"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Sports Illustrated

Blind Faith

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Alex Rodriguez is the subject of Scott Price’s SI cover story this week:

Rodriguez, once seen as baseabll’s great clean hope, is now viewed as hopelessly dirty.

Others have come back from such stigma: Mark McGwire is the hitting coach for the Dodgers; Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte, old teammates and admitted users of PEDS, are treated these days as elder statesmen. Rodriguez figures to be different–and knows it–but last week maintained the front of a blissed-out Candide. He insissted that he doesn’t wonder, Why me?

“I never say that,” Rodriguez said. “But maybe there are a couple of chapters where I can become that person again. I’m not giving up. I have tremendous faith, and hopefully there’s a couple more chapters to this book. And hopefully there’s a happy ending somewhere. I have faith.

And:

Asked, last week, if he understood Cashman’s famously profane rip, Rodriguez shot back, “Do you understand it?”

Yes. Because Cashman knows; Rodriguez’s gift, his unprecedented completeness, was never really his; it’s called a gift for reason. Sports is a collective of time as well as talent. Six generations of baseball players and fans, billions of dollars worth of stadia and TV time, an infinity of minor and major leageurs working for untold lifetimes–all of it combined to create the game, the numbers, the interest and the hothouse environment in which Alex Rodriguez was going to be the best.

People care so much about sports greatness because, deep down, they know that it’s a reflection; something there belongs to them. We gave Rodriguez his chance. We urged him not to waste it. Cashman knows, better than anyone: We hate when we make so big a mistake.

Here’s more from Price at SI.com.

No Foolin’

I was in seventh grade when this story came out and I remember reading it in the school library. For a couple of periods my friends and I were buzzing.  The Mets already had Doc Goodon and now this? Sidd Finch was too good to be true. Sure enough, he was. The story was a dirty trick and even if he was going to be a Met I still felt burned.

Hey, Good Lookin’

If you’ve never read “The Boxer and the Blonde” by Frank Deford, well, here’s a reminder. It’s a good one:

The boxer and the blonde are together, downstairs in the club cellar. At some point, club cellars went out, and they became family rooms instead. This is, however, very definitely a club cellar. Why, the grandchildren of the boxer and the blonde could sleep soundly upstairs, clear through the big Christmas party they gave, when everybody came and stayed late and loud down here. The boxer and the blonde are sitting next to each other, laughing about the old times, about when they fell hopelessly in love almost half a century ago in New Jersey, at the beach. Down the Jersey shore is the way everyone in Pennsylvania says it. This club cellar is in Pittsburgh.

The boxer is going on 67, except in The Ring record book, where he is going on 68. But he has all his marbles; and he has his looks (except for the fighter’s mashed nose); and he has the blonde; and they have the same house, the one with the club cellar, that they bought in the summer of 1941. A great deal of this is about that bright ripe summer, the last one before the forlorn simplicity of a Depression was buried in the thick-braided rubble of blood and Spam. What a fight the boxer had that June! It might have been the best in the history of the ring. Certainly, it was the most dramatic, alltime, any way you look at it. The boxer lost, though. Probably he would have won, except for the blonde—whom he loved so much, and wanted so much to make proud of him. And later, it was the blonde’s old man, the boxer’s father-in-law (if you can believe this), who cost him a rematch for the heavyweight championship of the world. Those were some kind of times.

The boxer and the blonde laugh again, together, remembering how they fell in love. “Actually, you sort of forced me into it,” she says.

“I did you a favor,” he snaps back, smirking at his comeback. After a couple of belts, he has been known to confess that although he fought 21 times against world champions, he has never yet won a decision over the blonde—never yet, as they say in boxing, outpointed her. But you can sure see why he keeps on trying. He still has his looks? Hey, you should see her. The blonde is past 60 now, and she’s still cute as a button. Not merely beautiful, you understand, but schoolgirl cute, just like she was when the boxer first flirted with her down the Jersey shore. There is a picture of them on the wall. Pictures cover the walls of the club cellar. This particular picture was featured in a magazine, the boxer and the blonde running, hand in hand, out of the surf. Never in your life did you see two better-looking kids. She was Miss Ocean City, and Alfred Lunt called him “a Celtic god,” and Hollywood had a part for him that Errol Flynn himself wound up with after the boxer said no thanks and went back to Pittsburgh.

Bronx Banter Interview: Rob Fleder

“Damn Yankees” is a winning new collection of essays about the Bronx Bombers. Edited by Rob Fleder, it features an All-Star lineup and is a must not just for Yankee fans or baseball fans but anyone who appreciates good writing. I recently talked to Fleder about the project. Here’s our chat. Enjoy.

Rob Fleder at Yankee Stadium

RF: We’ve been catching up the TV series “Friday Night Lights.” I don’t really watch much TV but it’s great, just so well done. If you summarized the plot line, it would sound like cliché after cliché, but that never occurs to you because it’s great story telling, it’s so well executed. It makes me think of Colum McCann’s piece in the book. We’ve all read some version of that story. If you’re a Sports Illustrated editor you’ve seen it a hundred times—and almost none of them have worked. It’s very rare that someone can pull it off, and he did spectacularly. I think it’s a fantastic piece.

BB: It’s the father-and-son piece, the outsider-coming-to-baseball story.

RF: Right, but you don’t even think about reducing it to those terms because it’s so beautifully done.

BB: I think it’s one of the best pieces in the book. Now, when you approached Colum, did you know that was the piece he was going to write?

RF: Yeah. Even before I got in touch with him, I knew from Dan Barry that Colum had a son and that he’d come to baseball through his son. He has lived here for many years but he’s still an Irishman too. His kids have grown up here. I’d read “Let The Great World Spin” and some other things by him and loved his work. I thought if anybody could do this kind of story, it’s him. What’s cool is that because he didn’t grow up in a baseball culture, I think he was more or less oblivious to the fact that he was doing something that many other people have tried, usually without much success.

BB: There is no guile or irony in his story.

RF: That’s right, and it’s an enduring theme in baseball, fathers and sons—except that he does turn the whole thing on its head, in a way. He’s coming to the game through his son, and that process takes him back to his father and grandfather. It’s great when someone is artistic enough to take material is familiar and seems predictable in some ways and does something truly original with it. That’s the magic—to take something that’s right in front of the readers eyes and to dazzle him by revealing something he never saw. That’s what good writing is about to me.

BB: The other piece in the book that I think took a familiar theme and did a nice job making it work is Will Leitch’s essay, which is really a Babe-in-the-Woods story. It’s funny, and I think he really got the tone right.

RF: Very much so. I hadn’t met Will, but he’s a friend of my friend Dave Hirshey, who’d edited him at Harper Collins. So Dave said, let’s go get a drink with Will Leitch. And when I started this whole project, my son, Nick, a deeply knowledgeable sports kid, said, “Oh, you’ve got to get Will Leitch, he’s really funny and a really good writer.” We sat down at a bar and we connected immediately. He had an idea for the book, and I was like, “Yeah, Huckleberry Finn comes to New York, that’s it.” And he ran with it. Again, a hard one to pull off, but he did a great job with it. His piece is laugh-out-loud funny but it’s also sincere. The irony in it doesn’t create distance, it does just the opposite.

BB: Going back for a minute, how did this book begin?

RF: Roy Blount was in some ways the genesis of the whole book. Dave Hirshey reminded me of this, because I’d forgotten. There is a charity dinner I go to every year where Roy is a featured guest, and he’s always hugely entertaining. So I mentioned to Hirshey that I’d been to this dinner and Roy was telling all these great old Yankee war stories from his days writing sports. I don’t know how the subject came up but Roy had all these great stories. I mentioned this to Hirshey in passing and he called me the next day and said, “Do think there’s a book in this? The best writers you can think of, writing about the Yankees?” At the very least, I thought, it’d be a lot of fun to think about, and that’s how the whole thing started.

BB: Did you know what you wanted each writer to do before you approached them or did they have an idea in mind when you first talked to them? Or did you say, I want Leigh Montville, I want Richard Hoffer, and they’ll figure it out?

RF: Some had specific idea, and some didn’t. I tried to have several possible ideas for each writer I called, things I thought might appeal to them and they might be especially good at, but I always wanted to hear the writers’ ideas first—if they had anything specific—before I suggested possible topics for them. But I did want them to be aware of the range of possibilities, so I would tell them the sorts of things other writers were doing.

BB: You do have such a wide range in the book, not only of writers but of takes on the Yankees. I mean, you’ve got Dan Okrent and Frank Deford who are classic Yankee haters.

RF: Plus, there is a little cluster from Boston, Charlie Pierce and Leigh Montville. Montville, of course, had written a big biography of the Babe as well as one of Ted Williams, and Jane Leavy had written about Mickey Mantle. And these are big books—-not just “big” as in best-sellers, but deeply researched, substantial volumes that cover a lot of ground. So I asked, “What’s the best thing that didn’t make the book?” It took Leigh a while and of course he drew on material that he’d used in the book, but his take was new, and I think what bubbled up for him with passage of time was a new perspective, a fresh insight about Ruth. And Jane just went out and did a whole lot of new reporting. She had a situation with Frank Sullivan, the old Red Sox pitcher, where she mistakenly pronounced him dead in her Mantle book. Sullivan contacted her and wondered when she planned to announce his rebirth—or something like that. It was very funny. She was mortified by her mistake, but he had a great sense of humor about it. So she dug into it and—typical of her—she did more reporting and came up with a terrific piece. So sometimes I went to people who’d already written about subjects involving the Yankees and other times I went to people who were just writers I admired who I knew had some feeling for baseball, though I didn’t know what their feelings were about this team.

BB: Who were some of those guys?

RF: I knew our friend Dexter watched every Yankee game. And as much as I’ve talked to him about the Yankees over the years—even gone to Yankee games with him—it’s never clear what Pete’s going to come up with, how he’s going to land on a subject. That’s true with anything that he’s going to write.

BB: Yeah, like that book review he did last year for the Times on the Jim Harrison novel.

RF: The book report, he called it. Exactly. You’ve read his columns and magazine pieces. That’s part of Dexter’s genius—-you never know where he’s going to be coming from on a particular subject, or where he’s going to land.

BB: Were you amused then when in typical Dexter fashion he chose Chuck Knoblauch, of all people, to write about?

RF: Well, Pete had been very sick a few years ago, very nearly died, as he writes about in the piece. Then it took him a long time to come back and there was a stretch where he felt seriously damaged by his illness, where he couldn’t write. And it was awful. And it was during that period when he landed on the idea of Chuck Knoblauch, a guy who had done something as well as anyone in the world, had done it every day of his life, and then woke up one day and suddenly couldn’t do it at all. Pete had a personal connection to that story, something you couldn’t have predicted. I mean, I knew about Pete’s illness and its aftermath, but I never could have predicted that he would connect it to that Yankees by way of Chuck Knoblauch. And you look at it and it’s a brilliant, funny piece about the awful things that went wrong for him and for Knoblauch. Nobody else could have written that piece.

BB: You’ve known and worked with Pete for a long time. You edited “Paper Trails,” his collection of newspaper columns and magazine pieces. How much editing did you do with him on his piece, and with the other writers too, for that matter? Did Pete give you a final draft and that was it or did you actually work on the piece with him? 

RF: It varied with each writer how much editing it took to get from the first draft to the final. In Pete’s case, it’s hard for him to let go of what he’s writing. He’s a perfectionist. He will rewrite everything until you badger him to give you a peek at it. He sent a draft and it was late in the process of the book’s production—meaning I was feeling the crushing weight of a deadline. The piece was brilliant, it was fall-out-of-your-chair funny but he kept working on it. He was just getting back up to speed for himself. A week or so later he sent a draft that was completely different. He tried to come at the same subject from a totally different direction. It was written like a mock children’s book, and it might have been one direction too many. He sent me about half or two-thirds of it. He’d written the whole thing and then lost the original version on his computer— he was having technical difficulties as he sometimes does. It was like “Paris Trout”

BB: Jesus. That’s when he lost more than 100 manuscript pages somewhere in his computer back in the mid-‘80s and then took a baseball bat to the machine and had to start over from the beginning.

RF: Right. The second version of his Yankee piece was still funny but I liked the earlier way he did it better. So he did a third version, which was recreating the first version, different and better. That was classic Dexter.

BB: You talked about Pete not wanting to let things go and being a perfectionist, does there ever come a point where a writer can cross a line and keep hold of something too long?

RF: I think it happens to writers all the time, and usually they know it and can see that they’ve pushed it too far or changed directions once too often, and will go back to the sweet spot that was working before. For instance, Pete bounced the second version of his piece off me, and by the time I got it and read it—we don’t work electronically with Pete, it still comes the old fashioned way, on paper, by Fed Ex—he’d already gone back to his first version, or what he could remember of it, and finished it that way.

BB: Is he the only writer in the collection who works like that?

RF: In technological terms, Frank [Deford] was like that for a long time—he was the last guy I worked with who used a typewriter—but he moved decisively into the electronic mode a long time ago. But there were other writers who were as meticulous as Pete, who worked on things until the last minute and wanted to see every draft, every galley, every version. It’s a matter of style, I think—some writers work one way, some work another. It doesn’t mean that someone like Frank or Jim Surowiecki or Roy Blount, who file pieces that are virtually finished the first time you lay eyes on them, are any less meticulous or aren’t perfectionists. Their process is different—at least, that’s the way it looks from the vantage point of an editor—but I think they’re all trying to make their words as good as they can possibly be, one way or another.

BB: I’m sure for some writers it’s never going to be good enough, even when the book is published they’ll still look at their piece and want to tinker with it.

RF: Yeah, Bruce McCall is a very meticulous writer who found things he wanted to fix in his piece until the very end. And when the book was about to close we shot this little video, and Dan Okrent left the shoot with a copy of the galleys, which were outdated by that point, and by the time I got home from the video shoot I had a message from Dan saying that there were two mistakes in Bruce’s piece. And Bruce is a careful writer. We were able to correct the things Dan found at the last minute, even though the book was already at the printer. I know there will be other things that we missed—it’s inevitable—but you do the best you can in the time that’s allotted.

BB: That’s agonizing but at some point—

RF: You have to let go. And the writers do the same thing. Some writers sent me drafts that were virtually perfect.

BB: Was Richard Hoffer one of those guys?

RF: Actually Rick and I worked on it because he was worried in his first draft of the piece about making it baseball-y enough. I always think of Hoffer as a great essayist. He’s always been one of my favorite SI writers.

BB: So understated and yet he’s not humorless. There’s a strong sense of wit in his writing. It’s just dry.

RF: Very much so. He’s extremely skillful and has a distinctive voice. And he has truly original thoughts in a world that I think is filthy with group-think. A Hoffer piece is never just the same old thing.

BB: And you don’t think of him as a baseball guy especially.

RF: No, but Hoffer’s one of those guys that I want to read on anything. I had an idea that I thought would make a perfect Hoffer essay, but at first he did much more of a narrative history piece without much of the essay component. He said to me as we were working, “I have two gears: this one and the other one.” I told him that I was envisioning a piece that included more of the other one, so he wrote a draft that was almost pure essay and left out much of the great historical narrative, all these great details. So we took both versions and put them together and I think it worked out beautifully. I love the piece. And I think it’s quintessential Hoffer.

BB: You were at Playboy and Esquire and SI as an editor and have worked with many of the writers featured in this collection. How many of the writers had you not worked with before?

RF: I can count them. I didn’t know J.R. Moehringer or Nathanial Rich or Jim Surowiecki. Pretty much everybody else I was at least acquainted with or had worked with directly. I met Will Leitch in the very early stages of the book. I’d been introduced to Colum McCann at Dan Barry’s book party, but that was the extent of it at that point. I’d admired Mike Paterniti’s work for a long time and tried to get him to write for me at one magazine or another, but can’t say I really knew him.

BB: What about Bill James?

RF: Bill James I’ve known since he was sending out his Abstract on mimeograph. I met him when I was a fact checker or a baby editor at Esquire. Okrent introduced Bill to us at Esquire, and in some sense, Esquire introduced him to a wider audience. It was great. Okrent wrote the first big piece about Bill that I remember and I worked on a little piece Bill wrote for an Esquire baseball package one year, and he was obviously an original thinker and, I thought, a terrific writer. I touched base with him every so often over the years and followed his ascension. I’d write to him from SI and say, “I don’t know if you remember who I am but would you be on a panel to pick the greatest all-time team…” or whatever. And he always remembered our connection from way back and was always generous with his time. So I called him for this book. He works with the Red Sox but is still as clear-headed about baseball as anyone I’ve ever read, and he’s a funny, quirky writer. I had no idea what he’d write about and neither did he, as it turns out. One day, late in the process, I got an e-mail from him in which he said, “I’ve been thinking about Yankee catchers….” And he was off and running.

BB: And it’s really a perfect kind of Bill James piece. It’s smart and irreverent.

RF: Analytical and full of all his digressions and humorous asides and deep baseball knowledge.

BB: That’s one of the things I noticed about the book, you’ve gotten kind of a quintessential piece from so many of the contributors.

RF: That’s the ideal—what you dream about as an editor. You pick writers of this quality and then you hope they get into it and just do what they do.

BB: I also like the variety. There are humorous pieces, memoir pieces—Sally Jenkins’s piece that is so evocative of New York City, historical stories, analytical pieces.

RF: I’m glad it hit you that way. My big picture idea was to have a bunch of voices that I really like to hear on the subject of the Yankees, more or less directly. In some cases I had specific topics in mind, like Jane Leavy on Mantle or Tom Verducci on Jeter. I told every writer who some of the other contributors were, so they knew who else was playing, and I just hoped all the writers would bring their game. As it turned out, they did.

BB: I’m forever grateful for Charlie Pierce’s piece if only because he punctured that horseshit Seinfeld routine, which has somehow become celebrated, that rooting for a sports team is like rooting for laundry.

RF: Charlie is another one you can count on to come up with something unpredictable.

BB: Right, because he starts there and shifts gears in the middle of the piece about growing up and what the Yankees meant growing up in Boston.

RF: He does lay waste that whole Seinfeld bit about laundry. But in a much larger context he also writes about what baseball’s tribal experience means to people who come to this country from somewhere else, and he does it in a way that is immediate and on a human scale. Charlie’s piece has a lot of common ground with Column McCann’s, but they are totally different essays.

BB: Taken as a whole were there any surprises in the collection, a theme, or a player who jumped out as somebody that appeared in more than a few of the pieces?

RF: There are some threads that run through the book, yeah. And I was aware of them when I was figuring out the order of the pieces and was conscious of spacing them out so that they didn’t come together too quickly. Catfish Hunter comes up more often than I would’ve anticipated. And he’s the focus for Mike Paterniti, who wrote just a beautiful piece.

BB: The book ends with Steve Rushin talking about Catfish, too.

RF: And I was aware that. I’d really admired Mike’s classic Thurman Munson piece in Esquire. When I spoke to him, he mentioned that he’d seen Catfish Hunter near the end of his life and had written a quick remembrance of him in the early days of Esquire.com. He sent me the little post he’d done and he went back to that and really dug in. So I knew that Mike and Steve were going to touch on some of the same ground, and Rushin wrote a gem of a piece in which he gets the last word in the book, which is fitting. And Catfish also comes up again in Bill Nack’s amazing story about the Bronx Zoo Era Yankees. There’s a different focus and context in each of the three pieces in which Catfish appears.

BB: Also, what a beautiful guy to come up. A guy with a sense of himself and a sense of humor about the Yankees and how crazy George was even though he was the first big free agent. Yankee fans love him but also probably saw himself as being apart from that too.

RF: And there was another surprise in the book. Steinbrenner comes up, obviously, over and over again. But Jim Surowiecki, the financial writer for the New Yorker, who is another really original thinker, did a revisionist analysis of what Steinbrenner did with the team economically—a totally fresh take on Steinbrenner’s ownership .

BB: I also like that there are a few essays on the modern Yankees. Verducci on Jeter but also Steve Wulf on Robinson Cano, which is important I think—to talk about a Latin star.

RF: As the book was taking shape I knew Tom was going to do Jeter but I thought it’d be good to have a piece on a player who represented the future. I think of Steve as the guy who first wrote about Dominican baseball, about Dominican shortstops. I remembered his piece from the ‘80s, and I thought Cano was the guy for this book. He is a monstrously good player and will be the center of gravity when Mariano and Jeter are gone. Steve took it and ran. He’s been an editor at ESPN for a while now, but he was a great baseball writer at SI for a really long time and knows the game as well as anyone. It was a perfect match of writer and subject.

BB: And it’s an important piece because for so many years the Yankees didn’t have Dominican players, certainly not stars, despite playing a stones throw from Washington Heights.

RF: That’s right. Another surprising piece came from Dan Barry.

BB: Which is great because the Mike Burke, CBS years were covered.

RF: The last thing you think of is the Yankees as underdogs.

BB: Celerino Sanchez.

RF: “Poor Celerino Sanchez,” is a little refrain from Dan’s piece, which is both poignant and very funny. And he had a deeper connection to that team than I expected before I talked to him. Then there’s Roy Blount, who I knew had Yankee stories to tell, but the nature of a Blount piece—the beauty of a Blount piece—is that you have no idea how he’s going to get at his subject and can’t possibly predict where he’s going to go with it.

BB: Then you see writers like Moehringer, McCann and Dexter and you think, I wonder what those guys have to say about them?

RF: J.R. Moehringer had an intimate connection with the team through his grandfather, who was a key figure in his life. “The Tender Bar” is J.R.’s great memoir about growing up with an absent father, and his grandfather is in that book. But what J.R. has done here is an element of the story that wasn’t in his book.

BB: And Moehringer is a Mets fan.

RF: I contacted him and he said that he wanted to write about the Yankees from a Mets fan’s point of view. And I already had Nathaniel Rich doing that. In fact, I had Nathaniel’s story already, and it was terrific, extremely amusing. So I told J.R. that I had that piece but that I really wanted him to write for this book. At that point I suggested a couple of topics, but he had something else he wanted to try. And after a while he sent me what he said was a really rough draft of something that was well on its way to being this piece. He’s another one who goes back to his copy over it over and over again, making it better and then going back to it again. It’s a wonderful piece about how he connected with baseball. It’s amazing.

BB: Plus, watching the games on TV and listening to the Scooter. You needed to get the Scooter in there.

RF: Had to. And he’s another thread. He’s also gets a prominent mention in Rushin’s piece.

BB: Yankee fans will obviously be interested in the book but there are enough of the writers in the book who are Yankee-haters that I suspect you want to draw readers that aren’t Yankee fans, too.

RF: Yeah, I think anybody who is interested in reading good writers is the potential audience for the book. The natural audience is Yankee fans, baseball fans. They are a team that people have strong feelings about: people love them and people really love to hate them.

BB: This is the book you want to read.

RF: That was the hope. The plan, insofar as I had one, was to get the writers I want to read on a subject I want to read about. Beyond that I didn’t really know where it would go. I wanted to be surprised and delighted, and by that measure I think the book is a real success.

“Damn Yankees” is available for pre-order at Amazon. It will be published on April 3rd.

 

[Photographs via N.Y. Daily News, N.Y. Times, ESPN, Corbis, Marisa Kestel, Peter Adams, SI, Illustration by Bruce McCall, photo of Pete Dexter by Stuart Isett]

Blunted on Reality

Chris Ballard has a bonus piece on the fall of Antoine Walker in this week’s SI. Worth a read.

This One Goes to…

Check out this fine portrait of the 2011 Dodgers by Lee Jenkins in the current issue of Sports Illustrated.

Stow was in a coma. Half his skull had been removed to allow his brain to swell. He required seven forms of medication to limit his seizures. “He came as close to not making it as you can come,” says Dr. Gabriel Zada, Stow’s neurosurgeon at USC. His parents, Dave and Ann, and his sisters, Bonnie and Erin, spent seven hours a day at the hospital. At night they retreated to the downtown Marriott and toasted “the Great Hodge,” a nickname Stow gave himself as a boy. On April 6, a candlelight vigil was held outside the hospital. Hundreds attended, including Dodgers officials and a local talk-show host on KFI 640 AM named Bill Carroll. Ann invited Carroll to Stow’s room. Standing next to the bed, where Stow was covered in tubes and bandages, Carroll decided to make this story his own. He led his show with it most afternoons. He had Zada on as a regular guest. He sometimes took calls for three hours about the case, and when he went off the air, phone lines were still jammed. Everyone seemed to have survived a traumatic ordeal at Dodger Stadium, and they knew just who was responsible. “It was a convergence of two stories,” Carroll says. “People said, ‘I knew this would happen because McCourt let the team go downhill and security do the same.’”

Even after the Dodgers announced, on April 4, a $25,000 reward for information on Stow’s attackers, talk-radio host Tom Leykis pledged $50,000 of his own money in an attempt to embarrass McCourt. Leykis was also harassed at Dodger Stadium, by two fans during a game in 2009, and has not been back since. “I grew up in New York so I’m used to going to Yankee Stadium and seeing drunken louts threaten each other,” Leykis says. “Then I moved to L.A., and it was much different. Dodger Stadium was more like Disneyland. You have fun and feel safe and drift off into this dreamlike world. But now we’ve got this carpetbagger from Boston who never took the time to understand the deep connection of Dodger Stadium to Southern California. I’m not a dramatic person, but it hurts my heart. It kills me.”

Dodgers fans were not the only ones desperate to rid themselves of the carpetbagger. Commissioner Bud Selig told confidants that the Stow beating was “the final straw” for McCourt. By the time the Dodgers returned home from their first road trip, on April 14, Selig had dispatched a six-man task force to Los Angeles, led by MLB executive vice president John McHale Jr., to evaluate stadium security. McCourt’s hold on the franchise he had diminished was slipping.

Jenkins is an excellent reporter with a smooth prose style who has become one of SI’s top talents (he’s got two features this week). This is a long piece but worth reading.

Golden Slumbers

Over at SI, Joe Pos has a piece about Adam Dunn, “The Least Exciting Player Ever.” In it, he mentions former Yankee, Bobby Abreu:

I’m not talking about winning and losing here. I’m not talking about value. I’m talking about excitement. And that’s something different. I’ve often written that Bobby Abreu is the MBGPIBH — Most Boring Good Player In Baseball History. I have immense respect for what he has accomplished as a player, what he continues to accomplish. The guy has a lifetime .400 on-base percentage (and a .400 on-base percentage this year). He’s had two 30-30 seasons. He’s won a Gold Glove, and he really seemed to be an excellent fielder in his younger days. He has scored and driven in 100 five times. I’m assuming he has 21 more home runs in him (though his power has dwindled to almost nothing) and that will make him only the eighth member of the 300-homer, 300-stolen base club. I don’t want to get into it here because this post is already drifting, but it seems every couple of weeks I have a discussion with a friend about Abreu’s Hall of Fame case. I think he’s making a case. I also think he’s headed for the Hall of Not Famous Enough.

Abreu, though, is an agonizing player to watch, at least for me. His at-bats feel like audits. They just go on and on, an endless stream of near strikes called for balls, good pitches spoiled, swings and misses, more near pitches called for balls — he’s doing exactly what he SHOULD be doing. Abreu controls the batter’s box as few ever have. He is an artist at the plate, but an artist in the way that a good auto mechanic is an artist. I admire what he does. I appreciate the value of it. But I wish they would give me a magazine or something to read while he does it.

Excellence and excitement don’t always mix. In Abreu’s case, his lack of flair or visceral artistry will hurt his case for greatness. His artistry is there, as Pos notes, but it is not dynamic. He is a fine player, better than fine, a winning player, but he never put the asses in the seats. But I liked watching him more than Pos does. What makes him different than Hideki Matsui? That Godzilla hit more home runs?

There are thrilling players who have style to burn who aren’t nearly as accomplished as a guy like Abreu or Matsui. Sometimes, you can’t have it all. At least Bobby’s got good teeth and a nice smile.

From Ali to Xena: 13

Up, Down, Up, and Out

By John Schulian

In my mind, it was going to be either a city column at the Evening Sun or a job at SI, and trust me, I campaigned like a mad man to get my foot in SI’s door. The magazine’s Baltimore stringer was a big-hearted, hugely energetic guy named Joe D’Adamo, who ran the backshop at the Evening Sun. Not a writer or editor, but a guy who oversaw the actual physical production of the paper. The editors at SI appreciated Joe because he was a fount of ideas, and Joe liked the way I wrote enough to talk me up to them. When Frank Deford came to town  to promote a novel he’d written, I did a visiting-author story in which I described him as looking like a waterbed salesman. I just couldn’t resist. Frank must have recognized the impulse, because he didn’t hold it against me. The next thing I knew, Joe D’Adamo was telling me that Frank had mentioned me to SI’s editors. Just the same, when Robert Creamer showed up in Baltimore to hustle his Babe Ruth book, I wrote about him, too.

Finally, in 1973, Pat Ryan, SI’s freelance editor-–soon to be known forever in my mind as the wonderful Pat Ryan-–asked me to send her a list of four story ideas. I did, and the one she liked the best was about the boxing promoter on the Block. When I sent in my first draft, Pat asked me to rewrite the ending so it involved a night at the fights. I did, and that was the last change that was made to the piece. Every word that appeared under my first byline in Sports Illustrated was mine. I was amazed, gratified, and filled with bigger dreams than ever.

Pat had a wonderful way with writers, a real gift for nurturing them. Her father, if I recall correctly, was a successful racehorse trainer, and she had started at SI as a secretary and worked her way up to writer and then editor. Nobody had strewn rose petals at her feet, and if she got the idea that you were committed to your work, she would beat the drum for you. She invited me to New York, took me to lunch, introduced me to other key editors, and treated me like I belonged even though I must have seemed like a rube. She kept giving me story assignments, too-–short items for the front of the book as well as longer stuff like the magazine’s first Moses Malone story and a piece on the amateur baseball team in Baltimore that produced Reggie Jackson and Al Kaline.

All the while I was still writing for the Evening Sun. It was a terrific place to work, as I’ve said, and the people I worked with were salt of the earth. They knew and cared about the city, and they were passionate about honest, energetic, imaginative reporting. They also knew how to put on a great ugliest tie contest. No, I never won. I was actually a pretty good dresser. I remember when I went to interview Jerry Lee Lewis, he looked me over with those spooky eyes of his and said, “I like a sharp-dressed man.” What I might have won at the paper was a bad temper award. Just about anything could set me off-–typos in a story I’d written, an inability to get a long-distance line, the list is endless, really. My standard response was to pound my desk or stand up and punch the nearest wall while yelling the obligatory “fuck!” It’s funny how in the 36 years since I left the paper, the legend of my temper has grown. One woman said I broke the window in the managing editor’s office. (Not true.) A guy said I broke a typewriter. (Also not true.) The only thing I might have broken was my hand when I punched a wall. The fact that I didn’t proves that God really does look out for drunks and fools.

By the time 1975 rolled around, I was starting to get antsy. SI didn’t have any openings for writers at my level and wasn’t expecting any. I could have lived with that if I sensed that I was about to be anointed the Jimmy Breslin of Baltimore. Instead, I was told that the managing editor had decided to kill my music column because nobody cared about rock and roll anymore. This, mind you, just as Springsteen was taking flight-–do I need to say more about the thickness of the managing editor’s skull? I was more than pissed off. I was crushed. Looking back, it was a great life lesson, because it was awfully easy to get comfortable at the Evening Sun and in Baltimore, which was just entering its resurgence. But the only way you’re going to get better is by challenging yourself, by going up against writers who are better than you are. If you do that, it’s sink or swim, and that was what I needed if I was going to make anything out of the career that consumed my life.

When I finally got my wits about me, I started plotting my great escape. I figured I could freelance for Sports Illustrated and a new magazine called New Times, which was showcasing up-and-coming writers like Bob Greene (already a star columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times), Frank Rich (in his pre-New York Times days), Paul Hendrickson (later a star in the Washington Post’s Style section), and Robert Ward (a novelist from Baltimore whom I didn’t meet until we both wound up in Hollywood). I was going to wait until my fifth anniversary at the Evening Sun-–September 1975-–and then I’d be gone. I just had to get through the next three months.

So I’m sitting at my desk one afternoon, not really giving a damn about whatever I was supposed to be working on, and my telephone rings.

“Hello?”

“Is John Schulian there?”

“You got him.”

“This is George Solomon, from the Washington Post. How’d you like to make George Allen’s life miserable?”

I’m not making this up. That’s exactly how the conversation went. Solomon was the Post’s new sports editor, and Allen was the Washington Redskins’ head coach and the Richard Nixon of the NFL. And I, as I hastened to point out, was a guy who had never written a sports story for a newspaper. I mean I’d cheated a couple of times and done features about Willie Mays in retirement and a great local playground basketball player, but I’d never written a story about a game. You know, one with a score in it.

So I said, “Are you sure you’ve got the right John Schulian?”

“I’m sure,” Solomon said.

My life had just changed.

Click here for the complete “From Ali to Xena” archives.

Bronx Banter Interview: George Vecsey

photo

We’ve talked about Jack Mann a lot lately (here and here).

Mann was at Sports Illustrated for a brief time in the 1960s. Here is a sampling of his work:

“Just a Guy at Oxford” (Bill Bradley)

“The Great Wall of Boston” (The Green Monster)

“Sam, You Make the Ball too Small” (Sam McDowell)

“The King of the Jungle” (Walter O’Malley)

George Vecsey, right, with his arm around the wonderful Ray Robinson

I recently exchanged e-mails with George Vecsey, the veteran columnist for the New York Times, who started his career at Newsday under Mann.

Here’s our chat. Enjoy:

 

Bronx Banter: When Jack Mann took over the Newsday sports department was he influenced by any sports editors that came before him? I’m thinking of someone like Stanley Woodward.

George Vecsey: I don’t know. He came up through the news department at Newsday, had some college, was well read, surely knew about sports editors, but was so much an outsider that I doubt he would consider himself an acolyte of anybody.

BB: How would you describe to young readers what the climate of the press box was like in 1960? And how did Mann and “his Chipmunks” differ from the older writers?

GV: Well, the dichotomy was not as clear as I guess we would like to have thought. It may have been a function of age. But Isaacs and Len Shecter of the Post and Larry Merchant of the Philly Daily News were not children, and were capable of thinking for themselves, with Jack only part of it. The Chipmunks were young and energetic and brash. The split was probably on the same generational lines of the Kennedy-Nixon election – new vs. old (politics excluded). Even in 1960, some of us (me at least) were anticipating the forces of the mid-60’s in style and music and attitude. But we all were pretty traditional, except in comparison to the older writers, who were often hooked into the free drinks of the press room and the party line of the clubs they covered, or so we thought. Sounds pretty simplistic, looking back.

BB: Who else writing for the New York papers in the early 60s were like-minded? I’m thinking specifically of Shecter at the Post. Who else was part of the new breed?

GV: Len Shecter, Isaacs, Merchant, of course. And Stan Hochman A lot of the younger guys were Chipmunks just because we chattered a lot, and hung out together. Looking back, it would be hard to put one label on me, Steve, Maury Allen, Vic Ziegel, Phil Pepe, Paul Zimmerman, Joe Donnelly, Joe Gergen. We (or at least I did) admired Dick Young, who was no Chipmunk, but I knew him through my dad when I was a little kid, and Dick was very gracious to me when I came along as a young writer. I was friendly with older guys like Harold Rosenthal (more acerbic than any of us) and Barney Kremenko (a kind man, a friend), and I learned a lot from Leonard Koppett, one of the great people of the business, and I adored Jimmy Cannon. I don’t know that Bob Lipsyte considered himself a Chipmunk, but he and I hung out a lot in those days, and his excellent early work as a sports columnist (in his first tour of duty, I emphasize) re-defined the genre. So it’s hard to define Chipmunk, at this late date. Every generation has its new look. When I came back to Sports in 1980, there was Jane Gross, Allen Abel, Michael Farber, Jane Leavy, Phil Hersh, all good pals of mine. New faces.

BB: And now, the climate is different from then.

GV: The one difference between then and now was that everybody talked in the press box. Talked about the game. Argued about politics. Bickered about where we were going to dinner. Nowadays, the kids are all hunched over their machines, with headsets on, tweeting and facebooking and blogging and goodness knows what else. Nobody talks in the press box. I miss arguments. I miss human contact. I think we had more fun than the Thumb Generation. But the output in the New York Times is really good, probably better than ever, which is what matters.

(more…)

From Ali to Xena: 12

The Book of Dreams

By John Schulian

The stars were beginning to align for me even before I headed to Nashville in early 1974. The previous fall, I’d sold my first story to Sports Illustrated, and it ran a month after I scribbled my last notes at the Grand Ole Opry. The story was about a promoter in Baltimore who put on fights at Steelworkers Hall and ran a gym that was above a strip joint on the Block. I don’t think the guy could have existed anywhere else.  The smell of the sausages at Polock Johnny’s across the street drifted into the gym when the windows were open. You could feel the music downstairs coming through the floor. The promoter’s best fighter kept getting the clap from the dancers. And I thought I captured it all perfectly. A fat lot I knew.

I wasn’t given to asking other people their opinion of my work, but this time a voice in my head said I’d better stash my pride. If I screwed up the story, I might never get another shot at SI. So I took my deathless prose to an editor in the Evening Sun’s business department and asked him to read it. He wasn’t a close friend and his conversation usually had an edge to it, but I trusted him to be unsparing. And he was. When he walked up with his verdict, there was a wary little half-smile on his face. “If I was you,” he said, “I’d hit me with a sack of snot for what I’m going to say.” In short, the piece was good enough for the Evening Sun and most any other newspaper, but it wasn’t good enough for Sports Illustrated.

I spent the next couple of nights tearing it apart, reworking the structure and figuring out new transitions. I knew I had a winner as soon as I wrote my first sentence: “Baltimore is a gritty old strumpet of a city where unwritten sociological imperatives require a boxing arena to have Polish bakeries on one side, steel mills on another, and redneck bars all around.”

SI called the story “On the Block — Way of All Flesh,” and it wound up in the old “Best Sports Stories” anthology and put my name in bright lights. Tony Kornheiser told me years later that when he read the piece, he knew there was a new gun in town. He wanted to work at SI as badly as I did, and there were hundreds of other writers out there who had the same dream. SI was the holy grail.

Getting in “Best Sports Stories 1975″ was the first time I felt like I’d really accomplished something professionally. I’d been fascinated with the anthology since I discovered it at Northwestern, mainly because it showcased the kind of writing I wanted to do. There were always big names like Red Smith and Jimmmy Cannon in the book, but the ones who captured my attention were writers from places other than New York who were doing great things: Myron Cope in Pittsburgh, Sandy Grady in Philadelphia, Wells Twombly in Houston and Detroit and San Francisco, even a young Philly basketball writer named Joe McGinniss, who went on to write “The Selling of the President” after he infiltrated Nixon’s 1972 campaign.

When the Evening Sun made me a one-man bureau in Harford County, I checked the public library there and found an even better collection of the “Best Sports Stories” anthologies than Northwestern’s. Every now and then, I’d slip down to the library and grab one. And I wasn’t just reading the stories. I was reading the bios of the authors who wrote them. I wanted to see where they came from and if the path I was on bore any resemblance to the one they had traveled. As soon as my story about the fight promoter ran in SI, I knew I was going to submit it to “Best Sports Stories.” I found out I’d made the book when a copy landed on the front porch of my $155-a-month furnished apartment. I was thrilled, naturally, but there was more to what I was feeling than that. I felt like I’d finally done something that would last longer than a day, something with permanence. Hell, my story was in a book.

It wasn’t that much longer before there was a year when “Best Sports Stories” didn’t come out. The editors had gotten old and one of them had died, and nobody had stepped forward to replace them. I wrote an essay for Inside Sports in which I said goodbye and, lo and behold, someone at the Sporting News read it and jumped in to bring the anthology back to life. It’s long gone now, of course, replaced by Glenn Stout’s more sophisticated and vastly superior “Best American Sports Writing” series, but I’m glad I got to do “Best Sports Stories” a good turn. I owed it.

Click here for the complete “From Ali to Xena” archives.

[Illustrations by David Noyes]

Waiting on a Milestone

Last week, Tom Verducci profiled Derek Jeter in SI:

“In all my years playing with him,” says Paul O’Neill, Jeter’s teammate from 1995 through 2001, “I don’t think I ever heard him have one technical discussion about the mechanics of hitting. He keeps it simple. He just plays. It’s like he’s still playing high school baseball.”

…”I worked on staying inside the ball in the minor leagues and pretty much every offseason in Tampa with [coach] Gary Denbo,” Jeter says. “But he didn’t teach it to me. That’s just how it was: Keep my hands inside the ball. It’s still the same thing. A lot of people stay inside the ball, but I don’t know about to that extreme.”

Jeter’s hands-in approach relies on making contact with the ball so late—farther in its flight path—that he can hit even inside pitches to the opposite field with authority. Entering this season, on pitches he hit to rightfield, Jeter had a .479 average and a .718 slugging percentage.

“All these years he’s stayed true to what he does best,” O’Neill says. “He had a year or two where he started to gain some strength and turned on some balls, but for the most part he is an example of taking something you do that is good and making it great. In a time when there was pressure in baseball to hit more home runs, he never caved in to that.”

It’s a defensive-looking swing. Jeter hasn’t changed his approach all these years and shortly after he returns from the disabled list he’ll reach 3,000 hits. We’ll be there cheering him on.

[Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated]

In Too Deep

I don’t know from hockey but I thoroughly enjoyed this recent bonus piece by Leigh Montville on the Boston Bruins:

The standing ovation was a return to the past. No, not the standing ovation at TD Garden last Friday night, the 10-minute communal fret-celebration at the end of that 1–0, stomach-churning win over the Lightning in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals that sent the Bruins into their best-of-seven transcontinental arm wrestle with the Canucks for the Stanley Cup. No, that was frenzied normality, a universal sports staple, excited people in an exciting moment.

The standing ovation the next afternoon at Pizzeria Regina in the North End was different. That was the way life once was in Boston hockey.

“Milan Lucic came in….” Richie Zapata, manager of the restaurant, reported.

Yes, Milan Lucic. Bruins winger. Still only 22 years old. Fourth year with the team. Six-feet-three, 228 pounds. A fan favorite since he arrived as a 19-year-old, straight from the Vancouver Giants, his junior team. Banger, scrapper, thumper. Yes.

“Johnny Boychuk was with him….”

Yes. Johnny Boychuk. Defenseman. Twenty-seven. Six-feet-two, 225 pounds. Third year with the Bruins. Big-time slap shot from the point. Cannon.

“They were with their girlfriends…. ”

Yes.

“I gave them a booth in the back. They ordered a large pepperoni with peppers and mushrooms. I gave them some extra slices. Took care of it. They were nice. Signed some metal pizza plates for the waitresses. Just nice. Nobody bothered them.”

So when the two Bruins and their girlfriends finished their meal at the original Pizzeria Regina—not one of the other Pizzeria Regina locations around the area, the original, with the familiar red-and-white-checked tablecloths, with the smart-mouth waitresses, with the waiting line that goes out the door most of the time and down the stairs straight onto Thacher Street, when they stood up, well, everyone else in the restaurant also stood up. And started clapping. Just like that.

Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals are tonight in Boston, with the Bruins trailing 3-2.

Big League Dreamer

Here’s Jeff Pearlman on the late Randy “Macho Man” Savage.

You Can Say I'm Sorta the Boss So Get Lost

Speaking of the Seventies…how about the Cobra?

Here’s Roy Blount, writing in Sports Illustrated about Parker back in the spring of 1979:

“He’s like the 10th man in Softball out there,” says First Baseman Stargell. “On a ground ball he’s backing up first before I’m there to take the throw. We were both after a foul ball one time with our arms outstretched, and we came together face to face like two big pairs of scissors. It was the only time I ever kissed him. We hit and flew apart by yards and yards.” Parker covers second on infield pop-ups, he gets involved in rundowns between second and third, he is everywhere. Pete Rose may be Charlie Hustle, but Parker hustles just as hard and considerably faster.

On the bases, too, he takes all he can get. Says Parker, “The highlight of the game to me is scoring from first on a double in such a way that people look at me in amazement, as if they’re saying, ‘My, how fast that big man can move.’ ”

Big he is—6’5″, 230 pounds. His legs terminate, after a lengthy run, in an upper body that looks like two Doberman pinschers bound tightly together. In addition to his speed afoot, he has general quickness—hence his nickname, Cobra—and a rifle arm. “He’s one of those rare individuals who come along every 15 or 20 years,” says Stargell. “Rare, and unique, and strong.”

Fun and Gun

Sweet SI cover this week…

If you don't have good dreams, Bagel, you got nightmares

Yanks in Baltimore for the weekend, a perfect excuse to hip you guys to Mark Kram’s terrific piece on Baltimore, “A Wink at a Homely Girl” (Sports Illustrated, 1966):

A giant once, now a January sort of city even in summer, spring and autumn. An anonymous city even to those who live there, a city that draws a laugh even from Philadelphia, a sneer from Washington, with a hundred tag lines that draw neither smile nor sneer from the city. Baltimore: Nickel Town, Washington’s Brooklyn, A Loser’s Town, The Last Frontier, Yesterday Town.

“I’ll take a sleeping pill, just in case,” said a Briton, preparing to visit the city. “I want to make sure I can keep up with the pace.”

Over at PB, Cliff previews the weekend series.

We’ll be rootin’: Let’s Go Yank-ees!

And a Fine Time Was Had By All

Last night, Jon DeRosa and I went to a book party at the New York Athletic Club for “At the Fights.” It was well attended–contributors like Robert Lipsyte, Thomas Hauser, Larry Merchant and Gay Talese were there. Joe Flaherty’s wife showed up, and so did W.C. Heinz’s daughter. Art Donovan, the football legend whose old man was a great boxing ref, was there too. George Kimball and John Schulian, pictured above, gave lovely speeches.

George talked about the relationship between boxing and writing, about how they are both difficult, solitary experiences. He said, “Writing is hard but editing this book was a complete pleasure.” Sure, the editors had to make agonizing choices–some fine stories like Jack Murphy’s “The Mongoose,” Frank Deford’s “The Boxer and the Blonde,” and J.R. Moehringer’s “Resurrecting the Champ,” didn’t make the final cut–but still, selecting from a wealth of fantastic writing must easier than writing itself.

If you care about good writing, doesn’t matter if you are a boxing fan or not, this is a book to have.

Schmoozin'

Joe Posnanski talks with Bill James.

[Picture by Bags]

Milestone

Last week I had a piece on George Kimball and “At the Fights” in Sports Illustrated. First time I’ver ever made the magazine.

I’m bursting with pride about it, man, I won’t lie.

Fearsome Foursome (Plus One)

This week, Gary Smith profiled the Phillies starting rotation in SI’s Baseball Preview issue.

And in the latest edition of the New York Times Magazine, Pat Jordan takes on Philadelphia’s four aces:

Mike Schmidt was standing behind a batting cage, still as trim as during his playing days. A handsome, middle-aged man with swept-back, silvery hair and a thick mustache. I asked him what he thought of the four Phillies pitchers.

“Well,” he said, “now when the Phillies come to town, the other team knows they’re being challenged by four No. 1 pitchers. They have to amp up their mental game. I used to see my at-bats the night before a game when I laid my head down on the pillow. Gibson, Seaver, Ryan. I had to have a plan. When I went to Houston, they had three good pitchers. The fourth was Nolan Ryan. I could go to sleep with the other three, but Ryan kept me awake. Ryan! Ryan! Ryan! My plan was, don’t miss his fastball if he threw it over the plate. If he got two strikes on me, I’d have to face his curveball.” He turned and looked at me with his small blue eyes, which had fear in them. “Ryan was scary!” he said. He shook his head, as if seeing Ryan on the mound. Ryan began his motion and fired the ball at his head. Schmidt had a split second to make a decision. Was it a 100 m.p.h. fastball that could kill him if it hit him in the head, or was it that wicked curveball? If he dove away from the plate and the pitch was a curveball that broke over the plate, he’d look like a fool and a coward. But if it wasn’t a curveball, if it was that 100 m.p.h. fastball, and he didn’t dive away from the plate . . . well, he didn’t even want to think about that.

“Ryan, Gibson, Seaver, they made you defensive,” he said. “Does that make sense? You were afraid of the ball. There’s no fear of the ball today with cutters, splitters and changeups.”

“What about the Phillies’ four pitchers?” I said.

“They’re not scary,” he said. “Even if they all win 20 games, the Phillies don’t have a pitcher who strikes fear in a hitter.”

Two very different takes on “the best rotation in baseball” from two very different writers.

And while we are talking pitching, here’s Steve Rushin’s piece on the Braves’ five aces from the 1993 SI Baseball Preview.

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