Who thinks about Casey Stengel these days?
Mets fans should, because he basically invented the Amazin's.
Just the other day, a hit rolled into the right-field bullpen and a Braves outfielder flung aside a garbage pail to retrieve the ball -- a garbage pail! -- and I recalled what the Old Man used to say:
"Every day in this game of baseball, you see something you never saw before."
Still I might have thought history contains all it needs about Stengel, the quintessential figure on all four New York teams – “the Brooklyns,” the Giants, the Yankees, and the Amazing Mets.
Casey let a sparrow fly out from his doffed cap as a Dodger; he hit an inside-the-park homer for the Giants in the World Series; he won 10 pennants in 12 years as the Yankee manager; and he managed the Mets for their first four seasons.
Now, my friend Marty Appel has found good new stuff about Casey – and his times – in a new book, “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character,” to be published by Doubleday on March 28, just in time for a new season.
Appel uncovered some gems about Casey’s childhood in 19th Century Kansas City and his playing career in a Brooklyn so long ago there were no hipsters.
He has used computerized libraries and files not available to previous biographers of Stengel, including the late Bob Creamer, a luncheon companion of ours.
For example: Appel discovered that the Stengel family lived in the same neighborhood as Charles (Kid) Nichols, a Hall of Fame pitcher who won 361 games from 1890 to 1906. When “Dutch” Stengel was a rambunctious teen-age ball player, the old pitcher advised him to always listen to his managers.
“Never say, ‘I won’t do that.,'" Kid Nichols said. "Always listen to him. If you’re not going to do it, don’t tell him so. Let it go in one ear, then let it roll around there for a month, and if it isn’t any good, let it go out the other ear.”
This is wonderful advice. I spent a lot of time around Casey from 1962 to 1965 -- in his office and late at night in bars – and I never heard him mention Kid Nichols. But I now know that Kid Nichols helped Casey learn as a player – and teach as a manager.
Appel tells a great story (new to me) about a prospect named Mantle, who could run but was slowed down by his habit of looking at the ground. Stengel told Mantle he was no longer playing football in Commerce, Okla., that the major leagues had groundskeepers who created smooth base paths and that he should keep his eye on the ball and the fielders.
It made Casey crazy to see blank looks on players. The Old Man also tried to teach “my writers,” in murky soliloquys very late at night. Just when you were about to give up (or doze off) he would grab you with a stubborn paw and say, “Look, you asshole, I’m trying to tell you something.”
Appel has learned about Casey’s wife, Edna Lawson Stengel through an unpublished memoir made available by Edna’s niece, Toni Mollett Harsh. Apparently, the Stengels considered themselves too old – in their thirties – to start a family, but they were affectionate toward the wives and children of some of the younger players. (He bought a ginger ale for my oldest child, Laura, in the motel bar in Florida after his managing days. She remembers it vividly.)
I learned something else. Appel amends the legend that Stengel’s wealth came through his wife’s family, which owned a bank and businesses in Glendale, Calif. In fact, young Casey paid attention to a teammate from Texas who talked him into buying oil rigs.
Casey often barked, “You make your own luck.”
Marty Appel reminds us all that Casey Stengel made his own luck.
I’m having so much fun with spring training baseball, I’m sticking with it. On Friday I watched two of the Mets’ best prospects, Dominic Smith and Amed Rosario, enter an exhibition mid-way and lash hits (off a shell-shocked kid pitcher, to be sure.) They looked so confident -- the way Gary Sanchez did when he arrived with the Yankees during last season. (How nice for them.) This is the stuff of spring training. Some of them are strictly March pheenoms – who’s old enough to remember massive Clint Hartung of the New York Giants a zillion years ago? But sometimes young players are the real thing. Smith plays first base and Rosario plays shortstop. Gary Apple and Ron Darling on SNY-TV were chattering about how both were being groomed for 2018 – but maybe sooner, depending, etc. What baseball fan does not love this kind of talk? It sustains me in March. For the moment, I can even shut out the image of the blundering lout somebody elected president. Go Dominic Smith. Go Amed Rosario. Go Gary Sanchez.
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We live on a flyway, between two bays. The other morning I went outside and heard honking – hundreds of geese, flying high, moving fast, in a V formation, heading north.
These guys must know something, I thought. And sure enough, the geese were soon followed by ball games, on the radio and on the tube, from a warmer place.
Bread and circuses? It’s time for diversion – baseball, even better than the caloric Hershey Kisses being ingested by the very funny Joyce Wadler in her Sunday column in the Times. (You know whom she blames for her chocolate binge: her mom…and Trump.)
I got something healthier for you. My email from my friend Big Al said:
Yanks-Phils 1 PM on YES. Life begins anew.
Big Al is a Yankee fan. What can I say?
I found the first Mets game on the radio Friday while idling in the horrendous traffic at LaGuardia Airport. The Mets brought mostly a B squad to Fort Myers, but there was Howie Rose with his haimish accent, straight-from-the-upper-deck-at-Shea.
Howie was filling us in on the 11 Mets who will be playing in the Baseball Classic, the world-cup-for-hardball, in March, including Ty Kelly playing for Israel. (Read Hillel Kuttler’s piece: Kelly’s mom is Jewish.)
It was delightful to sit in traffic with something important to think about that did not involve mental health and ineptitude and malice – the depth of the Mets’ system that has decent players like Kelly and T.J. Rivera scrambling for spots. Rooting for underdogs is so very baseball, so very New York.
Time for a viewing of the 2017 Mets. On Saturday, my pal Gary and I sat in his living room and watched on SNY as the Mets played a home exhibition in 86-degree Port St. Lucie.
The first treat was hearing the broadcasters, Gary Cohen and Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, the familiar banter and expertise.
As is only normal we heard about other preoccupations – Seton Hall basketball for Cohen, a delightful 1-year-old son for Darling, and a bad knee that may require replacement for Hernandez. The docs better make sure Hernandez can still scoop up a bunt and fire to third base.
But enough about the main act. There was also the undercard -- the 2017 Mets, a work in progress. Lucas Duda was missing because of injections into his aching hips. Jacob DeGrom was sporting a totally hideous mustache that negates his flowing hair and beatific smile. Good old David Wright, in yet another comeback, hit a fly ball and later beamed as he talked about his 1-year-old son.
Washington brought along some A-List sluggers, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, and lifer manager Dusty Baker in the dugout, working his toothpick.
A moment of terror as the Mets’ Kevin Plawecki had his knee put into reverse in a home-plate collision, followed by at least a dozen horrifying replays and relieved applause as he hobbled off the field, (Update: x-rays negative, better than could have been imagined.)
The broadcasters did what they do best. They digressed, about the new rule that allows an automatic base on balls. Darling pronounced it “nothing.” Better they install a time clock for pitchers.
Hernandez and Darling bickered over the use of colored grease pens for cast-of-thousands exhibitions. Cohen presided with a paternal sigh.
My pal and I watched the entire three-hour marathon. The players. The manager and coaches. The broadcasters. The fans – no politics in evidence – watching the long game. Life under the flyway, enjoying the first honks of spring.
We had 60 degrees Wednesday, a whiteout Thursday, frozen rain Sunday. But some of us take heart from the first robins of spring – pitchers and catchers sighted down south.
Then there are advance copies of baseball books, just being distributed to lucky media types like me.
My first CARE package was a literate and knowing little gem, “Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception,” by Terry McDermott, from Pantheon Books, which will be on the shelves in May but has already rejuvenated me.
McDermott, a writer on other serious subjects like terrorism, is also a baseball buff, stemming from childhood in Cascade, Iowa. He describes his first big-league game – a Yankee doubleheader at Comiskey Park, June 28, 1959, on a road trip that reminds me of a boy’s rambunctious bus pub crawl with Welsh elders in the classic Dylan Thomas short story “The Outing.”
Once a year, McDermott writes, the men of Cascade “would charter a Burlington Line train – who knew you could even do this? -- out of East Dubuque, Illinois. They’d fill the train with Knights of Columbus, cold ham sandwiches, and Falstaff beer – or maybe Schlitz in a good year – and head east. My father, known to everyone as Mac took me along as an early birthday gift.”
McDermott adds: “It was my first game, my first train, my first taxi, my first bus, my first time seeing grown men pass out drunk.” Also, his first time seeing and hearing black Americans on the South Side of Chicago.
The hold of baseball -- a rural game played in urban settings -- reminds me of the great book, "The Southpaw," by Mark Harris I wrote about it for opening day in 2005: The young lefty from upstate New York goes to his first game in the big city where he will one day pitch.
In his first pilgrimage to another great baseball town, McDermott witnessed Yogi Berra catching both ends of a doubleheader loss. The great source Retrosheet does not allude to it, but McDermott is sure he saw a foul pop drop untouched near Berra just before an Al Smith homer, 58 years ago. Fans remember stuff like that.
Cascade is a small town, 15 minutes from where Kevin Costner wandered in the corn fields in “Field of Dreams,” and it fielded a weekend team which won 64 of 65 games one season. The star pitcher was obscurely known as Yipe; every male in Cascade had a nickname.
McDermott could have written only about the enduring pull of baseball in a small town (which still has a team) –– and that would have been fine, in fact, beautiful. But the book does much more, economically – the dissection of a perfect game by King Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 15, 2012 – sunny day game after a night game, McDermott duly notes.
He has taken four full seasons to reconstruct that game, talking shop with the scattered principals, lifers who remember every pitch. He uses each inning to illustrate one of nine different pitches in baseball’s arsenal. Some of the old masters include Walter Johnson, Three-Finger Brown, Candy Cummings, said to be the inventor of the curveball, and Cascade's own Urban (Red) Faber, Hall of Famer and next-to-last (legal) practitioner of the spitball.
And more: McDermott was a ballboy one night in Cascade when Satchel Paige 56 going on 1,000, pitched a few innings. Satchel winked and asked the boy to please not clean the dirt off the balls being rotated back into the game. Let’s have some fun, Paige suggested.
This book taught me some things: hitters who start 0-1 in the count bat .230 on that at-bat but hitters who start 1-0 bat .275. Thirteen pitchers have had their perfect game disrupted with two outs in the ninth. And, in this affluent era when barely-used balls are tossed to the fans, the average game consumes 120 balls.
McDermott provides touching digressions about the numerous shoes in his daughter’s closet, and the time his headstrong dad cooked meat on the lid of a garbage can. (It was for the dog, he quickly adds.) He has a great ear for the verbal excursions and minutiae and great truths that baseball produces, more than any other sport.
“Off Speed” will be out soon enough, but my privileged early peek assures me: baseball lives.
I always thought Chaim Tannenbaum was from Quebec. He was the lanky male presence behind the beloved Kate and Anna McGarrigle, instrumentals and passionate tenor – particularly singing the lead on “Dig My Grave.”
Talk about soul: Chaim Tannenbaum, singing gospel.
One night the sisters decamped in Symphony Space or Town Hall or somewhere, and Chaim was nowhere to be seen. The sisters sang a song or two before a fan shouted lustily, “Where’s Chaim?” The ladies shrugged as if to say, deal with it.
Maybe Chaim had a philosophy class to teach at Dawson College in Montreal. That was his day job.
Kate passed in 2010 and the torch is carried by Loudon, by Martha, by Rufus, in their ways. And at the age of 68, Chaim released his first solo CD, “Chaim Tannenbaum,” last year. Never too late.
One of his songs is “Brooklyn 1955,” about, you know, Next Year.
Turns out, Chaim is from Brownsville. Who knew?
We fans thought Next Year would never come, but the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the dreaded Yankees in that World Series and bells rang all over the Borough of Churches. (I can attest; I was in a soccer match in Brooklyn that afternoon.)
In this tribute, Chaim strums and sings about the hallowed Dodgers long before pre-hipster Brooklyn, catching the mood of a borough finally having its moment.
He’s been in Montreal for decades, and his Brooklyn history is a bit vague: people were already committing white flight in the early ‘50s, and Brownsville is not the total hellhole he describes. But he is right. Brooklyn, 1955, was a time and a place.
Stick with the video because at the end the great Red Barber recites the defensive lineup from the 1952 World Series -- my eventual friend George Shuba in left, plus Billy Cox, “The Hands,” at third base. And Barber promises that sometime that afternoon the fans would be “tearing up the pea-patch” in Ebbets Field, one of his signature phrases -- a southerner talking about a pea-patch. In Brooklyn.
(Below: Young Chaim Tannenbaum sings “Dig My Grave,” a cappella, 1984, Red Creek Inn in Rochester N.Y. with Anna McGarrigle, Kate McGarrigle and Dane Lanken, bass vocal.)
The New York Times asked me to write a column for Monday about whether George Steinbrenner should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I remembered being a frequent critic of Steinbrenner, when I became a sports columnist in 1982. I often wrote that he should get out of town, go back to Tampa or Cleveland, because his crude bullying did not belong in Big Town. (Supply your own current punch line to that.)
He did odious things but over the years I developed a partial grudging respect for him as a big-timer who could take a certain amount of banter, like most politicians and public figures.
I looked at him from the perspective of a childhood Brooklyn Dodger fan who had suffered terribly, who never, ever, rooted for the Yankees. But at least the Yankees stayed in the Bronx, a symbol of domination and bluster and endless sentimentality with all their deities and trained American eagles swooping around the big ballpark during post-season games. Overkill. The Yankee way.
But when the Times asked me to write about George and the Hall, I decided he had upgraded a historic franchise, and was – in neutral terms – an epic figure in his business, and he belonged in the Hall.
When the column appeared on the NYT web site Sunday evening, many knowing readers criticized my reasoning, in the Comments section. Others wrote to my NYT address. (firstname.lastname@example.org.) I was impressed by so many arguments to keep him out:
--His meanness discredited anything the Yankees won.
---He broke rules, not as a player but as an owner, and that should count to keep him out.
---In fact, he went from 1978 to 1996 without winning a World Series, the longest drought since Babe Ruth arrived. How smart could he be?
---It was wrong of me to compare his splurging with cable and attendance money with the bargain-basement tactics of pioneer Hall of Fame owners like Connie Mack and Clark Griffith, both former players who helped build baseball.
--The Hall voters (NYT writers, including this pensioner, do not vote for such honors) have shunned known and suspected users of PEDs. If McGwire and Clemens and Bonds and Sosa are still outside, what about an owner who hired a gambler to dish dirt on Dave Winfield, who made illegal political contributions?
---He was a bully who mistreated many people, from baseball officials to players to humble workers. This was true. Some readers had one nasty brush with The Boss, and never forgot it. The first time I met him was in 1976, when I was still a cityside reporter and was sent up to the Stadium as the Yanks prepared for their first World Series since 1964. The Boss gushed over my work on Loretta Lynn’s book, but a minute later he reamed out a Stadium supervisor named Kelly for minute imperfections. It was a way for him to demonstrate his power to me. It was embarrassing to be present for this.
But four decades later I have come to think he was a giant as an owner, and should get in the Hall one of these years.
I love the readers’ comments – so informed, so passionate, and polite. But I think character has long been ignored by the Hall anyway. There are racists in the Hall, from players to commissioners; many great stars led terrible lives – drinking, carousing, misbehaving, to disgrace and early death. Some executives in the Hall are mere lodge brothers, voted in during a simpler time.
George Steinbrenner was complicated. He bought a failing franchise and forced it back to the top. He won 11 pennants. He made the Yankees big-time.
Finally, I made an allusion to a column I wrote in 1986 urging a burned-out Boss to sell the franchise to a local builder who needed a hobby, a focus in life. I did not mention Donald Trump by name but many readers compared Steinbrenner’s bullying with Trump’s.
As a New Yorker, who has met both men, I can attest that Steinbrenner was more centered, more educated, more generous than Trump.
It’s not as if anybody was voting for George Steinbrenner to be President, for goodness’ sakes.
I thank the readers who prodded my reasoning. Those who care to prod it here are welcome. The debate goes on.
On a murky, rainy Tuesday, I was with a gaggle of baseball-writer types at a friend’s apartment in the city.
Our hostess provided a nice lunch and we celebrated the 96th birthday of our colleague, who saw Lou Gehrig play.
Late in the lunch, I started getting texts from two rabid Mets fans.
“Céspedes back! 4 years!” one wrote.
“Finally, some good news!” the other wrote.
“This could get us almost all the way up to the next election,” the first one added.
I broke the news to the dozen writers, including Mets, Yankees Tigers and Orioles fans.
"Céspedes should play right field,” one of them said. "With that arm, that’s his best position.”
We debated that, and the $110-million price, for four years. Money well spent. (Not our money, to be sure.)
We talked baseball til it was time to go home.
Forty-five minutes later, I was driving through my home borough of Queens, in the dark, in the rain, right past the Mets’ ball park. (I know it has a corporate name, but I hate banks -- more since the crash.)
The huge message board was hawking stuff – probably a hazard for drivers trying to negotiate the shifting lanes and insane rush-hour drivers on the Whitestone Expressway.
But I took a quick glimpse anyway – commercials, some U.F.C. event, season tickets.
Céspedes, I said. Brag that you just locked up Céspedes for four years.
That would have been big-time celebrating – lighting the candle rather than stumbling in the dark, which the Mets have been known to do. But nobody in the Mets' office had pushed the button to tell the Whitestone Expressway about Céspedes.
I kept my eyes on the road but my mind was on April, when Céspedes, that imperfect star, will start swinging for the fences, and catching almost everything hit near him, and throwing out knuckleheads who run on his arm.
The Mets remain a contender particularly if their young pitchers recuperate.
I thought about the ball park buzzing, buying a hero at Mama's stand, watching Cabrera's sure hands and Granderson's smile and DeGrom's and Syndergaard's locks flapping in the breeze.
I felt better than I have in a month. We would get through the winter. Baseball will be back.
I suspect Yankee fans feel the same way about the prospect of the first full season of Gary Sanchez.
Yankee fans are human. They got to live, too. They look forward to driving around with John and Suzyn calling the game, the way Mets fans feel about Howie and Josh.
In the winter, in the red states, in the blue states, in the big markets and the small markets, fans are lying dormant, dreaming their dreams. (What dreams can Cubs fans possibly have, now that their tormented circadian rhythms have been forever disrupted?)
That's baseball. On a gloomy afternoon, somebody sends a text, and the ever-hopeful fan thinks, I can make it through the dark months. We will survive.
(Note to readers: Please check out the lovely comment from Neil about his beloved grandmother, whose life spanned two epic eras in Cubs' history. In Comments below:)
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As soon as I saw the costumes on the web, I knew the Cubs would be loose going to Cleveland, needing to win twice.
Still, how much is loose worth?
By Wednesday night I was questioning manager Joe Maddon’s tropism to yank his starting pitcher. Normal.
After the Cubs won on Sunday, to stay alive in the World Series, Maddon told his players to enjoy Halloween back home in Chicagoland. Never mind a workout in Cleveland on the travel day. Munch candy corn rather than clubhouse food.
Maddon was cool when he managed Tampa Bay, an educated mixture of geek and free spirit. (See the 2008 article by Alan Schwarz:)
Maddon was also cool managing the team with the long void in its dossier. He didn’t need to exhibit football-coach control over his players. Play. Then play.
This doesn’t imply anything negative about Tito Francona, the Cleveland manager. He’s good, too. But the Cubs needed to win two on the road, and Maddon showed proper insouciance by telling his players to take Monday off with loved ones, before boarding a flight to Cleveland – action-hero regalia optional.
The photos on the web tell the story:
The Cubs won Tuesday as Addison Russell, most recently seen as a lime-green Ninja Turtle, drove in six runs, tying the World Series record.
On Wednesday, Maddon properly had all hands in the bullpen as Kyle Hendricks pitched into the fifth inning. Hendricks, known as The Professor, is smart and unflappable and had thrown only 63 pitches when Maddon got him with a 5-1 lead. The Fox crew questioned Maddon’s short-twitch strategy, even for a seventh game, and so did I.
The questioning wasn’t so much about Jon Lester’s serious imperfections in throwing to bases as it was about using another very good starter that early, ultimately forcing Aroldis Chapman to go multiple innings, again.
Turned out, Chapman was as spent as anybody could have feared. His face said he knew he didn’t have it. Then it rained, after nine innings.
During the 17-minute delay, the player showing the most yips – Jason Heyward, in his first year with the Cubs, in a year-long slump, swinging at 57-foot pitches -- had the inner strength to call a clubhouse meeting, to remind the players how far they had come.
Then the Cubs held on for an 8-7 victory in 10 innings, past midnight. One grand old baseball city celebrated and another mourned.
Maddon had treated the players like grown men. Of course, so did Francona. Now the Cubs can wear any action-hero outfit they want for the parades and parties that may last all winter.
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Here's another article by Alan Schwarz about Joe Maddon from the Tampa Bay days:
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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.
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: