Chinese faces and Southern accents.
Jewish women with Southern accents.
Black chefs talking about their specialties.
These are some of the highlights of a great new PBS series, “Somewhere South,” starring Vivian Howard, a chef now starring in a role she was born to play – a wandering correspondent with curiosity, exploring the food and histories of the diverse peoples of the Southland,
Howard is one of the great teachers who have enriched our lives in the past year, along with Lidia Bastianich, la maestra della cucina, and Margaret Renkl, one of the best reads in the NYT, explaining nature, literature and her native South.
Howard has been on TV for a while, on reality television, as she and her chef-husband, Ben Knight, established contemporary restaurants in her native coastal North Carolina. From their adventures and misadventures, Howard branched out a season ago, getting southerners to talk about their lives and their food.
I cannot cook at all – not a thing -- but I live well because of my wife’s eclectic and delicious cooking. As a journalist, I have also enjoyed my wandering around the South – some politics, some hard news, and a lot of time feeling the complexities. Now I enjoy watching Vivian Howard, a daughter of the South with a charming accent and a lively curiosity, as she gets Southerners to open up about their food and their lives, (One favorite moment was when a Korean-American chef sniffed at southern dumplings as essentially just doughballs.)
Howard finds the way ethnic specialties survive: one show features Jewish women’s way of making matzoh ball soup, followed by Chinese chefs showing Howard to crimp the dough just right.
Howard, it turns out, is a born journalist, not afraid to ask questions, eliciting the histories of her subjects. Chinese elders discussed how the older generation made money running restaurants and delicatessens, so their children could get educated and go into professions.
In one thoughtful segment, Howard talked with modern Black chefs, some of whom seemed to test her for any signs of patronization….and then they all relaxed and had a good talk and a few laughs.
Howard loves the South, much in the tradition of fellow North Carolinians -- Gene Roberts, the great NYT national editor who let me loose in Appalachia, and Charles Kuralt, the CBS host who roamed the country with a camera and his curiosity.
At times I find myself thinking of poor Anthony Bourdain, visiting places like Bahia, Brazil, bringing his lusty appetite for unique places, food, drink, music and people.
Two other great voices enriching the air waves belong to Lidia Bastianich and Margaret Renkl.
Bastianich survived the upheavals in northeast Italy in World War Two and is now entrenched in northeast Queens, a staple on TV. My wife understands the fine points; I love the way Lidia tosses off vital tips about how to simmer, how to sprinkle, how to chop. She is never patronizing, always generously maternal, sharing her tricks.
As a wannabe Italian, I love her zest for Italian culture and history – and always look forward to the end of her session -- tossing off her trademark “Tutti a tavola a mangiare.” – Everybody to the table to eat!
Lidia’s shows usually incorporated her beautiful mother, Erminia Motika, who passed peacefully at 100, this past Feb. 14. Our condolences a la famiglia.
Finally, I want to praise the NYT editors for installing Margaret Renkl as a highly literate voice on the NYT website and in print. Renkl is at her best explaining the nature around her home in Nashville (one of my favorite American cities), as well as the ways of her native Alabama and the Deep South. I loved her recent poetic appreciation of the 17-year cicadas, and why they are good for the ecology. Who knew?
My thanks to Vivian Howard, Lidia Bastianich and Margaret Renkl.
Mille grazie, you-all.
(This just in: fan makes cheesy catch of home run ball.)
* * *
Clearly, baseball missed its fans as much as the fans missed baseball.
Now we fully understand the pandemic pall of the truncated 2020 season -- no fanatics, no diehards, no leather-lungs, no lunatics, adding color and noise to the play on the field.
Never again underestimate fans.
Even with the modest percentile of fans allowed in ball parks in states where governments respect the murderous potential of the virus, baseball feels more like baseball this year.
Fans with distended facial features and thrashing arms try to summon a rally. Fans stand and applaud a gallant catch, a timely hit, a strikeout pitch by the home side.
Even back in our solitary dens, staying safe, we enjoy the game more this time around because some of our fellow fans are out there, doing what we do not yet dare to do – cheering, booing, beseeching, heckling, though their masks.
Those fans are there for us. This was apparent Wednesday night as the Mets won their third straight game on a manic homestand.
Some fans even displayed mid-season form in the skills of the game.
James McCann, the experienced catcher who has already picked a runner off second base – first time in eight years for the Mets! – slugged a long fly ball to left field. Two Phillies made frantic runs to the wall, one digging his spikes into the padding, but the ball was over the railing – and into the glove of a fan in his socially-distanced position. The fan looked like a latter-day Mickey or Willie or The Duke as he softly squeezed the ball.
Heroes all around us. Seconds later, a fellow fan applauded the catch, and the TV announcers duly noted the brilliant positioning and soft hands of the civilian.
Better yet, somehow the Mets’ TV crew located his wife, Jessica, and their twin sons, celebrating McCann's first home run with the Mets. Last year that family moment could not have happened.
Baseball has life again -- despite the mad-professor innovations in majors and minors: the goofus runner on second base in extra innings, the threatened extra foot from the mound to home plate, other silly little gimmicks in the fevered minds of Major League Baseball executives who apparently hate the game for which they are allegedly stewards.
But at least there are fans again – cheering, heckling, groaning, applauding.
Some fans can even catch a major-league fly ball.
Sunday 6 PM: Since this post began as a praise to baseball for keeping me sane, let's stick with this post through the end of the Series....even with peregrinations to college rivalries (?) and uniform numbers and love of La Belle Province. My dirty new little secret: I couldn't watch Games 3 and 4 because I cannot stand the two Fox guys. They display no wit, no change of pace. In the day hours, my baseball lunch companions have been conducting a web seminar in scoring, fielding, analytics pro and con. Anyway, I am on for Game 5 Sunday evening -- and any ramblings that may ensue. GV
While waiting to see if the United States can save itself on Election Day, I needed something to fill my socially-distanced time.
Once again, baseball has come through – with a 60-game mini-season that allowed me to have a familiar sense of angst and rage about the Mets.
Now there is about to be a World Series – with any luck, as taut as the two league series, seven games preferable to four – something to occupy house-bound fans like me.
My first hope is that the network types will stop bombarding us with “post-season” statistics. First of all, give the computer a rest. Enough with the arcane stats. Second, we are about to enter what used to be called the World Series but now seems to be morphing into “the finals,” like the other endless post-season “playoffs.”
True, the title “World Series” is a bit pretentious, even now with Latino and Asian players everywhere, but the title is baseball’s throwback to the days of two separate leagues that produced one champion each, to meet in early October.
The leagues were different. Starting in 1947, the National League got a head start with the majority of Black superstars, and the American League had the Yankees stomping on their supine league rivals. Then, more likely than not, the Yankees won the World Series.
Now baseball has blurred the rivalry between two leagues, but the separate identity of the World Series needs to be protected – including separate World Series statistics and achievements as homage to history, going back to 1903.
So much else has changed in baseball. The recent series confirmed that the age of great starting pitchers has been terminated. Pitchers are interchangeable parts, no longer expected to go long. As Tyler Kepner pointed out, a pitcher can have a 3-0 lead in only 66 pitches and still be replaced by the parade of relievers, as Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton was Saturday evening. That’s the way the Rays roll – right into the World Series.
Most managers seem wired into the dictates of the analytics hordes in some bat cave under the ballpark. Hitters are encouraged to swing for a launch arc, not putting the ball in play in some open sector of the field. Something’s been lost.
But I watched. And watched. As an alternative to endless sightings of a dangerous fool on the loose. And when the league finals came around, I found things to like about all four teams.
I fell in love with Houston a few years ago, because of their charismatic players, before we knew the organization was systematically stealing signals. Now the Astros have become the team people love to hate. Did you see James Wagner’s great piece about the fan who hectors the Astros at high decibels?
I get it -- the antipathy toward the Astros -- but Dusty Baker, age 71, a good human being who surpreisingly got to manage the Astros after the housecleaning, and I want him to win a World Series one of these years. Plus, I loved how Carlos Correa made clutch hits and showed leadership by lecturing his pitcher who was about to blow his top. I could not hate the Astros.
However, the Tampa Bay Rays played the Mets late in the regular season and I acquainted myself with a willful group of mostly interchangeable parts, managed by Kevin Cash. Some of them could even steal bases and hit for contact, not distance – a throwback to real baseball.
FAVORITE MOMENT AS SOME FANS WERE ALLOWED IN THE JUST-CONCLUDED SERIES: Justin Turner of the Dodgers picked up a foul ball -- and lobbed it to a fan in a distant seat. A sweet little custom, now revived
I couldn’t choose between the Dodgers or the Braves, either.
The Dodgers are the team of my youth, in Brooklyn. I love the uniforms and colors, although I have trouble seeing newcomers in blue Dodger trim. (Wait, why is Kiki Hernandez wearing Gil Hodges' No. 14?)
The Braves are the retooled power in the same division as my second-tier sad-sack Mets, and I am jealous about their talent and leadership.
The Dodgers had Mookie Betts making plays in the outfield. The Braves had Freddie Freeman, surviving an ominous case of Covid-19 and earning MVP honors – and chatting up any “opponent” who stopped at first base, including Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers’ star who would win the pennant with a home run late Sunday evening. (And dislocated his shoulder giving high-fives in the tumult.)
Now the two survivors are going to meet in what sportswriters used to call “the old autumnal classic.” (And I just did it again.)
Somebody, please tell the network yakkers: it’s the World Series.
With absolutely no regrets, I faced the end of the “regular” baseball season, not that anything has been regular about it. The Mets lost Saturday afternoon, and were eliminated, but I have no complaints. . Baseball has done well enough by me this summer.
In a terrible time, baseball kept me reasonably sane, in a baseball-fan kind of way – that is, stomping upstairs at 10 PM, gritting the words, “It’s over. They stink.”
The “season” came at just the right time – when I figured out we weren’t going to take a drive or visit our grown children or hug our grandkids or go out for dinner or return to the city, my home town, until this poor bungled country figured it out.
For entertainment, for escapism, I would watch nearly 60 games’ worth of overmatched pitchers, erratic hitters, outfielders turning the wrong way on fly balls, base runners stumbling into outs, a catcher who couldn’t catch -- and that was only the Mets, the only team I follow.
I don’t watch the Yankees (nothing personal, I’ve gotten over my tormented youth, plus Aaron Judge is one of my favorite players), and I cannot stand network baseball, with its overload of gimmicks and just-learned drivel and bland “experts.” I watch only the Mets, or listen to them, and it got me through two months.
Besides, what were the alternatives?
--Following the smokescreens of a crooked and deranged President?
--Obsessing over a pandemic that remains unchecked in an inept "administration?"
--Keeping up with merciless hurricanes and fires?
I kept to the high road the first few months of the pandemic – reading good books, listening to classical music, watching National Theatre re-runs from London, keeping up with family and friends.
But when baseball gave it a try in mid-summer, I devoted myself to the Mets my team since 1962 (even if I had to feign neutrality while covering baseball.)
In a sick way, the Mets were fun this year, even as their pitching crumbled and Pete Alonso had a sophomore jinx for the ages.
As a fan, I enjoyed Jacob deGrom, the master, and somebody named David Peterson who finished with a 6-2 record Thursday night, as a rookie. I watched Jeff McNeil embarrass the analytics wizards who do not value a fiery throwback, a contact hitter who plays four positions.
It was a joy to watch Andrés Giménez, 22, show speed and savvy and great hands whenever they would let him play. Time is on his side.
It was also delightful to watch Dominic Smith blossom into a clutch hitter and get to use his glove at first base, and he learned to be a decent left fielder. But most of all, in a time of social awareness, as Blacks kept getting knocked off, Smith knelt to express his concerns, and wept with emotion.
. enjoyed watching the calm eyes above the mask of Luis Rojas, the accidental manager -- he's Felipe Alou’s son; that told me a lot.
I tried to ignore the counter philosophy that said we should avoid this goofus version of a season – 60 games, a tie-breaker gimmick in extra innings, 7-inning games in doubleheaders, no pitchers hitting in the National League, and, worst of all, no fans.
I heard baseball people say they are just beginning to appreciate the fans. Really? Just now?
The other day, I read an article by Tim Kurkjian of ESPN, the writer-commentator who knows the sport, lamenting a baseball season without “fun.” Tim is terrific, but I want to say that in my masochist world, “fun” involves suffering.
Fun? I was a Brooklyn Dodger fan in 1950 when Richie Ashburn threw out Cal Abrams at home, and in 1951 when Bobby Thomson hit the home run, and 1956 when Don Larsen no-hit the Dodgers. Was any of that fun? I missed it.
The real “fun” of baseball is thinking along with the participants and the commentators. I know more about the game since I retired and have been able to watch and listen to Gary and Keith and Ron, plus Howie on the radio, even though this year they did not travel with the team but made their calls, as well as possible, off the TV in an empty Mets’ ballpark. Hard for them and the audience, but it was still a game.
With the Mets not qualifying for the playoffs, I don’t plan to watch the long 16-team slog to a “World Series” but I might be a backslider I’m liable to catch the occasional soccer game in the winter months but I stopped watching football and basketball and hockey years ago. College football? I never had respect for the ugly alliance between colleges and football, and now the Pac-12 has joined the other major conferences in risking the health of the so-called students who will play during Trump's pandemic.
I think voters will get rid of this vile and ignorant President, and maybe more Americans will wise up about how to slow down this pandemic even before a legitimate vaccine arrives.
Speaking of change, prospective buyer Steve Cohen says he will bring back Sandy Alderson to run the Mets. This must mean Alderson's health is stable. But what does it mean for Brodie Van Wagenen, the agent who has been running the Mets the last two years?
In the meantime, the Mets got me through a long hot summer, and that is something.
Tim Kurkjian’s knowledgeable view of this weird season:
Cardboard spectators stared vapidly from behind home plate, their expressions never changing as the Mets and Yankees committed something akin to baseball.
This was the ambiance at New Shea Saturday night as Major League Baseball introduced Covid-Ball, a makeshift version of the great American pastime, or what used to be.
Cruel boss that I am, I assigned myself to stick it out as a preview, or warning, of what this truncated season will be, if it lasts its threatened 60 games. (Some wary big names have already dropped out for this season; others are trying to come back from a Covid attack. To be continued.)
This was only an exhibition, spring training in mid-July, and there was to be another one at Yankee Stadium Sunday evening before the “season” opens late in the week.
I will tell you up front that my biggest thrill of the night was seeing the aerial view of Queens, my home borough – the globe in the park, a glimpse of the wonderful Queens Museum, the No. 7 elevated train gliding through the neighborhood, as sweet as a gondola through Venice.
Oh, my! I am so homesick for Queens!
I thought of the joys within a mile or two of this sweet spot – my friends and the heroes at Mama’s deli on 104th St., other friends at the New York Times plant, just to the east, the food and the crowds in downtown Flushing, the Indian food in Jackson Heights, and so on. I miss all these at least as much as baseball.
There was a strange hybrid form of baseball taking place in New Shea. Yankee manager Aaron Boone was moving his jaws inside his soft gray mask, either chewing something or talking a lot.
The first home-plate ump (they mysteriously rotated during the game) had some kind of plexiglass shield inside his mask, to ward off virulent Trumpian microbes.
I was mostly watching the Mets’ broadcast, with good old Ron and good old Keith two yards apart in one booth and good old Gary in a separate booth, but their familiarity and friendship came through. Welcome to this strange new world.
Later I switched to the Yankee broadcast and realized Michael Kay and the others were not in Queens but were commenting off the same video we were seeing. Not sure how that will work out during the season.
Early in the game I learned that the Toronto Blue Jays will not be able to play in that lovely city this “season,” for fear of being contaminated by the virus the viciously bumbling Trump “government” and block-headed Sunbelt Republican governors have allowed to rage.
I don’t blame the more enlightened Canadian government – but a few days before the season opener? The Jays will apparently play in Buffalo, creating all kinds of logistical horrors for anybody in Ontario with Blue Jay business.
The highlight of Saturday’s exhibition was Clint Frazier, the strong-minded Yankee outfielder who plans to wear a kerchief-type mask during games, including at bat. Does a mask impede a batter’s reaction to a fastball, up and in? Maybe. But Frazier unloaded a 450-foot homer into the empty upper deck – (Sound of summer: Michael Kay: “SEE-ya!”) -- and some teammates in the dugout flashed masks in tribute to Frazier.
I obsessed about those cardboard fans behind home plate. The absence of real people takes away one of the peripheral joys of watching a game – demonstrative or even annoying fans, the occasional celebrity, and, yes, I admit, women in summer garb. Will these faux fans become part of lore? Will they be rotated, replaced by new faces during the “season?” Just asking.
Finally, there was the recorded crowd noise, an apparently steady hum. No pro-Met chants, no anti-Yankee jibes, just background, like the roar of the sea,
I caught the last inning on the Mets’ radio broadcast, where good old Howie was speculating that the home-team genies in the control room were raising the sound a bit when the Mets were rallying.
I stuck it out because I had assigned myself to “cover” the event.
But I wondered about the reaction of my pal, Jerry Rosenthal, one-time all-conference shortstop at Hofstra, two-year Milwaukee Brave farmhand, and now lifetime baseball purist and authority.
How did Jerry like the ersatz game? He texted:
“Watched one inning of the game. I am now watching ‘The Maltese Falcon” for about the 25th time. That should tell you something!”
Yes, it does.
I just learned something about sports in empty venues: even without the fans roaring, the drama and the skill can be magnificent in front of the tube.
This is worth noting as major American sports prepare for unprecedented short seasons and makeshift playoffs.
None of this means any athletes should be playing. Covid-19 is raging, sparked by the cruel and intentional stupidity of Donald Trump. Athletes are probably setting a bad example just from their proximity, no matter the health protocols cobbled together.
To be continued.
But what I realized Thursday was that great athletes and great sports and great histories and great plots make for great viewing.
My little epiphany came during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester City in London. I wasn’t even watching until I started getting pinged by my son-in-law in Deepest Pennsylvania, telling me that homeboy Christian Pulisic from nearby Hershey was starting for Chelsea.
The next ping told me Pulisic had scored. So I dropped my household chores and turned on the tube.
The replays showed the wunderkind, not yet 22, sharking two Man City defenders, putting pressure on them, forcing them into a dreadful giveaway, and then changing his gears several times as he corkscrewed the hapless Man City keeper into the turf and slipped a goal into the corner – a brilliant bit of opportunism, whether in front of a packed house in Stamford Bridge or an empty one. On TV, it was stunning.
The goal was also vital because Man City was one loss or one draw away from yielding its title to Liverpool after two straight championships. Liverpool was so far ahead this season that a title was inevitable, but now it might happen without Liverpool flexing a muscle except of course in front of their own TV sets up north.
The great soccer continued: Kevin DeBruyne, the red-headed Belgian with Man City, hooked a free kick into the left corner to draw the game. World level skill.
Raheem Sterling, the young Man City star who has been the spokesman for Black Lives Matter in British football, missed twice by inches.
Pulisic sharked Man City again but this time Kyle Walker slid on the goal line to stop the ball millimeters from the white line.
And then a seasoned City player, Fernandinho, let his left hand dangle to stop a shot in goalmouth, and was called for a red card. (Sour Grapes Dept: the very same act, uncalled, cost the U.S. a goal in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal against Germany.)
Willian scored the penalty for Chelsea in the 78th minute and idle Liverpool would clinch the title – its first in 30 years.
Pinging in my phone from father and son in Deepest Pennsylvania followed by the TV views of fans lurching around Anfield Road at dusk, and a raucous Zoom montage around Britain of Red Devil fans in their red jerseys celebrating – the modern mix of Liverpool fans, white and black, young and old, male and female, even the odd dog. Some fans held up signs that said: “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the inspirational theme song of Liverpool for decades now.
One of the broadcasters noted that Liverpool has been revamped in the past decade by John Henry, the very same introverted owner who revamped the Boston Red Sox from a decades-long miasma of its own.
People who follow sports carry these legends with them while watching, and debating, even while sitting out off-seasons and [postponements during this frightening plague.
On this very same; day, in unusually hot England, close to a million people rushed to the southern shore, packing the beaches, breathing on each other at close range, just as they would be in a packed stadium.
Are we humans that eager to infect each other, perhaps mortally, at sports events, the beach, religious services, political rallies for the fragile ego of a dangerous president? Well, it would appear we are.
Now we are about to will American sports into close-order competition, with “rules” that seem ludicrous. (One of my favorite new conditions for baseball players on the road for the next three months stipulates that only close relatives will be allowed into players' hotel rooms.)
For the moment, a father and son in Deepest Pennsylvania celebrated a championship in England, performed by some of the best players in the world.
I watched. It was terrific. Now, heart in mouth, in this dangerous time, I await the Mets.
I did the healthy thing and did not watch a moment on Sunday night. While I read a book, the next generation kept me posted -- good reviews for the ladies, terrible reviews for the TV babblers. Some of our family were early Mahomes fans; I'm happy for them. Ditto for my friend Bill Wakefield, ex-Met, who chose his home town over his adopted Bay Area. I have that righteous (probably smug) feeling I have on Jan. 1 after going to sleep before midnight..
Now I have a three-word mantra for other true believers:
Pitchers And Catchers!!!
* * *
After covering 10 or 11 Super Bowls (*), I still did not truly understand the broad appeal of the event -- until Friday evening.
While watching the Republican majority in the Senate dump on the impeachment trial, I became aware of the magnetic pull of the Big Game on everybody – not just the deaf, dumb and blind Senate majority but even the broadcasters on cable news, who referred to the Super Bowl in just about every other sentence.
People made jokes about home-region teams -- nicknames, rivalries, ancient games -- as if that mattered more than a real hearing, a real trial.
I got the impression that even news TV people with connections had the promise of a ticket and a flight to South Florida, as long as the Senate did not take its job seriously and keep working into Saturday. Plus, four Democrat senators could now rush out to Iowa to peddle their wares before the caucus on Monday.
Take it from me, up close the Super Bowl is just another football game – but with more logistical annoyances, more noise, more stupid stuff at halftime, more clichés, and in the end just a bunch of running and passing and tackling and blocking and kicking and commercial timeouts.
It really isn’t much of a consolation that the Senate cannot officially toss the impeachment into the Dumpster until Wednesday.
Does this mean Trump won’t swagger around South Florida on Sunday….and strut into the State of the Union speech on Tuesday….and make pointed remarks about how the Democrats couldn’t prove a thing. He’s been getting away with stuff all his life. But at least his latest escape won’t be official until Wednesday.
The big game this weekend is that Americans can ignore the reality that Trump forced Ukraine to survive without promised weapons for many crucial days last summer while Trump pursued a personal and political goal and jeopardized Ukrainian people and befouled the honorable career of a diplomat assigned to Ukraine
Thanks to the Republican majority in the Senate – who will be pursued by emerging facts in days and weeks to come -- the menace and the lies get to take a few days off now.
Democracy and justice have been kneed in the groin, have “had their bell rung,” as the football broadcasters used to bray, have been tripped and elbowed, have been clotheslined by a neck-high tackle.
The big game will be run by tighter rules than the Trump Frolics, but that makes sense.
After all, what’s more important - an impeachment trial or a Super Bowl?
* * *
(*) -- I originally thought I covered nearly two dozen Super Bowls, but it just seemed that way. When I checked, it was only 10. Maybe 11. Some of them numbed my mind but I do have memories: Preservation Hall jazz in 1970; having to trek over snowy fields because VP Bush's arrival halted all traffic around the Silverdome in 1982; John Riggins' superb traction on a slick Rose Bowl field in 1983; enjoying the Bears, my favorite childhood team, winning in NOLA in 1986; and watching southern drivers try to negotiate icy interstates before Atlanta game in 2000. Who says there is no fun at the Super Bowl?
I’ll let you define “here.”
There are thousands of factors from "there" to "here," but I’m going to list four random indicators that something was happening.
One. My wife went to the movies with some fellow teachers, circa 1981 -- "Raiders of the Lost Ark." She watched as Harrison Ford blew away a guy who was wielding a sword, in front of a crowd, and she felt he did it with a smirk, for yucks, and the audience laughed, and she felt tears. Something is different, she said. Life means less.
Two. I was clicking through the cable channels around 2006 – no doubt looking for a ball game or a soccer match – and happened upon a talent competition.
We had these things when I was a kid, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts – first prize being a week on his morning radio show. Godfrey was generally genial on the air (well, except when he fired his singer, Julius LaRosa, live, to teach him some “humility.”)
In 2006, a talent competition was different. A British guy named Simon was sneering and making remarks about the competitors, and also about the wisdom of his fellow judges. I had never seen such sheer nastiness on the air; the show was about this Simon guy, not about the contestants singing or dancing their hearts out.
I had never seen a reality show -- knew they existed, but avoided them, scrupulously. Only thing I could say about sneering Simon was “If he acted like that in the schoolyard where I played basketball, somebody would have popped him one.” But Simon seemed quite popular.
Three. I did hear there was a comparable reality show on the tube, starring a guy who grew up near me in Queens. He was rather yappy; friends of mine who lived next door told me that. I never saw him in the schoolyard.
Later, I heard he had been staked by his successful builder father to a rather large allowance to look like a successful businessman. He owned a team in a low-scale pro football league; his wife (first wife, as it turned out) had to correct all the things he did not know about his team.
Then I heard the guy had his own reality show, on which he postured and preened, Simon-like, dismissing candidates with a curt “You’re fired.” I heard it was popular but I never saw it. After all, I had met the guy. People in New York didn't take him seriously. We knew.
Four. Starting in 2009, I started to read about new members of Congress who had run for the House or Senate because….they did not much like centralized government and the use of taxes to run the country, to help other people.
Once elected, they were obligated to go to Washington for a few days here and there, but to show their disdain for centralized government they bragged about bunking in with friends, maybe even sleeping on couches in their offices, until they could get back home to God’s Country, away from the Deep State. These advocates of minimal government were labelled The Tea Party by Rick Santelli of CNBC. Last elected rep to leave, please turn out the lights.
That brings us to today, when the country seems to be divided between elected public officials who seem to have studied and respected the Constitution and the Founding Fathers and other elected public officials who seem to have a Tea Party twitch to shut the whole thing down and turn it over to Our Masters – particularly the guy on the reality show.
I guess it goes back to laughing at bodies being blown to bits by Indiana Jones, back to contestants and fellow judges being mocked by the Simon guy, back to Tea Party types who don’t believe in the separation of powers of government, who do not respect the public servants who make government run.
It’s been coming on for a long time.
It’s not the playoffs. It’s so much more. That’s the only way to think about the championship of Major League Baseball, grandiosely named The World Series.
I love the World Series because it’s been around since 1903, albeit transferred from the sunlight of early October to the televised darkness of late October.
The World Series deserves a sharp mental click of the brain when the league playoffs end and the World Series begins. It’s different. The Washington Nationals and Houston Astros are playing in the same event graced by Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators and Willie Mays of the New York Giants back in other days, when there were two distinct leagues, no playoffs, but two champions playing each other.
Who will be the Country Slaughter of St. Louis racing home with the winning run of the 1946 World Series or Joe Carter winning the 1993 World Series with a walk-off homer for the Toronto Blue Jays? (I still call the 1946 World Series my favorite because it was the first one I noticed, age 7 -- players back from the war, Musial vs. Williams, two grand baseball cities, epic winning run.)
World Series statistics exist in their separate category:
Q: (Courtesy of my friend Hansen Alexander): What team has the best percentage of championships in the World Series? A: why, it’s the Toronto Blue Jays, 2-0, in 1992-93.
Q: Which star is the first pitcher to lose his first five decisions in the World Series? A: As of Wednesday evening, it is the excellent Justin Verlander of Houston. (Not some palooka, but the two-time Cy Young Award winner with grass stains in an unusual place – on his name on the back of his uniform from diving for a dribbler Wednesday.) I heard that gloomy 0-5 statistic and immediately thought of the admirable Don Newcombe of my childhood team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had an 0-4 record in the World Series (all against the Yankees.
The World Series is not merely part of the post-season. Do younger fans make that distinction? Or is it just another long and noisy event in the October TV calendar?
Speaking of TV, I find it hard to watch these four-hour games, particularly with network breathless overkill of stats and story lines, bringing the world up to speed on these two teams. I am geared to the Mets’ TV and radio crews, speaking to knowledgeable home-team fans. To be fair, Ken Rosenthal and Tom Verducci have journalism credentials, and John Smoltz is an intelligent former star pitcher, but Joe Buck just wears thin, hour by hour by hour.
It’s easy to root if you have a team in the World Series. Otherwise, there is a void. I was inclined to root for Houston – having fallen in love with that team that won the 2017 Series and is mostly intact, with alert and lean players who play the game the right way – and let the homers come as they will. I love Jose Altuve, my favorite non-Met. (Aaron Judge of the Yankees is second. I loved the clip of the two of them talking during the league series – 13 inches’ difference in height.)
Plus, as a Met fan, I have come to think of Washington as an underperforming franchise, firing wise old managers like Dusty Baker and Davey Johnson, with sourpusses like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, but they let Harper walk last winter, and Strasburg seems to have matured, and the Nationals have, finally, jelled.
There is one other factor to following the World Series when your team has long since scattered to the hinterlands – familiar faces.
During Wednesday night’s marathon, I got an e-mail from my friend Bill Wakefield, who pitched for the 1964 Mets. He referred to “your guy,” meaning Asdrubal Cabrera, the wise old head who gave the Mets several seasons of skill and leadership and joyful noise. Cabrera was the one who ritually removed the helmet from the teammate who had just hit a homer. He made everybody better. Then he moved on.
Cabrera was ticked last summer when the Mets did not bring him back for a stretch run, so he signed with the Nationals. He started at second base in the first two games in Houston (where the designated hitter rule is observed) and drove in three runs Wednesday.
Root for “your guy.” Cabrera or Altuve? Either way, these two teams are adding to the lore and emotion and statistics of that very American stand-alone event called, you should pardon the expression, the World Series.
I've never seen “Game of Thrones.” Never saw “Dallas” or “Empire” or “Sex and the City” or "The Wire," for that matter.
This is not a value judgment. I do understand.
I’ve watched exactly one series since our children were home and we watched “M*A*S*H” and “All in the Family.”
I can relate to people who watch their compelling series because I fell hard for “The Sopranos,” oh, a few years back.
I schemed and plotted so I could be home in front of the tube on Sunday night to feel my blood grow cold and my breath constricted as Tony Soprano killed and lied and cheated -- and I rooted for him to survive.
My entire week was built around Tony and Carmela. I remember once on a drive through the Appalachians, stopping at motels until, on a converted strip mine above Hazard, Ky., I found one place that had “HBO.”
(In my fevered mind, Tony and Carmela moved to Boca Raton, had their identities and fingerprints altered, and are sitting by the pool, safe, grandparents and churchgoers.)
Enjoy your obsession. I have a few of my own – The Mets are the only team I watch (may have to reconsider this season), and I also watch high-end soccer (The Women’s World Cup from France, this summer.)
I have also watched more hours of The Bureau of Wishful Thinking (i.e. MSNBC) than was good for me. Every morning I wake up and find the Times on my doorstep and realize that guy and his cohorts were still here.
Lately, I've been reading more, and listening to classical music. Just to stay sane. And for the past few years we have forced ourselves to stay awake until the cold opening of “Saturday Night Live.”
After decades, I have gone back to “SNL” because….because….it is still there, having just concluded its 44th season last night.
Entire careers on “SNL” came and went while I was on the road or staying up late with friends, but lately I have revived memories of our kids being home and watching Gilda and Steve and Bill and Dan and Chevy (and in some blip of time more recently, the brilliant Tina Fey.)
I understand TV obsessions because lately I have had mine – watching Alec Baldwin or Ben Stiller or Robert DeNiro do guest riffs, impersonating people in the news.
“SNL” is terribly uneven – a lot of spoofs of game shows or social situations I do not claim to understand, and “musicians” who mostly hop around and point their fingers.
But sometimes it catches fire. One of the best shows – maybe ever – was in early March when John Mulaney took over the 90 minutes, with his own monologues and even busting some moves and cool as a white guy at a black music party.
The overdue arrival of black performers and black perspective has sustained me in recent years. I loved Chance the Rapper and cast members doing a soul song called “Come Back, Barack,” with a bittersweet take.
If my wife or I doze off during the show, we wake each other for the “Weekend Update” with Colin Jost and Michael Che because they often serve as straight men, letting talented cast members go wild.
My real obsession is Kate McKinnon, who fearlessly shifts from foul-mouthed, cigarette-puffing harpies to evil garden trolls with sparse hair and menacing grins like Jeff Sessions and Rudy Giuliani.
Other times she is absolutely beautiful. For me, she is advancing into Gilda-and-Tina territory. I fear the day she moves on, as most of them do.
Anyway, enjoy the finale of “Game of Thrones.” I understand.
Mid-day is a great time for reruns, oldies and goodies.
On a cool May Day, I turned on the tube in late morning, highly unusual for me, and there he was, a blast from the past, blustering through touchy moments: Jackie Gleason, The Great One, resorting to a law-school version of his old “Honeymooners” filibuster:
“Homina, Homina, Homina.”
Gleason used to get caught out on his obfuscations – the camera did it lavishly – but there on national and probably worldwide television was the Attorney General of the United States resorting to time-killing phrases, to while away the 5-minute chunks of time.
Sometimes the old blatherer could not escape. Sen. Diane Feinstein asked him about testimony in the Mueller report that Donald J. Trump asked his legal counsel to change his story about being ordered to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.
“That’s not a crime,” Gleason/Barr said.
The hearing is being covered in the great newspapers that have been coming up with daily news about this seedy administration, and is also echoed on the networks, (Even Fox: see the above video. The Murdochites wrote a headline that said Barr “Embarrasses” Feinstein. Really?)
The Democrat questioners could not fathom why somebody who once had a decent reputation would now cast his fate as a lackey for Trump. Barr gave no clue. There seems to be nothing there, not a twinge of conscience. Was there ever anything more to him?
The Republican questioners – particularly Sen. Lindsey Graham, lost without his big brother John McCain -- seemed more intent on trying former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for the heinous e-mail offenses she may have committed, now three and four years ago.
Barr’s cheeks puffed up as Sen. Mazie Hirono said he had lied, and that he did not seem concerned that Trump had urged his counsel to lie.
We all can see that Trump has bad judgment in his choice of lawyers, on his "Where's my Roy Cohn?" crusade, seeking the vile creature who aided Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The best Trump can do are Michael Cohen, Rudy Giuliani, Jay Sekulow, his own personal bums-of-the-month.
Now he has the Attorney General of the United States – theoretically, the lawyer for the people, according to the Constitution -- covering for him. On national television. In mid-day. More vital than reruns, but sad, terribly sad, that Trump has lowered the country to this.
I watched a film Sunday that had me muttering “Mengele! Mengele!” -- after the infamous Nazi doctor who conducted ghastly procedures on Jews.
In fact, Manohla Dargis of the Times used the same reviled name in her recent review of “Three Identical Strangers,” a documentary about adoption gone way wrong.
The film was on CNN, after a quick theater run last year, reviving the 1980 discovery by three young men that identical versions of themselves lived in the New York area.
Their ecstatic smiles lit up the talk shows – the sensation of the year! -- Boys born on the same date – from the same (unwed) mother – and within six months placed in three separate (Jewish) homes—now reunited.
The boys danced in unison and partied in unison and smiled for the camera in unison. Only slowly and tentatively did anybody ask: why were these three identical boys placed in three non-identical homes, all within driving distance of “researchers” who had somehow acquired permission to take videos of the boys, separately, going through psychological tests? Was it an accident they were placed in what could be judged as three different socio-economic levels? Was that part of this experiment, this playing with lives?
Only slowly does the documentary allow the victims – for victims they were – to disclose there was a dark side, behind the glowing smiles that seem ever more forced and ominous.
The most sane outsider in this documentary is a journalist, Lawrence Wright, who investigated the scandal for the New Yorker. Wright appears frustrated that he never really cracked the heart of darkness of this vile plot by Dr. Peter Neubauer, who had been trained by Anna Freud, and become a “prominent psychiatrist” in New York.
In Wright’s subsequent book about female twins, also separated for Neubauer’s nature-vs-nurture experiment, he describes “an extensive team of psychologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, observers, and testers.”
A New York foundation that facilitated Jewish adoptions, and a doctor, born in Austria, who escaped the Holocaust in Switzerland, perpetrated this experiment on three families.
These boys, who had once slept in the same crib, nestled against identical bodies, had suffered the double loss of mother (at birth) and brothers (at six months). Only slowly do we understand the gaping holes at the centers of their psyches.
Adoption is tricky enough. Allow me to go personal here: both sides of our families have been enlarged and enriched by adoption, but the process may leave serious gaps.
My father was in orphanages and foster homes before being adopted by a Christian family of Hungarian background, when he was 5. When he was 15, his adoptive father skipped, leaving a wife and their natural daughter. My father, later in life, tried to learn more, knowing only the name he had been given at birth. Alas, the agency told him, all records have been lost. Or sealed. So sorry. Friends often told him he looked Jewish.
A few years ago, my DNA test revealed that my heritage is half English/Irish and half Ashkenazy Jewish. As a Christian, with many Jewish friends, I was thrilled with the discovery. There was no dancing, no partying, no talk shows, just the melancholy wish my father could have known the truth that was withheld from him by a system that victimizes adopted children who grow up with serious questions, or don't even know.
The three boys in the documentary discovered they had company in this world through the most bizarre circumstances: a young man arrived at a community college in the Catskills and students rushed up to greet him, hug him, kiss him and call him Eddy, which was strange, since his name is Bobby. A mutual friend united the two boys, who stared at each other as if in a mirror. And then the photos in the papers turned up another lookalike – all born on the same day.
Years later, after bonding, and then moving apart, the three young men in the documentary came to realize they were victims of an experiment – but for what?
The Louise Wise Services seemed to have encouraged unethical tactics by the doctor – hardly out of racial hatred, like Jews in the Holocaust, but out of greed, or hubris, or curiosity gone amok. Nazi stuff. Mengele stuff. The agency went out of business in 2004, laying down legal blockades for people who wanted information on their adoptions.
As somebody with half Jewish DNA, I feel contempt for the smug wealthy board members of that now-defunct foundation, who, get this, poured Champagne for each other after fending off the six adoptive parents, who, with such idealism, had adopted these boys.
The documentary touched our souls. Spoiler alert: there are flaws – passing over the implication of one of the men in a serious crime, ignoring the fact that a fourth identical child died at birth, and obscuring some family dynamics, undoubtedly for legal reasons. Only last fall, a legal challenge forced the sealed records to be opened now, rather than in 2065.
My heart aches for those three young men, who were treated like captives during a pogrom in a European shtetl. This happened in my home town, New York.
As the saying goes: Never Again.
* * *
Here's an interesting link critiquing the Jewish angle of the documentary:
The NYT review of the documentary:
An excerpt from Lawrence Wright’s book on the female twins who were reunited:
The psychiatrist at the core of the scandal:
The decision to unseal the records:
An article by Lawrence Wright:
More from CNN:
Michael Cohen emerged into a phalanx of 20-inch necks and watchful eyes.
The NYPD had its best people out in front of the courthouse.
My first response was delight that Cohen had to walk the perp walk, the felon walk, in front of the cameras, in front of the world.
This is, after all, the same chap who once rang up a reporter working on a story and threatened to do something “f------ disgusting” to him. The same fixer who zestfully helped Trump become Grifter-in-Chief.
The threats and payoffs seemed to come naturally to both of them.
I noted Cohen’s well-clad family, now shaken by a three-year sentence, and I felt no sympathy. They must have known the line of work he was in.
My glee at the downfall of this enabler was tempered a bit on Wednesday by Chuck Rosenberg, a former federal prosecutor, now a valuable contributor on MSNBC.
Rosenberg is a knowledgeable and stable presence – speaks softly, rarely even smiles, has no need to be cute, a pitfall for some regulars on the cable. He just knows stuff. And on Wednesday he made me feel (albeit temporarily) a bit guilty at my runaway case of schadenfreude.
MSNBC does not seem to have posted Rosenberg’s comment, and I was not taking notes, but the rationality of his impromptu comments stayed with me, after the moment.
Rosenberg said, not bragging, that he had loved being a prosecutor, finding the misdeeds, righting the wrongs. In words to this effect, he said he loved presenting evidence, convincing judge and jury, seeking justice.
But, he added soberly, the part he enjoyed least was the sentencing. He did not enjoy being in a courtroom and hearing most of the suspects being sentenced to….something.
These are real people, Rosenberg said. They have families. They have private lives. They may deserve their sentences, but they are….people.
Rosenberg’s decency calmed me down, well, for a few minutes. But as the day went on, and front-page news came of that slimy gossip paper having flipped, with a safe full of salacious clips on Trump, and my ongoing awareness that Trump is tossing very dangerous toys around his playpen, I felt no empathy for Michael Cohen.
Let him sell his apartment to pay his fines and legal bills. I don’t buy the line by his lawyers and apologists that he is a changed man. He is a caught man. Sorry.
I give thanks to MSNBC for, during this terrible time, having brought in their own phalanx of qualified “contributors” – people who worked in government and the law, people who have expertise, and share it.
People I mostly never heard of until Trump strutted into the White House: Rosenberg, Joyce Vance, Barbara McQuade, Paul Butler, Mimi Rocah, Frank Figliuzzi, Maya Wiley, Daniel Goldman, my fellow Jamaica High School grad Jelani Cobb, and many others, plus two grand oldie-but-goodie Watergate lawyers, Nick Akerman and (drum roll, please) my second favorite septuagenarian lady, dressed and coiffed perfectly, a legal guru, smiling like a blonde Buddha from Chicago, Jill Wine-Banks.
I learn so much from these contributors. Now I am looking forward to a lot of people named Trump being frog-marched into the pokey for their grifting from here to Riyadh or Moscow and back again.
While we’re on the subject, I apologize for my lowball estimate that Trump would self-destruct within 18 months. I was relying on my having known about him from back in Queens, but I vastly overestimated the vestigial patriotism and integrity and common sense of Paul Ryan, Lindsey Graham and that White Citizens Council that stands mutely behind Mitch McConnell.
I once spent a day with Sen. Howard Baker on his campaign around Tennessee in 1972. None of these ciphers is Howard Baker, the Republican hero of Watergate.
So that’s where we stand. Michael Cohen got three years and had to walk the felon walk. It’s going down.
He looked like a garden gnome with an accent out of "Mayberry RFD," but when the subject veered to immigrants or demonstrators, Jeff Sessions would tighten up.
He wasn’t funny, then.
Then he was less of a Mayberry character than the town storekeeper who kept his Kleagle robe on a peg in the back room, more out of “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “In the Heat of the Night.”
He had a mission, seemed to me – to restore the good old days of the ‘50s – the 20th Century or maybe even the 19th.
Somehow he got in the way of Trump’s Ultimate Solution, and he had to go.
Then he got lucky. Compared to Trump, he became Fightin’ Jeff, the People’s Choice, remembering his lawyer past, respecting legal niceties like “recusal.”
The version I will miss most was created by the captivating Kate McKinnon on “Saturday Night Live,” who presented Sessions as a cuddly little elf who could fit in small spaces and flash a Howdy Doody smile to the world.
Lucky is the public figure mimicked by McKinnon, even with her glint of deviltry behind the entertainment as she portrays Sessions, Rudy Giuliani or the sewer-dwelling leer of Kellyanne Conway. She is a gem.
There are plenty of ghouls and monsters left to portray. I will still tailor Saturdays to be in front of the tube at 11:29 PM just in case Kate McKinnon is up first.
But I will miss the kewpie-doll grin of Jeff Sessions, so much better on Saturday night than any other time.
* * *
I am not the only one. The Huffington Post reports on a great national angst:
Barack Obama Gave a Speech on Television.
I had tears in my eyes.
I was sad for what we have surely lost – an intelligent, verbal president who speaks of values.
When the former president mentioned Michelle Obama and their daughters, I felt empty, as if thinking of good neighbors who have moved away.
He delivered a civics lesson at the University of Illinois, urging young people to vote -- clearly political but so rational and timely that it rose above partisanship, to become a warning:
Where have we gone? What have we done to ourselves?
He cited the white-power people who stomped in psychic jackboots through Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, in plain daylight, not even bothering with hoods. He evoked the man who is still president as of this writing, who claimed there were good people on both sides.
Barack Obama asked, plaintively:
“How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?”
My wife said that should be a bumper sticker.
A president who can write and read and speak his native language. Imagine.
On Friday in Illinois, he was at his best in the national and global bear pit -- Laurence Olivier performing Shakespeare’s speech for Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar:” “So are they all, all honorable men.”
The previous president spoke against stereotyping people, saying he knew plenty of whites who care about blacks being treated unfairly, saying he knew plenty of black people who care deeply about rural whites. Then he added:
“I know there are evangelicals who are deeply committed to doing something about climate change. I’ve seen them do the work. I know there are conservatives who think there’s nothing compassionate about separating immigrant children from their mothers. I know there are Republicans who believe government should only perform a few minimal functions but that one of those functions should be making sure nearly 3,000 Americans don’t die in a hurricane and its aftermath.”
Like Shakespeare, he was making a bigger point: there is a malaise loose in the land. At one point he said Donald Trump is “a symptom” and not “the cause.”
In other words, Trump is an illness that has been coming on for years.
I nodded grimly, in my den, thinking of the McConnells and Ryans, who have sat by maliciously, allowing a Shakespearean character, the worst of the buffoons, the worst of the tyrants, to tear things apart.
Was I imagining, the other day, that these politicians were squirming in their seats in the cathedral, along with their fidgety wives, listening to the orations for John McCain, wondering if anybody would ever confuse them with patriots?
On Friday, Barack Obama gave notice to the young people of many shades and facial characteristics in his audience: you are the largest population bulge in this country, but in 2016, only one in five of you voted.
“One in five,” the playwright emoted, enunciating his own words. “Not two in five or three. One in five. Is it any wonder this Congress doesn’t reflect your values and your priorities? Are you surprised by that? This whole project of self-government only works if everybody’s doing their part.”
The television showed the college students nodding, or averting their eyes. Will they remember this warning at mid-term elections in early November? So many distractions these days. So easy to get lost, twiddling thumbs in the social media.
Shakespeare was borrowing stories from earlier centuries but Barack Obama has been active in public life. On Friday he returned to the stage to deliver artful words, dramatically delivered, surely from the heart.
How many reminders, how many chances, do we get?
The transcript of Barack Obama’s speech (really worth reading):
When I was covering the World Cup -- eight of them -- I always welcomed the day between rounds as a chance to sleep, move on to the next town, get laundry done. Stuff like that.
Watching at home, there is an empty feeling to the one-day space between the group stage and the knockout rounds. While sizing up the teams that survived, I want to take one more day to think about the teams that gave me pleasure but have now gone home.
I already miss the two African teams that supplied so much energy and charisma, but could not hold on for 90-plus minutes. I will miss the field leader of Nigeria, John Obi Mikel, and the manager of Senegal, Aliou Cissé, who roamed the sidelines with his Richard Pryor eyes, the only African manager of the 32.
Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also gone. Egypt was the biggest loser of all, making its base in the wild-east Russian province of Chechnya, with its opportunistic leader who glommed onto Mohamed Salah, the pride of Egypt, the star of Liverpool.
Being used so blatantly by a regional lord (a friend of Putin) and the moronic Egyptian federation apparently nettled Salah so badly that he is considering not playing for his homeland any more. Nice going.
I’ll miss the two vecinos – neighbors of the U.S. – Costa Rica and Panama, who managed to qualify ahead of the hapless soccer giant of the north.
And I’ll miss the tireless and combative players of South Korea, who took Germany down in the third and final game.
Will I miss Germany? I slobbered all over them after their reflexive comeback against Sweden in the second match, but ignored warning signs that their expiration date had expired.
* * *
So much for the departed. Of the 16 survivors, I am rooting for two more vecinos, Colombia and Mexico. (How can I not love El Tri, with its opportunistic star nicknamed Chucky, from the movie character with the fiendish grin?)
I always love Brazil, going back to the great, failed team of Sócrates in 1982, and I love Spain and Andres Iniesta, trying to hang on, plus France, just because, but also in homage to the glorious final of Zidane in 1998.
And then there are the two survivors from Thursday’s last group: England has more energy than I’ve ever seen from an English squad, and Belgium won its third match with its three offensive stars all being rested, and a sub made a jitterbug goal that sunk England.
I was conflicted with England-Belgium. My mom, part Irish, was born in England. There’s that. And she mourned her two Belgian-Irish cousins from Brussels who died young after being caught participating in the Resistance. So there's that.
I’m rooting for Belgium because of the family connection, and because they have never won, and because I got to see Vincent Kompany, one of my all-time favorite defenders and soccer adults, who was honored with a quarter-hour cameo on Thursday, playing on knees “turned to sand,” as one of my Euro pals put it.
* * *
Who else won in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup? I’m choosing the Fox broadcasting team of J.P. Dellacamera and Tony Meola, because (a) I know them, and (b) because they are soccer people who do not talk too much.
J.P and Tony let the game breathe, like many European broadcasters. They don’t feel the very American need to blather every personal fact about every player that was discussed in the pre-game production meeting. Meola has grown into this profession, dissecting the game, not just the keepers. (And he was a good one, playing in 1990 and 1994, and a backup in 2002.)
Honorable mention goes to Jorge Perez-Navarro and Mariano Trujillo, totally bilingual and working in English, who supply just enough Latin flavor to make it different, and enjoyable.
Trujillo, a former player from Mexico, has the charming tendency to excuse some players who try something that fails. "But that’s all right,” he says, transmitting the enlightened optimism of players who keep trying stuff and fail, until something works, which, come to think of it, is the essence of this grand sport.
Now, on to the knockout round.
(I am thinking of leaving this World Cup match post up for a while. Please feel free to chime in, whenever. The NYT is doing a great job from Russia. And my former Times soccer pal, Jeffrey Marcus, now free-lancing, has his own learned World Cup newsletter. To sign up: http://jointhebanter.com/about/)
June 14. Russia 5, Saudi Arabia 0. Knowing nothing about either team, I put on Fox five minutes before kickoff. I noticed that Russia had a defender named Fernandes (from Sao Caetano del Sur, Brazil) and a defender named Ignashevich whose face looks like hardened cement and who does not sing the beautiful Russian anthem. (Turned out, he’s 38, hasn’t played for the national team since 2011, so he may be out of practice for singing the anthem. Or his lips don’t move.)
Then I noticed a lanky midfielder named Golovin, with a Lyle Lovett hairdo, who reminded me of one of the most charismatic and talented leaders I have ever met, Mrs. Gollobin, the director of the Jamaica High School choir and chorus back in the day. She once snapped at me, “George, be a mensch,” and I straightened right up, in her presence, anyway.
I decided to root for Aleksandr Golovin. Good choice. He set up the first three Russian goals for adept passes through the gaping Saudi players. I looked him up – 22, and being scouted by Juventus. He showed his youth by picking up a pointless yellow card in the final minutes. By the time he curled a free kick into the corner in the closing seconds for the fifth goal, Golovin had surely confirmed his ticket to Torino. Mrs. Gollobin would be proud of him.
Having covered eight World Cups for the NYT way back when, and having written a book about them, (https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/Book-Reviews/2014/0530/Eight-World-Cups-by-George-Vecsey-decodes-international-soccer-for-newbies,) I tried to compare this day (on the tube) with openers I attended:
The fans were a classic World Cup mix; could have been anywhere -- international types who could afford a ticket. Pretty woman in a red and white folk dress; guys with goofy headgear.
One other observation: how nice it is to hear old World Cup hands, J.P. Dellacamera and Tony Meola, working for Fox, and confirming that one does not need a British accent to call a match for U.S. television.
How was your first match?
Check out the colorful outfits. Listen to the music. Pay attention to the message of inclusivity.
I am speaking here of the international flavor of the FA Cup Final on Saturday from sunny Wembley.
Chelsea – owned by a Russian, coached by an Italian – beat Manchester United -- owned by an American and coached by a Portuguese – by a 1-0 score -- on a penalty kick by a Belgian.
The FA Cup is one of the more romantic club championships in the world (even as FIFA threatens to pollute football with an extravagant quadrennial club tournament.)
Talk about democracy: the FA Cup tournament began last summer with amateurs and semi-professionals and other back-benchers but competition eventually produced two finalists from the top third of the Premier League, or as they say at Windsor, la crème de la crème.
The FA final was held after the royal marriage had taken place earlier, so that one great event did not intrude upon the other. (Anybody go to both?)
The wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, an American actress of biracial background, was a blend of royal tradition with a warm sermon by an American clergyman quoting Martin Luther King, plus that old English cathedral favorite, “Stand By Me,” written by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The queen's chaplain, born in Jamaica, and a 19-year-old cellist from Nottingham but clearly also of African descent, added to the new feeling of inclusion.
The buzz of the wedding inspired Lourdes, a friend in Manhattan, to prepare a veddy English tea for the big event. And in Deepest Pennsylvania, a group of women donned millinery in the murky dawn to watch the great event.
Not everybody was charmed. I checked in with a favorite relly, Jen From Islington, to see if she was watching. “Nah,” she wrote back. But then she checked a few photos on line and was inspired to write: “Underwhelmed by it all. Esp. since I learned they invited 1800 of the wretched of the earth to Windsor to watch but failed to provide them with a packed lunch. If you are having a party, have a party, I think. Don’t have a pay-as-you-go bar, or make people kick in for the cake.
But then, I am a republican. xxJ.”
At the very least, the royals may be catching up with soccer, which has gone international in recent generations, with the old dump-and-chase English style made irrelevant by ball skills and intricate passing and devastating marksmanship, as performed in the Premier League by some of the greatest players from around the world.
(The influx of world-level players does not seem to rub off on English players, who have qualified for the upcoming World Cup – better than some nations I could mention -- but are not likely to be around long.)
(On the official Chelsea roster, 21 of 27 players are from outside England; on the official Man U roster, 19 of 27 are registered with other national federations.)
Presumably, this international flavor will continue after the implementation of Brexit diminishes the quality of life -- and probably football -- in Great Britain.
Somebody has to make Britain great again. On FA Cup final Saturday, Harry and Meghan did their bit.
Catering to the Thumb Generation (of which I am a fringe member), Major League Baseball disappeared a game from television on Wednesday.
The business that still charmingly thinks of itself as The National Pastime has a new partnership with the dippy kid in the gray t-shirt, Mark Zuckerberg.
I think that means all information on Mets Nation -- all we scruffy, gauche losers who root for one miracle every generation – is now in the hands of Comrade Vladimir in the Kremlin.
Facebook was already chums with something called Cambridge Analytica which seems to have been in cahoots with various apparatchiks during the 2016 election including the possible next national security advisor, Mad Dog Bolton.
Baseball is letting the t-shirt guy put the occasional major-league game on Facebook so people can like or dislike what transpires on the field. The price for one MLB game a week is $30-million for the season – that’s what matters, isn’t it?
In real life, it’s not that hard to tell if baseball fans like or dislike something. Just the other day, Giancarlo Stanton struck out five times in his Yankee Stadium debut and Yankee fans faithfully gave him something called a Bronx Cheer.
Schnooky old baseball managed to distract from Wednesday’s Mets-Phillies game in Queens. James Wagner of the Times appropriately wrote an entire sagacious article about the t-shirt guy’s coup rather than the Mets’ bullpen or the clutch hit. (Tyler Kepner did write a column about the game itself.)
What with all the teeth-gnashing about baseball’s sellout, it seemed the game itself vanished into the dark hole of likes and dislikes.
Not true. I caught most of that game on this strange medium called radio.
The Mets’ game was on WOR – 710 on the AM dial – described by Howie Rose and Josh Lewin. Rose, aware the game had vanished from the tube, offered the observation, “I think radio is here to stay.”
Home-town fans get used to their TV and radio broadcasters. When the national broadcast pre-empts a Met game, I opt for radio. Mets fans don’t need national drop-in experts telling them stuff they already know.
Plus, the sellout by #ShamelessMLB on Wednesday meant that Mets-TV addicts were forever deprived of possible weird dialogues such as the one that ensued during Thursday’s game in Washington, with Gary Cohen monitoring the banter between old teammates from 1986, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling.
Darling to Hernandez on Good Old SNY: Were you this funny when we played together? You’re pretty funny.
Cohen: He was the Prince of Darkness back then.
That's what Mets fans expect – not twiddling of thumbs.
At least the t-shirt guy hasn’t sold all of baseball to Cambridge Analytica. (Memo to Mark Zuckerberg: when you are hauled into Congress next week, go find a suit. Play dressup.)
* * *
Speaking of Queens and baseball, my friend-the-writer, Rabbi Mendel Horowitz, has written about following baseball in Israel during Passover: Enjoy:
One of the best things on television in the past decade was The Brain Series by Charlie Rose.
The body of work exists – on line, easily accessible, and etched in the memories of viewers like my wife, who listened and learned.
The leader of the discussions was Dr. Eric R. Kandel of Columbia University, whose knowledge and manner commanded the screen. The other guests were also brilliant, and Rose raised his game considerably, moving things along and actually listening to the experts.
Now we are left with the image of a powerful man parading around his apartment in an open bathrobe, terrorizing young female colleagues.
How do we process this?
The series remains. I suspect the science and the humanity will remain pertinent, at least until future discoveries add to the knowledge.
Can people live with a focused Charlie Rose moderating a landmark series?
Can people live with their vinyl and CDs and downloads of James Levine conducting opera?
Everybody has to live with their memories. I won’t miss Matt Lauer because I never, ever, watch morning TV. I don’t know how to gauge the widely variant charges or suspicions about John Hockenberry and Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz (and Charlie Rose), all of whom have interviewed me respectfully, let me hustle my books. What was it like for the capable women in those studios who made a visit so successful?
Harvey Weinstein is easy. He is a monster who produced some great movies but he is a monster just for what he did to that beautiful and spirited and talented Annabella Sciorra, whom I have loved since she sang in "Mister Wonderful."
(Go ahead, look at the video, watch her ex eat his heart out.) I want to be on the Weinstein jury. That’s all I’m saying.
Then there is Garrison Keillor. There were years when we built our Saturday afternoons and evenings around his radio show – times when my wife and I sat in a parking lot outside a restaurant until he finished his weekly visit to Lake Wobegon (the one about a man driving his young family back to Minnesota for the holidays, the one about the pioneer who dies in the badlands, never getting to see the Pacific.)
Keillor never presented himself as anything more than flawed. (His radio alter ego was reminded of this by his own mother, who couldn’t remember his name.) He added his human complexities to his voice, his words, his image.
Now he is accused of – he says – sliding his hand into the back of an open blouse. A mistake, he says, which happened while consoling a woman. Keillor says he is not a tactile person, and I believe it. In past decades, I interviewed him maybe half a dozen times on the phone but never quite got to have a conversation even at rehearsals at Town Hall in New York. He nodded in recognition -- and kept moving. A shy guy. Who knows about him?
Keillor played himself in a movie about his last radio show, art predicting life. The Robert Altman movie, “A Prairie Home Companion,” has an amazing cast, not the least of whom is Virginia Madsen as a redhead in a white raincoat who, he realizes, just may be an angel of death, with her eye on him. (She died in a car wreck while laughing at his radio joke, she tells him, as he edges away.)
The movie (Altman’s last) is classic Altman, in that you have to listen to overlapping conversations – a stretch for younger audiences. One of the subplots involves Meryl Streep as a country singer on the show, who was once Keillor’s girlfriend, and every so often she reminds him of exactly that.
He knows she is in pain that he caused. The ringleader figure in the movie is a creep, but a talented, sensitive, guilty creep. How human, art imitating life.
Now the question is, what do we do with the education, the art, the culture, from people (men, in this context) who seem to be varying scales of creep?
We have a major creep running for the Senate in Alabama.
We have a serial creep as President.
We have creeps of all major parties.
Meantime, I can watch Keillor in that movie over and over again. Some day when I grow up and develop a brain, I plan to watch the Brain Series, but for the moment we are left with the major creep in the bathrobe who caused such pain.
It has come to this with the Mets. The only reason to watch them is the commercial being played virtually every other inning on the local channel SNY in New York.
Of course, it’s also on Youtube (above) and all over the web.
But for all the dreadful events happening with the Mets, there is the consolation that when the inning ends there could be a visit from four weary monsters heading home for a well-earned weekend.
But work never ends for these four harried guys (what, no female monsters?)
They grumble about working conditions, particularly the werewolf who needs to howl on the weekend. (“A bit of me time.”)
I have seen that guy on the Port Washington line. Same whiskers. Same suit. Same weary grimace.
The Mets are not nearly as entertaining. They’re hurt or old or both, except for Michael Conforto (who is starting to go for that high pitch again) and Weepin’ Wilmer Flores, who in the eyes of the Faithful can do no wrong, even when he does.
Jacob DeGrom, a good athlete and seemingly a nice guy, is inconsistent.
But at least there is the commercial, by a group called Something Different.
Impervious to advertising, I couldn’t remember the product being hawked. Turns out, it is Spectrum. Okay.
Here is some stuff on the web about the commercial:
Somebody writing about the commercial mistook a commuter train (which are hideous enough) for the subway.
Most of the time, the commercial is shortened to a 30-second version, which downplays the werewolf and obliterates the last line (“He’s not waking up.”)
The good news? All four of these guys apparently will be back in three followup commercials. That is nice.
I’m watching Harvey, Reyes, Granderson and Cabrera all deteriorating in front of my eyes, but at least I can look forward to the four commuters. It gives me hope.
It was my first visit to Las Vegas. I was covering a Mets trip to the Coast in 1966 or so, and there was a day off between LA and San Francisco.
My pal Vic Ziegel of the good old New York Post said, “Let’s go to Las Vegas.”
Vic had been there before.
Flights were cheap. Food was cheap. The only thing that wasn’t cheap was the gambling, but I don’t gamble. Long story. I watched Vic play blackjack and I watched life in Las Vegas.
The hotel lounge was also inexpensive. By doing the math in Rickles’ obituary in the Times Friday, I deduce that he was around 40, but in a way he was ageless. Bald. Profane. Cranky. What’s it to you?
He had a theme: Anybody who came to see him in that lounge was truly desperate.
He pointed out a young couple and wondered if they were married, or cheating on spouses.
He pointed out a young man: “He’s thinking, I’m in Las Vegas, I can get rid of my pimples.”
Then he recognized Vic as a member of the tribe. A landsman.
“Look at that nose,” he said. “What’s your name?”
Somehow, Rickles deduced that Vic was the sportswriter from the Post.
“Vic Ziegel!” screamed Don Rickles from Jackson Heights, Queens. (Queens boys are a yappy lot.)
“I love you guys!” – meaning the good old Post. (I did not count.)
Rickles thought about it for a while.
“What’s a Ziegel?” he asked the crowd.
Comedic pause. Then he touched his own beak.
“It’s an eagle. A Jewish eagle. A Ziegel.”
That’s all I remember, except laughing a lot. I’m sure Vic could re-create the entire dialogue but unfortunately Vic left the stage in the summer of 2010. He had introduced me to a lot of good stuff on the road – “Beat the Devil” in Cambridge, Mass., him chatting up jazz musician Roland Kirk in some all-night coffee shop on the square in Cincinnati. And Rickles.
In 2015, I saw an aging Don Rickles on the Letterman show; I noticed the immense respect Letterman had for him, getting him through the gig.
Now Rickles has bowed out. But every time I went back to Las Vegas – to write about boxing or an entertainer – I remembered Don Rickles in that lounge.
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.
Weekend Update: The debate was a ghoul show. Saturday Night Live was ecch, as we say in New York. Rather than expend more good energy, I ducked the Super Bowl. It just didn't exist. Watched political history on C-Span. Listened to classical on WQXR-FM. Read a great New Yorker piece on Chechnya. What a clean feeling to wake up Monday, like getting up early on Jan. 1 after not drinking. But the news says Trump and Cruz and El Joven are still with us. Yikes.)
Nevertheless, my household is hooked on the presidential primaries: Steve Kornacki explaining stuff on MSNBC and Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd with all their enthusiasm and Chris Matthews never letting his guests get in a word.
(What is Brian Williams, with his pomaded network stiffness, doing on cable? As the subway guy bellowed in the movie “Ghosts:” “Get off my train!”)
Plus, the primaries beat the heck out of football, which I always knew was bad for the brain, anybody’s brain.
As of Saturday morning, I was not at all sure I would watch the Super Bowl. I had already seen one NFL game this season. Yes! It happened two weekends ago, after I gloated about going a full season without seeing a single down.
Having made that boast, I went to a family gathering two Sundays ago for (a) home-grilled wings, (b) the NFL doubleheader and (c) glimpses of the grand-daughters. (The girls ate the wings and promptly vanished downstairs to watch “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”)
As a sociologist in a strange land, I did observe:
*- NFL broadcasters no longer chortle how tacklers “rang his bell.” I wonder why.
*- Deep loathing of the Patriots. One family member hates Brady because he retains a resident chef.
*- Football has not changed much since the last time I took a peek – sporadic running, passing and kicking, plus commercials.
*- My wife – not a sports fan – noticed Peyton Manning’s craggy face on the sideline: “He’s the one who sings about chicken parmesan on TV.”
*- Speaking of commercials: the ones for football are aimed at active younger people (cars and fast food) whereas the commercials for my age group push health insurance, stair lifts, vitamins for arthritis, ringing in the ears and upset stomachs, plus pills that involve couples splashing around in water.
*- With the game dragging, some of us discussed the delightful prospect of Barbara Bush going to a primary and kicking Trump in his posterior, while sneering, Not our type. Go, Granny, go.
With two minutes left, fear and trembling took over. Laura, the sports and political columnist, cautioned that Bill Belichick, master of dark arts, might still think of something. The behemoth named The Gronk plucked the ball out of the air to bring the Patriots within 2 points. The onside kick skittered harmlessly. Game over. Cheers. Civilization saved.
I came away from my annual NFL game comparing candidates and coaches:
*- Chris Christie and Rex Ryan, of course. But Rex had better lap-band surgery.
*- Jeb! and Dick Kotite. Nice guys who….
*- Trump reminds me of a fan in a goofy costume, who makes brave noise from the stands but doesn’t understand the game.
*- El Joven de Florida reminds me of boy wonders who get a job somewhere and are immediately over their heads.
*- Clinton does not conjure up a football image but I could not help thinking of baseball manager Gene Mauch, a verbal lifer who knew the game inside and out. (You know the rest.)
*- Cruz and Belichick. One delivered a chop block to Ben Carson's knees. The other has a perp list of dirty tricks.
*- Bernie Sanders and Tom Coughlin, two apparently grumpy old men who lightened up. (Coughlin won two Super Bowls. Just saying.)
I planned to watch the GOP Frolics followed by Larry David and Bernie Sanders on SNL, to clear my head.
As for the Super Bowl, MSNBC said Jeb! was planning a Hail Mary Pass: an expensive commercial starring The Old Decider. We've seen how that one works.
The contrast between baseball and soccer, my two favorite sports, was never more apparent than this past week.
With baseball acknowledging the yawning length of games – now over three hours and getting worse – soccer returned (was it ever away?) in Europe with matches under two hours.
This is a huge advantage for soccer. A fan can commit to a match, or even half a match, without falling into a slack-jawed stupor in front of one of those four-hour Sunday-night horrors the Yanks always seem to be playing.
I made the decision last Saturday morning that I could afford to watch the first half of Manchester United and was rewarded with the delicious sense that it was 2013-14 all over again. (Man U, lost, 2-1.) Then I came back from chores to watch the second half of Everton, with Tim Howard picking up where he left off for the USA in the World Cup, trying to overcome a weak back four. (Everton coughed up a tying goal, late.)
Two welcome chunks of the Premiership, and it was not yet noon.
Meantime, baseball is acknowledging that the average time of a game has gone from 2 hours 35 minutes to 3 hours 2 minutes 47 seconds -- the longest on record, according to Tyler Kepner in the Times.
One reason the games get longer was noted by Howard Kitt, once a promising lefty in the Yankee chain, who has been a specialist in antitrust issues with a keen eye on sports business. (I covered him helping win county titles in basketball and baseball at Oceanside High around 1960.)
Kitt, who advanced as high as AAA ball, listed one cause of long games – “the number of pitching changes per game, especially in the late innings.
“When I played, there were three categories of pitchers: starters, long relievers and short relievers. Starters were expected to finish; long relievers were used when a starter didn't have it; and short relievers were used when a starter ran out of gas and/or when a fresh arm was needed to finish a tight game. Closers? Never hoid of 'em!
“Now, the last three innings frequently take at least as long as the first six because of the number of pitching changes by each side. Think about it: A manager walks out to the mound; signals for a reliever; who comes in from somewhere beyond the outfield fence; who then proceeds to take eight warmup pitches (hardly necessary simply to get a feel for the mound, given that the pitcher is already warm); after which--finally--the game resumes. Multiply that time two or three times per team, and some real time elapses (this can easily be verified with a stopwatch).”
Kitt, who understands the importance of commercials in televised sports, added: “If this is required by TV sponsors, understood; if not, limit the number of changes per inning and watch the game speed up.”
Asked about the number of pitchers who seem to fall apart these days, Kitt cited the high salaries since free agency. Players don’t have to take off-season jobs as they did back in the 60’s and can work out virtually all year. Do their bodies ever really rest?
However, no sport grinds its players down more greedily than soccer. We saw Champions League-level players trudge into the World Cup in early June and many of them were still slogging into July. A few weeks after the final, my favorite-named player, Bastian Schweinsteiger of Germany, flew across the world for a meaningless friendly and was creamed by a red-hot player from Major League Soccer. Now he’s out six weeks.
Soccer, under the see-no-evil “leadership” of Sepp Blatter, does not care. On Monday, Neymar of Brazil, last seen writhing on the grass with a broken back on July 4, was running around Camp Nou on Barcelona, along with his new playmate, Luis Suarez, he of the health-hazard choppers.
I know Suarez is suspended from some league and national matches, but shouldn’t he be banned from going out in public until he is trained?
On Tuesday, some of the lads were playing in an early round of the Champions League.
But at least soccer league matches are over in two hours, whereas baseball could be dawdling toward irrelevancy.
"The day after my 80th birthday, which overflowed with good wishes, surprises and Covid-safe celebrations, I awoke feeling fulfilled and thinking that whatever happens going forward, I’m OK with it. My life has been rewarding, my bucket list is empty, my family is thriving, and if everything ends tomorrow, so be it.
"Not that I expect to do anything to hasten my demise. I will continue to exercise regularly, eat healthfully and strive to minimize stress. But I’m also now taking stock of the many common hallmarks of aging and deciding what I need to reconsider."
--Jane E. Brody, my pal in the NYT newsroom, oh, a few years back, in the Personal Health column, Sept. 13, 2021.
"People have said to me, ‘You’re fully vaccinated. Why are you being so careful?’” said Dr. Robert M. Wachter, professor and chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “I’m still in the camp of I don’t want to get Covid. I don’t want to get a breakthrough infection.”
---Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times, Aug. 16, 2021.