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Shall We Dance?

Kudos to the Grantland’s “Director’s Cut” series for reprinting this gem by the late Paul Hemphill (may he not be soon forgotten).

Here is “How Jacksonville Earned its Credit Card” (from Sport, June 1970):

It must have been the fall of 1962 when I first met Joe Williams. Most newspapermen, at one point or another, succumb to the illusion of public relations — thinking it is the rainbow leading to money and class and peace of mind — and I had just quit writing sports to become the sports publicist at Florida State University. It was football season all of a sudden and I was buried in brochures and 8-by-10 glossies and travel arrangements when Bud Kennedy, the FSU basketball coach, walked in one day and introduced Joe Williams as the new freshman basketball coach. Even then Williams was not the kind to make dazzling impressions. He was quiet and pleasant, tall and hunched over, a man in his late twenties, who grinned out of the side of his mouth and looked up at you, in spite of being 6-foot-4, through bushy black eyebrows. He was, it seems, sort of a part-time coach while doing graduate study or something.7 Florida State was just beginning to flex its muscles in football then, and so Bud Kennedy (who died recently) and assistant coach Hugh Durham (now the head basketball coach at FSU) and, by all means, Joe Williams sort of hovered about like extra men at a picnic softball game.

Joe did have a beautiful young bride named Dale, whom he had met while he was coaching high-school basketball in Jacksonville.8 But she was the only outwardly outstanding thing about Joe Williams, and they lived in what sounded like a fishing-camp cabin in the swamps outside Tallahassee, and I suppose I had his picture taken for the basketball brochure and I suppose the freshman team played out its season. I just don’t know. I went back to newspapering very shortly, and Joe took an assistant coaching job at Furman University, both of us roughly the same age, both of us just looking for a home, and we went separate ways without looking back.9

Jacksonville’s basketball program was, in those days during the early sixties, almost nonexistent. I had seen them play, against teams like Tampa and Valdosta State and Mercer, and it was a twilight zone of dark and airy gyms, small crowds, travel-by-car and intramural offenses. There was a line in the papers about Joe Williams leaving Furman in 1964 to become head basketball coach at Jacksonville University,10 not the most exciting announcement but at least news about an acquaintance. Jacksonville, you could find out if you bought a Jacksonville paper, got progressively worse — from 15-11 to 8-17 in Joe’s first three seasons — and people like me who had known him however vaguely were wondering whatever in the world possessed him to take a job like that.

The Dreaded Double Nickel

I love the “Director’s Cut” reprint series over at Grantland. Today, they’ve got a 1995 New Yorker piece by David Remnick titled “Back in Play.” It’s about Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA:

For my own peace of mind, I talked with two of Jordan’s precursors at the guard position — Bob Cousy and Walt Frazier — and neither had any doubt that Jordan would scrape off the rust in time for the trials of May. Retired ballplayers — especially players of a certain level — are often touchy about the subject of the current crop. They can be grouchy, deliberately uncomprehending, like aging composers whining about the new-fangled twelve-tone stuff. But not where Jordan is concerned. Cousy, who led the Celtics in the fifties and early sixties, and Frazier, who led the Knicks in the late sixties and the seventies, would not begrudge Jordan his eminence.

“Until six or seven years ago, I thought Larry Bird was the best player I had ever seen,” Cousy, who works as a broadcaster for his old team, said. “Now there is no question in anyone’s mind that Jordan is the best. He has no perceptible weaknesses. He is perhaps the most gifted athlete who has ever played this foolish game, and that helps, but there are a lot of great athletes in his league. It’s a matter of will, too. Jordan is always in what I call a ready position, like a jungle animal who is always alert, stalking, searching. It’s like the shortstop getting down and crouching with every pitch. Jordan has that awareness, and that costs you physically. If you do it, you are so exhausted you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Not many athletes do it. To me, he hasn’t lost a thing.”

“Leapers are usually not great shooters, but Michael is the exception,” Frazier said. “If you give him a few inches, he buries the jump shot. When he gets inside, his back is to the basket and he’s shakin’ and bakin’ and you’re dead. When he drives, good night. He’s gone. Now that the league has made hand-checking illegal — you can’t push your man around on defense any longer — it’s conceivable that Michael could score even more. I don’t think he’s even sensed that he has more license now. When he does, he’ll be scoring sixty if he feels like it.”

En Garde

Top 10, 20, or Top 100 lists are superficial and dopey. In the right hands, however, they can also be a ton of fun. Especially when the author embraces the silliness of it all, like Bill James does over at Grantland in his list of the 100 best pitchers’ duels of 2011 (“My list of the 100 best pitchers’ duels of 2011 is better than your list, for one reason and one reason only. You don’t have any list.”).

Dig in.

Funny Name for a Man…Ruth

Over at Grantland, Jane Leavy has a long piece on Babe Ruth’s daughter, his last surviving relative:

He was the Babe, the Bam, the Big Bam, and the Great (and Bulby) Bambino (or Slambino); the Barnstorming Babe, the Bazoo of Bang, the Behemoth of Biff and Bust; Blunderbuss, and the Modern Beowulf. He was the Caliph and Colossus of Clout and Club, the Circuit Smasher and Goliath of Grand Slam, Homeric Herman and Herman the Great. He was the High Priest of Swat, and before that the Infant of Swategy. Also: the Kid of Crash, King of Clout/Diamonds/Swing, and, until Roger Maris, Hank Aaron, and the steroid marauders came along, the Home Run King. He was the Maharajah/Mauler of Mash, the Mauling Menace, Mauling Monarch, Mauling Mastodon, as well as the Mastodonic Mauler, Bulky Monarch, and Monarch of Swatdom; the Prince of Pounders, Rajah of Rap, Sachem of Slug, and Sultan of Swat; Terrible Titan, Whazir of Wham, Wali of Wallop, Wizard of Whack. And, not to be outdone, Damon Runyon added: “Diamond-Studded Ball-Buster.”

The priests at St. Mary’s Industrial School, the Xaverian reform school on the outskirts of Baltimore to which he was consigned at age 7, called him George. The parents who didn’t visit called him Little George. The boys incarcerated along with him called him Nigger Lips. The Red Sox called him the Big Baboon and sometimes Tarzan, a name he liked until he found out what it meant. The Yankees called him Jidge.

Julia Ruth Stevens, his sole surviving daughter, calls him Daddy. Odd as it is to hear a nonagenarian refer to a man 60 years gone as Daddy, it is also a tender reminder of the limits of hyperbole, how grandiose honorifics obscure the messy, telling details of an interior life.

To others he is a brand, an archetype, a lodestar. His shape is ingrained in our DNA. His name recognition, 96 percent, is higher than any living athlete. (His Q score, a measure of how much the people who know him like him, is 32 percent compared to 13 percent for today’s average major leaguer.) And yet, as well-known as he is, the most essential biographical fact of his life, one that demands revisiting what we thought we knew, one that Julia assumed everybody knew, remained unknown.

Corporate Casual

Charlie Pierce on the stupidity and sexism of baseball’s media dress codes:

MLB and the BBWAA have decided to step in with both feet to address a problem I never really noticed. Have there been battalions of reporters walking into clubhouses wearing flip-flops? (Except in spring training, I mean, where everyone dresses like a German tourist at Disneyland.) Have there been legions of my colleagues showing up for a three-game set between the Cubs and the Cardinals having packed nothing but ripped jeans and muscle shirts? God, I sincerely hope not.

“We just thought it was time to get a little organized, to put it in place before there was an incident,” committee member Phyllis Merhige, an MLB senior vice president, told the AP. “There’s no one who expects reporters to wear a suit and tie. But with the advent of different media, there are now individuals who are not part of a bigger organization that may have a dress code.”

In other words, OMIGOD, BLOGGERS! RUN AND HIDE! THEY COULD BE NAKED!

It is an exercise of control, of course. The baseball press box is an odd beast. It is owned by the team, but regulated by the local BBWAA, which is why you get that announcement before every game to the effect that “This is a working press box. No laughing or cheering, etc.” Which is good as far as it goes, which is occasionally too far. (I was once nearly removed from the press box at Fenway for the capital offense of laughing too loudly at the Cleveland Indians.) Occasionally, MLB feels compelled to yank the leash so the BBWAA knows who’s really in charge. Generally, the BBWAA comes to heel. This is one of those times.

Bounce, Rock, Skate

 

The latest installment of Grantland’s “Director’s Cut” series gives Johnette Howard’s first story for The National: “The Making of a Goon,” about hockey enforcer, Joe Kocur:

“See, hockey fighting is different than boxing,” says Kocur, who once visited the training camp of Detroit’s Thomas Hearns — courtesy of Red Wings owner Mike Illitch — to pick up a few tips. “In hockey, fighting is pulling and punching. If you just stand there and hold a guy out and hit him, you won’t faze him. But if you can pull him into you and punch at the same time, that’s when you start hurting people.”

How to hit hard is just one of the lessons an enforcer must learn. There’s also an unwritten and often unspoken code of honor that governs who hits whom, and under what circumstances. Kocur also likes to do research of his own; knowing other fighters’ tendencies helps him avoid surprises. But nothing, Kocur says, supersedes the most basic fighter’s rule: Never, ever lose.

“You’ve got to understand some things about the fighter’s job,” says Demers. “Tough guys in this league are under a tremendous amount of pressure. Unfortunately, many of them are untalented except for fighting, and they’ve gotten here the hard way. And once you’re recognized as a tough guy in this league, you go from having targets to becoming one.

“As long as you’re beating up somebody, the fans are cheering and shouting our name. But the first time you lose one, everyone gets down on you. You have to be fearless. I’ve seen guys lose just once, and pretty soon they just sort of fade away.”

Though coaches and other players all say that Kocur has good all-around hockey talent and that Demers encourages him to use it, Kocur considers himself a fighter first. He believes that preserving his aura of invincibility is essential because “it pays off down the line. Maybe I’ll be going into the corner to get the puck and the guy going with me will think, ‘Uh-oh, it’s Joe Kocur. This guy’s crazy. I won’t give him the elbow in the face. I’ll give him that extra step and poke at the puck instead of trying to take the body.’ And then maybe I can make a play, make a good pass. And maybe we’ll put the puck in the net.”

[Photo Credit: Stefan Alforn]

More than the Moolah

Here’s Charlie Pierce on the end of the NBA lockout:

The NBA lockout was as exclusively about money as it was exclusively about astrophysics. One way you know this is that the settlement that finally was reached was one that could have been reached last June. Like Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1972, the league and its players struck a deal they could have had much earlier, and without the extended bloodletting in the meantime. The players took a reduction in the amount of basketball-related income — and can we find a rocket and fire that little bit of business-school jargon off to Pluto, please? — while winning some concessions as regards the league’s salary structure and in the rules regarding free agency. And that was pretty much it after five or six months of loud public wrangling — a brief outburst of authentic MBA gibberish and (poof!) back to work, gentlemen.

Another way you know that it wasn’t really about economics is that the league’s economic public case for its position became more and more preposterous as the weeks went by, and even the public began to notice that it was being taken for a fool. The hilarity hit high tide for me when David Stern started going around explaining that 22 of his 30 franchises were losing money. Tell me, do you suppose that when Stern sat down and chatted with the Nike corporation, or with the People’s Republic of China, to name only two of the wildly successful authoritarian operations with which the league does its business, the first thing he explained while pitching the NBA to them was that 73 percent of his league was in the red? Did you, at any time, expect to see Herb Simon, the shopping-mall billionaire who owns the “small-market” Indiana Pacers — a team that he bought for $11 million and which is now estimated to be worth $269 million — swiping the leftover bourbon chicken off abandoned plates in his various food courts unless the players surrendered to him a chunk of their dough? Of course you didn’t, because your mother didn’t raise a fool when she raised you.

…Stern’s concern for his league’s fans was as transparently phony as was Carnegie’s concern for his workers. (Hearing the commissioner’s unctuous solicitude for the paying customers must have occasioned rueful chuckling, and projectile vomiting, in Seattle.) His primary constituency is a group of 29 men who don’t have to deal much with unions in their principal occupations anymore and who, therefore, are not accustomed to reacting well when the help gets, well, uppity. The lockout was THE perfect oligarch’s answer.

They got most of what they wanted, which means that most of them are probably very unhappy. The league suffered a public-relations debacle that very nearly became a public-relations catastrophe. But David Stern showed himself to be the tinhorn-in-charge once again, and there will be games on Christmas Day. God bless us all, every one.

[Photo Credit: Craig Brewer]

The Sound of Silence

We’ve linked Gay Talese’s famous Joe Dimaggio profile for Esquire several times in the past but it’s worth mentioning again now that the story is the latest installment of Grantland’s fine “Director’s Cut” series.

Dig.

Track, Wall…

Good new Director’s Cut over at Grantland. Rafe Bartholomew interviews Don Delillo about “Pafko at the Wall.” And then, they offer up an excerpt.

Check it out.

Wuz He Robbed?

Here’s a good one for you fight fans out there, an oral history of the controversial Hagler-Leonard fight.

Nice job by Eric Raskin and Grantland.

So Close and Yet So Far

Over at Grantland, Michael Krause has a story about a real-life Crash Davis:

“Every year,” Chase Lambin said, “I think, ‘This is the year. This is the year it’s going to happen.’”

He’s played in Brooklyn, Port St. Lucie, Binghamton, Norfolk, Zebulon, N.C., Albuquerque, Japan, Syracuse, and now Rochester. He’s played in more than 1,000 games. He’s been up to bat more than 4,000 times. He’s been an All-Star in Class A, in Double-A, in Triple-A. He’s never made it to the major leagues. He turned 32 in July.

He walked out of the clubhouse and through the tunnel to the dugout and onto the field to stretch. He jogged to a spot in shallow center and knelt in the grass and said a short prayer. This was how he started the last day of his 10th season in professional baseball.

I think Krause is trying too hard here. The language is simple and blunt to the point of distraction. He is clearly a good writer and I understand why he’d want to keep the prose spare, but it came across to me as  self-conscious. But I don’t think the minimal style–which is the kind of writing I usually like–spoils the story and I felt like I was there in the locker room with Lambin. Man, what a life.

[Drawing by Ronnie Joyner]

Silence

Here’s a couple of pieces over at Grantland to check out.

First, Louisa Thomas on Venus Williams:

She has always seemed to have an ambivalent relationship to tennis. She is the most recognizable exponent of the game (even more than Serena, perhaps, because she came first) and also a vanishing act, an ambassador and outsider at once. She wanted to be the best, but it wasn’t always clear that she wanted to play at all. Richard Williams said he wanted his daughters to be extraordinary, to stand apart. They do. But that doesn’t quite capture Venus. Nothing does. She is elusive.

The challenge, Venus made clear early on, was to change the game without letting it change her. She has always held something back. Her story isn’t one about a rise and fall, glory and fade. She has become a kind of ghost.

This isn’t because she has other interests outside of tennis, which is often the knock. The spookiest thing about her is that she is one of the greatest competitors in the women’s game, but also one of the most indifferent. She’s a winner who somehow doesn’t need to win. So — and this is the question that has always bugged me, and the question I’ll be thinking about as I watch her in this tournament, and write about it here — why does she continue to play?

Next, Jane Leavy remembers Mike Flanagan:

Unlike my colleagues who have written in recent days of having covered him over the past 30 years as a pitcher, pitching coach, general manager, and broadcaster for the Orioles, Flanagan was in and out of my life as quickly as I tried to get in and out of the locker room. But he stayed with me in ways I didn’t realize until I heard about his death. What struck me about the conversation that day in the locker room was his interest in me. Most athlete-cum-celebs are too busy bemoaning the obligations of public personhood, too consumed by the ego-distorting attentions of doting reporters hanging breathlessly on every not-so-well-chosen word, to think about anyone other than themselves. But Flanagan really wanted to know about me, and because his interest was palpably authentic I told him things I never expected to reveal in a major league clubhouse, where revelation was supposed to be the other way around. I told him the naked truth.

…Flanagan’s suicide and that of former Yankee pitcher Hideki Irabu after the spotlight passed them by, that of Denver Bronco’s receiver Kenny McKinley and LPGA golfer Erica Blasberg after suffering debilitating injuries, and that of former Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest so his brain could be studied for evidence of trauma-induced disease — which was found to be ample — cry out for the availability of on-going psychological services for professional athletes and for a reexamination of the fallacious assumptions we make as a result of their sturdy professional lives.

[Photo Credit: moonchild1111]

What’s the Latest?

First Grantland and now comes The Classical, a new site that will feature the talents of Tim Marchamn, Eric Nusbaum, David Roth and Bethlehem Shoals. It’s been an interesting year for new sites.

Also, while I’m at it, Sports Feat is a good spot to find long form sports writing. You should also keep an eye on Adi Joseph’s blog, Hard-Charging.

[Photo Credit: Scott Armstrong]

 

Pass the Grey Poupon

Over at Grantland, Peter Richmond asks: Why can’t Americans build arenas anymore?

Here’s his take on the new Yankee Stadium:

As a guy who spent considerable time in George Steinbrenner’s presence back when both he and I were cogent and unreasonable men (me the barbed newspaper scribe, he the pompous asshole who once called Hideki Irabu a “fat, pus-y toad”), I never expected the Yankees to look anywhere but backward with the new park. After all, this is a family that, in lockstep to George’s scarily tin-eared, tone-deaf take on himself, now runs its corporation by the family’s uncurious, unimaginative philosophy of “I haven’t a clue about vision … but can I buy the guy who everyone else thinks is good?”

So I wasn’t surprised that the new stadium, with its faux-gold façade lettering, emerged with a distinctly Gilded Age/decline-of-the-Roman Empire vibe. The first (and only) time I sat in those thousand-dollar seats behind home plate, and a comely woman who looked like a young Cameron Diaz kept sidling up to ask if I needed anything, I was wise enough to ask for nothing more exotic than shrimp cocktail.

I’ll grant you that the new one’s not a bad place to watch baseball (although annual attendance is a half-million lower than the last year in the old one). But the real problem with wrapping the new place in a retro-traditional-revivalist costume is that once you’re inside there’s not even the slightest pretense about trying to duplicate the original sensorial experience of watching a game in the old stadium, when the borough of the Bronx was part of the fabric of the team’s success. This was when you could reach out from the upper deck and touch the Buy DiNoto’s Bread sign, two stories high, painted in red, green, and white on the back of the six-story, yellow-brick apartment house on 845 Gerard Avenue; when the Ayn-Randian blue-steel screech of the no. 4 train coming to a halt at the 161st Street station wafted the sweet, industrial fragrance of railroad brake linings through the upper rows of the right-center-field bleachers.

But who can complain when the new place is packed with such sophisticated lures as a private dining room where toqued chefs serve crab roll sushi, strip loin, locavore haricots vert, and chocolate mousse?

Watermelon Man

There is a moving Father’s Day piece by Charles M. Blow over at the New York Times that is worth your time:

It was the late-1970s. My parents were separated. My mother was now raising a gaggle of boys on her own. She was a newly minted schoolteacher. He was a juke-joint musician-turned-construction worker.

He spouted off about what he planned to do for us, buy for us. But the slightest thing we did or said drew the response, “you jus’ blew it.” In fact, he had no intention of doing anything. The one man who was supposed to be genetically programmed to love us, in fact, lacked the understanding of what it truly meant to love a child — or to hurt one.

To him, this was a harmless game that kept us excited and begging. In fact, it was a cruel, corrosive deception that subtly and unfairly shifted the onus of his lack of emotional and financial investment from him to us.

I lost faith in his words and in him. I stopped believing. Stopped begging. Stopped expecting. I wanted to stop caring, but I couldn’t.

Meanwhile, over at Grantland, Jane Leavy has a piece on her old man:

When my father realized he was going blind he took up golf.

Empirical evidence of his loss of vision was plentiful — the run-in with a pickup truck that nearly decapitated my dozing mother in the passenger seat of the car; the Patrick O’Brian novels he could no longer read; the eye drops that never did any good; the dreaded ophthalmological pyramid of letters projected in a dark room in a dark world growing more occluded every day.

But, he did not accept the brutal, unwavering diagnosis — Macular Degeneration — until the guys in his regular tennis game, the guys he’d been playing with every Sunday for 30 years, told him not to show up again. The realpolitik of sport, every sport, at every level of competition, is cruel and uncompromising. Even he could read the writing on that wall.

[Photo Credit: L.A. Times]

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