"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Sportswriting

The Selling of The Babe

The Selling of the Babe

Bronx Banter Book Excerpt

Longtime Banter pal, Glenn Stout’s got a new book out and I think you’ll dig it. Here’s an except to whet your appetite. I’m sure you are gonna like this.—AB

By Glenn Stout

Entering May of 1920, Ruth’s inaugural season in New York and that of the Yankees was at a crossroads.  Ruth was hitting .226 in nine games with only a single extra base hit and one walk. The only record he was pursuing was the strikeout mark. With eight in 32 plate appearances, he was on pace to strike out more than 130 times for the season.  To date, no one had ever approached 100.  In nearly 600 appearances in 1919, Joe Jackson had struck out only 10 times and only 234 times for his entire career. Strikeouts were okay only if they were countered by home runs.

It was even worse than that.  The Yankees were only 4–6, still in sixth place. Boston?  Minus Ruth, they were a stellar 9–2.  The press was referring to them as the “Ruthless” Red Sox, fully aware of the irony the name entailed.  If there was truly a “Ruthless” team thus far, it had been the Yankees.  So far, Ruth had been a hit only at the box office, but if he didn’t start banging the ball soon, one had to wonder how long that would last.

For Ruth, the 1920 season was shaping up as a repeat of 1919, only this time he was wearing pinstripes.  Once more, just as his slow start in 1919 had buried the Red Sox, Ruth’s por performance thus far threatened to bury the Yankees, risking that whatever he did later in the season, no matter how spectacular, might be diminished.  He had been given a pass on that in 19 19, but if the same thing happened in 1920 it was unlikely to go unnoticed a second time. That was the problem with all the press in New York.  When they were on your side, it was grand, but they could also gang up on you.  More than one Yankee manager had felt their wrath.

Although the Yankee–Red Sox rivalry was not as pronounced as it would later become, each team already considered the other its main rival. The Ruth sale put an accent on that, at least in the minds of the fans.  For Boston, 9-2 on the year, coming into New York in first place was a familiar feeling. Since the founding of the American League the Red Sox, despite lacking the resources of New York City, had been the team the Yankees one day hoped to be, a champion and near annual contender.   So far, with the Yankees sixth at 4-6, already 4 ½ games out, nothing had much seemed to change.

In game one, on April 30, it appeared as if that would hold.  Before a sizable weekday crowd of 8,000 who turned out despite intermittent showers, the Red Sox tried their best to put their foot on the Yankees’ neck.  After all, a five-game sweep would virtually ruin New York, and put them in the same position the Red Sox had been a year ago, likely too far back to climb into the race.

Ruth did his best to prevent that in the first inning, cracking a single to knock in a run and give the Yankees the lead, but that was to be his only hit of the day.  Waite Hoyt settled down and Boston went to 10–2 for the season with a 4–2 win, as the Yankees fell to 4–7.

The only other notable occurrence came every time Ruth ran out to right field, and every time he ran back in.  In only his third appearance in the position at the Polo Grounds, fans packed the right field bleachers to get as close as possible, a disproportionate number compared to the rest of the stands.  Every time Ruth ran out to take his position, they cheered and applauded madly.  And every time he left them, they cheered again. The same thing happened when he stepped out of the dugout, or into the batter’s box, or scratched his nose. He hadn’t even done anything yet and was getting twenty or more standing ovations a day. One writer termed it “The Babe Ruth roar. . . . Down as far as 125th Street [in] Harlem folks can now tell when Ruth comes to bat.  The roar shakes the whole vicinity. The fans roar for Babe to hit ’em and when he misses fire they roar because he didn’t.”  In this game, it was more the latter than the former.

Shawkey, the Yankees’ ace, took the mound the next day, May Day.  Thus far, although he’d pitched well, he was 0–3—the Yanks had scored more than three runs only once all season.  Offense was up everywhere, it seemed, other than in the Polo Grounds.  Those Ruthless Red Sox, in contrast, were scoring runs at a frightening rate.  So far, they had been held to three runs or under only three times.  The rest of the time, they were clubbing teams to death like defenseless rabbits, and giving ammunition to those who still favored the scientific approach.

This, time, however, Shawkey was sharp from the start.  The only question was whether the Yankees could take advantage.  They scored one in the first—Ruth reached on a force-out, moved around to third, and then, on a ground ball to Everett Scott, Ruth deked his old shortstop into thinking he was staying at third, then timed Scott’s throw to first perfectly, taking off for home and beating Stuffy McInnis’s throw to the plate.  Although Ruth was never quite the ballplayer who “never made a mistake on the field” as the hyperbole later suggested, he was a smart player, surprisingly quick for his size—particularly before he ate his way through half of Manhattan—and he knew baseball.  Hundreds of games played at St. Mary’s had developed his instincts beyond his years.  If anything, Ruth was sometimes too aggressive on the bases, overestimating both his speed and his ability to surprise.

He did it again in the fourth. Ruth rapped a hard liner between McInnis and first base, the ball passing the bag fair, then it hit the ground, then skipped to the wall, where it caromed off the concrete base and sent Harry Hooper racing after as Ruth pulled into second for a double.  He wisely moved to third on an infield out and then, after Pratt grounded to second, Ruth timed a dash home again.  It was closer this time, but he made a splendid fall-away slide, his foot sweeping across the plate as the catcher spun and reached out to make the tag.  The Yankees led 2–0, and so far it was all due to Ruth.

Something was building, you could tell.  If he had been bothered by any lingering discomfort from the pulled muscle he’d suffered at the start of the season, the slides proved either he was healed, or the injury taped, or somehow masked over.  Ruth was feeling no pain.

Pennock struck out Pipp to lead off the sixth, bringing up Ruth, who was greeted with the now customary histrionics, this time even a little louder due to his performance in the first half of the game.

Pennock threw one pitch and a sound like no other rocketed through the park.  The ball went up and up and toward right field.

What happened next released a deluge of adjectives and adverbs from the New York press, verbiage they’d been sitting on since the first week of January.  Now that they had a chance to use it, they didn’t stop.

The embellishment prize went to George Daley, writing under the pseudonym “Monitor” in the New York World:

Ruth strolled to the plate, decided it was time to OPEN THE SEASON and sunk his war club into the first ball Pennock tried to pass over the plate.

There came a burst of thunder sound: that ball, oh, where was it?  Why clear OVER the right field roof of Brush Stadium [the Polo Grounds] and dropping into the greensward of old Manhattan Field around the junction of Eighth Avenue and 156th Street—the longest drive they say EVER seen on the P.G. and longer even that the tremendous wallop that gave Babe his twenty-ninth homer last September.

Eyes were strained in the watching of the spheroid’s flight; throats were strained in acclaiming its all-fired bigness, and hands were strained in a riot of applause to the hitter thereof as he ambled around the bases and, lifting his cap, disappeared into the dugout.

Whew.  What he meant was it left the field between the third and fourth flagpole atop the roof in right field and landed in the park next door, only the third ball ever to leave the yard, as Ruth joined himself and Joe Jackson as the only prior practitioners. To be fair, the ball was driven about 400 feet when it left the park, although no one could say with any certainty whether it struck the top of the roof or sailed cleanly over it.  The grandstand roof was some sixty feet above the field, but its front edge, where the ball passed over, only a bit more than 300 feet from home.  Regardless, it was still, in the parlance of the day, “a prodigious blast” and “fierce clout,” absolutely “lambasted,” one that “flitted out of the park,” “a bomb.”

It also gave the Yankees a 3–0 lead.  A moment later, while the fans were still cheering, Duffy Lewis, up next, duplicated the feat, although in much more mortal fashion, smacking a home run into the left field bleachers.

That occurrence, back-to-back home runs, was so rare no one could recall it happening before.  Two consecutive home runs?  Both OVER the fence?  The lively ball needed no more proof.

Ruth’s home run, his first as a Yankee, was the one he needed most.  Now the dam was broken, now everything he was supposed to be, he suddenly was, now the pressure was off and the game was fun again.  Now he was, unquestionably and everlastingly, the Babe. The remainder of his career fell beneath the shadow of what was to come.

After the game, a 6–0 Yankee win, the press noted that it was Ruth’s 50th career home run.  Heck, Ty Cobb, who had been playing since 1905, only had 67 career home runs.  Home Run Baker had just 80.  Ruth already had 50.  He had only hit one home run as a Yankee and the press was already setting goals and targets.  They would do so for most of the next fifteen years.  Hardly anyone even mentioned that the victory might prove a turnaround for the team. The Babe was all and everything.

In case no one had noticed, the next day Ruth did it again, as the Times noted, “At what was known in the old days as an opportune time.”  In his first two times up, he collected a “mighty” strikeout (they all were “mighty” now) and then lofted a “near home run” (just about any deep fly ball) before coming up in the sixth with two on and the Yankees trailing 1–0.

After a swinging strike and a foul tip off Sam Jones, his former teammate tried to sneak one past . . . and failed.  This was no blast over the roof but a drive down the line. But even that wasn’t special enough. It was described as “the lowest and fastest home run drive uncoiled in the Harlem park in years,” maybe the shortest of Ruth’s career, sneaking over the fence and into the upper deck just fair of the iron foul pole, 258 feet away.

It didn’t matter to the fans, 25,000 of whom filled the park, the second home Sunday date of the year, bringing the Sabbath total to more than 50,000. As Ruth rounded the bases, they climbed on the dugout roof and tossed papers and hats onto the field.  There were even reports of celebrations emanating from the apartment windows of buildings on Coogan’s Bluff.  Even the Polo Grounds stage wasn’t big enough for Ruth.

The countdown began the next day.  The Times noted, “Babe needs only twenty-eight more

homers to beat the big record he set last season. At the rate of one a day that mark won’t last

long.”

Hall of Fame Ballot Open Thread

imageApparently the baseball world waits with bated breath as we see who gets in for the Class of 2016… as well as which idiot refused to have Ken Griffey, Jr. go in as possibly the first unanimous selection in HoF voting history.

Yet, with the new streamline process that removes legacy voters who haven’t written about or even mentioned baseball within the last ten years, there is a slightly better chance that it could happen. On top of that, there’s a better chance than that in which players like Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell; guys who have been suspected of PED usage over the years, can possibly make it in this time, as well as guys like Barry and Roger and Gary Sheffield getting much closer, if not in.

Time changes a lot of things, perhaps, but it did nothing for Pete Rose, who was denied re-entry into MLB, with the HoF following suit. One can argue that the Hall is not an MLB property and should not be beholden to the whims or decrees of the league, and you’re certainly welcome to do so here.

As far as this writer is concerned, the HoF is an incomplete record and repository of baseball lore and references and in the age of the Internet there is plenty of room for improvement, but that’s not my call and therefore not of much interest to me. It’s not about me though (words to live by if you are a voter), it’s Hall of Fame Vote Day, so let’s hop on our pins and needles and wait for the dust to settle, shall we?

(Note: perennial Banter favorite Tim Raines also stands a good chance of getting the vote this year. Will update when final vote is announced.)

Bronx Banter Interview: To Live and Die in L.A.

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Our pal John Schulian‘s first novel, A Better Goodbye, was published late last week. Looking for something pulpy and nasty, look no further friends. This noir will keep you entertained and turning the pages. I recently chatted with John about writing his first novel. Dig:

Bronx Banter: Chico said, “Why a duck?” So I ask  you: Why a novel?

John Schulian: Why not? A novel seemed like a logical progression for me. I’ve written for newspapers and magazines, I’ve written scripts in Hollywood, I’ve taught writing, I even wrote a couple of country songs after seeing four songwriters talk about their craft at Nashville’s Bluebird Café. Not surprisingly, nothing came of my songs, but I still loved the experience. It was just that a novel was much more my speed. When I had an idea for one and the time to write, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

You have to remember that I come from a generation where a novel was the Holy Grail for writers. Now, of course, non-fiction outsells fiction and screenplays have become the leading form for storytellers. But I was brought up on novels. My parents read me Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson. I discovered the Hardy Boys and John R. Tunis’s baseball novels on my own when I was in junior high. I played high school football with a bunch of upperclassmen who introduced me to the idea that a jock didn’t have to be ashamed if he liked books, especially books by J.D. Salinger. I confess that I bought Updike’s Rabbit, Run because I thought it was about a basketball. Okay, so I wasn’t the most sophisticated kid in the world. It didn’t stop me from losing myself in other novels, even those my English teachers assigned, like 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird. The habit of a lifetime was formed in those years. I became a committed reader.

When I began writing professionally, when putting words on paper put food on my table, it was inevitable that I would think about writing a novel. I was always looking for a way to use fictional devices in my journalism. I went out to cover stories, whether they were championship prizefights or political corruption trials, in hopes of finding scenes that would capture the moment and perhaps speak to some larger truth. I wanted to hear what people were saying to each other, the dialogue that grows out of triumph or tragedy or whatever else they might be experiencing. I wanted to see how those scenes revealed the character of the people living them. I wanted the drama of real life.

It wasn’t until I was a newspaper sports columnist, primarily in Chicago, briefly in Philadelphia, that I enjoyed the freedom to take that approach as far as I could. And people noticed. Or maybe I should say other sports writers noticed. So did the good woman I was married to then. But I ignored their encouragement to write a novel. I liked being a sports columnist – the big events, the great old ballparks, the man-on-the-move datelines, the company of other writers, even the daily wrestling match with the language. The job consumed me, and on top of it, I was usually freelancing a magazine piece on the side. That didn’t leave a lot of time for tackling what I considered the greatest challenge for a writer – a novel.

Everywhere I looked in journalism back then, novelists were emerging. Dan Jenkins made the most noise with his bestselling Semi-Tough. Then someone recommended Bud Shrake, Jenkins’ running mate from Sports Illustrated, and I gobbled up two of his novels, Strange Peaces and Blessed McGill. It seemed inevitable that Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, among newspaper columnists, would make waves in fiction. But first place in that category belonged to Pete Dexter, a stable mate of mine at the Philadelphia Daily News, who wrote a terrific first novel called God’s Pocket and then knocked the book world on its ass with Paris Trout. The surprise in all this was a copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times – a quiet, unpretentious guy named Charles Dickinson who was writing wry, heartfelt novels about small-town America that got him compared to Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. The big names at the paper were Mike Royko and Roger Ebert, and I did all right, too, but in one very important category, Charles Dickinson was ahead of us.

I suspected that John Ed Bradley was, too, the first time I ever read a story of his in the Washington Post. He was writing about his days as a tri-captain on Louisiana State’s football team, describing a night when he and his best friend, the team’s quarterback, were drinking beer as they sat on a hill overlooking the campus, talking about their dreams and what lay ahead of them. It wasn’t sports writing John Ed put before readers that morning; it was the work of someone who had novels in him.

He has written a bunch of them by now, along with an achingly beautiful memoir called It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, and he has become a friend as well. It was in the latter capacity that he encouraged me to write a novel. That must have been thirty years ago, but I’ve never forgotten his encouragement, or that of others who said the same thing. I have to tell you, though, it’s one thing to get all puffed up because people think you possess that kind of talent and quite another to jump off the cliff, the way Butch and Sundance did. But on a January night more years ago than I care to remember, I finally sat down and wrote the first words of what became my novel, A Better Goodbye: “Too bad Barry wasn’t local. Suki would have told him her real name if he was.” I figured I didn’t have anything to lose. The fall would probably kill me.

BB: Okay, then. Why now?

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JS: I needed something to keep me off the street. Besides, I convinced myself I was still writing well, and some ideas were taking shape in my head. I thought I better seize the moment. There didn’t seem to be anything left for me in TV. I’d done too much of it that was either bad or barely middlebrow. To make things worse, the rattlesnake who turned out to be my last Hollywood agent kept putting me up for science fiction shows I wouldn’t have watched with a gun at my head. Years later, when I saw Justified – part Western, part cop show, and an impeccable take on Elmore Leonard’s sensibility – I started drooling. But by then I was long gone from the TV wars.

I’m now 70, in case anyone is keeping score at home. It’s an age when you realize how precious time is. I may keel over dead before I finish this sentence, or I may live another thirty years. However much time I have left, I want to put it to good use and enjoy myself in the process. I loathe golf, which seems to seduce a lot of geezers. (Go ahead and kick your ball out of the rough, fellas. I’ll never tell.) The thought of traveling the world makes my blood run cold – I had my fill of airports, airplanes and hotel rooms when I was working on newspapers. I’d much rather be at my desk at home, trying to coax words out of my computer.

I have many friends who are wonderful writers yet hate the thought of writing, but I love it. I’ve been that way since I was a kid sketching out my own newspaper and movie ideas in the privacy of my bedroom. Now I suppose you can say I’ve come full circle. For the past ten or twelve years, I’ve only done things that appeal to me, writing essays and book reviews, putting together two collections of my sports writing, editing anthologies of other peoples’ work, writing and rewriting my novel and a handful of short stories, and trying like a madman to get my novel published in a world that is less kind to fiction with every passing day. Somehow I’ve succeeded in a modest way. I can call myself a novelist. And you know what? It tickles the hell out of me.

BB: Why a noir novel?

JS: Noir felt accessible, comfortable even though comfort obviously isn’t the point of it. As long as I had my hands on something by Elmore Leonard or Daniel Woodrell, to name just two of my guiding lights, I could survive any airplane flight and every hour-and-a-half wait at the doctor’s. They were masterful storytellers, but they seemed most interested in their characters, the way they thought and moved and talked. God, did they love talk, particularly Leonard, who built book after book on dialogue that carried him to the bestseller list and a place among the best crime novelists ever.

He did not, however, invent noir dialogue. That had been done decades before by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and a host of writers now on the verge of being forgotten, people like Cornell Woolrich and Patricia Highsmith and Chester Himes. Then film noir put that brand of smart talk in the mouths of actors who became synonymous with it, from Bogart to Mitchum to Ida Lupino. I’ve always been a sucker for those noir movies out of the late 40s and early 50s where gunmen lurk in the shadows and danger floats in on clouds of cigarette smoke. But what really got me was a moment like the one in Larceny when Shelley Winters, as a con man’s tootsie, tells a potential boy toy, “You kiss like you’re paying off an election bet.” Just as memorable was Yvonne De Carlo playing Burt Lancaster for a sap in Criss Cross. Even when the armored car heist she’s lured him into goes sideways and they know they’re going to die, he’s making cow eyes at her. “I never wanted the money,” he says. “I just wanted you.”

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L.A. has always been ripe with stories like those, so perhaps it’s only natural that this native son feels a sense of pride in local sex, treachery, desperation and murder. Film noir may once have fed on such indelicacies, but more and more it belongs to the past no matter how great Chinatown and L.A. Confidential were. It is left to the city’s great contemporary noir writers – Michael Connelly, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, Richard Lange and all the rest – to make the most of its image as a luscious piece of fruit that has fallen from the tree and lies rotting in the relentless sunshine.

I’m under some of the same influences they are, but I made little use of the city’s underbelly until I started thinking about writing a novel. Now, no matter where I am in L.A., I don’t have to drive far to show you what I’m talking about. I weave along city streets so pocked and neglected they wouldn’t be out of place in the most shell-shocked regions of Syria and Afghanistan. I pass handsome apartment complexes and think of the tricks that got turned in them and the building managers who may have played blind in exchange for sex. I follow reports of the violence that’s always waiting to happen in every corner of the city, secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t O.J. Simpson who proved the famous and near famous can be as bloody as the poor and gang-ridden.

There was once an actor named Tom Neal – the star of the classic cheapo noir Detour – who went into eclipse and ended up working as a landscaper until he put a bullet from a .45 in his estranged wife’s head.

When I hear a story like that, it’s hard to imagine writing anything but noir.

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BB: Did you outline the story before you started writing or make it up as you went along?

JS: Before I started writing my novel, I would have told you I needed an outline. How could I possibly work without a net on something so big, right? Outlines were always part of my process in journalism, whether I was on a newspaper deadline and roughed one out in three or four minutes or had a day or two to figure out how to structure a magazine piece. In Hollywood, an outline is practically mandatory in both TV and movie writing because nobody wants to leave anything to chance. There are still storytelling disasters, obviously – I’ve been guilty of more than a few myself – but the people in charge like the idea of having an outline so they can hand it to the next writer if the first one bites the dust.

So did I outline A Better Goodbye?

Hell, no.

I thought of it, of course. But then I started writing, and soon enough I had a plan of attack in my head: I wouldn’t stop until I knew where I was going to pick up the next day. The first thing I’d do when I sat down every morning was to read what I’d written the day before. I’d make changes, sometimes lots of them, but sooner or later I’d move into the new day’s work with a full head of steam.

I had a notion of where I was going all along, but I wanted to keep things flexible so I could change direction or take side trips, like one where Onus DuPree Jr., my prize sociopath, goes pet shopping at a pit bull fight. Likewise, with an outline, I might not have been as willing to introduce a character I hadn’t thought of before. I wanted the book to be picaresque; I wanted readers to meet characters they weren’t expecting when they least expected them. Admittedly, these characters didn’t always advance the story, but they helped draw a picture of the world where A Better Goodbye takes place. Other times, they complicated things. I’m thinking in particular of a highly pissed-off neighbor lady who pops up in the middle of a scene where DuPree and his partner in crime, Scott Crandall, are hunting for Nick Pafko and Jenny Yee, two lost souls who are trying to save themselves. Maybe everything should have been streamlined at this point of the book, but that’s not the way life works, and I didn’t think my story should work that way, either.

BB: Who was the first character you dreamed up?

JS: The fighter, naturally. With me, it’s always the fighter. I guess it’s because I wrote so much boxing when I worked in newspapers. As soon as I came to Hollywood and people learned about my background, they wanted me to write about fighters. I did it for Miami Vice and Midnight Caller, a dramedy called Hooperman, and an aborted attempt to bring back The Untouchables. And I had my own ideas, too. My two best scripts focused on fighters, a TV pilot called The Ring and a screenplay called American Original, which was based on a W.C. Heinz magazine piece about a hard-punching, hard-living little Texan named Lew Jenkins. Neither went anywhere, but that didn’t change my mind about fighters as characters.

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The fighter in The Ring was Nick Pafko, a young middleweight out of a blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, with a father who has a major gambling problem, a stand-up mother who’s ready to leave the old man, a kid brother in and out of trouble with the law, and a big sister who graduated college and yearns to leave the old ’hood behind. It’s not a coincidence that the fighter in A Better Goodbye is also named Nick Pafko. Of course I’ve given him a life far different than the one he would have had if The Ring had made it onto the air and run for five seasons.

That Nick would have become a world champion, married a good woman, fathered a couple of kids, succumbed to temptations that cost him his title, and somehow pieced his life back together as he regained the championship. The Nick in the novel didn’t come close to any of that. He was on his way to realizing his dream when he mortally injured the man he was fighting in what should have been nothing more than a steppingstone bout. You fight an old warhorse, you learn some lessons, and you get out of there with a win. Simple, right? Not when Nick blows up at his opponent’s dirty tricks and the referee freezes. What happens then is tragedy all the way around. No winners, only losers.

Nick tried to fight again after that, but he couldn’t do it. In that regard, he was like a fine young fighter from L.A. named Gabriel Ruelas, who never fought again after killing a man in the ring. I wanted Nick to carry a burden so heavy it made it hard for him to take one step after another. He couldn’t be like Sugar Ray Robinson or Emile Griffith, both of whom fought their way past such impossibly dark moments. Nick is a tough guy and, way down deep, a decent one. He can still make you laugh with a smart-assed remark, and something in him makes it impossible to back down to anyone even when they’re holding a gun. But beneath the emotional camouflage, there is a beaten man. What I tried to do was to tell the story of how he finds his way past that.

BB: Let’s talk about your female protagonist and how you learned about the massage industry. Did this entail you doing the full Gay Talese? Did ya manage a massage parlor?

JS: Fortunately, I never got that desperate when I was doing my research. Of course, when I cold-called some masseuses and said I was a writer who wanted to talk to them about their work, they instantly accused me of trying to get a freebie. Anyone who reads the book will soon realize that these girls get lots of strange requests – maybe exotic is a better word – so their reaction was understandable. But I really did need to talk to them because the massage business was as foreign to me as boxing was familiar.

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All I knew about it in the beginning was that it had exploded. From the late 80s up past the millennium, the back pages of L.A. Weekly, the city’s smart and lively alternative newspaper, were jammed with page after page of massage ads. Some took up chunks of a page, with stock photos of pretty girls who had probably never been near a jack shack; others ran just two or three lines. But they all paid to advertise. Even if you’re like me and say jack, queen, king after you get to ten, you knew the Weekly and all the other publications where the sex trade did its advertising were making a pile of money.

Being an old newspaper guy, I thought there was a fascinating story waiting to be written about the massage industry, or maybe a TV station would put on its big boy pants and do a feature that went beyond ratings-week sleaze. It never happened. The only time massage operations got any ink or airtime was when the cops raided them during a local election campaign. There’s nothing safer for a politician to ad his name to than a crusade against sin. Naturally, as soon as the election was over, the pols and cops forgot those obliging ladies existed, and it was back to business as usual.

The growth of the Internet made business even better because now there were photos accompanying a lot of the ads on the rub-and-tug websites. Sometimes the photos were actually of the girls who had taken out the ads – well, either the girls or a prominent part of their anatomy.

And where did they ply their trade? They worked out of apartments that ranged from rancid to really nice as well as guesthouses and sometimes even single-family homes. Some were in neighborhoods that scared off clients who drove Porsches, and others had addresses that automatically made guys who needed their itch scratched think of money and class.

And who did these girls work for? They worked for people who knew their way around the business, veteran pimps and masseuses or straight-up hookers who had set up their own operations. But there were always newcomers like Scott Crandall, the pimp in my novel, who has figured out that his shot at Hollywood stardom is over and he needs to new source of income. It’s bosses like Scott – greedy, venal, always complaining, and way too eager to sample the merchandise – who unwittingly convince girls to go out on their own. Sometimes a girl will have the charisma to take a jack shack’s biggest earners with her when she sets up shop. More likely, she will fly solo so she can set her own schedule and make her own rules and regulations.

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That’s what my female protagonist, Jenny Yee, tried to do until she realized that self-discipline wasn’t her strong suit. When we meet her, she’s calling herself Suki – stage names are as important as lingerie in the massage business – and working for a successful realtor with a couple other girls in a well maintained, otherwise tame high-rise in Sherman Oaks. Life is good there until it isn’t, and when it goes bad, it does so in a horrific way. You’d think the trauma would be enough to scare Jenny out of the business for keeps, but when she gets in a jam financially months later, she knows only one way to make money fast – massage. Her primary requirement is that her next stop has security. That’s why she goes to work for Scott, whose hired muscle is Nick Pafko. Now we have our two lost souls together. After that, it’s up to them to connect.

Okay, I hear you. That still doesn’t explain how I could write intimately about Jenny’s life in and out of the sex trade. I needed a masseuse who would tell me her story – the glamorous stuff, the unglamorous stuff, the weird stuff, the funny stuff, the sexy stuff. I mean, I could imagine my share of scenarios, but I really needed verisimilitude. I got it in the most roundabout way.

I knew a young woman who was going to UCLA, very smart, very straight, would sooner run with the bulls at Pamplona than do massage. But when I told her about my idea for a novel and how I was running out of patience in my masseuse who would sit down and talk about her secret life. Right away my friend said, “Oh, I know someone like that.” Did she ever.

My friend’s friend was Asian, bright, and cuter than the law allows. It didn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see why guys with disposable income were beating down her door. She was using the money she made to pay her way to UCLA, and one of the great factoids about her was that she got her first job as a masseuse through an ad in the campus newspaper. Best of all, though, she was a non-stop talker with a gift for anecdote. She spoke in whole paragraphs, not just in sentences. And she was funny, insightful and fully capable of, say, weaving her analysis of Catcher In the Rye in with her take on her clients. Not that she hated her clients – she genuinely liked many of them – but they were giving her an education beyond the one she was getting at UCLA. And she was making the most of it.

I met one other masseuse through my guide to the sex trade, a sweet, quiet Caucasian who blushingly provided me with telling details about things like pigsty bathrooms, over-amorous clients, and creepy security guards. But the second masseuse couldn’t have been more different from the Asian girl; she was shy, relatively inexperienced sexually and, I think, pretty much uncomfortable about touching naked strangers.

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The Asian girl, on the other hand, looked at this strange life as a lark that not only paid for her education but bought her drugs and financed trips to Las Vegas and let her carry on at every rave she could get to. While it was all her friend could do to provide a happy ending to a massage, the Asian girl operated by a different set of rules entirely. She wouldn’t have sex with just any guy who walked through the door, the way some girls would. But if she liked someone the way she might if they’d met in a class or at a club, then she was perfectly comfortable getting intimate. A guy like that might come along once or twice a year – all right, maybe three times – but she wouldn’t keep two guys on the string at the same time because she wasn’t a ho. She was simply someone who enjoyed sex when the right guy came along. When you think about it, that didn’t make her much different than women who wouldn’t dream of doing massage. It was just that guys had to pay two hundred dollars to see her the first time, and probably many times after that, before their relationship ceased to be a business transaction.

If I had a daughter who followed the Asian girl’s lead, I’d be mortified, disappointed, crushed. I’d wonder where I went wrong as a parent and how I could convince her to consider a more traditional part-time job. But it wasn’t like she was being exploited by anyone. She had made a choice, and she never encountered anything nearly as horrific as does the character she inspired in my novel. She survived the useless boyfriends and angry husbands that are among the hazards of the trade, and she got her education. Then she walked away from the massage business. I still hear from her once in a while. She says she’s doing well in the real world. I’m not surprised. To tell the truth, I’m proud of her.

BB: Man, it seems as if your bad guy was a ton of fun to write.

JS: Some characters call for your heart and soul. Onus DuPree Jr., on the other hand, was undiluted id, a receptacle for every terrible thought I could conjure up, a tool for every act of violence I could imagine him contemplating. I loved all of my characters – well, maybe not Scott Crandall, who’s a shit weasel – but DuPree filled me with perverse joy.

He seized control of my imagination as soon as I came up with his name: Onus DuPree Jr. Names count for a lot in noir fiction, whether you’re talking about Dashiell Hamett’s Sam Spade or Elmore Leonard’s cold-blooded Bobby Shy. In DuPree’s case, I like to think it was the “junior” at the end of his name that sent him over the edge. He was trouble from the day he was born – his own mother said so – but he didn’t want to wear his old man’s name even if it once counted for something in L.A. He was dead set on making his own reputation. It just turned out that his reputation was as a full-blown sociopath who would settle for scaring the prunes out of someone’s grandma if he couldn’t rob someone or spill their blood.

I’d been carrying a character like DuPree around in my head for, I don’t know, fifteen or twenty years, ever since I read in the about a big-time athlete’s son who got in trouble with the law. He went to prison, and that was the last I heard of him until my agent’s assistant told me he’d played high school basketball with the kid. The kid was more than a superb athlete who excelled at every sport; he was a killing machine in street fights who took delight in really hurting anyone crazy enough to tangle with him.

I thought I’d done all I could with the DuPree character when I sold my novel, but one of my editors at Tyrus Books challenged me to come up with a new scene to introduce him. Originally, he’d been parked on the street behind Chuck Berry’s former home, waiting to rob a drug dealer who made house calls. The new intro is better because it shows DuPree on the move, strolling into a Sunset Strip club, calling someone who approaches him “a faggot,” hitting on another man’s woman, and leaving her boyfriend screaming in pain. That’s DuPree in a nutshell right there: fun, fun, fun.

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BB: Well, yes, that brings us back to Scott. Seems to me he’s the one character you didn’t love. Or, let me re-phrase that: He was the one character you seemed to enjoy making an asshole.

JS: It’s not just that Scott is an asshole – it’s how big an asshole he is. He’s Mount Everest. He’s vain, needy, self-deluded, hypocritical, gluttonous, a liar, a sexual predator, and a wannabe bad guy, which may make him more dangerous than a legitimate bad guy like DuPree. And in case you forgot, he’s a pimp. He doesn’t care about anyone or anything except himself. It’s not an uncommon trait among actors, good and bad, but Scott wallows in it even though his career as a B-list TV star is in tatters. He’s ten years past the last decent role he’ll ever get and he’s too lazy to try to reinvent himself. It’s easier just to keep thinking he’s the second coming of Steve McQueen. But the truth is, he’s lucky to be the answer to a trivia question.

Some astute readers may think of Scott as my revenge on a certain backstabbing actor I once worked with. I can’t deny that Scott has a lot in common with that treacherous lug, but he was also inspired by an actor I’ve never met, a guy with a big, uncontrollable mouth and an insatiable appetite for pleasures of the flesh. This Rabelaisian thespian flamed out quickly and disappeared from sight, but wherever he is, I hope he knows that aging TV writers still talk about his exploits when they’re gathered around the campfire at night.

After seeing the way I abuse Scott in the name of art, the natural reaction may be to think I hate actors. Actually, I only hate certain actors. There are others I think the world of and consider myself lucky to have had them bring the words I wrote to life. Gary Cole was the North Star of my favorite TV gig, Midnight Caller, on and off camera, a wonderful actor who set the tone for the entire production with his unfailing professionalism. I didn’t have a happy experience on Reasonable Doubts, but I’d gladly go to war alongside Mark Harmon any time. (But not his co-star, Marlee Matlin, no, not ever.) Jonathan Banks, on Wiseguy, was the first actor I felt I was in tune with; my only regret is that I couldn’t repay him by getting a series we discussed – about a sports writer, no less – on the air so he could star in it. Jim Beaver was just beginning to realize what a fine character actor he could be when we crossed paths on Reasonable Doubts; it’s a thrill to see the great work he’s doing now and a pleasure to still call him a friend. Lest you think I lump all actresses with the aforementioned Ms. Matlin, allow me to pay tribute to the incredible Lucy Lawless, without whom Xena would never – I mean never – have entered the zeitgeist and I would still be out knocking on doors, begging for hack work.

Acting may seem glamorous when people are giving great performances or picking up awards or posing for the cover of Vanity Fair, but the reality is something else entirely. It hit me the first time I saw a casting session, with actors lining the hallway, some sitting, some standing or pacing, waiting for their three minutes in front of the producers, going over their lines and, for all I knew, praying they got the part they were up for because they might not work again all year. The anxiety was palpable, even painful. And I say that knowing they accept it as part of the career they’ve chosen – but, Jesus, seeing people who run the risk of rejection day in, day out really does something to you.

So I confess that even though Scott is a walking, talking sphincter, I couldn’t help feeling sorry when I sent him to a disastrous casting session. He encounters a bigger egomaniac than he is, realizes he doesn’t have a prayer of getting the part, and faces a battery of producers so busy eating lunch they probably wouldn’t bother to call 911 if he set himself on fire. Poor son of a bitch, right? For ten seconds, maybe. Then I went back to hating him. That’s how big an asshole he is.

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BB:  I think the book has sly humor throughout. The one recurring bit – and I don’t know if this was intentional or not – was that all the major characters seem to get stuck in L.A. traffic at one point or another. I thought that was a very good touch and very Angeleno.

JS: You just won yourself all the In-N-Out burgers you can eat. You found some humor in the book. I knew I put it there somewhere. At least I thought I did until I read my first reviews (one pro, one con) and saw that they both regarded the book as humorless. How, I wondered, could they say something like that if they paid any attention at all to the goofy thoughts that run through Scott’s head? Or to some of the tales the girls tell about their clients’ predilections? (The one involving chocolate cream pies still cracks me up every time I think about it.) Most of all, how could they miss the jokes about traffic? Traffic is the funniest thing in L.A. unless you’re stuck in it, and then the joke is on you, sucker.

The only time DuPree seems truly powerless is when he’s on his way to the showdown and he gets stuck on Olympic Boulevard at rush hour. And what does he do then? He starts thinking about what a great cross street Olympic was before all these cars started clogging it up. When he was a kid, you could take it to Westwood from downtown in something like twenty minutes. It’s the kind of thing you expect a stockbroker or a UPS driver to be thinking about. You don’t expect it from a prison-certified prince of darkness. But that’s life in L.A. Even sociopaths have to make concessions when they get behind the wheel.

BB: There are a lot of details – restaurants, bars, stores – that are specific to L.A. Did you consciously try to root your story in time and place?

JS: Your question takes me back to all the Southern writers I’ve read and admired – not just Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, but the wonderful artists they passed the torch to, like Ron Rash, Tom Franklin, Clyde Edgerton, and those departed giants Larry Brown and Harry Crews. They wrote with a sense of place that made you see the kudzu enveloping whole houses, and smell the moonshine cooking, and hear Hank Williams and Bill Monroe on the Opry as you bounced down a rutted road in your daddy’s pick-up truck.

My life never generated anything quite like that, even when I was chasing down stories about cops and politicians and local characters as a general assignment reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun. But Baltimore was as close as I came to understanding a city because I was out in one neighborhood or another almost every day, seeing how people lived and listening to how they talked and trying to get their stories down right. When I wrote about sports in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Philadelphia, I never had a chance to know them as well. I went to the ballparks, stadiums, arenas and gyms, and I went to the airports, and that was about it. I had a much higher profile than I’d had in Baltimore, but my experiences were limited to a finite number of venues.

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By the time I returned to Los Angeles in 1986 – I was born here and left when I was thirteen – I was too busy trying to make the transition to screenwriting to worry about a sense of place. But I was still writing short essays for GQ about anything that came to mind, and my subjects tended to be local, like the city’s greasy spoons, the kind of shoes male Angelenos do and don’t wear, and McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where I both took lessons and saw everyone from Doc Watson to the young Lucinda Williams perform. So one day someone told me he liked the way I write about L.A. and it brought me up short. Do I write about L.A.? Well, yes, I guess I do.

I may have found my own sense of place unwittingly, and it may not be as vivid or deeply felt as that which Southerners possess, but at least it exists. In writing A Better Goodbye, I wanted to paint as vivid a picture as possible of the neighborhoods where the story took us even though I occasionally took liberties with place names. There is, for instance, no Paisano Groceries, where Nick gets held up in the parking lot, nor is every Latino name on Highland Park’s main drag accurate. But when the story shifted to downtown, I didn’t tinker with the name of the Pantry, L.A.’s legendary twenty-four-hour-a-day steak house. Why jump between the real and the imagined? Let’s call it poetic license. It sounds so much nicer than creative indecision.

The year I chose was 2003 because we were still feeling the reverberations of 9/11. It’s one of the reasons Nick gets laid off as a baggage handler at LAX, and he’s soon behind on his rent and desperate to keep a roof over his head. He lives on Beloit Avenue, which was then on the other side of a tumbledown wire fence from the 405 Freeway and was then a stretch of modest apartment buildings. Perhaps the most modest of all was the oleander-shrouded hovel where I lodged Nick in a shoebox one-bedroom apartment. Today, if you drive on Beloit, you’ll see handsome new apartment buildings on one side of the street and a tall brick wall to muffle the freeway noise on the other.

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A different version of gentrification has come to Highland Park. In the days I’m writing about, there were still warring street gangs there and the neighborhood was considered, rightly, a blue-collar Latino stronghold. Back then, only young couples long on pioneer spirit rolled the dice and bought old homes in need of renovation. Now it’s L.A.’s new hot neighborhood and every day is a symphony featuring hammers and power saws. Everyone calls it progress except the residents who were displaced.

BB: You can see Elmore Leonard’s influence in this book. Was that something you were aware of when you were writing it? 

JS: Every writer is a product of his influences. You take your life experiences and all the novels, short stories and, in my case, great journalism you have read and admired, and you throw everything in a blender and see what kind of a mess you have. Then you start weeding out the things that don’t work for you, and you begin saying things your way. Sooner or later your voice emerges. In Leonard’s case, I’m sure he read Zane Gray, Louis L’Amour and Max Short before he started writing Western novels in his own particular way. When he turned to crime fiction, his influences were as varied as George V. Higgins, whose novels were borne by pitch-perfect hard-guy dialogue, and the legendary sports writer W.C. Heinz and the otherwise forgotten Richard Bissell.

What I tried to guard against in A Better Goodbye was mimicking Leonard’s writing style. He can be very seductive that way. If you read his books closely, you’ll see that he constructed his sentences so distinctively that only a fool would try to imitate him. Diagram one sometime – you’ll see what I mean. Where Leonard’s influence does show the most, I think, is in the way I set up the story, with Nick and Jenny trying to outwit DuPree and Scott and none of them being what I’d call brilliant, even Jenny, whose smarts come from books, not the streets or the thug life. And, of course, Onus DuPree Jr.’s name is most definitely an homage to Leonard, whose cool bad guys always had a cool monicker.

But the story I told is much darker than what Leonard made his specialty. There was usually an almost genial quality to a lot of his crime novels; if his characters weren’t in on the joke, then the joke was on them. Scott, the actor turned pimp, is the only character in my novel who gets that kind of treatment. Leonard, on the other hand, could fill a book with characters like him. It’s one of about a million reasons why Leonard’s crime novels went down so smoothly. There is, for example, a moment in Unknown Man #89, which is one of my favorites, when the chief villain tells his henchman to throw some poor sap out a hotel-room window. The henchman says something like, “How far down you want him to go?” And the villain says, “Oh, all the way. Might as well.” That’s quintessential Leonard – I laugh every time I think of it.

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A Better Goodbye became truly my own when I diverged from his influence by making Nick more haunted and complicated that any Leonard hero I can recall. I wasn’t writing a mystery; I was doing a character piece that hewed as close to literary fiction as it did to noir. To light my path, I turned to James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss and any number of James Lee Burke’s crime novels. But most of all, there was Fat City, Leonard Gardner’s classic boxing novel Fat City. Gardner’s characters existed in a bleak, unforgiving world, and that was the kind of world I wanted to inflict on Nick and Jenny. They were lost souls just trying to live another day in a city that chews up people like them.

Life is rarely that flinty and elemental for Elmore Leonard’s characters; they’re too busy trying to scam each other. My characters don’t know the meaning of scam; they’re forced to confront whatever life throws at them no matter how grave a danger they face. Like Nick says when someone threatens to kill him: “What if I told you don’t care?”

BB: You once told me that when you’re writing for the screen, you want to get into a scene as late as possible and get out as soon as possible, to get right to the heart of the action. Did you use the same approach with your novel?

JS: I think novels call for a different approach, at least some of the time. On the screen, whether you’re writing a one-hour episode of TV or a two-and-a-half hour movie, time is of the essence. As audiences have become increasingly sophisticated, writers don’t need to fool around with, say, an airplane landing in New York to show that the hero is there now. More important, screenwriting has become increasingly elliptical. Just think of all the scenes in The Wire that were probably only a half-page long, with maybe a line or two of dialogue, and yet they were as beautifully written as they were economical.

Novels are a different proposition, or so it seems to me as both a first-time novelist and an unschooled one. All I really know about novels is that I wrote one and was fortunate enough to get it published. Having had that experience, I reveled in the luxury of time that novels provide. Or maybe it’s the illusion of time. Whatever, you’re not writing in the middle of the page the way you are with a screenplay. You’re writing margin to margin, which gives you room to explore the inner life of characters. You can have a character driving to a conference on gun control while he’s thinking about an incident with a gun he was involved in twenty years earlier. You don’t have the same ability to jump around in time that way in screenwriting unless you do a flashback, and flashbacks weren’t considered cool when I worked in Hollywood. Neither, in a lot of cases, was backstory. People were always lavishing praise on movies where the characters had no backstory to speak of. It was an approach that could work brilliantly on the screen (Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns), and sometimes on the page, too (the Parker novels that Donald Westlake wrote as Richard Stark). But I still prefer the idea of finding out something about the characters I’m being asked to invest in emotionally.

In A Better Goodbye, Nick, Jenny, Scott and DuPree all come at the reader in roundabout fashion. Each of them has an introductory chapter that lets us know who they are and what they’re about. I hope I didn’t abuse the privilege, but I wanted them to have room to breathe. It was an approach I went back to again and again over the course of the book. But I changed pace in other scenes, making them short and punchy because that added to their impact and kept the story moving. That’s where the point of entry in a scene comes into play. You start at the top and start whittling away what Elmore Leonard called the things nobody reads. Once they’re out of the way, you can get down to what the scene is about.

BB: So, a noir for your first novel begs the natural follow-up question: What’s next?

JS: Another novel. I want to see if lightning can strike the same writer twice. But my next one won’t be noir or anything close to it. The setting is Los Angeles once again, but this time it will be the L.A. where I spent my childhood in the late 1940s and early 50s. The story is about someone who lived a fascinating life without realizing it until it was behind him. I’ve been thinking about this one for the past few years, trying to figure out a structure to hang things on, and I think I’ve finally come up with something that works. Lately I’ve started hearing my characters talk, and I’d like to know them better. The only way to do that is to write. So, if you’ll excuse me…

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[Photo Credit: Painting of woman with cigar by Brian Viveros; rubbersquare; Bags]

Look, Honey, Yourself. Give me a Jax.

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I love the movie version of Paul Hemphill’s baseball novel, Long Gone. It wasn’t released theatrically but went straight to HBO instead. Came out the year before Bull Durham and in some ways–the sex and cursing–I like it more. It’s closer to Slap Shot in its vulgarity and doesn’t have the self-conscious speech-making of Bull Durham. It’s not a great movie, there are some obvious plot turns, but it sure is appealing: the cast is terrific, and it’s got a real pulse.

Hemphill’s novel about minor league baseball in the South during the 1950s is also a ton of fun.

For a taste, check out Chapter 6 from Long Gone, reprinted here with permission from Susan Percy, Paul’s ever-generous wife.

Long Gone: Chapter 6

by Paul Hemphill

Her name was Dixie Box, only child of Floyd and Clarice Box, of Route 2, Crestview, Florida, and since the age of twelve she had been wondering what would happen next. Conceived out of wedlock, raised in a trailer camp, with only the sons and daughters of black day laborers to play with, Dixie had grown up with the notion that to live in a brick house with a picture window in downtown Dothan was to have a hold on the world. Her father had left home when she was in the midst of her first menstrual period. (“Men always run at times like this, honey,” her mother had said as Dixie held a bloody towel to her crotch and endured a twenty-minute tirade about the casual ineptitude of the male in general.) Dixie would receive mysterious picture postcards from her father now and then, from places like Oregon and Arizona and New Jersey, until they abruptly stopped and were followed by a terse postcard from a fellow in Nacogdoches, Texas, named Ralph Terwilliger, informing her of her father’s death when he was chewed up by a saw in an East Texas pulp mill. (“You ought to know,” Terwilliger had scrawled, “that your old man was the damnedest drinker I ever saw in my whole life.”) Upon receiving the postcard, Dixie holed up for eight days in her room. When she emerged, she was a woman.

She was fourteen years old when that happened, a freshman in a high school where the ultimate was to be a cheerleader, a “poor girl” without a daddy and with a mama who worked down at Maxwell’s Department Store. And so she became Dixie (Hot) Box. She relinquished her virginity to a boy named Horace Williams, who pumped gas at the Gulf station on the Dothan highway, one starry night in the back seat of Horace’s ’50 Chevy as they parked beneath a clump of pine trees—“It hurt, but it hurt good,” she told her mother when she got back home—and from that moment on, Dixie Box became the most popular girl in Crestview. During a four-hundred-day period, according to her personal journal, she brought to orgasm one hundred eighteen different men. They ranged from the black kid who swept out Maxwell’s Department Store to the deputy police chief of Crestview.

Dixie stirred awake at noon, while Stud and Jamie were at the ballpark. The ceiling fan was creaking. Sweat bees were droning around her head. Maids’ carts were rattling up and down the hallway of the decrepit hotel. Pickup trucks were slinking around on the streets outside.

She took a long look around the room. She didn’t know precisely where she was. She knew, only generally, that she was home. The room looked and smelled like her father—whiskey, cigar smoke, clutter—and she wanted it. Peeling out of the rumpled bed, she slipped into her white shorts and pink halter and high-heeled sandals and then walked out of the room.

Off the lobby, which was peopled by wheezing old men propped up in cracked plastic chairs and reading the Montgomery Advertiser, an orange sign over a doorway blinked BOOM-BOOM ROOM. She took the worn carpeted stairs at the doorway and walked down one flight into the dank bar. It was done up in neo-Hawaiian, with revolving pastel lights and a phony bamboo ceiling and colored beads and a straw-mat floor, and from the Technicolor jukebox in one corner came the heavy beat of Fats Domino singing “Blueberry Hill.”

Ah foun’ mah threeal 

Awn Blueberry Heeal…

Dixie wriggled onto one of the bamboo stools at the bar and checked herself out in the dappled room-wide mirror behind the bar. In the darkest corner of the room were two businessmen in short-sleeved see-through nylon dress shirts and two gap-toothed route salesmen with rows of ballpoint pens jammed in the chest pockets of their blue work shirts. Dixie pulled a Winston from her halter top and was lighting up when a plump blue-haired barmaid in a skirt slit to her thighs came up to her from behind the bar. “Honey, you cain’t wear that in here,” the barmaid said.

“Cain’t wear whut?” Dixie said.

“Well, that. Halters and short-shorts ain’t allowed.”

“You wouldn’t be jealous, would you?”

“Now, look, honey.”

“Look, honey, yourself. Gimme a Jax.”

“Besides, how old are you?”

“Old enough to like Jax for breakfast.”

“Honey, we cain’t serve minors.”

“And put it on Cantrell’s tab.”

The barmaid blinked. “Cantrell?”

“Mister Cecil Cantrell. Room Twenty-four. He’s my guardian.”

“Honey, I didn’t know—”

“Neither does he,” Dixie said. She blew smoke into the barmaid’s face. The barmaid opened an ice-cold can of Jax beer and slid it down the shellacked bar to Dixie. The four men at the table ordered another round of drinks and began ogling Dixie, talking low among themselves and motioning toward her, until finally one of them got up and approached her.

“Anything special you’d like to hear on the jukebox?” he said.

“Anything you want to dedicate to me is fine with me,” she said.

He dropped a dime into the jukebox and returned to the other three men at the table.

Kitty Kallin’s recording of “Little Things Mean a Lot” began to play. The salesman poked one of the others with his elbow and, when he caught a glance from Dixie, held up both hands about five inches apart and began laughing and nodding. Dixie couldn’t help herself. She shook her head sideways and began to giggle out of control.

She was starting on a second beer when Stud and Jamie came in through the step-down entrance to the Boom-Boom Room from the sidewalk. Jamie still carried his bat and his glove and his spikes. Stud, squinting and making the adjustment from the brilliant sunlight to the darkness of the bar, saw Dixie and motioned for Jamie to follow him. “Well, if it ain’t Miss Crestview,” Stud said as he and Jamie hoisted themselves onto stools on either side of her.

“You got me drunk,” Dixie told him.

“That ain’t the half of it. Gimme a Jax, Bonnie. This here’s my new temporary second baseman, Jamie Weeks, from Birmingham, Alabama, and the Sho-Me Baseball Camp in Missouri. Beer, kid?” Stud slapped his cowboy hat on Dixie’s head.

Jamie said, “Just a Coke.”

“A Coke?” Stud said. “Got me a goddamn Baptist.”

“I just don’t feel like a beer right now.”

“Coke, Bonnie. Put ’em on my tab.” Stud looked at Dixie. “See you got your beauty sleep. Don’t believe we’ve officially met yet. I’m Stud Cantrell. This is Jamie Weeks. Who’re you?”

“Dixie Box—Dixie Lee Box—from Crestview, Florida.”

“Dixie”—Stud was howling—“Dixie Lee Box?”

“You heard it right. Dixie…Lee…Box.”

“You a stripper or something?”

“I roast the best cashews in Crestview.”

“Cashews,” Stud said. “Them’s nuts, ain’t they?””

“I’m not going to pay any attention to that,” said Dixie. “It would be demeaning to the people at Maxwell’s Department Store.”

“Is that”—Stud was still laughing—“is that where you work? Dixie Box? You the cashew-nut girl at Maxwell’s Department Store in Crestview, Florida?” He punched Jamie in the ribs with his elbow. “I don’t rightly recall that I ever met a real live cashew-nut roaster before. Not on a personal basis, anyway, if you know what I mean.”

“I know what you mean. Stud. Is that it? ‘Stud’?”

“Cantrell, ma’am. Stud Cantrell.”

Dixie sipped the rest of her beer. “Well, Stud Cantrell of the Graceville Oilers, you ’bout ready to go? It’s gonna take up nearly four hours, just to get there and back, and that’s if we’re lucky getting rides.”

“Go?” A pall fell over Stud. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“Sure you are. You’re going to Crestview.”

“Hell, I was in Crestview last night.”

“Sure you were. With me. We’re going again.”

“What’s this ’we’ shit?”

Dixie said, “Me and you. Gotta get my car.”

“Wait just a goddamn minute, here.”

“We gotta get my car and my clothes and my toothpaste, and I gotta leave a note for Mama, and I guess I ought to go into the refrigerator at the trailer and take out some more of the cash from Daddy’s insurance policy. Then I suppose I owe it to ’em to run by Maxwelfs and tell ’em where to put their cashews—“

“Now just a goddamn—“

“—and possibly, in case you keep on saying ‘Just a goddamn minute,’ drop in on the sheriff and tell him I’m just an innocent little girl who got taken advantage of by some mean-eyed fucker who’s old enough to be my daddy.”

When Dixie finished, she looked sweetly into Stud’s eyes and batted her lashes and said, “Shouldn’t we leave a tip for Bonnie? She’s such a nice girl. A little fat. But nice.”

Stud slammed two quarters on the bar and dismounted from the stool.

“Go ahead and check into Myrick’s Boarding House, kid,” he said to Jamie, “and I’ll take care of this. Get to the park by five o’clock for batting practice.” Jamie grabbed his bat and glove and spikes and followed Stud and Dixie up the steps, out of the Boom-Boom Room, into the sunlight on the sidewalk. He turned left, to walk toward the boardinghouse, and when he looked back, he saw Stud gesticulating wildly to Dixie as they went toward the highway to hitch a ride to Crestview.

By four o’clock in the afternoon they were tooling back eastward on U.S. 90, between Crestview and Graceville, with the top down on Dixie’s battered ’50 blood-red Chevrolet convertible. They had hitched to Crestview in one ride, riding in the back of a pickup truck with two hogs, and stopped at the ballpark to get the car. Then they had driven to the trailer park on the east side of town where Dixie was living with her mother. Dixie’s mother was off at work, in the department store downtown, so she left a note—

Mama:

I’ll be living in Graceville for a while, with a friend, so don’t try to come and get me. I got some clothes and I took $200 of Daddy’s insurance money. Don’t worry I’ll be alright.

Love,

DIXIE

P.S.—You’d love him.

—and hurriedly stuffed jeans and t-shirts and sneakers and toiletries into a brown paper grocery bag, tossing the bag into the back seat of the car before sliding behind the steering wheel and cranking the Chevy and scratching off.

Now, a half hour away from Graceville on the return trip, they were wobbling down the road as the car radio hummed with the Platters’ Greatest Hits. Stud was stripped down to the waist, taking in the sun, half awake and leaning against the door while Dixie drove.

“I sure love those Platters,” Dixie said.

“Humph?” Stud mumbled, jerking up straight.

“I said I sure love those Platters. Way they sing.”

“Bunch of niggers, if you ask me.”

“What’re you, one of them hillbilly singers?”

“Gimme a choice, I’d take Kitty Wells any day.” Stud yawned, stretched, sat up straight, and slipped back into his t-shirt. “Where’d you get the car? Hell, I ain’t even got a car. And that money you got out of the trailer. Them clothes.”

“I told you. When Daddy got killed. Insurance.”

“You didn’t even stop at the department store.”

“They know what they can do with their cashews.”

“Whhee-eww,” Stud said. “You’re something else. Goddamn banging on my door this morning and I said, ’Pussy posse.’ I figured it was half of Crestview coming after me, gonna leave me out on the road, nail up a burning cross, and take you back home. How many brothers you got? I mean big brothers. Bigger’n me.”

“No brothers,” said Dixie. “No sisters. Just Mama.”

“Yo’ mama big and mean?”

“Mean as shit.”

“Daddy’s dead.”

“Daddy’s dead.”

“How far we got to go?” Stud said.

“Where to?”

“Ballpark. Graceville. We got a game tonight.”

“I figure we’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

Stud tilted his hat and scratched his groin and lighted a cigar. “Whhee-eww,” he said. “You’re crazy as Talmadge Ramey. You know that? Talmadge is this goddamn queer that runs the ballclub. Drinks moonshine with tea at nine in the morning. Got three of the prettiest little boys you ever saw living with him in this big old funeral home. His mama lives in a wheelchair down there where they keep the bodies. Talmadge sells everything but autographed pictures of Jesus on the radio. But I tell you, Miz Dixie Lee Box Crestview, you beat anything I ever even heard of.”

“That a fact?”

“You’re crazy. Bona fide crazy, girl.”

“Well,” Dixie said, “us crazies gotta stick together.” She wheeled off the highway and dropped Stud at Oilers Stadium. “Play good, now, you hear?” she said. “I think I’ll just go tidy up the place. Try to get home early.” Before Stud could say anything, she had spun away in a cloud of dust.

BGS: My Father’s War

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Peter Richmond is a good man, loyal friend, and a gifted writer. Here he is at his best, writing about his father for GQ in December of 1993. The article was the genesis of Richmond’s beautiful memoir, My Father’s War: A Son’s Journey.

To celebrate Father’s Day—and much respect and love to all the dad’s out there—I can think of no finer piece to share with you. Head on over to the Beast and check out–“My Father’s War”:

He survived Guadalcanal, and then New Britain, and then Peleliu, and came home in 1944 to take over the family business, manufacturing paper bags in a gray factory next to the railroad tracks in Long Island City. He married the woman who would become my mother and moved to Westchester County, and died in 1960, at the age of 44, when I was 7, so I never had much of a chance to ask him about his war.

But it was always there. I could hold it to my face. My father’s war was tucked into the trunk that sat in the darkest corner of the cellar: a Japanese flag, stained with Rorschach blotches of blood, the red circle still bright, the field of white crowded with the Japanese characters that identified the man whose blood graced it.

As a child, I spent a lot of time with the flag, running it through my hands, marveling at the liquid feel of the silk, at how different it was from the rest of my father’s memorabilia: the .30-caliber Japanese machine gun, the Japanese hand grenade, the rifles–all of them so inconceivably heavy and redolent of good grease and iron that I knew they carried the real weight of war.

Picture by Bags

BGS: Buster Keaton

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A few days ago I curated the following essay by Charles Simic on Buster Keaton over at the Daily Beast. Check it out, won’t you?

Comedy is about timing, faultless timing. It’s not so much what the story is about, but the way it is told, with its twists and surprises, that makes it humorous. Keaton draws a hook with chalk on the wall and hangs his coat on it. A brat in the theater drops his half-sucked lollipop from the balcony on an elegant lady in a box who picks it up and uses it as a lorgnette. The hangman uses a blindfold intended for the victim to polish the medal on his jacket. The shorts, especially, are full of such wild inventions. No other silent-film comic star was as ingenious.

Among hundreds of examples from Keaton’s films, one of my favorites comes from the short Cops. At the annual New York City policemen’s parade, Buster and his horse and wagon find themselves in the midst of the marching cops. Buster wants to light a cigarette, and is searching his pockets for matches, when a bomb thrown by an anarchist from a rooftop lands next to him on the seat with its short fuse already sizzling. There’s a pause, “an inspiring pause,” as Twain says, building itself to a deep hush. When it has reached its proper duration, Buster picks up the bomb absentmindedly, lights his cigarette with it as if this were the most normal thing to do, and throws it back over his head.

The short Cops is paradigmatic Keaton. Again, the plot is simplicity itself. In the opening scene we see Buster behind bars. The bars turn out to belong to the garden gate of the house of a girl he is in love with. “I won’t marry you till you become a businessman,” she tells him. Off he goes, through a series of adventures, first with a fat police detective in a rush to grab a taxi, the contents of whose wallet end up in Buster’s hands. Next, he is conned by a stranger who sells him a load of furniture on the sidewalk, pretending he is a starving man being evicted. The actual owner of the furniture and his family are simply moving to another location. When Buster starts to load the goods into the wagon he has just bought, the owner mistakes him for the moving man they’ve been expecting. His trip across town through the busy traffic culminates when he finds himself at the head of the police parade passing the flag-draped reviewing stand where the chief of police, the mayor, and the young woman he met at the garden gate are watching in astonishment. Still, the crowd is cheering, and he thinks it’s for him. After he tosses the anarchist’s bomb and it explodes, all hell breaks loose. “Get some cops to protect our policemen,” the mayor orders the chief of police. People run for cover, the streets empty, the entire police force takes after the diminutive hero.

What an irony! Starting with love and his desire to better himself and impress the girl he adores, all he gets in return is endless trouble. It’s the comic asymmetry between his extravagant hope and the outcome that makes the plot here. The early part of the movie, with its quick shuffle of gags, gives the misleading impression of a series of small triumphs over unfavorable circumstances. Just when Buster thinks he has his bad luck finally conquered, disaster strikes again. The full force of law and order, as it were, descends on his head. Innocent as he is, he is being pursued by hundreds of policemen. Whatever he attempts to do, all his stunts and clever evasions, come to nothing because he cannot outrun his destiny. After a long chase, he ends up, unwittingly, at the very door of a police precinct. The cops are converging on him from all sides like angry hornets, blurring the entrance in their frenzy to lay their nightsticks on him, but incredibly Buster crawls between the legs of the last cop, he himself now dressed in a policeman’s uniform. Suddenly alone on the street, he pulls a key out of his pocket, locks the precinct’s door from the outside, and throws the key into a nearby trashcan. At that moment, the girl he is smitten with struts by. He looks soulfully at her, but she lifts her nose even higher and walks on. Buster hesitates for a moment, then goes to the trashcan and retrieves the key. “No guise can protect him now that his heart has been trampled on,” Gabriella Oldham says in her magnificent study of Keaton’s shorts. At the end of the film, we see him unlocking the door and being pulled by hundreds of policemen’s hands into the darkness of the building.

What makes Keaton unforgettable is the composure and dignity he maintains in the face of what amounts to a deluge of misfortune in this and his other films. It’s more than anyone can bear, we think. Still, since it’s the American Dream Buster is pursuing, we anticipate a happy ending, or at least the hero having the last laugh. That’s rarely the case. Keaton’s films, despite their laughs, have a melancholy air. When a lone tombstone with Buster’s porkpie hat resting on it accompanies the end in Cops, we are disconcerted. The images of him running down the wide, empty avenue, of his feeble attempt to disguise himself by holding his clip-on tie under his nose to simulate a mustache and goatee, are equally poignant. Let’s see if we can make our fate laugh, is his hope. Comedy at such a high level says more about the predicament of the ordinary individual in the world than tragedy does. If you seek true seriousness and you suspect that it is inseparable from laughter, then Buster Keaton ought to be your favorite philosopher.

BGS: Escape From New York

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

Escape From New York

By Mark Kriegel 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shana tova,” Riley says haltingly.

“What priest taught you that?”

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he’s fresh as a fucking daisy.

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

* * * *

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

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

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

The Knicks were offering five years, $15 million.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

“C’mon, how do you expect—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know. I’d probably—”

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

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

“I love going to practice,” he says.

* * * *

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ask him about Adolph Rupp.

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

Rupp was also the game’s last unabashed segregationist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that stuff in your hair?”

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

“Nah, what kind of gel?”

“We gotta give someone a plug?”

“C’mon…”

Finally, reluctantly, he says: “Sebastian.”

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

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

BGS: Darkness Visible

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Over at the Daily Beast, check out Philip Caputo’s excellent Esquire profile of William Styron:

A private man when compared to professional celebrities, say, Mailer, he did not wish to pursue the subject any further. Prying into a living writer’s personal life, he said, was “trivial, a degrading pastime that is best left to gossip columnists. What’s important is a writer’s work.”

And how, at sixty, did he assess his work, I asked, mentioning that writer Richard Yates had described him as “probably the finest living novelist we have.”

Styron’s self-appraisal was more modest. “I have created and, I hope, will continue to create a few people whom readers will want to read about after I’m gone,” he said. “I still feel that I have years ahead of me to be able to say more with the same talent that I have been endowed with.”

A few months after he said that, Styron very nearly lost those years, and the talent that had produced Lie Down in Darkness and Sophie’s Choice collapsed to the point that he could not read and comprehend a simple newspaper article, let alone write anything. The disease that struck him used to be called melancholia. Its current name is clinical depression—a cloak of despair that falls over a man or woman and makes every waking moment so painful that the victim loses all desire to live.

I was made aware of his breakdown last fall, when Styron called me at my home in Key West and told me he was suffering from a profound depression, which, he then thought, had been caused by tranquilizers prescribed to ease his withdrawal from alcohol. He was, he’d said, considering committing himself to a psychiatric hospital.

The news shocked me because I had formed an image of him as a contented man—contented, that is, compared to other novelists I knew, including myself. Naively, I had persuaded myself that his stable marriage, affluence, and “literary gentleman” style of life had insulated him from the grave misfortunes that seem to befall most American writers.

l heard nothing from or about him for weeks; then, in the winter, I learned from a New York magazine editor that Styron had been committed to the psychiatric ward of Yale-New Haven hospital.

There was no other word until this spring, when the same editor telephoned with what might be called the good news and the bad news. Good news first: Styron had been released. The bad news was, he’d been so ravaged by his bout with depression that he had abandoned The Way of the Warrior. Worse, the editor implied, Styron’s career might be at an end. This information was more than distressing; I refused to accept the idea that Styron’s voice could be silenced by anything short of death. I wrote him a letter, a somewhat embarrassing letter, for it was full of tough-guy, gung-ho attempts at reinspiring him, the sort of thing a corner-man might say to an exhausted fighter, but inappropriate when addressed to a sixty-year-old author recovering from a nervous breakdown. The gist of it was that writers sometimes need as much courage as warriors, courage of a different kind. If he was abandoning his book for artistic reasons; that was one thing, I said; but if he was doing so because he no longer felt up to it, he had to force himself to keep going. I then invoked the “never retreat, never surrender” spirit of the Marine Corps. It would not have surprised me if Styron had not bothered to reply to such rah-rah, but I received an encouraging answer in early April.

“Let me say again how grateful I am to you for your letter,” he wrote. “Corny as it may appear, it seems that only a Marine can be truly aware of another Marine’s suffering; you gave me a nice jolt of good cheer. Thanks from the depths. I’m pleased and proud of your friendship.”

And I was pleased that I had done some good after all. Still more pleasing was the news that he had not given up on The Way of the Warrior.

“It’s not so much abandonment,” he’d said in his letter, “as extreme alteration….I’ve completely restructured the novel.”

Over the phone, we agreed to discuss the book’s radical transformation when I visited New York later in the month.

[Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe]

BGS: Knock ‘Em Out the Box, Doc

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Sometimes one courts trouble, hitting batters.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

A distant early warning.

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


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

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

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


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

Dock hit Morgan in the kidneys with his first pitch.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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


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

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

 


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

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

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Opening Day Delight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Painting by the most-talented Bernie Fuchs]

BGS: When Harry Caray Was A Rebel With The Microphone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo Credit: The Sporting News]

BGS: The Straw That Stirs the Drink

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Robert Ward’s infamous 1977 Sport magazine story: “Reggie Jackson in No-Man’s Land”:

“You know,” he says, “this team… it all flows from me. I’ve got to keep it all going. I’m the straw that stirs the drink. It all comes back to me. Maybe I should say me and Munson… but really he doesn’t enter into it. He’s being so damned insecure about the whole thing. I’ve overheard him talking about me.”

“You mean he talks loud to make sure you can hear him?”

“Yeah. Like that. I’ll hear him telling some other writer that he wants it to be known that he’s the captain of the team, that he knows what’s best. Stuff like that. And when anybody knocks me, he’ll laugh real loud so I can hear it….”

Reggie looks down at Ford’s sweater. Perhaps he is wishing the present Yankees could have something like Ford and Martin and Mantle had. Community. Brotherhood. Real friendship.

“Maybe you ought to just go to Munson,” I suggest. “Talk it out right up front.”

But Reggie shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “He’s not ready for it yet. He doesn’t even know he feels like he does. He isn’t aware of it yet.”

“You mean if you went and tried to be open and honest about he’d deny it.”

Jackson nods his head. “Yeah. He’d say, ‘What? I’m not jealous. There aren’t any problems.’ He’d try to cover up, but he ought to know he can’t cover up anything from me. Man, there is no way…. I can read these guys. No, I’ll wait, and eventually he’ll be whipped. There will come that moment when he really knows I’ve won… and he’ll want to hear everything is all right… and then I’ll go to him, and we will get it right.

Reggie makes a fist, and clutches Ford’s sweater: “You see, that is the way I am. I’m a leader, and I can’t lie down… but ‘leader’ isn’t the right word… it’s a matter of PRESENCE… Let me put it this way: no team I am on will ever be humiliated the way the Yankees were by the Reds in the World Series! That’s why Munson can’t intimidate me. Nobody can. You can’t psych me. You take me one-on-one in the pit, and I’ll whip you…. It’s an attitude, really… It’s the way the manager looks at you when you come into the room… It’s the way the coaches and the batboy look at you… The way your name trickles through the crowd when you wait in the batter’s box… It’s all that… The way the Yankees were humiliated by the Reds? You think that doesn’t bother Billy Martin? He’s no fool. He’s smart. Very smart. And he’s a winner. Munson’s tough, too. He is a winner, but there is just nobody who can do for a club what I can do… There is nobody who can put meat in the seats [fans in the stands] the way I can. That’s just the way it is… Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink, but he can only stir it bad.”

I Got a Friend Shirley Bigger n You

MLB: New York Mets at Arizona Diamondbacks

Chris Smith profiles Matt Harvey in New York Magazine:

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

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

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

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

[Photo Via: USATSI]

BGS: All-Pro

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Couple of W.C. Heinz gems for you.

1) John Schulian’s tribute to Heinz for Deadspin:

I never realized how many Bill Heinz stories I love until I read The Top of His Game. Some I would have loved earlier if I’d known about them or hadn’t been too lazy to root around for them in the library. But I didn’t, even though I sit here and tell you he was a friend and an inspiration to me. All I can do now is savor what he wrote and suggest that for openers you too might love his beautifully crafted 850-word newspaper columns on Beau Jack buying hats—”Ah want three. Ah want one for every suit”—as he waits to fight in Madison Square Garden, and on Babe Ruth, in his farewell to Yankee Stadium, stepping “into the cauldron of sound he must know better than any man.”

Bill, demanding craftsman that he was, thought “Death of a Racehorse” was the only one of his columns worth saving. But I’m glad his ode to Toughie Brasuhn, the Roller Derby queen, made it into the new collection because I doubt there’s a newspaper sports columnist in America today who’d be given the freedom to write about such an off-the-wall subject. And then there are the columns he constructed entirely of dialogue, harbingers of his best magazine work and even more so of The Professional. They weren’t written off the news or because they were on a subject that got a lot of hits. (Personally, I think only baseball players should worry about hits.) Heinz used dialogue as a device because it was a change of pace and, let’s be honest here, because he was trying to add to his authorial toolbox. So we get boxing guys and fight guys talking and Heinz listening without, he said, taking notes. Truman Capote made the same claim when he wrote the classic In Cold Blood, boasting that he could recall hours of conversation word for word. Somehow I believe Heinz more than I do Capote. I believe the distinct voices he captured on paper, and the oddball theories his largely anonymous characters spout, and the exotic world that rises up before the reader as a result.

It’s surprising how little time Heinz spent as a sports columnist—less than three years and then the Sun folded in 1950 and he took a giant step to full-time magazine freelancing. Judging by the contents of The Top of His Game, there wasn’t a magazine that wasn’t happy to have him—Life, Look, Colliers, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Sport, True, even Cosmopolitan. Granted, it wasn’t Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmo and Heinz wasn’t writing about sex and the single girl. But he was writing about boxing and a boxer’s wife for a distinctly female audience, and he delivered pieces that have stood the test of time.

And here’s one of Heinz’s classic magazine stories, “The Rocky Road of Pistol Pete”:

“Down in Los Angeles,” says Garry Schumacher, who was a New York baseball writer for 30 years and is now assistant to Horace Stoneham, president of the San Francisco Giants, “they think Duke Snider is the best center fielder the Dodgers ever had. They forget Pete Reiser. The Yankees think Mickey Mantle is something new. They forget Reiser, too.”

Maybe Pete Reiser was the purest ballplayer of all time. I don’t know. There is no exact way of measuring such a thing, but when a man of incomparable skills, with full knowledge of what he is doing, destroys those skills and puts his life on the line in the pursuit of his endeavor as no other man in his game ever has, perhaps he is the truest of them all.

“Is Pete Reiser there?” I said on the phone.

This was last season, in Kokomo. Kokomo has a population of about 50,000 and a ball club, now affiliated with Los Angeles and called the Dodgers, in the Class D Midwest League. Class D is the bottom of the barrel of organized baseball, and this was the second season that Pete Reiser had managed Kokomo.

“He’s not here right now,” the woman’s voice on the phone said. “The team played a double-header yesterday in Dubuque, and they didn’t get in on the bus until 4:30 this morning. Pete just got up a few minutes ago and he had to go to the doctor’s.”

“Oh?” I said. “What has he done now?”

[Photo Credit: Gayl Heinz]

BGS: Redneck Rock

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Here’s a fun one for you–Robert Ward on Redneck Rock circa 1976 for New Times Magazine:

The bus floated through the Nashville streets and stopped at the James Thompson Motor Inn. I got out and walked with Tommy (the Outlaw) and Coe’s old friend, Bobby.

“It’s on the fourth floor.”

We climbed the steps and walked down a long motel corridor. Looking over, I noticed it was a good 75 feet to the parking lot. At the door, Tommy waited for me.

“Come on in, writer.”

“Sure.”

I felt frightened by his tone—soft, but mocking. I had assumed that there would be women, other musicians, and whiskey. But there was none of that. Instead, there were Outlaws, about 15 of them, sprawled around the room. I looked at their eyes, which were all trained right on my own. In the exact center of the group, like some ancient fertility god, David Allan Coe sprawled on a bed. On his lap was an ugly, trashed-out looking woman, who was laughing insanely.

Behind me the door snapped shut. “This here is the writer,” someone said in a steel-wire voice.

Everyone was totally silent.

“The writer who wrote that shit about David Allan not being an outlaw!” someone else said.

I felt my breath leaving me and tried to laugh it off. “Hey, c’mon, you guys. I didn’t write that stuff.”

A short, squat, powerful man, the same Outlaw I’d seen screaming at the Exit Inn, came toward me. “You wrote that shit, did you?”

He reached in his back pocket and pulled out a five-inch hunting knife.

“Hey, wait now,” I said.

[Photo Credit: George Tice, 1974]

The Miseducation of Alex Rodriguez

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J. R. Moehringer on Alex Rodriguez:

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

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

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

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

[Image Via: Mark Murphy]

My Brother’s Secret

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Here’s a beautiful story by my pal Kip Stratton about his step-brother:

I’d not seen my stepbrother Dale in more than two years when a bitter norther slammed into Texas in December 1989. Schools closed, pipes burst, and sleet-covered highways took on the look of salvage yards. I was sitting alone one blue-gray afternoon, listening to the frozen rain tick on the windows of my house in Belton, when the phone rang.

It was Dale’s mother, and she was in a panic. She was at Arlington Memorial Hospital, where her son was in intensive care. “He might not live through the night,” she said. “You’ll have to tell your mother and stepfather. They’ll never believe me if I call them.” I knew she was right; ever since her divorce from my stepfather, more than thirty years earlier, he had done little to hide his loathing for her, even after he’d retained custody of their two sons, Elden and Dale, and rebuilt a family with my mother and me. I promised to be at the hospital as soon as I could, then phoned my mother in Oklahoma. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked, stunned. I told her I didn’t know.

But that was not exactly true. Sitting in the car on my way to the hospital, inching across the ice on Interstate 35, I played news headlines from recent years over and over in my head. AIDS, a disease unknown to Americans just a decade earlier, was filling hospitals and clinics and hospices across the country with patients covered in lesions and fighting for each breath as their lungs were steadily destroyed. And in the late eighties, only one outcome awaited its victims: death.

[Photo Credit: Bruce Wrighton via MPD]

The General Who Never Was

bobbyknight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo Credit: Zach Long/AP]

BGS: The Mongoose

Moore,Archie swinging bat

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo Credit: Boxing Record Archie]

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