"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Monthly Archives: January 2010

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On the Low…

Here are a couple of news items via Chad Jennings:

Yanks trade for OF Greg Golson, and Ben Sheets signs with the A’s while Xavier Nady heads to the Cubbies.

Bronx Banter Interview: Mike Vaccaro

People talk about the electricity of a heavyweight title bout, the spectacle of the Super Bowl, or the madness of the NCAA basketball tournament, but for my money there is no greater championship than baseball’s World Series. In those years when we’re lucky enough to see the game’s two best teams engaged in a closely fought series, we witness a battle which stretches out over more than a week as the Series lives and breathes with context and texture unmatched by any other sport’s championship. Because of this, the greatest of these Series live etched in our memory, and even those which were merely good become the subjects of books.

We all remember the ecstasy and the agony (not to mention the Mystique and Aura) of the 2001 World Series; we know the significance of Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa, and Charlie Hough; we’ve mimicked Carlton Fisk’s frantic waving from 1975; and we’ve seen the grainy newsreel footage of Mazeroski’s clinching home run in 1960. Because we are fans of the Game, we feel like we know all there is to know – or at least all we’re supposed to know.

But what if we don’t? Enter Mike Vaccaro and his latest book, The First Fall Classic: The Red Sox, the Giants and the Cast of Players, Pugs and Politicos Who Re-Invented the World Series in 1912, an engaging look at a World Series you’ve never heard of. As he describes the Hall of Fame players and personalities on both sides, as well as politicians and gamblers lurking on the sidelines, Vaccaro argues that this was the series that gave the World Series its place in our national psyche. He was kind enough to talk with me about it for a bit recently. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did. (Note: As I opened the book, I had no idea of how the Series eventually turned out, and I enjoyed this added suspense. In order to preserve this for any readers who might like a similar experience, the author and I did not discuss the outcome. Where indicated, some of the links will give the result.)

Bronx Banter:  Have you always been a baseball fan? Did you play as a kid?

Mike Vaccaro:  Yeah, absolutely. Baseball was always a pretty important part of my childhood, and now it’s an important part of my adulthood. I played through high school and was never terrible, but never terribly good. Always just enjoyed it. I like to stay close to the game.

BB:  So what teams and players did you follow as a kid?

MV:  I was a Mets fan growing up. Most of my childhood they were awful and then later on they kinda gave us a nice shining moment in ’86, so that was my team growing up, for sure. I was a big Tom Seaver fan, as I’m sure almost all kids of my age were.

BB:  I suppose for a lot of your life you were probably hoping for a career playing baseball. At what point did you decide on a career in journalism?

MV:  When I realized that I not only couldn’t hit the curveball, I couldn’t throw the curveball, I could barely identify a curveball. If I was gonna do anything at all in terms of professional experience, it would have to be from the sidelines in some regard. Writing was something that I enjoyed, so it was a natural marriage.

BB:  Here’s a question that I always look forward to asking journalists: are you still a fan? Can you be a fan – not just of the game, but of the Mets, for example – and a journalist at the same time?

MV:  I’m a fan of the Mets in the sense that when they play well it’s a lot more interesting story to cover, I think. I do think that the occasional train wreck is also an enjoyable story for people to read, but let’s face it – Mets fans would prefer to read stories that have to do with the Mets doing well, just as Yankees fans do also. So I do think that it’s probably fair that when you’re working the press box you root for good stories first before you root for teams or anybody, but I do think they go hand in hand. And I do try to look a little bit through the prism of a sports fan, even though that’s hard to do. You do obviously have access fans don’t have, and so therefore you have to take advantage of that telling your own stories, but I like to think I understand what sports fans bring to the game. I try and have that color my writing. I don’t believe in the complete detachment of emotion when it comes to writing. I know a lot of people like to say, “I hate the games, I don’t like the games, I don’t care about the games,” but I think if you do that, that really informs your writing and I think it really lessens it as well.

BB:  I think I’d agree with that. So with this book, what was your research process like? Where did you get your information, how long were you researching, and when did you sit down to write?

MV:  It was actually a fairly swift process. I suppose one of the good things about writing a book in which all the characters are dead, is that you’re kind of on your own schedule, not anybody else’s schedule. (Laughing.) So it was just a matter of getting my butt to the library, to the archives, to the Hall of Fame, and all these places where you could find the information that I wanted to find. It’s interesting. In a lot of ways it was easier to write a book about that era than it even would be about the 50s or certainly today, because there were so many newspapers, there were so many stories written, there were so many of these players that were first-person reporters in their own right for all these newspapers. It was almost… I won’t say there was too much information, but there was certainly enough there to be able to weave a tale out of it. From the first moment I arrived in the library with a blank notebook trying to start taking notes, to turning in the final manuscript was probably about nine months, start to finish. And the funny part about book publishing is that it actually was longer between turning in the final manuscript and publication than the actual book itself. That’s partly because instead of having a release date earlier in the year they decided on one to coincide with the playoffs, which was a smart marketing decision, I think.


Beat of the Day

The Master

Yankee Panky: Johnny Dangerously

As of this writing, it’s January 26, and Johnny Damon is in free agent limbo. To date, t’s been a bizarre soap opera of power plays, hasn’t it?

Here’s the brief chronicle of events:

* Scott Boras sets Damon’s “value” at $13 million a year and states Damon won’t sign for less than a three-year deal. The Yankees were amused.

* Brian Cashman, after pulling off the three-team stunner that brought the Yankees Curtis Granderson, counters with two years at $14. Boras is amused and counters at two-for-20.

* Hideki Matsui signs with the Angels Who-Claim-To-Be-From-LA-Only-To-Boost-Marketing-Efforts for one year at $6 million. The Yankees are amused and silently gloat that they might have assessed the market correctly.

* The Yankees raise eyebrows by signing Nick Johnson to a one-year, $5M deal to be the DH, and a week later, swinging Melky Cabrera to Atlanta in a package that brought Javier Vazquez back to the Yankees. Amusement reigned in the sense of irony the Vazquez acquisition represented; here is the man who gave up the home run to Damon that effectively cemented the worst postseason collapse – or greatest comeback, depending on your perspective – in baseball history. As Daffy Duck once said, “Ho ho. That’s rich. It is to laugh.”

So here it is now that Damon, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney, has interest from the Oakland A’s (monetary value unknown). Meanwhile, Jon Heyman reports that the Yankees have $2 million left in their budget. Elsewhere, Marc Carig heard directly from the source that Damon expects to have a team within a week. If you believe Bill Madden, Damon overplayed his hand and the Yankees misjudged how much they need him.

That may seem dramatic. Michael Kay, on his afternoon show, discussed the Heyman and Olney reports. He wondered if the A’s are offering $5 million and the Yankees do in fact make a last-ditch, take-it-or-leave-it $2 million offer, will Damon swallow his pride, deal with the “emasculation” of an 85 percent pay cut and sign with the Yankees, or if he’ll take Oakland’s money, since that’s the best offer. Bonnie Bernstein opined that if Damon comes back, when he reports to Spring Training and is welcomed heartily, he’ll reclaim his status in the clubhouse. Kay wondered if the ego blow would be too much, noting that the Yankees management “keeps score” (Kay’s words), and would silently revel in their victory.

The Yankees have been known to wait until February to pull rabbits out of their hat. February is a week from now. There are still some pretty notable rabbits on the market. Judging from the flow of reports that surfaced over the last 24 hours, the Yankees might have smartly waited for the New York football season to officially end before breaking their silence.

One thing is certain: Brett Gardner will not be the Yankees’ starting left fielder in Spring Training. … Right?


The House That Ruth Built (Funny Name for a Man…Ruth)

Want a good look at the original Yankee Stadium? Well, check out this scene from Buster Keaton’s first MGM picture–and arguably his last great one–The Cameraman (1928).

Uptown Saturday Night

I walked down to Broadway Saturday evening to do the weekly shopping. The Uptown Sports Complex is across the street from the market so I stopped in to say hello. I wrote a piece about summer sports in New York last year for SI.com and featured a segment on the Complex which is owned by a couple of guys who went to high school with longtime Banterite, Dimelo. The owners and Dimelo (which is a moniker, Dominican slang for “What’s up?”) are part of a group of eight or nine guys who’ve known each other since they were kids. They call themselves “The Usual Suspects.”  

The place was jumping. Sixty, seventy people were crammed inside–most of them young men in and around the batting cages. This is peak season for the cages, when high school teams come to work out and prepare for the spring. I was pleased to see that business was booming.

I saw Ernies, one of the owners, and went to say hello. He had a mop in his hand and looked distracted. He was setting up for a memorial service. One of Ernies’ high school friends, guy named Manny, died earlier this month near his home in South Florida. He was 35. Manny played football with Ernies at JFK and had some talent. He went to Wisconsin, was the starting tackle for Ron Dayne and won the Rose Bowl withthe Badgers. He never made it as a pro and shortly after graduating, he moved to Miami, and had a child with one of Ernies’ great friends.

“We went down to see him every once in a while,” Ernies told me. “He was part of the extended crew. But we talked all the time. He wanted to open up a cage down there too.” Ernies finished mopping up a spill near the restroom and put the mop in a storage closet.  

“My man had South Beach locked down,” he said.  “Every place we went to down there, all we had to do is mention his name and we drank for free. He had it on lock.”

Manny worked twelve-hour shifts as a security guard and he’d been working a lot around New Year’s Eve. After one shift, he fell asleep at the wheel. The car crashed and caught fire. He was trapped inside and burned to death. He left behind four children and a wife.

The service began at six o’clock. I waited around for Dimelo to pay my respects but felt out-of-place–I looked like a scrub, not fit for a memorial–so I gave my condolences to Ernies and his partner Andy and went to the market. The service was conducted, attended by family and friends. Dimelo called me later and reported that only one cage still operated as the service began–Manny’s mother wanted it that way. The sound of the bat hitting the ball could be heard as they cried and hugged and remembered a man who died too soon.

I was across the street picking through the string beans when I saw Ralphie, the eldest member of “The Usual Suspects.” I watched five or six playoff and World Serious games with the crew last fall and met him on a few occasions. He is a dapper man. I held out my fist and we exchanged a pound as he moved past. He was talking on his phone, “Yeah, I’m just picking up some juice for the memorial,” he said as he turned the corner.

I thought about my wife and my friends. Then I went back to picking through the beans. Carefully.

Beat of the Day

I took a blues break and I broke it.

Diamond D

A Helping Hand

Dig this, from author and historian Glenn Stout:

Let’s try to do some good here. I don’t have to tell you what is happening in Haiti and how they are in need of everything, but I was looking around my office the other day and came up with an idea that might give a small measure of help.

Here’s the deal – I have extra copies of some of my books (see list below). In exchange for a donation to the reputable charity of your choice, I’ll send you copy of the book signed by me.

News Update – 1/25/10

Today’s update is powered by Fats Domino (congrats to the Saints on their first Super Bowl appearance):

Alex Rodriguez looked at the award he just received from Babe Ruth’s granddaughter with big eyes and a broad grin. It was as if he almost couldn’t believe it was his. “Postseason MVP. Wow,” Rodriguez said Saturday night. Pausing for effect he added, “What’s next, the good guy award?”

. . . And after he told fans at the dinner that “he’d stick to the script of 2009 and keep it very, very brief,” he choked up, taking a long pause — save for a nervous laugh — to look down at the podium and smile awkwardly.

Back on Thursday.

Krup You!

J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets (but the pick here is Peyton).

A Tumbleweed on a Bandwagon

I’m very much looking forward to the Jets game this weekend. New Yorkers under 40 have never seen this team achieve any greater success. But despite growing up in Northern New Jersey, I’m not a Jets fan (though I prefer them to the Giants if pressed). In fact, thinking back to my high school class of 1994, I can easily recall fans of the Cowboys, Redskins, Niners, Bears, and Dolphins, but no Jets fans. And I can’t seem to find any real enthusiasm for Sunday’s game in my contact list either. There are no group emails flying around, no shared experience of a weeklong buzz like there was in October. The only collective sense of excitement is centered around a handful of guys at my office who are all over 55.

Maybe it was just dumb luck that my high school friends had no particular allegiance to the local teams, but I wonder if the New York area fans that came to sports in the early ’80s formed their attachments based on a very unique set of circumstances: the advent of free agency and the relative vacuum of local championships. My teams as a young child of 5 or so were the Yankees, the Steelers, the Sixers, and the Islanders (surprisingly, this quartet remains intact 30 years later). But much more accurately, my loyalty was to Reggie, Mean Joe, Dr. J and Mike Bossy. I wasn’t old enough to be ashamed of picking the most successful teams over the local ones and my fandom centered on a dominant personality of performer. And, other than Bossy, these were the guys featured in national ad campaigns.

Though I wasn’t drinking Coke yet, I’m pretty sure the classic Mean Joe jersey commercial was a foundational plank in my relationship with the Steelers. Dr. J’s awesome Spalding cartoons were on the back of every Marvel comic my brother brought home and the Reggie bar was the greatest frigging piece of candy ever made (at least to that 5 year old). And when push came to shove and Reggie left the Yankees, so did I.

Is that a part of why I can’t find many Jets fans under 40? Or is it all about the trophy case? What are your teams? And how did you pick them? And will you be watching the Jets on Sunday?

Those Were the Daze

Can you name all four members of the New York Sack Exchange?

Beat of the Day

This one comes from our pal Larry Roibal. Dig…


His Way:

Am I Keeping You Awake?

Interesting essay on boredom in the Times Book Review:

As a general state of mind, boredom is morally suspect, threatening to shine its dull light back on the person who invokes it. “The only horrible thing in the world is ­ennui,” Oscar Wilde once wrote, suggesting that boredom doesn’t feel much better in French. “That is the one sin for which there is no forgiveness.”

And yet boredom is woven into the very fabric of the literary enterprise. We read, and write, in large part to avoid it. At the same time, few experiences carry more risk of active boredom than picking up a book. Boring people can, paradoxically, prove interesting. As they prattle on, you step back mentally and start to catalog the irritating timbre of the offending voice, the reliance on cliché, the almost comic repetitiousness — in short, you begin constructing a story. But a boring book, especially a boring novel, is just boring. A library is an enormous repository of information, entertainment, the best that has been thought and said. It is also probably the densest concentration of potential boredom on earth.

Friday Night Lights

Home Sweet Home.

Never gets old, does it?

It’s Good to Be the King

Our man Cliff takes a look at the Felix Hernandez extension over at SI.com:

Save for brief a bit of elbow tightness in mid-2007 and fluky sprained ankle in 2008, Hernandez has shown no signs of fragility in his first five major league seasons, but any long-term pitching contract carries a significant injury risk, no matter what the pitcher’s previous medical history might be. Pitching is an extremely unnatural act that places enormous stress and strain on two major joints filled with delicate ligaments, muscles, and connective tissues. Even the healthiest pitcher’s arm can go pop at any time. Hernandez has proven to be durable thus far, but that has resulted in a lot of innings pitched at a very young age. Because young men’s bodies are still completing the growing and maturing process in their early twenties, any pitcher under 25 is automatically an elevated injury risk. That’s why an increasing number of teams have come to enforce pitch and innings limits on their young starters.

Hernandez was so good so young that he made his major league debut at 19 and has already thrown 905 major league innings at age 23, 820 2/3 of them over the last four seasons. The M’s did well to keep Hernandez below 200 innings pitched in his first two full major league seasons, and he topped out at 200 2/3 innings in his third season, but his breakout 2009 season saw him throw 238 2/3 innings, which is a ton for a 23 year old. The M’s have also been smart about Hernandez’s pitch counts, as he’s thrown 120 or more pitches in a major league game just once, that coming in his penultimate start of 2009, though, again, his pitches per start have increased annually over the last three seasons, reaching 107 in 2009.

Meanwhile, it appears as if the Mets have traded for Gary Mathews, Jr.  Okay…

Beat of the Day



Observations From Cooperstown: Rust, Appel, and Russo

“Arthur George, you’re on the air.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard those words during the early 1980s. With that unusual greeting, Art Rust Jr., who died earlier this month from Parkinson’s disease at age 82, welcomed his callers to the WABC airwaves to take part in his iconic sports talk show. This was before the inception of all-sports radio, first introduced by WFAN in 1987 and now a common format to most major markets. Prior to WFAN, Rust’s nighttime show represented the sum of sports talk radio in the tri-state area; it became a must-listen for rabid sports fans.

With his deep, distinctive voice, acute knowledge of baseball history, and willingness to interview beat writers and columnists, Rust provided listeners like me with an opportunity to dissect the controversial issues of the day, while also learning about some of Rust’s favorite old-time ballplayers, like Marty Marion and Terry Moore. The show was especially good during the winter, with Rust tending to baseball’s hot stove like a master chef. Ironically, the show achieved a huge jump in popularity during the baseball strike of 1981; with no games to be watched or heard, thousands of sports fans tuned in to WABC to hear Rust pontificate about the latest issue of the day.

Unfortunately, the show began to lose credibility with me one winter, when Rust made a series of predictions about the Yankees’ off-season plans. He stated plainly that the Yankees would make several blockbuster moves, including a trade that would send Willie Randolph to the Cubs for Bill Buckner and another deal that would land Buddy Bell from Texas for some unknown package of talent. Rust said the trades were “done deals” that would happen, without question. Well, none of those trades ever took place. Rust never apologized for being wrong–he made a backhanded excuse about why they didn’t happen–and with that, I began to lose a little faith in his on-air proclamations.

Nonetheless, Rust supplied baseball fans with plenty of entertainment during the 1980s. With all-sports radio and the Internet unknown concepts yet to be introduced to the public, Art Rust, Jr. made many winter nights far more passable. For that, I owe Arthur George Rust, Jr. a debt of thanks…


Gooder and Gooder

Were you read to as a kid? And I don’t mean when you were three or four, but when you were seven, eight and nine? I have cousins who were read to by their parents–from Watership Down to Dickens–until they were at least ten, possibly older. I always thought that was cool; what an easy way to read by just listening! But it also encouraged their own reading because as far as I know these cousins are all avid readers as adults.

I thought about reading to children on the subway this morning when a mother came on the train with her son, who must have been six or seven, and started reading aloud. She was an older mom, in her Fifties, and she read from one of the Frank L Baum Oz books. The boy was distracted. I could see the pupils of his eyes quickly darting, like a gliched cursor on a computer screen, as he looked out of the window at a passing station.

I was distracted too. I didn’t want to hear the mother reading and wondered what does the subway etiquette manual say about this one? But not for long. So I put on my headphones and shuffled my i-pod. Talk Like Sex, an old pornographic and sexist record with a tight beat by Kool G Rap came on. I watched the mother read and listened to G Rap and smiled at the incogruity of it all. Then she stopped reading and talked to her son, who was pointing at the ads overheard, and they laughed together.

Mother, Dear

Well, these two were absolutely priceless, weren’t they?

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