"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Todd Drew

SHADOW GAMES: Where Emotions Lead

The discussion around Juan Carlos’s coffee cart started out cold and calculating this morning.

“I hope the Yankees are already talking to CC and A.J. and maybe Lowe and Teixeira,” someone said. “We need to sign a couple of arms and maybe another bat even after the Swisher trade.”

Everyone nodded and the matter seemed decided.

Javier – the neighborhood’s voice-of-reason on baseball matters – peeled the lid off his coffee cup and nudged the conversation in another direction.

“I know everyone gets excited about free agents,” Javier said. “There’s some great talent available, but remember that other teams can start talking to our players, too.

“Guys like Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu played hard and won games for us,” Javier continued. “I know the decision makers can’t get emotional about ballplayers, but we certainly can.”

Everyone nodded again.

“Remember all the times Giambi signed autographs outside the players’ gate?” someone said. “Once he brought an armload of Yankees yearbooks and passed ‘em out. Every time he came over I asked him if we were gonna win the World Series and he always said: ‘I’m gonna do everything I can to make it happen.’”

“How about last year when Abreu got that big walk-off hit,” someone else said. “He came out of the Stadium after the game and was high-fiving everyone. I didn’t have anything for him to autograph so he signed the back of my hand. Now I’d hate to see him sign with anyone else.”

Emotions may sometimes lead to “bad baseball decisions,” but they always point to the best baseball fans.

SHADOW GAMES: Take What You Can Get

Marcus Carter showed some wear on the 2 train this morning. The stress of too much work and too little pay was catching up with him.

“I sleep okay,” he said, “but I’m still tired all the time. I guess it’s from worrying about having to wake up in a subway tunnel or under a bridge next month.”

They have cut him to part-time at the warehouse in Hunts Point. He got another job washing dishes at a downtown coffee shop, but the pay isn’t very good and the hours are worse.

“The traveling and the split shifts mean 18-hour days,” Carter explained. “I also work weekends at the coffee shop and my paycheck still comes up short, but the bills keep coming.”

So Carter keeps looking for anything he can get.

“There ain’t much out there,” he explained while scanning the newspaper classifieds. “Actually there are jobs, but I’m not qualified to do most of them: CPA, dental hygienist, medical assistant, sales manager.

“Maybe I could do something in sales,” Carter reasoned. “But who would buy anything from me? Who’s buying anything, period?”

The sports pages were more promising.

“Here’s something,” Carter said. “This baseball story has all kinds of information from an ‘unnamed Major League executive.’ That sounds like a growth industry with free agency ready to start. ‘Unnamed’ means there’s probably not much responsibility. ‘Major League’ means a job in baseball. ‘Executive’ means my mother would be proud. Perfect!”

Carter laughed at himself.

“Guys like me don’t get those kinds of jobs,” he said, “but at least it was funny.”

You take what you can get on the 2 train these days.


An Airman started his day by unloading a plane at Dover Air Force Base. It had just arrived from Vietnam and was filled with body bags. That was the worst duty at Dover in those days, but it was nothing compared to the duty of the dead American soldiers returning from halfway around the world.

The Airman felt like getting drunk when he finished with the bodies so he headed for a bar in town. He never considered the late-night walk back to the base while he was drinking and trying to forget.

He was about halfway back and starting to sober up when a car stopped and offered a ride. The driver took the Airman to a diner and bought him an early breakfast before dropping him off at the base.

That Airman was my father. He never could remember the name of the guy who gave him a ride and a meal on that long-ago night, but he never forgot what the man did.

My father never passed anyone in the military without at least shaking their hand and thanking them. He gave rides and bought meals, but never felt like it was enough.

He died nearly 10 years ago, but he’ll always be with me. I never pass anyone in uniform without extending a hand. It is my honor and the honor of my father.

I meet so many soldiers and see his face in all of them. I only hope they never come home through Dover Air Force Base.

I have included a couple of stories about soldiers at Yankee Stadium that were originally published on Yankees For Justice. These are just two of several million people that we owe everything – or at least a handshake and a thank you – on this Veterans’ Day and every day.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Soldier’s Story

Brian peered over the crowd at the players’ gate outside Yankee Stadium last night. He wore standard-issue military fatigues and clenched a baseball in his left hand.

“Thanks,” I said offering my hand.

Brian shook and smiled.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Oklahoma City,” Brian said. “I come from a family of Yankees fans that goes back to Mickey Mantle and Bobby Murcer, but this is my first time here. It’s the first time anyone in my family has been to Yankee Stadium.

“I’m stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany,” he continued. “I’m on my way home for a couple of weeks before I have to head back to Iraq. I just had to stop and see a game. I want to get this ball signed for my father. He’d really like that.”

“You can move to the other side of the fence,” I offered. “The players always sign for soldiers, especially Johnny Damon.”

“How do I get over there?” Brian asked.

We walked toward East 157th Street along Ruppert Avenue and appealed to the good nature of the police.

The cops nodded Brian through.

“Thanks,” he said.

Then he turned and waved at me.

“Thank you for helping me out.”

No, Brian. Thank you.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Off The Island

Justin arrived at Yankee Stadium in full uniform. He walked proudly through the tunnel and got his first look at the field.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m finally here.”

His father placed a hand on his shoulder.

“You earned it,” he said.

Justin is a week off of Parris Island. He is a United States Marine and proud of it. His father is proud, too.

“I bought these tickets awhile ago,” his father said. “I surprised him when he got home from basic training.

“He’s a good kid,” his father continued. “He always tries to do what’s right. I didn’t want him to join, but there was no stopping him. He used to look at my Marine photos when he was little and that’s probably where it started.”

Justin doesn’t know where he’s going next. He might be headed to Iraq or maybe Afghanistan.

“But I’m here tonight,” he said. “Nothing else matters right now.”

Justin put an arm around his father.

“Thanks, Dad.”

SHADOW GAMES: About The Weather

The weather was making everyone uncomfortable. The guys gathered around Juan Carlos’s coffee cart opened their collars and glanced at the early-morning sky.

“It looks pretty good,” someone said. “Another nice day is on the way.”

Everyone nodded and went back to their coffee.

“The weather is too damn good,” someone finally said. “We need it to get really cold. We need it to snow and sleet and pour down freezing rain so we can get this over with. We’re all looking forward to Opening Day and winter won’t even get here.”

“You gotta be patient,” someone else said. “The players need to rest up and Brian Cashman needs time to get the team rounded into shape.”

They all cracked smiles.

“We’re still gonna need a break in this nice weather,” someone said.

“It’s always gotta be something with us doesn’t it?” someone else said.



Leaders must be able to bring things clearly into focus. They need to look beyond themselves and put others first. They must travel long roads and be forced to change their opinions and sometimes even change sides. And they always need to be compassionate and courageous and can never be afraid to take a stand.

It’s a tough job. Not many people want it and even fewer can do it. Maybe that’s why everyone is always looking for the next great leader.

I’ve listened to a lot of talk about past leaders and present leaders and future leaders and I keep coming back to the way Charlie Manuel led the Philadelphia Phillies to the World Series title.

Manuel gave everyone a good look at what it means to be leader during the National League Championship Series when he told reporters:

“If I had never gone and played baseball in Japan (where he hit 48 homers for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1980), I don’t think I would have been a coach or manager. What I learned was there’s a lot of different people in the world, and there’s more people in the world than Charlie Manuel. And I mean that I learned to respect things more. I learned to care about more things.”

That helped mold Manuel into the best kind of leader: One who understands that everyone is different, but we are all the same.

It’s a simple lesson with a confusing past and an uncertain future. Figuring it out helped make Manuel a better person, a great leader and eventually a champion.



BEFORE YOU READ THIS POST: Some will probably be wondering why I’m still writing about the election. It’s a fair question so I’ll give you the numbers up front: Barack Obama received 88.2 percent of the presidential vote in the Bronx. Derek Jeter would have received 100 percent if he was on the ballot. You can finish the math after the story.

A young girl leaned comfortably against her mother on the 2 train this morning. They shared a newspaper and kept smiling at each other.

“It’s good news,” the mother said. “All the news is going to be good from now on.”

Fingers were crossed behind her back because the mother knows that the news is never all good. But nothing was going to ruin this – the first Saturday morning after Barack Obama won the country and inspired world – for her daughter.

“She’s always been more into Derek Jeter,” the mother said. “She watches all the games with her father, but she started following the presidential race with me after the baseball season ended.”

“I love Derek the most,” the little girl said, “but I like Obama a lot.”

The mother beamed.

“She even helped me vote. We pulled the lever together didn’t we, honey?”

“Yeah,” the little girl answered. “We did it together because I’m too young to vote.”

She’ll still be too young in four years, but the quality of the rest of her life depends on Obama’s ability to deliver.

“He’s going to make everything better for all of us,” the little girl said. “It’s like when Derek comes up and you just know he’s going to get a big hit.”

That kind of hope can lead to just about anything.

SHADOW GAMES: Unbeatable

The old barbershop just off West Broadway can be a tough place to play. It’s cramped and cluttered and the ceiling hangs low. The men with razors use that to their advantage and they are always tough to beat.

Alexi – the toughest of the five-man crew – pointed me to his chair.

“What are the Yankees gonna do?” he asked before I even sat down. “Can they get Sabathia? And how about Burnett?”

Alexi fired up his razor and kept going:

“Will they go after Teixeira? Should they trade Cano? And what are they gonna do in centerfield?”

“Do I look like Brian Cashman?” I asked.

“Nope, you’re too ugly,” Alexi said.

“Agreed,” I said. “Next question.”

“Okay,” Alexi said. “Who’s gonna win the fight on Saturday?”

“Roy Jones,” I said.

“Joe Calzaghe can handle him,” Alexi said. “Jones is finished.”

I shook my head and said:

“Everyone thought Bernard Hopkins was finished and he beat Kelly Pavlik. They all thought Mike Mussina was finished and he won 20 games.

“That’s the only tip I’ve got for you,” I continued. “Don’t be so quick to write these guys off. They are world-class athletes who are capable of things that people like us can’t even imagine. And you’ll be glad that the Yankees didn’t trade Cano when his big, left-handed bat is parked in the middle of the order next year.”

Alexi nodded and then asked:

“What do you call a barber who can’t hit a curveball?”

I shrugged.

“A beautician,” Alexi said with a laugh.

“Okay, you win,” I admitted.

“I’m unbeatable,” Alexi roared.

SHADOW GAMES: Fear’s Playground

Joyce Kilmer Park in the Bronx doesn’t have a baseball field, but that didn’t stop the kids. They got a game going with four pieces of cardboard, a plastic jug, an old aluminum bat and a rubber ball.

Maria came out to enjoy the afternoon with her children – a seven-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy – and they jumped right in the game.

Maria watched from a bench and waved when her daughter bounced a hit into centerfield.

“It’s a nice day for the kids,” she said. “They love to play out here.”

Maria kept talking about the baseball game and her daughter’s art project at school and her son’s basketball team. She even asked if CC Sabathia was really coming to the Yankees. It was easier than talking about what’s really on her mind these days.

“I’m scared,” she finally admitted. “People are losing their jobs everywhere and I’m afraid I’ll be next.”

She is most concerned about her full-time job as an office manager, but she’s also worried about her summer job at Yankee Stadium.

“I use the baseball money to payoff winter bills from Con Ed and Christmas for the kids and a lot of other stuff,” Maria explained. “The Yankees are doing something new with the concessions and I haven’t heard anything about my job. I’m behind the Union because they make sure we’re treated right, but I really need that job.”

Maria needs both of her jobs. She needs fair pay and health insurance. Her kids need all that, too.

“I don’t want any of this to hurt them,” Maria said. “They should just go to school and play ball and have fun.”

Maria is stuck worrying.

“I keep thinking about what I’ll do if I lose one of my jobs,” Maria said. “There’s no good answer so I try to put it out of my mind, but it won’t go away and that’s the worst part.”

Fear even ruins the good days.


The 2 train jerked away from the 72nd Street station and an empty soda bottle rolled along the car. Everyone lifted their feet and it missed a half-eaten hotdog, a wadded up newspaper, two coffee cups and all four center poles. It banged against the conductors door and sat there as the train rumbled down the Westside of Manhattan.

The train braked hard going into Times Square and the bottle rolled back. About halfway through the car a man dropped into perfect fielding position, scooped it up and made a phantom throw to first base.

“Nice play,” someone said. “You’re as smooth as Robinson Cano.”

“Thanks,” the man said. “I’m just warming up.”

“So when does the game start?” someone asked.

The man shook his head and said:

“Not for about five months.”


Jimmy Blain was playing on the 2 train last night. He kept bouncing a rubber ball off the facing bench and snatching it with his glove. The other riders waited for a mistake, but he was perfect from Park Place to 14th Street.

“What did you expect?” he shot. “I’m Mariano Rivera.”

Blain shifted around in the seat to show off his T-shirt. It was white with hand drawn pinstripes, an NY on the front and a 42 on the back. He tugged on his Yankees cap and explained:

“I always go to the Halloween parade as Mariano because I met him once.”

That caught people’s attention.

“You met Mariano Rivera?” someone asked.

“Yeah,” Blain answered. “Well, a bunch of us did. He was stuck in traffic after a game and we ran up to his car. He put down the window and signed stuff and talked to us and I shook his hand. I definitely shook his hand.”

“That’s not really meeting him,” someone shot. “Quit trying to trick us.”

“I did meet him,” Blain shot back.

He fired the ball off the seat.

“Of course I met him,” Blain said snatching the ball with his glove.

“I shook his hand.”


Fat Paulie – who works as a super at a building on Gerard Avenue – can never decide how he feels about Halloween.

“I love the candy,” he admitted. “But I always eat too many of those little Snickers bars and get a gut ache. Then I swear not to make that mistake again.”

Fat Paulie made an even bigger mistake last year.

“I shoulda known better than to pour concrete on Halloween,” he said.

The sidewalk in front of his building was marked the next morning with: hand prints, initials, a “Joba Rules,” an “I love Derek Jeter,” and, of course, an “I (heart) Derek Jeter.”

“A little more concrete smoothed out most of that,” Fat Paulie said. “I left the Joba and Jeter stuff because I didn’t want the kids coming back and egging the windows.”

Fat Paulie knows the South Bronx.

“I started cleaning up and bagging trash at a building over on Jerome Avenue when I was a kid,” he explained. “They just called me Paulie back then, but that was a lot of Snickers bars ago.”

He patted his stomach and continued:

“I’m not pouring concrete this Halloween so the kids will probably paint something on the sidewalk. I’m betting on a big red heart with Derek Jeter in blue.

“That will be nice,” Fat Paulie went on. “Everyone knows how we feel about The Captain around here.”

SHADOW GAMES: You Can Look It Up

I was reading a baseball story on the 2 train last night.

It was something I’d printed out from SI.com. Jon Heyman had plenty of good information on: CC Sabathia, Matt Holliday, Brian Cashman and Ken Griffey Jr. But I stalled halfway through a sentence somewhere around 14th Street.

“Writers have marveled at the language of…”

I had to get to a dictionary and look up: erudite.

er●u●dite ‘er-ə-dīt, ‘er-yə- adj. Characterized by great knowledge; learned or scholarly: an erudite professor; an erudite commentary.

I restarted from the beginning of Heyman’s sentence:

“Writers have marveled at the language of erudite Rays manager Joe Maddon, noting how he has used several multi-syllable college words correctly. His language does provide a nice contrast with Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who hasn’t used many words correctly.”

I didn’t go to college. I guess that’s why I had to look up a multi-syllable word to understand that Heyman was taking a shot at me and a lot of other people, too.

He was clearly trying to embarrass Charlie Manuel, who is the manager of the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Heyman can look that up today.

I don’t like being talked down to. I’m guessing that Manuel doesn’t like it either because I don’t know anyone who does.

But FOX baseball broadcasters keep doing it and so do some baseball writers.

“You don’t need a college degree to love this game.”

That’s written on a wall in the Bronx. You can look it up.

SHADOW GAMES: Dangerous Business

Gordon Whiten – a 64-year-old janitor from the Bronx – always catches the 2 train at Jackson Avenue before 6:00 a.m. There’s usually enough room on the last car for him to stretch out, drink his coffee and read the newspaper.

This morning he hoisted his cup and made a toast:

“I know this is dangerous business, but old habits are hard to break.”

Whiten took a big swig and explained:

“If the cops catch me drinking coffee on the train I’m going down for sure. I’ve seen people get tickets for just holding an empty cup. But the coppers ain’t usually out this early so I’m gonna keep going.”

Whiten is headed downtown to the same job he’s had for 45 years.

“They call me a Maintenance Engineer nowadays,” he said, “but that’s just a fancy name. Being a janitor isn’t the greatest job, but having any job is pretty good.”

There was a time when he hoped for more.

“I wanted to be a ballplayer just like every kid does,” Whiten admitted. “I still think about it sometimes when I’m at Yankee Stadium or watching on television.”

He laughed to himself and then continued:

“It’s an old man’s dream now, but any kind of dream can be dangerous business.”

Whiten took another gulp of coffee and went back to his newspaper.


There is an empty building on Walton Avenue in the Bronx. Four families were living there just last week, but they’re gone now and no one is sure exactly where they went.

Some may be staying with relatives in Astoria and others might be with friends in Washington Heights. It’s said that a few are already on their way back to Mali in Western Africa.

One of the men stood on the sidewalk and cursed the building when the bank was closing in. His family and his brother’s family along with two others had put nearly 10 years into a down payment. They drove cabs and worked construction and delivered pizzas and on Saturday and Sunday mornings they waited along Third Avenue for a van to take them to work at a warehouse in Red Hook or a fruit farm Upstate.

They moved into their home four years ago and thought it was forever, but time ran out just like it has for so many other families. They left in the middle of the night and piled what they couldn’t carry – several boxes of books, four chairs, two tables, a lamp and an old mattress – at the curb.

Two boys from the neighborhood found a use for the mattress.

“You try to block the plate,” one of the boys yelled from up the street.

The other boy turned his hat backwards and crouched in front of the mattress. A collision was avoided when the catcher stepped aside and swiped a tag.

“Safe!” the runner shouted as he slid across the mattress.

“I tagged you,” the catcher shot.

No one was going to win this argument. And no family feels safe on Walton Avenue or anywhere else these days.

[Photo Via It’s a Long Season]


The South Bronx is just like baseball. Both are far too complicated to completely understand and simply too beautiful not to love.

The guys who gather around Juan Carlos’s coffee cart every morning are committed to the game and their team and getting the last word. Javier – the unofficial leader of this group – is respected for his baseball knowledge and the fact that as a boy in Puerto Rico he once shook hands with Roberto Clemente.

He also got the last word on the neighborhood and maybe the whole world when he showed around his Last Will and Testament that was signed by the lawyer J.C. Klein. The only stipulation listed was that his gravestone – payments having already been made to a place on East Tremont Avenue – carries the line:

“It Was The Walks That Killed Him.”

“That sounds like something Casey Stengel would have done,” one of the guys said.

“Nope,” Javier shot. “Lots of people have talked about it, but I really did it. And that’s the last word.”

Javier smiled and said:

“Man, I love winning.”

Everyone in this neighborhood loves winning almost as much as they hate losing.

The kids that climb the fence and play ball in the parking lot across from the old Yankee Stadium will risk anything for victory. Just the other day a ball was hammered into the left-centerfield gap. It was fielded perfectly off the wall and the play at second was going to be close so the runner slid on the asphalt to the cardboard base. Getting into scoring position is always worth the price.

The old men who play dominos in Joyce Kilmer Park know the price of victory, too. And that price goes up when they are certain there are no cops around.

Jose, who delivers pizzas during the winter and sells baseball tickets in the summer, hates to lose.

There was a game this past April when he was stuck on River Avenue with nine tickets at the end of the first inning. He gave eight Main Box seats to his friends and lost himself in the Tier with a bottle.

The Yankees won and that made everything better, but Jose is worried about his ticket business for next year.

There are a lot of people worried about their jobs around here.

Jon, who lives over in High Bridge, had his hours cut at the warehouse and is driving a buddy’s cab on nights and weekends. Things like paying for rent and groceries and buying baseball tickets will be getting a lot more complicated for him.

“But I’m not worried about the economy,” Jon explained. “I need my team to get healthy. How’s Mariano doing? Is Jorge’s shoulder coming along? And is Wang’s foot feeling okay?

“I’m also looking for big things from the kids next year,” he continued. “Joba will be Joba and Hughes is ready to break out and I think Cano is gonna come back strong.

“That’s all anyone around here really cares about,” Jon went on. “Give us the Yankees and we’re ready to take on the world.”

Things can get pretty complicated around here. But what’s not to love?

[Photo Credit: Arthur Tress]

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