg.
But in 1971, No. 10 went to squatty Ron Cey, a third baseman known as Penguin, who held it until 1982. No. 10 is currently worn by Justin Turner, with his red Yosemite Sam beard, who has spent recent evenings chatting with his old teammates on the Mets.
I haven’t even mentioned Sandy Koufax – but let’s end with Ry Cooder’s song about the Mexicans who used to live in Chávez Ravine: “Second base right over there/I see Grandma in her rocking chair.”) I don’t believe the ejected squatters ever had their number retired.
Thank goodness for the Mets. That’s all I can say. They serve the ultimate function of sports – keeping the mind off real life -- and more power to them.
Right now the Mets are out west, which gives me license to ignore cable news in the evening and hope Bartolo Colón will hit another home run.
I caught that one live on Saturday -- Gary Cohen’s call was great on the tube; so was Howie Rose’s call on the radio; so was the Spanish call by Juan Alicea and Max Perez Jimenez.
All I can say is, if you are going to watch a man with a big belly lumber around with a smirk on his face, better to watch Colón than that trickster from Queens.
This is not escapism, this is self-help, not having to remind oneself over and over again that at least one third of America leans toward a lout from reality TV.
Let’s go Mets. The other night I saw Asdrubal Cabrera, who has reminded us what the position of shortstop can be, race down the left-field line to catch a fly ball over his shoulder at the edge of the stands. When a little boy in the front row leaned forward to congratulate him, Cabrera patted the boy on the head. There was more grace and humanity in those two gestures than I have seen from the front-runners in the grinding decades of this current political campaign.
(As an old Appalachian hand, I am available to advise Hillary Clinton how to talk to coal miners, but I don’t think that is happening.)
I’m burned out. I’ve been watching and reading about the primaries for way too long – and have few complaints. I just read the thoughtful essay in the Times about how pollsters and experts underestimated Trump, but I just want to say these are the same number-crunchers who reassured me President Obama was going to win in 2012.
(By winning, Obama endured, to deliver that wonderful graduation speech at Howard University last Saturday, a civics lesson for all. I am going to miss that man, no matter who wins this long slog to November.)
All right, the pollsters and others missed the Trump tsunami among the minority on the right, but I cannot fault The New York Times, where I used to work. It has given us tons of stories on buffoonery of Trump. (I saw a friend of mine from Queens quoted about what a nasty little boy Trump was; quite right.)
The Times has done fine (with the great Margaret Sullivan riding herd in her final months as media critic) and MSNBC has sent platoons of reporters out into the land. Chris Matthews, the host who doesn’t listen to his guests, is often susceptible to Trump’s flattery (we’re-a-couple-of-big-timers, you-and-me, Chris) but nailed him on his abortion silliness.
MSNBC has enlightened, with Lawrence O’Donnell and Joy Reid and Rachel Maddow and our household favorite Steve Kornacki. (I’ve lost my wife to Kornacki and Bernie Sanders.)
Brian Williams has been irrelevant -- hair and teeth and suit, on his work-release program with the network. When MSNBC veers into silliness, CNN is there. And thank goodness, our cable system carries the BBC and Euro News to remind us the world is still out there. Forget our networks. They gave up decades ago.
For the reading class, the web is full of informative articles, like the one by David Cay Johnston on salon.com about Trump bankruptcy maneuvers. Now Trump is proposing to run the country that unsavory way, according to Paul Krugman.
For all the hand-wringing, I do not think I am uninformed. Fact is, I am too informed. There’s only one more Breaking News I want – not too late on the evening of Nov. 8 -- the long national nightmare is over. We will have a president who is, at bare minimum, informed.
Meantime, the Mets are out west. Colón pitches Thursday night.
* * *
(In case you missed that wonderful talk.)
Totally against basic instinct, I find myself sorry for Yankee fans these days.
These are not the Real Yankees but rather the Salary Cap Yankees, a grab-bag of players assembled with some prudence and parsimony, in familiar uniforms.
But I am not alone. My friend Mike Lindsley, talk-show host in Syracuse, emitted his own primal scream. You should read this:
(As we say in New York, my heart bleeds borscht. To continue my own take:)
It’s not just that the Yankees are off to their worst start in nearly a decade. It's that they are strangers to a baseball fan (me) who is familiar with every nuance of his own team, the Mets, but does not recognize most of these guys.
Fact is, when they are home, I don’t even recognize the great theme park of the Bronx, Yankeeland.
Warning: Yankee fans should not want my mawkish sympathy. I suffered terribly at the hands of this franchise as a young Brooklyn Dodger fan, and it is totally against my nature to care about the Yankees. Even as a young reporter, I secretly rooted for the Orioles, the Twins, the Red Sox, somebody, anybody.
But when the Yankees were bad in the late '60s, I had friends on the team -- Bill Robinson, Steve Hamilton, Ruben Amaro, some of the best people I have known, and after that, I could never feel the same way I did about my October tormentors.
Now we have been softened up by a wonderful generation of Williams and Pettitte and Posada and Rivera and Jeter, admirable players. I knew a devout Yankee fan whose Jewish mom noticed Pettitte’s facial profile and kind nature and adopted him. He was the prodigal son; he went away and returned.
Bernie sat in the corner and strummed his guitar. Posada was the straw-boss of the clubhouse. Jeter dove into the stands nose-first. Rivera made everything all right, almost all the time. Those core-five players lulled some non-Yankee fans into a neutral position.
I turned on the game Sunday night. Fortunately, there was Fenway and there was Papi and there was A-Rod, headed straight to the baseball Limbo known as Bondsville or Clemenstown, but still lofting balls toward the Green Monster. But after all his antics, many Yankee fans do not accept him as true Yankee.
There was Teixeira, one of those great mid-career Yankees, and Beltran, a great-late career Yankee, but the rest of the lot give the impression of just passing through.
Nobody to love.
Nobody to hate.
Just guys in Yankee uniforms.
I could almost work up a case of nostalgia.
In another decade or two.
As soon as the ball clanged out of Yoenis Céspedes’ glove, I texted another Met fan: “I’m sick of Cespedes.”
The $27.5-million man (just this season) loafed after an easy out to left field, not wanting to expend too much energy in the first inning of opening day.
It must be nice to be that cool.
Fortunately, somebody in the booth was ready to call it for the attitude error that it was: Jessica Mendoza, who has become an essential part of ESPN broadcasts.
“I’m an outfielder,” she said, not needing to mention she was a star on the USA 2004 Olympic champion softball team in Athens.
Mendoza said it made her mad to watch outfielders drift toward a ball without bothering to catch up with it and protect themselves by raising their bare hand as insurance. She was old-school. Purist. And absolutely right.
Both Céspedes and Mendoza were picking up where they left off last season – he with his maddening nonchalance, she with her player-and-fan knowledge of the game, particularly hitting mechanics.
Mendoza leaped into public awareness last season when Curt Schilling made yet another stupid comment and was off the air. She fit seamlessly and has been paired with Dan Shulman and Aaron Boone, the third-generation major-leaguer, who treats her with collegial respect, calling her “Jess” and asking her opinion. There is none of that clubhouse male buffoonery that mars most MLB-NFL-NBA network broadcasts.
Generally, I am not amused when network coverage intrudes on the Mets and Yankees, preferring to get heightened insights from people who cover the club regularly rather than get filled in the morning of the broadcast.
I was mad that Gary and Keith and Ron were not available to me Sunday night. But Shulman and Boone and Mendoza did not posture and bluster.
I am not surprised about Mendoza, who gave me a terrific interview in 2004 in Athens just before the Games began, when softball was facing its eventual and unfair exclusion. She provided a thoughtful glimpse of the athletes’ village and talked about her own sport. I found the link here:
We in New York have had another female broadcaster – Suzyn Waldman, the long-time Yankee radio color announcer, working the clubhouse and paying attention to the game as complement to John Sterling’s shtick. Waldman and Mendoza know the game.
On my own, I figured out that David Wright (with his bad back) looked shaky at third and facing fastballs. And I could see how the Mets had upgraded defensively with Asdrubal Cábrera at short and Neil Walker at second. That will save a game or three. No more cringing every time a ball goes near Daniel Murphy.
Now I cringe when a ball goes near Céspedes in left field.
It’s a new baseball season. Life begins.
This is an essay I have been dreading since September when Yogi Berra passed and I called up his good friend (and perhaps even his publicist-inventor) Joe Garagiola to see how he was doing.
Garagiola, who died Wednesday at 90, always called back, to tell stories, illuminate, maybe even heighten legends.
I’ve known about him since the 1946 World Series, when I was 7 and he was a brash 20-year-old rookie for the home-town Cardinals who out-talked the superstars, Stan Musial and Ted Williams.
Even the writers of the time, who did not make a practice of working the locker rooms for quotes, could not miss the ebullient kid.
And when Garagiola split a finger in the epic seventh game (when Enos Slaughter scored from first on a looped hit to left) Garagiola ran around the Cards’ clubhouse waving his bandaged finger and shouting, “Hey, I’m out for the season! I’m out for the season!”
He was rehearsing for his later career as baseball everyman on NBC. You can read two wonderful tributes by Richard Sandomir and by Richard Goldstein in Thursday’s Times.
This one is strictly personal. Joe was always a wonderful source – not a social friend but somebody I really liked and trusted. He was fair, even about a broken friendship with Musial.
Garagiola even invented himself, including the rep that he was a bad ball player. Fact was, he had been good enough to be stashed by the devious Branch Rickey as an under-age prospect in the Cardinals’ farm system, shining shoes and taking batting practice to evade the scouts until he came of age.
Let the record note that Garagiola hit .316 and drove in four runs in the 1946 World Series before, like many catchers, he got hurt. Later he accumulated the insights of a backup catcher, inventing himself – and maybe even his pal, Lawrence Peter Berra, from the Italian neighborhood, The Hill, who signed with the Yankees. Without baseball, they both could have been laboring in the brickworks or producing toasted ravioli on The Hill.
Garagiola and Musial used to drive for hours from the St. Louis region, talking to fans for a few bucks.
They agreed they both had mike fright.
Musial, who was shy and had a bit of a stutter, was afraid they would hand him the microphone.
Garagiola was afraid they wouldn’t.
Garagiola’s road to the radio booth is well told in the Times. I got to know him in the mid-60’s when he went to work for the miserable Yankees, enlightening spare time by imitating Joe Pepitone’s protests of a called third strike, hairpiece slipping, arms waving.
Garagiola gave Pepitone’s gesture an operatic feel, calling it the “Ma Che Fai?” (What are you doing?)
Joe was always there for color and background. I once edited a quite lovely anthology called “The Way It Was” about great sports events and I chose the 1946 World Series (which I consider the greatest World Series, ever) for my own chapter. Joe was working for the Today Show, getting up in the dark, but at a more civilized hour he had time for me in his office at NBC. His stories make that chapter hum – the postwar hopefulness, the talent, the veterans, the fun.
In his later decades, Garagiola became an even greater man – helping create a charity for destitute players (B.A.T.) and lobbying against chewing tobacco, which had disfigured and killed some players.
When I was writing the Stan Musial biography in 2007-8, Joe talked, off the record, about the friendship gone bad over a mutual investment in a bowling alley, run by surrogates. The ultimate headline in the Post-Dispatch was: “Stan and Joe: Business Splits Old Friends.” I don’t believe they ever spoke again.
For my Musial biography, Garagiola – way off the record -- told me sweet stories about Musial, their car rides, their early days when it all was good. His loving insights enrich my book.
I sent him a copy and one day after a siege of bad health he rang me and, nearly sobbing, thanked me for being fair to him – “and to Stan.”
That was Joe Garagiola – emotional, perceptive and fair. When he didn’t call back about Yogi, I knew it was bad.
As somebody who often took his children to work, I can relate to Adam Laroche, who “retired” from baseball the other day.
Laroche quit the Chicago White Sox after being told by his general manager to “dial it back” about bringing his 14-year-old son to workouts and the clubhouse every day during spring training.
He has been getting support from current and former teammates, who insist baseball is a “family game.” It must be – Laroche’s father and brother have also played in the majors. Drake Laroche quite likely has great third-generation genes.
It’s good to encourage people to enter the family business. I took all three of our kids on assignments with me.
One of the proudest moments in my career was in 2000 during the Yankees’ playoff series in Seattle. While chatting with Bernie Williams, I looked around the clubhouse and saw our daughter, Laura, then a columnist in Seattle, chatting with her old friend, Tino Martinez, and I saw my son, David, then working for a web site, chatting with Paul O’Neill.
(Our third child, Corinna, a lawyer, has also worked in and around journalism much of her career.)
Still, it’s tricky, bringing children into a clubhouse. The Griffey family discovered that in 1983 when Ken Griffey Sr. brought his two sons to Yankee Stadium.
Billy Martin, who had his mood swings, became angry with a small knot of players’ sons romping in the narrow hallways of the old Yankee Stadium and had a staff member tell the boys to vanish.
Junior, who was around 13 at the time, never denied his grudge against the Yankees. His Seussian smile when he scored the winning run in the epic 1995 series with the Yankees undoubtedly came from sheer joy, not from old feuds, but still….During his free-agent days, he never entertained offers from the Yankees, even though Billy was long gone.
Is baseball a family game? More than it used to be. I don’t recall sons visiting the cramped clubhouse in the old Stadium when Mickey Mantle was conducting replays of his other night games.
Clubhouses were often more Rabelaisian than today. Much of that mercifully disappeared after female reporters made their long-deserved arrival and most ball players of normal I.Q. made the major discovery that one large well-placed towel could solve most privacy issues.
Plus, the newer clubhouses in New York and elsewhere have inner sanctums where players can shower, and get stuff off their minds.
But is it a good idea to have sons -- let’s say sons for the sake of discussion -- wandering around the clubhouse and field all the time during spring training? My feeling is that players do have the right to bond, talk baseball, hash things out, even cuss at each other.
And I do mean cuss. In 1980, I brought my 10-year-old son to an exhibition in Bradenton, Fla., home of the champion “we-are-fam-a-lee” Pittsburgh Pirates.
My friend Bill Robinson, after his rough Yankee days, was having hard-earned success in his later years. Mary Robinson invited us all over for dinner that night. But before that, Bill invited Dave into the clubhouse, after most of the players had showered and dressed.
Dave had been in a clubhouse or two and knew about players. As we sat around Bill’s locker, there was a loud noise from the shower area. Two of the biggest stars – no names mentioned – emerged from the showers, still wet, wearing nothing but very large and shiny bling, not fighting but conducting a philosophical discussion, using words Dave had surely heard before but never in such imaginative pairings and repetition and volume.
Bill was a family guy. In his measured voice he said, “Uh, David, maybe you better wait outside.”
Times have changed. Clubhouses are larger, more accommodating to a family presence. But as my late friend Bill Robinson knew, sometimes it may also be good for children to wait outside.
Until last fall, Bob Welch and C.C. Sabathia had one thing in common – the Cy Young Award, as the best pitcher in his league one year.
Now they have something else – rehab.
Near the end of last season, Sabathia sought out a treatment center to face the addiction to alcohol that he was ready to acknowledge.
“I started reading a lot while I was in rehab,” Sabathia wrote on March 7 in the Players Tribune website.
“The first book I read was called Five O’Clock Comes Early. It’s by a former major league pitcher named Bob Welch, and it hit so incredibly close to home. Bob became a professional when he was only 21 years old and dealt with a lot of the same anxieties that I had felt, so he’d turn to alcohol for confidence. He ended up checking into a rehab facility, and when he came out on the other side of treatment he was a changed man. He ended up going on to have a great career after he got help.”
Riley Welch read Sabathia’s story and alerted me. Riley is a ball player himself, a college and minor-league pitcher, now coaching pitchers in Honolulu. He’s always been proud of his dad, who died suddenly in 2014 at the age of 57.
“It brings my family and me great pleasure and joy to see that now, almost thirty years after Five O'Clock Comes Early's initial release date, it is still helping someone live a healthier life,” Riley wrote to me. “I’m very proud that the book was able to provide inspiration for someone during a rough period in his life.”
In 1980-82, before Riley was born, I helped Bob write his book, when his rehab was still raw and he needed to reinforce it every day – to verbalize that he was choosing not to drink when the guys were getting hammered in the back room of the clubhouse.
Over the years, I’ve received dozens of letters from readers – almost always men – who said they were staying sober – that day – because of what they learned from Bob.
I don't know if C.C. Sabathia knew Bob Welch. Bob won the Cy Young in 1990 with Oakland; Sabathia won his in 2007 with the Yankees. But baseball is a fraternity with frequent lodge meetings, and Sabathia grew up in the Bay Area, Bob’s long-time home, so maybe they did know each other.
More importantly, Sabathia is taking an example from a pitcher who saved his career, his life, when he was just getting started. I can only imagine Bob’s enthusiasm when he heard that a colleague had taken the big step.
Bob’s book was reissued in electronic form last year, with a new chapter I wrote after Bob’s passing. C.C. Sabathia’s testimony reminds Riley Welch that his dad is with us, with lessons to teach anybody with “the problem.” Riley added:
“I know my father would be proud of C.C. for getting help when he needed it.”
* * *
Riley also enclosed a recent story by Barry Bloom, about how Bob Melvin, the Oakland manager, has put the bench commemorating Bob in a prominent spot at the spring ballpark.
It’s early March. It’s New York. It rained overnight and now it’s getting windy. The baseball games are starting down south.
I found myself humming “Waters of March,” sung by Susannah McCorkle, with her English lyrics:
“It’s the promise of life/ It’s the joy in your heart.”
But wait: when Antonio Carlos Jobim wrote that song, in Portuguese, he was talking about March in Brazil, in the Southern Hemisphere.
I checked with my friend Altenir Silva, film-writer, who lives in Rio, not far from the Tom Jobim statue. Altenir said the Portuguese lyrics mean, “It’s the rest of a bush in the morning light,” and he added, “Yes, March is a rainy month in Brazil.”
Turns out, Jobim was caught in a major rainstorm, in the interior, far from the beaches of Ipanema.
Apparently, McCorkle wrote the English version around 1993, giving it a northern take. She was a linguist, who sang in English, Portuguese and Italian, and a writer, published in magazines and working on a memoir when she committed suicide on May 19, 2001 at the age of 55. Her obituary was lovingly written by Leon Wieseltier in the June 4, 2001, edition of The New Yorker.
McCorkle’s version of “Waters of March,” with terrific guitar backup by Howard Alden, survives her, as recorded music does.
My friend Altenir followed up by sending me a version by Elis Regina, probably the most popular Brazilian pop singer when she died on Jan., 19, 1982, at 36, of an overdose.
This sadness from both hemispheres is diluted by the music they left behind, the music of water, the rush of life, the little things we see and hear and feel, the things we take for granted: -- “a stick, a stone.” “É pau, é pedra.”
McCorkle could have added a stanza about spring training. A bat, a ball, a glove, a cap.
“It’s the promise of life/ It’s the joy in your heart.”
Pitchers and catchers. Those words raise the temperature 20 degrees.
I hear the smack of baseballs into many leather gloves.
Smack-smack-smack. Like popcorn popping or bluefish jumping in the bay.
A good sound. A communal sound. Nowadays spring camps feel like medium-security prisons, but maybe you can catch the sound, through the barricades
Ball players limbering up. Bringing life back to us.
I’m not the only one. Out in California, Bill Wakefield heard the same smack, in his head, and instantly remembered 1964, the year he made the Mets, pitched very well, too. One year on a baseball card, and a zillion memories of the funky little camp in quaint St. Petersburg, still there, long renamed Huggins-Stengel Field. Very much the same.
Wakefield dashed off his stream-of-consciousness.
# # #
By Bill Wakefield:
Huggins-Stengel. History Channel.
On Google Earth.
Crescent Lake still looks the same as when the Babe hit 'em into the lake in right field.
The water tower stills looms over the batting cage at home plate.
Herb Norman's soup is hot for the break after morning workout.
The lawn still looks the same as when Dick Young would type down the right field line working on his Florida sun tan.
The trees down the left field line are still there where Hot Rod would take a snooze in the shade before Casey said OK guys take a lap around the field.
Catching a ride to the Colonial Inn with Lou Niss. Nervous, smoking, and "The damn bus had better be on time or Casey gets upset."
Larry Bearnarth telling me "You know it is a privilege to be here . Make sure you tell Lou Niss thanks for the nice dinner last night….A lot of guys just complain."
The porch where Barney Kremenko would adjust his hearing aid and ask,
“What did he say?”
Eddie Stanky coming up to me: "Bill, Pepper Martin died last night in Tulsa."
Jesse Owens. All class and pride. "Good morning, gentlemen," addressing zero world class runners in black Wilson baseball cleats -- at the first base line. It was a privilege to rub shoulders with the great man.
I remember it all clearly.
The fans on top of the field right-field line - and players -- no security. It was a different time.
"Hey Casey, how are you doing today?"
The old clubhouse is still there. "Bill. Casey wants to see you in his office." Wooooops!!! Shuffle off to Buffalo.
# # #
Let me annotate Wakefield’s memories:
Herb Norman was the salty old clubhouse man. .
Dick Young, the great baseball writer, would peel off his shirt and pound away at his large portable typewriter.
Hot Rod Kanehl was willing himself into his third major-league season. He adopted the Stanford kid in 1964.
Lou Niss was the road secretary, shuffled as if wearing slippers. Casey did a wicked imitation of The Niss Walk.
Larry Bearnarth, from St. John’s, hung out with Wakefield.
I don’t think Barney Kremenko of the Journal-American had a hearing aid. He just had trouble following Casey’s syntax.
Eddie Stanky, intense old second baseman, joined Mets front office, spring of 1965.
Jesse Owens, Olympic champion, gave running and life lessons in spring training.
Fans sat 10 feet behind Casey at Huggins-Stengel Field. Looie Kleppel, denizen of the Polo Grounds, kept up a rasping, knowing narrative.
Spring of 1965. After a fine rookie season, Wakefield was sent down. Noticed kids named Seaver, Ryan, Koosman, Gentry and McGraw in the pipeline. Went into business..Now roots for Stanford, his alma mater.
Loves to hear the smack of the ball in the glove.
While we were sleeping Friday night, wondering if we would lose power in the storm, the Mets were signing Yoenis Cespedes for one, or three, or five years, depending on how it goes.
Some people think it’s a good financial deal, compared to what some teams have overpaid for sluggers over 30.
But having witnessed Cespedes in the World Series last fall, when he batted .150, I’m just not convinced.
He played at half speed, his brain and will apparently turned off, looking like musical “Damn Yankees,” when Joe Hardy reverts to a stumbling middle-aged man.
Was he hurt? Was he comatose? Or was his sudden reversal the reason he had passed through three teams in four seasons since leaving Cuba?
Then again, I had been comparing his power and agility to Willie Mays after Cespedes shockingly arrived with the Mets in August. He carried the Mets to the World Series as pitchers suddenly had to revise the way they approached the Mets’ lineup. He made every hitter better.
But he regressed in the National League series, coming up with a sore shoulder after being spotted playing golf in Chicago on the day of the fourth game. He was doubled off first base – way too far, way too lethargic – for the last out of the fourth game of the World Series. And he was stumbling around in the outfield.
That performance undoubtedly cost Cespedes a lot of money. The Mets’ front office played it well, waiting, waiting, until other teams had spent on other players, and Cespedes seemed to be hanging back, wanting to return to New York.
Early Saturday morning, Mets’ buff David Wachter sent me a message:
Yoenis Cespedes $75 for three - $57m more for last three years 2019, 2020, 2021.
2006, 2007, 2008 Jason Giambi was paid $60m.
Cespedes sought $132/6 - $75/3 $57.
Mark Teixeira's contract last three years up to age 35?
2014, 2015, 2016: $69,375,000.
$57,000,000 - 2019,2020,2021.... How many tools did those Yanked first baseman have?
Could they be a late inning substitution in left or right, a pinch runner?
No one offered that money ....
As a Met fan I feel like a miracle happened....
Miracle? Good poker by Sandy Alderson? Admirable decision by Cespedes?
Depends who the Mets get – Willie Mays or Joe Hardy.
I was thinking about Monte Irvin before the State of the Union speech. Irvin died Monday and my friend Ray Robinson, the writer, called me to commiserate.
Ray once wrote a story about Irvin visiting him at his home on Fire Island, dutifully hitting fly balls at the edge of the surf to young fans who knew a Hall of Famer was visiting. Irvin was always a gentleman.
The early great black players were individuals: the activist Jackie Robinson, the lifer Roy Campanella, the energetic Willie Mays, the stoic Larry Doby. Monte Irvin was a centrist, a veteran of the Negro Leagues, who played in Newark, across the river, while lesser players were performing in Brooklyn, Harlem, the Bronx.
When he got his chance, Irvin had eight seasons to show the great player he was.
Later, he was brought into the Commissioner’s office, perhaps as a gesture, perhaps to offer real counsel.
Either way, he was available, to talk about the past, to talk about the present. Some reporters were lucky enough to spend time with him around ball parks and hotel lobbies. He was a link; he was a guide.
(The National Football League did somewhat the same with Buddy Young, the splendid little running back, a pioneer black star right after the War. What a treat to sit around an otherwise tedious summer camp and talk about Illinois and the New York Yankees football team.)
A personal note about Monte Irvin: in the mid-‘60’s the baseball writers held a summer outing at Bear Mountain, including a hardball game. I was playing left field, and Monte Irvin, long retired, lofted one so far over my head that I think it landed in the Hudson River.
Monte was always available for history and opinions. Around 2009, I called him for my Stan Musial book (he thought Musial was a positive force in those days) and I reminded him of the shot he hit at Bear Mountain. Not surprisingly, I recalled it more than he did. He, after all, had tagged Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts much the same way.
I thought about Monte Irvin again during the State of the Union speech, as President Obama made a passionate call for Americans to somehow dig back to their better selves.
At the end, I saw some black members of Congress near the exit – Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee from Jamaica High School and Yale and now Houston, always there for his autograph. I saw the sheer pride emanating from them, but that is also how we feel about him and Michelle Obama, with the pride of family members.
When the President casually offered to give some tips about Iowa to current candidates, my wife and I whooped it up. Oh, right. He won two elections, come to think of it.
We look forward to the Obamas maintaining a standard of dignity and thoughtfulness over the decades. The president’s speech soared like Monte Irvin’s home run.
* * *
LOVELY CODA TO THIS POST:
(Jon Leonoudakis, who made the recent documentary on Arnold Hano, another grand old writer, displays the bond among Hano, Ray Robinson and Monte Irvin:)
From Jon Leonoudakis:
After I heard the sad news of the passing of Monte Irvin, it struck me there was a wonderful story to share about him that is largely unknown.
Ray Robinson and Monte were good friends, and in the summer of 1963, Ray invited Monte and his wife, Dee, to join Arnold Hano, his wife, Bonnie and their nine-year-old daughter, Laurel, at their place on Fire Island for a weekend. When the kids in Ray’s neighborhood learned Monte Irvin was staying there, they begged him to come out and play ball with them. Remarkably, Arnold Hano had his 16mm film camera with him and captured Monte playing with the kids. It is a very sweet story and I’ll be sharing it with the world later today. Click on the link above.
When I first saw the footage while making the Hano documentary, I asked Arnold, “Who’s the black guy in the Sports Illustrated T-shirt?”. The reply via e-mail: “Monte Irvin.” I nearly fell out of my chair! I then set about interviewing Arnold and Ray about their recollections of that weekend. It wasn’t something I could fit into the body of the film, but I hoped there would be an outlet for it at some point.
Rest in peace, Monte Irvin.
* * *
Ray Robinson’s 1984 article about the day Monte Irvin visited him at the beach:
*- Junior Griffey emerged from the pile at home plate with a Seussian smile – winning run in an epic victory over the Yankees. (We all knew he had been chastised by Billy Martin as a kid.)
My daughter Laura Vecsey was a sports columnist in Seattle that year. Griffey had mood swings, but the way he went back on a fly ball…. My son David Vecsey also worked in Seattle those years. His first child was born in 1998. The next day at the ball park, Griffey approached David and said, “Where’s my cigar?” and David produced one, you bet.
Junior had seen a lot of disruptions as the son of a major-leaguer; his goal was to be a family man. I hope they are enjoying his deserved selection to the Hall of Fame.
When reporters brought up drugs, Griffey flexed his whippy arms and said, "I train on pizza." He knew what he was telling us. Nice Hall of Fame diet, Junior.
*- Nobody hit a ball with a sharper concussion than Mike Piazza. You could have your nose in your laptop and the crack would make you jerk your head up to follow the orbit. David Waldstein knows him much better than I do: don’t miss this in the NYT today.
There seem to be two criticisms of Piazza: that he had a poor arm for a catcher, and showed alleged symptoms of steroid use when he joined the Mets. I say, if he was that bad a catcher, some manager would have made him play first.
Apparently, reporters noticed pimples when Piazza emerged from the shower. I was not on Zitz Watch that day. No other evidence. I go with the crack of the bat.
*- I cannot believe Peyton Manning would take illegal substances, even with a neck injury threatening his career. Not all athletes can make that judgment, particularly at those prices, but few athletes reach Manning’s level with his family history and support. (see: Jeter, Derek.) I believe Manning would know what he risked if he did something illegal -- not right from wrong but self-protective from self-destructive.
* - Back around 1970, I wrote that the football Giants were a “brown-bag team,” having followed them from one college camp to another, with family divisions and cronyism rampant. But then George Young was installed as GM, Wellington Mara and John Mara and Bill Parcells and Lawrence Taylor established order.
When Tom Coughlin arrived, he was a strange tormented dude, early on. The Giants actually staged an intervention: why so miserable, man? He’s been a self-aware grump ever since, totally acceptable.
Now, when I see John Mara – as solid a sports owner as there is, along with the Tisch family – allowing Coughlin to retire and talking about finding a place in the organization for him – and admitting that Jerry Reese’s personnel choices haven’t all worked out – it makes sense to me. The Giants are loyal. The Giants have won four Super Bowls. The Giants are not a brown-bag outfit.
Nice to be re-discovered.
For many decades, Arnold Hano was one of the best magazine writers in America. He is best known for his slender jewel of a book, “A Day in the Bleachers,” which he wrote on impulse after witnessing Willie Mays’ catch in the 1954 World Series.
But he is so much more than that, a 1930’s guy who still talks about “the social contract” – the relationship between individuals and society.
“He met and talked with Babe Ruth, JFK and John Wayne, saw Mays’ iconic catch, Larsen’s perfecto, and successfully battled racism, land developers, big corporations, and the federal government. says Jon Leonoudakis, a California-based film-maker who was so taken with Hano’s body of work that he has put together a documentary about him.
“His story has flown under the radar of popular culture for nearly a hundred years -- until now,” Leonoudakis added.
Hano is 93 and living in Laguna Beach, Calif., with his wife Bonnie. They have been together for 67 years as he wrote about protecting wildlife from Disney and other developers.
Two baseball stars, Orlando Cepeda and Felipe Alou, testify in the film about Hano’s fair depiction of Latino players.
The Hanos also demonstrated against prejudice in their adopted beach town. And they joined the Peace Corps in their 60’s and built schools in Costa Rica.
The film-maker became entranced with Hano and began interviewing him, with Hano insisting there was no story. (Larry David would play him in the bio-pic.)
Leonoudakis rounded up a gaggle of admiring colleagues (including me) and added an artistic blend of original jazz, original art (not the usual sports schlock) and touching photos, including Arnold and Bonnie Hano, young and old.
The couple was back in New York the other day (at Bergino Baseball Clubhouse) to publicize the documentary. She was there on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 29, 1954, when Hano – without any assignment or credential -- decided he would walk to the Polo Grounds for the opening game of the Series between the Giants and Cleveland.
Bonnie Hano, as wives do, told her husband not to be silly. He was never going to be able to walk up and buy a ticket. He did not listen to her, and stood two hours on line and paid $2.10 (he remembers all that stuff) to sit in the bleachers, the left-field side, so he could call balls and strikes from 500 feet away.
He started keeping score -- that’s what people did at ballparks before selfies -- and taking notes in the margin of his paper (The Times.)
Top of the eighth. Tie game. Nobody out. Runners on first and second. Then Willie Howard Mays began running toward Arnold Hano to track down a mammoth drive by Vic Wertz. Hano watched as Mays, arms outstretched, caught the ball as it soared over his shoulder, and then, in one fantastic powerful whirling motion, turned and dispatched the ball to second base, on a powerful arc.
Larry Doby did move from second to third, but Al Rosen had to go back to first because of Mays’ howitzer shot. .
(“Wertz flew to center field,” tersely reports the play-by-play on the invaluable Retrosheet.)
Hano watched the Giants win, 5-2, on Dusty Rhodes’ homer in the 10th. Then he went home and typed up his report, which turned into a small book that did not sell much at first but has become one of the classics of the sport.
I wrote about the book on the 50th anniversary of the Mays catch, in 2004:
Arnold and Bonnie Hano downgrade the book as something short of literature. They do have their opinions, which Hano has injected into the copious details and color and quotes -- one of the best dossiers of sports magazine articles, ever.
Now he has been captured in a knowing 53-minute film. Leonoudakis is seeking space on television and festivals and archives devoted to baseball – and journalism, and America.
The film is film is available on DVD from the film’s website:
It is also available for streaming:
Oh, yes, and check out the cover art (above). It figures in the delightful coda to the documentary. Carl Hubbell. That’s all I’m saying.
Before this World Series began, I thought that anything more would be gravy.
No Yankee sense of entitlement, just humility and awe at seeing this team-on-the-fly in the World Series, against a team that plays the game right.
As a Met fan staying home and watching, I could not have wished a game like Friday’s for David Wright, but there it is – a two-run homer that energized the Mets, two more runs on a single later.
And two Jeterian plays in the field – a scramble into the corner to fetch a ball and hold the batter to a single, and a swipe tag that was validated by replay. He didn’t dive into the stands and bloody himself. But he would have.
I wrote about Wright nine days ago, and Tyler Kepner had a lovely column in Saturday’s NYT; I don’t have to go over it again – upstanding leader, solid player, and now, for one manic night, the star of a World Series victory.
Noah Syndegaard’s strong six innings, perhaps you could trace them back to the day in spring training when Wright and Bobby Parnell dumped Syndegaard’s lunch in the garbage.
Friday was the reward for Wright, for Syndegaard, and maybe even for Parnell who ran out of velocity in his comeback.
No idea how the Mets will do, as of Saturday morning. But I would like to quote the eminent baseball sage, Johnny Damon, who on the night the Red Sox fell behind, three games to none, to the Yankees in 2004, stood in the crowded clubhouse at Fenway and calmly told reporters: "Unless I'm mistaken, we've won four straight before." (Turned out they had, eight times.)
The Mets have had their own streaks in this run. And David Wright had a game that he and Mets fans can and should always remember, on its own.
Written before Game 1: Somewhere, sometime, Colon helps win a game in long relief, like Ryan in 69 and Fernandez in 86. Royals play the game right -- good energy, make contact. Mets in 7.
I admit it. I blinked when I saw the title of Steve Kettmann’s book around Opening Day: “Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets.”
It wasn’t the main title. I was willing to find out how Alderson was a maverick (computers, Mr. McGuire?) but what about the subtitle, the “Revived” part?
I was intrigued by Kettmann’s choice of that R-word as the Mets gamely staggered into July -- subs, AAA players, walking wounded, veterans, a few live arms, all playing hard for Terry Collins.
Then in a space of two weeks, darned if they were not revived, by Alderson, by Collins, by Cap’n Wright, by Cespedes, by trades and demotions and recuperations.
But you know all that. Writers care about titles -- and subtitles. I have been blessed with all-stars as book editors over the years, too numerous to mention, except for the most recent. When I was writing my soccer book, Paul Golob of Holt (working with Times Books) noticed my scattered mentions of the dictator of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, and his collaborators.
“Don’t forget to include the dark side,” Golob suggested. I agreed, and he came up with the title: “Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer.”
As FIFA's legal charges added up, was I glad the editor had prodded me. I could go on talk shows and intone those book-writer words, “As I say in my book….”
I knew Kettmann, based on the Left Coast, had access to Alderson from covering the Oakland A’s. I asked Kettmann how he came up with his title and subtitle and he replied:
It's funny about subtitles. We tend to think of them as nearly invisible, like the subtitle to "One Day at Fenway," my first book, which was "A Day in the Life of Baseball in America." I'm not sure a single person ever cited that subtitle or made a point of it. Then again, that was 11 years ago, long before the age of Twitter.
I spent a lot of time going over the title and subtitle for my Sandy Alderson book with Jamison Stoltz, my editor at Grove Atlantic. We thought if there was going to be controversy, it would concern the title, "Baseball Maverick," since "Maverick" is a word that can mean different things to different people.
Some, we knew, would picture Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, talking about getting all "Mavericky." But I took the title from a quote given to me by Billy Beane, which he clearly meant as a tribute to his former mentor and to me, the important meaning was the original one, going back to the rancher Samuel Maverick, who left his cattle unbranded, meaning he would end up with all unbranded cattle, and he developed a reputation (rightly or wrongly) for being a free thinker who was just a little smarter than everyone else.
As for the subtitle, I thought then and think now that it was inarguable, at least among people interested in having an actual discussion, as opposed to flinging free association at each other on the Internet in short bursts. Alderson was one of a small group that "revolutionized" baseball and, given where the Mets had been in recent seasons, no question that by 2015 the team had been "revived."
That was the consensus at baseball's annual winter meetings in December 2014, and that was my view: The Mets had too much dominant young starting pitching not to make a major leap forward, and Alderson had always said that when they had enough talent to be competitive in the postseason, they would make midseason upgrades to improve further. I could not have known the Mets would have the magical season they have, but I was sure they'd make the playoffs. I was sure they'd be playing meaningful games into October - now they might be playing them into November.
Playing into late October, I think you would agree, qualifies as "Revived." .
Bill Wakefield grew up in Kansas City.
Loves his home town,
The old A's, the "new" Royals.
Pitched for the Mets in 1964.
Had a nice season, first year of Shea.
Wore No. 43 before R.A. Dickey did.
Lives in the Bay Area. Roots for Stanford, his alma mater.
Says he will be in KC for the seventh game of the World Series.
(A decade ago, I wrote a chapter about Casey Stengel for a book named "Coach." I gave credit to Casey for giving the Mets an identity when he managed them in their first ludicrous spring of 1962. He kept waiting for The Youth of America to arrive -- and once a generation it does. He would love deGrom and Familia and Granderson. Casey is in the DNA of the franchise, forever.)
The Old Man
by George Vecsey
The Old Man talks to me every day, in that raspy whisky voice of his.
He would clamp his paw on your forearm, like one of those so-called Denver Boots the police put on the tires of illegally-parked cars. You could not pry him off.
"Wait a minute," he would bellow. "I'm trying to tell you something."
What was Casey Stengel trying to tell us? Usually, something practical relating to baseball, but often it was about the weirdness of baseball, the intricacies of it, like life itself.
The Old Man used to say, "Every day in baseball you see something you never saw before."
Early in the 2004 season, on national television, Roger Clemens of the Houston Astros was pitching to Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. The broadcasters said it was the first time in baseball history that a pitcher with 300 victories had ever pitched to a slugger with 600 home runs.
Right away I thought: "The Old Man."
It happens a lot. A ball takes a squirrelly path, a player commits a gaffe, and I find myself muttering, "I've never quite seen that before."
Strange things happened around Casey, and he was alive enough and alert enough to sputter or laugh about them.
Of all the managers and coaches I've been around, Casey Stengel taught me the most. I was part of that motley band Casey called "my writers." Some of his ballplayers were wise enough to learn from him, too.
"You knew when he was being funny," said Ron Swoboda, who played one season for Casey with the Mets, and still treasured it four decades later. "And you knew when he was serious."
Swoboda was under no illusions, then or now. He was a raw kid with a bit of power, and he was the best Casey had. The Old Man had managed DiMaggio and Berra and Mantle, and now he had a player he called "Suh-boda."
But somehow or other, Casey Stengel, in his four years with the dreadful Mets, performed a more amazing job than he had with the lordly Yankees. For this new franchise he created an image of lovability that has barely eroded decades later.
Managers and coaches are often handed the burden of being role models, doing that job for the rest of society. Molding character was not exactly Casey's goal in life. He was no kindly Mister Chips. He referred to himself as "the slickest manager in baseball" - and he expected others to be slick, too.
Ron Swoboda learned that lesson in 1965. He was a husky rookie out of Baltimore, not yet twenty-one year old, bright and outspoken, but in baseball experience still a busher.
In an early-season game in old Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the Mets had a three-run lead in the ninth. Swoboda was playing right field as the rain ended and a strong sun emerged, directly in his eyes.
"The smart thing would have been to call time and get my sunglasses," Swoboda recalled in 2004. "But I figure, 'One more out, I can handle it.' Then Dal Maxvill hits a little flair that either would have been a single or I would have caught it, but I lose sight of it, and I have no clue how to play it, so three runs score and the game is tied.
"I know I screwed up," Swoboda recalled, "and I come up to bat the next inning and I make out and by now I am an emotional bomb. I stomp on my old fiberglass helmet. I'm gonna crush it. But the open end is facing up, and my foot gets caught, and it closes around my foot and I'm jumping around on my other foot."
The description from somebody in the dugout was that Swoboda resembled "a demented chicken."
"Casey comes up the stairs like he's 25," Swoboda recalled, "and he grabs me with his good hand. He had broken his wrist that spring, and I figure he's going to hit me with his cast. He's yelling, 'When you screwed up the fly ball, I didn't go into your locker and break your watch, so don't you break the team's equipment!' Then he said, 'Go sit down!'
"You know the movie, 'A League of Their Own,' where Tom Hanks says, 'There's no crying in baseball?' Bullshit. I sat there and cried. I figured my career was over."
Only later did Swoboda figure out that Casey had affection for him, the way he did for a few of his brighter young players. He could be tough on the Youth of America, but he was preparing them.
It made him nuts if ballplayers didn't listen. He loved to tell the story about when he was managing the Yankees in 1951 and escorted young Mickey Mantle out to right field before an exhibition in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Casey wanted to show Mantle the complexities of the wall, but Mantle mostly stared at him, unable to fathom that his manager had once patrolled this very field.
"He thinks I was born old," Casey muttered to "my writers," who functioned as his Greek chorus. The writers' job was to hum appropriately when he made a good point.
Casey's outlook was based on his experiences. He'd been to Europe and Japan before it was convenient. He was born in the late 19th Century and he still buzzes in my head early in the 21st Century.
People said he spoke in Stengelese, a dialect straight out of Louis Carroll's Jabberwocky. Other times he spoke blunt Anglo-Saxon that had earthy folk wisdom to it.
In his monologues, he called other people "Doctor," so we referred to him as "The Doctor." If we debated him, he would frequently say, "You're full of shit and I'll tell you why." He was the first person I remember you used the term "you asshole" as a debating point, without incurring harsh feelings - no easy trick. And when the umpires' decisions and logic went against the Mets in those early gruesome years, Casey used to say, "They screw us because we're horseshit." And he was right. The umpires did, and the Mets were.
He could ramble on, if he wanted to. In 1958, he captivated a Senate hearing into the fairness of baseball's anti-trust exemption, filibustering until the senators laughingly begged for mercy.
Casey's testimony is an American classic, right up there with Nixon's Checkers speech and Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President," well worth worth seeking out with a simple Google search. Somehow, if you listened long enough, you figured it out.
Charles Dillon Stengel (born July 30, 1890, in Kansas City, Missouri) took a circuitous route to being one of the immortal sports figures in his country. He was a quite decent outfielder in the National League and then he was burdened with the stigma of failure as a manager. In nine horrendous seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves, he never once finished in the top half of the eight-team league.
He then managed well enough in the fast Pacific Coast League to earn the Yankees' call in 1949. Joe DiMaggio and many of the older Yankees thought he was a clown, a minor-leaguer, but he soon showed he had enough nerve to run the Yankees his way.
"He had his funny moments with the Yankees, but he wasn't this lovable old clown, either," said Swoboda, who later became a broadcaster and a student of his sport, particularly Casey's career.
"He was a tough old bastard," Swoboda added.
Foisted upon the older Yankees, Stengel showed no fear of improvising and tinkering and taking command. He ran a platoon system at some positions like left field, alternating a left-handed hitter like Gene Woodling with the right-handed Hank Bauer. Neither of these crusty warhorses liked being platooned, except when they cashed their World Series check almost every autumn. He even put the great DiMaggio on first base for one game, just to prove he could.
In World Series games, he was not afraid to go a long way with hot relief pitchers like Joe Page, or use one of his best starters, Allie Reynolds, in relief, or bring in an obscure pitcher like Bob Kuzava in a tight situation. He was utterly fearless, and he answered to no one.
His main disciple with the Yankees was a scrappy little infielder named Billy Martin, who had known Stengel back in the Pacific Coast League.
"I love that old man with the ball in his sock," Martin would say, referring to a lump on Casey's ankle, a souvenir from having been hit by a taxi one rainy night in Boston. (One columnist nominated the cabby as the man who did the most for Boston sports that year.)
Martin loved Casey right up to the moment Martin was involved in a brawl in a nightclub, the Copacabana, along with several more valuable Yankees. The Yankees' front office traded Martin away, but Martin blamed Casey and did not talk to him for a decade.
There was very little parental about Casey Stengel. Casey and his wife, Edna Lawson Stengel, did not have children, for reasons only they knew. People did not discuss such things back then. She had been an actress in New York, but they settled near her affluent banking family in Glendale, California. I remember her as willowy, cultured and friendly, a grand old lady in my youthful eyes, and formidable enough to deflate some of Casey's bluster.
I encountered Casey during his last pennant run in 1960. I was twenty years old, just graduating from Hofstra College, and my boss at Newsday, Jack Mann, thought it was time for me to cover my first major-league game up at Yankee Stadium.
It was a day game, and by 11 AM, Casey was chattering to the writers in the dugout, blending tales from the olden days with fresh insights into the previous night's game. He was in the process of moving Clete Boyer into the regular lineup at third base, benching the veteran Gil McDougald, and he discussed it at great lengths, with apologies to nobody.
The pre-game drill is very different today in the age of the microphone and the camera and the tight security. Joe Torre conducts a useful 15-minute update to the media swarm before the game, seated in the dugout while the Yankee Stadium sound system blares its inanities.
Back then, Casey held court. On my first day covering the Yankees, I was so fascinated with him that I sat in the dugout and gaped, not noticing that I was the only writer left.
Finally Casey turned to me and said, "Young man, you'll have to leave now because otherwise I'll have to put you in the starting lineup." It was about five minutes to game time.
His action revealed the essential Stengel. He could have made me feel like an idiot for staying too long, but he let me off the hook with a joke. He was not like some managers then and now who delight in bullying a newcomer. He saved his best stuff for his bosses, or his stars, or lions of the media like Dick Young or Howard Cosell, or critics like Jackie Robinson.
(Robinson - who had been the favorite player in my Dodger-centric household - criticized Stengel in his Mets years, saying Casey tended to snooze in the dugout. "Tell Robi'son he's Chock Full of Nuts," Stengel blurted, aptly referring to the coffee company Robinson had represented.)
Most of the Yankees kept their distance, judging Casey as one lucky eccentric to be able to manage the Berras, Fords and Mantles.
Casey would not win a popularity contest in his clubhouse. Clete Boyer will never forget kneeling in the on-deck circle in the second inning of the first game of the 1960 World Series.
Then he heard the Old Man shout, "Hold the gun!" Casey was sending up Dale Long to hit for Boyer, because the Yankees had fallen behind, 3-1, and had two runners on base. The Old Man's move was not only unorthodox, it was cold.
The Yankees lost that Series in seven games, and Stengel was blasted for not starting his ace, Whitey Ford, until the third game. Ford wound up pitching two shutouts, in the third and sixth games, and critics said he theoretically could have pitched three times if he had opened the Series.
The Yankees dismissed Casey immediately after the Series. He said he would never again make the mistake of turning seventy.
On his body of work -- ten pennants and seven World Championships in twelve seasons with the Yankees -- Stengel was now one of the great managers in baseball history. He could have stomped off to California and lived very nicely representing his brother-in-law's banks.
However, he was not ready for the civilian world. He still needed "the baseball business" at least as much as it needed him. He was saving up a last act as manager that was, in its own way, more spectacular than his time with the Yankees.
Casey returned to Yankee Stadium in the fall of 1961 to attend a World Series game with the Cincinnati Reds. I remember the buzz as he strode through the cheering crowd of New Yorkers, his formerly gray hair now shockingly reddish. (Milton Gross of the New York Post referred to Casey as "Bixby," the name of a shoe polish of the distant past.)
New York got Casey back in 1962, after the New York Mets had been formed in an expansion draft.
There had been a terrible gap in New York after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season. There was nothing like today's glut of televised games and sports highlight shows to keep up with Mays, Clemente, Aaron and Robinson.
In 1962, the National League stars were coming back to New York to play the Mets, who included some of the worst culls and rejects from other farm systems. Would haughty New York tolerate a dismal baseball team? That was why the man with the rubbery face and the equally flexible syntax had been brought back from California.
"There was a huge longing for National League ball," Swoboda said. "Casey bought time by taking advantage of this."
Casey's job was to teach baseball, win a game here and there, entertain desperate New Yorkers and sell some tickets. He tried the flim-flam approach at times. Dismissing a young pitcher during spring training of 1962, Casey said the Mets wanted to compete for the pennant and could not afford inexperienced players.
This was pure poppycock. Most of the time, Stengel caustically referred to how "the attendance got trimmed," meaning, in his lexicon, that the paying customers had been short-changed.
Casey also fought publicly with his general manager, George M. Weiss, who had been his boss with the Yankees and had now rescued him from enforced retirement. Casey probably was grateful. But whenever the frugal Weiss tried to retain a player in whom he had invested a few dollars, Stengel thundered that the player was "a fraud."
I can picture him naked, a tough old bird in his early seventies, his Mets uniform lying discarded on the floor of his office, while he pounded his burly chest and proclaimed the entire franchise was "a fraud."
Casey was doing something no other man in "the baseball business" had ever done - he was managing and performing vaudeville at the same time. He was creating a personality for a bad baseball team in the toughest market in the country. He was inventing the New York Mets on the fly.
"He sacrificed some of his legend to keep the media and the fans from turning on the team," Swoboda said.
At the same time, Casey was talking baseball to the fans, the writers and the players.
"Why wouldn't ya wanna..?" was Casey's Socratic prelude to a lecture about some nuance of his business.
The writers and fans tended to get more out of Casey than many of his players. Casey discovered this one day during batting practice when he was delivering a lecture on the batting technique he called "the butcher boy" -- chopping downward to knock the ball through a hole in the infield.
Casey looked around at the blank looks of his own players. Then he spotted one pair of alert, intelligent eyes watching his every move, absorbing his every word.
Unfortunately, those eyes belonged to Maury Wills, the shortstop for the Dodgers, the Mets' opponent later in the day. Wills had already won one World Series in 1959 with his resourcefulness, and was not above eavesdropping on Casey's seminar. Needless to say, the Old Man did not run Wills off. He was a baseball man, teaching baseball.
Some Mets appreciated him. One was Richie Ashburn, the feisty old center fielder who ran into walls, fought with umpires, batted .306 and brought out the humorous side of an itinerant first baseman named Marvelous Marv Throneberry, who became the personification of the Mets - inept, but also comical. Ashburn hated to lose, and he understood that the Old Man did, too. Nobody blamed him when he bailed for a broadcasting job after one season.
Another player who totally got Casey was Rod Kanehl, a vagabond utility player whom Casey had once noticed years earlier at the Yankees' minor-league complex. Casey kept him around the Mets for three seasons because Kanehl hustled and would play any position (seven, ultimately). Kanehl also took up Casey's standing offer of $50 for getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.
A Midwesterner like Stengel, Kanehl felt the same fascination with the big city that Stengel once had. As a young Dodger, Stengel had enticed teammates into the rudimentary subway system, blithely losing them and forcing them to find their way back to their hotel. Kanehl also acted as subway tour guide to other Mets, who called him "The Mole." Kanel absorbed Casey's wisdom; he just didn't have enough talent to execute the lessons.
Casey did not escape criticism. In addition to the old sleeping-in-the-dugout charge - why wouldn't you want to snooze out of sheer escapism? - Casey was said to confuse players' identities. One former Met has said that Casey once ordered "Blanchard" to pinch-hit and that the coaches had to tactfully tell Casey that Johnny Blanchard was still employed across the Harlem River with the Yankees. More likely, Casey just mixed up names. He had two pitchers named Bob Miller that first season, so he called one of them "Nelson," either by design or accident.
A nap or a wrong name didn't matter much. The Mets won 40 games and lost 120 in that first season, with two games mercifully rained out.
Casey was managing the worst team in the history of baseball. "You could look it up," Casey often said, a phrase he either borrowed from Ring Lardner, or Ring Lardner borrowed from him.
One catch phrase for that 1962 Mets team was created by a boisterous raconteur with a gift for language. I am speaking here not of Casey Stengel but of Jimmy Breslin.
A gifted writer from New York, Breslin showed up on assignment from Sports Illustrated one hot, humid July weekend of 1962. The Mets threw a seventy-second birthday party for Casey in the Chase-Park Plaza Hotel, then the garden spot of St. Louis. (The headwaiter had once pitched batting practice before Cardinals' games; Casey treated him like an equal, even imitating his pitching form.)
Casey spent the reception standing up, drink in hand, commenting on the multi-ineptitudes of his team. Blessed with youthful kidneys, I stayed by his elbow the entire evening.
A year later, a Breslin book came out, entitled "Can't Anyone Here Play This Game?" a plea ostensibly uttered by Casey during his long monologue that evening in St. Louis.
Not long afterward, Breslin called me for a phone number or something and at the end I said, "Jimmy, just curious, I was at that party for Casey, never left his side, and I don't remember him ever saying, 'Can't anyone here play this game?'"
"What are you, the F.B.I?" Breslin asked.
Breslin has since admitted he just might have exercised some creative license. Casey never complained about being misquoted. He would have said it if he had thought of it.
I stuck as close as possible to Casey those years. I wasn't looking for a parent or a mentor but I think I was just wise enough to know I would never meet anybody like him again.
There have been entire volumes devoted to those wonderful early days of Casey and the Mets. (I wrote one myself, long out of print, entitled "Joy in Mudville.") If I could distill the entire four years into one madcap experience, it would be the night of May 4, 1964, in Milwaukee.
By this time, the Mets were marginally better, partially because Casey had spotted a scrappy second baseman named Ron Hunt in spring training of 1963, and installed him at the top of the lineup. On this nippy night in Milwaukee, Hunt tried to score with two outs in the ninth, but was tagged out at home in a rough collision. Then he and the catcher, Ed Bailey, began to mix it up, as both teams milled around home plate.
In the midst of the scrum, a Milwaukee infielder named Denis Menke felt a pair of powerful arms trying to pry him away from the plate. Menke shrugged the man loose. Then he looked down at his assailant and saw the Mount Rushmore profile of the Mets' manager, tangled in a bunch of legs. Menke envisioned the next day's front page: "Menke Kills Casey Stengel," and helped pick up the Old Man, who was still sputtering.
After order was restored, Casey totally denied having been anywhere near the fight. However, a couple of his players raved about the combativeness of the Old Man. Casey's story was discredited when he stripped to take a shower, revealing a few new bruises and scrapes.
After getting tossed around like that, most seventy-three-year-old men might retire to their hotel room and take a long hot bath. Casey went out drinking with his writers. We found some bar, where Casey gave a vivid imitation of a tornado that hit Milwaukee twenty years earlier, his battered body getting blown across the bar room by the imaginary high winds.
When the bar closed, eight of us found a rib joint, which turned out to be the hangout of a motorcycle gang. At first, I was a little concerned we might be in for trouble, until one of the cyclists spotted Casey and came over with his girl friend, who appeared to be sixteen years old, and respectfully asked for an autograph.
Casey, who had gotten bored with his writers, now engaged the motorcyclists in a debate over whether the Braves were willing to trade their brilliant but aging shortstop, Roy McMillan.
"Now, you want to give me McMillan, who is thirty-three, and we don't know if he can throw. Then who do you want, Hook?"
(Jay Hook was a sweet Northwestern graduate with advanced degrees in physics, who could explain why a curveball curved, but could not throw one.)
"Hook has won a lot of games for me and he has a lovely family," Casey told the motorcyclists. "Edna says I can't trade him. Would you like to talk to Edna for me?"
Casey and the cyclists talked baseball for about an hour or so, until the writers began falling asleep on the bar.
The next morning I dragged myself down to the coffee shop around nine o'clock. There was the Old Man, finishing a full breakfast, talking baseball with the customers.
As I think about Casey these days, I am struck by the vast amount of alcohol consumed by him and his traveling chorus. Alcohol had no hold over me but in those days you drank to be sociable. I had not yet figured out that you can sip a club soda and lime rather than a scotch and soda, and will feel much better the next morning.
Casey used to say, "Whiskey makes you sick when you're well -- and well when you're sick,"
He also had an expression for people who lost their composure when they drank too much: "Whiskey-slick." Even with his amazing constitution, Casey could become garrulous or argumentative, might need a friendly arm to get him from the taxi to the hotel elevator.
Having a lot of friends who are alcoholics, recovering or otherwise, I would say that Casey was nowhere near the state of powerlessness that defines alcoholism. The Old Man surely drank a bit, but at the same time he was skillfully ducking or answering questions from his writers.
He kept up his guard, but occasionally you would see a glimpse of emotion. Casey had a great deal of respect for Fred Hutchinson, the burly manager of the Reds, who had once battled the Yankees as a pitcher with the Tigers. I will never forget Casey shuddering when he spotted his friend and rival, emaciated from cancer, being taken around the ballpark on a golf cart in 1964. There was no joking from the Old Man that day. The next year, Hutchinson was dead.
That same spring Casey broke a wrist when he slipped on a wet patch during an exhibition game. Then, late at night on July 25, 1965, Casey fell and broke his hip, and needed an artificial ball inserted in his hip socket. On August 30, he called a press conference to say he would resume managing but would not return the following season. At that conference, he horrified Edna by abruptly crossing one leg over another to demonstrate what a good job the surgeons had done.
"Casey!" she blurted, the way wives will.
They stayed home in Glendale after 1965, although Casey was a fixture every spring training in Florida. My daughter, now a sports columnist with the Baltimore Sun, can recall being a little girl, sitting on a bar stool at the old Colonial Inn at St. Petersburg Beach, holding a ginger ale and chatting with that nice old couple, Casey and Edna.
In 1969, Casey was around to celebrate the Mets' improbable World Championship, with Gil Hodges now the manager. Ron Swoboda, the Youth of America, made an epic diving catch in right field to help win one game.
The final years were not kind. One season Casey visited the Mets and confided that Edna was fine -- "from the neck down," meaning her wit and reason were gone.
Casey died in 1975 and Edna lived three years longer. I see them every day. My wife has made a large montage of our family photographs and she included a photo of Casey and Edna circa 1965, in a hansom cab, he doffing a top hat, she chucking him under the chin, a striking mixture of aging prophet and ageless beauty.
To this day, when I am taking an iconoclastic stance in my column, I remember asking the Old Man why he was not afraid.
"I can make a living telling the truth," he would bellow.
I think of him every day.
* * *
George Vecsey, former sports columnist with the New York Times, covered his first Yankee game in 1960, a month before his 21st birthday. He is the author of over a dozen books, including, "Joy in Mudville," a history of the Mets, published in 1970, with Casey Stengel as its central figure.
COACH: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference (Warner Books, 2005)
Edited by Andrew Blauner
Foreword by Bill Bradley
Preface by David Duchovny
(Reproduced here with permission of Andrew Blauner)
The saddest sight I have seen in a ball park in a long time was the Cub fans in Wrigley Wednesday night.
They know the team lore; their hopes were raised a year ahead of schedule; and the Mets just crushed the home team. They took it with civility and grief, not with anger.
The Cubs had run into a team from nowhere, with all the changes in late July and early August. Now Cubs’ fans, all National League fans, better face the reality that the four starting pitchers are just coming into their own, barring more injuries, with Zach Wheeler due back next year.
For the present, there was a constant in the Mets’ coup de grace in Wrigley – David Wright, the captain.
Mendel, the thoughtful writer who regularly graces these Comments, watched Wright conducting interviews on the field, eloquent and positive, and asked me if team captains were always that verbal.
My answer is, Wright, the son of a police officer,is an unusual blend of positive attitude and belief in process. He has remained youthful in his way. He is a leader. It was a thrill to see Wright come back from injury and the diagnosis of spinal stenosis to make plays like the one Wednesday when he swooped in, picked up a roller and beat the batter by half a step – the split-second play that helps win games, and pennants.
Afterward, Wright spoke of teamwork, and fulfilling nearly a decade of hopes of fans and players. He has been special since he arrived in 2006. I remember Cliff Floyd, just passing through the Mets, raving about Wright as the future of the franchise, making it easy for the kid to fit in.
We've had some great captains in New York. I still call Willis Reed "Cap'n" when I see him; he was the heart of the Knicks. (The Yankees had a triumvirate of Jeter and Rivera and Posada – the unsung sergeant at arms, the dean of discipline.) They didn’t talk as much about the dynamics.
Wright is his own blend of verbal attention to teamwork and activist monitoring of the clubhouse. The night Wilmer Flores cried, Wright and Michael Cuddyer followed Flores into the clubhouse to sort out the rumors. Leadership.
When I was a kid in the late 40's and 50's, ball players were not nearly as media savvy. Also, they were not pressed for interviews long before the current era of twitters and sound bites. Two great captains in baseball were Terry Moore of the Cardinals and Pee Wee Reese of the Dodgers -- teams that hated each other in ways we cannot imagine today.
On a train ride in the last hectic week of 1941, Moore sidled up to a kid just up from the minors who was winning games as the Cardinals tried (in vain) to catch the Dodgers. Who are you? Moore asked in a parlor car. (Nobody in the St. Louis press bothered to write about the kid.)
The kid said he was the bad-arm lefty who had given up a homer to Moore in a spring workout that March. Moore learned his name: Stan Musial. They became fast friends.
The Dodgers of the same era had Harold (Pee Wee) Reese from Louisville, Ky. He (and a few others) set the right tone for Jackie Robinson's debut and Reese had a light but serious presence in the clubhouse.
In the mid-1950's, The Cap’n spotted young Gino Cimoli dressed and heading for the door shortly after a game.
"Gino, if you're in a rush to get out of the clubhouse, you're in a rush to get out of baseball,” Reese said. Cimoli sat down, and talked baseball.
Wright is in that mold. Remember last March when he saw young Noah Syndegaard chowing down lunch in the clubhouse during an exhibition. Wright told him to get out there on the bench. To make the point, Bobby Parnell picked up Syndegaard’s lunch and deposited it in the trash barrel. That would be the same Syndegaard leading the league in 98-mph pitches as the Mets rush into the Series.
Here’s Tim Rohan’s article from last March:
Terry Moore and Pee Wee Reese would appreciate this modern verbal captain at work.
The Cubs have all those good young players, a really cool manager, and No. 14 on their jerseys.
This is Ernie Banks’ team.
He died in January. (See Rich Goldstein’s lovely obituary.)
This is where I came in, boy reporter for Newsday, first swing into Chicago in 1962. It was cold.
During batting practice, Ernie Banks wandered over to greet the Youngs and Langs and Kremenkos he knew from the old eight-team National League.
He spotted some new boys and launched the old soft-shoe:
“Welcome to Wrigley Field, the friendly confines, the only ball park in the majors with no night games. This evening on the six o’clock news, they’ll say, ‘In the only game in the majors this afternoon….’ Look at the ivy on the wall. Baseball. It’s a lovely day for a ball game. Let’s play two.”
I can recall it pretty much verbatim because I would hear it many times in that decade. It was Ernie’s brand. He came out of the Negro Leagues, helped blaze the trail, learned to live in this crazy world -- warm smile, informed patter, who knew what behind the alert survivor eyes.
He remembered names and faces. Every time I landed a Wrigley run – day games, evenings on Rush Street – he would wander over and I would request a helping of “Let’s Play Two.” He would never fail. I cannot imagine prodding any other major-leaguer to perform shtick for me.
The Mets and Cubs were joined at the hip, one an expansion franchise, one a bumbler by habit.
The Mets would win 40 and lose 120, the Worst Team in the History of Baseball.
The Cubs could screw up anything. That kid Brock in left field would never make it.
One night in the rusty old Polo Grounds, the Cubs and Mets were staggering into extra innings. I heard a fan announce to his friends, “I hate to go – but I hate to stay.” That pretty much sums up both teams.
In 1964, on a glorious afternoon in Wrigley, the young reporters were taking the sun behind the Mets’ dugout. (There was no freaking tweeting in those Good Old Days; you watched a game and you wrote about it.)
My buddy Joe Christopher – we’re still in touch -- spotted us in the stands and wiggled his ears prodigiously every time he jogged in from right field.
Hot Rod Kanehl emerged from the dugout and spotted us. When the Mets went ahead, 13-1, in the seventh, we asked Rod if the game was a laugher. Not yet, Rod proclaimed.
However, when they scored six in the ninth, Rod popped out again and gave it the Casey Stengel wink and proclaimed, “It’s a laugher.”
After the game, reporters took the team bus back to the hotel. By some bizarre circumstance, Ernie Banks got stuck in traffic right next to me. I opened the window and posed the question: “Let’s play two?”
Ernie smiled and said – sweetly -- “Aw, shut up.” Traffic cleared. He drove on.
Bill Wakefield, who spent the afternoon taking the rays in the bullpen (Jack Fisher went nine) recalled the other day:
“At a restaurant afterwards. ‘We scored 19 runs in the sun today.’ Return question: ‘Did you win?’”
I don’t care about the Cubs’ complexes. Don’t care about no 1908 or weenie billy-goat curse or black cat or Durocher absence from the dugout or Durham bobble or Bartman interference. Mets’ fans have our own mishegoss. Then again, the Mets have won four pennants and two World Series. Just saying.
These Cubs are wearing Ernie Banks’s No. 14.
Let’s play two.
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: