In a dark time, the very least we can do is opt for light
The other day I had a spare hour in my home town so I opted for the great hall in the heart of the Met, where I knew I could find light and memory.
What I sought was not religious as such, but the nearly universal reassurance of people being together, like the Neapolitan figurines who flock to the base of a tree every December.
There is light -- from Christmas trees past in our house, or the Menorah we take out, or family faces, past and present.
As my internal compass found the tree through the maze of hallways, I gave thanks for the little rectangular device in my pocket that allows me to take photographs for the first time in my life --a miracle.
The tree was there, as it has been every year since 1957 (read about it here.) Almost every year we make the pilgrimage, to be reassured. The light endures.
I'm leaving this photo up for a while. Happy Solstice. Happy Holidays.
(Update: A major evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, founded by Billy Graham, has called for Trump's removal via impeachment. This is a huge step. I used to cover religion; I also know and love some evangelicals, who scurried out to vote for Trump in 2016 because their pastors said he was a good Christian fellow. Many of those pastors are caught up in Trump's money and power and swagger. The red ties! The adoring crowds! Will they pay attention to the prophetic message from a magazine that has been a voice of evangelical thinking? The "mainstream" media is taking this very seriously. Will it trickle down to people who call themselves "Good Christians?")
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A guy I know canvasses for the Democratic party in his rural corner of America. He says it is not unusual to knock on a door and have the woman of the house say, softly, that she votes Democratic these days, but that the visitor should not try to discuss voting with her husband.
In that exchange there may be a palpable sense of intimidation, of fear.
I was thinking of that on Impeachment Wednesday when President Trump was in Battle Creek, Mich., making an ad-lib rant about how he had “given” an A-plus ceremony upon the death of Debbie Dingell’s husband, John Dingell, a veteran of World War Two and the longest-serving member of Congress in history, 59 years.
The President made his brand of joke that John Dingell was “looking up” rather than “looking down” – and a smattering of Republicans right behind him tittered, as if this was one more out-take from Trump's reality show, which, in a way, it is.
The President referred to the touches he had personally included in the funeral, like a third-rate real-estate sleaze who tosses in a used doormat and a fly-swatter as incentives to seal the deal for an apartment rental (as long as the renter is white, of course.)
John Dingell’s widow, Debbie, now holds his seat in Congress, and Trump took it personally when she joined all but three Democrats in Congress to vote for the two counts of impeachment Wednesday evening – after all he had done for her.
She owed him, he suggested. In fact, in the old way of government, which seems to have been dumped in January of 2017, the White House always had respectable functionaries, essentially apolitical, trusted to treat deceased veterans and members of Congress with dignity. Red regime, blue regime, the government knew how to do the right thing.
But now the country is divided, and one of the major splits is on the civility frontier. The video from Trump’s vile talk Wednesday night shows women right behind him, cheering him on. Reports from the hall said some people were hushed and upset by his attack on the Dingells, but I could not tell.
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Polls suggest women lean toward the Democrats rather than Trump in the 2020 election. What is clear is that Trump particularly victimizes women – not just from charges of his physical brutality but also in verbal abuse.
He expresses deep feelings that women are objects of disgust, to be feared and mocked: the TV personality who had blood coming from her “whatever;” the opponent who used a debate intermission to go the lavatory; the speaker of the House whose teeth were “falling out” as she spoke.
Women upset Donald Trump, apparently disgust him. I am sure it has to do with his late mother, whom he never mentions. His third wife seems frozen in fear, possibly loathing. His daughter Ivanka? Another story.
Women in Michigan, a state he needs in 2020, hear Trump mocking a widow, a highly capable public figure on her own, now serving as a Representative from Michigan.
When do American women tell the men in their lives that this man is sick, this man is perverted, this man is cruel? Or does the American male -- that intimidating presence somewhere in the back of the house -- have the same anger, the same bluster, as Jordan and Gaetz and Collins in the House of Representatives? Where does this anger in the American psyche come from?
I have come to recognize that Bill Clinton has worse baggage than I was willing to admit. Now, when are the women of America going to realize that Donald J. Trump seems to have no limits to abuse, verbal or otherwise?
I just read a powerful book about the first class of women at Yale University – in the fall semester of 1969.
Yale, bless its crusty old heart, managed to enroll female students who were more than up to the academics of the great university, but also quite able to speak up – and act up -- for their rights.
It was the 60’s, after all.
That tumultuous year of 1969 is the backdrop for the book, “Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant,” by Anne Gardiner Perkins, who arrived at Yale eight years after the first female undergraduates.
After years of pressure, Yale finally joined many all-male schools that had accepted women, however imperfectly. Given the limit of 230 spots for women (along with the usual 1,000 spots for male freshmen, all regarded as “leaders”) the admissions department did a fine job, finding women with talent and guts to go along with the brains.
Many pioneers depicted in the book do not come off as stereotypical silver-spoon, prep-school graduates but rather the best and brightest from all over – rock stars in their way, with the spirit of Tina Turner and Grace Slick and other icons.
In Perkins’ book, these women are as diverse as any admissions director would dream: Among my favorites are Connie Royster, boarding-school grad, actor, African-American, worldly, teaching her instant good friend, Betty Spahn, white, from the Midwest, how to handle chopsticks; Kit McClure, from a New Jersey suburb, talking her way into playing her trombone on the all-male marching band, later cutting much of her red hair and helping form a rock band with a powerful feminist soul.
Another pioneer was Lawrie Mifflin, who forced Yale to start a field hockey team – with real uniforms! with a real field! With a real coach! Lawrie became a journalist after shaming the all-male Yale Daily News into covering female sports. She later became a deputy sports editor at the Times -- and a good friend of mine -- and is today the managing editor of “The Hechinger Report” and was recently honored by Yale for her many accomplishments.
Not all the women were activists at heart, but most were pushed into action by conditions: no locks in the bathrooms, not enough security at the dorms or around the campus, hardly any female teachers or administrators, and the feeling of being patronized in the classroom while also being hustled for dates (and more) by male students -- and male teachers. (The university still bussed in women from all-female schools, a long tradition.)
Fortunately, the women had a champion in Elga Wasserman, with a doctorate in chemistry, who was appointed a sort of dean of women – but without the title, without the power. Wasserman fought for the women, minute by minute, but was eventually seen as a problem by the patrician president, Kingman Brewster, Jr.
Two other heroes were a couple, Philip and Lorna Sarrel, he a gynecologist, she a pediatric social worker, who worked as a team to offer medical services and counseling, so much in demand that their one lecture class on sexuality was attended by over 1,000 students – women and men.
Facing difficulties they probably could not have imagined, the women demonstrated, infiltrating clubby bastions, making the establishment aware of how things worked, and did not work. There was pain, including at least two rapes of women in the freshman class.
Within the four years of their entry, the women had lobbied for more spots, challenging the quota of 1,000 male “leaders” who were accepted annually. Eventually, they achieved gender-free admissions, to the point of numerical equality today.
Yale, being Yale, could attract these women -- and diverse men -- of excellence. On campus during the first four years of the pioneers were such future leaders as Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Janet L. Yellen, Kurt L. Schmoke and – sound the trumpets! -- from my old school, Jamaica High in Queens – Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, in her 13th term, now from Houston.
Perkins has written a gripping guide on how to seek change in today’s world – as young people realize that our “leaders” are “leading” the U.S. in an assault on democracy and law, prejudices are seeping back, and young people face a future on a smoldering planet.
The women of 1969 are admirable role models for all.
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I mentioned the Yale book to my kid brother, Christopher Vecsey, a professor at Colgate University, which went coed a year after Yale did. Chris (he never tells me anything!) said Colgate held a symposium last April: “Women and Religion, Philosophy and Feminism,” featuring pioneers of 1970. Chris is also the editor of a book from the symposium:
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NYT retrospective this fall:
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.
A petulant scion with no known talent?
No, no, come back, I swear, this is not about “politics.”
Rather, this is about two New York teams in a state of flux.
The Knicks are run by Jim Dolan, son of the man who built a cable empire that acquired Madison Square Garden. Dolan is the sourball who slumps in the front row, glowering and issuing occasional “off with their heads” orders toward coaches or even paying customers who criticize.
The Mets are owned by Fred Wilpon, a real-estate developer, whose son, Jeff Wilpon, manages to upset almost any baseball person in the Mets’ system – and, apparently, his relatives.
The Knicks have responded to the worst start in club history by firing the hapless coach, David Fizdale. From what I read, the problem goes way beyond the current stock of leftovers and dubious prospects. (NB: I stopped watching the Knicks soon after Dolan broke up a decent team to acquire fire-it-up Carmelo Anthony – the signature move of Dolan’s tempestuous stewardship.)
The truly amazing thing to me is that the Garden is generally packed with paying customers, in a city that prides itself on knowing great basketball. Are these people hanging on to their tickets in case Clyde comes back to pick apart a defense or Oak shoulders opponents into the first row?
Both the Knicks and Mets have been under the scrutiny of the Times in recent days, with Michael Powell issuing the most rational solution to the Knicks’ problem: Dolan should fire himself.
Meanwhile, the Mets’ owners are easing themselves out, The Mets are in the process of being sold to Steven A. Cohen, a hedge-fund guy with tons of money, even after paying a nearly $2-billion fine (That’s with a B, as in Bonilla) for mischief, all committed apparently by underlings.
I will not hold my nose at the business history of Steven A. Cohen. Really, how many rich guys can withstand scrutiny? My concern here is that Mets fans seem to be already celebrating the money they expect the next owner to toss around.
I am not confident that Cohen can bring any more actual baseball acumen than the Wilpons have. Fans should remember that the franchise has spent scads of money on occasion – Mike Piazza being the best example, plus locking down Jacob DeGrom recently.
Since I have owned up to being a Met fan in retirement, I have suffered but also enjoyed -- Collins, Alderson, Minaya, even the last painful years for David Wright, Murph's great year, admirable old pros like Granderson, Cuddyer, Cabrera, plus an adult broadcasting crew so superior to network blatherers. Sure, I quote Dante every March (" Abandon all hope, etc.") but the Mets have kept me going, agita and all.
Plus, we are all in this together: Remember how many fans and reporters (including me, mea culpa) begged the Mets to retain Yoenis Céspedes, who was demonstrably falling apart before our eyes even before he stepped in a hole last spring, or whatever the story is.
True, the Mets have bungled by hiring managers like Art Howe and Mickey Callaway and a few wrongo general managers. I am not so sure about the reforming agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, who is “running” the team, as of this morning.
Why are the Wilpons selling the Mets? The other day, the Times wrote that the Mets had the shorts due to the Wilpons’ past reliance on their money guy, one Bernard L. Madoff. I know Fred Wilpon and his brother-in-law, Saul Katz, minimally, and do not think they would have tied dozens of family members into accounts with Madoff if they had known he was as crooked as he turned out to be.
Iris (Fred's sister) and Saul Katz are the very same couple behind the Katz Institute for Women's Health at Northwell Health.
Fred Wilpon is a pretty private guy, loyal to some long-time Mets employees, frequent host to military vets, plus friendly with Sandy Koufax, his baseball teammate from Lafayette High in Brooklyn and one of the princes of this city. Any friend of Sandy Koufax….
But the family has a problem these days. From what the Times writes, the next generation of Katz scions does not want to be linked with Cousin Jeff.
Naturally, Fred Wilpon is loyal to Jeff, but now the franchise must be sold.
I can understand fans who think the current ownership has been a bad steward for the franchise. That is normal for fans. Look at what the current Red Sox ownership has done. But was Boston's rise all about money -- or very much about good management and sound judgment, also?
Abrasive heirs are one thing -- but finding owners with more money is not necessarily any kind of solution.
Enter, Steven A. Cohen.
Michael Powell dubious about Steven A. Cohen:
Knicks fire Fizdale:
Masochistic Michael Powell has been watching the Knicks:
The first of December was covered with snow
So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
The Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go
---James Taylor, “Sweet Baby James”
Snowing again, this first of December.
This typist has little to say on this left-over Sunday. Over the holiday, I’ve been reading “Poems of New York,” selected by Elizabeth Schmidt, while my wife is reading “Underland,” by a philosopher-explorer, Robert MacFarland.
Thank goodness for writers.
Pete Hamill is writing a book from his home borough of Brooklyn. Pete is among the three great print troubadours of my home town – along with Murray Kempton and Jimmy Breslin. (Dan Barry would make a quartet, when he is in print.)
Hamill is not well, as documented by Alex Williams in the Sunday Times, but he is going to get his Brooklyn book done, he says.
Also gutting it out is the great film director, Michael Apted, who has just issued his latest documentary – and, he says, his last – in the seven-year cycle about English youths who grew older, the ones who were lucky.
I have a great debt to Michael Apted for putting Loretta Lynn’s story on the screen, after I helped her write her book, and Tom Rickman wrote a magnificent film script. I was afraid Hollywood would turn Loretta’s world into a segment of “Beverly Hillbillies,” but as Rickman told me about Hollywood: “Sometimes the good guys win.”
I got to thank Apted when the movie had its premiere in Nashville and then in Louisville. Invited along for the chartered bus ride up I-65, I asked Apted how he got the feel for Eastern Kentucky and he talked about his roots in England – not just London – and he said, “I am no stranger to the coal mines.”
Good luck with your new movie, sir.
Today belongs to talented people like James Taylor and Pete Hamill and Michael Apted. A friend recently gave me a couple of poetry books, one by Seamus Heaney, the other a collection about my home town.
I include a segment from Nikki Giovanni, about the sudden flashes of humanity you encounter just about anywhere in the city. This is about a blind woman, uptown.
You that Eyetalian poet ain’t you? I know yo voice.
I seen you on television
I peered closely into her eyes
You didn’t see me or you’d know I’m black.
Let me feel yo hair if you Black Hold down yo head
I did and she did
Got something for me, she laughed
You felt my hair that’s good luck
Good luck is money chile she said
Good luck is money.
-- From “The New Yorkers”
I’ll leave it there. Keep writing, Pete Hamill. I’m waiting on your Brooklyn book.
I am thankful for the Wampanoags who flocked to the Plymouth settlement in November of 1621 when they heard white people firing off their guns, and stayed three peaceful days to partake of the “feast.” Nobody spoke of “thanksgiving,” but rather a celebration of survival.
Tribal ways were more complex than most people today know; the Narragansetts in what became Rhode Island welcomed Roger Williams, banished from Massachusetts for his inclusive Christian beliefs. All the “Indians” deserved better than the genocide that was coming down on them.
I am thankful for the Americans who arrived as slaves in shackles and were treated cruelly. I am thankful for the modern-day Africans who flee failed societies and continue to add talent and energy and spirituality to the United States.
I am thankful for the Latino people in my part of the world, who do the hard work that immigrants always do. In recent months we have had painters, gardeners, plumbers’ assistants and a mason’s assistant around our house, most of them quite willing and skillful. Their children speak colloquial English and contribute in the schools; some are going to college – the American dream.
I am thankful for the immigrants who served in the military, many of them on the promise of citizenship for their contributions. I am sickened by a country that welshes on its promises, both domestic and foreign. People come to America in hope, the way the “pilgrims” did, and their children are put in cages.
I am thankful for some of the best and brightest in this country, who left their homelands, escaping the Nazis or the Soviets, for what America said about itself -- the promise of education and opportunities and honest government.
I am thankful for the true believers who testified in Congress in recent days, speaking of their hope in America. Some of them are Jews, like Marie Yovanovich and Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman,, who served so diligently and speak so eloquently about this country.
Lt. Col. Vindman acknowledged his father for bringing the family from Ukraine to America, saying: “Here, right matters.”
They should put his saying on the next new dollar bills.
For their pains, Yovanovich and Lt. Col. Vindman have heard sneering overtly anti-Semitic sentiments from some of the “patriots” in government. Shades of Father Coughlin in the ‘30s, Roy Cohn (Donald Trump’s mentor), with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the ‘50s, and Richard Nixon blaming the Jews during his last days in the bunker in the ‘70s. In America, it never goes away.
Finally, I am thankful for Dr. Fiona Hill, a non-partisan government expert on Russia, and an American by choice, a coal-miner’s daughter from Northeast England with a Harvard degree. (Having helped Loretta Lynn write her book, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” I heard Dr. Hill’s background and said, “They are messing with a coal miner’s daughter. Not a good idea.”)
Dr. Hill caught everybody’s attention by speaking so knowledgeably in what sounded like the finest British accent to our unsophisticated ears but which Dr. Hill termed working-class.
She besought the legislators not to swallow Russian propaganda. The Republican firebrands seemed to know they were outmatched; a few panelists scampered to safety. One of the remaining Republicans, Dr. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, spoke of his non-partisan volunteer service as a doctor of podiatry in Iraq; it is also known that he administered to a colleague shot on a ball field, and rushed to a train crash near Washington.
After delivering some remarks with a scowl, Dr. Wenstrup was not about to ask questions of Dr. Hill. After she requested the chance to respond, Dr. Hill produced the little miracle of the hearings:
As Dr. Hill spoke passionately about fairness and knowledge, the anger drained from Dr. Wenstrup’s face. He was listening – he had manners -- he maintained eye contact -- and he seemed touched, perhaps even shocked, that she was speaking to him as an intelligent adult. How often does that happen in politics? “He’s going to cry,” my wife said.
As Dr. Hill finished, she thanked Dr. Wenstrup, and he nodded, and we saw the nicer person behind the partisan bluster. (I am including a video, but nothing I find on line captures the ongoing split-screen drama that we saw in real time. Maybe somebody can find a better link of this sweet moment, and let me know in the Comments section below.)
I am thankful for Dr. Fiona Hill’s educated hopes for a wiser country. I am thankful to Dr. Wenstrup for listening. I wish them, and Ms. Yovanovich, and Lt. Col. Vindman and all the other witnesses a happy and civil Thanksgiving.
(In other words: Don’t yell at your cousin for not agreeing with you!)
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(In the video below, you might want to skip forward 5 minutes or so, to the point where Dr. Hill asks, "May I actually...." . The video, alas, does not show the split-screen version.)
It has long been my suspicion that the people who own and run baseball do not actually like the sport.
Otherwise, why would they keep meddling with it, almost as if to drive people away?
From my old-timey point of view, I think the self-destruction got worse with the designated hitter, and continued with a glut of interleague play that has demolished the old September pennant confrontations.
The owners’ documented sins have included collusion on salaries, neglect of the steroid evidence, the noise and gimmick bombardment at games, which generally begin so late (on the East Coast) as to make sure young people never get the flow of the game.
(I could rant about the sterile network blather in the recent World Series, but I won't.)
In recent years, the owners have avoided hints of technological sign-stealing, and have been complicit in the doctored baseballs that their launch-arc “hitters” try to propel prodigious distances, feeling no shame at striking out.
Now it’s even worse. The owners are planning to strangle the ancient network of minor-league teams and leagues in the smaller cities of America. There is currently a plot to demolish 42 teams in places where people can enjoy baseball for, let’s say, five bucks.
The owners, who have feared anti-trust penalties over the years, are ripe for Congressional oversight with this caper, if Congress were functioning, that is.
The owners -- who by the way spend millions and millions on marginal "major-league" players -- are trying to save a few dollars in minimal salaries to hopeful prospects, the vast majority of whom will never get close to a major-league uniform. But the farmhands perform the game with zest and hope, spitting and scratching and posturing for the home fans in generally balmy weather in the ancient ritual of Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
The owners have figured it out that the compliant college system is producing prospects, as are the hard barrios of Latin America and baseball-centric Asian nations like Japan and South Korea. So why subsidize these towns “out there” – when in fact it seems these 42 minor-league teams have subsidized our generous owners?
For a glimpse of how it works, the New York Times dispatched one of its very best writers, Dan Barry, to Lexington, Ky., hardly a backwater town. Commissioner Rob Manfred has targeted Lexington and its league to be dropped off, like an elder left at a dog-track, or a litter of kittens given a sporting transfer to the town dump.
One of the principal tasks in the job description of sports commissioners is the shakedown of towns hopeful of keeping, or gaining, a franchise. Like a thug out of “The Sopranos” or a rogue President menacing a vulnerable nation like Ukraine, commissioners go around putting the squeeze on towns to upgrade ballparks in America’s outback.
“Nice little place you got here,” sports commissioners say. “Be a shame if you lost it because you didn’t have better bathrooms or lights or public-address systems” (or bat racks, for goodness’ sakes.)
Now baseball is going to red-line the minor leagues. The “sport” lives on a history of prospects like Babe Ruth pitching and taking his hacks in his home-town minor-league Baltimore, or a skinny kid pitcher named Stan Musial living in a rented room in Williamson, W. Va,, where the Cardinals sent their hordes of desperate (white) prospects during the Depression. Or fans around Lynchburg, Va., who still remember effervescent young Dwight Gooden in 1983, when he was 18 years old, with his 19-4 record and 300 strikeouts.
The legend of the minors is that almost nobody ever makes it to what Kevin Costner’s character calls “The Show” in the immortal “Bull Durham.” (I never heard that phrase until the movie came out.) But in fact, the Mets’ 1983 roster in Lynchburg contains around a dozen players I recognize as having made “The Show,” including skinny young Lenny Dykstra before he got muscles on his muscles one winter.
The minors are part of our American legend. My friend Jerry Rosenthal played two years in the Milwaukee Braves system; I love his tales of talented teammates like Rico Carty and Bill Robinson, the bus rides, the gritty managers, admirable hitting coaches – Dixie Walker! Andy Pafko! Look ‘em up, kids -- and the weekend he outhit a Cub prospect named Lou Brock. (Jerry has the box scores to prove it.)
The minor leagues are the soul of the sport but the owners do not seem to know this. They should cut a few Analytics Types and let baseball people teach the next wave how to make contact (like Jeff McNeil, the professional hitter who embarrassed the Mets last year -- by succeeding.)
The owners have what you might call their own thing; they control the American sport, and are cutting out the fringe people in the heartland.
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(The great Dan Barry, writing from Lexington, Ky.)
(Dwight Gooden’s stats for the summer of ’83.)
Thomas Friedman gives Mike Pompeo a well-deserved knee in his missing morality area.
If you haven't seen it yet:
When I took ROTC in college, the first thing they did was pass out a slim manual about leadership, aimed at second lieutenants who might one day be in charge of a platoon, in combat.
One of our teachers – can’t remember if it was an officer or a sergeant – defined leadership as: “Get the troops out of the hot sun.”
Made sense to me. You want health and morale as high as possible.
They taught potential officers how to speak to people. Make eye contact. Square up to the person you were addressing, whether standing or sitting. Try to know their name. Show respect.
I left ROTC after three years – mutual decision, so I guess you could say, who am I to talk? I was married with a child before the Vietnam war heated up and I never served in the military.
I knew people who never came back from Vietnam; I know people who graduated from West Point, who saw duty over there, who had classmates and soldiers under their command killed over there.
I retain respect for the many things the military can teach via a slim manual. Some sports “leaders” have it; some do not. Other industries – no names mentioned -- could learn from the ROTC manual, or any kind of leadership seminar.
A few years ago, an aged relative of ours was starting to decline in a very nice retirement home in Maine. My wife and I requested a conference with the director of the home, who had been an officer overseas, in the nursing corps.
When we arrived, she stood up to greet us and asked us to sit down. She sat squarely in her chair and leaned forward for some small talk.
“What’s on your minds?” she soon asked.
I smiled and said: “I heard you were an officer.” Our meeting was productive. The retirement home did the best it could with our relative.
I was reminded of that meeting on Friday, when I watched Marie Yovanovich, the former ambassador to Ukraine, face a Congressional subcommittee. (There may be something about this hearing in the media today.)
This admirable American modestly discussed her long career, going to the front lines in danger zones, to fly the flag with the people who served.
She talked about being caught during a shootout in Moscow as the Soviet Union came apart – being summoned to the embassy and having to make a dash for it without body armor.
The only time the former ambassador seemed to falter was when she was asked why she was abruptly recalled from her top post in Ukraine. What had she done wrong? Did anyone explain? No, she said plainly. She would not venture a guess why.
From the line of questioning from the Democrats, it was suggested that President Trump and his hatchet man, Rudy Giuliani, wanted her out of there, but never explained to her. The President gave others the impression that something bad could happen to her – beyond the blight to her outstanding career, that is.
On Friday afternoon, Chuck Rosenberg, a sober legal counsel whom I have admired greatly throughout this ugly time, delivered what for him is a rant. Just back from a chatty day with friends in the city, I heard him (on Nicolle Wallace's hour), and I am sure that is what inspired me, five hours later, to deliver my own take here:
One person was conspicuous by his general absence – the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, No. 1 in the Class of 1986 at the United States Military Academy, who later served in Europe.
At the Academy, Pompeo undoubtedly read leadership manuals like the one linked below. Probably, he looked after his troops when he was in uniform. But he is a civilian now – a former member of the House of Representatives, rumored to be interested in running for the Senate from Kansas, and currently punching his ticket by serving time in the cabinet, obsequiously.
People have attacked somebody in Mike Pompeo's unit, have maligned her work. Did he assert his leadership?
Perhaps he has been busy in some hot spot of the world, or perhaps he is cowering in his bunker at the State Department. Sometimes leaders have to deliver harsh news, harsh orders, to their troops. Mike Pompeo has never explained to the former ambassador to Ukraine why she was removed, does not seem to have thanked her for her service.
Mike Pompeo has left Marie Yovanovich standing at attention, out in the hot sun, even when the President of the United States savaged yet another woman, in public, while she was testifying Friday. That is where we are these days.
* * *
"Expose yourself to many of the same hardships as your soldiers by spending time with them in the hot sun, staying with them even when it is unpleasant." --- Tacit Knowledge for Military Leaders; Platoon Leader Questionnaire. (below)
U.S. Army Cadet Handbook:
Out in the driveway was the Sunday Times, with a well-reported article about the precipitous decline of boys playing American football.
The trend is so worrisome that football supporters held a private summit about the potential drop in candidates to get their brains scrambled in the next generation.
I can remember covering Congressional hearings in which the National Football League’s answer to brain concussions was to malign expert witnesses.
The most telling detail in the Times article was the graph showing the vast dropoff – in Texas.
Sounds like Texas high schools now have Friday Night Lights for soccer – with cheerleaders, and college scholarships, and crowds, but without nearly as much residual brain damage down the road.
While I was reading the paper, my son-in-law texted me from Deepest Pennsylvania. Sometimes he texts about Christian Pulisic, the lad from Hershey who has scored 5 goals for Chelsea already this season, probably the best showing by any American in a top European league.
At first, he and his first-born, Mister George, were planning to watch the big Liverpool-Manchester City match in a pub, not any pub, but a Liverpool soccer pub in the area. Shortly after, they decided to watch at home. From his early days with the FIFA computer game, our grandson has been a Liverpool fanatic. This is where the country is heading.
Both Liverpool and Man City have charismatic managers – Jürgen Klopp of Liverpool, a German, and Josep (Pep) Guardiola of Man City, a Catalan who speaks five languages. In the same issue of the Sunday Times, their ingenuity was discussed by Rory Smith, the Times’ expert in Europe.
In the meeting of the current masterminds, Liverpool drubbed Man City, 3-1. I skipped that match to work out at at the high-school track, where I spotted a soccer match between two teams of girls, fit and competitive, in their mid-teens. Two other teams were waiting to play on the turf field.
My soccer-watching for the day was going to come later -- the championship match of Major League Soccer, now in its 24th season. The league started with 10 teams and now has 24, soon to be 30.
Nobody claims MLS is at the level of Champions League or World Cup powerhouses but the league has improved drastically. Last year the best MLS team I ever saw, Atlanta, won the title with an open attacking style, with finesse and good coaching, but Tata Martino was scooped up to manage the Mexican national team, and one of Atlanta's fleet stars, Miguel Almiron, was scooped up by Newcastle of the Premiership, (he is yet to score in 24 appearances) and Atlanta did not reach the finals this year.
Instead, Toronto played at Seattle, in front of the largest crowd ever to watch a sporting event in Seattle – 69,274 fans, demonstrative and knowledgeable. There were familiar faces, including two long-time stars of the American national team, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, both with Toronto. Altidore was still hampered by a strained quad, and could not start. and it cost his team,
Soccer, as all fans know, is a capricious sport. Toronto outplayed the home team well into the second half but no goals were scored. While Altidore warmed up, Toronto yielded a fluke goal when a defender deflected a shot heading wide. (It should have been listed as an own goal, but was not – shame on the league for allowing that scoring decision.) Then Seattle scored twice more before Altidore pounded in a header. Neither team matched the firepower of the super Atlanta team last year, but the league gets better every year.
The MLS season is over but the European season is in full gear, and will more than carry me over to the Mets' season. And really, what else is there?
* * *
My home town has done well in the past week, with former Mets and Yankees star Carlos Beltran being named manager of the Mets, and former New York popinjay Donald Trump announcing he had changed his official place of residence to Florida.
Trump may soon be looking to spend more time at "home" now that many of his lackeys are having amazing memory surges, either from medication or dream sequences or advice from counsel in the Ukraine caper.
He is surely doing it to avoid taxes that he may not pay anyway. But until the process server or Roger Stone's police escort come a-knocking, he can preen in Mar-a-Lago.
Don't tell him that the Florida coast is going to be inundated sooner rather than later by the rising seas that he is increasing with his wanton scorn for the Paris environment agreement.
The part I liked best about Trump's announcement was the way it was greeted by his former neighbor, New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Trump is older, but for many years his family lived on Midland Parkway in Jamaica Estates and the Cuomo family lived on Rio Drive in Holliswood. Their homes were roughly 10 blocks apart, via Henley Drive. I know this because my family lived for a very long time on the busy 188th St., with the buses and the cabs and the lunatics, right in between those two tony neighborhoods.
Yes, Queens boys are a yappy lot -- from point guards to tennis stars to rappers to comedians to politicians -- even a few journalists. In his see-ya farewell to his former Queens neighbor, the Guv channeled his inner Gene Wilder in the movie "The Frisco Kid."
As a rabbi, a long way from Poland, Wilder refuses to allow the killing of an outlaw who is threatening him, Instead, (in heavy Yiddish accent): the rabbi shows mercy, saying: "Would somebody please show this poor asshole the way out of town?"
Now, about Carlos Beltran. Remember Carlos Beltran? The Mets made him the first Latino manager of any major New York team, not that I think they were making a statement like that. He always struck me as a proud, skilled and somewhat reticent artisan, who plied his trade in modesty. I never saw him as a manager. But the teams he served near the end of his admirable career attest to his knowledge and quiet leadership. Plus, he has the reputation of a Hall of Fame signal-stealer.
But can he manage? Never done it. There is something to be said for learning the trade in the minor leagues where the stakes and the attention are not so high. Leadership can be learned, even taught (I still remember the ROTC leadership manual we used in college;an they could pass it out in companies like Facebook and Boeing.)
Managers these days seem to have a bench coach to give them backup. (Trump could surely use one.) Managers also have to live with instructions from the Analytics Laboratory. Personally, I'd like to see Terry Collins, an old-school manager who had the Mets hustling during his regime, back as bench coach.
One thing the Mets won't have to worry about is moving expenses since Beltran already lives in a sumptuous "apartment" on the East Side of Manhattan. I know this from the collected works of a real-estate maven named Laura Vecsey:
Nobody really knows how Carlos Beltran, quiet star, will fare as a manager.
But as for the shady character who is now officially leaving New York as his official residence, may I summon the dismissive words of Casey Stengel whenever the Mets dispatched one of their early failures:
"I seen what he done."
Indeed. Buena suerte, Sr. Beltran.
How do those kids do it -- endlessly pecking away on their phones with their thumbs?
I just tried it for six days while my laptop was "in the shop."
Some very nice people sorted out my laptop issues, and got me back on line again.
Not a moment too soon. Typing seems natural to all those little bones in the hand, but two thumbs did not evolve so humans could look up stuff and chatter on line.
Now, back to work. Anything happen in the last six days?-- GV
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.
They changed their minds. A week ago, WNYC announced it was terminating its familiar "New Sounds" program with John Schaefer. On Monday, Goli Sheikholeslami, the new president and CEO of New York Public Radio, announced that "New Sounds" and Schaefer and the long-time producer, Caryn Havlik, will be remaining.
In a gracious statement, Sheikholeslami said, "A show like New Sounds can only be produced by public radio, and specifically at NYPR." She recently resigned from her arts job in Chicago to take the leadership of New York Public Radio.
Sheikholeslami's full statement on line can be read here:
The moral to the story is that sometimes new executives need to be reminded just what it is they are leading. Protesting is good, particularly in something as subjective as the arts. Donating (or not donating) also works. I am so happy for John Schaefer -- and for the eclectic audience of WNYC in the city that never sleeps.
Here is my original article last week:
I can’t remember where I was, but I definitely had the radio on, late one evening, listening to John Schaefer’s show, “New Sounds.”
You never know what you will get. Schaefer seemed to find music from cultures all over the world, and within the United States – odd instruments, string and reed and percussion, plus the human voice at all pitches, and he would bubble about them, with junior-high-school enthusiasm.
This night – he works best late in the evening – Schaefer introduced a trio performing the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim but with unique arrangements, a blend of classic and bossa nova, familiar songs, carefully crafted.
The album was “Casa,” performed by Ryuichi Sakamoto with his incisive, spare piano, and Jacques Morelenbaum, with his lush, sweeping cello, and vocalist Paula Morelenbaum, with her haunting Portuguese and charming almost lisping English. The songs were standards, from the basic Jobim playbook, but the interpretations were unique.
I think Schaefer informed us that the album was recorded on the piano of the late Tom Jobim – in Jobim’s lakeside house in Rio. From what I read, Sakamoto felt awe at his pilgrimage to the home of the master, and had to ease into touching the piano.
I was hooked, went out and bought the CD, which has become the most-played album on my iPod.
A classic. That’s what John Schaefer does. He finds new releases, some of them flirting with commercial, some of them delightfully obscure, destined for one-time hearing, but in the memory bank, somewhere.
A show like this would seem to have institutional permanence, particularly in polyglot multicultural New York. In fact, “New Sounds” lasted from 1982 until this week, when the new hatchet at WNYC announced that “New Sounds” is about to be disappeared. For what reason? They have a better replacement?
“Why would they do that?” Laurie Anderson asked Michael Cooper in the Times on Monday.
In the city that never sleeps, shouldn’t there remain a place for music you never heard before? Something that opens your mind and your ears?
“New Sounds?” What does the “NY” in WNYC stand for?
Thank you, John Schaefer, for the many years of “New Sounds” and please let your fans know about the next gig.
* * *
Bad news on the doorstep:
A review of "Casa" when it was new:
In this ugly time, I tear up when reminded of the knowledge, the eloquence, the idealism of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.
Sometimes, I entertain the fantasy that Mrs. Obama will offer herself as a candidate for President – not that I would subject her, or her family, to the viciousness of another campaign, another presidency.
Besides, any ephemeral hopes have been dashed by reading Mrs. Obama’s stimulating book, “Becoming,” which confirms what has seemed apparent: since she was young, Mrs. Obama has felt a visceral distaste for politics.
In her book, she recalls qualifying for the elite Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, which entails a long two-bus commute, but also introduces her to new friends like Santita Jackson. Sometimes, after school, she is invited to the Jackson home, which takes on a frenzy when the man of the house, Jesse Jackson, is in town, making plans for one campaign or another.
One day Michelle and Santita find themselves “conscripted” into marching in the annual Bud Billiken Day Parade on the South Side.
“The fanfare was fun and even intoxicating, but there was something about it, and about politics in general, that made me queasy,” she writes.
When she comes home that afternoon, her mother, the stalwart Marian Shields Robinson, is laughing, saying: “I just saw you on TV."
Michelle Robinson Obama has always known her own mind. She was enough of a realist to admit that she had fallen for a charismatic summer intern at the law firm she had worked so hard to join. Barack Obama had many plans and dreams, and in her telling, she had enough faith in him that she would change her own life around.
That is the first half of the book – how Michelle was raised by Fraser and Marian Robinson, and her older brother, Craig, a basketball star at Princeton, and strong-willed, talented relatives. The richness of her family life – the wisdom of her parents – challenges any stereotypes of African-American life that might get thrown back at the Obamas, to this day.
The second part of the book is about Michelle Obama’s reactions to her husband’s abrupt rise to presidential candidate. Mrs. Obama describes how campaign aides failed to prep her for public appearances, leaving her to improvise. She realized she was no longer primarily a lawyer or community organizer but a political spouse who can jangle a campaign with one impromptu phrase. A born organizer, she seems to have impressed upon the handlers: That won’t happen again.
She describes election night in 2008, when her husband, seemingly so confident, watched on television, and how her mother reached out and patted his shoulder.
Mrs. Obama describes how much she already admired Laura Bush from afar, for her poise and advocacy of books. During the transition, she quickly came to like Mrs. Bush’s husband, and has often been photographed hugging and laughing with him.
She describes life in the White House, how close the family – including her mom -- felt to the mostly-black staff, and how much she relied on advisors to help with her interest in nutrition and gardening and with her wardrobe.
She praises the President as a loyal husband and father. I know this is true because a journalist friend of mine, who often traveled on the Presidential plane, told me how day trips were planned to get the entourage back to Washington in time for the Obamas’ 6 PM supper in the White House.
How Michelle Obama really felt about being a White House wife comes out in one of the most charming anecdotes in the book: On the evening of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage, large crowds celebrated in front of the White House. Michelle and her older daughter, Malia, made a break for it, rushing past their guardians, finding an exit to a quiet corner of the garden, just to feel and hear the jubilant crowd. For a few minutes, they beat the system.
There are many sweet memories in this book (written with the help of a talented journalist, Sara Corbett): the entire family meeting an elderly Nelson Mandela in his home, and feeling so comfortable with Queen Elizabeth, who motions for Michelle to sit next to her, referring to palace protocol as “rubbish.”
The book includes gracious mentions of all the people who helped her, and minimal references to the candidate who tried to portray her husband as an illegal alien. I would have liked to hear what Michelle Obama really thinks of that man, but the Obamas live by smart lawyerly aphorisms:
“Don’t do stupid stuff.” And “When they go low, we go high.”
In its high-minded way, Michelle Obama’s book reminds me that this family has earned its independence, mostly out of the spotlight.
We were lucky to have them.
Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of the Chicago White Sox’ winning the seventh game of the 1919 World Series.
Ordinarily, winning the seventh game of the Series is the epic triumph, but for a couple of reasons that victory is not being celebrated, anywhere.
1 – In 1919, baseball saw fit to demand five victories rather than the standard four to win the Series, so the owners could make more money out of the underpaid players. In fact, the Sox were trailing, 4 games to 3 at that point.
2 -- Some of the White Sox were doing their level best to lose the Series, for paltry bribes from gamblers. They promptly lost the eighth and final game.
When uncovered, this became the great scandal of baseball – at least until players began using body-building drugs a generation ago, and top officials studiously overlooked the bulging biceps and massive necks of many players.
The 1919 White Sox were soon known as the Black Sox, after eight of them, with varying degrees of guilt, were banned for life by a hangin’ judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The Black Sox mostly vanished, only to be studied in 1963 in a fine book by Eliot Asinof called “Eight Men Out.” The book was the source for one of my favorite sports movies, also “Eight Men Out,” written and produced by John Sayles in 1988.
Every spring, just before opening day, I watch the movie – not so much for the venality of most participants but also for the humanity of a few players in the scandal. John Sayles knows how to make the spectator feel.
He depicts Buck Weaver, the third baseman, as knowing about the scandal but refusing to take money or limit his efforts. Weaver’s silence would be punished as much as if he were fumbling grounders and striking out on purpose.
(If a director wants to create a sympathetic character, there is no better way than to cast John Cusack, which Sayles did. Weaver/Cusack is kind to a newsboy in his neighborhood who worships him, and then has to confront his idol’s banishment. Tears all around.)
Another sympathetic figure is Ed Cicotte, the aging right-hander who has been promised a bonus if he wins 30 – get this, 30 – games by the penurious owner, Charles Comiskey. When Cicotte, with a sore arm, wins only 29, the owner welshes on the promises.
(Again, Sayles stacks the emotional deck by casting his college pal, David Strathairn, whose aching arm is rubbed by his loving wife. Tears for everyone.)
The movie – more than the book – is an age-old treatment of the callous rich cheating the workers, gamblers exploiting the proletariat.
It’s hard to think along class lines these days, when players make millions of dollars per season, and instead of overlooking the alteration of the body by drugs, the leaders of baseball juice up the ball itself.
My favorite part of the movie comes when the eight players realize the gamblers are cheating them, and even the hard-core dumpers decide to take a little October frolic by…why, yes….playing baseball.
The sunlight brightens and the Dixieland band accelerates and the players pitch and hit and field like the great team Charles Comiskey assembled.
I love watching this cinematic tribute to the game itself – players making the double play, smacking home runs, striking out the opposing Reds, like little kids, not plotters.
Perhaps the most innocent of all is the pitcher, Dickey Kerr, 26 and unapproachable, who won the third and sixth game. In later years, this very same Dickey Kerr would manage the Cardinals’ farm team in Florida, and would convert a sore-armed left-hander named Stan Musial into an outfielder because the lad could hit a bit.
(The movie doesn’t say so, but the Kerrs would be godparents to the Musials’ first child, who would be named Richard, and the Musials would help the Kerrs buy a house in their old age.)
One hundred years ago Tuesday, Ed Cicotte, sore arm and all, pitched a complete game and won.
The gamblers apparently reminded lefty Claude Williams to make nice, and he obediently lost the eighth and final game. A year or so later, all eight were out of baseball.
In the centennial season, the scandal seems to have received minimal attention – a SABR research conference in Chicago in late September, some articles in Chicago, often about whether justice was done for the great Shoeless Joe Jackson, who played quite well in the series but was banished anyway.
Baseball soon had a tighter-wound ball and Babe Ruth “saved” the game with his home runs well into the 30’s.
The moral to the story: when in trouble, tighten up the ball.
* * *
2019; symposium from that great asset, SABR:
With a dollop of guilt, I read about the plague of layoffs at Sports Illustrated.
After all, I dropped my subscription shortly after retiring as a sports columnist at the Times, nearly eight years ago. I no longer needed to keep up with most of the sports; I needed time to read other things. So it’s hard to level blame at the decline of a giant that meant so much to generations of fans and readers.
It’s a sign of the times. I have seen very good newspapers decline or disappear. No sense going over the list. Apparently, the economy does not support the printed word you can hold in your hand and read without having advertisements and other diversions slither into your vision.
Thank goodness the NYT and Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and others keep up the staffs and budgets and the standards to keep track of the scoundrels in our midst.
But Sports Illustrated – once a plush weekly with talent and swagger plus the budget to back them up – has now been sold to something called a digital platform company.
As a young newspaper reporter, I appreciated the writing style -- and space -- that went far beyond the daily accounts in the papers. Stars like Dan Jenkins and Robert Creamer in the early years, Neil Leifer with his camera, always in position, and then young stars like Frank Deford and Gary Smith. It took time to read their articles. These were no tweets, no muscle-twitch fire-the-bum impulses from the Blogosophere.
If I had to pick one article that stood for all the expertise and talent (and space, and money) of Sports Illustrated, I would choose the ode to Secretariat written by my friend Bill (William in his byline) Nack, upon the putting down of the great champion in October of 1989. (As it happened, I had petted Secretariat on his swayed back in May, had felt the earth tremble when he moved. )
Bill loved the big red horse, loved the Bluegrass milieu, and he cried when he got the phone call he had been dreading. Later, Bill went through the self-torture of writing he felt every time, only worse this time. But SI had space, and patience, and when Nack was done, there was the article, the masterpiece.
But Nack was not alone. Like a Secretariat of magazines, Sports Illustrated raced through more decades of stories and stars: Tim Layden with his versatility, Steve Rushin with his columns, Michael Farber on hockey, Tom Verducci with baseball, Grant Wahl treating soccer seriously, Doctor Z -- Paul Zimmernan - with pro football. So many more I could, should, mention.
(Plus, I should note, before SI, there was the great Sport Magazine, RIP, edited for over a decade by my friend Al Silverman, who passed recently. Sport was doing long-form articles long before SI did.)
Then the model began to show its age. Advertisements declined. Attention span declined. People were slinging opinions over the Web. Instant gratification. I’m old. I don’t know 99 percent of what goes on out there in the Web. I get the New Yorker in print form every week, and peruse it ceremoniously, and The New York Times arrives in my driveway every morning, plus its magnificent website, and if I want to find out what my Mets did in the past 24 hours I consult Newsday (paid) or the New York Post (on line.)
Plus hard-covered books, all over our house, plus magazine articles friends send me. More than enough to read. Hence, my tremor of guilt about the imperilment of Sports Illustrated.
Then I read about good people, whom I knew when they were youngsters just breaking in, like Chris Stone, the editor-in-chief, who just got fired by the “digital platform,” whatever that is.
Bill Nack cried over Secretariat. I just shake my head and write this piece…and put it out there…on line.
Thanks, Sports Illustrated, for all the great articles over the years.
* * *
Bill Nack's masterpiece on the death of Secretariat, standing in for all the glorious long pieces in SI:
NYT article on the talent massacre at SI:
A list of great writers at SI:
The time I petted Secretariat, courtesy of a friend:
Can a season be satisfying if your team doesn’t make the playoffs?
Anybody in uniform will say no, particularly on the last day of the season, when athletes are shedding that uniform for the last time until “next year” – if “next year” ever comes, athletically.
But fans can afford to remember the good times, even as they wish there had been more of them.
My team is going home after Sunday but I will take away memories of Dominic Smith's three-run homer that ended the season with a 7-6 victory in the 11th inning over the Braves, who are going to the post-season.
There were so many moments like this -- Jacob deGrom’s superlative pitching (with shockingly minimal support) and Pete Alonso’s 53rd homer Saturday evening, giving him the most ever by a rookie.
Smith's homer was the perfect way to end a season -- make 'em scream for more. He had missed two months with a foot injury, and spent his time tootling around on a scooter, to take the weight off the mending foot. He was the perfect teammate -- cheering for his mates, including his pal Alonso, who took away Smith's platoon time at first base.
But my biggest cumulative thrill this season was watching Jeff McNeil prove himself as a high-end hitter, despite the mental barricades from the analytics nerds in baseball these days.
Jeff McNeil’s wrist was broken by a pitch Wednesday night, as the Mets were eliminated from the race. .
The wrist will heal, and McNeil has made this a memorable season, in its own bittersweet way.
McNeil finished with 23 homers and a .318 average – and was hit by 21 pitches. With his perfectionism and tossed equipment and grimaces and a major league red ass, he was a latter-day Ron Hunt, an escapee from the minors.
McNeil is a throwback to hitters who hated striking out, who took what the pitcher gave them, and put the ball somewhere. The Mets brain trust was throwing out suggestions that McNeil did not have the proper “launch arc” to be a slugger in these days of the souped-up ball and televised hysteria when sluggers swat the ball over the fence or skip back to the dugout after striking out.
McNeil also played four different positions, switching virtually inning by inning.
The fact is, McNeil might never had gotten a real chance with the Mets if Yoenis Céspedes and Jed Lowrie had been healthy enough to play this season. He might be in the minors, or on some other team. Instead, he put bat to ball, and showed up the stat doofs.
Day after day, the little triangular Jeff McNeil Fan Club was buzzing on my phone – Jerry, my pal who played infield in the minors, saw McNeil as an alter ego, texting me after the latest opposite-field hit or daredevil catch in the corner. Somebody named Dave would text me with similar raves.
Mets fans – like fans everywhere – will look for reasons their team did not make the playoffs. The Mets have one major reason: the bullpen blew 27 saves, three below the league leaders, the Dodgers, who won their division, for goodness’ sakes.
The Mets’ major scapegoat is Edwin Diaz, who has blown seven saves and had a 2-7 won-loss record, although somehow it seems much worse. I cannot summon up any malice toward him. He stunk.
Are they going to bring back Diaz next year? The real question is whether they going to bring back Mickey Callaway, who stayed with Diaz too long, and the reforming agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, who has been taking on-the-job training as general manager? I don’t want to think about it right now.
As a pensioner-geezer, who spent a lot of time watching the Mets, I had misgivings about Robinson Canó but he came back from injuries and was clearly an Asdrubal Cabrera-like leader. Ahmed Rosario improved more than I thought he would. Michael Conforto was earnest and powerful. I liked watching Dominic Smith and Marcus Stroman lead cheers from the top step of the dugout. Wilson Ramos was a liabilty as a catcher but he hit well. Brandon Nimmo still raised his finger to heaven whenever he earned a walk. Seth Lugo was solid in the bullpen.
Right now, there is no next year. Thanks to those Mets who made this year enjoyable, if not often enough.
* * *
(My concept of “wait til next year” comes from the old Brooklyn Dodger annual motto. I remember a sermon by Red Barber, the Brooklyn Dodgers preacher-broadcaster, on the last day of 1950, when I was a tyke. The Dodgers had hoped to tie the Phillies, but Dick Sisler hit a 3-run homer in the 10th and ended the season for The Bums. Barber, on the radio, talked fans like me out of deep mourning by reminding us that you can’t win ‘em all. How did that work out? The next year, the Dodgers’ season was ended by Bobby Thomson of the Giants, in the classic final playoff game.)
* * *
(Let’s give Major League Baseball some respect for the most restricted playoffs – MLB calls it “the post-season” – of any major pro league in North America. The WNBA allows 67% of its teams into the playoffs. The NBA and NHL democratically admit 53%, MLS 52%, and the NFL us 38%
But MLB is a relatively exclusive 33% -- 10 of 30 teams, with two wild-card spots in both leagues keeping marginal teams like the Mets in the hunt until the final Wednesday, making for tense games in September.)
Johnny Cash and June Carter were making out on stage.
They were preparing for an awards show in Nashville, enduring the long waits that are part of any rehearsal. What better way to pass the time?
This was in the mid-‘70s, and they were already an old married couple, but they seemed like teen-agers falling in love.
My wife happened to catch the eye of Ann Murray, the great Canadian singer, who was sitting nearby in an empty row. They both raised their eyebrows – but affectionately -- as if to say, “Get a room.”
I was thinking of this Sunday night during the latest episode of “Country Music,” the ongoing series from Ken Burns. The documentary may be a bit pat about racial and class divides and too formulaic about the terrible stresses of the ‘60s, but Burns has captured some of the personal statements of hope and change.
Sunday’s two hours focused on the mid-‘60s, as a time of change, not only in country music but at lunch counters and marches in the South and campuses and towns all over America.
Country music’s changes included Loretta Lynn’s song “The Pill,” banned for a while by some chicken radio stations, and Charlie Pride’s acceptance as a black star who sounded white. The series says that Loretta was the presenter for the top male award in country music, and was told to keep her distance if Pride were the winner. However, when they met on stage, she moved forward and gave him a hug and a kiss.
Part Cherokee, Loretta was not going to let people tell her what to do in matters of race and color (or anything.)
In her book, Loretta says it happened in 1972 when she won the Entertainer of the Year Award. “People warned me not to kiss Charley in case I won, because it would hurt my popularity with country fans. I heard that one girl singer got canceled out Down South after giving a little peck to a black friend on television. Well, Charley Pride is one of my favorite people in country music, and I got so mad that when I won I made sure I gave him a big old hug and a kiss right on camera. You know what? Nobody canceled on me. If they had, fine. I’d have gone home to my babies and canned some string beans and the heck with them all.” – “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” by Loretta Lynn, with George Vecsey.
Other examples of ‘60s change were Dolly Parton, with her songs and her brains and her looks, willing herself up from East Tennessee poverty, and Merle Haggard, with his Warren Beatty looks and Bakersfield twang, overcoming his time in prison.
The most compelling figure in Sunday’s episode was Johnny Cash, with his childhood of deprivation from money and love, discovering his talent, and his feel for injustice. In the’60s, while males in Nashville were wearing Nudie’s of Hollywood peacock outfits, Cash wore only black, to show support for the underdogs, but the color was also an expression of his moods.
The series shows Cash blowing up his marriage for his passion for June Carter, but also getting deep into drugs. One live sequence shows him fidgeting at a recording session, twisting and turning, grimacing, removing his shoes, just out of his mind.
In one live performance, Mother Maybelle Carter, singing backup, watches him warily, knowing that at any moment she and her daughters might have to scrape him up off the floor. That segment ought to be an advertisement for just about any human on legal alcohol or illegal ”recreational” or or the pain-killers doctors and big pharma push on people.
Cash was zonked. Burns did not cite the song that Nick Lowe, Cash’s son-in-law at the time, wrote about Cash, who fine-tuned it into a standard: “The Beast in Me.”
….the beast in me
That everybody knows
They've seen him out dressed in my clothes
If it's New York or New Year
God help the beast in me…
When I was working on Barbara Mandrell’s book, she told how as a precocious teen-ager she traveled with the Cash entourage, and was treated respectfully, but she also recalled Cash in a diner, nervously picking the stuffing out of a Naugahyde booth, just a bundle of nerves.
The Sunday episode stressed personal revival, finishing in Folsom Prison, where Cash recorded his epic album, cracking jokes that the inmates got. He never had a better audience. There is a touching moment at the end where he performs a song written by one of the prisoners, and shakes his hand.
I will vouch for the feeling Cash gave of a transformed – saved -- man, after he sought help for his addictions. In 1973, I interviewed him and June Carter in New York, upon the opening of a movie they had made about the life and death of Christ. He was calm, reflective, and they were deeply in love.
Johnny Cash still wore black.
Having met him a few times, I am sure he would be wearing it today.
The back story to “The Beast in Me:”
My other memory of that rehearsal at the new theme park in the mid-‘70s, after the Opry had deserted its spiritual home, the Ryman Auditorium: Mooney Lynn (Loretta’s husband and my pal) and Roy Clark, the sweet-voiced troubadour, partaking of the upscale snacks, praising the hot and flaky hors d'oeuvre, which they lustily praised as “egg pie.” Quiche, that is. (They knew that. This is why I love country.)
This was the summer of 1954, and Hank Williams had been dead for a year and a half – dying in a moving car in a snowstorm in West Virginia on New Year’s Eve. But we didn’t necessarily know that. We just knew he was a voice, a plaintive voice, on the jukebox.
The diner was in a hamlet called North Creek in upstate New York. I was staying a month with people who were (are) like family to me. Many evenings after supper, Jimmy, who was six days younger than me (that’s how our mothers met) and I would hitch-hike the 7.7 miles to the Red Diner. We were 15.
The diner had a corner with, as I recall, a pinball machine, and guys could drink a beer and play the jukebox. I was a city kid – no doubt made that point way too often – and my main connection with “country” or “western” or “hillbilly” music was from Gene Autry records and seeing him in the rodeo in Madison Square Garden.
Hank Williams was no Gene Autry. He was a phenomenon unto himself – wailing and courting, letting it all out, six plays for a quarter, as I recall. “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Jambalaya,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
It was an education for this city kid, and the education goes on, in the PBS series that is pulling me to the tube, two hours every night, all this week. It is about America – hard times, nasty times, lynchings and injustices but also the contribution of African-Americans to the swath of American music. I learn something every minute – the old icons I saw at the Ryman in the 70’s and 80’s, long after they were young and hungry and immensely creative.
I heard them first on the jukebox in the Red Diner in North Creek – Webb Pierce, Hank Thompson, Eddie Arnold, Pee Wee King (later my Louisville neighbor), Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb.
There was also a woman’s voice, as piercing as Hank Williams’, cutting into the noise in the Red Diner. Her song was a reply to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life,” which blames women for leading us poor men astray. Miss Kitty Wells was having none of it. She, too, borrowed an old Carter Family tune, and she lectured the men: “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”
In the smoky, noisy corner of the Red Diner, we were getting a dose of feminism, although we hardly knew that.
Her song had been banned on some chicken networks, fearful of offending (male) listeners and (male) sponsors, but I never heard any of the farmhands in their clean boots and jeans, or the townies, or teen-agers like me, debate Miss Kitty’s point. Lady had a point.
After our hour or two in the Red Diner, we got out into the cool night air, crossed the street into the woods to pee into the Hudson River and then point our thumbs homeward.
The PBS series makes me think about the jukebox in the Red Diner. As of Tuesday, the series was up to 1953.
No Patsy Cline, no Loretta Lynn, no Dolly Parton, no Emmylou Harris, no Lucinda Williams, no Iris DeMent. Not yet. Kitty Wells passed in 2012, at the age of 91. She was there first.
* * *
Bio of Kitty Wells:
Just in case you missed it, there is a marvelous series on PBS this week called “Country Music.”
I watched the first two-hour installment Sunday night instead of the Mets and Dodgers, which says a lot. (Okay, I peeked at the score periodically on my cellphone.)
The educator Jacques Barzun is remembered for writing, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball….”
I would add country music to that observation. It has been there, the rhythms and words of the complicated American heart – particularly by the expanded definition and parameters submitted by Ken Burns, the producer of the 16-hour series.
“Country Music” is lavishly arranged for the next full week on PBS (two hours, repeated the next two hours, at least on New York’s Channel 13.)
Burns and Dayton Duncan, the writer, have expanded the definition of country music way beyond the sequins-and-overalls very-white image to a more inclusive version that pays homage to black/gospel/race/soul music. Burns and Duncan consciously blur the lines, showing copious footage of black churches, black performers and black fans, sometimes mingling with whites far more openly than I would have imagined.
My time as Appalachian correspondent for the Times, later helping Loretta Lynn and Barbara Mandrell write their books, gave me marvelous access from the wings of the Grand Ol’ Opry and on the buses and concerts and other good stuff. I did not see much of a black audience, but Burns and Duncan have the footage and sound tracks to include blacks – plus, Elvis Presley, bless his dead heart, always acknowledged his overt inspirations from southern soul music.
But country music is, ultimately, built on the strains and the sentiments straight from the British Isles (and the complicated heritages there.) I have always maintained that when the brilliant Dolly Parton opens her sensual mouth and lets the thoughts and the music flow, she is in touch with hardy people who emerged from the hills of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, who had the courage to get on a boat and sail across the ocean – often to escape back into the hills of that new world. Dolly, for all her glitz, is a medium.
The women – Kathy Mattea, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash and Rhiannon Giddens, lead singer of the old-timey Carolina Chocolate Drops – carry the first segment.
The series opens with Mattea (you should know her work) describing her arrival in Nashville from West Virginia, at 17, too young to perform, but able to work as a guide in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Lovingly, she points at the Thomas Hart Benton painting, “The Sources of Country Music,” as compelling the best museum docent you ever heard.
The first segment, and I can only assume the entire series, has the same high level. This is serious stuff about America, about us.
What did I learn? I had no idea Jimmie Rodgers, “The Singing Brakeman,” was as widely popular as he was from 1927 to 1933, when he was cut down by equal parts hard living and tuberculosis. I thought he was more of a regional phenomenon.
Rodgers lived the music he sang, and sold tons of records (for Joe Biden’s record player, and the old Veep is not alone.) Rodgers made his last record in New York City, propped up by shots of whiskey between takes. There is a poignant photo of Rodgers on a lounge at Coney Island, enjoying the sun, a day or two before he died, at 35.
Then came the special train ride home, the old railroad hand heading back to Mississippi. The documentary should have ended with the Iris DeMent version of the Greg Brown song, “The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home,” with DeMent’s voice a mournful train whistle cutting through the southern night. But that’s just me, an Iris groupie.
The first segment includes DeFord Bailey, a black harmonica player, an early staple on the Opry, and Ralph Peer, who turned country music into a lucrative industry, and the Carter family (I got to see Mother Maybelle perform in her later years), plus commentary from Charlie Pride and Wynton Marsalis, as well as Merle Haggard and Mel Tillis, both interviewed before their deaths, in the past few years.
The second installment, Monday night, will focus on the Depression, using the Stephen Foster dirge, “Hard Times,” for its title.
The Mets will be playing in Colorado, trying to hold on, but I will be watching “Country Music.”
That about says it.
The memories begin with what the World Trade Center meant to people.
My friend John McDermott, master photographer, was working on a book in September of 2000, about the 10 most significant people in U.S. soccer in the 1990's.
"One of those was German-born Thomas Dooley, son of a U.S. soldier and a German mother and Captain of the US National Team," McDermott wrote me on Wednesday. "Thomas was already a friend, and someone I admired a lot. So for us it was also a chance to catch up and spend a fun day together. I had the idea to make the portrait about 'Thomas Dooley’s American Dream.' His story is actually pretty incredible, but for another day. I had bought an American flag and convinced him that we could do something memorable with him and the Manhattan skyline. He embraced the idea and the result you see here. It’s one of my favorite portaits.
"A year later, on September 11th, our lives changed forever.," McDermott continued. "And I thought back to the day I had spent with Thomas. The morning of September 12th my phone rang. It was Thomas. He wanted to tell me how much that picture now meant to him, that he had always liked it, but that now it had special meaning for him. We talked for a long time and, as I recall, probably also shed a few tears over what had happened. And we remembered that beautiful, warm and sunny day a year earlier. My September 11th memory...Never forget."
Grazie, John, for pointing out what those buildings meant, at the tip of the glittering island. I had forgotten that my family held a retirement lunch for my dad in the sky-high restaurant. And I had forgotten that I took two French friends, grandmother and grandson, Simone and David, for a drink one evening with a view of the harbor. The World Trade Center meant New York, meant America, meant a place of hope, like the lady in the harbor.
And that brings me to my first version, published on Wednesday:
In August of 2001, I covered a rehab start by El Duque Hernandez in Staten Island. On the ferry back, I chatted with some visitors from Spain and asked what they were doing next. They pointed at two giant buildings glowing into the night, at the tip of Manhattan.
“Es para turistas,” I said with a smile, about the newcomers on our skyline.
“Somos turistas,” one man said with a smile, giving it back.
* * *
I think about it every year. Our son was working in a newsroom in Atlanta and called us just before 9 AM.
Don’t go into the city, he told me. A plane had hit the World Trade Center.
We discussed whether it was big or small, while I flicked on the television.
Within a few minutes, I saw a blip across the sky, and we knew it was no accident.
* * *
There was news of a hijacked plane, missing over Pennsylvania. My wife and I thought of our first grand-child near the Susquehanna, and we quivered in fear. When we heard the plane had gone down further west, we felt horror and, I admit, relief.
* * *
After gaping at the tube, I called the office. Mr. Bill and I agreed that there was nothing a sports column could say that day. Life would go on? Save that for a day or seven. Safe in the suburbs, I watched, wondering who I knew worked down there.
* * *
As it turns out, there were connections -- tragic and escapes. A man one of my relatives had baby-sat for, decades earlier. The sister of a colleague, who stayed in her upper-floor office to be with a friend, who used a wheelchair. People in neighboring towns, whose cars remained in railroad parking lots, mute memorials to their vanished drivers. A relative had dropped her laundry at the cleaners in the World Trade Center, and walked home. A friend voted in a primary and was late for work downtown. A journalist friend was supposed to catch one of those flights but after two hectic weeks at the US Open, she chose to sleep in.
Soon we got to know thousands who were there, and are still there.
* * *
Having covered police and fire officers as a news reporter, I knew what they did, rushing into danger, the opposite way of the crowds.
I had written about cop funerals, firefighter funerals, and now there would be hundreds.
* * *
Two days later, the winds picked up. I went out for the morning paper and our cars were covered with gray ash, a dismal snowfall, 25 miles from Ground Zero. The air was vicious.
* * *
I received e-mails from friends all over the world: Japan, Mexico, Europe, Australia, wanting to know if we were all right. Nowadays, when earthquakes or floods or fires or massacres strike, I write to Osaka or Mexico City or Paris because I remember.
* * *
My work resumed. I wrote about the impact sports have made in wartime, national-tragedy time – how sport can be a diversion, a statement, a rallying point. It was hard to type these words, but I had to believe that life would resume.
* * *
I went out to lunch with my friend Logan in midtown. Food tasted good, people were dressed, but the mood was somber. People told us about what they had seen from office windows, apartments, rooftops. Every bite, every word, was like play-acting.
* * *
That night, I wanted to see. I took the subway downtown and used my police press card to get inside the first security barrier, but was stopped at the real barricade, as well I should have been. I watched the scene from hell, as people and machines labored in the smoke and the shadows. After 15 minutes, I realized my throat was scratchy and I felt sick. I bought a cup of black coffee just to clear the taste in my mouth, and took the subway back uptown, in terror. In the subway car, every suitcase, every gym bag, was a potential bomb.
* * *
In those days, federal and city officials assured everybody, including the cleanup workers, that the air was perfectly safe. These wilful ignoramuses were like doctors back in Appalachia, who told the miners, “Hell, son, that coal dust will cure the common cold.”
* * *
I was assigned to cover the first ball game back, the Mets at Pittsburgh. We were not ready to fly, so we drove due west. The September air was crisp and clear. I love that ball park at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela, with the Roberto Clemente Bridge and the view of downtown, but I was in terror as I worked. Every noise made me jerk my head skyward, expecting to see a rogue airplane, a monstrous blip.
* * *
I think about those who were captives, and those who ran to danger.
My experiences and reflections seem peripheral, then and now.
She is a latter-day version of the Pietà – a stricken child, held by her mother.
Yet the expression on her face seemed too mature for an infant.
This was the riddle of Maria Isabel Bueso, when her pictures first appeared.
The babe in arms is actually 24, ravaged by a rare condition that will kill her if she is taken off treatment. She is also a summa cum laude college graduate who teaches dancing to other afflicted students, and actively participates in research into her condition, to help others.
When the public encountered this cherubic-looking activist, she became the prime example of undocumented people whose lives are being prolonged by American medicine and compassion -- a throwback to when Americans felt they were the good guys, when we cared for The Other.
However, the so-called “Administration,” with its dead eyes and presumably similar souls, had decreed that these foreigners, these free-loaders, all surely rapists and robbers, had to go.
Pull out the plugs, cut all the tubes. Never mind that Maria Isabel Bueso had been invited from Guatemala at the age of 7 to participate in this program in the California Bay Area, and was here, dare we say it, legally.
The heartless ones had not counted on a young survivor, with unique credentials, catching the attention of this divided nation.
Somebody explained to the President, the bloated old man with the permanent look of a spoiled child, with his millions of followers, that condemning this young scholar and medical volunteer to death would be bad publicity that could get in the way of all the other plots he has in mind.
After a few days, the “Administration” decreed that medical patients like Maria Isabel Bueso could stay – at least until the government thinks of something else.
Or, nobody is looking.
* * *
When compassion and common sense intervened:
Part of it is the tennis, of course. But I will admit, the high point of the U.S. Open these days, for me, is getting to see old friends and familiar faces, from decades of Opens and Wimbledons.
Tennis is a traveling circus, quite unlike any other sport -- writers, commentators, experts, former players, coaches, business types, publicists and officials who pop up in sunny places from Melbourne to Monaco to Miami, kaleidoscopic yet permanent. (There was Virginia Wade, 1977 Wimbledon champion, with Queen Elizabeth II in attendance, looking as brisk as she did rushing the net, on her way, presumably to a BBC assignment.)
I go to Flushing Meadows to see my friends, the ones who have survived the shrinking of the print-media corps. Some in this international rat pack seem to have been here forever –like Ubaldo Scanagatta from Florence, Italy, who files for three Italian papers and provides expertise on TV and radio on his site, Ubitennis.com. (In four languages.)
Ubaldo – who turns 70 on Saturday -- knows how to live. On his annual fortnight in New York, he comes prepared with familiar food -- grated cheese (Colla Parmigiano Reggiano), olive oil (Esselunga Extra Virgin) and Rigamonti Bresaola, which is described online as “air-dried, salted beef that has been aged two or three months until it becomes hard and turns a dark red, almost purple color. It is made from top round, and is lean and tender, with a sweet, musty smell. It originated in Valtellina, a valley in the Alps of northern Italy's Lombardy region.”
Even in these barbarian parts of the New World, it might perhaps be possible to find such Parmesan and Olive Oil and Bresaola, but Ubaldo takes no chances. He deigns eating with plastic, and therefore carries a real fork and a real knife in his kit, and when Italian players are not keeping him busy il mangia bene.
One of the highlights of my journalistic career was before the Monday final in 2009, when Ubaldo invited a few American amici sportivi to the dining room, where he broke out the Parmesan, the Extra Virgin and the Bresaola.
On Thursday I spotted Ubaldo in the Italian corner of the media writing room and I thought of other compatrioti famosi – Rino Tommasi, who analyzed the daily matchups on the Open programs for many decades, and Gianni Clerici, the squire of Lake Como, former amateur player (including Wimbledon, 1953), novelist, expert, with a waspish humor on and off the air. Clerici bestowed Italian heritage on Bud Collins, re-naming him “Collini.” But alas, Gianni does not come around anymore at 89, and neither does Rino at 85, and Bud passed in 2016. (The Media Center is named for him.)
Many of my American friends are still typing and talking. A few days ago, I sat with tennis high priests Steve Flink and Joel Drucker during a match in Ashe Stadium, and also caught up with Johnette Howard, John Jeansonne, Wayne Coffey, Jeff Williams, Helene Elliott, Bob Greene, Anne Liguori, Chuck Culpepper, Andre Christopher and my tennis pal Cindy Shmerler.
Three more were hanging together in the media center: NYT international reporter Chris Clarey, retired NYT columnist (but still active) Harvey Araton and Adam Zagoria, New York sports expert who writes for the NYT on occasion. Nice guy that he is, Adam took a photo of the three of us.
For all the camaraderie, there is an air of nostalgia to the Bud Collins Media Center. A decade ago, the place bustled from morning to post-midnight with dozens and dozens of tennis writers from major cities – Boston, Miami, Denver, Orlando, Dallas, and on and on. There was a clatter of writers who were competitors but also friends – Robin Finn of the NYT provided a stash of Twizzlers (and really nasty nicknames for tennis stars.) Alas, falling circulation and earlier deadlines and changing Web priorities have cut back on the banter and the community.
The tennis endures. On Thursday, I watched in the lower press area of Arthur Ashe Stadium, as sixth-seeded Alexander Zverev of Germany matched his power and height against the mixture of power and drop shots of Frances Tiafoe, an American born in Sierra Leone.
On a sleepy, sunny, pre-holiday afternoon, the predominantly American crowd urged Tiafoe as he befuddled Zverev in the second and fourth sets, but ultimately Zverev prevailed, 6-3, in the fifth.
The fans surged out into the midway in search of refreshment or more tennis on the back courts. I went back to the Media Center to schmooze.
The present is superimposed over the past.
The U.S. Open began Monday by doing the right thing. A statue of Althea Gibson, pioneer and champion, was unveiled at the National Tennis Center, where she never played, at least competitively.
Billie Jean King, Zina Garrison, Leslie Allen, Katrina Adams and Angela Buxton, Gibson's old doubles partner, all spoke of how Buxton was first.
The statue, by Eric Goulder, is striking, as was Althea Gibson.
Buxton, 85 and in a wheelchair, flew from London to recall how she bonded with Gibson on a pioneering mixed tennis trip to India and other countries.
This belated honor to the first African-American player to play -- and win -- the "national" tournament is a prime example that this grand New York event is never only about these few weeks. The Open is about continuity.
For all the crass, hard edges to the contemporary Open, there is still a faint whiff of gentility from the old Nationals in Forest Hills. Maybe it was the grass and the clubby atmosphere that mellowed people out.
While tennis patrons this year are eager to catch a glimpse of Cori Gauff, age 15, to see if she just might be “the next” Naomi Osaka, or “the next” Sloane Stephens, the old champions still grace this event, in person or in perpetuity. I think of them every year as I visit the Open.
I was reminded of Gibson this past week when Art Seitz, long-time tennis photographer from Florida, sent photos of Gibson that he had taken over the years. Seitz said he often met Gibson and found her to be friendly within the tennis circle, particularly to the young players, as tennis evolved to the age of King to Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf and Venus Williams and Serena Williams and so many others.
The old champions are part of the Open, and so is the old site -- Forest Hills from 1915 through 1977. As a Queens kid of 10 or 11, I started taking the IND subway to 71st St/Continental Ave., walking to the little oasis of the West Side Tennis Club.
The place was so tiny, so intimate, that you could literally rub shoulders with players as they tried, politely of course, to reach their grass court for a match.
As a Brooklyn Dodger/Jackie Robinson fan, I was eager for glimpses of Althea Gibson, the first African-American to play in the “national” tournament.
She made her debut in 1950 and did not last long those first few years, but her athleticism and drive were obvious. She reached the finals in 1956 and won it in 1957 and 1958, after which she retired from tennis so she could make some money, as incongruous as that sounds today.
Gibson played professional golf and I think I saw her play as part of the Harlem Globetrotters tour that came to New York every March.
But money never reached Althea Gibson as tennis became big business, and old stars often returned to add their luster to the event. As a columnist who covered the Open and often Wimbledon, too, I was never aware of Gibson giving a press conference or showing up for big-bucks from sponsors and patrons.
Except to get Gibson's autograph a time or two on the crowded walkways of the West Side Tennis Club, to my regret, I never met her.
The best reflection of Gibson on Monday came from Buxton, a British player in the '40s and '50s, who had eagerly played doubles with Gibson, winning the 1956 Wimbledon doubles. Buxton said that as a Jew she was also somewhat of an outsider in those years.
Buxton told the crowd at the unveiling how her family in London was host to Gibson when she played Wimbledon, and how Buxton's mother introduced the two players as "my daughters."
In recent decades, Buxton would come around and chat with reporters, with obvious affection and a sense of mission about her friend Althea. In 2003, she told a reporter that Gibson was "tall and lanky and rather like Venus Williams.” Gibson was said to wish the Williams sisters, as great as they are, would rush the net more, but that is contemporary tennis.
articIn later years, Gibson was ill, at home in New Jersey. She passed in 2003.
The city of Newark has put a statue of Gibson in a park, and now the USTA, through the of efforts of Katrina Adams, a former player and recently the president of the USTA.
The talent and will of Althea Gibson are part of the Open, reflected by the current players, most of them tall and agile, like Gibson. We follow the new stars, and Althea Gibson’s image is with us forever -- on the lawns of the sedate little club a few miles away in another corner of Queens.
* * *
Obit, NYT, 2003:
Current NYT article on the statue and how it got here:
A Florida reporter's perspective of Gibson:
Gibson and "the Nationals" and Queens:
The Facebook site for Art Seitz:
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: