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

976-1313

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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

New York Minute

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Here’s our pal Ivan Solotaroff on New York street football:

On the FDR Drive overpass by lower Manhattan’s Houston Street, a group of men begins assembling an hour before nightfall one steamy Thursday in late June. Some come from security, construction, or livery jobs, others from long subway rides or carpools from the Bronx or Spanish Harlem. A few have brought wives and children.

Ranging in age from 19 to 51, short and wide to superbly conditioned, they seem a ragtag group, but for the cleats around their necks, the footballs a few carry, and the insults, bro-hugs and daps they exchange as their number swells to a dozen and they head into the Baruch Projects and its 75-year-old playground. More than 90 minutes of grueling calisthenics and sprints in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, it’s clear this is an elite, disciplined group: These practices are every Tuesday and Thursday night it’s not raining or snowing, 40-plus weeks a year. As twilight falls, passersby ogle the regimented testosterone on field, though not for long: The spectacle of men bonding to face the realities of barrio life is fairly common, and it rarely lasts.

These guys do, because they’re Carver Mobb — the name from Spanish Harlem’s George Washington Carver Projects, where the core half-dozen grew up in the 1970s. A team for 21 years, they’ve been the powerhouse of New York’s half-dozen seven-on-seven rough-touch football leagues for a decade. Essentially two-hand-touch taken to bloodsport level, with two 25-minute halves, a mostly running clock, and referees to nominally control the mayhem, it’s the closest these weekend warriors will come to professional sport, though many are high-caliber athletes. Most played high school ball, but only a half-dozen of the 200-plus devotees I’ll meet made it to college; two were walk-ons for the New York Giants or Jets, one played semi-pro in Coney Island, another plays Arena football.

[Photo Credit: SB Nation]

No Flipping

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I was a big NFL fan growing up but am a casual fan at best now. Still, I’ve watched every Super Bowl since the Rams almost upset the Steelers 35 years ago. I’m sure I’ll watch this year’s game, too, but for the first time that I can remember I’ve entertained thoughts of skipping it because I find both teams so unlikable.

Who are you guys pulling for?

Arms and the Man

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Scherzer to the Nats. Jay Jaffe looks at what’s next for the Tigers.

[Photo Credit: USATSI]

BGS: The Mongoose

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Bunch of years ago, my pal John Schulian hipped me to “The Mongoose”, Jack Murphy’s long 1961 New Yorker profile of Archie Moore. Murphy was a sports writer in San Diego–you remember, they named the ballpark after him–and this was a one-off freelance assignment. It’s a really nice, meaty piece. Reason you won’t find it in any boxing anthologies is because it’s just prohibitively long.

Enter–the Internet! It took awhile to secure the rights–a few years of hunting around, in fact–but I’m proud to finally bring it to you. So if n your interested, head on over to The Stacks and check out this story about one of boxing’s great characters:

Moore is acutely aware of his special position as a champion—and, more particularly, as a Negro champion. “A Negro champion feels he stands for more than just a title,” he says gravely. “He is a symbol of achievement and dignity, and it is tough to be a loser and let down a whole race.” In 1959, not long after the Durelle fight, Sam Goldwyn, Jr., invited Moore to try out for the role of Jim, the runaway slave, in a movie version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both Moore and his wife were leery of what they called “handkerchief-head parts,” and a Negro publication cautioned him against taking an “Uncle Tom” role, but he proceeded with the screen test, was offered the part, and signed a contract with Goldwyn.

Moore is unconscionably proud of the fact that he won the role in competition with professional actors as well as amateurs. (Among the latter was Sugar Ray Robinson, who was then the middleweight boxing champion. “Ray lost the part because he was too sleek,” said Archie. “They didn’t have sleek slaves in those days.”) Moore has boasted about how, although he was training for a title fight at the time, he memorized a sixteen-page transcript for his screen test and went before the cameras after only one rehearsal. The way he tells it, his performance in the test alone entitled him to an Oscar. At the end of the scene, as he recalls it, the professionals on the set—electricians, stagehands, and the like—broke into spontaneous applause. “Tears came from the director’s eyes,” says Archie. “Goldwyn was dabbing his eyes and shaking his head in wonder. An electrician told me it was only the second time in 30 years that he had seen such emotion during a test.” However accurate these recollections may be, the director of the movie, Michael Curtiz, appears to agree with Moore’s own estimate of his talent. “Archie has instinctive acting ability,” said Curtiz. “He seems to know just the right inflection to give a line, and his facial expressions are marvelous.”

When Moore first saw the script of the movie, he noted that the offensive word “nigger” appeared in it now and again, but he said nothing about this until the part was his and the contract signed. Then he began maneuvering. “I’m not a clever man, but I know how to get things done,” he said later. “The script used the word ‘nigger’ at least nine times. I went through it with a pencil and struck out the word everywhere I found it. Then I took it up with Mr. Goldwyn. I told him I couldn’t play the part unless he would agree to the deletions. I told him, ‘You are a young man, Mr. Goldwyn, and times are changing. How could I play this part when it would cause my people to drop their heads in shame in a theater?’ Goldwyn thought about it and he agreed with me. He ordered the deletions. The man who wrote the script was furious; his anger meant nothing to me. I had saved my people from embarrassment.” (Actually, the word was used only once in the movie, and then when Moore was offstage.)

[Photo Credit: Boxing Record Archie]

I’m With Stupid

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Today’s water cooler chatter is all about the baseball Hall of Fame. The latest inductees will be announced in a few hours and word has it that Pedro, Smoltz, the Big Unit and Craig Biggio will all make it.

[Drawing by Larry Roibal]

Solid as a Rock

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Yes, yes: again.

BGS: My Life in the Locker Room

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Last week I reprinted this gem by Jennifer Briggs.

I have one of the few jobs where the first thing people ask about is penises. Well, Reggie Jackson was my first. And yes, I was scared. I was 22 years old and the first woman ever to cover sports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Up until then, my assignments had been small-time: high school games and features on father-daughter doubles teams and Hacky Sack demonstrations. But now it was late September, and my editor wanted me to interview Mr. October about what it was like not to make the playoffs.

I’d heard the stories: the tales of women who felt forced to make a stand at the clubhouse door; of the way you’re supposed to never look down at your notepad, or a player might think you’re snagging a glimpse at his crotch; about how you’ve always got to be prepared with a one-liner, even if it means worrying more about snappy comebacks than snappy stories.

Dressed in a pair of virgin white flats, I trudged through the Arlington Stadium tunnel—a conglomeration of dirt and spit and sunflower seeds, caked to the walkway like 10,000-year-old bat guano at Carlsbad Caverns—dreading the task before me. It would be the last day ever for those white shoes—and my first of many covering professional sports.

And there I was at the big red clubhouse door, dented and bashed in anger so many times it conjured up an image of stone-washed hemoglobin. I pushed open the door and gazed into the visitors’ locker room, a big square chamber with locker cubicles lining its perimeter and tables and chairs scattered around the center. I walked over to the only Angel who didn’t yet have on some form of clothing. Mr. October, known to be Mr. Horse’s Heinie on occasion, was watching a college football game in a chair in the middle of it all—naked. I remember being scared because I hadn’t known how the locker room was going to look or smell or who or what I would have to wade through—literally and figuratively—to find this man.

It’s worth your time:

 

 

OK, I’m Reloaded

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The Red Sox reboot.

Dollar Dollar Bill Y’all

The Big Bopper goes…

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals

Cha-Ching.

And a little something something for Monsieur Martin aussi. 

[Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham]

All They Do is Give Out Awards

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Trout, Kershaw.

And, talk of the biggest contract ever. 

Plus, a rumor about a guy I’ve always liked: Howie Kendrick. 

[Photo Credit: Jeff Curry/AP]

All They Do is Give Out Awards…

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Baseball’s awards season has begun.

Buck!

And…Chris Young. Try to remain calm…

[Photo Credit: The Baltimore Sun]

But Beautiful

Illustrator and designer, Gary Cieradkowski runs a beautiful site, Infinite Baseball Card Set.

Top of that, he’s got a book out, The League of Outsider Baseball.

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Put it on your holiday shopping list. Looks like a keeper.

Bummer

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Madison Bumgarner is the Giants’ latest–and greatest–Whirled Serious pitching hero and the Giants are the champs again.

The Royals hung in there but had no answer for Bummie G.

Drag.

[Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America, via It’s a Long Season]

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