Archive for the ‘The New York Mets’ Category

Extra Innings (And Jewish Farming)

July 9, 2012

The Longest Doubleheader in Baseball and Some Mets Firsts

Image

Back in the days of scheduled double-headers, some of the biggest draws in New York City baseball were the returns of the prodigal sons – the Dodgers and Giants, in town to face their still vastly inferior supposed reincarnation, the New York Mets.  Shea, the new stadium in Queens, probably saw its first record-breaking crowds when the California teams came to town. My dad and his friends, baby-boomers all, were just old enough to have developed attachments to the Giants and Dodgers before they left for the West Coast (my dad was almost always the lone Giants fan, the rest thoroughly Brooklyn and thoroughly Dodgers, but now all united under the hybrid orange and blue Mets; I am eternally grateful that I can claim Willie Mays as part of my baseball heritage). Between trying to develop an attachment to the new team and still holding on to the old one (or in the case of most Dodger fans, cultivating deep bitterness), they attended many of the California-teams vs. Mets series in the mid-late 60’s.

On May 31st, 1964, on their way back from the Chava**, Ricky (the Giants fan), Donnie, Woody and Joey, decided to go straight from Port Authority to Flushing for that Sunday’s double-header against the Giants. The Giants took the first game 5-3. After a couple hours’ break, the two teams resumed play, fresh pitchers on the mound but also lots of increasingly tired fielders and batters. Tied at 6 in the ninth inning, my dad decided it was well past time to head back home to Rockaway – still a junior at Far Rockaway high school, he had some non-Socialist-Zionist homework to attend to, and a mother who probably preferred to see him before she went to sleep. The long journey back took him on the #7 into the city to Times Square to catch the #2 Downtown all the way to the Junction, the last stop in Brooklyn, where he’d only arrive to wait for his last leg, the Q35 down Flatbush and over the bridge (now actually officially called The Gil Hodges Bridge, but no one calls it that, it’s still the Marine Parkway Bridge). For all those out there for whom Rockaway is recently in the cross-hairs, just remember this journey – those of us who grew up in Rock lived sooo far from the rest of the world. It was pretty, but god it was far.  Though now the pain comes on summer Sundays, when you have to leave Rockaway to return to the city. Funny how that happens.

After finally arriving in Rockaway, my dad ate dinner, did some studying for the Regents and then flicked on the TV to catch the game’s highlights on the 11PM news. The game was still on. This game, which finally ended in the 23rd inning, would be the Mets first extra-inning game at Shea and the longest doubleheader in history (the second game alone lasted 7 hours and 23 minutes).

Oh and the Mets did lose the second game too  (despite a pretty impressive triple play in the 14th) . Still only 1964, 1969 was a universe away, the mere 5 years belying the actual gulf between the Mets’ first years and their Miracle Mets Word Series victory in ‘69 .  After a recent 17 to 1 victory over the Cubs, Gary Cohen reminded the viewers of a favorite ’64 Mets legend.  Back then if you wanted to find out the score of a game after it ended and before the next day’s paper, your best bet would be the sportsdesk at the local paper. Only a few days before the May 31 double-header, the Mets very uncharacteristically routed the Cubs with a final score of 19 to 1. As the story goes, a fan called a local New York paper to get the score. When he was told they scored 19 runs he paused for a good few second before asking: Did they win?

** The Chava  (Hebrew for Farm) was a working farm in Hightstown, New Jersey, created in the early part of the century to prepare young socialist Zionists for their future life on a kibbutz. Among the many luminaries who supported the mission of the Chava and its ideological visions for Israel, was Albert Einstein, who lived and worked nearby in Princeton. Having declined the offer to become Israel’s first President (an honorary title mostly), Einstein was still very much invested in the new country’s future. Ricky, Woody, Donnie and Joey spent many weekeneds at the Chava throughout high school and after and would all, with the exception of Joey, eventually emigrate to Israel and live on Kibbutz Lahav.

Image

Advertisements

Soccer Snobs, or, Bobby Moore Would Not Approve

July 10, 2011

The ghost of Bobby Moore looms large over my family, our sort of patron saint of football.  He certainly haunts the world of English football, representing England at its absolute dominant best, and at the same time painfully reminding England that it will never measure up to that again while expectations that it will unfortunately still remain. Hopefully this will eventually fade away – loss of empire seems to still only irk the BNP; English football glory needs to likewise gracefully fade into bittersweet nostalgia and pride in a rich history, not feed into current expectations for the national team (though maybe the masochism is part of the charm; for an explanation why native English talent is now in short supply, check out Soccernomics).  But glorious it was, reaching its zenith in 1966, when the dynamic duo of Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst led the English side to victory when England hosted the World Cup. In the final match against Germany, perhaps one of the most memorable and amazing finals in sporting history, Geoff Hurst completed a hat-trick to bring home the cup.

But before the near-mythic victory of 1966, beginning in 1961, Bobby Moore & Geoff Hurst, along with the rest of the West Ham side, several English clubs such as Everton and Blackburn, and a few other domestic league clubs from around the world (amongst them: Kilmarnock from Scotland; Valenciennes, France; Dukla, Prague; Recife, Brazil and once even Petakh Tikvah from Israel), gathered annually for about 6 years, for a short international summer season at Randall’s Island.

My dad, aged 13, having just moved from Kingston, the small idyllic former NY capital up the Hudson, was now all of a sudden a city boy and quickly made use of this unprecedented sports bonanza New York had to offer.  Further confirmation that maybe New York was the center of the world? He grew up a devout New York Giants fan, but after they moved to San Francisco in 1957, they left a vacuum, especially in summer – a huge hole where a burning passion for Willie Mays used to be.  In stepped the golden boy Bobby Moore and West Ham United. Over the next few years, my dad, a natural athlete who excelled at baseball, basketball, (American) football and soccer, and a keen fan and observer of the sports he enjoyed, quickly absorbed the nuances of the Beautiful Game, especially the English game.  One summer, after watching a West Ham and Liverpool match, and incensed by the Liverpool defense, he felt compelled to write a letter to the leading English football magazine. Unfortunately, he signed with his real name and address and consequently got loads of hate mail from Liverpool supporters. One such letter began, “Dear Candy-Eating American.”

Add to the magic of Bobby Moore the fact that the East End of London, where West Ham plays, once boasted London’s first real Jewish community, and the incorporation of West Ham United into my dad’s sports consciousness was sealed.

A few years later, when he decided to leave New York for a kibbutz, he took the long route and traveled a bit through Europe. While in England, he had a choice of either visiting Wales the next day, or attending the first division season opener – West Ham vs. Tottenham at White Hart Lane. It was a no-brainer, and to this day he laughs when he recalls the chants by Spurs supporters of “Bobby Moore is a thief.” After the match, standing on the platform for his train to head home, he watched as dozens of fellow West Ham supporters promptly began to thoroughly destroy the train specially chartered for their ride back to the East End . Lovely.

Unfortunately, West Ham supporters, like other footy fans, not starting out with all that much class to begin with, have worked diligently to earn probably the worst reputation for hooliganism in the UK. A few years ago I remember watching a match against Spurs (which are considered the “Jewish” team since they are from North London, where most London Jews ended up when they could get the hell out of the East End) and West Ham receiving a fine because many of its supporters enthusiastically chanted, “I’d rather be a Paki than a Jew.” Classy stuff.

Recently I finally watched the Hollywood movie about West Ham fanaticism, Green Street Hooligans. I resisted it for a long time because Elijah Wood played the lead and the thought of Frodo as any kind of footy fan made me cringe. But he was kind of perfect, playing a geeky, American, Harvard drop-out, in London visiting his sister and  finding refuge with an especially rabid West Ham firm, its ring-leader played maybe too charmingly by Charlie Hunnam. You do have to suspend some disbelief while watching it to fully enjoy it – for instance I couldn’t tell whether their disdain for journalists (bloody journos!) had a basis in reality or was just a plot device, as in, if Frodo turned out to be one and infiltrated their ranks, it would have been worse than if he had been a narc. Much worse. However, after the News of the World fiasco, it is becoming easier and easier to fathom.

The movie ends with one of my favorite modern-day battle scenes and its harsh violence and tragic consequences are clearly heavy-handed morality tales, the story adapted from a book by a reformed hooligan who now devotes his life to ridding football of the scourge of football partisan violence. No matter, it’s still enjoyable.

Born into a family that takes sports and its history rather importantly, to put it mildly, relating to others through sports comes naturally. Especially when I have spent time abroad, football/soccer is a wonderful and natural lingua franca, and as a girl who knows about it, it’s almost been like a cool party trick – especially with all the Brits I seemed to encounter during my travels.  And for any real sports enthusiast, having a team with a genuine connection to makes the sport more fun and engaging.

My independently found love for the game (and the natural adoption of West Ham as an entryway into it) reignited my father’s interest in the English league and after I returned to the States we would frequently go to Nevada Smith’s to watch matches. We’d invariably be the only West Ham supporters there – there are lots of Chelsea, Man U, Liverpool and Spurs fans around, but the East End is not especially well represented here. There was one exception, every time at Nevada Smith’s we would run into the one other Hammers supporter – straight out of central casting – full-on cockney accent, missing teeth – to this day we wonder how and why this man ended up in New York (though I think he was possibly more fascinated with us and how exactly two New York Jews ended up being West Ham fans – he was always friendly and seemed genuinely excited to have someone to talk Hammers to, but he also looked at us a little strangely, squinting like he couldn’t see us well – it was a mutually felt dilemma apparently).

The frenzy over the World Cup last summer seemed to consolidate an American base for the game, reflected in the consistently solid popularity of the current incarnation of a professional American soccer league.  It was kind of thrilling to have to get to a bar early last summer to ensure seating for a match – I should be embarrassed to admit that I arrived at Soda at 9AM, before management, the day of England-USA, which was on at 3PM. You can’t be too careful! And they ended with a draw – so definitely worth it for gloating rights alone. Poor England.

Several bars rightfully exploited the new popularity of the sport, and branded themselves as soccer bars. This includes one bar in my neighborhood. Woodwork, which opened in January of 2010, really fully entrenched itself last summer as a soccer bar with the Cup, and continues to draw patrons eager to watch whatever tournament or season match is on.

However, it at least originally also televised other sports – I certainly remember watching the great America vs. Canada Olympic hockey match (full house that day) and March Madness games, though I always sensed some kind of disconnect between the patrons and some of the bartenders – while watching the NCAA tournament, our bartender not only started degrading college basketball and the tournament, in one fell swoop he dismissed all team sports. Err…this is a sports bar right? I haven’t seen him since though, maybe they figured out he was not the best suited? But there is definitely a tension in the bar’s identity, trying to balance its appeal to a particular type of Brooklyn patron, and on the other its draw as a sports bar. However, more and more, the bar does not cater to the average sports fan at all and I have never felt completely as comfortable in it as I have in my past local sports bar homes, such as Nevada Smiths, or Champs in Montreal, which was around the corner from my apartment and where I spent many evenings watching the Knicks in the late 90’s, when they were good. I distinctly remember friends stopping by to say hi and thinking it would be very funny to root for the Pacers.

Woodwork is a sports bar for the newer Brooklyn – the menu has a foodie’s stamp of approval and the patrons are definitely the newer residents in the neighborhood. Which in itself is fine. However, part of the beauty of watching sports at a bar, with other people, is the collective enjoyment and participation, and the egalitarianism that immediately sets the tone, trumping  any pretenses once the talk turns to sports.

However, it appears that the popularity of soccer/football has entered the realm of “cool” and many folks who are not otherwise sports fans, but who love living in Brooklyn and tend to privilege “good taste” above all else to set themselves apart (I won’t use the “H” word; it really should just be retired already) have appropriated soccer as a badge of (pseudo) sophistication and worldliness.

A few Fridays ago, when the Mets and Yankees played Game 1 of their annual 4th of July Subway Series, I headed to Woodwork to watch – who in New York wants to watch that alone? I aimed to get there early to ensure a seat. I needn’t have worried, my friend Liz and I were the only ones there to watch the game! In New York City! That in itself was a bit dismaying, and really just puzzling. I actually had to ask the bartender to turn on the game, on one particular TV in a section where no one else was sitting (the other 4 TV’s showed Argentina vs. Bolivia). I overheard someone asking when they would turn on the Argentina/Bolivia match and the bartender explained that “Those girls are watching the baseball game.” Before this patron moved on to a different seat in front of a TV with the match (exactly 2 feet away), he approached me and asked what inning it was. Innocently, thinking he cared, I told him bottom of the 4th. Only then did I realize he just wanted to point out that he’d like for the game to be over so he could watch soccer. Liz persuaded me not to go over and tell him what I thought of this, like I really wanted to.  But it left me so disappointed and a little angry.

The beauty of enjoying sports, and the reason so many, including myself, find refuge in them, is because it is so very far away from the judgmentalism of what it means to be cool and sophisticated. Everyone can belong, it is not an exclusive club. You might have serious one-upmanship about knowledge about teams or the sport, but it is never about judging another person’s worth and it is almost always driven by a real and pure enthusiasm that cannot be faked.

To sit in a bar in New York and have someone act dismissively because I would prefer to watch the two New York baseball teams play each other plays on all my worst stereotypes of why some people move to Brooklyn or New York these days. I try not to ever even let my mind wander in that direction and generally enjoy all the new businesses opening up in my neighborhood (except for the Olde Brooklyn Bagel Shoppe; really, in my zoning utopia that named would never be allowed) and welcome the good food and community atmosphere, but the soccer snobs make some new patterns hard to ignore. Bobby Moore would not approve.

I Miss Ike, or, This Summer of Baseball (Part I)

June 30, 2011

Sports fans are by nature a superstitious and circumspect lot, but the Met fan has a cultivated cynicism that at this point is hard to match. The play that took out two of the Mets best and most popular players – Ike Davis and David Wright – pretty much sums up the season – a little league moment when an infield pop-up caused Wright and Davis to collide. They have now both been out for almost two months. Many head-shaking and major-league-rare moments like this have followed,  including what should have been a double-play to end an inning a few nights ago against the Tigers, if Tejada and Turner hadn’t been confused about whose job it was to cover 2nd  — they both  ended up awkwardly standing on the same bag at the same time looking a bit lost. And their ragtag troupe of young players, like the improved but still somewhat shaky catcher Josh Thole (recently a friend asked a bunch of us what new record we might see broken. I mused that Thole might set one for most passed balls at home plate; but that was a while ago, he’s been ok lately); and the up and comers Justin Turner and Daniel Murphy have been adding to this minor league atmosphere but  also showing flashes of brilliance. Flashes. You never forget what is going on between the watchable exciting moments. What the real storyline is. The second Jason Bay comes up to bat, reality hits back hard.

As any baseball fan, and now any New Yorker reader now also knows from Jeffrey Toobin’s exceptionally informative and painful article, financial difficulty and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme also define this season. Fred Wilpon, the Mets’ rather annoyingly candid owner, is in the cross-hairs of Irving Picard, the bankruptcy trustee appointed to handle the Madoff fallout. This has already led to the sale of part of the team and will undoubtedly affect whether or not the most valuable players will remain in Mets uniform – Reyes, Beltran and K-Rod might be worth too much to keep on a team that is not in contention (but what if the Mets find themselves in the wild card race?  A lot for Sandy Alderson et al to think about.  A lot of bad decisions to look forward to).

So ultimately, this Mets season, at the moment hovering just above .500, is about enjoying the pleasant surprises of individual talents – especially those of Jose Reyes. And the Mets’ recent 52 run/4 game spree just baffles a fan even more – definitely the most manic depressive team in baseball; it’s hard to live with that kind of volatility.

All this leaves a real baseball fan craving & needing more. Some play fantasy baseball. Others fill the void by complaining, whining, hating on the Yankees and Phillies, and obsessing over the flawed stewardship of the Wilpons. My wandering eye almost invariably leads me to the fullness of baseball that really only books can provide.

A few weeks ago at the Greenlight Bookstore on Fulton Street in Fort Greene, Leonard Cassuto, editor of the new Cambridge Companion to Baseball, and Caryn Rose, of Metsgrrl.com, chatted about this tension between the game as observed by the curious and detached and the game as lived daily by the individual, the more often than not frustrated fan. The two embodied their two worlds perfectly – Cassuto, an English professor at Fordham, speaking in calm measured tones about the more “interesting” aspects of the game and how it figures in the larger fabric of American culture; Rose with a fan’s embittered tone, cursing the Wilpons under her breath and speaking with her inherited bile of being spurned by Walter O’Malley (her father was a Dodgers fan).

For Rose it is all very visceral, for Cassuto it is not. Which is just as well since Cassuto has provided a valuable service with the Cambridge Companion, which starts with a detailed timeline of baseball and follows with various essays that range from baseball in film, baseball and the color line, how one compares the measure of greatness in baseball vs. other things like literature and a great chapter about baseball and the American city. All this is done in a very manageable 200 pages, no small feat for what may become one of the most useful & handy guides to the game. It is hard to imagine there is much to add to the immense canon of baseball literature but what separates this collection of essays from almost everything else before is that it is a purely observational and sociological account. Almost all else out there is written for fans and aficianados by journalists and other insiders. The Cambridge Companion is geared towards those generally interested in American culture and how baseball both defines it and is defined through it. For a fan it takes some getting used to and reads as if it were written for someone who is BSL (Baseball as a Second Language). Most other baseball books, even the most cynical ones, take you along for the ride and add to the mythic grandeur of the game, they speak your language. But to the baseball fan there is never enough new information and Cassuto makes sure to also keep some of the magic intact with inter-chapters, like the ones about Babe Ruth and Roberto Clemente, both of whom generated the real kind of super-star tales that defy any fiction-writer’s imagination.

Both Cassuto and Rose are serious music fans and when Rose is not writing about baseball, she is most likely writing about rock. She wrote a recent post about the passing of Clarence Clemons and turns out both she and Cassuto are devoted Springsteen fans. The two tried to compare and define the happiness of being a music fan and the happiness of being a baseball fan. This left me a little confused. Music can bring one such unadulterated joy. There may be some disappointments, as in bad albums or bad shows. But rarely does it drag you through a half year of personal drama and break your heart, year after year. To use the word “happiness” to describe following sports at all does not seem appropriate (except the day you win the World Series).  But it is something more, it is fuller, a bit more like life, but because it is ultimately not real life, it can serve as a unique cathartic release from it.

Why I Like Djokovic

September 10, 2010

Not to win the whole thing mind you. You need only have paid minimal attention the past couple of years to know that Nadal and Federer are just in a completely different league. But in the non-superhuman league that is the rest of men’s pro tennis, Djokovic is my favorite by far.

Men’s tennis plays a similar game with its audience as does classical ballet: it creates the illusion of effortlessness and lightness and ease (some of the women look graceful on the court but they almost all invariably grunt and look like they are working very very hard). Federer is the master of this, he makes it all look so easy. A couple of nights ago, when one of the commentators spotted Billie Jean King in the audience and asked her who her favorite player was, King replied “Federer.” “Why, what is it about his game that you love?” “Um…everything.” Nadal, with his more  conspicuously athletic body, almost looks meant for a different sport, but he likewise makes it seem like it is all so fun and easy.  And both are equally stoic on-court, soft-spoken off court, mild-mannered and lovely. Like tennis is supposed to be. Of the two “country-club” sports, tennis & golf, tennis is the one that can be called classy (golf is basically preppy and too much associated with schmoozy business outings to ever be classy).

Djokovic is the opposite. He does not make it look easy. But watching him is like getting to look inside the machine, at how the gears move and what they look like when they are not working properly.  His shots are so well-placed, that when one is not, you realize how much concentration and hard work the good ones demand. You see a human being at work, achieving superhuman feats that seem beyond him but with enough grit are not. And part of the enjoyment of watching Djokovic is that he is not stoic, on or off the court.  He does not have the seasoned reserve of so many of the players, but is also not a McEnroe hothead type. Actually Djokovic, known for doing impressions of other players (including Maria Sharapova) did a brilliant imitation of McEnroe last year, after which McEnroe and he played a few points to a very pleased audience.

Djokovic does not seem to have a huge following, partly because he is in the shadow of these two great men, but also for other reasons. (Though I sometimes suspect it might also have to do with where he is from, people don’t seem to jump at the chance to root for Serbia). One complaint is that he is a perennial underachiever and is too emotionally volatile. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Compare him to the fleeting talent of Marat Safin, who seemed to wear those traits on his sleeve, sometimes even proudly, and his underachievement in tennis, considering his ridiculous talent, can almost be described as tragic  (it is , at the end of the day, just a sport, even I would admit that, and in this case, one that is mostly played by the overprivileged, so can’t feel too too sorry for them if they fail, especially if they didn’t seem to want it all that badly. I haven’t heard much about him lately, but I suspect Marat Safin is doing quite alright).

Then there are the perennial just-better-than-mediocre players, like James Blake and Tim Henman (two cheeky English boys sitting behind me at the Djokovic-Monfils match kept shouting, “Come on Tim!”). They can say they’d had a good run and be too close to happy with it. This is not Djokovic, he is a winner, even if he has only won one Grand Slam and may possibly not win another as long as those two guys are around. Though Federer did drop one set to him recently at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, so you never know…

This Summer of Sports

July 25, 2010

This Summer of Sports (& Some Sports Reading Recs)

In one single day at the end of June, Nicolas Mahut and John Isner played day 2 of their record-busting, 8-hour 5th set at Wimbledon, team USA just barely climbed out of the group stage by beating Algeria in extra time, and Jerry Seinfeld joined Keith Hernandez and Gary Cohen in the Mets broadcast booth for 5 innings to help call the game and reminisce (the Seinfeld episode with Keith was, of course, retold in detail) . If you had to make a case for sports (as the sports editor Dave Zirin recently did, as recounted here), June 23rd provided some amazing material, though for some it was merely another day in  a summer that gave us sports moments in spades.

And it continued well beyond Spain’s victory against Holland.  The Baseball All-Star Game soon arrived and the passing of George Steinbrenner inspired even more nostalgia than should be allowed the average baseball fan (no one does nostalgia better than a baseball fan; of course Steinbrenner’s death elicited a whole range of emotions, many of which cannot be characterized as “nostalgic”).  And now Thierry Henry is playing for the Red Bulls? And took the Path train to get to the stadium?

Maybe not everyone is experiencing their own Summer of Sports, but every notable event these past couple of months seems bookended or made more vivid because of a game or match that accompanied it, that played in the background and provided at least a bit of a distraction (and when things like the Flotilla “Incident” off the coast of Israel occur, or Andrew Breitbart helps propel one of the most disturbing 21st century, new media/fake journalism fiascos, distractions are saviors – of course, many surely wish they could have their 10 minutes-1 hour back that they spent watching Lebron making his very important announcement).  

And since there is still lots of summer left, and some choice reading to get to do, here are a few favorites if you’re looking for something sporty to pick up:

  • Lapham’s Quarterly, Summer 2010 – Sports & Games. You should buy this immediately. In this Summer’s issue, Lapham’s amassed an amazing array of sports writing – mostly excerpts from various books, and the range can only be aptly described by noting some of the authors: George Plimpton, Chuck Palahniuk, Ovid (yes, Ovid), Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Andre Agassi.  Along with the few dozen pieces, there are also wonderful timelines detailing the seminal events in the evolution of sports & games, including 1525, England:  “Darts is believed to have begun as archery practice for soldiers under Henry VIII,” and 1280, Mongolia: “Princess Khutulun decides to marry the first man who can beat her in wrestling; she defeats all of her suitors.”  Among the many memorable exerpts,  is the one about Stephon Marbury, pre-Georgia Tech, pre-volatile NBA career, when he was still a preening high school player for Lincoln High School in Coney Island. And it is not just about Marbury – Darcy Frey, the author, spent a lot of time with several of the Lincoln hopefuls,  and his book –The Last Shot — spans all the big subjects  of such a potentially combustible situation.  It is hard to write about this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly without wanting to retell every memorable moment of it, and basically transcribing it, so please just make sure to buy it, you will want to keep it forever, both as a reference for sports moments and as a guide for a good book to read, since this issue is like the best listing of sports writing  you haven’t considered reading.  And it has lots of pretty pictures.

 

  • Summer of ’49, by David Halberstam. It should be enough that a Mets fan is recommending a book about the Yankees.  But if you need more – even if that era in baseball, on its own, is not compelling enough to pick this up — it is full of post-war New York and American history, including the advent of television (which saloons quickly embraced to show sports – mostly because they feared that with the changing workforce from blue collar to white, workers would no longer stop off for a drink or two on the way home from work), agents (Yogi Berra was the first to hire one), and some jaw-dropping revelations (at least for this reader) like the fact that the Red Sox passed on Willie Mays because he was black (or as they said, “not the Red Sox type”). Can you imagine a decade of Willie Mays and Ted Williams on the same team? David Halberstam gives you everything you ever wanted to know about Joe Dimaggio and everyone else, including the sports writers and broadcasters, the owners, the players, the fans. 

 

  • Pafko At The Wall, by Don Delillo. Halberstam’s book captured an era, and this one captures one of the most memorable moments in baseball history, the famous “Shot Heard Round The World.” And everyone is in this one too – Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, Toots Shor and even J. Edgar Hoover, who were all on hand at the Polo Grounds to watch Bobby Thompson’s famous homerun for the Giants to beat the Dodgers and win the pennant. Pafko At The Wall, which now serves as the prologue for Delillo’s Underworld (though originally published as a folio in the October 1992 edition of Harper’s), also just happens to be unbelievably good and well-written, easily one of the best things I’ve ever read. Trust me you don’t have to care an ounce about baseball to love it.

 

  • The Bad Guys Won, by Jeff Pearlman. The writing isn’t stellar, but it doesn’t need to be. Any book about the 1986 Mets pretty much writes itself. The full title of the book sums it up: The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, The Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform–and Maybe the Best. And it’s short – good beach read.

 

  • My Favorite Year, edited by Nick Hornby (A collection of soccer/football writing).  Recently The Guardian ran an article asking whether, or why, American sports writing is better than the English kind. Well, there is one area in which the English excel – writing about losing. Except for the first essay in this collection, in which famous British writers were asked to write about their favorite soccer/football year, almost all  of the essays are about learning to live with losing teams (And the first one  is actually by an Irishman anyway – Roddy’s Doyle’s piece about Ireland’s 1990 World Cup experience).  One essay that will resonate with a Mets fan, or that of another team that perennially disappoints, discusses the phenomenon of expectations — it’s ok to be the supporter of a terrible team, but that moment when they actually provide you a glimmer of hope, when you allow yourself the slightest bit of expectation, that’s when they can break your heart.

Are Sports Boring? And an Old Lefty Stronghold in the West Village.

June 14, 2010

Buried among the tree-lined streets of the disarmingly quaint but often cloyingly conventional 21st Century West Village, are remnants of the old, rough round the edges, lefty activist, Jane Jacobs West Village.  

Keeping the pulse of the old guard is The Brecht Forum, on West Street, in Westbeth (if the Brecht Forum keeps the pulse, then Westbeth, the massive artist housing complex, very possibly provides it), founded in 1975 as part of the New York Marxist School. Today, it keeps the old activist streak alive with lectures, debates, and festively anti-establishment events such as the upcoming 913 Theater Festival (inspired by Glen Beck’s 912 Project; Beck is no stranger to this dangerous threat from the radical left as evidenced in this particularly lively tirade). Other upcoming Beck-baiting type programs include: “McCarthyism Then and Now,” and a monthly appraisal of Global Capitalism.

Last week, as a prelude to the world’s largest global sports extravaganza and in the midst of the NBA and NHL finals (well, perhaps not too many people had hockey on the mind, though more should!), the Brecht Forum hosted a debate asking whether or not sports are boring. Standing in the “Boring” corner was Arun Gupta, a founding editor of the Indypendent.  Across, at the “Seriously?” end of the debate was Dave Zirin, the ubiquitous radio sports commentator with lefty activist credentials as polished as Gupta’s (Zirin is sports editor of The Nation, currently has a book out titled A People’s History of Sports in The United States and has another book coming out called Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love).

Zirin and Gupta had 15 minutes apiece to state their case while cute Indy volunteers outfitted in their favorite teams’ shirts and hats walked through the aisles selling beer and peanuts (the crowd was overwhelmingly pro-sports, illustrating one of the most wonderful trademark qualities of New York – a city where high culture, serious politics and sports love each other; as I learned after living in Montreal for a few years, and then in New Zealand, this is not always the case; actually it is rarely the case. I moved back to New York).

As many, including Zirin, suspected, the real argument is not whether sports are “boring” but whether they are worthwhile and deserve our attention or whether they are actually a pernicious force that dulls the senses to more important issues.  Is it an opiate of the masses that manipulates the unthinking hordes into submission and sometimes violence? Or does it reflect the world around it and provide a forum for discussing almost every relevant issue confronting us today, from rogue finance, to sexism to violent nationalism and sectarianism?  (Old Firm matches still draw quite a rambunctious crowd after all). And what role does the left have in this discussion? Should it enter the fray or turn its attention toward more pressing issues?

Zirin, on the attack wearing a Los Suns jersey, began with some historical references: Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, Ali and 1980’s, racially charged, New York of Yusef Hawkins and New Park Pizza where any real integration happened almost only through sports.  And to dismiss any notions that sports might not be as relevant today, Zirin pointed out “the stubborn fact that next week half the world will be watching the World Cup.” Indeed, as shown in a press conference yesterday, where else can we witness someone from North Korea close up, discussing Dear Leader before taking the field against Brazil (and hoping they figure out this would be an opportune moment to defect).

Zirin reminded the audience that apart from the obvious fact that sports are as human and natural an act as clothing and feeding ourselves, they are also an ideal way of engaging in all of the grand arguments that matter.  And he rightfully recoils from the elitism that discounts sports as a language for serious conversation. Dismissing sports gives credence to the charge that the left can be elitist and tone deaf  to the people it purports to care about.

Nevertheless, Arun Gupta believes we would be better off without sports. He concedes that sports were once socially and politically relevant but points out that the sports heroes Zirin idolizes made their mark nearly half a century ago. As regarding the recent Suns franchise stance against Arizona SB170, he remarked that it was an action taken by a large corporation for undeniable financial benefits. 
More interestingly, Gupta reminded the audience of the various ways in which pro-sports have  tried to manipulate their fans to counter waning interest and profits, including implementing new rules to make games more “exciting,” such as the OT shoot-out in hockey to keep games from being tied (Americans seem not to enjoy games that can end in a draw, as evidenced by many who did not appreciate what an amazing feat the result of the England-USA match was this past Saturday).

Gupta also attacked pro sports for being grossly apolitical, noting that unlike other celebrities whom the Dems and the GOP woo each election cycle, with lavish fundraiser galas in Hollywood and NYC, sports stars don’t get too much attention from the pols. And examples of recent pro athletes taking stands can actually be somewhat discouraging, as in the case of Carlos Delgado, who maintained an informed anti-war stance while playing with the Jays in Toronto by not standing up for the national anthem but then quietly abandoning this as a condition of playing with the Mets.

There is no question that corporate interests have helped dilute so much of the essence of pro sports, but this is not a problem specific to sports. Which gets to the heart of the matter – it is not sports that are becoming more “boring,” or that present these problems, but they do provide insight into the larger picture.

And, as a reminder to those who love to misquote or half-quote the Karl Marx line about religion, Zirin  reminded us of the original, as applicable to sports as it ever was to religion: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

The heartless, soulless world came first, not sports. Sports make it so much more bearable.

Boxing, Race & Obama (And David Remnick’s New Book)

April 10, 2010

In a recent conversation at the New York Public Library about David Remnick’s new book about Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates asked Remnick whether there was an analogy to be made between Remnick’s experience as an American Jew and Obama’s experience as an African American. On the contrary, Remnick insisted, pointing out that he acquired his cultural identity at the kitchen table, his family and community’s idiosyncrasies seeping in almost unnoticed. Obama, on the other hand, had to actively seek out his identity as a black man in America since he was raised by a white family in a state with a negligible black population.   Remnick’s book revisits the conversation about Obama’s racial identity – both self-imposed and perceived – and the role his racial identity plays in shaping the discussion about race in America.

Remnick has had some experience writing about iconic black American men and their redefinitions of “blackness” on their own terms.  In his seminal book on Ali, King of the World, Remnick deftly explores Ali’s transformation from Cassius Clay – the middle class young boxer from Louisville, with grand aspirations – into Muhammad Ali, the larger than life boxer on the world stage with even grander ideas about boxing, race and a keen understanding of his role in both, arguably as keen as Obama’s.  In King of the World, Remnick writes about Cassius Clay after his entry into the Nation of Islam: “…whether the press understood it or not, (Ali/Clay) had quietly forsaken the image of the unthreatening black fighter established by Joe Louis and then imitated by Jersey Joe Walcott and Floyd Patterson and dozens of others. Clay was declaring that he would not fit any stereotypes, he would not follow any set standard of behavior.  And while Liston had also declared his independence from convention (through sheer don’t –give-a-shit truculence), Clay’s message was political. He, and not Jimmy Cannon or the NAACP, would define his blackness, his religion, his history.”

There are few better prisms through which to observe race in America than boxing. Several books have grasped this notion especially well :   Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C. Ward, about the first black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, and more recently, Sweet Thunder about Sugar Ray Robinson, by Wil Haygood.  And Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, perhaps most poignantly and famously, wrote about Sonny Liston as the kind of black man white America was only too willing, for too long, to ignore. Jones wrote this homage to Liston in reaction to other writers’ praise of Patterson, and their contrasting abhorrence of Liston. Norman Mailer and James Baldwin lauded Patterson’s gentle strength and fortitude and rejected Liston’s brutish, unrefined persona.  Jones, on the other hand, had a rather different appraisal of Sonny Liston and rejected what he saw as the passivity and preciousness of Patterson.  In an essay, originally published in 1964 and now part of a Jones collection titled Home, he writes of Liston:

(He was) “the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world…He is the underdeveloped, have-not (politically naïve), backward country, the subject people, finally here to collect his pound of flesh.”

While Jones eventually gravitated towards Ali, his riff on Liston tore open the positive perception and acceptance of the more mild-mannered Patterson and the attendant dialogue about race, which seemed due for reappraisal in an era where established identities and myths were exploded on a daily basis.

Both that defining era and today were strikingly present during Remnick’s and Coates’ conversation last week, as they similarly were during the last presidential race. Coates himself embodies the several tones present in every discussion of race, since his father was a Black Panther and came of age in that era, after serving in Vietnam.  Apparently Coates’ father even chided his son for drinking from the Obama Kool-aid (though Coates senior did eventually vote for him as well).   And the best example of the old guard’s relationship with Obama was summed up perfectly in Remnick’s anecdote about Bobby Rush’s imitation of Obama’s acquired “black” strut, openly mocking what Rush sees as the President’s inauthentic way of coming by being black.

Obama is, very much, the consummate politician, and has succeeded in remaining just opaque and vague enough to withstand scrutiny visited on less canny pols. Especially as compared with American history’s great black boxers, this makes it much more difficult to assess his racial identity, since it is hard to tell where the true man begins and the politician ends. Yet Remnick, who acknowledges Obama’s keen machinations in many other parts of his life, does not attribute any calculating tendency as part of Obama’s self-constructed racial identity, which is a bit surprising.  Everyone’s identity is a construction to varying degrees, so it seemed odd  that Remnick would go to great lengths to stress Obama’s authenticity as a black man, and also seems besides the point. Remnick should perhaps instead emphasize what he did so beautifully in his Ali book, and invoke Obama as a reflection of American perception of race today and what is possible racially and what is still not.

NBA vs. NCAA

March 21, 2010

Yet another buzzer-beating clutch shot in the NCAA tournament to serve as a reminder why this tournament can compete with a gorgeous weekend after a miserable winter (this time it was Michigan State over Maryland at the buzzer – a shot by a man named Luscious!).   The highlight reels from this tournament can hardly keep up with themselves, though Hubie Davis and Dick Vitale can probably agree that Ali Farokhmanesh’s 3 pointer to finish off Kansas is maybe the most stunning moment so far. Or maybe it is St. Mary’s Matthew Dellavedova and Mickey McConnell’s equally impressive and improbable 11th hour shots to upset Villanova.  And maybe the best  moment hasn’t happened yet.

In trying to figure out why I am so drawn to March Madness but have no real interest in the NBA, while many others  prefer the NBA, I’ve realized it’s all about suspense. The same thing that has driven me to watch every British police show and most horror movies ever made is also what keeps me addicted to this tournament. You just never know what is going to happen. It is also why I almost never find baseball boring, even if nothing seems to be “happening,” because like any true fan knows, in baseball especially, anything can happen at any moment, and it might be something you’ve never seen before. Baseball is nine (or more) innings of tense, pregnant pauses. And it is why hockey is mesmerizing – it is one long, fast paced hustle you have to keep up with that might surprise you at any moment.

I assumed this was a universal reason to love sports, but I’ve been discovering the last few years that this is not the case.  For some, watching professionals with superior, near super-human skills, is paramount, and more engaging than any suspense or natural enthusiasm and energy of an amateur March Madness game.   But the NBA always seems so sluggish to me, there is no real hustle, there is no living and dying with every shot. It is possible I am jaded and have lost interest because the Knicks have been who they are for the last decade. I certainly lived and died with the Knicks in the late 90’s.  Recently some brilliant person decided it would be a great idea to recapture the best moments of those  years in a movie about Reggie Miller. I will not be watching it.  So, maybe the Knicks and I have changed but the NBA has not, it is certainly possible.

I am open to coming back into the NBA fold, and maybe having the Nets play down the street in a few years will help that.  Especially if the new stadium complex isn’t too hideous (please Mr. Ratner, learn from your Metro Tech & Atlantic Center mistakes).  And LJ’s 4-point play in 1999 against, of course, Reggie Miller & Co., is one of my most vivid emotional memories (yes, ever). But March Madness provides those in spades. When Christian Laettner made his famous shot against Kentucky in 1992,  he gave just another example, albeit an exceptional one, why this tournament  is so completely seductive.