"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Dem’s Da Breaks

There aren’t many games I’d like to read about less than Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Already the framework for Buster Olney’s book about the Yankees’ most recent championship run, the game itself is probably one of the single most painful moments of my Yankee life. I’m not asking anyone to cry for me–in the middle of the night after the Diamondbacks won, restless from a lack of sleep, I was able to get some much-need perspective when I realized that the team had in fact just won the three previous titles. Brother, I thought, it could be a lot worse. Still, three outs away? With Marinao on the mound? Man, you’d have to take that everytime, right? After the eighth inning an old friend of mine–a Mets/Red Sox fan–called up and said, “Well, that’s about that, huh?” I nearly broke the phone slamming it down. You never make that call, bro. Especially, after those Murphy’s Law-defying games at the Stadium.

The 2001 Serious was far more difficult for me to stomach than the 2004 playoff collapse to the Red Sox. Yet the way in which they lost to Arizona was somehow fitting. Here were the Yankees getting spanked around all Series long and if it weren’t for two nights of Miracles, there would never have even been a Game 7. But there was, and in the end the Yankees simply got out-Yankeed.

I know my emotions were heightened in the aftermath of 9.11, and there were a lot of people out there pulling for the Yankees (not everyone, cause you’d have been hard-pressed to find a Red Sox or Met fan not cheering for joy once the D-Backs won). In all, they played spirited ball during those playoffs, knocking off superior teams from Oakland and spoiling what could have been a truly historic season in Seattle. What’s the old cliche? You can have anything you want, you just can’t have everything. Well, the Yankees gave its fans and baseball fans in general an amazing run in ’01–exactly what we needed. But they just couldn’t do everything, they couldn’t get the final three outs.

Charles Euchner’s new book, “The Last Nine Innings,” tells the story of baseball through the prism of Game Seven. He explores fielding (infield and, in an illuminating chapter on Steve Finley, outfield), baserunning, hitting, pitching, relief pitching, training, and managing. There are good interviews with Matt Williams and Mark Grace, Curt Schilling and surprisingly, Shane Spencer. What distinguishes Euchner’s book is that it has an “insider’s” feel written from an “outsider’s” persepctive. While “The Last Nine Innings” refers to the events surrounding that post-season, the author sticks mainly to the nuts-and-bolts aspect of the game, both in the training room and on the field.

The results are satisfying and surprising, and the book is accesible for the novice fan while absorbing for the die-hard nut too. I had a few minor quibbles–in characterizing Bernie Williams as a guy who is over-looked, I think Euchner himself over-looks him–but I was most taken with Euchner’s even-handed writing style. The prose isn’t fancy, but clear and to the point. Euchner’s book is balanced, fair and informative. It’s well worth checking out, even for those Yankee fans who may still be licking their wounds.

You Dancing? (You Asking?)

One bit I especially liked in “The Last Nine innings” comes at the begining of Chapter Four (which will be excerpted in full later this week):

“Whenever I’m teaching younger players, what I ask is, ‘Can you dance?’” Matt Williams, the Diamondbacks’ veteran third baseman who came to the big leagues as a shortstop in 1987, is ruminating about the art of defensive play in the four infield positions. Williams has become a philosopher of the game as he struggles to cool down his intensity and combine his God-given athleticism with his growing knowledge of the game.

Dancing—an activity that brings together focus and relaxation, grace and quickness, initiative and cooperation—provides Williams with the concept he needs to play his position. Dancing helps him understand when and how to stay loose but also when to move quickly. Keep light on the feet like a dancer, then you can attack and parry, as the play requires.

“That’s all it is—you’re just dancing through the ball. When your feet stop, when your feet get lead[en], your hand gets hard, when you don’t adjust to a bounce, that’s when you make mistakes.”

This reminded me of something that the film director John Huston once said about his cameramen (from Huston’s autobiography, “An Open Book”):

I work closely with the cameraman and with the operator, the man who actually manipulates the camera. He looks through the lengs, executing what you’ve specified. At the end of a shot you look to him to see if he’s brought it off. The camera is sometimes required to take part in a sort of a dance with the artists, and its movements timed as if they were to music, and I’ve noticed that most good operators have a natural sense of rhythm. They usually dance well, play drums, juggle or do something that requires good timing and balance.

When I was about 13 I met Mike Fox, an old friend of my father’s who happened to be a camera operator. He would become a mentor and a role model for me, both in writing, movies, and life. I shared the Huston quote above with him in a letter from the summer of 1994. The following is his reply:

As usual, I loved the extract by John Huston. I won’t bore you with eulogies, but by Christ, when that man related a story, especially with a camera, he was riveting. He is one of the few people I could listen to for hours on end without seeking to interrupt.

…As I got longer in the tooth as an operator and began to develop real self-condience, I found myself loosening up with the viewfinder when lining-up a mater-scene with actors. I’d use a fixed as opposed to a zoom lens, thus ensuring that the camera had to move, rather than simply zoom to contain the required action. And I began to find myself behaving liek an extra person in the scene. I’d stand among the actors as they rehearsed for the line-up and follow wherever the interest took me. If one actor walked over to a window or a chair, the better to address teh others, then I might follow him and pan with him as he moved again, allowing me to pick up and stop on another grouping, or perhaps a close-up. I didn’t move the camera for the sake of it, but allowed the spoken drama, the actors’ natural movements, or perhaps just the body-language, to draw it in or push it back. Thus, I found, one couple capture the action and reaction naturally, as it was played out, and most importantly, wihtout imposing clever-clever camerawork on the audience while their attentions were being rightly drawn to the drama. The best of this that I ever did was on Dangerous Liasons. This was because I was given a free hand, and the work is thus beautifully fluid and alive–not because of me, I emphasise, but because the actors were fluid and alive, and I had developed the self-confidence to allow the camera the freedom to add, if you like, a visual grammar to what they were doing.

This is what Huston was talking about–the dynamic frame, to put it more pedantically. His technique was alive with invention, but it never imposed itself, as Welles’ work almost never failed to do. It is why Welles amounted to little more than a filmic conjuror, a grand-standing trickster, in my book. Huston, on the other hand, was uniquely talented–and I can play the drums, twirl a lariat, and juggle too.

Happy feet keep the beat.

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