"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Games We Play

Not Fade Away

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Over at Grantland, Brian Phillips has a nice story on Roger Federer:

He likes doing this; that’s the point. Being on tour, being competitive, being celebrated: This stuff feels more satisfying to him than the lonely relishing of some legacy in which he had a better head-to-head record against Djokovic. So why not keep it going as long as he can? And not to get too dogmatic about what’s basically the story of a person liking his job, but isn’t that the model of grown-up maturity that we should want from an elite athlete? So often, great players in their late careers wind up eclipsed by their own narratives, their choices constrained by a whole complex of considerations involving memorialization and pride and morning-sports-zoo yell. Think about, say, the question of Kobe’s retirement — how free does that decision feel? There’s an entrapped feeling around Kobe that Federer seems to have sidestepped. And fine, maybe he wouldn’t have sidestepped that so gracefully if his decline hadn’t been so gradual, but then, that’s also part of the point. He’s living the life he actually has, not some portable-across-platforms version of the athlete’s journey.

In America, at least, how we read any great athlete’s ending still seems influenced by Michael Jordan’s merciless stage-managing of his own second retirement. (The “real” one, not the baseball one.) Hit the last shot, seize the title, never lose, never show weakness, end on a big banging chord that the audience remembers forever; then you’re a champion for all time, in the same way Cheers never closes. That this is, actually, such an impossibly grotesque and dehumanizing approach that not even Michael Jordan could resist coming back to screw it up should possibly tell us something. But there it is, an ideal that every generational-apex-type star has to contend with on some level. Any concession to the imperfect human process of finding your way toward what you want has to be understood in terms of the toll it takes on the memory you leave behind.

I can’t speak for you, but me? I’ll take Federer’s version.

[Photo Credit: AFP]

Splitsville

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Got to figure the Warriors are going to even-up the Finals tonight (in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cavs don’t win another game).

I’ll be pulling for Lebron and his boys, though.

Painting by Ernest Barnes, Jr.

 

Splish Splash

Golden State Warriors v Cleveland Cavaliers

The NBA Finals start tonight. I am rooting for the Cavs because I’d like to see Cleveland celebrate a championship. But I also really enjoy watching the Warriors play and will not be sad to see them win, which I think they will do handily (say in 5 games). The Cavs just have too many injuries. Yes, they’ve got the best player in the world–and of his generation–in Lebron James, but the rest of the team just isn’t all that great and without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving far from healthy, I just don’t see how they could pull it off.

Here’s hoping it’s a good, entertaining series.

[Photo Credit: David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images]

Phantom Punch

Guest Columnist

Allen Barra

Of all the ledes in all the stories inspired by the Ali-Liston “Phantom Punch” fight, I liked best the one by my late friend Barbara Long wrote for The Village Voice fifty years ago this week, “I loved the minute of it!”

Her timing, though, was a little off. It was at precisely 1:44 that the Phantom Punch either did or didn’t land and Sonny Liston went down. At 1:56 he got up, at which point Ali began bombarding him with punches, and it was 2:12 when the referee, former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott, stepped in to inform the participants that the fight was actually over 16 or 17 seconds earlier.

If you think that’s confusing, then you know how everyone in the crowd of 4,000 (the smallest ever to witness a heavyweight title fight) felt. Watch the fight and judge for yourself.

Three days after the fight, the cover of Life magazine hit the stands with Neil Leifer’s famous photograph on the cover. A defiant Ali stands over a down and dazed Liston. It’s probably the most instantly recognizable photo in boxing history and may well be the most famous single shot in all of sports.

ALIL

For many, Ali’s pose seemed staged, adding fuel to the rampant rumors that the fight was fixed. Liston had been one of the most fearsome champions the heavyweight division had ever seen; he had never been knocked down and most members of the old boxing establishment simply refused to believe that Ali could have knocked him out so easily.

Leifer’s picture, therefore, came to symbolize the fight itself. Or as Kelefa Sanneh wrote in last week’s (May 25) New Yorker: “The famous 1965 photograph of Muhammad Ali shouting at the limp body of Sonny Liston records not a great triumph but a great fiasco: the fight, hurriedly staged in a hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine, ended with a first round knockout that many still believe was fraudulent – the result of a ‘phantom punch’ and evidence, purportedly, that Liston had been paid to lose.”

Indeed, there were many rumors that Sonny was paid to take a dive, though everyone seemed to have a different theory as to who paid him and why. (You can hear several of the conspiracy theories on YouTube.) But no one has ever been able to explain why it would be worth a lot of money for anyone to pay Liston to lose, or, if he was intimidated by some of the angry black Muslims that surrounded Ali, why he couldn’t have used his well-known mob connections for protections.

In their first fight, Liston was a huge favorite, and anyone who bet on Cassius Clay cleaned up. But in the second fight, the odds were a slim 6-to-5 favor Liston, so there was no big money to be made betting. The real money was in having the heavyweight title or in owning the man who held it. How much money could Liston possibly been paid to throw away the most valuable prize in sports? And who would have paid him since what the mob surely wanted was for Liston to win back the title?

At the risk of destroying boxing’s most cherished conspiracy theories, it’s time to put to rest the notion that either fight represented anything but total domination by Muhammad Ali. Ali went on to become the greatest heavyweight of all time, and Sonny Liston, who was likely much older than the 31 years he claimed – some said as old as 38 — suddenly got much older when facing the fastest heavyweight who ever lived. As the late, great Ring and Boxing Illustrated editor Burt Randolph Sugar put it, “At his best, Sonny couldn’t have hit Clay with a handful of stones.”

What happened in their second fight is that Liston walked right into a punch – two punches really. And the recent spate of Phantom Punch anniversary stories have left out one key fact: not everyone who saw the fight agreed that there was no punch.

In a story in Slate on May 22, Dave Mondy wrote that Leifer’s photo “was actually preceded by the puniest of blows, a ‘phantom punch’ as it would later be known – a wispy, theoretical mini-hook that none in attendance even observed.”

A piece I wrote for The New York Times in 2000 on the 35th anniversary of the fight has been quoted by writers on several sites, but, interestingly, no one has the people I talked who did see the Punch. For instance, the Village Voice’s Barbara Long, who was seated behind Ali’s corner and told me that Liston, when hit, had reacted “Like a man on a bicycle hitting a low-lying branch.”

In a column printed two days after the fight, The Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray, probably the most respected sportswriter in the country at the time, wrote, “I’ll tell you what happened. Sonny Liston got the hell beat out of him is what happened. This time I was looking for it and I saw it: an old man groping his way into a speedy insolent reckless kid … Cassius could have beaten him in high heels.”

Former heavyweight champ and future New York State Athletic Commissioner Floyd Patterson was the man Liston had beat to win the title. Like Long and Murray, he was seated to Ali’s back when the punch was thrown. In an interview for a book several years later, he told me, “Liston got hit hard … Liston was leaning toward him and about to throw a left jab. Suddenly Clay threw a short right hand that I thought hit Liston on the chin. Liston was rocked. And when he started to get up, he was bewildered. I could see it in his eyes.”

The best analysis of the knockout was offered by Tex Maule in the June 7, 1965, issue of Sports Illustrated: “Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, retained the heavyweight championship of the world by knocking out Sonny Liston with a perfectly valid, stunning, right-hand punch to the side of the head. And he won without benefit of a fix.

“Although it is impossible ever to discount the possibility of a fix because of boxing’s still-too intimate connection with the underworld, there is no shred of evidence or plausibility to support the suggestion that this was anything but an honest fight, as was the previous Clay-Liston fight in Miami Beach …

“The knockout punch itself was thrown with the amazing speed that differentiates Clay” – interesting that both Murray and Maule, two of the leading sportswriters of their day, were still referring to Ali by the name he had discarded – “from any other heavyweight. He leaned away from one of Liston’s ponderous, pawing left jabs, planted his left foot solidly and whipped his right hand over Liston’s left arm and into the side of Liston’s jaw.”

Let’s do a forensic examination of the evidence and see if, fifty years after the fact, we can reach a conclusion.

If you watched the fight at regular speed, try looking at the knockout in slow motion.

In slow-mo, it’s easy to see the impact of the punch: Liston’s head shakes like a bobble head doll’s. So much for the “wispy, theoretical mini-hook.”

In their fight issue, SI ran a four picture sequence of the punch, noting that “The blow had so much force it lifted Liston’s left foot, upon which most of his weight was resting, well off the canvas.” You can even see the shadow of Liston’s left shoe on the canvas.

Simply put, Liston walked – lunged, actually – right into it, doubling the force of the blow.

And yet, that might not have been the punch responsible for Liston’s destruction. Watch the fight one more time. At a little more than a minute, 1:07 after the bell by my count, Ali connects a short chopping right directly to Sonny’s jaw. The punch is almost identical to the “Phantom Punch,” which comes about thirty seconds later. If that first punch doesn’t look so hard, look at it from another angle, the one on the cover of the June 7 SI:

Liston

From this angle, Liston looks as if he’s just taken a two-by-four to the face. Such blows landed early in a bout, before a boxer gets untracked, can scramble his senses, leaving him dazed though still standing. The first right was a set-up; you can see it because of the angle it’s thrown. The second was the coup de gras which couldn’t be seen clearly because Liston’s body obstructed the only camera angle.

Today, there would be three or four different angles and no mystery about the punch. Ali’s right was on target, but even The Greatest couldn’t KO a myth. No doubt we’ll be going all this again in another fifty years.

[Photo Credit: Neil Leifer]

New York Minute

chess

I’ve never been attracted to Chess. It’s too cerebral for me. I don’t have that kind of mind–or the attention span–for such a sophisticated game. But I love how many people dig it and never tire of seeing folks stop what they are doing to sit down and play a game.

BGS: Escape From New York

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This piece was originally published in the Dec. 1995 issue of Esquire. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Escape From New York

By Mark Kriegel 

It is early morning in Miami, still dark, black water lapping at the dock overlooking Biscayne Bay. But here in this cold, cranky bloodshot hour that so injures a sportswriter’s metabolism, Pat Riley is undaunted, optimistic. “Fresh as a fucking daisy,” his forlorn assistants used to grumble as they disembarked from all those red-eyes. Riley’s come to chase the dawn. He sits on the concrete dock, not his dock, but a backdrop he’s chosen to heighten the dramatic effect, anticipating in his own supercharged way the new day, the new season. He’s maximizing the metaphor. There will be sunrise, rebirth, even redemption. “Gonna be great,” he says.

I groan, as enthused by all this predawn energy as by the headless, hardened baitfish on which I’ve been sitting.

Almost two decades have passed since Pat Riley chased the dawn with such purpose. That was back on State Beach in Santa Monica. Riley was morose and mournful, an exile wandering the beach with a bushy beard. He was 31, at the end of a nine-year career in the National Basketball Association, a journeyman who lacked a guard’s skill and a forward’s size, a 6-foot-4 white guy who had to bust his ass just to stay around, whose greatest talent—no, make that virtue—was to beat the shit out of Jerry West in practice. For Pat Riley the ballplayer, everything came the hard way, even the belated discovery that the game he loved was a cruel mistress. She didn’t say thanks. Or goodbye. And she really didn’t care how much you busted your ass.

“I was hanging out, all pissed off, writing everything down on legal pads,” he says. “600 pages of verbal diarrhea blaming everybody for my… demise.”

He winces with the remembrance. He and his wife, Chris, had driven to the beach in a ‘76 Chevy van with chrome pipes snaking out from under the chassis. For three days, husband and wife huddled under blankets, waiting for dawn’s early light. And for three mornings, Santa Monica remained shrouded in fog.

“Everything happened so quick,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as old, but here I am, 50. And I gotta deal with that. 14 years ago, I walked into the Laker locker room as head coach. Today, my daughter is seven. It’s like you wake up and say, What the hell happened? How did Elisabeth get to be seven? I do think I missed a lot, living in this game. But I’ll tell you what, I’ve never been around anything that made me feel so fucking alive.”

He spits into the wind. Like a ballplayer. Like his father, the baseball minor-leaguer, must have once spat.

“If my dad were alive, I could see him taking out a bucket of range balls—you know, he never played a course, but he kept a bucket of these old cut, beat-up range balls in the car—and he’d just hit ‘em into the water. Plop. Plop. Plop.”

Riley recalls the dapper manager of the Schenectady Blue Jays, the “hard-ass dad” to whom he so often refers with rage and rebellion, regret and respect. “I think I’ve come to terms with that. With him,” he says. But the voice of Lee Riley is always there, like a rude wind in his ear, even at the edge of this tropical metropolis, at the outset of yet another season. The son can imagine him turning from the tee, spitting, looking him in the eye, telling the youngest of his six kids: “You don’t know how good you got it, Pat.”

With all these years between father and son, between State Beach and Biscayne Bay, Pat Riley is someone his old man could never have imagined. He stands to make almost $40 million in his new job, running the Miami Heat. Amid a culture of mutinous millionaires, he’s kept his authority intact, almost unchallenged. And in doing so, he’s become the best coach in professional basketball, maybe any sport. He’s the winningest, the richest, the coolest. As his coiffure went from Sonny Bono to Gordon Gekko, Riley metamorphosed into a star, the guy who gave coaching some sex appeal. Corporate honchos pay $45,000 a pop to hear him lecture about his book, The Winner Within. He’s the new-age Lombardi, a salesman with a fanatic heart who speaks in dialects that seem derived in equal measure from General Schwarzkopf and Shirley MacLaine. Still, he’s just a few months removed from the first great wound to his image—inflicted, perhaps self-inflicted, during his acrimonious parting from the New York Knicks. Pat Riley left town tagged by the sporting press with a designer label of his own invention: “The Disease of Me.”

The horizon is transforming now, from black to light. Riley sips an herbal mint tea. I’ve finished my coffee but still struggle to wake. It’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the sour taste of last night’s seminar at the sports bar is grabbing at the clench in my throat. This is not what I had in mind for the High Holy Days, watching Riley worship the sun at the crack of dawn.

“Shana tova,” Riley says haltingly.

“What priest taught you that?”

“My lawyer. He says, ‘Riley, shana tova.’ I say. ‘What’s that mean?’ He says, ‘It’s gonna be a happy, healthy new year.’ I figure, Damn right. It’s gonna be a helluva year.”

At 12 minutes past seven, the sun erupts against the horizon, beginning its skyward sprint.

“Wow,” says the coach. “Look at that sumbitch go.”

* * * *

On the morning of her seventh birthday, Elisabeth Riley is presented with strawberry pancakes topped with whipped cream and a batch of cupcakes to be shared with her classmates. She has a new hat, which she uses to hide her eyes and her smile. Daddy wants a birthday kiss, but Elisabeth won’t budge. It’s all very cute, but also enough to make you feel for the poor guy who’ll show up at the door one day and say, “Coach, I’m here to take Elisabeth to the prom.”

“She gets kind of shy,” Riley explains. “She doesn’t want to kiss Daddy in front of a stranger.”

There’s a tug at my arm. James Patrick Riley, age 10, wants to show me his room, his dazzling array of on-line electronics beneath an autographed picture of Macaulay Culkin. There are laptops and PCs, digital games and a synthesizer. The boy is already fluent in the language of computers and music. There’s an awkward moment as Riley enters. It’s one thing to answer questions about rebounding and defense; it’s another to allow the interrogator into your home.

As James explains his place in the World Wide Web and his designs for computer chips, Riley makes his way to the synthesizer, touching the keys gingerly. I’ve never seen him so close to awe. When he speaks, it’s to no one in particular: “James has a different thing than his daddy. James will be different than I am. But that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s good.”

Somehow, Riley’s been made to feel grateful, maybe even liberated. This slight, sandy-haired boy has, in his own way, broken the chain, the tug and the tether that existed between the fathers and sons in this coach’s clan.

I see a different Riley in his son’s room that day. It reminds me of what a friend said about him, someone who had known him as both enemy and ally. “What you don’t understand about Pat,” the friend said, “is what it was like to be poor and Irish in the 50’s, what it was like if your father drank too much. You only showed your best face to the world. Whatever happened in the home stayed there.”

Leon Francis Riley was a ballplayer, too. In 1944, in the middle of a war, the Philadelphia Phillies finally brought him up to the bigs, where he hit a double in 12 at bats. He was already 38. But he still stayed around. “In 22 years, he gets a cup of coffee and a promise that they’d give him the next coaching job that opened up in the big leagues,” says Riley. “He gets passed over, and he just says, ‘That’s it.’ He went home and burned everything that had to do with his baseball career. I never got a fucking thing.”

It wasn’t long before the old man was full of drink and despair. “The 50’s,” says Riley, “were hell.” But the hellishness remained behind closed doors.

Riley was nine, hiding in the garage and weepy from a schoolyard stomping, when the old man demanded that his kid return to the park, that he learn “not to be afraid,” and that he learn it the hard way. So began his apprenticeship as a tough guy and a small-town basketball star.

The old man wouldn’t sit in the stands to watch his son play for Linton High School in Schenectady, New York. Rather, he’d peer through the crack in the gym door. Riley never even knew he was there until the day a ref whistled him for a charge. All of a sudden, his father staggered out onto the floor. He’d been drinking. Turned out the ref used to umpire games in the old Can-Am League.

“You son of a bitch!” the father screamed. “When you were calling baseball games, you were trying to screw me, too. Now my kid… you son of a bitch!”

“I guess it just kind of crashed for him,” says Riley.

Eventually, the father sobered up and came to gentler terms with his son. But the dapper Irishman of Riley’s youth finished as a janitor at Bishop Gibbons High School. At Pat’s urging, he coached the school baseball team, but only on the condition that he take the field in the green custodial outfit he wore to swab urinals and scrub toilets. “Years later, a lot of those kids he coached told me how much he did for them,” says Riley. “But I think they did something for him, too. Those last years he spent managing in his janitor’s outfit, I think those were the happiest in his life.”

He died in 1970, as Riley was desperately trying to hang on with an expansion team, the Portland Trail Blazers. The way he remembers it, the last thing his father told him was: “Plant your feet, and kick some ass.”

Riley would go on to kick a lot of ass. But no matter what—the accumulation of championships or money or fame—it was never enough to silence the voice that kept telling him, Go back to the park.

“I guess all that has a lot to do with how I am, the Irish part. I guess that’s why I have a hard time letting anyone in,” he says. “We kept it in the family. Whatever problems we had in the family didn’t go out. And it should be the same way with the team.”

Riley guards the interiors of his life in ways both Nixonian and noble. His is a necessary strategy for the rich and famous. But more than that, he considers his family a team and his team a family. Riley, of course, would be the patriarch of both. If this coach had theme music, it would be “We Are Family” set to bagpipes. He divides the world into friends and strangers, us and them. “It’s okay to hurt,” he says. “You just can’t let them see you hurting.”

* * * *

For the first time, though, you can sense the wound. He’s still in control, as it were, but ill humors now surface when he speaks of them back in New York. His feelings are hurt.

“In 28 years in this game,” he says, “I had never been tainted. Now I don’t care how they finish me off in New York. But questioning my character? That pisses me off. I’m embarrassed by what happened. As a coach, I’m embarrassed.”

Yes, it ended badly for him in New York, and, yes, most of us in the press box will be finishing him off for some time. But to understand how bad the end was, understand first how well it began.

The Knicks had spent too many years as a tired joke in a city whose fans still reveled in their belief that they were the game’s true connoisseurs. Now enter the coach with the hair and the clothes. That’s how it started. Riley had won four championships with the Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but no one understood how good he was. And if it weren’t for the Knicks, no one ever would.

There was a particular type of ballplayer—hungry and a bit angry—who blossomed under Riley. There was Anthony Mason, a rebel bruiser who’d grown up in the cracked-up, 9mm culture of southeast Queens and served his basketball time in such remote purgatories as Venezuela and Turkey. And there was John Starks, not far removed from a stint bagging groceries at a Safeway in Tulsa. The Knicks would never be the Lakers, but by unleashing the snarling talents of guys like Mason and Starks, Riley got them good fast.

The Knicks went at other teams the way their coach had gone at Jerry West. Just as Riley once jumped center for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, for a team known to posterity as Rupp’s Runts, the Knicks could be considered Riley’s Runts. What they lacked in talent, they made up in heart, hustle, and hard work. At the same time, the Knicks evolved unlike any other pro team, their identity derived not from their star players but from their star coach.

There were more than a couple of guys in the pressroom who didn’t buy into it, who privately regarded Riley in terms that ranged from suspicion to contempt. They had their reasons. As Riley defined the world, sportswriters were not only “them,” but part of a subspecies he called “peripheral opponents.”

We’d gather as inbred rivals, a caravan of harried, overworked typists in various states of dishevelment, a profane chorus of beat writers and opinionists (the louder, the better), professional exaggerators hyperventilating for pay, more than willing to spin prowess into virtue and mere flaws into evil.

The sportswriter endures myriad minor indignities. But Riley made them all worse. He didn’t give out his home number, didn’t do golf outings, didn’t kill anyone off the record. His band of monosyllabic millionaires would stay at the Four Seasons while the rest of us were consigned to Marriotts for the bonus points and those less-than-dirty movies known throughout the profession as Spank-O-Vision. Riley’s guys dined on silver and china like knights at his round table while we hustled chicken fingers on the buffet line. Riley closed practices, making us loiter in the parking lot so that we might catch those pearls from Starks (“We have to focus more”) or Patrick Ewing (“Most definitely”) or Charles Oakley (“Whatever, whatever”) as they made their way to their Mercedeses and their all-terrain vehicles.

Riley stood in stark juxtaposition to the whole sports culture, and for that alone I wanted to cheer. He kept his distance from the hangers-on, the autograph seekers, the ticket scalpers, and all those guys screaming on the radio. We suffered from bellies and baldness and nose hairs. But Riley was pressed perfect. He took not a step on the StairMaster, and he never got old.

If you only knew our resentments, the smell of that sweaty serum as we’d gather for his postgame press conference, full of deadline dread. There’s some maniac cursing you back at the office, there’s an asshole TV guy probing your vertebrae with his microphone. And here comes Riley. You ask him X’s and O’s, he gives you the philosophy of “Force.”

And he’s fresh as a fucking daisy.

Eventually, the nerds would exact their revenge. But during the honeymoon, who cared? Riley may have been a bit—how to put it?—extreme, but he had his own lunatic virtues, which was a lot more than could be said for some of the tobacco spitters and two-bit felons we glorify. Of course, I could hyperventilate with the best of them. And by the time I got through with Riley, he wasn’t a basketball coach. Hell, no! I’d turn that sumbitch into Henry V and every playoff game into another Agincourt.

* * * *

Honeymoons always end, though, and badly in a town like New York. The Knicks finished the 1993–94 season—Riley’s third with the team—just seven points shy of a championship. But we spent most of the playoffs bashing them, mouthing the displeasures of the connoisseur fans whom we both pandered to and served. Along the way, another perception had been born: If the Knicks represented Riley’s virtues, they also epitomized his faults. They could be dogmatic bullies, predictable, plodding, even paranoid.

Paranoia was all the rage in the spring of 1994 as Madison Square Garden was being sold from Paramount Communications to Viacom, which in turn would sell it right off to ITT and Cablevision. Life in the Garden became Machiavellian—full of intrigue, subplots, and treacheries. All that, and Riley—who had just taken his Knicks to the finals—wanted a new deal.

He wouldn’t come cheap, either. He wanted a five-year, $25 million extension. He wanted a piece of the team. He wanted to be president of the New York Knicks. He wanted a lot of things.

The Knicks were offering five years, $15 million.

And it never really got closer than that. Just nastier. This last season was hellish—for the coach and the team. The Knicks were still tough, but Riley called them “cream puffs.” They worked their asses off, but Riley called them “unprofessional.” He had his annual blowout with Anthony Mason, suspending him for five games. The strain was showing. And yet, somehow, they regrouped from a lousy start to finish with 55 wins, just two behind the Orlando Magic, a young team but also the most physically gifted ensemble since Riley’s Lakers.

On May 21, the Knicks were eliminated in the seventh game of the second round by the Indiana Pacers, as Patrick Ewing’s last-second finger roll bounded off the back of the rim. On June 15, Riley faxed his official letter of resignation. Then, in an absolute bonehead move, he skipped town, leaving nothing but a statement saying he wanted “ultimate responsibility for all significant aspects of the ball club.” For Riley, it was all about control.

But for Dave Checketts, the Garden boss, it was all about money. Checketts—a bright, ambitious executive who had prospered in this concrete Kremlin, becoming president of both the Garden and the Knicks—was calling Riley a pig without saying as much.

Later, The New York Times would report that on June 5, ten days before he faxed his resignation, Riley’s friend Dick Butera passed the coach’s “wish list” to Miami Heat owner Micky Arison. Among other things, Riley was asking for $15 million in salary, immediate 10 percent ownership of the Heat, another 10 percent over the life of the contract, loans, limousines, credit cards, and $300 per diem in expenses. The memo became the basis for the deal, which, depending on how long Riley stays with the Heat, approaches a worth of $40 million.

So we all got out our book of Rileyisms, The Winner Within, and started quoting. The guy was a liar, a phony; it was about money, greed…. It was about the Disease of Me, the Disease of Riley.

Eventually, Riley would say that Checketts—his erstwhile ally, the guy who brought him in—had used him and lied to himself. He said Checketts had promised him an unconditional release in return for his silence as the Garden was being sold from Viacom to ITT and Cablevision. He said that he needed to be president of the Knicks to insulate him from the corporate intrigue that had doomed so many other Knick teams and coaches. He said they could have cut a deal for about $20 million and the title, but that Checketts refused to budge. He had a lot to say. But by then, it was too late for Riley to repair his reputation in New York.

* * * *

We’re in the limousine heading for practice, rolling down Palmetto Expressway, discussing The Winner Within. Published in 1993, it was a best-selling primer that grew out of his motivational lectures. Only Riley could write a book with motives as mercenary as they were sincere. The Winner Within was dedicated to his father.

But for my $22.95, it was the worst thing the guy ever did. The world no more needed a how-to on leadership, teamwork, and success from Pat Riley than a beauty book from Cindy Crawford. The Winner Within demystified his charisma. It came off like a preachy infomercial. Riley may have been image conscious (he’d sneak a smoke, though never in public), but he was dismal at PR. Now you could read all about “The Core Covenant” and “Core Cracking,” about “Thunderbolts” and “Moving On,” and, most of all, about “The Disease of Me.”

“That book is for people like you,” he says, “for cynics.”

“C’mon, how do you expect—”

“No. I laugh when guys like you roll their eyes; I laugh at the writers and maybe even some of the players who mock it They can roll their eyes all they want, looking for something to get me on. They don’t understand: It inspires me. It clarifies things for me. I believe that stuff. I live it.”

I ask if he lived it during his departure from the Knicks.

“Have you read the book? I mean, have you sincerely read it?”

“I kind of, you know, went through it….”

“Well, I did exactly what it says. We reached an impasse, and I planted my feet. It was either time to go home or time to go on. I went on.”

We’ve hit traffic. Riley checks his watch and gazes out the window. “I was miserable in New York,” he says quietly.

“Why is it,” he asks, “that no coach lasts more than three or four years in that town? Why are they always looking to get you? Maybe that’s the difference. Look, I am who I am, but I don’t try to get anybody. I don’t go off the record. I don’t leak stories.”

“TEAM TURMOIL,” I blurt out, referring to one of the better back pages at the Daily News, players bitching off the record that the offense sucked, that Ewing took too many shots. “Good story.”

“The Rule of the Gutless,” he says. “I mean, you got something to say, put your name on it. How many unnamed sources lied and ruined people?”

Too much talk of getting and they for my taste. I knew he cared, but not this much.

“Damn right I care. Shit, I was coaching in a city where tabloid and mainstream have come together, where perception is reality. You want a good quote, well, I’ll tell you what, gimme the name of the guy who said it, and I’ll give you a helluva quote.

“Guys would question my character in the paper. But not ever to my face. No, they’d come to practice and ask me about rebounding. Well, ask me to my face. Call me gutless to my face. I mean, what would you do?”

“I don’t know. I’d probably—”

“Damn right. I’d put ‘em on their ass.”

We’ve broken through the traffic now, a little behind schedule, It’s not yet 9:00 a.m., but Riley will still be the first guy in the gym. He’s already choreographed every moment of the day’s two practices. It’s all committed to his blue index cards. He’s got a lot of rookies coming in today. They’ll be hungry. They’ll listen. And he can’t wait. He’ll run them as they’ve never been run before. He gets cheerful quickly.

“I love going to practice,” he says.

* * * *

By noon, about two dozen reporters and cameramen have gathered outside the gym to cover the big event, Riley’s first day. They’re not accustomed to this ritual: waiting. Closed practices are one thing, but this is just a bullshit minicamp for the game’s minor-leaguers, none of whom even figure to make the squad. Still, Riley’s taking his time, looking for a practice player, someone like the guy he used to be.

A few of the writers are thumbing through The Winner Within. They’re rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, reading aloud from page 144: “Riles’ Rule for Kicking the Complacent Ass.”

They’re just beginning to learn about us and them. Soon they’ll discover the Gaelic Bushido. And eventually, “The Disease of Me.” They won’t write it that way, though. Not for some time. And maybe never. It’s different down here. Honeymoons last longer in the tropics. And Riley’s the hottest guy in town. There’s a story in the morning paper about the slick hair and the expensive suits, the caricature. That’s always how it starts.

* * * *

Midnight approaches at Don Shula’s All-Star Cafe, a standard-issue backdrop in the society of sports, a blur of autographed memorabilia, a Bennigan’s on steroids, and just a mere piece in the Dolphin coach’s empire: There’s also Shula’s sports bar, Shula’s steak house, Shula’s fitness center, Shula’s golf course, Shula’s tennis facility, and Shula’s hotel, all of which goes to show how far we are from New York. The instinct of this town, a whiff of boosterism in the humid air, is to deify its coaches.

It’s been a long day for Riley. He ran two practices, had a meeting with his assistants in the car, and another with his son’s principal at the new school. He taped a series of TV spots for the Heat, negotiated his release from Elisabeth’s birthday party in return for the promise of a big family dinner next week. Then he took another round of meetings with his assistants. And here he comes, round midnight, fresh as a daisy.

“Well, Kool Moe Dee, there go the coach,” says a waitress. “I love coach. Coach got it all goin’ on.”

Riley excuses himself for a quick call on his cellular. He wants to check on the kids, the birthday girl in particular. “She understands Daddy,” he sighs. “She understands how he is.”

It’s the children, both adopted, who’ve helped temper his obsessions. “We tried to have kids for 15 years,” he says. “Then they came along and changed our lives.”

The night wears on, a conversation moving toward confession. He tells me that he’ll play golf but only on the rarest of occasions, only with friends, and only if someone cracks a six-pack and heads for the clubhouse on the back nine. He says he wants to drive a black 1949 Mercury, the one from Rebel Without a Cause, that he wants to hear “Chapel of Dreams” by the Dubs, and that he can’t fathom Magic Johnson dying of AIDS.

“He’s special,” Riley says quietly. “I just believe it’s all gonna turn out good. They’ll find something…You know, I remember being with the Lakers, I never thought it would end. But here we are….”

Here we are, all these years later, and I’m wondering what happened to the guy in L.A. who used to drink beer and bullshit with the reporters in the pressroom.

“I used to do a lot of things I don’t do anymore,” he says. “Hell, I was a broadcaster, a traveling secretary. I used to hand out boarding passes to the players for the planes. But that was all before I became a coach.”

I remind him of something he told me: “I’m still the same guy I always was—a prick.”

Riley snorts a laugh. “Look, I drive players. Just like I drive myself. But if I’m a prick, I’m more of a prick to myself. As far as the control thing, people just embellish that. I want to treat my players to the best. If I’m having a team party, I want white tablecloths, I want china, and I want silverware. I don’t want fuckin’ plastic plates. And I want a flower arrangement in the middle. And if the towels are hotel white, hey, put some color in there, I don’t give a shit. I want my team to fly first-class, to stay in first-class hotels. I’m gonna ask them to do a lot. So tell me, is that wrong, wanting them to have the best?”

In Riley’s world, coaches can be pricks, but they can also be patriarchs. He speaks of coaching as if it were theology.

I ask him about Adolph Rupp.

“I knew he would make me better. He was a little like my old man,” says Riley. “He was the only coach who ever scared the shit out of me.”

Rupp was also the game’s last unabashed segregationist.

“He was a great coach. Period. I learned more about coaching and detail and organization from Adolph than I learned from anybody…. Look, was he a hard man? Yes. Was he a disciplined man? Egocentric? Powerful? Yes, he was all those things. But racist?” A pause now: Riley trying to reconcile his loyalty with the facts. “When I was there, I never once once sensed he was racist. It was the Southeastern Conference in the early to mid-60’s. There weren’t any black players. Just weren’t. Wasn’t until we got beat by Texas Western and Big Daddy Lattin dunked on my ass that we even started thinking about it.”

Texas Western—now the University of Texas at El Paso—an all-black team of transplanted city kids, beat Rupp’s Runts for the NCAA championship in 1966. Then Riley watched Rupp walk off “holding a brown paper sack by the throat.”

It brings a grimace to his face. “Hell, I didn’t care. I mean, I was raised in a family where my old man would do the same thing…. Anyway, years later, Bob McAdoo told me that was the game that changed everything. He said it made it okay for black players to go to school in the South.”

McAdoo, the great scorer, played his last best days in the NBA for Riley’s Lakers. Now he’ll be one of his assistants.

I ask if McAdoo got the job because he’s black.

“I would never hire anyone for that reason,” he says. “I’ve only hired coaches because they’re the very best.”

It’s been years since Riley had a black coach on his staff. That said, he’s almost never kept a white guy at the end of the bench. And it occurs to me now that Riley—a great general but willfully ignorant of such political arts as compromise—is doing the only job for which he’s temperamentally qualified. Coaching is the last accepted American autocracy. No need for PC. Just win, baby.

Which could be a problem down here. The Heat have never been hot. Theirs is an inglorious history, a grand total of two playoff wins. Last season’s record: 32–50. Cell phones could be heard ringing during home games. As a bunch of losers, this team is only flattered by comparisons with the pre-Riley Knicks.

“Well, we’re gonna have to do something,” he says. “Something dramatic.”

He takes a small sip of beer and declares: “This is my last run, without a doubt. I’m gonna coach like hell to try to win it. I’m committed to that goal. But if I don’t ever win it again, well, I’m not gonna chase that dream into my sixties or seventies. That’ll kill you.”

So that’s it. The show closes in Miami. There’s only one thing left to ask, an intrusion into his most private sanctum, the secret life of Riley:

“What’s that stuff in your hair?”

“Little gel, little water. Takes two minutes.”

“Nah, what kind of gel?”

“We gotta give someone a plug?”

“C’mon…”

Finally, reluctantly, he says: “Sebastian.”

And the clothes?…They’re really all Armani?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

He looks at me with disbelief, even irritation, squinting until the hint of a grin forms at the corners of his mouth. “’Cause it’s good shit, that’s why.”

He pauses again, tripping through his own chapel of dreams. “My father was a dapper guy, swept his hair back, used to wear these shirts back in the forties, gabardine shirts—big collar, big pockets. My dad was dapper. He wouldn’t let you out of the house unless you were groomed and clean and looking good. I was taught to peg my own pants in second grade. I only had one pair. Washed them every night. Put ‘em in the stove to dry ‘em for the next morning. Then l’d iron them before I went to school. And one time, I left ‘em in the stove too long and they got griddle marks. The kids teased me, ‘Hey, Riley, what’d you do, cook hamburgers on your pants?’”

Last call is long gone by the time we get up to leave. Riley stops in front of a men’s store in the lobby, pointing to a shirt in the window.

“See,” he says. “That’s like one of those gabardine shirts.”

He gazes at the shirt in much the same drifting, awestruck way he considered his son’s electronic piano.

It’s late. The sun will be up in just a few hours. I tell him goodbye.

But he’s still lost in some recollection that gives the cloth form, animation, even life.

I’m almost at the door when he calls back. “Hey!… Shana tova.

And a top of the morning to you, too, Coach Riley.

 

[Photo Credits: AP and Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images]

BGS: Knock ‘Em Out the Box, Doc

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The following is excerpted from Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, by Donald Hall. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Dock Ellis is moderately famous for throwing at batters. On May 1, 1974, he tied a major-league record by hitting three batters in a row. They were the first three batters up, in the first inning. They were Cincinnati Reds batters. Dock’s control was just fine.

Four days earlier, I had seen him at a party in Pittsburgh. I wandered around, talking to various people. Dock’s attorney and friend Tom Reich was there, shaking his head in disapproval of a plan of Dock’s. I met Dock in the kitchen fixing a drink. I asked him with some awe, “Are you really going to hit every Cincinnati ballplayer Wednesday night?”

He returned the awe. “How you know that?” he said.


We must now consider the history, philosophy, and psychology of hitting batters.

In the challenge between mount and plate, which is the center of the game, a reputation can be as effective as an extra pitch. Dock: “The hitter will try to take advantage of you. Like if you are a pitcher who throws a lot of breaking balls, a lot of sliding fast balls, or if you pitch away, the hitter will have a tendency to lean across the plate. Quite naturally, if they know that this is your routine, they’ll be trying to go at the ball, to get a better swing at it. They’ll be moving up closer on the plate. Therefore, when you throw in on them, you don’t throw to hit them, you throw to brush them back. That means: ‘Give me some of the plate. Let me have my part, and you take yours! Get away! Give me some room to pitch with!’

“As far as hitting a batter, there are situations when it is called for, like sometimes a pitcher might intentionally or unintentionally hit a batter, or throw two balls near a hitter. The other team, to retaliate, will either knock someone down or hit a batter.”

Not all pitchers will throw at batters. If you are a batter, you want your pitchers to throw at their hitters, to protect you. Bob Veale was the Pirates’ best pitcher for years. Between 1962 and 1972, he won 116 games. But he had a flaw. Gene Clines, a Pirate outfielder at the time, talked to me after Veale was traded to Boston: “He can throw the ball through a brick wall, but everybody knew that he was a gentle giant. If Veale would knock you down, it had to be a mistake. He didn’t want to hurt anybody.” Clines shook his head in bewildered melancholy. “Who’s going to challenge him? Nobody on the baseball field is going to say, ‘I’m going to go out and get Bob V eale.’… Take a left-handed hitter. Take Willie. They going to be going up to the plate, and digging in, knowing that Veale is not going to knock them down….” He shakes his head again, at the waste of it all.

“Blass was the same way.” Steve Blass announced in 1973 that he would not throw at batters, even if management fined him for disobeying orders. “Now he was one guy that personally I really didn’t like to play behind,” Clines told me. “If they knock me down two or three times… well, if he throws at a batter, he’s gonna say, ‘Watch out!’… and I don’t want that, because they never told me to watch out! They trying to knock my head off! Why go out there and play behind a guy that’s not going to protect you?”

Manny Sanguillen: “I tell you about Veale. The only player Veale used to knock down was Willie McCovey. The only one. I was catching. Because McCovey hurt him so much.” McCovey hurt Veale by hitting long balls off him. “You remember when McCovey had the operation here?” Manny, whose hands are as quick as the expressions on his face, jabs at his right knee. “Veale used to throw down at the knee!”


When Bruce Kison came up to the Pirates, Dock took to him immediately. Although Kison was 6-foot-6 and weighed only 155 lbs. when he first reported (in the locker room, Dock says, when Kison breathed and filled his frail chest with air, he looked like a greyhound who could walk on his hind legs), he had acquired a reputation for hitting batters. If you hit batters, it is sensible to weigh 230 and look mean at all times.

“I was wild,” says Bruce Kison, sprawled and smiling. “I’ve always had a reputation… I have a fastball that runs in, on a right-handed hitter. In the minor leagues in one game I hit seven batters.” Kison laughs, as if he were telling about a time in high school when he attempted a foolish escapade, like chaining a cow in the women’s gym, and the cow kicked him, but nobody got hurt. “I was just completely wild. I hit three guys in a row. There were two outs. The manager came out of the dugout and said, ‘Bruce, I know you’re not trying to hit these guys, but we’ll have the whole stands out on the field pretty soon!’

“The next guy up was a big catcher. No, he was an outfielder, but he came up to the plate with catchers gear on…”

I want to make sure I understand. “But you do, on occasion, throw at batters?”

“Certainly.” Kison is no longer smiling. He sounds almost pedantic. “That is part of pitching.”


A pitcher establishes his reputation early. Dock came up to Pittsburgh in 1968, and in 1969 was a regular starter. He quickly established himself as mean and strong. “Cepeda is the biggest,” says Dock. So it was necessary for Dock to hit Cepeda. “He was trying to take advantage of me because I was a rookie. He was trying to scare me. I let him know, then, that I was not the type dude to fuck around with. It was a big thing, because who would be hitting Cepeda? If you went for the biggest guy, it meant you would go for anybody. You weren’t scared of anybody. I hit McCovey, and I really got up on McCovey that year. But he’s not so big. Cepeda is the biggest. The rest of the season, from that point on, I had no trouble with the hitters. They were all running.”

Sometimes one courts trouble, hitting batters.

In 1969, in Montreal, “I hit Mack Jones in the head, but I wasn’t trying to hit him in the head. I was trying to hit him in the side.

“They had hit Clemente in the chest. So I said, ‘The first batter up, I’m going to try to kill him. Mack Jones was the first batter. I threw at him. I missed him. I threw at him again. He ducked and it hit him in the head. He came out to the mound, like he was coming at me.” Players rushed out on the field. Enormous Dick Radatz, relief pitcher recently traded from Detroit to Montreal, ran in from the bullpen toward the mound. Dock addressed Radatz, “Hey, man, I’ll turn you into a piece… of… meat!” Radatz stopped in his tracks.

The umpire behind home plate looked as if he planned to interfere, possibly even to throw Dock out of the game. “But Clemente,” Dock remembers, “he intervened, and he told the umpire, ‘You leave Dock alone. The motherfuckers hit me twice! Don’t mess with Dock!’”


On Wednesday night, May 1, 1974, the Reds were in Pittsburgh. Dock was starting against Cincinnati for the firs time that year. As it developed, he was also starting against Cincinnati for the last time that year.

Beginning in spring training, among the palm trees and breezes and gas shortages of Bradenton on the Gulf Coast of Florida, Dock had planned to hit as many Cincinnati batters as possible, when he first pitched against them. He had told some of his teammates, but they were not sure he meant It. Dock loves to sell wolf tickets (“Wolf tickets? Some people are always selling them, some people are always buying them… “) and the Pirate ball club had learned not always to take him literally.

Manny knew he meant it. At the regular team meeting before the game—the Pirates meet at the start of each series, to discuss the ball club they are about to engage—Dock said there was no need to go over Cincinnati batters, their strengths and weaknesses. “I’m just going to mow the lineup down,” he said. To Manny (who later claimed to the press that he had never seen anybody so wild), Dock said, “Don’t even give me no signal. Just try to catch the ball. If you can’t catch it, forget it.”

Taking his usual warm-up pitches, Dock noticed Pete Rose standing at one side of the batter’s box, leaning on his bat, studying his delivery. On his next-to-last warm-up, Dock let fly at Rose and almost hit him.

A distant early warning.

In fact, he had considered not hitting Pete Rose at all. He and Rose are friends, but of course friendship, as the commissioner of baseball would insist, must never prevent even-handed treatment. No, Dock had considered not hitting Pete Rose because Rose would take it so well. He predicted that Rose, once hit, would make no acknowledgment of pain—no grimace, no rubbing the afflicted shoulder—but would run at top speed for first base, indicating clearly to his teammates that there was nothing to fear. “He’s going to charge first base, and make it look like nothing.” Having weighed the whole matter, Dock decided to hit him anyway.


It was a pleasant evening in Pittsburgh, the weather beginning to get warmer, perhaps 55 degrees, when Dock threw the first pitch. “The first pitch to Pete Rose was directed toward his head,” as Dock expresses it, “not actually to hit him,” but as “the message, to let him know that he was going to get hit. More or less to press his lips. I knew if I could get close to the head that I could get them in the body. Because they’re looking to protect their head, they’ll give me the body.” The next pitch was behind him. “The next one, I hit him in the side.”

Pete Rose’s response was even more devastating than Dock had anticipated. He smiled. Then he picked the ball up, where it had fallen beside him, and gently, underhand, tossed it back to Dock. Then he lit for first as if trying out for the Olympics.

As Dock says, with huge approval, “You have to be good, to be a hot dog.”


As Rose bent down to pick up the ball, he had exchanged a word with Joe Morgan who was batting next. Morgan and Rose are close friends, called “pepper and salt” by some of the ballplayers. Morgan taunted Rose, “He doesn’t like you anyway. You’re a white guy.”

Dock hit Morgan in the kidneys with his first pitch.

By this time, both benches were agog. It was Mayday on May Day. The Pirates realized that Dock was doing what he said he would do. The Reds were watching him do it. “I looked over on the bench, they were all with their eyes wide and their mouths wide open, like, ‘I don’t believe it!’

“The next batter was Driessen. I threw a ball to him. High inside. The next one, I hit him in the back.”

Bases loaded, no outs. Tony Perez, Cincinnati first baseman, came to bat. He did not dig in. “There was no way I could hit him. He was running. The first one I threw behind him, over his head, up against the screen, but it came back off the glass, and they didn’t advance. I threw behind him because be was backing up, but then he stepped in front of the ball. The next three pitches, he was running…. I walked him.” A run carne in. “The next hitter was Johnny Bench. I tried to deck him twice. I threw at his jaw, and he moved. I threw at the back of his head, and he moved.”

With two balls and no strikes on Johnny Bench—11 pitches gone: three hit batsmen, one walk, one run, and now two balls—Murtaugh approached the mound. “He came out as if to say, ‘What’s wrong? Can’t find the plate?’ ” Dock was suspicious that his manager really knew what he was doing. “No,” said Dock, ‘I must have Blass-itis.” (It was genuine wildness—not throwing at batters—that had destroyed Steve Blass the year before.)

“He looked at me hard,” Dock remembers. “He said ‘I’m going to bring another guy in.’ So I just walked off the mound.”


In his May Day experiment, his point was not to hit batters; his point was to kick Cincinnati ass. Pittsburgh was down, in last place, lethargic and limp and lifeless. Cincinnati was fighting it out with Los Angeles, confident it would prevail at the end. And for Pittsburgh, Cincinnati was The Enemy.

In 1970, Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh in the Championship Series for the National League pennant. In 1971 with Cincinnati out of it, Pittsburgh took the pennant in a play-off with the Giants, then beat Baltimore in a seven-game Series. In 1972, three months before Roberto Clemente’s death, Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh in the Championship Series, three games to two.

“Then,” says Dock, “they go on TV and say the Pirates ain’t nothing….” Bruce Kison adds, “We got beat fairly in the score, but the way the Cincinnati ball club—the players sitting on the bench—were hollering and yelling at us like little leaguers. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I remember that. When I do go against Cincinnati, there’s a little advantage.”


In the winter of 1973–74, and at spring training, Dock began to feel that the Pirates had lost aggressiveness.

“Spring training had just begun, and I say, ‘You are scared of Cincinnati.’ That’s what I told my teammates. ‘You are always scared of Cincinnati.’ I’ve watched us lose games against Cincinnati and its ridiculous. I’ve pitched some good games at Cincinnati, but the majority I’ve lost, because I feel like we weren’t aggressive. Every time we play Cincinnati, the hitters are on their ass.”

“Is that what the players are afraid of?” I asked.

“Physically afraid,” said Dock. In 1970, ’71, and ’72, he says, the rest of the league was afraid of the Pirates. “They say, ‘Here come the big bad Pirates. They’re going to kick our ass!’ Like they give up. That’s what our team was starting to do. When Cincinnati showed up in spring training, I saw all the ballplayers doing the same thing. They were running over, talking, laughing and hee-haw this and that.

“Cincinnati will bullshit with us and kick our ass and laugh at us. They’re the only team that talk about us like a dog. Whenever we play that team, everybody socializes with them.” In the past the roles had been reversed. “When they ran over to us, we knew they were afraid of us. When I saw our team doing it, right then I say, ‘We gonna get down. We gonna do the do. I’m going to hit these motherfuckers.’”

When Dock had announced his intentions, he did not receive total support.

“Several of my teammates told me that they would not be there. When the shit went down they would not be on the mound. Bob Robertson told me that. It really hurt me. I believe he was serious.”

“Why?”

“Because this was benefiting him. He wasn’t hitting but .102. Pitches coming up around his neck.”


From time to time a batter who has been hit, or thrown at, will advance on the pitcher, the dugouts will empty, and there will be a baseball fight. Mostly, baseball fights are innocuous. But Dick McAuliffe once dislocated Tommy John’s shoulder, and Campy Campaneris threw his bat at Lerrin LaGrow. But Dock thinks and plans. “I talked to other pitchers who have dealt with them on this level, one being Bob Gibson. He hits them at random! In fact, Pete Rose and Tommy Helms tried to whip Gibson, and Gibson got in both of them’s stuff, in the dugout. He just went in and got them.

“I took everything into consideration, when I did what I did. Because I had to figure out who would fight us. Manpower per manpower, it had to be them. That’s the only team that I could see would really try to deal with us. I was thinking of the physical ability of the two teams, and that was the only one that was comparable to us. The only one I could think of that was physically next was Philadelphia, and they wouldn’t want to fight us. No way would they want to fight us. If I hit 20 of them in a row, they ain’t going to fight.”

 


Donald Hall, a former Poet Laureate, has written over 50 books, including the recently-published, Essays After Eighty. Sports fans will want to cop Fathers Playing Catch with Sons and Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball.

BGS: Oscar Charleston: A One-Way Ticket to Obscurity

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Opening Day Delight.

Here’s a classic portrait of Oscar Charleston by our pal John Schulian:

There were some hard miles on that bus, and harder ones on the man behind the wheel. His name was Oscar Charleston, which probably means nothing to you, as wrong as that is. He was managing the Philadelphia Stars then, trying to sustain the dignity of the Negro Leagues in the late 1940s as black ballplayers left daily for the moneyed embrace of the white teams that had disdained them for so long. Part of his job was hard-nosing the kids who remained into playing the game right, and part of it was passing down the lore of the line drives he’d bashed, the catches he’d made, and the night he’d spent rattling the cell door in a Cuban jail. His players called him Charlie, and when it was his turn to drive the team’s red, white, and blue bus, it was like having Ty Cobb at the wheel. Of course the players never said so, because sportswriters and white folks were always calling him the black Ty Cobb and Charlie hated it.

While Cobb counted the millions he’d made on Coca-Cola stock, Charlie bounced around on cramped, stinking buses until he, like their engines, burned out. The Stars would play in Chicago on Sunday afternoon, then hightail it back to Philly so they could use Shibe Park on Monday, when the big leaguers were off. So they drove through the long night, with Charlie peering at the rain and lightning, wondering which was louder, the thunder or the racket his players were making.

When he could take no more, he glanced back at Wilmer Harris and Stanley Glenn, a pitcher and a catcher, earnest young men who always stayed close to him, eager to absorb whatever lessons he dispensed. “Watch this,” he said, yanking the lever that opened the bus door. Then he leaned as far as he could toward the cacophonous darkness, one hand barely on the wheel, and glowered the way only he could glower.

“Hey, you up there!” he shouted. “Quit making so damn much noise!”

The bus turned as quiet as a tomb. “I bet there wasn’t one player hardly breathing,” Glenn says. The Stars were a strait-laced bunch—“the Saints,” some called them with a sneer—and they weren’t inclined to test whatever higher power might be in charge. But Charlie was different from them, and everybody else for that matter. And when the thunder boomed louder still in response to his demand, he proclaimed his defiance with a laugh. If it didn’t kill him, it couldn’t stop him.

[Painting by the most-talented Bernie Fuchs]

New York Minute

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Kid on the train this morning.

BGS: When Harry Caray Was A Rebel With The Microphone

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Over at the Stacks I’ve got a fun one fuh ya–Myron Cope’s 1968 SI profile of Harry Caray:

Even before the World Series got under way Wednesday, it was shudderingly clear that one result was as predictable as bunting on the commissioner’s box: Millions of television and radio listeners, whose eardrums may have healed in the year since the Cardinals-Red Sox Series, are once again going to be exposed to a feverish clamor coming from a Cardinals delegate to the NBC broadcasting team. It was equally certain that across America the baseball public would then divide into two camps—those who exclaimed that by God! Harry Caray was almost as exciting as being at the park, and those who prayed he would be silenced by an immediate attack of laryngitis. Caray, should you be among the few who still have not heard him, is an announcer who can be heard shrieking above the roar of the crowd when a hitter puts the ultimate in wood to the ball: “There she goes…! Line drive…! It might be…it could be…it is! Home run…! Ho-lee cow!” You may not know that with a second home run his more dignified colleagues have preferred to flee the broadcasting booth before the ball has cleared the fence.

In the past decade the trend of play-by-play broadcasting has been decidedly in the direction of mellow, impassive reporting, a technique that strikes Harry Caray as being about as appropriate as having Walter Cronkite broadcast a heavyweight championship fight. “This blasé era of broadcasting!” Caray grumbles. “‘Strike one. Ball one. Strike two.’ It probably hurts the game more than anything, and this at a time when baseball is being so roundly criticized.” Never one to burden himself with restraint, Caray more or less began hoisting the 1968 pennant over Busch Stadium clear back in early July when, following a Cardinals victory, he bellowed, “The magic number is 92!”

The fact is that Harry Caray’s 24 years of broadcasting St. Louis baseball have been one long crusade for pennants, a stance that might be expected to have endeared him to all Cardinals past and present, but which, on the contrary, has left a scattered trail of athletes who would have enjoyed seeing him transferred to Ping-Pong broadcasts in Yokohama.

“What’s Caray got against you anyway, Meat?” asks Mrs. Jim Brosnan in a passage from The Long Season, a reminiscence her pitcher-husband wrote in 1960.

“To hell with Tomato-Face,” answers Brosnan. “He’s one of those emotional radio guys. All from the heart, y’know? I guess he thinks I’m letting the Cardinals down, and he’s taking it as a personal insult.”

“Well, you ought to spit tobacco juice on his shoe, or something. It’s awful the way he blames you for everything.”

[Photo Credit: The Sporting News]

I Got a Friend Shirley Bigger n You

MLB: New York Mets at Arizona Diamondbacks

Chris Smith profiles Matt Harvey in New York Magazine:

Last year, post-surgery, the Mets tried to protect Harvey from himself, physically, and this year the tension will resume. The franchise has also struggled to figure out how to handle Harvey’s attraction to the spotlight. Harvey is the Mets’ first star who has grown up with Twitter and Instagram, and his online posts have sometimes irritated management. His fondness for women and nightlife quickly conjured overheated comparisons to Joe Namath, the Jets quarterback who in the late ’60s set the standard for swinging jock bachelors in the city. Harvey is as at ease knocking down pins at Brooklyn Bowl as he is lounging inside 1 Oak. The gossip pages have claimed he pursued tennis player Eugenie Bouchard and dated models Ashley Haas and Asha Leo.

Harvey’s ego is substantial, but his desire for attention isn’t driven by simple A-Rod-ian neediness. He has an almost romantic notion of New York stardom and an endearing curiosity about what the city has to offer. Unlike the majority of his teammates, who keep a safe suburban distance, Harvey lives in the city, in a tenth-floor East Village apartment. He walks for hours, exploring neighborhoods and popping into restaurants he hasn’t tried.

But becoming a social-media-era experiment in New York sports celebrity, hanging on to his openness and crafting an identity somewhere between reckless Broadway Joe and bland Derek Jeter, might prove harder than lifting the Mets back into the playoffs. “I will never apologize for having a life,” he says.

Harvey pitched against the Yankees yesterday. Here’s Chad Jennings with the notes. 

[Photo Via: USATSI]

A Child Of The Century

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The great Saturnino Orestes Arrieta, aka Minnie Minoso, is dead.

One of my favorite players in history, he was bona fide even if the Hall snubbed him.

Thank you, Papi.

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I’ll never forget the number. Sports Phone. Man, I used to sneak calls as much as I could in the early-mid-Eighties. I had to sneak them because the calls were expensive and if too many showed up on the phone bill my ass was new mown grass. But still, in those days I’d do whatever I could to get an up-to-date score so the risk was worth it.

For a good time, head on over to Grantland and check out this history of Sports Phone by the talented Joe Delessio.

[Photo Via: No Mas]

The Miseducation of Alex Rodriguez

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J. R. Moehringer on Alex Rodriguez:

PEOPLE HATE HIM. Boy, wow, do they hate him. At first they loved him, and then they were confused by him, and then they were irritated by him, and now they straight-up loathe.

More often than not, the mention of Alex Rodriguez in polite company triggers one of a spectrum of deeply conditioned responses. Pained ugh. Guttural groan. Exaggerated eye roll. Hundreds of baseball players have been caught using steroids, including some of the game’s best-known and most beloved names, but somehow Alex Rodriguez has become the steroid era’s Lord Voldemort. Ryan Braun? Won an MVP, got busted for steroids, twice, called the tester an anti-Semite, lied his testes off, made chumps of his best friends, including Aaron Rodgers, and still doesn’t inspire a scintilla of the ill will that follows Rodriguez around like a nuclear cloud.

Schadenfreude is part of the reason. Rodriguez was born with an embarrassment of physical riches — power, vision, energy, size, speed — and seemed designed specifically for immortality, as if assembled in some celestial workshop by baseball angels and the artists at Marvel Comics. He then had the annoyingly immense good fortune to come of age at the exact moment baseball contracts were primed to explode. Months after he was old enough to rent a car he signed a contract worth $252 million. Seven years later: another deal worth $275 million. Add to that windfall another $500 million worth of handsome, and people were just waiting. Fans will root for a megarich athlete who’s also ridiculously handsome (body by Rodin, skin like melted butterscotch, eyes of weaponized hazelness), but the minute he stumbles, just ask Tom Brady, they’ll stand in line to kick him in his spongy balls.

Rodriguez’s defenders (and employees) are quick to say: Sheesh, the guy didn’t murder anybody. But he did. A-Rod murdered Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod brutally kidnapped and replaced the virginal, bilingual, biracial boy wonder, the chubby-cheeked phenom with nothing but upside. A-Rod killed the radio star, and his fall from grace disrupted the whole symbology and mythopoesis of what it means to be a superhero athlete in modern America.

[Image Via: Mark Murphy]

McCutchen Explains It All

Andrew McCutchen

Photo Credit: rumbunter.com; Feb. 21, 2014

 In a nice cross-section of serendipity, determination and a little help from good folks along the way, Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen (that is, Senior Editor of Derek Jeter’s media platform for professional athletes called The Player’s Tribune) lays out his thoughts and experience in an intriguing and well-thought assessment of how baseball has increasingly frozen out children (and potential talent) from lower income families.  It’s a great read…

 

Enthusiasms

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James Shields head for the sunshine and there’s plenty to be enthusiastic about in San Diego.

The General Who Never Was

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Sometimes a story comes along, jumps out at you, and won’t let go. Such was the case last year with Jeremy Collins’ beautifully-rendered memoir piece, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux.” It took a long time for the story to come together for Collins and when I finished my only concern was, “Maybe that’s all he’s got.”

Then he let me reprint an earlier variation featuring Sly Stallone and Rocky. It doesn’t have the same polish or control as the “Maddux” story, but it’s still really strong, proof that perhaps Collins is more than a one-trick pony.

Now comes his latest for SB Nation Longform, “The General Who Never Was,” a profile of the scoundrel Bobby Knight. It’s another beaut–told with precision and care:

What were the obstacles standing in Knight’s way of creating an enduring legacy? It wasn’t complicated. Zero-tolerance? Try common sense. All Knight had to do, in the words of former Indiana Trustee Ray Richardson, was “stop being a jerk. Try being a decent guy.” Or in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, a Hoosier who had seen war: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

In the end, I’m not sure what Knight saw when he looked out into the faithful crowd of fans and followers. Maybe in the blurry smokescreen of self-regard he didn’t see us at all. Not once did he mention the power of reading or wish the high school students in the stands well. Barely once in the onslaught of self-sentiment could he even speak the name of our shared motherland: Indiana, In-dee-anna, Indiana.

Instead, he put his hand up in an oddly formal gesture of farewell and held it there. Just like at Dunn Meadow back in 2000 after he asked everyone to bow their heads and observe a moment of silence in honor of himself and his family.

Never good at goodbye, I shouldn’t have expected more.

My pal Glenn Stout, series editor of the Best American Sports Writing and longform editor at SB Nation, has done a stellar job of shepherding young storytellers these past few years. So far–at least to my mind–Collins is his best find, a true breakaway talent. Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

[Photo Credit: Zach Long/AP]

Stop Making Sense

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That’d be our man Charlie Pierce:

Watching Marshawn Lynch run with the football these days is like watching Jim Brown in short bursts. (Brown ran like Lynch all the time, and that’s why he’s the greatest football player who ever lived.) Watching him in interviews is to see an artist at work — a natural deconstructionist, fashioning a media event to his own intriguing style.

Lynch doesn’t like to talk — and despite all the criticism he’s received, this seems to stem from a genuine reluctance almost bordering on shyness. But he has moved beyond simply not commenting. He now turns the very odd waltz between the reporter and the athlete into something resembling a parody of itself. Lynch was threatened with a half-million-dollar fine if he didn’t show up to take questions from people dressed like carrots at media day. (This, it must be said, is from a league that originally gave Ray Rice a two-game suspension.) So Lynch showed up, and he answered every question with the phrase, “I’m here so I won’t get fined.” To me, this seems a perfectly reasonable answer, and it clearly is the unvarnished truth. However, it was not received that way. All the people who had ginned themselves up beyond all recall to defend Western values against deflated footballs now rose up against Lynch for disrespecting … well … something anyway.

…Lynch owes only an honest day’s play for an honest day’s dollar, something he does with fair regularity, by my calculations. He doesn’t owe me or any mook like me any more than that. He does not owe The Brand any more than that, either. And in a way, that’s what the whole mad week was about. The Brand. The Patriots were accused of offending the league’s brand with deflated footballs. Kraft chose to try to protect his own brand instead of the league’s. And Lynch, god bless him, accused of heresy against all the brands, chose to laugh up his sleeve at the whole idea. In his own way, following his own drummer, Lynch is in rebellion against the tyranny of The Brand, and against all the artificial and corporatized encrustation that has covered all of our sports, and especially the NFL, and especially this one event. He may not be doing this consciously; I think he still just doesn’t like talking to strangers. But he’s striking a genuine blow against a genuine empire.

Play ball.

[Photo Credit: USATSI]

BGS: Mr. Cub Remembers

Ernie Banks, scouted by the legendary Buck O’Neill, and best known as Mr. Cub, died yesterday. We salute him with this column that John Schulian wrote for the Chicago Daily News on August 5, 1977.

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“Mr. Cub Remembers”

By John Schulian

He works in an office now. How that must hurt, even though the office is at Wrigley Field. When he dreamed as a young man, there was probably never a hint that he would have to stop playing the game that was, and as, his life.

But he did, and now he finds himself growing more and more apart from the new breed of Cubs. He has visited their clubhouse only once in this delicious season. The rest of the time, he has done nothing more than watch the players through his window as they leave the ballpark.

Ernie Banks says he doesn’t mind.

He is the Cubs’ group sales manager and their unofficial host, and he insists that he has all he can do to take care of those jobs. But he still leaves the impression that he would love to have someone tell him the clubhouse isn’t the same without him.

“When I walk in there,” Banks was saying Friday, “I think of where Billy Williams used to sit, and where Ron Santo used to sit, and where Glenn Beckert used to sit. It’s a real emotional jolt for me.”

In less that twenty-four hours, Banks would be playing in the Cubs’ first old-timer’s game with the men who populate his happy memories and the happy memories of fans who go back four decades and more. “It’s hard to believe I’m an old-timer,” he said.

He has already begun a campaign to make Saturday’s crowd forget that he is forty-seven years old and that his final game as an active player was in 1971. On Tuesday, he jogged a mile in Wrigley Field, sweated through a set of calisthenics, and stirred a breeze by swinging a bat big enough to fell an ox.

“Fifty-four inches, forty-eight ounces,” he said. “They don’t allow any bigger bats in professional baseball. You swing this one—just swing it—and you’ll build up the muscles in your forearms.”

Banks followed his self-prescribed regimen until Friday. Then he pronounced himself almost ready to face live pitching for the first time since he smacked a home run in an old-timer’s game in Los Angeles a year ago. What he had to do before that, though, was confer with Lew Fonseca, the attending physician for the Cubs’ hitters.

“Lew Fonseca told me a very important thing,” Banks said. He picked up a thirty-five-inch bat bearing his name from against a file cabinet and took his stance behind his desk. “Lou Fonseca told me not to swing the way I used to. I’ve got to get set when the pitcher takes his sign. Hey, I tried it. It worked beautiful.”

So Banks had the safeguard he was looking for. While he is as courtly as he has been painted, he is also unrepentantly proud of his 512 career homers and his membership in the Hall of Fame. “I want people to remember me the way I was,” he said, “not as someone who couldn’t pick up a grounder or hit the ball out of the infield.”

It is easy to see him as a man-child who may never be able to accept a role in the world outside the white lines of a baseball diamond. After all, he was so bewildered by retirement that he almost left the Cubs organization and returned to Dallas, where he was born. But P.K. Wrigley, the team’s reclusive owner, wouldn’t let that happen. He stepped in and saw to the invention of a job where Banks would spend half his time hustling tickets and the other half wandering around the ballpark, charming the customers.

It was a splendid idea with one possible flaw: The public might see Banks as the Chicago equivalent of wasted old Joe Louis greeting round-the-clock gamblers in a Las Vegas casino. Banks would have not of it Friday, however, as he signed autographs with one hand and guided a camera crew from ABC-TV news on a tour of the bleachers. The best word for his every move was dignified.

“It shouldn’t be any other way,” he said. “The fans respect me and I respect them back.”

Dignity does not translate into stiffness where Banks is concerned. After the Cubs stymied the Mets 5-0, he told everyone who approached his office, “It was Ladies Day and we made all the ladies happy.” When he discovered Dave Lamont, who occupies the desk next to his, had a prospective ticket buyer on the line from Webster, Iowa, Banks shouted, “Tell him we want all of Webster to get behind the Cubs.”

The office litany continued until Banks remembered something more important. “I better hang up my uniform for the old-timer’s game,” he said. “Don’t want any wrinkles in it.”

He reached into a well-worn duffel bag with a peeling identification tag and pulled out his uniform. “These people in Milwaukee made it for me special,” he said. “It’s just like the one I wore when I broke into the big leagues in 1953.”

He held it high and turned around to look at the blue 14 on the back. Then he stood and pulled the top on over his white shirt and striped tied. When he had zipped it up all the way, he spun slowly, modeling it for everyone in the office and wishing perhaps that he could go back to the time when the feel of a big league uniform was brand-new.

[This column can be found in Schulian’s essential collection, Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand. And for the true story behind Banks’ famous saying, “Let’s Play Two”, dig this from Glenn Stout.]

Photo Credit: John Dominis via It’s a Long Season

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