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:
The city shimmers in the night sky.
I take my walk after the sun goes down, and sometimes a magnetic force pulls me to the crest of a hill facing west.
My home town is out there, but at the moment I cannot construct any excuse to visit, much as I miss it, blessed to live in a lovely close suburb, as far from the city as I can stand.
Sometimes I think of the great walks I have taken in recent years.
Last winter, just before the plague struck leaderless America, I took the A train, thinking of Billy Strayhorn's immortal song, saxophones racing uptown, and got off at 125th St. and strolled east to Third Ave. and then south to 80th St. for my monthly lunch with some baseball/writer pals. Every block was an adventure, now a distant memory of a lost city, Atlantis on the Hudson.
* * *
How is New York? Fortunately, The New York Times had one of its very best writers, Dan Barry, write the text for a section of photos by the equally artistic Todd Heisler, in Saturday's paper, also available online:
* * *
Their artwork in the NYT makes me miss New York even more.
Some losses are irreparable, including the fabled Irish baseball pub, Foley's, run by Shaun Clancy. When the plague hit, Shaun realized he could not recover the losses in the foreseeable future, so he put his memorabilia in a warehouse, and retreated to his home in Queens, my home borough.
As it happens, his home is -- that is to say, was -- exactly two miles north of my family home, both on 188th St -- his in Auburndale, mine in Holliswood.
Last week, as Shaun sold his house, we finally arranged our long-discussed socially-distanced meeting. I picked Cunningham Park, the park of my childhood, where my family had corn-and-hot-dog picnics and I played sandlot baseball and kept an eye out for a girl who lived a few doors from the park.
For our long-delayed meeting, Shaun and his companion, Kristie Ackert, baseball writer for the Daily News, and I sat at a picnic table in the shade and drank iced coffees and talked about Ireland and Queens and how Kristie covers the Yankees without access to the players. I told Shaun again how much Foley's has meant to my jock pals from Hofstra who are mourning our decade of occasional lunches at the back table. He's got a place in Florida, and Kristie will be there a lot when she is not watching the Yankees in empty ballparks.
I miss my friends...and I miss Foley's...and I miss the magic place that glitters off to the west on a summer evening.
* * *
I see your silver shining town
But I know I can't go there
Your streets run deep with poisoned wine
Your doorways crawl with fear*
*The Pride of Cucamonga, Philip Lesh and Robert Peterson. Sung by Lesh with the Grateful Dead.
Two promising things happened on Tuesday:
---Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate, a decision that seemed logical the moment it was announced.
(Update: Did you see her speech from Delaware Wednesday afternoon? Full of passion and concern and reality. Clearly, Joe Biden picked the right candidate. Back to my original essay.)
---And two of the major college football conferences called off their season, sending a message to the American public that a few sports administrators are smarter than the murderous and avaricious fools who keep talking about “opening it up” and passing false virus "information" to the public during a pandemic.
Because I am a reforming sports columnist, let me start with the football news. The Big Ten and Pac-12 Conferences will not be sending athletes out to maul each other, up close and personal, for our entertainment.
The remaining conferences may be shamed into the same decision, with other fall sports also postponed until a safer time.
This pandemic is dangerous. I just read it in the Times. But young people will congregate, up close, without masks and spread the globules of damage and death, because they are young. What is the excuse of government and business and education “leaders” who ought to know better? Instead, moronic governors and educators allow children to mingle and spread the virus, as happened in Georgia.
As for the naming of Kamala Harris, it was a decision that made a couple of Warren Wing Democrats exhale and say, “Well, of course.”
I did not like the way Harris went after Biden in the first debate, in such a studied, assassin-type way. Biden blinked and stared at her and took it....a sign of grace....and months later he chose her, maybe because of that.
Or, as Aretha Franklin sang, "What's like got to do with it?"
Hearing people describe Harris’ career gave me a more realistic feeling -- that she is a big-timer who has been preparing for this a long time, as prosecutor and state attorney general and senator.
Harris made a fool of Bill Barr in a Senate hearing, although he may be so far gone that he didn't realize. She will drive Trump crazy, and we are wondering if Pence's wife -- a/k/a Mother -- will have to sit with him during the debate, to make sure he is all right.
On Wednesday, we heard dozens of insiders describing Harris's sense of humor and political astuteness. And then there is this: Blacks are the soul of the Democratic party. This selection honors that, as well as all the considerable assets of the candidate herself.
(I know, I know, we shouldn’t write about the way female candidates present themselves, but we both saw hours of clips of Harris over the years, always dressed in smart sport jackets, or suits, giving an aura of power and purpose.)
Trump must be worried, since he called Harris "nasty" several times Tuesday night – a code word to his male followers, a sign that his pathological contempt for the female gender is kicking in. See how that works at the polls in November.
The rest of the country now has time to observe Kamala Harris carrying the case to the voters.
Much or all of the country will not have the normal diversion of college football, thanks to the courage and intelligence of sports administrators who have more sense than the old and inadequate Trump regime.
This baseball season may turn out to be a colossal gamble, but I am enjoying the cardboard fans in the stands, particularly these folks in Oakland.
I think I would like sitting with them in the stands on a warm East Bay afternoon.
Fact is, I miss human company, as my wife and I hunker down waiting for Jan. 21, when intelligent adults take back the country.
I miss my kids and I miss my grandkids. This elbow contact on our deck, when the weather cooperates, is not the same as hugging my family, or sitting indoors, or, imagine this, going out...somewhere.
Then I remembered the three people who inhabit our storage room in the basement -- present from our dear creative friend Rachel, who had these made up for her job, back a few years, when we all were younger.
(Let me add this: I have an Irish passport, courtesy of my maternal grandmother from Waterford, and I am very proud of it. My identification with the UK has way more to do with the National Theatre and Portrait Gallery than the royals, When I see these one-inch likenesses, I think of our friend Rachel, speaking up for Palestinians at a Seder on West End Avenue.
For all that, Queen Elizabeth II fits right in with our unused dining room. As I walk through, I find myself singing along with Paul:
Her majesty's a pretty nice girl,
But she doesn't have a lot to say. ...
Irreverent, I know.
Fact is, the Queen is one of the stable elders in the world today. What with Trump and Pence and Pompeo and Barr and that bunch, Americans are in no position to snicker at royals. Welcome upstairs for a while, Your Majesty. Let's sit and have a cuppa.
Did Charles ever look this militant on his best day? But he's doing a good job, guarding my wife's studio day and night.
Plus, as I walk past and give him a snappy salute from my ROTC days, I remember that Emma Thompson is a good friend of his, and always speaks well of him when she is interviewed. Whatever is good for Emma Thompson is good for me.
Until an adult leader takes control of the Covid virus and puts an end to this social-distancing, good old Charles serves a purpose,guarding the house, waiting, waiting, waiting...
It's true, Princess Diana looks a little stiff in our living room, but let me tell you about the time she and her two frisky little boys were guests in the Royal Box at the old Wimbledon, which was directly next to the open press area. Needless to say, we were all eyes for her, and the Beastie Boys of the British press were coming up with plummy accents and snide comments. And while we tried to covertly look at Diana, I noticed that her eyes, like lasers, were scanning the doings around her. She was looking at us! Curiously, like, who are those people, and what do they do, and are they having a good time? She was out and about, not at all rigid, clutching her purse, like in this cardboard version. Her eyes saw all.
So, welcome to our living room. May I take your coat? please, have a seat.
May we offer you a glass of wine?
What do you think of Brexit?
How do you like Boris Johnson?
We hear you are working to to sort out this Covid mess.
We apologize for our buffoon.
My wife's been working on our family trees: her roots in Lancashire include William the Conqueror; my middle name is the same as your family name --Spencer, from my mom, born in England.
* * *
We still miss our family and friends, but in a weird way, thanks to baseball, our living room lives again.
Thanks to our friend Rachel for these vital presences.
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 love baseball schedules --get all excited when they come out, months ahead. Look for big rivalry series, the odd day game, illogical road trips. Force of habit, from being an old baseball writer.
Lately, I've been fascinated by pandemic charts, like the current one above.
The makeshift 60-game baseball schedule also caught my attention, sucker that I am. I could visualize Jacob DeGrom keeping the batters off balance, Jeff McNeil smacking the first pitch of the season for a base hit.
But now, I realize I was wasting my time. This 60-game improv season may start, but it won’t finish.
This realization has been dawning on me for days, beginning when Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals said he was going to sit this one out, and growing when Mike Trout and others said they just weren’t comfortable going out to play ball in the time of the virus, when they had responsibilities to wives, to children, to family members.
Ball players, collectively, are clearly smarter than the governors of Texas, Arizona, Georgia and Florida, who followed the lead of the ignorant man in the White House, and decided to get back to business without a clue about the pandemic. Where do they get these people?
Now the infection is reaching the young louts who jumped up and down and exhaled on each other in close quarters at beaches and pools and bars in recent months, with no masks, just to prove a government could not tell them what to do.
Now, the cobbled-together “protocols” for players and staff members are coming undone. Players – and their colleagues in the other team sports – were supposed to live hermit lives when not socially-distancing at the stadium. Only they know if they did, and maybe it makes no difference. I saw soccer players in England hugging each other after goals on Saturday. Boys, boys, boys.
Even before the games start, baseball players have picked up microbes floating on the breeze in the clubhouse or the hotel lobby or the team bus or whatever. It was never going to work, not while this nation, relying on a fool who has sabotaged the federal government, was falling further behind the murderous path of the virus.
On Saturday, the Yankees announced that Aroldis Chapman, their ace relief pitcher, had come down with the virus. He joins two other Yankees expected to be vital in this theoretical mini-pennant race. May all the cases be mild. But the number has reached critical mass.
The players want to play, and the owners want to make money, and sucker fans like me want to watch games from empty stadiums. (It works pretty well with watching top-level soccer, I’m here to report.)
However, Europe appears to be more disciplined than our poor run-amuck country, forsaking science for the ravings of the Pied Piper of Mar-a-Lago.
This experimental season may start in less than two weeks. I miss baseball and I will watch the Mets when I can. However, 60 games are going to seem an eternity when more healthy young athletes come down with this virus.
Under the “leadership” of Rob Manfred, baseball is going to stick it to the players in labor negotiations next year. So even if somebody outside this government comes up with a vaccine and some leadership, baseball's traditional "wait til next year" is a long, long way off.
* * *
Current list of ball players who have already chosen to miss 2020: BC: Before Chapman.
Saturday's virus scorecard, including Aroldis Chapman:
Some colleges have their priorities straight during this time of Covid-19.
Four schools I already admired – Bowdoin, Morehouse, Sarah Lawrence and Swarthmore -- showed their values in recent days by cancelling all or part of their autumn athletic programs, so they could concentrate on education.
These schools do not exist to present extravaganza football games every Saturday during the fall semester, for the benefit of boosters and TV networks, to churn up money to keep the whole monstrosity going.
However: each decision to cancel caused terrible pain to the people who mattered the most – the student-athletes who will not get to compete this fall, practice with their teammates, perform in front of vociferous family members and loyal fans.
You cannot red-shirt a virus-cancelled season, say “come back for a fifth year.” Plus, these student-athletes have futures, although the 2020 fall season will not be part of them.
We take it personally in our family. Our grand-daughter, Lulu Wilson, is a loyal member of the Swarthmore women’s soccer team that reached the Division III tournament in her first two seasons.
She played very little in her first year due to an eye condition following a concussion, but she played some in her sophomore year - - and every time I checked in on her she raved about her teammates and her coaches and the practices and the togetherness.
In between, she pursues a pre-med program, having already spent compelling days in hospitals, gowned up, watching the routines and even the operations. She is all in.
When Swarthmore cancelled all fall sports, I checked in on Lulu and asked how she felt about the decision.
“Honestly, I think it is smart of Swat,” she texted, using the nickname for the school, “and I admire that they are trying to keep us safe and move our country towards an end.
“I think it would be ignorant of them to let us play,” she added. “I look at these big schools going back full-force and I worry that these kids are going to cause outbreaks and keep the pandemic going for the country as a whole.
"So I respect what they did,” she said, adding her opinion that “online learning is not the same as a true Swat experience.”
Now she is in mourning for what will always be lost – an autumn of practices in the drizzle and gathering darkness, the bus rides around the Northeast, and the identifiable voices of parents who travel from around the country to cheer for Swat.
(Intro to Div III: in 2018, after Swarthmore lost to Middlebury in the Round of 16 up in Vermont, on the long bus ride back to Philadelphia, many of the players started studying for final exams coming up, she told me then.)
“These four years are really special for us to be together as a team so this time apart will be hard," Lulu said Thursday. "We will have to find ways to stick together and find the positives in this situation.”
Swarthmore student-athletes are not alone.
I had a premonition a few days ago when I read that Bowdoin had cancelled fall sports. My wife and I have fallen in love with the college in Brunswick, Maine, from visiting the area in recent years, and we always find time to visit the jewel of an art museum on the campus.
I also admired the decision by Morehouse in Atlanta to cancel football this year. I have become a fan of Morehouse over the years because of alumni like Martin Luther King, Jr., Donn Clendenon of the 1969 Mets, my Brooklyn hero Spike Lee, and Terrance McKnight, knowledgeable host of a nightly show on WQXR-FM, the classical station in New York.
And Sarah Lawrence, in Bronxville, just above New York, is where we were lucky enough to send our two daughters, who gained great educations and eclectic talented friends. The other day, SLC cancelled all autumn sports.
All schools are wrestling with terrible choices in this time of the virus. There are no easy answers, but these four admirable schools examined their values and realized sports were expendable – nevertheless, leaving a gigantic loss for a young student who loves her sport, her team, and also her education.
John Pappas has no new bikes in his shop. None. He sold out weeks ago, and the manufacturers keep promising: soon.
But Pappas and his colleague, Mike Black, Master Fixer, have a shop full of bicycles waiting to be fixed, waiting for parts, waiting to be picked up.
“You see that bike over there?” Pappas asked me on Saturday, giving me the feeling it was a bit of a relic. “It’s a Peugeot, costs over $300 to fix, I asked the lady, ‘Do you really want it done?’ and she said yes.”
Everything that can roll is now rolling, in a renaissance for bicycles that Pappas and Black could not imagine a few years ago. They worked in a store that was a tradition in my town – we bought our Schwinns there in 1969 – like a clubhouse on Port Blvd., just drop in and chat about the Tour de France, or anything.
But at holiday time in 2016 nothing was moving in the relocated shop, and the owner at the time, plus Pappas and Black, were bemoaning that kids today do not ride bikes, they go where their helicopter parents approve, or they hunch over their computers, indoors.
It was a dystopian view of the next generation; the owner got out of the business, and Pappas and Black relocated to a modest storefront in adjacent Manorhaven, calling it Bicycle Playground of Port Washington.
Then along came Covid-19, rampaging across the country, courtesy of our “leaders” and their willful stupidity. Schools are closed. Adults, if lucky, are working from home, and people are getting in shape -- running or jogging or trudging around town, or dusting off the two-wheelers and three-wheelers and scooters. (The other day I saw four or five boys lugging baseball bats and gloves to the nearby playground. I swear: I saw boys going to play baseball, on their own.)
This is, admittedly, a privileged view from a comfortable sliver of the country, while others are suffering, but the renaissance of bicycles….kids on bikes….is one sweet result of this horror.
From our house, I can hear the voices of children – squeaky, earnest, engaged, away from adults, away from regimen – riding by themselves, like we used to do when we were kids.
We live at the top of a hill. Kids stop and check out the modest little drop, and then, whee, off they go.
Sometimes it is a family expedition, a parent or two, a kid or three, trading safety precautions or just letting out little yelps of enjoyment, throwbacks to a time before all the gibberish on the Web.
Sometimes I walk these back streets, a bandana ready to pull up if I get close to anybody. I am privy to snatches of conversation between, let’s say, a mom on her bike, and a son, on his bike. These seem like sweet moments: I remember my mother teaching me to ride a two-wheeler.
A lot of these adventures would not be happening if Pappas and Black had let the dream go. I associate them with good times – my current Trek old-guy bike, plus how they installed a stationary bike and a treadmill in our house, before both gave out after a few decades.
Now they are waiting for new bikes while scrambling for parts.
The other day my rear tire went flat and I walked the bike home, leaving a message for them, and figuring I was back to walking for the duration.
But Pappas called me back in a day or so and said he could take a look if I got the bike to him. My bike fit into the back of my son’s car: I used to ride him on the back of my Schwinn, along the Ohio River in Louisville, or into Brooklyn or Queens, on quiet Sunday mornings; now he lugs my wounded bike for me.
The guys at the shop found the right tube and got me on my way a day later, but the general backup is so severe that Pappas and Black are planning something they never could have imagined:
“If you had told me I would be taking a week off at the Fourth of July, I would have said you were crazy,” Pappas said.
Then again, if I had predicted children and adults would be cruising the streets of our town, having exercise and conversations, I would have sounded crazy.
Bicycles live. It is something.
And not just kids. Frequent correspondent Randolph Fiery is a serious biker, who enclosed photos from a recent two-day "ride" through the Greenbrier River Mountain Trail, a former railroad track, in his native West Virginia.
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’m getting the feeling that baseball is negotiating itself out of even an abbreviated season.
And maybe that’s okay. I’m not sure anybody should be doing something as unimportant as playing sports, what with the murderous virus still very much floating in the air we breathe.
Then again, I truly miss baseball. I can’t watch old games on the tube, just can’t, but I can read about them.
I just read a book about my favorite team from somebody who was “in the room where it happened.” (From “Hamilton”)
That would be Jay Horwitz, owner of the largest head this side of Mr. Met, the mascot for whom he is often mistaken. The book is entitled “Mr, Met: How a Sports-Mad Kid from Jersey Became Like Family to Generations of Big Leaguers," issued by Triumph Books.
Horwitz was the head public relations person for the Mets from the time of Joe Torre through the time of Terry Collins (both of whom he openly admires.)
As Jay tells it, confident managers like Davey Johnson relied on Jay's ability to keep a secret, and explained personnel moves or strategy decisions, counting on him to put a positive spin on them.
The book is full of examples of Horwitz offering advice to players, particularly the younger ones, moments after a game, before the vicious bloodhounds of the media came yowling through the clubhouse door.
Let me attest that Jay Horwitz has not yet in his life given any journalist (or at least me) a truly newsy “scoop.” He made his rep as a college PR man who could get Fairleigh Dickinson in the sports pages, in the waning days when print dominated sports coverage, and he was not about to divulge anything damaging or derogatory about any Met that ever lived. Therefore, he had the run of the place.
For example: Horwitz was in the locker room on the night of Oct. 25, 1986, when the Mets and Red Sox played the sixth game of the World Series. When the game went into extra innings, he knew he had to get to the Mets’ clubhouse to console or congratulate the players but also to monitor the post-game madness.
He was sitting in Davey Johnson’s office with Darrell Johnson, one of the Mets’ advance scouts, watching on TV as the Red Sox scored twice. Then Wally Backman flied to left and Keith Hernandez flied to center. (Anybody who was there will never forget the Shea Stadium scoreboard prematurely flashing congratulations to the Red Sox.)
A minute later, Hernandez burst into the clubhouse, not about to gawk like some tourist as the visitors celebrated in the Mets’ house.
Then the three of them watched Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight single to bring the Mets within a run
“I’m not leaving my chair,” Hernandez declared. “It’s got hits in it. It’s a hit chair.” Most ball players believe that stuff.
Then Mookie Wilson had perhaps the greatest at-bat in the history of the Mets and as the Mets roared in from the field, Jay Horwitz “was in the room."
In bad times -- and for the Mets, that's most of the time -- Horwitz suffered and sighed so visibly the players treated him as one of them, including when they divided up the World Series swag. This is the annual autumnal test of character, with some teams generous to people who serve them, and some teams not so much.
The club was passing out $4,000 bonuses to department heads but the players voted Jay in for a full share -- $93,000 -- the same amount as Hernandez and Carter and Mookie, a highly unusual gesture.
He was hesitant to break tradition, but says players like Mookie insisted he take it. Then Jay consulted the person who truly had his back – his mother, Gertrude.
“I didn’t raise a schmuck,” she told her son. “Take the 93.”
The share was a big payoff for Jay Horwitz but it sounds as if he had a payoff every day he reported to work -- a loyal PR man, as unathletic as they get, who has gone through life with only one eye working due to glaucoma at birth. A bachelor, he has put his loyalty into the Mets since 1980, and the players (often the stars like Tom Seaver or John Franco) often showed their love by dousing him from the whirlpool hose, cutting his tie, slipping greasy foodstuffs in his jacket pocket as he slept on the team airplane.
Jay still seems to beat himself up that he did not do enough to steer young Doc Gooden and young Darryl Strawberry, who found ways to self-destruct early and often. He does not go into details, but he trusts the reader to know them.
After the 2018 season, the Mets’ new front office created a new job as vice president of alumni relations; Jay now brings back old Mets, some immortal, some transient, for some feel-good events, plus he still gets to report to the ballpark every day.
In the absence of baseball, this sweet book shows the beating heart of a sport that normally takes place every day. Jay Horwitz and loyal fans (I outed myself as a Mets fan after retirement) may have a long wait to root and suffer during a game, any game. The Horwitz book gives a glimpse of the daily agony, unique to baseball.
Tuesday, June 2: Finally: I answered the first 13 Comments. I've been corresponding with two Bay Area pals about favorite locals. Best. GV.
(The following was written Friday afternoon. It may seem trivial, given the virus, the malfeasance of Trump, and growing protests around the country, to write about a baseball-centric pub, but this also happened on Friday, leading to this response from me and others. Be safe. GV.)
The world will never be the same.
We say that a lot these days, about death and loss of work and the blurring of the future; now something else has been wrenched away.
Foley’s went down Friday, officially. It was a grand contradiction – Irish? Baseball Pub? – and for thousands upon thousands of regulars it was home.
We all rubbed elbows, when business was good – baseball umpires and out-of-towners and business types and guys at the bar who seemed to have a lot of free time in mid-day and, when a big game was on, clusters of loyal fans who claimed it as their place.
It could have been a funky little pub off in the Irish countryside, particularly when Proprietor Shaun Clancy and his father John Clancy were in attendance, with their lush accents. No matter what time of day it was, John Clancy was always eating an Irish breakfast.
Foley’s was Shaun’s baby. He learned baseball in the States while his dad worked at Toots Shor’s, the Foley’s of its day, particularly when DiMaggio or Sinatra was in the place.
At Foley’s, it was more about Joe McEwing, a Mets supersub, taking a kid named David Wright out for a late supper on his first time in the majors, and now there is a David Wright sandwich on the menu.
Baseball was on the walls, and on the ceilings – all manner of memorabilia, thousands of autographed balls. Our group of old Hofstra jocks (and me, scribe-for-life) has been meeting there for a decade; the first time Brant Alyea, who played five years in the majors, joined us, he had to sign a ball for Shaun.
The place faces the Empire State Building on 33rd St, just west of Fifth. There are Irish road signs out front in case you are lost. The bar is on the right of a narrow corridor down the middle, and on the left is a men’s room with three enormous enamel urinals taken from either the old Waldorf or the old Astoria when the two hotels merged uptown. Now I am wondering: who gets the urinals when the landlord goes back to Square 1?
Shaun named the place for Red Foley, the leprechaun of a sports wizard who graced the New York Daily News when it was America’s most powerful newspaper. Red knew everything. His column was called Ask Red.
Mostly you heard Irish accents from the manager and the bartenders and the waitresses, but the staff also had a New York mix including Kathy-the-Waitress who I think hailed from Brooklyn.
Every time we Hofstra guys gathered, Curtis-the-Point-Guard would order shepherd’s pie and Kathy-the-Waitress would squawk, “You can’t order that! It’s not healthy for you!”
Shaun Clancy made everybody feel welcome. He would stand with us and whisper inside stuff he had heard. Our star baseball players like Jerry Rosenthal the shortstop and Dennis D’Oca the lefty, both from Brooklyn, glowed when Shaun dropped inside stuff on us.
Like regulars in any pub, we brought guests. One time our Hofstra contemporary, Francis Ford Coppola, joined us, and listened to our opinions and our questions about his movies, just one of the guys, more than half a century later.
One time we entertained a few hotshots from Wagner who had ruined an undefeated season for Stanley and Ted and Curtis and Stephen Dunn, the zone-busting guard, now a Pulitzer Prize poet.
In recent years, we saw less of Shaun because he had (a) a place in Florida and (b) a lady friend, Kristie Ackert, baseball writer with the Daily News. They seem so compatible that they must have been introduced by the great matchmaker in the sky.
When the virus hit in late winter, Shaun shut it down and took off to Florida -- paying his staff for the duration. This week he took a look at the books and realized the bleak future for drinking, eating and rooting in close proximity in high-rent midtown.
Here is Shaun, Friday, on Twitter, grief all over him:
I am now in mourning. I cannot imagine the next time I will take a train or subway into the belly of the beast, and mingle in a clean, well-lighted place like Foley’s.
Plus, this is my second heartbreak. For more than a decade, I was a regular in L’Angolo on Houston St. in the Village, an Italian soccer cafe. Con Ed construction and smoking restrictions and landlord gouging killed L’Angolo in 2008 but somehow I was granted another home place for the past decade.
The way I see it, Shaun Clancy ran a place as memorable as Shor's was when his dad was working. Nothing lasts forever.
Thank you, Shaun, for a great time.
* * *
But don't take my word for it. Pete Caldera, the singing writer, or writing singer, is a true Foley's regular. Here is his ode from USA Today:
More about Foley’s:
From the hockey hotbed of Israel comes a reminder that today, May 24, is the 40th anniversary of Bob Nystrom’s goal that gave the Islanders the first (of what would be four consecutive) Stanley Cups.
"You're tellin' me?!?!" Nystrom told journalist Hillel Kuttler in their phone conversation, which is part of Kuttler’s podcast series about how noted athletes are trying to stay safe during the virus plague. A few weeks back, Kuttler reached the hallowed Brooklyn Dodger nonagenarian Carl Erskine.
Kuttler, a Queens boy now living in Israel, had to remind me that the best team I ever covered has a Big Four-Oh anniversary.
Kuttler had a 30-minute chat with Nystrom, who is currently holed up in Boca Raton, Fl., but has been a resident of Long Island since playing for the Islanders. Kuttler recalled “that glorious afternoon when I sat on a stool at the Charlie O's pub in Rockefeller Center, glued to the TV throughout a terrific game, climaxed by Nystrom's magical goal off superb feeds by Henning and Tonelli.”
It’s true. In that final sequence, the broadcaster described how a Flyer “took a hit from Nystrom” -- that was known to happen – and the puck went squirting up the ice, followed by a back pass from Henning to Tonelli on the right side and a cross to Nystrom for the goal, just as they practiced it, for years and years.
The Islanders had been showing talent and discipline but a lot of potential dynasties never happen. This one did. The Islanders won three more, and Nystrom, a tough guy from out west in Canada, was a vital part of it. He could play with skill…and he could play rough….and he could handle the guff from Al Arbour the bespectacled coach when he needed somebody to scold in practice. Nothing bothered Bobby Ny.
One of the last N.H.L. players to not wear a helmet, as the league got serious about safety, Nystrom was the guts of those four teams. The Islanders, a frugal outfit run by Bill Torrey, were not restocking with expensive stars as the Yankees did, so the team stuck together under Arbour. Sixteen of them played on all four Stanley Cup teams and three others played on three championship teams.
Go ahead, Islanders fans, try to remember all of them.
Every player on that list evokes a smile from me…and I am sure from Kuttler, and all Islanders fans of a certain age.
Kuttler asked Nystrom how he would rank the Islanders with other Stanley Cup dynasties like the Oilers who followed them, or the Canadiens, who preceded them, and Nystrom said: "I would put us up there with the best ever to win the Stanley Cup."
These days I don’t indulge in much nostalgia -- life is too serious. Haven’t seen a second of Michael Jordan and don’t plan to watch a second of Lance Armstrong, and I don’t watch old games even when Willis Reed or Rocky Swoboda or Mookie Wilson or Mike Bossy are involved. But I love the old days, and I love hearing Bob Nystrom, 40 years after his goal, talk about social-distancing. He never did much of that on the ice, back in the day.
Hillel Kuttler’s interview with Islander immortal, Bob Nystrom:
Omigosh, you never know what will pop up. I picked up “the paper” in the driveway on Monday and there in the sports pages was a column I wrote 33 years ago, and it seems like yesterday.
Actually, it did involve two yesterdays – a seventh game of a Stanley Cup series that began Saturday night outside Washington, finished Sunday morning on Long Island (I was columnizing from home) and appeared in the Monday paper.
In those days, there was no Web, no 24-hour urgency to the newspaper business. I watched the Islanders (descendants of the mythic champs I had loved covering from 1980-83) battle the upstart Capitals for the right to move on to the next round.
Sports columnists were caught up in the interminable pedaling on the hamster wheel, the typing, the travel, the creating - - a mission, an honor. Only six months before, also on a Saturday night, Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner had gotten caught up in another epic game.
In the long madness of that night, I declared that the Red Sox’ misery was somehow linked to their disposal of Babe Ruth nearly half a century earlier. One gets very wise very late at night.
(And speaking of momentous marathons in the middle of the night, one of my favorite books about sports, and suffering, is “Bottom of the 33rd,” about baseball’s longest game between Pawtucket and Rochester, by Dan Barry, now one of my favorite bylines at the NYT. By the quirks of the calendar, that April 19 was both Holy Saturday for Christians and Passover for Jews, spiritual overtones galore.)
The Islanders-Capitals marathon also began on Holy Saturday and led into Easter Sunday while the lads kept playing, and playing, and playing.
I was living the life of the sports columnist, circa 1987 – when you knelt before the editor-in-chief and he tapped you on the shoulder with a mythical sword and dubbed you a knight of the keyboard, giving a modest raise for the honor of working your fingertips and frazzled brain around the clock, around the calendar-- three or four columns and week, often on deadline, deputized to explain sports to Times readers (and editors.)
I took my mission seriously and went out to slay dragons around the clock, around the week, around the cycle of sports as we knew it then. Fact was, I loved it, the freedom to think, and type, and see it in the paper, regularly.
(How trivial it all seems now, when most of the “news” of sports is about whether to resume competition, while in the Real World people are merely hoping they and their loved ones can continue breathing and eating. It is just possible that the longing for sports only leads to more Foxed-up yahoos picketing state governments to get people “back to work,” no matter what those scientists say about the killer virus. Personally, I don’t miss sports at the moment, well, except for the Mets.)
As my column from April 1987, materialized in the NYT, I was proud to read the way a columnist could converse regularly and familiarly with readers.
After the Islanders outlasted the Caps, I seem to have slept for a few hours, and gotten up early on Sunday and written about our Saturday evening – walking the dog often, my wife prepping Easter dinner (we had two friends coming for dinner), our youngest-the-busboy coming home from Louie’s smelling like fried shrimps, and how I switched channels so often that I also watched chunks of my all-time favorite movie, “The Third Man.”
But I wrote the column – keeping the faith with the holy mission of the sports columnist. Thirty-three years later, how much fun it was – and still is.
* * *
Here is the 1987 column:
Here’s a review of Dan Barry’s lovely book about the longest baseball game:
Doing what we were told to do – get the heck out of the way if you have no skills – some of us are hunkering, blessed to be healthy at the moment, with a roof over our heads, and food.
It sounds trivial, but while many people suffer and some serve (and suffer), others are at least able to catch up on one thing or another for diversion. People are cooking at home, putting things in order, just in case, reading, exercising, getting in touch.
Some are watching the gift of plays (from the National Theatre!!!) movies, operas, ballet, concerts, literally streaming before our eyes and our minds.
Sometimes the themes are universal: louts and bullies, fools and despots, always with us.
On Saturday evening, the PBS station in my town played the classic film “A Man for All Seasons,” from 1966. It holds up magnificently, including lush scenes on the River Thames.
Viewers never can get away from the multi-menaces of our time. In this version of history, a young and lean satyr of King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) menaces Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) to approve the king’s desire for a divorce, and a son and heir.
Henry romps through the mud of low tide to visit the More family, where he notices the educated and comely daughter Margaret (Susannah York), and drops a phrase of Latin on her. She replies. He is impressed. He drops another phrase of Latin on her. Then, with the skilled grace of Martina Navratilova rushing to the net, she responds with a stream of Latin.
King Henry VIII goes blank as the ball/phrase whizzes past him. He is exposed.
We have seen that look before – often, recently – as the talk, the concepts, the facts – get too much for another satyr in our midst. Henry backs away, over his head in much more than mere river muck.
You know how that movie ends.
On Sunday evening, NBC played the 2018 version of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the 1970 rock opera, filmed live in an armory in Brooklyn. Jesus (John Legend) wanders through the hippie dancers, far more befuddled than the committed Jewish mystic of the Bible, but look, it’s a rock opera.
Christ is passed up the chain of command, all the way to King Herod of Judea – none other than Alice Cooper in the role he was born to play. Mincing and menacing, Herod takes the measure of the feared preacher, offers him a way out, and is infuriated by his mute resignation.
“Get – out --- of – my – life!” Herod spits.
You know how that rock opera ends, too.
There is no ducking the contemporary menace here – the addled bully who cannot comprehend what the committed know and do. Furious sacrifice is never out of style – Melville’s “Billy Budd,” a prime example. (Actually, I think Trump's obsession with Barack Obama is like the rage of Claggart toward Billy Budd.)
I am sure Dr. Anthony Fauci, from Regis High and Holy Cross University, knows all the themes here. He does not seem afraid as he stands near our Dolt for All Seasons, our orange-hued Alice-Cooper-Without the 60’s Leather Outfit.
Dr. Fauci was still here, as of Tuesday morning.
* * *
In addition to being menaced by the virus and our freebooter president, Americans in the South and East were menaced on Monday by a brutal storm. On Long Island, we double-hunkered, moving to safe parts of our homes, away from windows, on lower floors, if possible.
It could have been worse. At 6 PM, the sky lightened in the west, the sun appeared. People who have been staying the heck out of the way emerged for exercise, for air, for the illusion of normalcy. I went on a walk, encountered dozens and dozens of liberated strollers, some with their dogs.
I did not see one mask in the quiet streets but people swerved on wide paths. I heard a couple of guys talking about a rainbow, but I had not seen one. Then I ran into John and Reina Teeger, long-time friends, out for their stroll. John showed me his smartphone capture of the rainbow, arched across the western sky. We talked about our families.
For a few moments, life was normal. Then we headed to our homes, later to catch up on the spreading menace of the virus in Third World countries, the cupidity of Mitch McConnell and his mute White Citizens Council, the mounting evidence that our Herod, our Henry VIII, was deep over his head in this crisis.
May the rainbow protect us.
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: