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Monthly Archives: November 2004

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Strikes and Gutters: Part Four

A Year with the Coen Brothers

(Parts One, Two and Three)

IV

When we returned to work, anticipation for the start of the shoot was building up as quickly as the crew was expanding. My nerves were shot, as I woke up one morning and decided to quit smoking. I figured this would be the place to do it, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to shoot someone anyhow. Construction of the Dude’s apartment was near completion on one of the sound stages; locations, wardrobe, storyboards, props, set design were all in full motion. Roger Deakins, the DP, who had worked with the Coens since Barton Fink, returned from Morocco, where he’d been shooting the Dalai Lama movie for Scorsese. He joined Joel and Ethan, line producer John Cameron, first AD Jeff Raffner and location man Bob Graff on all the major scouts. The technical crew would then go in and further work out the logistics of each location. Tricia was going to be the script supervisor, so I knew the paperwork we received in the cutting room would be gorgeous. The plan was for me to sync the dailies and prepare the material for cutting, which would take place back east. The production had been negotiating a deal with the local union, and it was likely that they would allow me to do the job without becoming a member.

The awards season was swinging along too and Fargo was receiving a lot of attention. Schoolcraft and I spent much of our time with the publicity people at Grammercy, who were beginning to really push the movie. We also answered plenty of interview requests and public speaking requests with the customary corporate line, “They’d love to but they’re smack dab in the middle of pre-production for their next picture.” Around the production office there was a buzz about what might happen when Oscar time came round, a gleam in the eye of all those easily seduced by the glamour and glitz. But the boys couldn’t have cared less. Joel was much more interested in whether Frances was winning awards, and Ethan, the consummate man-behind the-curtain, wanted everything to be over as quickly and painlessly as possible.

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Strikes and Gutters: Part Three

A Year with the Coen Brothers

(Part One, Part Two)

Figure against Santa Monica backdrop, Gouache on paper

III

It was raining more than usual in LA. I couldn’t believe how the already poor-driving public frenzied at the slightest shower. It never really poured, it was more like a steady spritz that could go on for hours, sometimes days. The six o’clock news broadcast bulletins as if a typhoon had hit. Since the boys planned a lot of location shooting, the potential for having to reschedule off the cuff became a very real possibility. “That’d be just our luck, Eth,” Joel said one raining afternoon in mid-December, “We spend a whole winter in Minnesota and it doesn’t snow. We come here and it fucking rains.” He looked out on to the West Hollywood skyline, which was pea-soup grey, as droplets of rain hit the pane of the big office window.

It was on this afternoon that I got to sit in with the boys as they read with Jeff Bridges and John Goodman for the first time. Goodman had a break in his TV schedule and for three days the four of them met in Joel and Eth’s office and read through the scenes between Walter and the Dude. I was asked to sit in and read Steve Buscemi’s part, Donny-the third stooge, as it were. It was the first meeting between Bridges and Goodman and they seemed as different as their respective characters. Goodman was blunt and responsive. The familiarity he and the boys shared was immediately apparent. Without much direction from the boys, it was clear that when he’d heard what he needed, he then performed right into it. This was when the boys would start to hyperventilate, laugh like they were choking. They loved to see their creations come to life, and Goodman was the guy to do it.

Bridges processed information a bit differently. He was a natural questioner and took his time going over the specific line readings, like, “When the Dude says ‘huh’ here, now, why is he saying that?” He seemed to be a real searcher for the truth in what he was going to be saying and doing. The four of these guys would read through the script, then talk it over.

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Let the Bidding Begin

Wasting little time, Omar Minaya has reportedly offered Pedro Martinez a three-year, $37.5 deal, with an option for a fourth season. According to Murray Chass:

Omar Minaya’s imagination seems to know no bounds. Minaya, the Mets’ general manager, didn’t invent the term “thinking outside the box,” but in baseball he is among its leading practitioners.

Minaya is imaginative, aggressive and determined. He must also be fearless because with his early activity he has created enough hope among Mets fans that they will surely have a letdown if he fails to execute one or more of his plans.

Mike Lupica is impressed by Minaya’s assertiveness. The good news, he writes, is that:

Minaya [is] letting people know that the Mets are going to be in play with the big boys this time.

…Minaya is saying that the Mets don’t sit back anymore. I think Pedro belongs in Boston. I think he’ll stay in Boston, unless he leaves a great situation over money the way Jason Giambi did. He’s still better than anybody the Mets have, if he can pass a physical. You want to know why Minaya tries? That’s why.

I still figure that Martinez will stay on with the Red Sox. But then again, I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he simply goes to the highest bidder. Across town, all is still in Yankeeland. Oh, they are close to re-signing John Flaherty. Very well, then. Quickly moving on, if you want to fill your head with Yankee musings, check out Cliff Corcoran’s look at the Bombers’ 40-man roster, as well as thoughts about their pitching from Larry Mahnken and Jay Jaffe.

Strikes and Gutters: Part Two

A Year with the Coen Brothers

II.

I split from New York on 15 November. I was scared and excited, but one thing was certain: New York was grey and cold and gearing up for more of the “same. I felt like I was beating out old mother nature as the plane landed at LAX.

LA was balmy and moist. My old college friend and new roommate Greg G. picked me up. He had brought along another friend from college, Tall Paul, who was the kind of guy who liked to smoke a lot of reefer then drive very fast. I stuffed my ass in the back of Greg’s 1970 Ford Mustang convertible; Paul drove and we sped off to Santa Monica. I took in the ride with that cool sense of bewilderment I get during my first moments in any new place.

The wind rushed over me and the radio was playing hip-hop that would never get play-time in New York. (Tha Alkaholiks, on mainstream radio?!!) I was dumbstruck. I stared up into the powder-blue night sky and felt my stomach resettle to sea level. Up above the telephone wires were these hilarious things that looked like something out of a Krazy Kat comic. They were forty feet tall, and skinny, with a big bushel-looking thing atop. I stuck my face into the wind, felt it pushing on me and laughed privately, ’cause I’d never seen palm trees before.

The intensity of the space out there didn’t get any less overwhelming. I was lost in a pastel-coated Long Island in the desert. Everything was strips of low buildings and nothing but sky, sky, sky. It was downright lonesome. There was nothing so striking as pulling up to a traffic light, looking right and then left, and noticing how lost to the world your fellow motorists were. It was lonely as hell in all this space; the locals appeared completely comfortable but all I felt was isolation.

People at work asked me how I was adjusting and the only logical response was, ‘I think it’s fucking fucked.’ ‘Don’t stress it, man,’ one seasoned vet assured me with a shifty grin.’ After sixty days in this town, you’ll be one of us.’ I was overwhelmed by the light too. Los Angelinos were always apologizing about the smog, but that smoggy, warm-toned haze was the light I knew from Diebenkorn’s pictures. It was beautiful. The odd pastel colours of the houses seemed completely ridiculous at first. But slowly those too began to make perfect sense during the magic hour that is dusk.

I began thinking about “The Long Goodbye” again and the way Altman captured the bleached-out daylight, then added warm yellows and oranges to the night scenes. His California was sensual and mysterious. And I was beginning to see how that worked. One night before Thanksgiving I was over at Joel’s house in Santa Monica, and I told him how I thought “The Long Goodbye” was such an evocative depiction of the area. He smiled and said, ‘Curry’s brand catfood.’ ‘Yeah,’ he continued, ‘That’s our favorite Altman movie.’ I told him how when I first read Lebowski, I kept thinking about Gould.

‘Well, this is kind of our Long Goodbye,’ he confided in me.

I was burning to know how they were going to make California look. Since I had arrived, I’d been painting little landscapes with acrylics and gouache and was otherwise consumed with ‘looking’ each day. I’d have to wait until months later for the dailies to come back to have my question answered.

View from Greg G’s apartment, Santa Monica. Gouache on paper.

The mechanisms of pre-production worked their cycles. New departments came on slowly but surely. Locations and casting were the heavies to start with, but eventually, the production designer, Rick Heinrichs, the costume designer, Mary Zopheres, and art director, John Dexter would become more important for the boys. I’m happy to report that the fellas remained as self-reliant as ever-no Hollywood ego trips. I made amiable-like with all the new folks. I was in charge of arranging appointments for the boys, and in turn found that many of their cohorts were willing to show me what they were all about (Rick and John were particularly welcoming).

Round about this time, I was introduced to Alan J. Schoolcraft, a recruit sent over from Working Title. Shit, I thought, Just when I was carving out my niche, just when I had them on the five yard line, they bring in some competition.

I took one look at the Schoolcraft and thought there just wouldn’t be room enough for tWo. He was a hulking slab of a lad with a fuzzy blond head and devilishly raised eyebrows over his shinny Irish eyes. The guy was pushing thirty and had been out in La-La land for a few years. He originated from Connecticut and he had the looks of a guy right off the boat. We spent our first day together replacing the missing drawers to his desk and attempting to locate a workable chair. I was no help. Or at least as little help as I could manage. My first hint of misjudgement came when I saw that Schoolcraft at least knew how to stay shutup through the long afternoon hours waiting for urgent phone calls. He was an eager film guy who was just barely concealing his excitement at landing such a prime gig.

As time went on, I lowered my defences. I came to look forward to our days together, smoking cigarettes, working as the one-two punch for the boys. The side-effects of my Hollywood ambitions aside, I grew to regard Schoolcraft (now known as my pal Schooly D.), as my partner. Side by side we cut a strikingly svelte look: I felt like the mouse who removed a thorn from the lion’s paw. Fargo was now becoming a serious sideshow as awards season started to hit, and we were spending most of our time dealing with its success (and the boys’ unwillingness to play party to any of the hype). Things were moving along.

One afternoon during this time, I stopped into a mom and pop Indian joint located across the street from the production office. I wasn’t there more than a moment before I was addressed by a boy not more than four feet tall. His folks ran the place and while he wasn’t exactly the maitre-d, he saw fit quiz anyone who came in to eat. He wasted no time in working me over-found out who I was, what I did, could he listen to my Walkman?, could he touch my necklace?

The boy’s name was Sree, short for Sree Batchu Harry Laxmie Naraniea, and he rolled his ‘r’s like no one I’ve ever heard before; it was such a beautiful sound that I forced him into conversation in order to make him exercise this rare talent. He had big brown eyes that cast your reflection like a midnight lake; they had the hardened look of someone who had seen too much of life’s cruel realities. There was a strong sense of longing in them, but never innocence.

The kid was so damn charming that he kept me going back every-day for a few months. He was my shorty, and we’d hang out without fail each day. His brother and sister, aged nine and seven respectively, were around for a time during their Christmas vacation, and I would have the three of them talking at me, climbing on me at the same time. Sree, only four, could handle the two of them; he was fearless and lawless and he adored me. He had mad moxie and that suited me fine; I could use all the coolness that I could surround myself with amidst all the bubble heads of Hollywood.

To read Part One, click here.

Lots of Stuffin’, hold the Turkeys

Thanksgiving came and went this year without any major deals going down for any of the local teams. Last Wednesday, there was more kibbitzing about the Yankees interest in sending Javier Vazquez to Arizona for Randy Johnson. However, Peter Gammons delineated why the proposition is a dicey one for the Diamondbacks:

What makes no sense is Arizona taking on Vazquez. Wink, wink — we know the Yankees would take on some of the money, but Vazquez has $25M guaranteed in 2006 and 2007. Now, the Diamondbacks likely will be worse than any of Vazquez’s Expos teams, so he’ll demand a trade at the end of the ’05 season. If he has a good year, Arizona will be embarrassed. If he has a bad year, he will be virtually untradable at that price. Then there’s the matter of Diamondbacks owner Jeff Moorad being the agent Vazquez fired.

Since the Yankee farm system is thin near the top, one talent solution is for the Diamondbacks to get Tom Gordon and Kenny Lofton, then spin Gordon off to either the Indians or Cubs, two of the richest organizations in young talent, and Lofton to the Phillies or Giants for a third prospect.

Meanwhile, Met general manager Omar Minaya dined with Pedro Martinez in the Dominican Republic on Thanksgiving. The Mets will reportedly make Martinez an offer in the near future. John Harper examines whether signing Martinez is worth the risk in today’s Daily News.

Strikes and Gutters: A Year with the Coen Brothers


Fun and Games with Joel and Ethan

Way back in the olden days, I used to work in the movie business. Okay, it wasn’t so long ago, it just seems like it was. One of the best experiences I had was the year I spent working for the Coen brothers on “The Big Lebowski.” I even had the opportunity to write about it. I thought, this being the off-season and all, you might be willing to indulge me a lil’ bit. So I’m gunna reprint the article that originally appeared in British film book called Projections 8 (1997). I’ve added some bits here and there, including a proper ending. Since it is a long piece I thought the best way to run it is as a serial. I don’t have any set schedule in mind, but I hope to post at least one installment per week. Anyhow, hope you enjoy the diversion. If not, just skip it and there’ll be more baseball to follow. Em and I are headed up to her folks’ place in Vermont first thing in the a.m. Hope everyone has a safe and happy holidaze.

Strikes and Gutters: Part One


Self Portrait, gouache on cardboard (December, 1996)

In the late summer of 1996 I found myself interviewing for a personal assistant job with Joel and Ethan Coen. The summer had been a rough one. I had worked on an independent feature, gaining in experience what I was losing in sleep and peace of mind. My editor on this picture had given me her blessings to pursue more lucrative apprentice jobs if they were to come up. I was doing my best to make them come up. I was fortified with one big name on my resume (prior to the low-budget job, I had worked for Woody Allen on his musical “Everyone Says I Love You”); however, I was consistently getting passed over. I was still apparently too green to take a chance on. Of the three major studio jobs I was in contention for, none of ‘em panned out.

Each rejection earned me a tribal mark of endurance that, at the very least, would give me some grievance material to share with my fellow workers (most of them seemed to have amassed too many such rejections to be fit, healthy people). But if I was adding a bit of weathering to my professional demeanor–slowly learning not to hang on phone calls with such eagerness, careful to not let monetary fantasies run wild–I was also embracing a sense of bitterness and resigned industry gloominess. There it was. The dust of the old falling into my relatively young lap. I was letting it all get to me. My personal life offered little stability. About this time I was told that I would have to move from my apartment on Union Street in Brooklyn. I was fond of the place but wasn’t too surprised when it went sour on me. I was beginning to get the feeling that I was swimming against the current of the steamy New York summer.

This is where things were at when I got a call from Margaret Hayes, who ran the Coen Brothers’ business affairs. She had a personal assistant job available. She had heard good things about me. (It was Ethan’s wife, Tricia, who had encouraged me to send over a resume.) The Coens’ were about to start a new movie. Was I interested? I took a moment to think about it. It sounded so good that it inspired nothing but suspicion in me. But what the hell. Shit, yeah, I was interested.

Early afternoon, late in August. I was sitting on a couch in what once was Joel Coen’s first New York apartment but which now housed their production company, Mike Zoss. I was waiting for the boys to get off a conference call, and began to feel a blanket of calm settle over me. I wasn’t a Coen Brothers groupie and that helped restrict my nerves to the ordinary ‘please hire me’ type. But there was something about the very environment I found myself in that calmed me. A salty, brackish breeze was filtering through the living-room windows off the Hudson. I closed my eyes and listened to the shrieks and chatter of kids playing through the autumn afternoon in Riverside Park. I had spent my early childhood only a few buildings north of this spot. I opened my eyes and looked around the apartment. It was decorated with chatchkas and photos from earlier Coen Brothers movies. It was a comfortable and casual place. It was the old neighborhood. I couldn’t have been more at home.

When Joel and Ethan got off the phone and rolled into the living room to talk, the feeling got better. I kept them entertained with talk of how Woody’s place ran; hit them with an imitation of Woody talking about the old 1970s Knicks. Joel sat across from me, and Ethan stood, chewing on a swizzle stick.

We spoke at length about the neighborhood and commiserated about the gentrification it had suffered over the past fifteen years. Within twenty minutes I was offered a position with the firm. They told me that they were going to California to make the movie over the winter, and if I could find a place to stay, dig up the scratch for a vehicle, I was more than welcome to join ‘em. The plan was for me to take over managing their business affairs as Margaret wouldn’t be able to make the trip. And hell, they suggested, when production began I could take on another job. Most likely synching up the dailies. That was assistant editor stuff. I joined up.

When we got around to money, I told them I would need a bit more in salary than their offer. Ethan gagged, and I remembered that he was the producer-brother. Joel looked to him, and they agreed on something silently. Joel looked back to me and said, “OK, we’ll get back to you.” I left amused. I was proud that I had no qualms about asking for a comparable salary to what I was already making in the cutting room. I was well aware of the opportunities this job was offering, even if dough wasn’t among them; seeing California for the first time and working on a project from before pre-production through the editing process topped the list. The potential was juicy enough to get me more than somewhat excitable.

The thing I hadn’t expected was how easygoing the Coens seemed to be. I had trouble thinking they these weren’t friends of the family. I thought they were going to be a pair of highfalutin’ nerds. But what a regular pair of Jewish boys–inside-joke-havin’, movie-dialogue-quotin’, I-can’t-believe-we’re-getting-paid-for-this-shit-gigglin’ fat bastards.

I waited two days, then came home to find a message from Margaret on the answering machine. She was laughing, and spoke in a dry and laconic pattern, her voice occasionally cracking; it was a delivery and style of speak that Joel, Ethan and many of their close friends shared. “Welp, I guess they like ya enough to give ya what ya want.” She seemed very amused that my demand for a couple more bucks had been met. So was I.

Working as a personal assistant for the boys could be best described, in the parlance of the times, as low maintenance. My job quickly shifted from editing-room suck-boy to kicked-back personal assistant. I was riding the bubble-headed gravy train: there was plenty of free time to catch up on old correspondences; a steady source of second-hand movie-passes; the occasional celebrity call-in. Because the office was also Joel’s old crib there was a full kitchen, complete with a diner-style booth. I started to cook lunch for the boys and they eagerly encouraged it by avidly devouring whatever I prepared–appetites that would make a mother blush. No talking, plenty eating, followed by the simple remark, “That’s some good shit, man.” I aimed to make nothing but good shit.

Both Joel and Ethan were courteous, pensive and self-involved; they were direct and straightforward as to my official duties. They treated me like an adult, which was a new experience at my level in the pecking order. People in their position were supposed to treat people in my position like a child (or worse). But there I was, with the two of the hottest filmmakers in America, and all I had to do was Xerox the occasional script, take messages when the phone rang and feed ‘em good shit for lunch. The only real pampering I had to do was to distinguish Ethan’s Starbucks coffee from Joel’s regular, any-store-will-do cup of Joe. I liked Joel even more on principle for his boycott, and was more than happy to make the extra trip. Yeah, it was apparent from the start that this was something good.

I came into work and did my thing. I stayed out of their hair. We shot the shit when the moments and the moods were willing. I was on my way to needing a good pinch. When I finished reading “The Big Lebowski”, the movie I was hired on for, I was smiling. The lead character of the Dude, which Jeff Bridges had agreed to play, had the same laconic resignation and amiable ability to roll with the punches as Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe from Altman’s “The Long Goodbye.”

As is important for any hard-luck bum, both characters were content with who they were. They were not going to go through a life crisis just because bad stuff was happening to them. In effect, they weren’t trying to be understood. They were good characters because of their sheer obliviousness to the outside world, their solid belief in friendship or even their dedication to laziness. I had seen Altman’s movie a few years before, and it was the first time I became intrigued with California. I thought Bridges was ideal for the part of the Dude. And, with John Goodman all set to play his right-hand man and bowling partner, the script came alive like a dress rehearsal. I could already imagine what it was all going to look, sound and feel like. The writing was precise and the script was visually detailed; two dream sequences that would require blue screens and digital technology were nevertheless written-out with visual coherence; specific songs were mentioned in scenes and it was clear that they were as significant to the story as the dialogue. It amazed me to see that even in the script, I was already getting the sense of the full movie. The excitement and joy that the boys got out of movie-making was pretty evident.

The autumn went by quickly. As the leaves turned and the chilliness returned, I was absorbed by the possibilities of the upcoming trip to California. My bosses wouldn’t budge on helping me with a rental car, but I had an old college friend who was willing to give me a place to rest my puppies at night. Things would be tight, but hell, there was more to the trip than money.

Joel and Ethan kept on assuring me that I was going to enjoy Hollywood. Frances, Joel’s wife, was warning me not to enjoy it, too much. “You might like it and never leave,” she forewarned one day. I laughed and told her that it wasn’t likely.

Funny, but I was looking forward to LA in a real schoolboy kind of way. I grew up around Upper West Siders, who by right held the city of Los Angeles in contempt. According to them, there was nothing to like about it. They told me, if I thought the East Side was bad, Jesus wait until you get to LA.

But I wanted to see LA for reasons that had nothing to do with what these people were talking about. I wasn’t going for the big movie connection scene. What had really set afire under my ass were the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn. Diebenkorn was a Californian painter who settled in Santa Monica in the late 196os. While there, he produced the Ocean Park series of landscape abstractions. What was so striking about his pictures was the light. Seeing them in New York, alongside the local heavies like De Kooning and Kline, I knew there was something going on, something sensual and open out there in all that Californian sunshine.

Lovely How I Let My Mind Float, Now I’m a Take My Baaaaad Ass Home Cause I’m Goat

Gary Sheffield will have surgery on his left shoulder today. The Yankees’ right fielder had been told by several doctors, including Dr. James Andres, Stuart Hershon, and Frank Jobe, that he wouldn’t need to be operated on, but the pain has continued, so he will in fact go ahead with the surgery. According to the New York Times:

[General Manager, Brian] Cashman described the operation as minor and said that if everything goes as expected, Sheffield will recover in four to five weeks.

The Times also picked up on a report which appeared last Sunday in the Dominican newspaper, El Caribe, concerning Pedro Martinez. Apparently, Pedro was impressed by Steinbrenner when the two met in Florida last week. In addition, Derek Jeter got together with him as well.

“I want respect, affection and the best treatment possible,” Mart”nez said, without specifying a contract figure. “I am not asking for anything that Pedro Mart”nez doesn’t deserve. People don’t understand that when it’s about a free agent, that means that you can go to the best bidder.”

…”I would play baseball even in a goat’s den,” he said. “Anywhere. That doesn’t worry me.”

Yup. He’s a ba-a-a-a-d, man. (Aw, hell, I just couldn’t resist.)

Meanwhile, Tony Massorotti reports in the Boston Herald that the Sox have upped their offer to Jason Varitek. Ah, the price of success.

Dreams

Awww, man. Monday morning and there’s not one baseball article to be found in New York’s big three papers. Over the weekend, there were rumors about the Yankees making an offer to Pedro Martinez (which was later contested), and the Red Sox making a counter proposal. Who knows what’s going on. The one that that is sure is that Pedro is making himself some mo money here.

In His Element

Several weeks ago, Sripraphai, a small, inviting Thai restaurant in Woodside, Queens got a two-star review from Frank Bruni in the New York Times. A friend at work hipped me to the place a few months ago, and the review reminded me that we should get out there, even if it meant waiting on line for a table. So Emily and I went out to Queens on Saturday night with Jay Jaffe and his girlfriend Andra, their close pal Nick Stone, and fellow AB-scribe, Alex Ciepley. The trip was well worth taking. The food lived up to advance billing and the price–$85 including a generous tip for six people–was oh so right.

But perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the evening was watching Alex C navigate us through the intricacies of Thai cuisine. A bonafide foodie who once lived in Thailand for a year-and-a-half, Ciepley was clearly a Duke in his domain. We all had dishes we wanted to try but were more than comfotable leaving the final decisions up to Alex who took care of the ordering. As each dish arrived and quickly made its way around the table, we ate at am insatiable, almost furious clip. About half-way through the meal Nick looked up and noticed that in his excitement as our defacto host and tour guide, Alex had barely eaten anything. But it didn’t seem to matter much; he was in his glory.

We all had a great time, and most importantly, the place had Alex’s seal of approval. On the subway ride home, Jay, Nick and I looked over at him, sitting with the girls on the other side of the train, his head buried in the take-home menu, lost in a reverie. The restaurant–not to mention the company—was terrific and another reminder of why living in a city like New York is so rewarding. (It was a cold, rainy night, but that didn’t stop us from going out of our way to the west village to pick up some off-the-hook cupcakes from the sinful Magnolia bakery.) What made the experience even sweeter was going with an expert like Alex, who derived so much pleasure and deep satisfaction from the trip that by the end of the night, my man was–and I don’t think this is an exaggeration–swooning.

Master and Commander

In researching the 1964 Cardinals for the Curt Flood project I’m working on, I came across a good bit about the difference betweeen Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra in Bill Veeck’s book (written with Ed Linn), “The Hustler’s Handbook.” In his first year as Yankee skipper, Berra won the pennant, then lost the World Serious in seven games and was promptly fired. So much for Yankee loyalty:

The decision to make Yogi Berra, of all people, the manager of the Yankees was admittedly one of the more moonstruck episodes in baseball. Furthermore, pitting him against Casey Stengel of the crosstown Mets was the worst mismtach in history. No boxing commission would have allowed it. Yogi is a completely manufactored product. He is a case study of this country’s unlimited ability to gull itself and be gulled.

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Politkin’ fer Pitchin

The priority for the Bronx Bombers this off-season is pitching. Yesterday, Joe Torre told the AP that he would welcome Pedro Martinez to New York, while Curt Schilling and the Red Sox wooed Carl Pavano. Lots of courting going on before Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, for some bonafide analysis on what the Yankees could or should do with their pitching staff, check out recent posts from Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe.

Go West

Yankee radio announcer Charley Steiner may be on his way to Los Angeles to join Vin Scully in the Dodgers broadcast booth. Jon Weisman asked what I thought about the prospect of Steiner leaving New York for the coast. The first thing that popped into my head was a moment from The Honeymooners when Alice sang, “I don’t want him, you can have him, he’s too fat for me.” Yo, chill kid. Actually, I don’t mind Steiner at all, but he was hopelessly miscast alongside ol’ Silver Throat, John Sterling. Why? Because their pairing violates the fat-skinny tradition of comedy teams like Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Gleason and Carney, Siskel and Ebert, and Mike and the Mad Dog. With Steiner and Sterling you had heft with hefty and the chemistry just didn’t work. I hope Steiner goes to L.A. and flourishes. What do you guys think? Weisman has a post up on it over at Dodger Thoughts. Head on over and chime in with the New York perspective.

Moose Call

The Red Sox didn’t waste any time responding to the meeting between Pedro Martinez and George Steinbrenner. Pedro met with Red Sox officials yesterday. According to Bob Hohler in the Boston Globe:

The meeting, which was scheduled before Martinez’s side trip to Steinbrenner’s offseason headquarters in Tampa, was considered crucial because both sides were eager to reach an agreement and move on to other concerns.

At the very least, Martinez almost certainly needed to sense some willingness by the Sox to improve their initial offer if he were to maintain faith in the negotiations. And the Sox needed to determine whether they could afford to reasonably satisfy Martinez’s expectations, particularly if he believed his meeting with Steinbrenner improved his bargaining position.

On a conference call with reporters yesterday, Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina said he didn’t think the Bombers need to make any drastic moves:

“Almost everyone was new last year, and nobody was really sure what was going to happen, and we had injuries to deal with,” Mussina said. “To win 101 games with that kind of staff was pretty impressive. We may just need a little bit of an adjustment.

“If you keep trying to do an entire overhaul every year, you’re not going to get 101 wins every year. One year, you’re going to do that and it’s not going to happen. Maybe we have to work with it just a touch and try that, instead of trying to throw a new handful of people in there.”

The perfessor has spoken.

Let’s Do Lunch

Pedro Martinez met with George Steinbrenner yesterday in Florida. It was only a matter of time, right? It is not clear if Martinez and Steinbrenner are using each other to drive up Pedro’s price-tag or if he has a sincere interest in playing for the Yankees next year. Yankee officials are said not to be attracted to Martinez, but that’s never stopped Steinbrenner before. The Yankees could also be engaging in talks with Martinez to influence a possible deal with Arizona for Randy Johnson. So much posturing and so much time…John Harper has a good take on the story today in the Daily News.

Meanwhile, Gary Sheffield made the front page of the local tabloids today. Man, just say the word scandal these days and you are bound to see R. Kelly’s name attached to it.

That Time of Year

For some of us, a season never feels complete until Roger Angell weighs in with his take in pages of The New Yorker. Angell’s latest is available on the Internet (thanks to Repoz for the link). A longtime Red Sox sympathizer, Boston fans will relish this one. Enjoy:

I didn’t think much about all my Red Sox fan-friends until the World Series was over. Now they are triumphant, and their old pains and desperate attachments have become historic and quirky. They won’t need their amulets and game-watching rituals anymore—the stuff that was mentioned in so many of the TV news stories the day after, and in some New England newspaper feature stories. A copy of the Bangor Daily News mentioned a family in Old Town that mowed a “Go, Sox” pattern in the lawn, and a ninety-four-year-old lady in Lakeville, Massachusetts, who made herself a little ceramic Fenway Park each year, with porcelain nuns at play inside. This stuff may go on, but, like the Sox home games next year, it will be terrific fun but not the same. Perhaps trying to hold on to something, I got in touch with a bygone Red Sox hero, the pitcher Jim Lonborg, who had won two games in the World Series of 1967 and lost the last one, Game Seven, to Bob Gibson, whom he’d faced on two days’ rest. Lonborg is a dentist in Hanover, Massachusetts, and he called me back after he’d finished with his first patient of the day. He told me that he still got back to Fenway Park to see the Sox three or four times each year, and he admired the energy of this new bunch. So far, none of his old teammates had called, but a few friends had, savoring the day. He’d watched the last World Series game with his twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Nora—he has six children—and they’d high-fived after the Sox won.

“That’s all?” I said.

Left of Center

Just how important is it to have left-handed pitching, particularly left-handed starting pitching? Neither the Red Sox or the Yankees (or the Astros or Cardinals) had any left-handed starters in the playoffs this past year. But the word around town is that the Yankees are craving one, if not two southpaws for their 2005 rotation. The Daily News delineates possible Yankee plans today, while the Times reports that the Bombers may have interest in a lefty of a different kind–get this–first baseman Carlos Delgado. (Umm, huh?)

Winter of Their Discontent Part I (of a Running Series)

How long will the Yankees be haunted by how the 2004 season ended? At least until spring training, probably longer. Jack Curry caught up with Alex Rodriguez recently and the Yankees’ third baseman is feeling predicatably low:

Three weeks after the Yankees faded in four straight losses and two weeks after Rodriguez barely watched the Red Sox shelve 85 seasons of misery, Rodriguez settled on the villain in this tale. He looked in the mirror and never stopped staring.

“The fact that I got what I got, I deserved every bit of it because I was brought here to help win a championship and we didn’t get that done,” Rodriguez said. “Therefore, we failed. I don’t think you can point your finger at any one guy because we win and lose as a team. But if you had to point a finger, I think you would point it right at me.”

…”Obviously, what will make it better is coming back next year and winning a title,” Rodriguez said. “But I’ll never forgive myself or my team. As good as we were, there’s no way we should have lost four games in a row to anyone. That disappointed me. That shouldn’t have happened.”

As far as Curt Schilling’s post-championship comments about Rodriguez:

“Anytime he says something about me it’s a compliment, especially when they’re in their championship parade and they’re still thinking about us,” Rodriguez said. “The one thing I hope is that he continues to speak poorly about me and the Yankees because that will give us great motivation to beat the Red Sox in the future.”

As Rodriguez carefully selected his words, he was seething. He is miffed that Schilling, who made several recruiting calls to Rodriguez about joining the Red Sox after Schilling was traded there last November, has blasted him so incessantly.

But, when Rodriguez was asked if the words hurt, he said: “Absolutely not. Red Sox are not supposed to like Yankees.”

What are the odds that Rodriguez will be in the middle of another brawl between the Yanks and Sox next year?

Post Script with Bill James

Bronx Banter celebrates a Boitday, Albeit Belatedly

A few weeks ago I posed a series of questions about the end of the 2004 Yankee-Red Sox season to a group of writers. Bill James was one of the guys I had contacted to participate. The first post I ever wrote here at Bronx Banter was about James. I just looked back on it and noticed that I celebrated my second birthday of hosting Bronx Banter last week and didn’t even notice it. I knew it was sometime in November dangit. (It was Em’s birthday yesterday and you can bet your sweet bibbie that I remembered that one!) Anyhow, James didn’t respond, until yesterday that is. So I threw a few more bp fastballs his way and here is what he had to say for himself.

Bronx Banter: Did you attend any of the playoff games?
Bill James: Three games of the series against the Yankees, all four in the World Series.
BB: How tense were you watching the ALCS, especially games 5 and 6?

BJ: One click short of a heart attack.

(more…)

You’ve Got to Pick Your Spots

It’s All About Timing

It’s tough to find successful “As-told-to” biographies. I imagine that most of them consist of the subject talking into a tape recorder for many hours and dumping the mess on a writer. Then the writer goes off to transcribe the ramblings in the attempt turn it into something coherent. I may be wrong, but rarely do these kind of books strike me as true collaborations. The results are often clumsy and artless, though they can still be entertaining. But it’s a pleasure when a book of this sort seems to capture the subject’s spirit, their rhythms and inflections. When the writer and subject actually connect.

As I mentioned earlier in the week, Ed Linn captured Leo Durocher’s personality vividily in their book, “Nice Guys Finish Last.” Another winning example is “Second Wind: Memoirs of an Opinonated Man,” by Bill Russell with the historian Taylor Branch (1979, Random House; currently out-of-print). Russell grew up in West Oakland, and I came across this book researching the Curt Flood project I’ve been working on. (Rusell was four years older than Flood but played high school basketball with Frank Robinson.) Anyhow, it is a terrific read, emotionally direct and tender. Well worth snatching if you ever find it in a used bookshop.

(more…)

We Can Work it Out

At the annual charity dinner for Joe Torre’s “Safe at Home” foundation last night, Jorge Posada told reporters that should the Yankees sign Pedro Martinez, he would be cool with it:

“I don’t have anything against Pedro, if he’s my teammate,” Posada said. “Obviously, we’d work things out. I’d catch him. You know this guy’s a winner, he knows how to pitch, he does everything possible to try to win and keep in shape.

“I’ve got no problems getting things straight and going on. We are gentlemen here and we are adults, so we can work things out.”

Posada also lobbied for another Martinez, his old pal Tino, to return to the Bronx. Which Martinez would you rather see in pinstripes in 2005?

Chock Fulla…Stuff

It’s getting winter cold here in New York. But there is plenty of hot baseball air in the papers today: the Times reports that the Yankees are setting their sights squarely on Carlos Beltran; the Post notes that Brian Cashman and Joe Garagiola Jr met briefly, presumably to talk about Randy Johnson; Newsday mentions that Andruw Jones could be a good fit for New York should Beltran slip away, and according to the Daily News, the Yankees also met with Carl Pavano’s agent yesterday. The News also has a story about the Mets interviewing Yankee coach Rick Down without permission. Ostensibly, it’s all much ado about nothing, but at least it’s about baseball.

One thing is for sure, Mel Stottlemyre will be back for one final season as pitching coach and Joe Girardi will be Joe Torre’s bench coach. According to the Times:

“I had always intended on returning,” Stottlemyre said. “I never had the word retirement in my mind at any time. There was more in the papers about retiring than I had in my mind.”

…”My family very much wants me to go out the right way,” he said. “I think the way is to announce that this will be my last year as pitching coach for the New York Yankees. Doing it this way takes away a lot of the thinking that health might be a problem.”

…”I sensed a little bit from what you read in the papers and things going around that someone in the Yankee organization might be happy if I stepped down,” Stottlemyre said, in reference to articles that appeared last week suggesting that he was preparing to retire.

Some Yankee fans, including me, have wondered if it isn’t time for Mel to move on. However, Steven Goldman defended Stottlemyre well in the most recent edition of “The Pinstriped Bible”:

In general…I think we’re too quick to blame Stottlemyre for things that have gone wrong and don’t give him enough credit for the many things have gone right.

…Perhaps Stottlemyre couldn’t help [Jeff] Weaver get over his psychological problems. Neither could Joe Torre and a dozen other people connected with the Yankees organization. Every pitching coach has some pupils that will not be helped. The pitcher then changes teams and does a little better because he’s found a coach who can somehow get through to him, or he’s desperate enough to finally listen. Jason Marquis, who could not find success with the Braves’ Leo Mazzone but was helped by the Cardinals’ Dave Duncan, is a great example.

That leaves [Javier] Vazquez. If, as has been continually asserted, Vazquez’s problem was mechanical/psychological (though emphatically not a phobic response to New York) rather than physical, it would be fair to say that Stottlemyre deserves to share some of the blame for the pitcher’s breakdown. Still, there is a limit to what any teacher can do with a pupil who is unwilling or unable to listen, and in the heat of a pennant race, with 10 other pitchers to manage, the task becomes even more difficult.

And, as I’ve already mentioned here before, I’m excited about Joe G becoming the bench coach.

Sayorana

Roger Clemens won his seventh Cy Young award yesterday. It was not a surprising cherce. Even if he wasn’t the best pitcher in the league it’s pretty special that he pitched so well for the Astros. Looks like he’s serious about hanging em up this time too. If this is it, what a way to go, huh?

Speaking of saying good bye, Brian Gunn, who has been one of the most prolific, informative and entertaining baseball writers on the Internet for the past two seasons is closing up shop at Redbird Nation to persue other interests. Check out his farewell post. He will be missed.

Lastly, there is a Mike Piazza for Shawn Green rumor making the rounds at the general managers’ meetings. Hmmm. What do you think, Met fans? Also, check out the latest baseball stylings from Rob Neyer and Steven Goldman.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver