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

Tip Off

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The NBA Playoffs start this afternoon.

Diggum Smack.

[Photo Credit: J.K. Hering]

Whadda Ya Know?

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Doug Glanville on Robbie’s fresh start in Seattle:

His number one protégé is Justin Smoak — a young player who gives you the sense that he has played forever, but just short of his potential. Critics wonder when he will put it all together. He has power, he switch-hits, he can field, he has a good sense of the strike zone. Cano won him over from the start, and he made it clear to Smoak that he would be demanding more from him.

Cano broke out the Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long’s book on pregame ritual. He shares the same drills with his new teammates, making everyone accountable and providing access to tips that helped him year in and year out. And he is continuing his reputation of playing every single day, just as he did in New York, acknowledging that “ironmen” can teach lessons by showing it, not just talking it.

As Smoak described it, “I always knew what I needed to do, but with Cano here, I see it getting done.” Cano has actualized possibility. He personifies the hopes and goals of a team that has been counted out, and he’s made it real for players who have had the talent, but just needed to make it tangible.

In many ways, that may be another way to honor a legacy: to pass it on and prove that it can work in another environment. It is a way to celebrate it on a larger scale, to show that the lessons are applicable in other clubhouses, in new cultures. I would imagine Kevin Long or any hitting coach would be happy to know his drills help all players because they embody a universal truth. The ultimate compliment to a teacher.

[Photo Credit: Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images]

Sins of the Preacher

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Greg Hanlon is talented reporter and writer. His latest story is for Sports on Earth. It is about former Yankee Chad Curtis:

Chad Curtis didn’t tell his lawyer that he’s doing this interview, he admits with a sly smile. Obviously, she’d be angry, because he’s appealing his conviction, and talking to a reporter is likely not in his best interests. But Curtis is still upset that he didn’t get to take the stand at his trial. He sees himself as a man for whom telling the truth trumps calculated self-interest.

That’s why, he believes, he has sat in prison since October on a seven-to-15-year conviction for molesting three teenage girls at the rural Michigan high school where he volunteered. He says he could have taken a misdemeanor plea, served a year and a half in county, and been home with his wife and six kids by now. But he’s an innocent man in his own mind, so he couldn’t bring himself to swear on the Bible — which he quotes frequently and encyclopedically during our two-hour interview at the Harrison Correctional Facility — and admit to a crime he didn’t commit.

As a major league baseball player, he wore a bracelet that said, “What would Jesus do?” Now that he’s a prisoner, he tells me, “Jesus lived the perfect life, and that got him crucified.” By this, he means there’s historical precedent for the harsh judgments of human beings to be 180 degrees wrong, and that he’s in good company.

He asks if I’m familiar with the show Pretty Little Liars. He says he prays daily for his teenage accusers, all of whom had similar athletic builds and All-American good looks. He says all he was doing in that locked, windowless, dungeon-like training room was helping those girls recover from sports injuries. He says he took the same all-out approach to treating sports injuries as he did to playing baseball — “whether it was running into an outfield wall or breaking up a double play.”

As for why the girls thought otherwise, and accused him of touching their rear ends, breasts and, in one case, genitals, he doesn’t want to speculate: “I’ve been really discouraged by how often and how wrong people have assumed my motivations, so I’ll extend them that same courtesy,” he says.

He doesn’t mention that not a single boy testified to having gone down to the trainer’s room for similar treatment.

Don’t miss this one. It’s really strong.

[Photo Via MLive]

BGS: Magnum P(retty) I(indecisive)

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Here’s more baseball-related fun for you, Pat Jordan’s 1989 GQ profile of Tom Selleck.

Dig in.

Tom Selleck is faced with a dilemma. He is being forced to make a decision that will annoy at least one of three people.

“Well, I don’t know, Esme. What do you think?”

His publicist, Esme Chandlee, who is seated beside Selleck on a sofa in his office at Universal Studios, folds her arms and says, “If it’s what you want, Thomas!”

“We could maybe try it, Esme,” Selleck says.

“I don’t know why,” she says. “I’m not bothering anyone.”

Selleck now looks beseechingly at me. “What do you think? Esme really hasn’t interfered.”

“It inhibits me,” I say. “I’ve never interviewed someone with their publicist sitting in.”

Selleck now looks beseechingly at Chandlee. “Gee, I feel comfortable with him, Esme. Maybe we could try it. Just him and me.” Chandlee stands up and glares at me. Selleck adds quickly, “If you don’t mind?”

“All right, Thomas,” she says. “If that’s the way you want it! But give him just ten more minutes. Do you hear Thomas?” Selleck nods like a chastised youngster as Chandlee leaves the room.

“Gee, l hope I didn’t offend her,” he says. “That’s the way she’s always done it with me.”

Esme Chandlee is in her late sixties. A savvy, schoolmarmish woman with rust-colored hair. She has been a Hollywood publicist for more than thirty years. She remembers Ava Gardner as a teenager in a halter top and tight shorts. “She breezed into the studio without makeup or shoes,” says Chandlee, “and every head turned.”

That was a time in Hollywood when actors were not actors, but stars. The stars deferred to their publicists, who kept a tight rein on their careers and lives. They built their stars’ careers less upon acting talent than on a distinctive, unwavering persona that satisfied their fans’ needs. These fans went to the movies to see John Wayne play John Wayne, not some fictional character.

It was also the publicist’s job to make sure that the John Wayne seen in the movies was consistent with the John Wayne seen in the press. Publicists often selected the magazines their stars would appear in, even setting the scene where an interview would take place (“Thomas will take batting practice with the Dodgers this afternoon,” says Chandlee. “You can watch.”) and writing the script (“Tom always hits a few home runs in batting practice,” she adds). When the scene didn’t quite play as written (Selleck swings through the first twenty pitches thrown him, hangs his head and says, “This is humiliating!”), they simply stuck to their script (“Thomas! What are you talking about? You hit some good ones.”).

They also determined the questions to be asked and not asked, and just to make sure their rules were followed, they sat in on each interview, nodding, smiling, frowning, pointing a long finger at the reporter’s notebook (“Come on! Come on! We don’t have all day!” says Chandlee) and even, on occasion, interrupted their star with a clarification (“l don’t think Tom said he was opposed to abortion. Did you Thomas?”).

Most of Esme Chandlee’s stars are now dead, like John Cassavetes, or semiretired, like Vera Miles. She still has Selleck, though, and, to a lesser extent, Sam Elliott. Her boys. She fusses over their careers, both of which were based more on masculine images than on acting ability and were established in television rather than in feature films. Television is the last bastion of the old star system. Careers are founded there—stars are made there—by forging a captivating persona that never wavers from week to week. TV stars are so closely identified with their characters (Magnum, Rockford, J.R., Alexis) that fans often refer to them by those names.

Which is fine for TV stars as long as they remain on TV, as Tom Selleck did with Magnum, P.l. for eight years. But Magnum is gone now, at Selleck’s request, and he is trying to build a film career from his new home near L.A.

“L.A. has changed a lot in the eight years I was in Hawaii,” says Selleck. “L.A. jokes are more valid now. There are a lot more people full of shit here. I don’t mean to get into L.A.-bashing, but I was lucky to be isolated in Hawaii. It was the most wonderful experience of my life. I just worked.”

As a TV actor in the hinterland, Selleck was removed from the pressures and critical scrutiny of Hollywood. Television also afforded him the luxury of not needing the press, since his face appeared onscreen weekly rather than in a movie once a year. “In films, you can get a career-ending momentum from one film,” he says. Which is why movie actors make themselves accessible to the press: to keep their public presence alive in between screen appearances. Now that Selleck is solely doing films, he finds himself in the same position. “It’s new to me,” he says. “In-depth interviews. I don’t know how to do them yet.”

Selleck’s success in film has been limited. Of his nine movies, only Three Men and a Baby, in which he shared the spotlight with Ted Danson and Steve Guttenherg, was a critical and financial hit. Much of the criticism leveled at the failures (Her Alibi, Lassiter, Runaway, High Road to China) centered upon Selleck’s insistence on playing himself, or, rather, the self he had created with Magnum. Amiable. Jocky. Bumbling. Insecure. Unthreatening (to men and women). And disbelieving of his very substantial physical charms.

The problem is that Selleck’s characters in Lassiter and High Road were each supposed to have had a certain hard edge: In High Road, for instance, Patrick O’Malley was a drunken, conniving mercenary who exploits women in a way not dissimilar to that of Burt Reynolds’s film persona. (Burt and Tom are good friends. Selleck is listed as executive producer of Reynolds’s ABC-TV series, B. L. Stryker, and he is probably the only actor alive who will lower his eyes modestly and say “Thank you“ when compared to Reynolds as an actor.) But Selleck didn’t totally mask his Magnum amiability in those roles. Like Reynolds, Selleck is of the acting school that insists that no matter what character he portrays onscreen, he must never let the audience forget the image he has off-screen. “I think it’s a compliment if the audience only sees me,” he says.

It just goes against Selleck’s nature not to be amiable. “I don’t see any reason not to be nice,” he says. “It can be one way, and an effective one, of achieving certain ends. Still, it bothers me when people equate niceness with being dull and wishy-washy. It makes me sound like a wuss.”

Even the success of Three Men and a Baby was predicated on his playing… an amiable, bumbling, love-struck architect—the one twist being that rather than a 25-year-old female in a bikini his love interest was a 6-month-old female in diapers.

The Boston Globe once wrote that Selleck was the only actor who appeared big on the small screen and small on the big screen. Actors who get away with playing the same character type in movie after movie (Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford) do so because they have developed compelling personas that are bigger than life, which is what moviegoers demand. More intense, passionate, mysterious, heroic, screwy, even threatening. It was precisely Ford’s nutty quirks that elevated the seemingly normal professor into the obsessed adventurer Indiana Jones. Selleck, originally offered that part, had to turn it down because of Magnum commitments.)

But Tom Selleck is mercilessly normal, either unable or unwilling to take the risk not to be. For a human being, that’s admirable. For an actor, it can be fatal. TV viewers are drawn to the normal for their heroes (Selleck/Magnum, Cosby/Huxtable) because it reassures them about their own everyday lives. TV heroes are comforting because they are not bigger than life, which is why TV actors often have difficulty taking the leap to film. Those who do either create memorable characters, like Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry,” or simply learn how to act, like Steve McQueen and James Garner.

In his new movie, An Innocent Man, Selleck is still playing “normal,” an ordinary guy wrongly accused and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

“As an actor, Tom’s underrated,” says Bess Armstrong, his costar in High Road to China. “l don’t feel the material he’s chosen is up to his ability. I believe there’s a lot of potential there that hasn’t been tapped. Maybe he’s biding his time. Tom is aware of every step, aware of staying in power. He’s very savvy. Tom always has a plan.”

* * *

Tom Selleck’s dilemma, then, is obvious. How far would he distance himself from Magnum—at the risk of losing his fans—in order to succeed in film? Rather than make that painful decision, Selleck is doing what he usually does. He is trying to maintain a precarious balance.

“My biggest fear,” he says, “is not to be wanted. I don’t know if I’ll want to act in five or ten years, but I’d really like for people to want me to work. You can be loyal to your fans without pandering to them. But you also can’t take them for granted. I’ve always felt it was easier to get women fans than men. But you have to have the guys to be successful. I’ve never liked guys who pandered to women fans.”

Many women swoon over Selleck/Magnum’s good looks and nonthreatening sensitivity, while others echo the sentiments of one of his leading ladies, who says, “What was lacking for me was a certain messiness, a certain passion. Everything with Tom is in its box.” It was Magnum’s male viewers who made the show a success; they identified with Magnum’s flaws, not his strengths. It was significant that the red Ferrari he drove was his boss’s, not his own. What was even more significant was that Magnum’s pursuits of beautiful women more often than not ended in failure, just like those of his male viewers. Selleck sustained an eight-year TV run out of those weaknesses, ultimately earning almost $5 million a year, and he is loath to lose that career now.

“Every actor gets put in a box,” Selleck says. “It’s not a curse if you’re working. If it’s a small box, though, I don’t think you can buck it. I’d just like to make my box a little bigger. I try not to approach my career as if I’m some mythical personality; because that personality changes with people’s perceptions of it.

“I like to think that every film part of mine has been a stretch. I’m very happy with them. No matter how safe people thought my choices were, they were a big risk for me. I just have to balance those stretches with my limitations. I can’t ever play Quasimodo just to prove something, but I can push my parameters or else there will be a sameness to my work. I have to be willing to fail. You can’t have it both ways. Still, I can’t do a movie without thinking of my career. I wish I could, but I can’t. That’s the trap. When you start calling what you do ’a career,’ that’s when you start feeling the pressure.”

Selleck relies a lot on Chandlee to protect his career. He is loyal to her, he says, because she did a lot of free work for him thirteen years ago, when he was a struggling actor known more for his modeling (Salem cigarettes, Chaz cologne) than for his thespian exploits (he played a corpse in the film Coma). Selleck is ashamed of his modeling past and tries to distance himself from it by denigrating talk of his being a sex symbol. “I hate that!” he says. “I hate to work out with weights just to stay in shape. I never did like to throw it around. Too much muscle takes away from your character onscreen.”

Like many actors, Selleck is more than a little embarrassed by what he does for a living. He considers it unmanly. “It’s easy to stare someone down with a gun when you know that after they shoot you dead you can get up again. Now, a big left-handed pitcher throwing me curveballs, ouch! That’s real!”

Selleck, at six feet four, 210 pounds and 44 years of age, is proud of his athletic ability. He is an Olympic-caliber volleyball player and claims his greatest achievement was recently being named to an all-American team for men 35 to 45. He also likes to talk about his college basketball days, and how he could really leap. “l didn’t have white man’s disease,” he says. “In one episode of Magnum, we ended the show with me dunking a basketball. It was really important for me to do that without camera tricks.”

It’s important, too, for Selleck to take batting practice at least once a year with a major league team. He has done so with the Orioles (“l hit a few out at Memorial Stadium“) and with the Tigers (“A few players were screwing around in the outfield. When I hit one between them, they just looked.”) and, this past season, with the Dodgers. This time, it did not go well.

Selleck stood behind the batting cage with the pitchers, waiting to take his swings against the easy lobs of one of the team’s older coaches. The pitchers kidded around, occasionally including Selleck in their jokes. He laughed nervously. This was obviously an important moment for him. He had spent the previous day at a batting range in preparation and did not want to look foolish.

Steve Garvey, the former Dodgers first baseman, walked onto the field accompanied by his latest wife, a striking cotton-candy blonde. Garvey, dressed in a navy blazer and tan trousers, looked less like a ballplayer than an actor. One of the Dodgers said to another, “Who’s that with Garv?”

“His new wife.”

“How do you know?”

“She’s the one who’s not pregnant.”

Selleck went over to talk to Garvey. They chatted under a bright sun, two men who have embellished their careers by being “nice.” Finally, it was Selleck’s turn to hit. For the next hour he struggled, sweating and lunging, foul-tipping or just missing pitch after pitch. There was a lightness to his swing. He didn’t attack the ball, driving toward it with his shoulders, but swung only with his arms.

“You swing pretty good,” said one pitcher, “…for an actor.”

Selleck tried to smile.

When batting practice was over, Selleck heard a stern voice calling him from the seats behind home plate, “Thomas! Thomas!” He went over to Chandlee, who was seated alongside Selleck’s elder brother, Bob.

“That was humiliating!” Selleck said.

“Oh, Thomas!” Chandlee said. “That pitcher was throwing hard.”

“He was,” Selleck said. “Wasn’t he?”

“Pretty hard,” said Bob, who had been a pitcher in the Dodgers organization years ago. Bob is a boyishly tousled, Alan Alda sort of guy, who stands almost six feet six. Selleck is close to his brother, and to all of his family, whom he refers to as his best friends. He also has a younger brother and a sister; they, along with their father, Bob Sr., and mother, Martha, make a strikingly beautiful family. “Heads just turn when they all enter a room,” says Chandlee.

* * *

Born in Detroit, Selleck moved with his family to Sherman Oaks, California, when he was 4. His father was a real estate executive and president of the Little League. His mother was a den mother for the Cub Scouts and Brownies. There was a tradition in the family that if the children did not drink, smoke or swear until the age of 21, they would be given a gold watch. Selleck got his, although he claims he did lapse a few times.

Selleck excelled in sports and won a basketball scholarship to USC. He mostly sat on the bench, but when Pepsi was looking for a basketball player for an ad, he landed his first modeling job. He began pursuing acting after that, doing a little modeling on the side, until he received his draft notice. This was in 1967—the height of the Vietnam war. After taking his physical, Selleck was told that within three months he’d probably be sent overseas. Although Selleck “firmly believed in my military obligation,” he wanted to continue acting. So his father helped him get into the National Guard. He claims it was a very scary time to be in the Guard, given all the student riots across the country. Meanwhile, he appeared on the TV program The Dating Game twice. He wasn’t chosen either time, but he was noticed by executives at Twentieth Century Fox and given a studio contract. The rest is history. Salem. Chaz. Magnum. An Emmy. People’s Choice Award for favorite male TV performer, four times. A film price that is now in the millions. In 1986, his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And in August, a multi-picture deal with Disney similar to those of Bette Midler, Tom Hanks and Goldie Hawn.

It is not clear whether Selleck truly defers to Chandlee in decisions about his career or just wants to give the impression that he does. When Chandlee sits in on interviews, Selleck insists it’s her demand, not his. Yet when he did a Playboy interview some years ago, he told the reporter that a CBS publicist had to sit in because the network insisted. He didn’t want to offend them, Selleck said, because they had been so nice to him. Afterward, he called the writer a number of times to clarify a few points he had made. Selleck likes to make these personal follow-up calls. It’s his way of softening his various refusals to writers during interviews. No mention of his family. No talks with his wife. No visits to his home. No questions about his salary.

Such passive aggressiveness seems to be the way he conducts every facet of his life. “Eventually, l guess l got to know Tom,” says Laila Robins, who plays his wife in An Innocent Man. “I just didn’t feel he wanted to schmooze with me. I felt bad, because I’m a professional and know enough not to cross that personal line. He just didn’t trust me enough to let me not cross that line on my own. He always had people around to protect him, to serve as buffers. I’d go our to dinner with him and his makeup man and driver/bodyguard. I never felt they shut me out. It wasn’t that blatant. I just felt there was a point when he didn’t want to go that extra step.”

“Actors need buffers,” says Selleck. “We need people to say no for us.” Chandlee says no a lot for Selleck. It takes the burden off him so he won’t have to sully his image not being “nice.” Then, too, Tom Selleck is truly a “nice“ man who does have trouble saying no to people. Even when he does, he will do it in a way that appears so painful for him, it doesn’t really seem like a no. Back in the late Seventies, as his marriage of ten years to Jacquelyn Ray was collapsing, he couldn’t bear to go through with the actual divorce for four years. “It’s one of the great sorrows of my life that we won’t be together,” he said at the time. “We’ve worked out an agreement to live separately, but we haven’t made any moves toward divorce.”

When Selleck goes out to dinner with his second wife, actress Jillie Mack (they’ve a 10-month-old daughter, Hannah Margaret Mack), he refuses to sign autographs while eating. But he takes great care to explain to his fans his reasons for saying, “Sometimes, it would just be easier to sign them,” he says. “Then when they left, I wouldn’t feel guilty.”

Selleck also felt guilty when he announced he was leaving Magnum after his seventh year. He felt he, personally, was pulling the plug on his crew’s careers. So he signed for an eighth and final season (at a considerable salary increase) just to give the crew one last big paycheck, and to give himself peace of mind.

Selleck loves to smoke cigars. “Obscenely large ones from Cuba,” he says. His favorite poem, by Rudyard Kipling, tells the story of a man forced to choose between the two great loves of his life: his fiancee, Maggie, and the beloved cigars Maggie demands that he give up. He wavers, debating the pros and cons of each love, until finally he makes his choice:

And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a Smoke.

Light me another Cuba—I hold to my first-born vows,

If Maggie will have no rival, I’ll have no Maggie for Spouse!

It is ironic that Selleck’s favorite poem is about a man who makes a painful decision in a decisive way. Despite his own love of cigars, Selleck won’t smoke them in public for fear of offending his fans. When he is offered a cigar while seated in the crowded Dodgers bleachers, where no one has recognized him, he looks around quickly before saying, “I’d better not.”

In his political convictions, Selleck is equally equivocal, though they are of a conservative bent. He believes that socialism is a failed economic concept that limits wealth, while capitalism breeds it. “I benefit a lot of people by making a lot of money,” he says. “It doesn’t make me feel guilty. I can afford to be principled now because of my wealth. If you’re struggling with a family and you sell out, it’s understandable, but if you have wealth and you sell out, there’s something wrong.”

Selleck feels that women’s lib is “just an excuse for women to get even” and that abortion is not only a woman’s issue but a man’s, too. “It takes two people to have a baby,” he says. “And since there’s been no national consensus on it, one way or another, l don’t think the federal government should fund abortions. I would never encourage anyone to have an abortion, but you won’t see me pounding the streets one way or another about it. I don’t think I belong out there just because I did Magnum for eight years.”

Selleck also resents the fact that white Americans are often given the blanket label of racist, held responsible for sins committed 200 years ago. “I’m not responsible for slavery,” he says. “When that poor girl was raped in Central Park this year, Cardinal O’Connor said we were all responsible. I’m not. O’Connor said that God forgave those kids who raped the girl. God might have forgiven them, but I don’t think He forgave them right away.”

When Robert Bork was rejected by the Senate in his attempt to become a Supreme Court justice, Selleck thought it such an outrage that he sent a letter to each of the congressmen who had voted against Bork. Selleck never made that letter public, for the same reason he refuses to campaign for conservative political candidates. As he once said, “Flat out from a business point of view, I don’t think it’s a good idea to get involved. Yet at the same time you don’t want to compromise.”

* * *

It is the seventh inning of the game at Dodger Stadium, and Selleck has yet to be recognized as he sits in the home plate bleachers. It has been a rare treat for him to watch a game without fans assailing him for autographs. The last time he went to the stadium, he sat down below and was immediately spotted. He had to sign so many autographs that he never saw the game. He debated this time whether he should sit in the Stadium Club, where his privacy would be respected. But he rejected that possibility because looking through a glass partition is not like “really being at a game.”

“I’ve always been a private person in a public job,” he says now. “If I give all my privacy away to the public, l won’t have any left as an actor. l won’t have anything to show in my work. Still, I want to be able to do normal things, or else you get isolated and lose touch with reality. I miss all the rudimentary things other people do, like going to the beach and reading a book. I force myself to do these things sometimes, like this game. If I don’t, then privacy becomes the ability to lock yourself in your home, and you’ll never experience reality.”

Suddenly he stops talking and taps me on the shoulder. “Hey, look at that girl!” He points down below to a beautiful girl in a tight sweater returning to her seat behind home plate and whistles like a schoolboy. “That’s all right!” he says. There is something of the schoolboy about Selleck when he talks about women. He claims he is “painfully shy with girls“ and often had to be set up on blind dates. When he asked Jillie out for the first time, he sat in an upstairs bedroom, sweating and hesitating before finally mustering the nerve to dial her number. He was so tongue-tied that eventually she had to say, “Do you want to ask me out?”

“Gee, I hope she gets up again to go for popcorn,” Selleck says, still staring down at the girl. Then he catches himself. “Isn’t that silly?” Despite his adolescent ogling, Selleck is almost prudish about sex. When he’s told that one of his favorite actresses, Kim Basinger, gave a magazine interview recently in which she talked brazenly about wearing a see-through skirt without underwear, Selleck just shakes his head. “That’s too bad,” he says. When his brother Bob tells him an off-color joke that ends in oral sex between two men, Selleck slinks down in his seat, scrunches up his features and mutters, “Yuck!”

The ultimate impression Selleck gives is of a man either physically unable to let himself go or of a man hiding some terrible secret. In either case, he’s still so nice that it seems a waste of his energy to be so protective. He’s the kind of guy who would probably be even nicer if he just stopped acting that way and let himself be naturally so.

Selleck sits back now to enjoy the rest of the game. He looks around. It dawns on him that the fans’ attention is glued to the action on the field. “Hey, this is great!” he says. “Nobody asked me for an autograph. I’m escaping…. Oh, my God! Maybe they forgot me already! Maybe I should stand up or something. Turn around, let them see me.”

He laughs, only half-kidding.

First Batter Up, Here’s the Pitch, it’s a Curve

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Opening Day at Citi Field this afternoon. This picture was taken by Matt Cerrone, maestro of the long-running Mets Blog. 

The Writing of “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now”?

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This piece originally appeared in the 8th issue of The Classical Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

The Great Seduction: The Writing of “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”

Alex Belth

They came to Ted Williams the way those eight ill-fated adventurers came to Everest, thinking they could scale it, conquer it, reduce it to something mortals could comprehend. John Updike almost made it to the top when he wrote that gods don’t answer letters, but Ed Linn got off just as good a line in Sport magazine summing up Williams’ last game: “And now Boston knows how England felt when it lost India.” Leigh Montville weighed in with an almost poetically profane biography, and now Ben Bradlee Jr. has delivered a massive biography of his own at nearly 1,000 pages. But none of them—and I’m talking about a great novelist, two splendid sportswriters, and a deeply committed researcher here—made it to the top of the mountain where dwelled Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, the Kid.

Richard Ben Cramer did.

He had only 15,000 words to work with, and he had to scheme and skulk and send flowers to get those, but he climbed inside Williams’ life and mind and special madness the way nobody before him did and nobody after him has. His story—”What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”—reached out from the pages of Esquire‘s July 1986 issue and grabbed you by the collar. Once you read his first sentence—”Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those”—you didn’t need to be forced to go the rest of the way.

+++

It began at an editors meeting in Esquire‘s Manhattan offices. The magazine’s American Male special was up next and they needed a monster piece on which they could hang the issue. Why not Ted Williams? His hatred of the press was legendary but he had the necessary stature. Still, he’d be hard to get—impossible, maybe.

There was one guy that wouldn’t be scared off, though. If anything, Richard Ben Cramer would relish the challenge.

“They know if they really get me going on an idea, well, I just can’t come home without it,” Cramer later explained in Robert Boynton’s incisive interview collection, The New New Journalism. “It might take years, but I’ll eventually get it.”

Seven years earlier, Cramer had won a Pulitzer Prize covering the Middle East for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was an enviable talent, a terrific reporter who could also really write. He got to the story, got people to talk to him and was a natural storyteller. Sure, his prose blushed a shade of purple at times, but that’s not the worst sin, and Cramer could be forgiven because his excesses were the product of his enthusiasm. He had a reputation in some quarters for being loose with facts, but nobody doubted his talent, or his desire to tell a good story, or, at least in the big picture, to get that story right.

Cramer turned to writing for national magazines when he’d exhausted everything he could do at a newspaper. By this time he had a clear voice and his first three features—two for Esquire, the other for Rolling Stone—announced the arrival of a major talent who was gunning for Halberstam, Talese, and Wolfe. He was a star, and he carried himself like one, and nobody much held it against him because he was self-deprecating and generous, a real charmer. Cramer wasn’t movie-star handsome, yet women loved him. He was a man of big appetites—thick, rare steaks, full-bodied red wines, unfiltered Camel cigarettes, and five cups of black coffee the next morning. He wore linen suits and Panama hats and had the most disarming accent, dese-and-dose guttural, the flat A’s from his native Rochester mixed with a Southern drawl picked up during years of reporting in Baltimore.

But underneath all that wooly shit Cramer was an Apollonian kind of dude.

He jumped at the chance to write about Williams. Aside from a few stray newspaper columns, Cramer had never written about his favorite sport. His editor at Esquire, Dave Hirshey, called the Boston Red Sox and inquired about access. They laughed at him. Williams was such a pain in the ass that the Red Sox had long stopped trying to facilitate any publicity.

“I went back to Cramer and told him the news,” Hirshey told me, “and he was more adrenalized than ever, because he lived for outsized challenges like this. He knew he could get to anyone on the face of the planet, and since the Red Sox weren’t assisting in any way he wasn’t indebted to them.”

Impossible, my ass.

+++

“After I got the assignment from Esquire,” Cramer told Boynton, “I just went down to the town he lived in in Florida. I didn’t want to know anything, I didn’t want to read all the received wisdom of the last fifty years, because then I’d be spouting the same crap as everyone else—which was exactly what pissed Ted off about journalists in the first place.”

Williams wasn’t around Islamorada, a small town on the road to Key West, when Cramer arrived, which was fine by Cramer. He wasn’t on a newspaper deadline and was in no great rush. In the tradition of Gay Talese, he practiced the art of hanging out. His approach to a celebrity profile wasn’t any different from how he reported events Beirut or Pakistan, really: You see the flash and you go towards it when everyone else is getting out of there. You know it’s risky, but you want to see it—you want the truth.

Cramer had a gift for putting people at ease. “You could sit down with Richard,” his friend and Baltimore Sun colleague Tony Barberi told me, “whether it was you or me or somebody he’s interviewing for the first time, and he would sit there and smile and nod and laugh in the right places and tell you at the end this is the greatest story he’d ever heard. He was just a wonderful listener.”

“I’m gonna go one step further,” said Hank Klibanoff, who worked with Cramer in Philadelphia. “What made Richard special was that he didn’t seem to always have an end game in mind, which was writing a story. My impression is that Richard separated the two things so that people didn’t feel like they were just pawns in his writing game. They came away thinking he really liked them. And I think he really did.”

So he made himself a part of Williams’ world while Williams wasn’t there. “I met all his fishing buddies,” he said, “and I really got to know them. Once in a while I’d ask a little about Ted, but I didn’t push it. So by the time Ted comes back everybody’s saying, ‘Hey, Ted, have you heard about this odd guy who’s been hanging around for weeks?’ And pretty soon, Ted had to check me out for himself.”

Once Cramer got his hooks into Williams, he didn’t let go for three months. It didn’t matter if Esquire was paying him enough to justify that kind of investment of his time. (Cramer later claimed to have lost money on every magazine article he ever wrote.) What mattered was to get something that no one else could get, that no one else could write.

“In his hometown of Islamorada, on the Florida Keys, Ted is not hard to see,” wrote Cramer:

He’s out every day, out early and out loud. You might spot him at a coffee bar where the guides breakfast, quizzing them on their catches and telling them what he thinks of fishing here lately, which is ‘IT’S HORSESHIT.’ Or you might notice him in a crowded but quiet tackle shop, poking at a reel that he’s seen before, opining that it’s not been sold because ‘THE PRICE IS TOO DAMN HIGH,’ after which Ted advises his friend, the proprietor, across the room: ‘YOU MIGHT AS WELL QUIT USING THAT HAIR DYE. YOU’RE GOING BALD ANYWAY.’

He’s always first, 8:00 A.M., at the tennis club. He’s been up for hours, he’s ready. He fidgets, awaiting appearance by some other, any other, man with a racket, where upon Ted bellows, before the newcomer can say hello: ‘WELL, YOU WANNA PLAY?’ Ted’s voice normally emanates with gale and force, even at close range. Apologists attribute this to the ear injury that sent him home from Korea and ended his combat flying career. But Ted can speak softly and hear himself fine, if it’s only one friend around. The roar with which he speaks in a public place, or to anyone else, has nothing to do with his hearing. It’s your hearing he’s worried about.

Cramer often didn’t even take notes when talking to a subject, but he once told former colleagues at the Baltimore Sun that to capture an extended riff by Williams during a long car ride, he had Williams stop the car while he went in a convenience store and bought a small tape recorder. He returned and stuck the recorder in full view on the dashboard, making it clear that this ride was on the record and that there would be no confusion as to the accuracy of the reporting.

“Believe me,” says Klibanoff, “if he made anything up Ted Williams would have let the world know.”

Cramer stayed in Florida until he exhausted Williams’ patience. In Dan Okrent’s telling of the story, Williams drove Cramer to the Miami Airport. As they stood at the curb, Cramer thanked him for his time, explained that he might call to clarify some things that might arise in the writing, and that magazines had these people called fact checkers who would be in touch as the piece was ready to go to press. Williams looked at him and said, “Cramer, I’ve got two things to say to you. First, get a haircut. Second, I never want to see you or speak to you again.”

+++

The Williams that Cramer encountered was coarse, gregarious, and sympathetic. Cramer’s choice to capitalize some of Williams bellowing was reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s expressionistic prose style but in this case it didn’t serve to distract the reader only to punctuate character. Cramer himself appeared in the piece but only as a foil for Williams; unlike other new journalists the writer didn’t become the story.

“What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” upset people’s expectations after decades of having read about Williams as remote and forbidding. Cramer humanized Williams to such an extent that you could actually imagine sitting down and having a beer with Teddy Ballgame. And Cramer plied his considerable charm to make sure he got every one of the 15,000 words he wrote into print. Hirshey says that Cramer wouldn’t accept the 1,500 words that Esquire‘s managing editor demanded be cut. As the final touches were being put on the issue, Hirshey was at a black-tie affair and couldn’t be reached when Cramer struck.

“His first stop was the copy department,” said Hirshey, “where he charmed the culottes off the head copy editor and told her that I had given him permission to restore the trimmed 1,500 words and that she could call me at home if she liked. She did and, of course, got no answer. Cramer, being a Pulitzer Prize winner and all, had enough journalistic cred to convince her he would take full responsibility for any changes. Next, with the new 15,000 word galleys in hand, he went to the art department and told them they would have to drop a photo of Williams in the opening layout and shrink the type on the jump. When they balked, he told them I had given him permission and they were welcome to check with me. Now came his biggest challenge. In order for us not to see his handiwork the next morning, he would have to convince the production department that the piece would have to ship that night because ‘the printing plant isn’t used to handling pieces of this length and needed the extra day.’”

The next morning Hirshey arrived at the office and noticed three bouquets of long stem red roses at the receptionists’ desk addressed to the copy, art and production departments. All three had the same note attached: “Thanks for your grace under pressure, Richard Cramer.”

+++

In The Best Sports Writing of the Century, David Halberstam picked “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” as one of four stories considered “The Best of the Best.”

“It’s hard to write a magazine piece that stands out from other magazine pieces,” Cramer’s friend, the writer Mark Jacobson told me. “At that time a lot of the best journalists were working in the magazine business. So there was a high degree of difficulty in pulling off a piece that really stood out like that. I think it’s the best thing Cramer ever wrote.”

Cramer didn’t have anything left to prove in magazines after Ted Williams. He moved on to books, first writing about presidential hopefuls in What it Takes and then debunking the popular sentiment of another American icon in Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life. He wrote the occasional magazine piece to pay the bills; they were solid, professional, but not etched in memory.

The Williams profile appeared in the 1991 coffee table book, Ted Williams: The Seasons of the Kid. After Williams died in 2002, Cramer revisited the subject for a standalone volume that included a 1,700-word introduction and a 5,800-word afterword. His return to Williams enriched the original article, and showed off Cramer at something like his full power. The coda charts the reinvention of Williams’ reputation in his later years, during which he became beloved, a living incarnation of the American century, and ties this to the man Cramer knew. Evaluating what made Williams great, Cramer wrote:

It wasn’t his eyes, it was the avid mind behind them, and the great heart below. Ted was the greatest hitter because he knew more about that job than anyone else. He studied it relentlessly. If you knew something about it, he wanted to know it—and RIGHT NOW! He ripped the art into knowable shards, which he then could teach with clarity, with conviction (something he was never short on), and with surprising patience and generosity. That’s how he was about anything he loved. It was the love that drove him.

It wasn’t just a love for hitting, or his old opponents, or fishermen, but his children, and his old friends, too:

He fell in love with showing his friends that he loved them. The urge grew more poignant and pressing as he lost them to old age—he outlived so many of his generation. When he lost his old Florida Bay fishing-guide buddies, Jack Albright and Jack Brothers—and then, too, his north-woods fishing companion, the Maine newspaperman Bud Leavitt—Ted fretted that he might not have told them well enough, often enough, how much they meant to him. So he’d call up their kids—apropos of nothing in particular: ‘You know, I loved your dad—LOVED ‘IM!’

This, perhaps, is why Cramer wrote so well about Williams. He loved the old guy, and when Cramer loved a subject—whether it was Williams or Bob Dole or Joe Biden—he could do them justice on the page. (When Cramer’s charm failed to win the confidence of a subject, when the love wasn’t reciprocated, as was the case with DiMaggio, Cramer could be unforgiving, even sour.)

A small library of books are devoted to Williams, biographies that reveal more facts about the Red Sox great than Cramer’s Esquire article, even in its expanded version. And Williams is one of the few athletes who merit such lavish biographical attention.

But nothing else that’s been written in any form, at any length, has ever gotten through to Williams himself. This was no caricature. Cramer rendered the man in three dimensions. Others tried but they didn’t ingratiate themselves the way Cramer did so they couldn’t get the nuances down. They wrote from the outside in; Cramer wrote from the inside out.

“I’m out there to clean the plate,” Cramer told Boynton.

And he did.

Play Ball!

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The Dodgers and Padres kick play tonight.

Baseball. Indeed.

[Photo Via: This Isn't Happiness]

Is Everybody Here Bananas?

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Miggy gets paid…again. 

Bananas. 

[Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac/Newsday]

The Man in Me

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Arizona Diamondbacks

Pat Jordan’s latest for Sports on Earth is a profile of Rays’ pitcher, Chris Archer:

I met Chris Archer for dinner at the Outback Steakhouse on my first night in North Carolina. He showed up with a handsome black man in his 40s, whom he introduced as “Ron Walker, my mentor.” The hostess led us to a booth in the far corner of the room. As we sat down, Archer said, “Wow! This is the same table where I met my father last February.” He meant his biological father, Magnum. Walker had helped facilitate that first-ever meeting between father and son. It did not go well. Archer peppered his father with questions. Why had he never tried to contact his son? That sort of thing. Archer did not like the answers.

By the time his father had left, Archer said, he had already decided, “I had no intention of ever seeing him again. The type of person he was. He had three children with three different women. Zero of which he is in their lives. He couldn’t tell what school his kids went to. I had no intention of trying to change a grown man who didn’t want to be in my life.”

I told Archer that I hadn’t planned to ask him about his biological parents until tomorrow, after we’d gotten to know each other a bit. He smiled and said, “Yeah, I came out throwin’ heat right off the bat.”

When the waiter came to take our order, Archer discussed with Walker what he should eat. Walker suggested fish and steamed broccoli, nothing fried or with butter. One night, before Archer was to pitch a minor league game, he had called Walker and told him he was eating a pizza. Walker said, “You’re eating what? Don’t put that in your body. Spend $30 on something healthy.”

Now, at Outback, Archer said, “He didn’t want me to put regular gas in my high-performance engine. We talk all the time.”

“We always dialogue back and forth,” said Walker. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

“He’s like my brother,” said Archer.

Walker looked at him sternly and said, “Uncle.”

[Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports]

Straight to the Hole like My Man Malik Sealy

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NCAA Hoops tonight and all weekend.

Have at it.

[Photo Credit: Joel Zimmer]

Marquee Master

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I’m a casual fan of the NBA. When I want to know the skinny I like to read Zach Lowe over at Grantland. Here’s his take on Phil Jackson and the Knicks.

BGS: The Hippest Guy in the Room

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Not everyone gets Humphrey Bogart to play them in the movies. Harold Conrad did. In Mark Jacobson’s pitch-perfect story of the ultimate been-everywhere-done-everything knock-around guy, Conrad and a bygone era of gangsters, boxers, and movie stars are brought to life.

Jacobson has long been one of our finest magazine writers. He’s most famous for the stories that were the basis of the TV show Taxi and the movie American Gangster, as well as the brilliant profiles of Dr. J and Sonny Rollins. He called Conrad “a prince of a man, and a good friend” and this piece features Jacobson at his best. It’s featured in the essential collection Teenage Hipster in the Modern World. Originally published in Esquire in 1992, it appears here with the author’s permission.

Dig in, this is a treat.

The last time I saw Harold Conrad, he was lying in a hospital bed wearing dark sunglasses. Leave it to Harold to stake out a small territory of cool amid the fluorescent lighting, salt-free food, and stolid nurses bearing bedpans. The results were in by then, a tale told in black shadows on X-ray transparencies: one in the lung, the other in the head. But Harold always had an angle, and even now, a step from death, the cancer throughout his 80-year-old body, he sought an edge.

He motioned me closer, rasped into my ear, “Did you bring a joint?”

A few weeks later, after Harold died, I told this story at a memorial service. It got a laugh. Several of Harold’s old friends were there, telling Harold Conrad stories. Norman Mailer recalled the evening Harold once saved his life. Mailer was drunk that night, he didn’t notice the television set falling off the shelf above him, hardly even saw Harold, stronger than he looked, snatch the machine out of midair.

“Harold Conrad preserved half my head,” Mailer said.

Budd Schulberg (author of What Makes Sammy Run?) talked about a wild week in Dublin, where Harold found himself promoting a Muhammad Ali fight and how everyone lost money when the crowd stormed the gates because, people said, “It is an insult to ask an Irishman to pay to see a fight.” Bill Murray recollected a particularly gelatinous massage and steam bath procedure Harold once directed him to. “I was trapped. Melting away. Soon I would be a wet spot on the floor. And I said: I used to be somebody before I met this Harold Conrad.” These stories got laughs, which was only right. Harold would never tolerate a wake that didn’t turn into a celebration; that would go double for his own.

You could say this about Harold Conrad, newspaperman, superflack, friend to bard and bozo, custodian of a bygone age—he went out on his forever-bent shield. It was Harold’s life mission: to be in his own particular vision of the right place at the right time.

Like just two months before he died, when we were in Vegas.

Harold had been to Vegas before, of course, about 9 million times. In fact, along with almost every other bit of semi-off-brand action worth a tumble in this hot-breathed century of ours, Harold Conrad was in Vegas at the beginning, before they even threw the switch on the first neon sign. Ground-floor kind of guy, Harold. It was Bugsy Siegel (Ben to you) who got him out to the desert back in ’48, when the Strip was nothing but a dusty two-lane highway between here and L.A.

“I need you. Today,” Siegel summoned. In the way of Aeneas, Bugs was possessed by a revelatory calling to found a great city. His Flamingo Hotel, all pink and heat-waved in the sun’s blare, was ready to open, and he needed a mouthpiece, a PR sharpie to sling his ink, say how wholesome and all-American the slots and hookers were going to be. Harold had the bona fides. He’d handled the publicity for Meyer Lansky and the boys in Florida when they bought the Broward County sheriff and ran a Colonial Inn-cum-gambling joint down near Lauderdale in ’47; he was wise as to what to put in the papers and what to keep out, how to smooth over the rough spots.

There was the time Harold helped the boys, fixing that dicey scene with Walter Winchell. Winchell was on a gangbusters kick, making noise in his column about blowing Lansky’s whole operation. Winchell was big, you couldn’t muscle him. No one knew what to do until Harold, just out of the Air Force’s 101 Bomber Command, was riding in the car with Meyer, Frank Costello, and Joe Adonis. Never shy, Harold told the mobsters they had it wrong if they thought they could get tough with Winchell. The columnist was a royal prick, but he had this soft spot for Damon Runyon, who was dying at the time. A five-thousand-dollar check to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, of which Winchell was the chairman, would help, Harold suggested. It did, too, but a well-placed word that a cute little number from Kansas City—whom Winchell had been known to eyeball—was working in the Colonial chorus line didn’t hurt either.

But the truth was, Harold didn’t really care to work for gangsters, which is why he turned down Bugsy Siegel. “Can’t help you,” Harold said to Siegel as the gangster showed him around the Flamingo’s best suite, the one with the escape chutes in the closets and steel shutters on the windows. “I’m a writer. This PR stuff’s on the side.”

“You can be a writer, too. I own Hollywood,” Bugs said. “That’s no problem.”

Great, Harold thinks, that’s all I need: to show up in Zanuck’s office with my typewriter and say, “Bugsy sent me.” Again he refuses. So Siegel shakes his head and says all right, if Harold doesn’t want the job, that’s good enough for him. That’s Harold: He turns down Bugsy Siegel and lives.

Yeah, like Kathmandu and Monte Carlo, Maine and Monrovia, Harold had been to Vegas before. In ’63, when he was hyping the Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston fight there, he drove out from New York in his Ford woody, along with his wife, the fabulous Mara Lynn, his son, Casey, and the family cat, which ripped up all the upholstery. They stopped off along the way, took in a few sights: the Grand Canyon and Eisenhower’s birthplace. Took six weeks. Flackery had a more unhurried aspect back then. Not now. This week they got Mike Tyson and Razor Ruddock over at the Mirage, where the fake volcano blows up every twenty minutes.

“Fucking town,” Harold grumbles as he reconnoiters the tourist-dense casino. Forty-five years ago Runyon referred to Harold as “my good friend, the tall and stately columnist for the New York Mirror.” Now, even as Harold remained seemingly eternally tall and stately in his dapper safari suit and pencil moustache, the Mirror was long gone, along with every other sheet he had ever worked for, including his beloved Brooklyn EagleJust the month before, after decades of smoking and drinking and staying out all night long, he turned 80. He’s not nuts about the idea. “You know what it’s like to look in the mirror and see the big eight-oh looking back?” Conrad imagined if he got this far it’d be enough time to “get revenge.” Instead, he opens his address book and “there’s two dead guys on every page.”

We went over to the Riviera coffee shop and talked with Gene Kilroy. Harold and Kilroy, a giant, raucous man who now works as an “executive casino host,” go back a long way. Together they went around the world with Muhammad Ali, to Zaire, Manila, Kuala Lumpur. It was the most perfect party, a road show no one thought would end. Harold first ran into Ali at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami back in ’61. He was working the third Patterson-Johansson fight, using every huckster’s wile to propagate the notion that the shopworn Swede actually had a chance. Johansson needed a sparring partner, and a young, brash man, just a year out of the amateurs, volunteered. Pop, pop, pop, Ali—then Cassius Clay—surrounded the lumbering Scandinavian with zinging leather. “Sucker,” the young man taunted, “I should be fighting Patterson, not you.” Harold’s eyes opened wide. He’d covered fights back to when they ran weekly cards in little dives like the Broadway Arena, where Murder Inc. had the first row on permanent reserve. Right off, Harold knew what he was looking at. “I saw the new champ today,” he told anyone who’d listen. Later, after they took Ali’s title because, as he said, war was against his religion and besides he didn’t have “nothing against no Cong,” Harold went around the country trying to get the Champ’s license back; persistent guy, Harold—he was in 20 states before Georgia said yes and Ali got to knock out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta.

Being with The Greatest was always electric, the most vital place to be, like the time in the Philippines when Ali leaned across Imelda, over to Marcos, and asked, “You the president? President get a lot of pussy?” “Much pussy,” Marcos nodded, with a curt smile. “You’re not as dumb as you look,” Ali returned.

Everyone figured Ali would be coming in for Tyson-Ruddock. He usually shows up for the big heavyweight fights and often picks up a few Gs from the promotion just for waving when they say his name. But the Champ’s not here. The Parkinson’s is getting worse, he’s too sick to travel. “Last time I talked to him on the phone I couldn’t understand a thing he was saying…” Harold says, softly. Kilroy nods glumly.

So it goes. In Conrad’s neo-autobiography Dear Muffo, a wry and passionate chronicle of his near-lifelong interface with celebrity large and small, he talks about how, in the service of hawking the first Ali-Liston fight, he got the Louisville Lip together with the Beatles, who were then on their first American tour. Taking his accustomed long view, Harold noted: “The Beatles and Cassius Clay—the two hottest names in the news, worldwide. They are all about the same age. I wonder how posterity will treat them.”

“I never expected to find out,” mutters Harold, who for the last 25 years of his life lived in the Oliver Cromwell on West 72 Street, his window overlooking the entrance of the Dakota, where John Lennon was shot dead. “At my fucking age you’re supposed to be dead, or at least sitting on your ass in Florida getting stoned. I didn’t know I’d still be out here hustling, trying to make a goddamned living.”

For Harold, that was a big part of the disappointment at Ali not being in Vegas this week; he’s supposed to be doing a piece on Muhammad for Rolling Stone,which probably made him the oldest freelance magazine writer in the world. A couple of years before, he had applied his special broth of piquant newspaperese to the pages of Spin magazine. Seventy-eight years old! Working for a low-life rockrag like Spin magazine! Getting cut for space between the Iron Maiden and Megadeath profiles. High blood pressure and arthritis—working for Spin magazine!

“What am I supposed to do?” Harold shouts in his ratchety voice. “I need the scratch.” Then he smiles and his eyes come on like star sapphires. “Also the action.”

Action. Harold’s unquenchable desire, the axis mundi of his existence.

Action. Something genuine happening. People coming together, energy pouring into a room until your head’s light and you can’t breathe right. It doesn’t happen every day, not the real stuff, Harold knew. He’d been in on more than his share of fakes and hustles. He was the point man in the promotion when Evel Knievel swore he’d soar across Snake River Canyon in a sawed-off rocket ship. He once put Casey Stengel on high-top skates to hype a roller derby in Oakland. He flacked for numerous wrestlers and six-day bicycle races. The smell of the unkosher come-on was not unknown to the less-than-petite Conrad honker. Legitimate action is a rare thing, eminently perishable. It can be a heavy jones.

Right now, here in Vegas, the tingle’s beginning. The crowd torsos past the slots, a crush of velveteen, a sheen of sequins. Here comes Tyson’s team, a dozen bodyguards, growly and hard, in black leather hats that say KICK ASS. Ruddock’s people are wearing Day-Glo baseball jackets. They’re singing Bob Marley songs, because Ruddock is from Jamaica. Harold has seen it before and better, way, way better. But shabby as it is, compared to the days of Sugar Ray and drinking coffee with George Balanchine (as Harold used to do), this doesn’t get old. Not this—that time before the bell when the drumbeating and backbiting and cadging suddenly cease and, for an instant at least, there’s a chance of witnessing something absolutely pure.

“Six forty-four, Pacific Time,” Harold says, looking at his watch. “Six forty-four, and there’s no place on earth where they have action like this. And we’re here. This is what there is to live for.”

Let me say, flat out, that Harold Conrad was the single most happening, been-everywhere/done-everything cat I ever met. For certain he had the best resume. I mean, sure, there’s that business about being Meyer Lansky’s press agent, and all those days and nights hanging with his particular rogue’s gallery of rats, badhats, and plutocrats, Runyon, Charley Lucky, Joe Kennedy, George Raft, Sonny Liston, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle (“the biggest pecker in Hollywood”), Marilyn Monroe, John Huston, Howard Hughes (he tried to pick up Mara Lynn), and Mike Todd, not to mention Mailer, Murray, James Baldwin, and Hunter Thompson.

Besides, how many guys can say Humphrey Bogart played them in the movies? It happened back in ’54, when Budd Schulberg wrote his novel about an even seamier side of boxing, The Harder They Fall, using his good friend Conrad as an exceedingly convenient model for the central figure of the somewhat dissolute, wholesomely cynical sports reporter Eddie Lewis. When they got around to making the movie, Bogart took the Lewis role.

“You can imagine how proud I am,” Harold says. “Bogart, my favorite actor, playing me in the movies! So one night I’m in a Sunset Strip joint, and I see Bogart sitting at a table. He’s got his head down over his glass, and I say, ‘Mr. Bogart, my name is Harold Conrad. I just want to tell you how proud I am that you’re playing me in The Harder They Fall.’ Now he raises his head, and I can see how skulled he is. His eyes are barely open. I repeat my line about how proud I am.

‘Why don’t you go fuck yourself,’ he says and drops his head back down over the glass … I was never so crushed in my whole life.”

The coda to the story is that Bogart later apologized, saying Harold caught him on an off night, that they both had a laugh about it. Good thing, too. Because, as Harold says, “If I hadn’t got that squared away with Bogie, I don’t think I would have ever been the same.” And that makes you happy, because Harold was the sort of fellow for whom you want (after appropriate duress, of course) everything to turn out right.

Born in East New York, Brooklyn, in 1911, the only son of Romanian steerage travelers, graduate of Franklin K. Lane High School, Harold Conrad swaggered a broken field through the century with the consuming immigrant pluck that told him anything was possible as long he thought fast, talked faster, and kept his head down in the clinches. To me—one who has never been able to casually say, as Harold did so frequently, “So one night I walk into Lindy’s,” Harold Conrad was a conduit to another, more vibrant, infinitely more colorful age. In a sea of retro-gimmicked, James M. Cain fashion knockoffs in slouch hats, he was the legitimate article, a guy with a capital G, a gaudy-pattered, Basie-rhythmed remnant of a time when people made buildings with spires lurching to the sky because they believed their works were beautiful and assumed the heavens would concur.

Hanging out with Harold was never a sweat. You’d go up to his apartment, look at the photos on the wall—Harold with the young Joe Louis, Harold with the old Joe Louis, Harold sitting at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana with Hemingway, Harold sipping tea in Cairo with King Farouk—and light up. Harold, you see, was always what they used to call “a viper.” He shared his first joint with Louis Armstrong and Dickie Wells backstage at Three Deuces on 52 Street. Armstrong told Harold that reefer was “medicine for headaches, toothaches, and the blues,” advice Conrad took to heart. He smoked marijuana every day of his life for the next 55 years. The haze lingered. In Vegas, Smokin’ Joe Frazier greeted Harold with the shout, “Hey man, you still with them funny cigarettes?”

Once you’re properly blasted, the stories can commence. Forever positioning himself as the bemused adjuster of bollixed-up situations, the sane everyman set down amid the messes of majesties and morons, saints and liars, Harold unveils his dense, textured oral history with snazzy syntax and much wingy body English. You hear of Harold’s days on the newspapers, immerse yourself in the dense incense of the dripping lead type in Hildy Johnson’s city room. Harold worked the Broadway beat and wrote sports. He covered the Dodgers for the Brooklyn Eaglewhere they set the box score on the front page by hand.

It was frantic back when 12 dailies hit the New York streets with half a dozen editions each. Harold scored his own kind of scoops. Once he was sitting in a bar and everyone was talking about how tough Capone was, and someone said, “Yeah, but he ain’t as tough as the guy who gave him the scar.” Got to find that man, Harold vowed, and he did, locating an unassuming barber in South Brooklyn. The story was, the young Capone felt the barber hadn’t given him the best cut. An argument ensued. Capone reached for his gun, but the barber was quicker with the razor. Slice. The fact that Capone never came back for revenge led Harold to conclude that Scarface didn’t need a PR team to tell him the value of a good nickname (“Nick-name, Some pun, ha, ha”).

The sagas go on from there, an eclectic, free-associated torrent owing nothing to chronology or rote, seamlessly stitched together by Harold’s singular baritone scrape. Tales of Roy Cohn and Cardinal Spellman’s strange liaison, days and nights with Ray Robinson, accounts of a month spent with Lucky Luciano in Naples, during the gangster’s melancholy deportation. “You don’t know what I’d give to go eating a hot dog behind third base at the Polo Grounds,” Harold quotes Charley Lucky as mournfully saying over a double espresso.

Often the reverie rolled on deep into the night, an unflagging, unredundant product of the raconteurial mind. You could be walking down the street, and apropos of nothing Harold would say, “So I was screwing Jack Webb’s girl…” Then he’d be back to Ali, talking about the time he had to hide the Champ in his apartment before the Ken Norton fight at Yankee Stadium. Ali was running around “trying to give away all his money to every Boys’ Club in town,” looking peaked; he had to be taken out of circulation—after all, Norton was tough, he’d broken Ali’s jaw back in San Diego. Harold tells how Dick Gregory came around with his health therapies and blenders. “You have to neutralize your poisons, Ali. You have to drink your own urine,” Gregory said, demonstrating with a beaker of his own bodily fluids.

“Drink my own piss?” Ali boggled. “He poured out everything Gregory gave him after that, the vegetable juices, every elixir,” Harold says. “Gregory never knew. But he kept raving, ‘See! He looks better already.”‘

Assessing the veracity quotient of Harold’s stories, Norman Mailer, Conrad’s friend for more than three decades, said, “I suspect they are more true than you might expect. They are true because we want them to be true, and it would break our hearts if they’re not.”

You wonder if it even matters anymore. Like Mailer says, we accept them because they’re better than most other stories, tales handed down from a previous generation we here in the pygmy land of corporate spin can only regard as godlike. People like Harold hailed from a pre-TV day when it seemed as if American giants strode the earth, a time when wiseacres and sharpies, suddenly free of the shtetl, Sicilian village, and failed potato farm, were given free rein to self-invent a wholly new urban ethos (“action”) in the hitherto-unexplored marginalia of the cityscape. In that way Harold, profoundly unsentimental with his faintly detached yet undeniably firsthand merge of style and substance, performed a patriotic service; he, alone, it seemed, survived for so long to tell thee of a time when the national spirit appeared to strike a bolder, more heroic chord. With the dekiltered surrealism Harold brought to that telling, he’d sometimes break through to what can only be called Art.

Like the time his first wife threw a lamp at him.

It goes, more or less, this way: “Yeah, I was living on 32 Street at the time. Right near Sixth. Across from the Empire State Building. My first wife was a great babe. Great body. Eurasian. But sometimes she’d get crazy. So she picks up this lamp and throws it at me across the room. Did you ever have a lamp thrown at you? It takes a little bit of time to get there. So I’m looking at this lamp coming at me, and I’m thinking, That plane outside the window is flying pretty low. Really low. Low and loud. I’m thinking all this as the lamp is coming. Then it goes by my shoulder, smashes against the wall with this tremendous crash. Bam! A lot louder than I would have figured. I’m thinking, wow, she’s really got a hell of an arm. The whole building shook. And know what? I didn’t find out until later that it was right then that that plane smashed into the Empire State Building.”

Ever offhand, relentlessly imperturbable, Harold was typically diffident about his appeal to the younger generation of would-be hepcats. He’d narrow his brown eyes (which so many women less than half his age found irresistible), puff on his cigarette (only adding to the aura of understated octogenarian sexuality), and unfurl his most compelling half-sneer. “I know about you guys, why you want to hang around with me, you fuckers. You see these pictures of me on the deck of the Queen Mary with a bottle of champagne, and you get all misty; you know there’s nothing you can do about getting that. No amount of money buys it back.”

But then, in the form of a disclaimer, he’d say, “Just stop me before I get to be one of those creaky fucks who sits around talking about how great the old days were. That’s the worst. Of course the old days were better. In the old days, you didn’t have arthritis. In the old days, you could get a hard-on. What scares me is when I can’t help thinking: It was better then. I mean: look at it, on paper. Then against now. Forget about it. I don’t want to let myself think like that. Instead I say, you just have to look harder to find the action now.”

So that brings us back around to Vegas, where Mike Tyson is driving Razor Ruddock into the ropes, and the referee, Richard Steele, is stopping the fight. This denouement is not appreciated by the Ruddock camp, which all week long has been predicting that something exactly like this would happen, since Steele’s got a track record for quick triggers, and besides he works as a pit boss for Steve Wynne, who owns the Mirage and happens to have a deal for Tyson’s next fight with Iron Mike’s paramour, the indefatigably skulduggerous Don King. Right now Murad Muhammad, Ruddock’s smarmier-than-thou promoter, is in the ring kicking Tyson’s trainer Richie Giachetti in his ample gut as a form of protest.

“Another black eye for boxing,” Harold remarks with his seasoned sarcasm as he watches the ensuing riot, referring to the headlines he knows will appear in every paper tomorrow. “Boxing’s like the night. It’s got a thousand eyes, all of them black.”

Harold gets up with a grunt. He’s been feeling crappy since we got to Vegas, tired. It’s a pulled muscle in his side, he keeps claiming, taking out another joint, playing craps until three in the morning. “It’s all fucking downhill after 80,” he groans. It’s not exactly like you’d notice, however, since Harold hasn’t looked his age for years. As the decades wore on, Harold took increasing delight in telling people, especially women, his age. No squint-eyed carny could ever guess it; it’s a shock to find out he’s 20 years older than you always thought.

Mailer says, “I first met Harold in ’61. I was 38 and he was 50. He looked 50. Then he didn’t age a day in the next two and a half decades. It’s only since Mara died that you began to see a change. That was a blow. Mara was in every way Harold’s equal.”

About that there can be no argument. Mara Lynn was, by all accounts, a piece of work, a doll with a capital D. Twenty years of study with Balanchine, she made her mark dressed in funny costumes hoofing beside Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, playing a zany with Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love, and pouring a rum and coke over the head of an excessively raging Jake LaMotta. Budd Schulberg refers to her as “a one-girl riot.”

Mailer, who featured Mara in his movie Wild 90, says with a stab of reverence, “She was a blond witch and a blond angel, she could be both, often at the same time, depending on her mood. She could get a guy agitated. Like every man married to a beautiful woman, Harold, I think, was always a little in awe of her.” Others, too. As one story goes, Bianca Jagger, impressed, once made a plaster cast of Mara’s posterior.

Harold first met Mara back in ’48, when he was doing a Broadway column for the MirrorShe was dancing at a place called the Hurricane Club. A deadly entry at any price, they got married in 1950, divorced in ’56, got back together a couple of years later, and lived together for decades more. Life with Mara apparently could be quite stormy. Once, when he was doing the second Ali-Spinks fight in New Orleans, Harold and Mara had an all-time argument. He stomped out of the hotel room and found a French Quarter bar to get drunk in. Sometime during the night, he fell in with a shipload of sailors and found himself inside an all-night tattoo parlor getting a tricolor severed heart affixed to his bicep. MARA, it said. Mara was shocked—after all, 67-year-old Jewish men are not known for getting tattoos on their arms in the middle of the night. It’ll keep you out of the cemetery when you die. But Mara was swayed. She said Harold’s tattoo was the greatest tribute of love she’d ever seen.

The fun stopped when Mara got sick, and Harold spent all his money trying to save her, which is how at age 80 he wound up writing articles for Spin magazine. As horrific as the end must have been, it was in keeping with the romance of a certain romantic age. Harold and Mara remarried after nearly 30 years of living in sin, smoked a last joint together, and that was it.

“Been faking it since then,” Harold would admit grudgingly. “I’m all front.”

In Vegas, you could tell things weren’t right. Even Don King—Harold’s collaborator on several Ali fights, whose incessant effulgence of “wit, grit, and bullshit” Conrad approvingly recognizes as being in boxing’s scalawag tradition—noticed. Nattily attired in a baggy red, white, and blue ONLY IN AMERICA sweatsuit, King was in the middle of swearing on a metaphorical stack of his dead mother’s Bibles that the Tyson-Ruddock battle would “separate the pugilistic wheat from the chaff,” quoting Frederick Douglass, George Bush, and Plato in the same sentence when he sees Harold. Losing no beat, the promoter abruptly launched into an apparently heartfelt, equally loud reverie about “Harold Conrad—the legend!—a man of much moxie, the nonpareil of sell!” But then King stops, tilts his multipronged coif, and says, “Hey, Harold, you all right, man?”

He’s not. Maybe he shouldn’t have had those couple of drinks with the Brit sportswriters, Harold says with the deep embarrassment of someone forever finicky about appearances, because when he got back to the hotel, he slipped in the lobby, fell down between the dollar slots, and his head’s been spinning ever since. It’s just his luck that there’s a chiropractor convention at the hotel, because before he even hits the lobby floor, six guys are pushing cards at him.

The next morning, walking through the casino lobby, a woman in a stretchy orange dress comes over and asks Harold (who never ceases to look like a somebody), “Are you a movie star?” “Sure, I’m big,” Harold replies. She takes out a piece of paper and asks for an autograph. Harold writes “Best wishes always, Ramon Navarro.” She looks at the paper, back up at Harold, and asks, “Aren’t you dead?” Harold only bugs his eyes, shrugs his shoulders, walks on.

A week after Harold’s return to New York, however, with merciless diagnostic secession, the pulled muscle mutates to “a small stroke” and then inoperable cancer. Plenty of times Harold would talk about how he spent day after day at Damon Runyon’s bedside, how one time Runyon, who couldn’t speak near the end, once wrote him a crotchety note followed by three exclamation points. “You don’t have to yell at me, Damon,” Harold replied.

After that, Harold hated hospitals. Now, so soon after Mara’s death, he was in Mount Sinai, the same place, “just about the same room,” where a couple of years earlier he visited his longtime friend Buddy Rich, when the famous drummer was dying. It was terrible, Harold recalls, watching the great basher who only went one speed—fast—stare up at the ceiling. Then Harold raises his right arm, and real pain crosses his face. “That’s what Buddy did,” he says, “raised his arm and said, ‘If I can’t play I don’t want to live.”‘

This gets very sad because soon the tumor is pressing on Harold’s brain, making it next to impossible for him to talk. Impossible to tell the stories, to rekindle the grander times. So you sit beside Harold’s bed with his son, Casey, next to the flowers sent by the Friars Club (“Frank Sinatra—Abbot”), watching him alternately doze and glance at the muted television, where the Mets are getting shut out, and the silence is awful, because three weeks ago Harold never would have tolerated such emptiness on the soundtrack.

A few days later Harold is on a plane to Mexico, going to a clinic seeking an alternative to the chemotherapy he was certain would kill him. It doesn’t help. And a few days after that, the New York Times has a three-column-inch item headed by the phrase HAROLD CONRAD, BOXING PROMOTER. The obit indicates that Harold was “a colorful character.” Likely, Harold would have accepted the short shrift with his usual cynic’s grace. He knew they always screw you on space.

As a storyteller he would also know that you can’t stop the tale there. So, allow me one more story about my old friend Harold Conrad. It was a night a few months ago when Harold and I went over to watch Sugar Ray Leonard fight an upstart named Terry Norris at the Garden. Harold, of course, has been to the Garden before, about 9 million times. Mostly he went to the old Garden, the one on 49th Street and 8th that was torn down back in the late ’60s. That was where the real action was, standing underneath the giant curve of the marquee, waiting for something to happen, sensing that this night—like so many before it—was magic. The new Garden, except for that one ecstatic evening when Ali fought Frazier 20 years ago, and a basketball game or two, has never had the same juice.

Tonight’s event is typically desultory, overpriced, the half-filled building little more than a TV studio, the backdrop for the cable-TV broadcast. The canned music, heavy on the sampler machine, is blaring. Leonard has been a great fighter, no argument, and you can’t knock a guy for getting rich, but with his viciously cute smile and bitchy demeanor, he’s always been a tinny presence, especially now that he’s a half dozen years past his prime. Harold’s never been a fan. He wouldn’t even have come to the fight if it wasn’t for that outside chance, that possibility, that something, something memorable, might happen. It’s the action, Harold’s addiction.

The result is an upset. Leonard loses, but where’s action in that? He was in there only due to his innate hubris and not knowing when enough’s enough. As when Ali and Joe Louis had that one last, unnecessary fight, the whole thing is mostly depressing. Harold knew it in the first round. A minute in, he turns and says, “He’s got nothing.”

So the fight’s over, and we’re walking over to Broadway in the cold night air. We’re at Herald Square, it’s Saturday night, and the town’s dead, no one moving except for some ragged figures over where the big welfare hotel used to be. “You could shoot a cannon off out here,” Harold snorts. “Used to be, on a big fight night, by now everyone would be going up to Toots Shors: Winchell, Joe D if the Yanks were in town, the Fischetti Brothers, who ran Chicago, right next to J. Edgar Hoover. People would be all decked out, up and down Broadway from here to 57th Street….”

We walk on, freezing. Years ago Damon Runyon wrote a column about how Harold never wore a hat. Everyone else wore one then, why didn’t he, Runyon asked Harold. “Because I do not look good in a hat,” Runyon quoted Harold as replying. Tonight, however, Harold is wearing a hat, crammed down over his outsized ears. “Got to,” he says, “my head gets cold.” Then, reminded that when Runyon died he had his ashes thrown out of a plane so they sprinkled over Broadway, Harold says, “Not for me. Dust in people’s eyes? No thanks. It’s against my religion. Besides, you never know, maybe I’ll live forever.”

Pioneer

jobe

Rest in Peace, Frank Jobe. 

Havana’s Son

Chapter7_NewYork_Keyart

Head on over to Victory Journal and dig into Brin-Jonathan Butler’s story on our man El Duque (lavishly illustrated by Mickey Duzjj).

One and Done

pete abe

Charlie Pierce on the Sox:

The Red Sox of my youth [early 1960s] were losers, and not particularly lovable ones, either. They were shamefully late to integrate, and they lost enthusiasm for their work reliably around Memorial Day. They were not losers because they would reach the apex of the sport and then fail. They were losers because they lost, a lot. This is where I learned the basic lesson of being a Red Sox fan, a lesson that was lost for many years beneath an avalanche of mystical hoohah: It Could Always Be Worse.

So last season’s team was almost perfect. The local sports punditocracy spent almost the entire summer waiting for it to fail. This was partly because sports-talk radio is a job neither for grown-ups nor for advanced primates. But it also seemed for a long time to be grounded in empirical fact; sooner or later, the league would catch up to Koji Uehara, or Mike Napoli would strike out 111 times in a row, or Jonny Gomes would take a wrong step and send his kneecap spinning off into centerfield. I was waiting for it all to happen, and it never did. I waited for Tampa’s young talent to usher the Red Sox out of the playoffs. That didn’t happen. I waited for the Detroit pitching staff to melt their bats into a puddle. That didn’t happen. I waited for St. Louis’s obvious superior talent at most of the positions to assert itself. It could always be worse. But it never was.

This was the first Red Sox championship of the Post-Nonsense Era. It was achieved through the careful, and very wonk-based, construction of a roster that had precisely the right strengths at precisely the right times. And now, they are going about the business of defending that championship in much the same way. Winning is the newest normal. There are no curses to worry about anymore. Sometimes, a fishing knife is only a fishing knife.

Not for nothing but: there will be no repeat.

[Photo Credit: Pete Abe]

Ch-Ch-Changes

home plate

The new rules and how the Yanks will adjust to them. 

BGS: Greatness Revisited

Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston, 1965 World Heavyweight Title

Muhammad Ali “shocked the world” 50 years ago today when he beat Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Since then Ali has been written about more than any famous athlete. He’s what the Madonna was to Renaissance painters—every writer has to take his shot. Fortunately for them, Ali was the gift that kept on giving.

A sampler of the better efforts includes stories by such legendary sports writers as Robert Lipsyte and Dick Schaap, as well as Davis Miller and Mark Kram.

This profile by Peter Richmond, first published in the April 1998 issue of GQ (and reprinted here with the author’s permission), is a classic lion in winter piece. It shows Ali dealing with Parkinson’s but still sharp, charismatic, and more revered than ever.

Muhammad Ali in Excelsis

By Peter Richmond

He is in mellow middle age now. Parkinson’s disease has silenced the voice once full of preening, arrogant poetry. But in his stillness he has become the god he always wanted to be.

On the table in front of him sit a copy of the holy Koran and a plate holding three frosted raspberry coffee cakes, and when he leans forward on the couch and reaches out it is not for enlightenment. It is for a piece of pastry. With his right hand wobbling just this side of uncontrollably, he guides it, slow inch by slow inch, toward the mouth that once yapped without stopping but that now, largely mute, chews slowly, as the eyes stare straight ahead, seeing nothing; only the patter of a cold rain splashing the leaves of the trees outside the window mars the silence. Flecks of frosting tumble in slow motion to light on his belly, which gently swells beneath a black sweater. I am sitting next to him. Close enough to see the tiny scar on his eyelid that looks like a birthmark. Close enough to hear him chew. Close enough to taste the cake as he tastes it. The look on his face is the fat and happy near smile topping the fat and happy body of all the renderings of Buddha you’ve ever seen. It is an expression of bemusement and contentment and wonder at the beauty to be found in the simplest things.

As I watch him eat, I have never been more sure of a man’s inner contentment. Except maybe when he eats the second piece.

It’s not supposed to be Buddha. It’s supposed to be Allah, because it is Allah who has ruled his life since even before Liston, and Allah who controls it now more than ever before. The contents of his briefcase say so. He is carrying the briefcase as he enters the room, so still even in walking that he does not disturb the air around him. He opens the briefcase to reveal hundreds of well-thumbed sheets of paper filled with typewritten words. It is the briefcase a man would carry if he were to knock on your screen door to convert you to his faith, and on this day, dressed in black, shoulders slumping toward his paunch, gray sprinkling his temples, he looks like such a man.

He shuffles through the papers, finds one, hands it to me.

“First Chronicles 19:18,” I read aloud while he listens. “‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel. David killed 7,000 charioteers and 40,000 foot soldiers of the Syrians.’ Second Samuel 10:18: ‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel, and David killed 700 charioteers and 40,000 horsemen of the Syrians.’ Was it 700 or 7,000? Was it foot soldiers or horsemen?”

“The Bible has contradictions,” he says to me, the voice sandpapered raw by the disease. “Not in there,” he says, nodding at the Koran. His briefcase also holds a black-and-white photograph of three boxers—Ali, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson; it looks like a snapshot from the turn of the century—but most of the case’s contents are there to do Allah’s work.

It’s easiest for him to talk about Allah, although it is not easy for him to talk, because the muscles of his face don’t work as well as they once did. His wife, Lonnie, has asked if I want her to sit with us so she can tell me what he is saying. Lonnie is a strong woman who walks through a room like a beautiful storm approaching. But right now I ask her if Ali and I can be alone and if she could close the door, which she does, leaving the two of us in silence in a small room in the suite of offices on Ali’s southern Michigan farm. The farm used to belong to AI Capone’s bookmaker. A workman doing renovations recently dug some bullets out of the floorboards from back in the days when people were shooting one another here. Now it’s just about the quietest place on earth.

After he hands me several more tracts, I tell him I’m pretty much a nonbeliever, and at this his eyebrows arch up and the words come quickly.

“Do you believe that phone made itself?”

No, I say.

“Do you believe the chair made itself?”

No.

“Do you believe the table made itself?”

No.

“Do you believe the sun made itself?”

No.

“The Supreme Being made it.”

The Bible’s inconsistencies don’t persuade me, nor do the sermons. It’s when he levitates that I start to come around. Well, not when he levitates—when he pretends to. His levitation trick is like his handkerchief-in-the-fake-thumb trick or the trick where he rubs his fingers together behind your ear and what you hear sounds like a cricket. He’s been playing pranks since he was a kid, to complement his verbal trickery, but now his pranks are the currency with which he communicates.

It’s when he’s pretending to levitate that I figure out what’s happening with Ali now, and it sounds an awful lot like something involving divine intervention. At the very least, it sounds like the sort of parable that ought to be typed up and carried around in the briefcase of someone trying to convert you.

“For decades,” it would read, “Allah had Muhammad Ali doing Allah’s work. Ali was the most remarkable young black man the nation had ever seen, unafraid to take on the mightiest of the white man’s institutions, speaking out, yes, for the black man, but even more for Allah, in a fashion that Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad never could have.

“But the older the disciple grew, the more he began to lose fights to people like Trevor Berbick. And the more he began to lose fights, the more he threatened to fall into the black hole wherein reside all the great athletes who tried to hang on too long. Allah knew that the closer Muhammad Ali got to the ultimate indignity of punch-drunkdom, the less use he was for Allah as an emissary on earth. Yes, a million faithful would line the airport runway in Malaysia, and he could move the masses in Syria and in Algeria and in Turkey, but it wasn’t working in America, where the enemy lived.

“So Allah hit upon a plan. Where Ali’s voice once moved mountains, Allah struck him mute. Where Ali’s swift fists once rained upon opponents with the precision of a surgeon, Allah struck them with terrible tremors so that they struggled to hold a piece of cake. Where Ali once had more physical vibrancy than any athlete the world had ever known—a face like a thousand different masks, a dancer’s body, all of it always in motion—Allah wrapped him in an invisible cloak of paralysis, and he had to labor to move any muscles at all.

“And this is how Allah made sure that Muhammad Ali would be doing his work again. Tenfold. For in infirmity, Ali came to mean much more than he ever had before.”

“I can levitate,” he says, and he tries to get up from the couch, but he cannot. The couch is too deep, and he is growing heavier; he will be Buddha-like in girth at some point soon. I reach out to help him, but he dismisses me with a gesture of his left hand; the closed fist that sits rocking back and forth at his side opens slightly and motions me away. He speaks with his hands now, even though they are constantly trembling and not much good to him. It has taken me a full hour in his presence to begin to recognize the nuances in his shaking fingers, and it has taken me equally long to understand the nuances of his facial expressions, from the eyebrows shooting straight up in true surprise to the rare half smile to the flat, expressionless expressions that are differentiated by the degree to which the eyes and the eyelids move.

All the gyrations and the mugging and the shouting have been distilled into a thimbleful of expressions, but it is a bottomless thimble. So when with a single slight crook of an index finger he tells me not to help him, it’s as if a healthy person had slapped my hand away. Then he tries again, rocks against the back of the couch and vaults himself up. He walks over to a corner of the room, where he turns away and, with his back to me, slowly rises off his feet.

His body appears to levitate—his left foot is off the ground. I cannot see his right foot. Maybe he is levitating. This sounds absurd, but it would make more sense if you were in the room with him and could feel the otherworldliness his utter stillness and oddly detached gaze now impart. In the lasting silences between long questions and short answers and magic tricks, as he stares straight ahead, I begin to feel a mounting sense of disorientation. It’s as if the room is growing smaller or he is growing bigger, as if the space is too little to hold whatever he is becoming now. It’s as if Euclidean rules are being bent.

I’d expected the disease to have robbed him of the vitality that once exploded from him. I’d expected the disease to represent the ultimate cruel triumph of the world that had always wanted the black boy from Louisville, Kentucky, to shut the hell up.

But up close, I am discovering that his affliction has taken nothing away, none of the energy, none of the wit, none of the pride; it has only bound all of it, captured and constricted it, with the entirely unexpected result that, as an aeon of geologic forces can compress a large vein of coal into a very small diamond, whatever was the essence of Muhammad Ali is now somehow magnified. He is at last what he always pretended to be but never was: the Greatest. For it must be axiomatic that if someone calls himself the Greatest, as Ali did for years, he cannot possibly be; the Greatest would never have to label himself as such. Only when he was forced to stop proclaiming his greatness did it become possible.

Never has he been more mortal—struck dumb and slow, crumbs spilling down his shirt—and never have we deemed him more godly.

On the afternoon prior to the kickoff of the Louisville-Penn State football game at Cardinal Stadium on the Kentucky fairgrounds, he was sitting alone in a golf cart behind the grandstand next to the locker room, waiting to be driven to midfield for a pregame ceremony. Suddenly, a few feet away, there stood Joe Paterno leading his team out of the visiting locker room door, dozens of huge, young Pennsylvania mountain men lined up snorting behind the little man in khakis and a sweater and thick glasses, stamping their feet behind Paterno, his energy bubbling out of his body—a game to play!—oblivious to anything else, even to the dozens of folks who had turned around in the top two rows of the bleachers to look down at the man in the golf cart just a few yards away from the football team, oblivious even to the several hundred more fans who had quietly filed out of those bleachers to form a line on each side of the golf cart, like sidewalk crowds at a parade.

Standing directly behind the golf cart, I saw the world as he must always see it, looking straight ahead, looking out through the tunnel of his illness: people crowding to be in his field of vision, chanting his name, some smiling, some shouting, some staring with mouths agape.

Joe Paterno, something of a god himself, saw none of it; he was minutes from the kickoff. When an official signaled for him to enter the stadium, he began to jog, the general leading his infantry, past the golf cart, glancing over his shoulder—and then he stopped. The Penn State players behind him ran into one another like confused cattle. Now shaken from his reverie, stunned, Paterno walked over to the golf cart and crouched and shook the hand of the champ. Then he rose and led his team onto the field.

The golf cart followed. “Ladies and gentlemen,” rang the public address voice, “at the 50 yard line, please welcome the heavyweight champion—” But the announcer didn’t get to finish his sentence; the swell of the roar blotted out the words. Forty thousand people were on their feet singing his name in a two-syllable mantra. Finally, he waved—a quick flip of his right hand—and the cart wheeled around, the beery bleachers still chanting “A-LI!” as the cart disappeared behind them.

In the first half, I sat next to him in the front row of the stadium. We could not watch the football game because we’d been seated behind the Louisville bench and the players blocked our view. Even if Ali could have seen the field, he could not have followed the game, because his head does not move back and forth quickly. So he sat there looking pretty much straight ahead while people such as the former governor of Kentucky came and sat on his other side and called him champ. We did not speak at all. I spent the half handing him peanuts. He would take each one out of its shell and deliberately raise it to his mouth and chew until finally, with a motion of his right hand, he signaled that he didn’t want any more, and he reached out for his soda, which sat on top of the concrete wall in front of him, and very carefully guided the cup to his mouth. The liquid in the cup roiled like a sea, but none of it spilled.

In the limousine back to town, he did not speak, either, except to say, as he threw a left jab and looked out the window, “Gonna make a comeback. Exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Twenty million dollars. Champion of the world at 55.” It was the only time I heard him voluntarily refer to the man he had once been, but it was enough to confirm what I had suspected—that if he were not hindered by disease, he would indeed be trying to make a comeback at the age of 55, and he would be humiliated and pummeled. Frazier tried; Holmes tried. Tyson will try. And while Muhammad Ali was smarter and better than any of them, he is still a boxer.

When the limousine pulled up at his mother-in-law’s house in the suburbs of Louisville to disgorge its passengers—Ali; his best friend, Howard Bingham; his attorney Ron DiNicola; another attorney; and me—l was surprised to see that they all walked quickly up the driveway, leaving him behind to take baby steps up the asphalt toward the house. No one who’s around him a lot treats him as if he’s infirm, because they know he isn’t.

“Oh yeah, he’s all there; he gets it all,” Bingham told me, a little wearily and a little impatiently, as if he were surprised I had to ask.

Then Ali’s wife came out and saw him.

There he is,” she said softly and went to his side.

That night 11,000 people filled Freedom Hall at the fairgrounds to see an entertainment-extravaganza tribute to Muhammad Ali, starring Natalie Cole and Jeff Foxworthy. After the gospel choir sang, a boxing ring was wheeled to the front of the stage and a series of embarrassing boxing exhibitions ensued, including one in which former heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis faced Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum and took a dive as an expressionless Ali watched from a mezzanine seat.

Then a 13-year-old-boy bounced into the ring—a thin kid with gloves as big as his head, his face, nearly in shadow, framed in the padding of the protective headgear. But I could see the eyes and the mouth; they were the features of a boxer before a fight. It turned out he was the youth boxing champion of South Carolina, and he was going to fight Muhammad Ali. I do not think that the youth boxing champion of South Carolina had the slightest idea of the significance of the man who was going to join him in the ring.

I glanced at a man seated next to me, and the look he cast back mirrored the anxiety in my eyes. Then someone raised the ropes for Ali, and as he slowly ducked to climb into the ring the applause swelled, but it was a worried ovation. The bell rang, and the kid charged, fists flying out like misdirected darts; he wanted to kill the old fool. But before anyone could wince, Ali was dancing to one side and then dancing back the other way—not the Ali of 1965, but not a cripple either: It was the dance of an overweight former athlete who was perfectly healthy. The kid could not land a punch.

Then, as the cheers of relief started to rise, he did the Ali shuffle. I’d forgotten about the Ali shuffle. This was not the shuffle of 1966 but the shuffle of an overweight former athlete in perfect health. Ali did not do one dance and one shuffle. He kept it up for a full minute.

Finally, he reached down and grabbed the kid in a bear hug and smiled the best smile he could, although it was just a wink of a smile, and that was the end of it.

When I found him a few minutes later in a room behind the stage, dining on fried chicken, he did not resemble the man in the boxing ring, except for the face. He was surrounded by friends and family, and women—one was fetching him a piece of cake. There was an inordinate number of women in the room, watching him avail himself of the post-event spread, making sure he got enough to eat, wearing expressions that seemed quite maternal. They were not the expressions I’d seen on the women at the black-tie banquet the night before. After Louisville’s high society had grazed its way through a two-hour open-bar cocktail party, Ali had slowly made his way to the dais, and I saw on the faces of the pearled women with low-cut gowns and bustiered girls in impossibly high heels the distinct expression I’ve come to recognize as the one women wear when they’re looking at a man they want.

The boxing match was the last official event of Muhammad Ali’s weekend, but the last unofficial event took place at midnight in the bar at the Seelbach Hotel. It is a historic place, often cited in those stories about great old bars in the great Old South. Natalie Cole and her band were lounging at the bar. I was with one of Ali’s counsel and her boyfriend when Howard Bingham, sloe-eyed and cool, slid a chair up to our table and ordered a beer. Bingham, a photographer, has been by Ali’s side from the beginning, and he is the only one who never left it.

I waited until Howard was halfway through his beer before I asked him what had happened at Freedom Hall that evening.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

The dancing, I said. The shuffling.

“Oh yeah, he can do that; he does that sometimes.”

He can? Then why doesn’t he do it more often?

Bingham had no immediate answer. He was not looking at me or at anything when a moment later he took his right arm and started to windmill it, like an old Ali punch. Then he stopped, and the hand wrapped around the mug of beer.

“Sometimes,” Bingham said, “I just want to…” But he did not finish the sentence. He said something else: “He could be 100 percent better.”

And he could. If he spent more time in boxing rings. It turns out that only when Muhammad Ali is in a boxing ring can he, or does he choose to, turn back the clock. It’s only a boxing ring, fittingly enough, that moves him to movement. Perhaps he believes that if some of us are now finding divine inspiration in his metaphysical majesty, his real power will always derive from his ability to outwit, outpunch, and overpower everyone else.

What Parkinson’s disease does is make you brittle. Ali’s version of the disease is a slow one, but it’s making him brittle nonetheless. The way to fight being brittle—to keep the disease at bay—is to work at being limber. And the only time he feels like working at being limber—at fighting the disease—is when he’s in an environment where he’s always been accustomed to fighting.

“He won’t exercise in a regular gym or do the Nautilus or a StairMaster; he will not do it,” says Lonnie. Her voice is exasperated, because she is exasperated. “I have bought him state-of-the-art equipment. He won’t use it. He says it’s for sissies. That’s why I’m building him a gym on the farm, with a ring and mirrors and a heavy bag. Because that’s what he knows. And that’s how he wants to do it.

“Sometimes Muhammad, unfortunately, might use this illness. Don’t get me wrong, but Muhammad knows when to turn it on and off. And sometimes I think he does it deliberately. Turns it off. He’s a master manipulator; I’m not going to kid you. He will look more fragile than he actually is. Why he does it, I don’t know.”

Perhaps I do. Perhaps if I were being worshiped by flocks of followers, my every whim attended to, and all I could see from behind the smoked glass was legions shouting my name and feeding me cake, well, I would have stopped trying to get better a long time ago, too. Especially if the crowds were finally affirming what I’d been saying for 40 years: that in me you see a god.

“I began to suspect that he was a special vessel that might be ordained for special things,” a writer named Mort Sharnik once said of Cassius Clay as the writer tried to come to grips with the essence of this strange new champion.”Esse est percipi,” an eighteenth century bishop named George Berkeley said many years earlier as he tried to figure out what it meant to exist, to be. After a lifetime of considering the notion, Berkeley decided that to be is to be perceived. And so it must be now with Muhammad Ali. If he is a vessel, it is not only his own self that fills it; it is filled up by all of us, filled with whatever it is we need to find in him. He is what we perceive him to be.

What we see in him is purely an individual matter. It might be something in the eyes, which seem particularly expressive because everything else on the face has shutdown—a sense in his eyes of not only the playful jester but also the kind and compassionate man whose clowning and belittling of opponents often obscured the goodness of the soul within. It might be forgiveness: of him, for adopting a racist religion or acting like a self-centered showman at so many people’s expense—like the cruelty he showered on Joe Frazier (“See how ignorant you are?”); or forgiveness of ourselves, for not realizing how special he was beneath the bluster and the lunacy. For not sensing what we had in our midst.

It might be reverence for the physical embodiment of the greatest man ever to fight, and for the greatest athlete we’ve ever known: The title of heavyweight champion, before its devaluation, was a kingly title. And no one has ever ruled the sport as gracefully, or as magically—although his crowning triumph, his victory over Frazier in their third fight, in Manila, was the most brutally beautiful heavyweight championship fight in history, a battle won not with wits but with soul. If the disease came on while he was fighting—if it was not inherited, as his wife insists—then this is the fight during which it must have taken root.

It might be simple awe at the survival of a man who had the balls to stand up to white America and risk its wrath when most of us would have shut up and joined the damned army. In 1967 to be a young black man from Kentucky who refused induction—one year before Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis, three years after three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi—was to be made of a singular fabric.

And it might be pity, although if it’s pity, he neither merits it nor wants it. When l ask him, after he levitates, if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and slumps hack against the couch in a manner that l recognize as meaning he will have more to say on the matter in a moment. This happens only three times in our two hours in that room: There are three questions he wants to answer slowly, not reflexively. This is not to say that some of his quick answers aren’t honest ones. When I ask if he misses boxing and he quickly answers, “No”; when l ask if he’d want his son to be a boxer and he quickly says, “No”; when l ask, “Are you a happy man?” and he quickly answers, “Um-hmm.” But three times when l ask him questions, he slumps back on the couch and closes his eyes, then opens them and speaks.

Sometimes he gets only the first three or four words out and then has to stop and try again before uttering a complete thought—like a car turning over several times before catching on a cold morning.

So when l ask if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and then a few moments later he says, “Everything… everything… everything has a purpose.”

Another time I ask if he’d change anything in his life. After several seconds, he says, “I wouldn’t change nothin’. It all turned out to be good.”

The third time, l ask how he wants history to remember him. This is the one he takes the most time to think about. He closes his eyes and slumps against the back of the couch for what seems to be a very long time. Then he opens his eyes, leans forward, and says in quick bursts of words, “I want people to say, ‘He fought for his rights. Fought for my people. Most famous black man in the world. Strong believer in God.’”

I have a million more questions, but he is tired, and I am not going to get the answers I want. When I ask what lessons he has learned on his long and troublesome journey—when I lean in and, in tones drenched with meaning, ask him what we should know—he says, “Do a lot of running; eat the right foods.”

And when I tell him l think that it was the third Frazier fight, not the Foreman fight, that was his best, he looks at me and rasps, “You’re not as dumb as you look,” which makes me laugh in delight—how sharp he is—until I remember that this is exactly what he said to the Beatles when he met them in Miami Beach in 1964.

We shake hands—it’s a soft handshake but not a sickly one; it’s like a gentleman’s handshake—and he picks up the briefcase and rises to walk down the hall to say goodbye to his wife, who is working in another room, before he walks over to the main house. I take a tour of the rest of the office suite. One room’s windows overlook an expanse of emerald green grass bordering a river, and stacked against the wall beneath the windows are 13 translucent plastic cartons with the words PROPERTY OF THE U.S. POSTAL SERVICE printed on the sides. Each is overflowing with letters and envelopes. Perhaps a thousand pieces of mail.

“A week’s worth,” says a woman whose job is to open them and answer them: the well-wishers, the autograph requesters, the charity seekers. Most of Ali’s life is given over to good works now. Last fall a Roman Catholic nun who cares for Liberian children at a missionary center in the Ivory Coast wrote Ali to ask for his help.The next month, she was surprised to see him there in person, giving out food.

In another room sits a woman who presides over the memorabilia being packed up to be shipped to the nascent Ali museum in Louisville: the autographed Golden Gloves, the photograph of Ali standing over Liston’s prone body in Lewiston, shouting at his defeated foe. Glass trophies and engraved plaques line walls, huddle atop tables, rest on floors—too many to examine any particular honor; the cumulative effect of the glittery clutter says enough.

My tour has taken 10 or 15 minutes, and as I turn down the hallway toward the door that will take me outside, I see that Ali is standing exactly where l saw him last; he hasn’t moved an inch. He is standing in a doorway looking at his wife, who is sitting in front of a computer wearing a telephone headset. She is a woman with discernible soft and humorous sides, but she is also a no-nonsense person, and right now she is talking to a lawyer in tones as authoritative and sure as those of a general commanding troop placement from a bunker, discussing some award Ali will be receiving in New York next month; she is running the business of Muhammad Ali.

He leans down to whisper something in my ear. By now l know not to expect anything profound.

“I like my office,” he says, and I nod, understanding instantly what he means. That he likes standing and watching people testify to his power and his goodness. That he likes all these tangible testaments to how important he has become. Also, I think he likes the women.

He escorts me down the stairs, out the door, and we stand for a moment beneath the outstretched arms of the giant elms. This is where I leave him, surveying his kingdom. As l walk to my car, he is still standing there, and as I drive away down the long, winding driveway toward the iron gates, I have no doubt that as soon as I’m out of sight he will turn around and go back upstairs to eat the last piece of coffee cake.

I’ve Got No Expectations

 MLB: Seattle Mariners at Cleveland Indians

Man, sour times for Jesus Montero. From the Seattle Times:

After each season, players meet with training and medical staff to set up their offseason. Each player is given a target weight they are expected to come in at for the following season. According to sources, Montero has never once met that target weight since joining the Mariners. This year he came in 40 pounds over the weight the Mariners wanted him to come in at.

It’s led to frustration within the organization. General manager Jack Zduriencik was particularly critical of Montero and his future.

“We are disappointed in how he came in physically,” Zduriencik said bluntly.

That disinterest in conditioning in the offseason didn’t do much change the minds of people who have been skeptical of Montero’s work ethic. It certainly didn’t inspire Zduriencik, who was clearly unhappy with the situation.

“It’s up to him,” Zduriencik said. ” I have zero expectations for Jesus Montero. Any expectations I had are gone.”

[Photo Credit: USATSI]

The Full Monte

monte irvin

An interview from 1983.

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