We walked between the rows of vines, up and down the steep terraces in the hot sun. Tom’s three Labrador Retrievers romped around us. Big, playful, doofus dogs with their tongues hanging out. He told me their names. “Major, Bandy, Bricks.” I said, “Bricks, like in chimney bricks?” He said, “No, Brix.” I said, “Bricks?” He said, “No, Brix.” I said, “Who’s on first?” He didn’t get it, so I said, “Spell it.” He spelled, “B-R-I-X. It’s French for the sugar content in grapes.”
We stopped at a vine drooping with clusters of grapes. He snipped off a cluster and handed it to me. I held it over my head, like in one of those old paintings of Roman orgies, and ate the small, black, sweet grapes off the cluster. “Delicious,” I said. Tom explained that each variety of grapes had different characteristics that you could only tell by tasting them. That’s why each row was numbered.
I said, “Very good, Thomas. You always did explain things precise.”
“Ly,” he said. “Precise-ly. You’re supposed to be the fucking writer, and you don’t know your grammar.”
“Thank you very much. You know I got a journalism degree from USC.” Irony of ironies! Tom Seaver, trying to impress me.
I said, “Yeah, and I had a better fastball than you.”
But he went on. “I was always like that about pitching. I had to be precise. I couldn’t just mail it in!” Then he began to explain more about his vines, about the cordon and proper height for each vine. I tuned him out and ate my grapes, the juices running down my sweatshirt. He looked at me, annoyed, and said, “Pay attention. I’m gonna give you a fucking lesson.”
“I don’t want a fucking lesson.”
“That doesn’t matter. I’m giving you one. Now, if the secondary fruit grows too high, you have to snip it off or else they’ll take energy from the vines.”
I feigned interest. “How high?”
“Each row has to be only to a height of 14.”
“Fourteen what? Inches, feet?”
“I don’t know. It’s just a standard height. Stop asking questions and just listen. This is important, for Chrissakes. If you didn’t talk so much you might learn something. If the vines are too high, you have to trim them.” He reached up with his snips and trimmed a vine.
“Oh, I see. The height of each vine is a template for the row. Your job is to go down the row trimming the tops, to make them conform to the template. I can see how the monotony of this appeals to your precise, fucking methodical nature. It’s therapy for you.”
“Bullshit. You think too much. You always did.”
“I had a better fastball than you.”
“In your dreams.”
“Yeah, and between us we won 311 major league games.”
“Abso-fucking-lutely! I tell everybody that!”
I asked him if he’d still have his vineyards if he hadn’t missed out on today’s big baseball paydays. Tom made more than a million dollars a year only twice in his career. If he were pitching in his prime today, he’d be making $30 million a year.
“I started to lose interest,” he said. “I wanted to go home. I couldn’t do it anymore. I never was pissed I missed the big paydays. Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. If I’d made that $30 million a year, maybe I’d just have bought that huge, finished vineyard and let others do it all. I’d have missed out on the pleasure of being in the vineyards every day. My pleasure has always been in the work, not the ego.”
I had the chance to talk with Stephen about the book recently. Here’s our conversation:
Q: As a magazine writer you are used to dropping in on a subject and then you’re out. What was it like having to live with this material for a long period of time?
SR: Well, for my sanity and finances I kept my hand in the magazine game writing three or four pieces a year while reporting the book. That gave me some much-needed distance from all the heaviness that permeates the book. I remember I was writing the chapter on re-creating my dad’s accident and was sinking into the pit of despair, and next thing I knew I was in Malibu with Rick Rubin as he dodged the pot smoke from the guitarist of System of the Down and brought his own eggs to a restaurant before going to work out with the cranky doctor guy from Scrubs. The same thing with the Lindsay Lohan/Canyons story, I just returned from the Gulf where Tupper was struggling through his last cruise and we watched Iranian ‘fishing’ boats shadow the USS Lincoln’s moves through the Gulf. I flew off back through the protests in Bahrain and a few weeks later I’m in the back of Lohan’s Porsche as she flips off the paparazzi in Santa Monica. They were nice Fellini moments to break up trying to decipher the precise speed that my dad’s plane hit the water before disintegrating.
Q: Were there any memoirs that you read, and particularly liked, before writing yours?
SR: I was drawn to James Salter’s Burning the Days because he was a combat pilot back in the 1950s and wrote beautifully about the flying life. On the flip side, Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia is a novel that reads like a memoir and I’ve read that a half-dozen times. The two couldn’t be more different, but they both share a certain simplicity in the language that I loved.
Q: Have you always felt that this was the story one day you were destined to tell?
SR: I don’t know if I felt I was destined to write it, but it had been gnawing at me for years and i just didn’t feel I had the emotional strength to write it in the way I knew I wanted to do it. The final kick in the ass, was VAQ-135, my Dad’s old squadron, was phasing out the Prowler, his old plane, and I knew it was now or never if I wanted to follow his old squadron flying his old plane. They even got me up in a flight, which was one of the most frightening and meaningful moments of my life even if I did boot a spectacular yellow fluid into my barf bag.
Q: How did you arrive at the narrative structure for the story, shifting between your story from childhood through the present, with that of Tupper and the current Navy?
SR: It just sort of happened naturally, I’m not a big outliner, but I knew the chapters I wanted to write and they somehow clicked into place. I know I wanted to start at both of our points of entry: For me, the day my father was killed marked an obvious demarcation in my life. For Tupper, it was the day that he took command. From there, things sort of tumbled out naturally going back and forth between my journey and Tupper’s. I was hoping the reader would be able to see what life was like from the two perspectives: The son left behind and the father trying to do his job.
Q: Early in the story you talk about being described as “the magical stranger” by a friend who says that you have this remarkable ability to adapt to social situations and put people at ease.
SR: Yeah, as a magazine writer, you’re always the new kid, you don’t know where the bathrooms are etc. I don’t put on a persona when I go and talk with people; I’m just me, just a paying more attention me. With very few exceptions, I’ve been blessed to write about men and women I find fascinating so I don’t have to fake it.
Q: As a military kid you moved around a lot, always being the new kid. Is that charm, for lack of a better word, the ability to get people to feel comfortable, something that’s conscious?
A: That’s a really good question. Is it a nature or nurture thing? I was always the smartass from the start, but I don’t know if it was just the nature of my personality or part of always being the new kid and realizing that the best way to ingratiate yourself is to get people either laughing with you or laughing at you, whichever one doesn’t really matter.
Q: Has it ever gotten in the way of you forming intimate relationships–not with subjects so much, as friends, family?
SR: I’m not sure. There’s a restless nature in me that doesn’t always mesh with every-day life. I think the key is finding like-minded people who understand that and still love you anyway. I think one of the great things about doing the book was finding out that my purportedly straight-arrow dad was a troublemaker in his younger days. I’d always felt with my personality that I was an alien in my own family and a massive disappointment. I found a diary he kept when he was thirteen, the age I was when he was killed. And sure, he’s serving mass and getting scholarships, but he’s also getting called a punk by the nuns and hitchhiking throughout New England as an eighth grader. I went to his 50th high school reunion and a friend of his told me: The stuff Pete cared about, he was the best and smartest kid I ever knew, the stuff Pete didn’t care about he didn’t give a damn about and he’d stare out the window for the entire class. And that was gratifying to me because I’m sort of the same way. I found a precious connection that I never knew was there and eased my burden of never feeling like I could measure up to him. It’s like he was a statue on a pedestal that magically walked off it and put his arm around me and said, “Son don’t sweat it, I’ve done some dubious things. It’s ok.” There’s never been a man more excited that his dad was a teen fuck-up than me.
Q: You also say that it was your father who was really the magical stranger. How did you fantasize how things would have turned out had he not been killed?
SR: Well, there’s the fantasy and the reality. The fantasy is he would of came home and we would have probably moved to DC and he would have kicked me into shape and I would have ended up at Georgetown or one of the Ivies and gone on to be president of the United States. The reality is he was a devout Catholic while I was distancing myself from Catholicism quickly before I hit twenty. We probably would have fought over that. So, you just never know how it could have been. But I’d pay any price to have the chance to find out.
Q: You’re tough on yourself when you describe yourself as a kid. Now that the book is finished, have you let go of any of the harsh judgment?
SR: Ha! I wish. I think it’s hard to shake a childhood where everyone is constantly disappointed in you. Whether it’s a priest—later busted for pedophilia—telling you that “you’re the man of the house,” and then not stepping up or entering high school with one of the highest board scores and the vice principal telling your Mom at graduation that “Steve was the student with the most potential who did the least with it.” (Thanks Ms. King!). It’s hard to shake that even after having success as an adult. I still see myself as inherently lazy while my wife sees me as a workaholic. But I’m trying to give myself more of a break. Sometimes, I tell myself, Hey, you lost your Dad at thirteen when you needed him most and you might have stumbled, but you didn’t fall. You still turned out ok. You’re a man your father would be proud of. (Well, he wouldn’t be proud that I hate the Red Sox, but most things). I try to own that as much as I can.
Q: Did you emphasize your difficulties in the book for the sake of a dramatic arc?
SR: Nope. The one thing I wanted to do with my story and my family story and Tupper’s story was to keep it simple: This how this happened. This is how we dealt with it. One thing I can say is I lived this life, not just my own but Tupper’s life for three years. You can criticize my approach as artless, but I’ve never had much time for grandiose set-ups, faux Faulkner hand wringing, or 2000 words of throat clearing before you get down to the task at hand. To me, this is what my life and the life of the others I wrote about really were like, good and bad, dangerous and idiotic.
Q: I was compelled by how your family dealt with things by not dealing with them—the Rodrick way. When you approached your mom to talk about your father you discovered that you’d both avoided it in order to spare the other person’s feelings. Yet your mom seemed willing, appreciative even, to share her memories. Has your relationship for the better?
SR: It has. We sort of had this standoff for decades where she thought I didn’t want to talk about my father and she thought I didn’t want to talk about him. It really took me writing the book for us to breakthrough that wall. So thank you to the publishing world.
Q: How did she like the book?
SR: Funny story. My mom is the only person in the book that I let read it in galleys. I went to see visit her in Michigan and stayed with my sister about 20 miles away. After she had the book for a few days, she told me she had read it and told me to come over for lunch and we could talk about it. I arrived, very nervous and sweaty. But she told me she liked it and that she was very proud. I was so relieved; we watched the Lions lose, had lunch and took her dog for a walk. It was perfect. I drove back to my sister’s and spent about 24 hours in a state of euphoria, blasting their stereo and dancing around in my boxers. But then my sister came up for work and just shook her head at me and said, “You’ve got to go and talk to mom again, she’s bitching about the book all over town.” (Mind you, all over town would be maybe five people).
I drove back over to her house with a single Xanax in my jean pocket not sure if it was for her or me. She let me in and said, “I don’t want to rain on your parade, but I come across as a bit of a bitch in the book.” I told that wasn’t other people’s take, but she said “It’s not anything you say isn’t true, but there’s no mention that even in the worst of the times, I kept you fed, washed your clothes, and car-pooled us all over town.” And she was absolutely right; I’d fallen into a somewhat myopic well on that subject. I was happy to add a few lines to the book to make it clear, it was the least I could do. My mom is a sweetheart who was left with three kids at 36, one who was a constant pain in the ass—that would be me. She did the best she could and none of her children were lost. We’re all doing pretty well and that’s a testament to her.
Q: I think you’re fair to your mom. What I found moving was that she apologized to you for being so hard on you back when you were a kid. To me that’s the real takeaway—parents do the best that they can.
SR: That’s it exactly. The Go-Betweens have a song called “Devil’s Eye” that has a line that goes “Sometimes, we don’t come through, sometimes we just get by,” and that. I think, is pretty true of the human condition. Saying you’re sorry and forgiving make the world go round. And Chipotle.
Q: You don’t really mention it in the book but did you seek out father figures, mentors, or just older men to hang out with as you’ve grown up?
SR: No, not really, probably to my own detriment. I know this sounds like something out of a cheddar voiceover in a Western, but I’ve always found more comfort in the company of women than men. Maybe it’s not surprising since I grew up with my mom and two sisters, but there it is. Not having a mentor professionally probably has hurt me at different points, but it’s also saved me from idol worship, which might be an even tradeoff.
Loudon Wainwright has a great song “One Man Guy,” that his own children, Rufus and Martha, sing probably to taunt him a bit. (My ex-wife hated that I loved it.)
The solo life that Loudon’s raves about as a young man comes across as sad in middle-age so I’ve made an effort to reach out and make more dude friends. But they’re all equals–Fed Ex delivery guys, Navy pilots, book editors–no one that I put on a pedestal as a mentor. I think part of that is because I always had my father on that pedestal, there wasn’t room for anyone else.
Q: It makes sense about being more comfortable around women, and not having room for mentors with your father looming so large. Have there been other magazine writers that, if you haven’t worshipped, then admired? Both in creatively and just how they conduct themselves?
SR: I fell in love with magazines as a kid reading Sports Illustrated, all those bonus pieces week-after-week. Frank Deford’s byline is the first one I distinctly remember. That’s not a bad one. His pieces are not-flashy, but funny and human. That’s something to shoot for.
Someone gave me Pat Jordan’s first memoir, A False Spring, and I’ve read it many times. I finally met him a few years back when I was in Florida on a spring training story and a friend suggested I meet Pat so he could finally tell me the difference between a curve and a slider.
I went to his house in Fort Lauderdale. We had a drink and either he or his wife was packing heat. There were dogs and birds screeching and Jordan kept telling me, “Get out of New York, move to Florida, you can live on 65 grand here, make 65, you’ve made your nut.” I was like “What is this nut you so speaketh about?” We went out for dinner and I think New York Magazine ended up buying a take-out steak for their dogs. And I thought, Now, here is a guy I can look up to.
Q: That’s great. In the book, you talk about sports and politics being a big deal for you as a kid but only touch on how music impacted your life. When did it become a major part of who you were?
SR: I’ve got a big weakness for the line of tart, clever British songwriters from Ray Davies to Paul Weller, to Damon Albarn, to Pete Doherty. Oh The Beatles aren’t so bad. My love of music started as a kid listening to transistor radio on my back delivering newspapers. I remember hearing Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” at 12 or 13 and going ‘oh wow, this song isn’t a happy one. Guy’s talking about being the joke of the neighborhood, what he could have done with a little more time, and that his wife thinks he’s gone insane. And that was a Top 40 song! I loved that you could tell a story in three to five minutes. I love the economy of language you need to write a great pop song.
The older I get the more I listen to it as I write to set a mood, if I need little anger/outrage I go with The Stones’ “Monkey Man” because of the great marimbas at the beginning, the swaggering guitars, and the bad/sublime lyrics: “I’m a flea bit peanut monkey, all my friends are junkies. That’s not really true. I’m a cold Italian pizza I could use a lemon squeezer.” He’s an animal an unreliable narrator, and then pens worst line ever. Genius!
Q: “Monkey Man” is one of my all-time favorites. What were you listening to while you wrote the book?
SR:Half the World Away by Oasis. ‘So here I go, still scratching around in the same old hole, my body feels young, but my mind is very old,’ was sort of my personal motto for the book along with another line, “I’ve been lost, I’ve been found, but I don’t feel down.” ITunes says I listened to the song 397 times. Perhaps that is too much.
Q: What was the reaction from the military guys you hung with after the book came out?
SR: I’d say 99% of them loved it and loved the Catch-22 tales I tell of squadron life. Of course, they’re human and they all wish I’d left the story about the time they buzzed Midway Island causing an ecological furor or sprinted across an Army base in Japan just in a kimono hoping to thank the base CO for his hospitality at 4am in the morning out of the book. But they’ve been so supportive, I consider myself lucky to have these nuts in my life.
Q: Beyond that, what has been the response from military families that you don’t know to the book?
SR: I’ve got some great notes on my website and people coming up to me at readings and saying, ‘I lost my dad in a helo crash when I was twelve and your book said all the things I couldn’t say.’ That means more to me than I can say.
Q: How do you feel—exhilaration, relief, let down?—now that it’s done?
SR: Well, like most of life it has been alternately spectacular and heartbreaking. The friends and family that have come up to me at readings and written to be about my Dad makes me feel closer to him than I ever felt possible. But there is a bit of postpartum depression that sets in when your book is done. Should I have spent another year on it? Should I have spent a year less on it? They’re no greater second guessers than authors. Well, except for Stephen A. Smith. I love that guy.
SR: There’s not a lot you can do about it: She said it, it exploded, and the rest of the story has sort of have been forgotten. That happens, but it’s frustrating because I think there’s a lot of stuff in the story that paints her as a real, live human trying to figure life out. But that’s the nature of the business. It’s all the nature of modern life if you search my name on Nexis—not that I would do such a narcissistic thing!—you’ll find eighty or ninety mentions of the Serena and Lohan pieces, and maybe five or six on my book. But hey, THAT’S SHOW BUSINESS.
SR: That’s a simple one: unless I can get enough to spend enough time to write about anyone—navy pilot, tennis player, independent film festival guy– where I feel like I have a sense of who they are, then I’ll pass on the story. I’ve only done two or three profiles based on a single sit-down interview and I hated it. I know there’s a whole genre of magazine profile writing where the guy–and it’s always a guy–tap dances for 2000 words before you get a snippet of the guy he’s writing about. It’s like a 30-second commercial where you don’t know what the hell they’re selling until the tag line at the end. I’ll tell my editor to cut the story from 4,500 to 2,500 words just so I don’t have to play Three Card Monte for half the piece. I want to write ‘this is what the person was like from observing him and watching him in action not ‘this is what the person is like in my fantasy relating to my childhood in the coalfields of West Virginia.
Q: Last one. I wonder, do you still feel the same restlessness now that you did when you were a kid or even in your 20s?
SR: I do, but in a different way. Now I just want to have two residences, down from the four or five of a decade ago. I’d love someday to own a summer place up in Anacortes, Washington where the book is largely set. It is so goddamned beautiful and it’s 58 degrees and misty which is my kind of weather. It’s strange, I only lived there from seven to thirteen, but I feel that place is home deep down in my bones. I remember being in Dublin once and I heard some teen buskers playing this beautiful song “Learn to Be Still” and I was struck: That’s exactly what I need to do: Learn to be still. I gave them money and had them play it again. A little later, I found out it was an Eagles song. I took that as an ominous sign and kept moving.
I had the stuff. I just didn’t have the heart. Or, more precisely, I always had the stuff, which was why I never had the heart. I didn’t need it. Then, in the arrogance of youth, with those early years of effortless success in Little League, American Legion, and high school, all the no-hitters and one-hitters and bushels of strikeouts, I felt indomitable. Eventually, however, when it all went south in my 20s, it dawned on me, dimly, that maybe my stuff wasn’t enough, that I lacked something.
I tried to find it, too late, without a clue as to what it was. I looked for something outside myself, a new pitch, a new motion, when I should have been looking elsewhere, inside myself for that “thing” beyond just “stuff” that every great pitcher has. Some not-so-great pitchers have it , too, the workmanlike plodders, the serviceable, fourth or fifth starters on a staff of superstars, the Joe Blantons grinding it out in the shadows of bigger names, Doc Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, his teammates when he was with the Phillies.
Pitchers like Blanton are good enough to go six innings on their good days, give up maybe nine hits and three earned runs, just enough to keep their team in the game, with a chance to win it in the eighth or ninth inning. I always liked guys like that, with mediocre stuff at best, who persevered, and survived 12, or 14 years, with a record of something like 102-103, and an ERA of 4.59. They pitched into their late ‘30s, maybe made a lone All-Star appearance the year they had a good first half and finished 13-11, then retired with a few big contracts under their belt, perhaps enough to buy a small farm in the Piedmont of North Carolina.
Of course, I also admired great pitchers with the big stuff: Warren Spahn, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, and Justin Verlander. I admired, too, the very good pitchers with nice stuff: Vic Raschi, Bob Lemon, Robin Roberts, C.C. Sabathia, James Shields, and my old minor league teammate, Phil Niekro. But over the years, I have most learned to appreciate the Joe Blantons of baseball, the bricklayers of their craft like Livan Hernandez, Mark Buehrle, and Tony Cloninger, my minor league teammate. I had better stuff than all of them put together, except for Tony, yet I lasted only three years in the minors, while they all pitched successfully in the major leagues for years.
What did they have that I lacked? Fifty years after my failure, I’m still searching for the answer to that question.
Early one morning in March, Caitlin Morrissey showed me around the blindingly lit white range. She is 21, built strong with long blonde hair and blue eyes. She is pretty and perfectly made-up. “My ritual,” she said. “Shower, hair, make-up every morning. I’m very organized.” There is no artifice about her. She looked directly at me when she spoke. It was disconcerting. She stood at her locker, painstakingly putting on her uniform: shoes, a sling for her left arm, her gloves. “Everything’s so our muscles will not be used,” she said. She walked penguin-style to the firing line. She put on her granny glasses with blinders, and a third blinder over her left eye. “I don’t like to shut my left eye,” Caitlin said. “The exertion causes face fatigue. I took out my contacts too, so they won’t move around.” A lot of shooters wear glasses. Exceptional vision is overrated in shooting, they claim.She stood at the firing line, her body sideways to the distant target. She assumed a model’s slouchy pose, legs spread, loose-hipped, her left hip cocked higher than her right. She turned her head and shoulders toward the target, aimed her rifle, her left hand under the barrel, cradling the rifle very gently, her left elbow propped against her left hip for support.
“Girls are better shooters than boys ‘cause we have hips,” Caitlin said. No smile, a fact. She pressed her cheek against her rifle, whispered something to it, and aimed. She exhaled, her body relaxed, got still. She held this pose for a few minutes, and then put her finger on the delicate trigger. It takes 1½ ounces of pressure to depress that trigger. Most firearms require 5 – 12 pounds of pressure. Caitlin stopped breathing, “ping”, took a breath and said, “9.8. Anything less than 10.0 is a failure. I haven’t settled into my position yet.” She aimed again. Two, three minutes went by, and then she fired. “A 10.6,” she said. “10.9 is perfect. See? My body’s settling in.” She aimed again, “ping” and a 9.8. “I could feel it was a 9 when I broke the shot. I wasn’t smooth pulling the trigger; I jerked it,” she said. She shot again (10.4), again, (10.6) again (10.8). I asked Caitlin if shooting a 10.9 was thrilling. She lowered her rifle and looked at me. “I wouldn’t call it thrilling,” she said. ”Rewarding maybe.”
…As a young girl in Topeka she played all the sports against boys. When she was 7 years old, her father took her to a shooting club. By 9, she was beating all the boys. That was her main motivation, she said, but that didn’t last. Beating boys was no big deal. Beating girls, however, was something else. At first, boys were fascinated by the girl with the gun. By the eighth grade that was just her persona. That was when she learned that Margaret Murdock lived nearby. She went to visit her and wrote a story about the woman who’d won an Olympic gold medal in rifle shooting, and then had it taken away in favor of a man. Caitlin called her essay, a mini-book, really, “The Life of a Champion”, author: Caitlin Morrissey, Copyright: 2003, Publisher: Morrissey Publishing.
Maybe that’s still in the back of her mind, she said, because, “It’s still fun to beat boys. It’s an accepted fact that girls are better. Girls know how to calm themselves down, relax, focus on one thing. Boys get distracted. They don’t have our attention span. When we find something we like, we latch on to it. Ninety percent of shooting is mental toughness. We calm ourselves down after a bad shot, and not relax too much after a good shot.” She said that what gratifies her most about shooting is that it taught her how to calm herself in life. “It’s a monotonous sport,” she said. “You have to be self-motivating. You’re in the practice range for three hours every day. Your body is locked in a cramped position. Boys build muscle for movement. Girls build muscle for stability. We do neck and trapezius work” because that’s where all a shooter’s tension is. “What do I do to relax?” she said, smiling for the first time. “I go shopping. Or organize things, like our graduation party.”
Caitlin’s boyfriend is a hunter. “I could never be with a guy who didn’t like guns,” she said. “I’ve never hunted, but I might one day. I don’t have a Bambi Complex. But I don’t like to point my gun at anything I don’t intend to shoot. It’s a tool, like a baseball bat, never a weapon. I could never be a sniper. You should talk to Jaime. She’s a hunter. She’s in ROTC. She could be a sniper.”
Maddon likes to do what he calls “theme road trips.” There was the pajama road trip, the nerd road trip. For the nerd one, he had the players pose for a photo outside their chartered flight dressed in high-water pants, bow ties, and suspenders. “Some guys won’t do it,” Maddon says. “They think it’s not big-league. They can’t laugh at themselves.” David Price, the Rays’ Cy Young Award-winning left-hander, says, “He asks us for theme ideas. Once, we dressed as cowboys. It’s fun.” Ben Zobrist, a utility player for the Rays, adds, “Joe wants us to do one wearing skinny jeans. Never gonna happen.”
“You couldn’t do theme days with Alex Rodriguez,” I say.
Maddon shakes his head. “I dunno. I hope I could convince A-Rod to wear onesies. He’s not a bad guy.” He looks over at me. “I hear a lot of Yankees like him better than Jeter.”
Maddon says the most important thing he has to do as manager is listen to the players. “I coached for a manager once who told his guys, ‘There’s 25 of you and one of me, so you have to adjust to me.’ I hope I’m never like that guy. The days of dictatorial managers are over.”
When I tell him the hotdogging and emotional outbursts of B.J. Upton (the former Rays center fielder, now with the Atlanta Braves) offend my sense of the way the game should be played, Maddon says, “Aw, he’s a good kid. He was brought to the big leagues too soon. He had to make his mistakes in front of a lot of people and the media. He’s learning mental stuff he should have learned in the minors.”
Vito Frabizio is 23 now. In 2009, when he was 19, the Baltimore Orioles signed him to a $130,000 bonus. “I was the best pitcher in the Orioles’ minor leagues,” he says. “Scotty McGregor (former O’s pitcher) told me I’d win the Cy Young Award one day.” He looks around, and then back at me, adding, “I’d always been in the right place at the right time. Now I’m here, the lowest of the low.”
Vito is sitting behind bars in the visiting room of the Yaphank, Long Island, minimum security prison on a fall day. The visiting room is crowded with men in green prison jumpsuits talking to women, some of them in low-cut blouses, who lean over to remind their men of what waits for them when they get out. The guards have put Vito in the far corner of the room so he can talk to me with a little privacy through the bars. He grips the bars with both hands and says, “The other prisoners can’t believe it. ‘You played baseball and robbed banks? Why?’” Actually, Vito robbed three banks to support his 20-bag, $200-a-day heroin habit.
Even in his prison-issued jumpsuit, with white socks and flip-flops that slapped against the floor when he walked toward me with that slouching, hangdog shuffle of prison cons, Vito is still a good-looking man. Just not that good-looking anymore. He has a jailhouse pallor — he’s been incarcerated for two years at this point — with the blemished skin of a needle junkie and tattoos, which can be seen in his police mug shots. There’s a naked woman in flames on his upper left arm. A heart and a cross adorn his upper right (throwing) arm. A Burmese python suffocates a tiger on his stomach. The word “Hollywood” is scrawled across his upper back. “I always had to be the center of attention,” he tells me. “The most popular. Class clown. Even in here I make people laugh so the time goes easier.” He also amuses them with glimpses of his pitching prowess of two years ago. He wets paper, molds it into a ball, and puts a sock over it, then shows his fellow cons his pitching motion. “Until the guards take the ball away,” he says. “Then I make another.”
That spring, I was assigned to the Boise club in the Class C Pioneer League. It might not have seemed like much of a jump from my Class D stint in McCook, Neb., the previous year, but Boise was one of the Braves’ elite minor league teams for its top prospects, especially pitchers. The Braves stacked Boise with so many great hitters that it was impossible for Boise pitchers to have losing records, even if their earned run averages were above five per game. The Braves thought that young pitchers needed confidence in their ability to win games and a stint at Boise would give it to them.
I threw well that spring, maybe 95-98 mph (there were no radar guns then) with a devastating overhand curveball that my teammates called “the unfair one.” I coasted through the first half of spring training with great anticipation for the start of the season, until one day, during a stint pitching batting practice, when my arm felt weak. I knew it was just a spring training sore arm, nothing serious, and it just needed rest, but I was too foolish to tell my manager, a redneck Southerner named Billy Smith. I wasn’t able to put much on the ball during my batting practice and my teammates complained to my catcher, Joe Torre. Torre kept shouting at me to throw harder, but I couldn’t. Finally, after one pitch, he walked halfway out to the mound and fired the ball at me. When he turned back around, I fired the ball at his head. It hit his mask, sent it spinning off his head, and the next instant we were both wrestling in the red dirt until our teammates pulled us apart.
The next morning I was assigned to a Class D team, Quad Cities, in the Midwest League. Billy Smith had told the Braves’ farm director, John Mullen, he didn’t want “no red-ass guinea” on his team. When I heard that, I wondered why I was the “red-ass guinea” and not Torre.
We turned the corner and drove down a residential street. Housewives in spandex shorts were jogging on the sidewalk. Simpson glanced at them and said, “I loved the way Nicole looked. If I saw her on that sidewalk right now, I’d pull over and hit on her. If she had a different head.”
Simpson is used to playing the character he created over the years—the genial O.J. we saw in the broadcasting booth, in TV commercials, and in films—and he seemed ill equipped to play a man tormented by tragedy. His features rearranged themselves constantly. His brow furrowed with worry; his eyebrows rose in disbelief; his eyelashes fluttered, suggesting humility; his eyes grew wide with sincerity. All of this was punctuated by an incongruous, almost girlish giggle.
It was Simpson’s will, as much as his talent, that enabled him to become not only a great football player but also one of America’s most beloved black athletes. (“When I was a kid growing up in San Francisco, Willie Mays was the single biggest influence on my life,” Simpson told me. “I saw how he made white people happy. I wanted to be like Willie Mays.”) Over the course of his life, Simpson had gotten virtually everything he has wanted—fame, wealth, adulation, Nicole Brown, and, eventually, acquittal. It was widely reported that Nicole told friends that if her husband ever killed her he’d probably “O.J. his way out of it.” Today, at fifty-three, almost six years after his acquittal, Simpson seems to be free of doubt, shame, or guilt. He refers to the murders of his wife and Ron Goldman, and his subsequent trials for those murders, as “my ordeal.” Now he wants vindication. Only that can erase the stigma that has transformed him from an American hero into a pariah, living out his days in a pathetic mimicry of his former life. And he appears to believe that he will get it, as he got everything—by sheer will—and with it a return to fame and wealth and adulation.
Once upon a time Hialeah Park was the most beautiful and famous thoroughbred racetrack in the world. People ventured to the sport’s showplace outside of Miami in Hialeah, Florida, not only for the races but also for what they called “The Hialeah experience.” The glamour, the celebrities, the prettiness, the bougainvilleas, the hibiscuses, the royal palms, the pink flamingoes, the food, the champagne, the thoroughbreds and, almost incidentally, the wagering. You went to Hialeah if you were famous, and rich; and if you were not, you went to rub elbows with the famous and the rich under the flamingo pink-and-green canopy that led into the clubhouse.
Then, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Hialeah fell on hard times. It struggled to survive until 2001, when it lost its thoroughbred racing license and faded to black. The track closed, the horses disappeared, and the crowds disbanded into memory like ghosts on the Titanic. The wooden stables rotted then were demolished. The royal palms began to die, their brown fronds littering the grounds. The ubiquitous bursts of pink and green gradually lost their zest. The concrete and coral clubhouse, with its winding stairs that bled the color of rust, decayed. The flock of flamingoes nesting on the infield grass by the small lake grew pale, lean, lethargic. They had no reason to flutter up, as when a trumpeter used to play “The Flight of the Flamingoes,” sending them flapping around the track to herald the most famous race of all, the Flamingo Handicap.
There were tales that Hialeah would be sold, torn down, and replaced by a shopping mall, or townhomes, or a casino. Or maybe not torn down, maybe just turned into a tourist attraction like the Queen Mary, tethered to a dock in Long Beach, California, where it could be gawked at by tourists while it rotted in the sun. But then. miraculously, in 2009–or maybe not so miraculously to some — Hialeah again was granted a horse racing license, but not for thoroughbred racing. Eight years after its demise, Hialeah reopened as a quarter horse racing track. Problem was, no one seemed to notice, at least not the people who counted, those who remembered Hialeah from the past. Quarter horse racing is to thoroughbred racing what drag racing a ’57 Chevy is to racing a Ferrari at Monaco. A low-rent distant cousin of profound embarrassment.
I had last been to Hialeah for the Flamingo Handicap in the early ’90s. So this winter I decided to return to Hialeah, like an archeologist to a Mayan ruin, to excavate, pick through bits and pieces of its bones, to see if I could reconstruct the lost civilization that once flourished there and that was now, like the Old South, gone with the wind.
I contributed a sidebar (and Steve Goldman, another).
I’ve known Patty Jordan for close to ten years. We talk on the phone about every other day and have spent hours discussing writing technique, discipline, and about how not to screw up my marriage. Pat is a few decades my senior, so it’s reasonable to assume that he’s a kind of sainted avuncular figure, but the truth is we’re only friends so he can torture me about the Yankees.
The first time we spoke was back in the summer of 2003, when I interviewed him for my blog, Bronx Banter. He said he loved the teams of the late ‘90s. He called Paul O’Neill’s at bat against John Rocker in Game One of the 1999 Whirled Serious the best he’d ever seen. But he wasn’t so sure about these new Yankees. He didn’t like Jason Giambi and wasn’t crazy about Mike Mussina. He called Jeff Weaver “a fucking wimp,” and said, “Somebody should rip that gold chain off of Weaver’s neck.”
A few years later I edited a book of Patty’s sports writing. It was around this time that I started getting phone calls from him any time the Yankees lost a game.
“Hiya, Al,” he’d said.
“The hell do you want?”
“Oh, just wondering if you caught the Yankee game last night?”
I’d unleash a string of profanities ending with my telling him to perform an anatomical impossibility on himself right before I hung up.
My wife would be horrified. “Honey, you can’t do that to Patty, you’ll hurt his feelings.”
She’d give me a look and I’d feel ashamed. “Ah, maybe you’re right.”
This is when the phone would ring again. “Hiya, Al…”
Well, it takes a red ass to know a red ass and I’m easily excitable, especially when it comes to the Yankees. For Patty, the teasing isn’t so much about the Yanks, though, it’s about me being a sports fan. The only team he’s even remotely rooted for like a normal person is University of Miami football. He calls them “God’s Team.” But he’s too much of a coward to watch their games when they’re losing and I’ve got too much compassion than to kick an ankle away from a one-legged man.
Unlike most sportswriters, Patty’s not a sports fan. He’s a movie fan. He used to cry himself to sleep to the Lifetime Network, and is now he’s a sucker for British TV serials, but finds it beneath his dignity to be a fan of professional sports. He was a $50,000 bonus baby for the Milwaukee Braves and could throw in the mid-90s back when players wore wool uniforms. He played with Joe Torre and Phil Niekro in the minors. It doesn’t matter that his career fell apart and that he never made it to the majors. To this day Patty sees himself as a jock.
Typical Patty: After he’d turned himself into a writer, he was at spring training one year with a venerated reporter watching players shag flies. The writer lamented that they would never know what those players were really talking about. “They’re talking about beer, steak, and pussy,” Pat said. When the writer spoke of trembling with anxiety before interviewing Bob Gibson, Pat said, “Bob Gibson should be trembling before he talks to me. I’m PATTY FUCKING JORDAN.”
I can rag on his outsized ego and call him a cult writer who has shamelessly milked an abortive baseball career for forty years, but there it is: He played, I didn’t. He could throw the ball 95 mph—even for an occasional strike—I can fill out a scorecard. And he’s the kind of writer we all want to be. Aside from that, there’s no talking sense to a man who makes a living as a writer and still uses a Hermes 10 portable typewriter. He’ll rail against the Yankees, while I present lucid, well-balanced arguments. And for what? Just to get angrier?
Sometimes I try the Bugs Bunny trick and just agree with him. You’re right, the Yankees don’t know how to develop pitching—they completely ruined Joba Chamberlain. Oh yeah, Alex Rodriguez is a phony. It never works. I still end up red in the face, yelling like a madman.
The only trump card I hold is that Patty can’t compose himself for long, either. It’s like Kramden vs. Kramden and I can always get him going by calling his hero, Whitey Ford, a cheat or saying that Warren Spahn was a nice pitcher for his time but overrated. He especially hates it when I patronize him and defer to his greatness. Then he yells back at me, cursing my mixed Belgian and Jewish heritage.
That’s when his wife knows who is on the phone. “Give Alex my love,” I’ll hear her say in the background.
He’s no real fan like me, never could be. I watch every game no matter what. Admittedly, there’s no true suffering going on here. These are the Yankees, after all, not the Royals or the Cubs. But I suffer with each loss anyway, which makes me fair game. Last September, as the Yankees’ lead in the American League East withered, I got not one but two or three calls a day from Uncle Patty.
The angrier I became, the more times I hung up on him, and the happier he was. If he didn’t call, I’d call him, knowing that my tantrums were making his day. Who was I to deny an old man? Finally, after days of abuse, he relented, like a cat that’s grown bored with torturing a doomed mouse.
The closest I ever came to pitching a “Big Game” in the minors was in my last minor league season, and it was a “Big Game” only because it was my last game. The year was 1961, and I was pitching for the Palatka in the Class D Florida State League, against the Tampa Tarpons, a farm club for the Cincinnati Reds. I was wild as usual, walking batter after batter, sweating in the merciless August heat, kicking the dirt, cursing myself, my teammates, the umpires, the fans, the opposing batters just standing at the plate, relaxed, grinning even, their bat resting on their shoulder, not even expecting to swing, just waiting out their four balls before they trotted to first base. Their fans cheered my ineptitude at first, but even they got bored with so many walks and runs for their team, the game, for all intents and purposes, already over in the first inning. They began moaning and jeering, pleading with my manager to free everyone from this painful public disgrace, “Take him out, he’s done on both sides.”
The next batter stepped into the batter’s box. I already knew he would be the last batter I would ever face in my aborted career. I glared at him, my final chance to salvage some pride, to go out on my shield on a boat filled with burning straw into that vast sea of an ordinary life that awaited me in Bridgeport, where I expected to work one shit job after another to support my wife and squalling kids; Mason laborer. Soda jerk at a drugstore. Ditch digger on a construction crew. And then, after work, dirty, depressed, and disgusted, I would drink too many beers before I went home to my poor beleaguered wife.
So I decided to plant my fastball in this final batter’s ear; Pete Rose.
I was 10 in 1951. Every Saturday morning, my father would give me two dollar bills so I could take two buses from Fairfield into Bridgeport, Conn., where I would go to the Globe movie theater for the kids’ matinee from noon to 5 o’clock. I had to get a bus transfer in Black Rock and wait on a street corner for the next bus, which would drop me off downtown in front of Morrow’s Nut House, “nuts from all over the world.” I then walked four blocks along Main Street, past the stores and shoppers of this big, grimy factory city, until I came to the Globe and a long line of rowdy kids my age waiting to get inside.
After I got my popcorn and Jujyfruits, I searched for a seat in that dark, crowded, noisy theater with its frayed, burgundy-velvet seats and huge, overhead chandeliers like icicles. In the ’20s and ’30s, the Globe was a bustling Vaudeville theater with leering, popeyed, baggy-pants comics and peroxide-blond ecdysiasts. After World War II, the Globe fell on hard times and was reduced to holding kiddie matinees.
I found a seat next to an old man. He was unshaved, smelly, in tattered clothes. It was not unusual to find such bums scattered throughout the theater each week, their heads nodding on their chests, snoring. It was cheaper to buy a 25-cent ticket to the kiddie matinee than it was to pay a buck for a flophouse bed. There were other strange moviegoers, too. Teenage couples high up in the balcony, kissing. And an occasional woman, like my mother, in a flowered dress with shoulder pads, staring at the screen without interest, as if preoccupied with more weighty matters.
Here is a piece that Pat Jordan wrote for the New York Times back in 1989. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.
A Team Divided Can Still Win
At the Yankees’ spring training clubhouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Rickey Henderson tells reporters Yankee pitchers drink too much. Dave Righetti tells reporters Henderson should mind his own business. Don Mattingly tells reporters he thinks maybe Henderson has a point. Dave Winfield, seated at his locker, watches with a big mischevious grin as schools of reporters swim back and forth from Henderson’s locker to Righetti’s locker like tiny fish being led blindly by the pilot fish of dissension.
A few days later, at the Mets’ training camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Darryl Strawberry threatens to walk out of camp if the Mets don’t renegotiate his contract. He sulks on the field during photo day. Keith Hernandez tells him he’s acting like a baby. Strawberry takes a swing at Hernandez while cameras click. They scuffle and are finally pulled apart by teammates.
Back at the Yankee camp, Winfield, laughing now, says that the Mets have outfoxed the Yankees and now it’s the Yankees’ turn to find some way to get attention back on them. His teammates laugh.
Reporters, however, take the two disturbances seriously. They wonder, in print and on television, if dissension is ripping apart what they perceive as the delicately stitched fabric of clubhouse harmony each team must weave if it is to be successful? They see it all so clearly from their perspective, as men and women who have never been part of such clubhouses. They have always imparted to clubhouse harmony a certain romance of brotherhood they would only laugh at if someone tried to impart it, say, to the boardroom of I.B.M. They see relationships among players in a baseball clubhouse as merely an extension of the child-play relationships they remember from their youth.
In a way, this is condescending to the players, implying as it does a childishness on their part, which, as grown men, they don’t have. What reporters see, then, exists only in their mind’s eye. Which is why the players laugh. They know that clubhouse harmony or the lack of it hasn’t much to do with a team’s success on the field. Players know that good-natured camaraderie in the clubhouse, shared intimacies over a locker, plans to get together with families for a cookout on a day off, all have nothing to do with a team’s success.
Many a sublimely contented baseball team has finished out its season dead last, while more than a few angry, squabbling teams have gone on to win their league titles and the World Series. The Oakland A’s of the Reggie Jackson-Sal Bando era, and the Yankees of the Reggie Jackson-Thurmon Munson era are perfect examples of the latter.
Jackson and Munson may not have shared too many intimacies in the clubhouse before a game, but that certainly never affected their play on the field. Which is the point. The only thing that matters to players is the game. It unites 25 grown in spite of the fact that they all come from diverse backgrounds and may not have much in common.
The game is what gives players great tolerance for their teammates’ foolishness in the clubhouse. (”Oh, Rickey. He’s just being Rickey.”) They can accommodate themselves to Rickey being Rickey or Darryl being Darryl in the clubhouse as long as Rickey is Rickey and Darryl is Darryl once they step across those white lines. Then, everything is forgotten, fades from memory, becomes trivial.
Like most men in business, baseball players compartmentalize their jobs. What goes on across the white lines is infinitely more important than what goes on behind them. A close friend who consistently strikes out with the bases loaded isn’t as much use to a ballplayer as a despised teammate who consistently strokes game-winning hits. The respect a player feels for a teammate’s personal life has nothing to do with the respect he feels for a teammate’s baseball talent. Babe Ruth, Pete Rose and Wade Boggs are three of the greatest hitters ever in the game, and yet not many teammates might envy their personal lives. Yet to a man, every player in the game would want one of those three at the plate if a World Series championship was on the line.
Dissension then, although it may exist in the clubhouse, doesn’t much affect the game beyond it. That possibility is a creation of the news media, which mistakingly judges the game by the same standards it judges other jobs in ”the real world,” a phrase ballplayers use. In the real world, workers work in their clubhouse or office. The mood of their workplace does affect their jobs. A writer can’t write in a hateful environment any more than a salesman can sell his wares in one.
In the real world, a worker can sabotage a despised co-worker, and get away with it, because it generally won’t affect his job in a negative way. Often, it affects his job positively. He leapfrogs above his sabotaged co-worker. But baseball players work before a vast, all-seeing audience, not in the private confines of their clubhouse. If Henderson were to drop a fly ball deliberately to show up Righetti on the mound, it would be he, Henderson, who would be heaped with ridicule by the fans. Ballplayers’ egos are too big for them to expose themselves to such abuse. Therein lies the beauty of the game. It appeals to both an individual’s ego and his sense of team play.
Baseball isn’t like other team sports where the play of the individual and the team are often blurred. A running back in football can’t show much without the help of his linemen anymore than a basketball player can score points without sharp picks and passes from his teammates. Dissension in those sports can spill over onto the court and field and affect team play. Basketball players can freeze out a despised teammate, just as a football quarterback can freeze out a wide receiver.
In baseball, an individual’s play is distinct from the team’s success even though it contributes or detracts from it. Every player does his own solo dance before the fans. The shortstop, gliding into the hole like a skater on ice, backhands a sure hit, straightens himself, and throws the runner out to thunderous applause. His individual play is rewarded at the same time that his team is rewarded with an out. That’s the beauty of baseball. It’s the only team sport where an individual’s accomplishments or failures are first chalked up to him, personally, and only then added or subtracted from the team’s success or failure in a peripheral way. And always the team’s success or failure is greater than the sum of it’s individuals’ contributions.
In the late 50′s and early 60′s, I played minor league baseball throughout this country. I spent four years in baseball clubhouses with players who cheated their teammates in cards, who seduced their teammates’ wives, who were drunks or bigots or just plain mean, and I can’t remember one time when any of those players’ characteristics affected the play of their team on the field. In fact, I remember one time most clearly of all when I had a fistfight with a teammate who was most closely tied to my success or failure as a pitcher. The player was Elrod Hendricks, now a coach with the Baltimore Orioles.
Then, in 1959, we were playing for the McCook Braves in McCook, Neb. Elrod and I squared off on the sidewalk on Main Street one sunny afternoon in July. It was a brief fight. I lowered my head and charged Elrod like a bull. He grabbed me around the neck and began punching me in the stomach until I lost my wind and collapsed to the sidewalk. I sat there, ridiculously, legs spread like a child, gasping for breath.
That night, all of our teammates knew about the fight, as did our manager, who fined us both $25. When I took the mound in only my third professional game Elrod was my catcher. He called a beautiful game. He threw out two runners trying to steal second base and he tagged out the potential tying run in the eighth inning in a play at the plate. The runner slammed into Elrod with his shoulder and they both went tumbling in the dust. But Elrod held onto the ball, despite being spiked in the shin, drawing blood.
In the ninth inning, I struck out the last batter of the game with a nice curveball to record my first professional shutout. Elrod caught that third strike and leaped out of his crouch, grinning. He ran to the mound and threw his arms around me and hugged me.
“I don’t coach women,” the coach says. “I coach basketball players.” He tells a story. He was practicing with his team before a game when the opposing team’s female coach came out on the floor. “I’m telling my players how to play man-to-man defense. The other coach says: ‘You can’t say that. It’s person-to-person defense.’ I said, ‘You’re shittin’ me.’ She says, ‘But it’s women playing it.’ I say: ‘Yeah, but it’s man-to-man. They’re just pawns, without gender. I’m a gender-neutral coach.’”
…Geno became a women’s coach by accident. He was 21, without a job. A friend asked him to help out coaching a girls’ high school team. Geno said, “Girls! No way.” Then he thought about it. “I realized it could be pretty cool,” he tells me. “So I gave it a shot. The girls listened to me. They appreciated what I taught them.” His high school job led to an assistant coaching job on the University of Virginia’s women’s team, which led, in 1985, to an interview for the head job at UConn. By then, Geno had decided that he “liked coaching women. But I didn’t view it as coaching women. I was just coaching the game the way it should be played.
When I ask him why UConn hired him, he says: “I have no fucking idea. They wanted a woman. But nobody wanted the job. UConn had had only one winning season in its history. The facilities were lousy, there was no money, the pay was $29,000 a year, but I didn’t give a shit. I wanted to coach. So I lied to them. I told them I’m gonna do this, and this, and this, and they believed me. So I took the job. I figured I’d win a few games then after four years I’d go someplace good, men or women, as long as I could coach on a high level.” Those plans never materialized. His teams became very good, very quickly, and then, as he puts it, “a funny thing happened. After those first winning seasons, nobody called. Nobody gave a shit because I was a guy. The women’s teams didn’t want a guy, and the men’s teams figured if I was coaching women, how good could I be?”
He smiles, the big smile of a guy who’s got the last laugh. “Now nobody wants me because I’m making too much fucking money.”
Except for the eerie flickering of our flashlights, we batted away low branches and overgrown shrubs of the old cotton plantation in total darkness. There was no moonlight. It was, Grady Carter noted, “a perfect night for ghosts.” At that point his nephew Andy held up a hand and pointed into the woods. “I heard voices,” Andy said. We all stopped. Chris Carter, his cousin, whispered, “I see a red light.” “The spirits of dead slaves,” Grady confirmed. “A demonic orb.”
Grady, 66, is the winner of three purple hearts in Vietnam; his son, Chris, 41, is a former long-haul trucker; and Andy, 46, is a former bodyguard. Now all three Carter men are Twisted Dixie, a team of paranormal investigators — or, to use their less preferred term, ghostbusters. For fees upward of $2,000 per demonic possession, they camp out at night in clients’ houses, barns, businesses or woods and “document paranormal activity,” Andy explains, referring to “ghosts, demons, poltergeists.” Twisted Dixie grosses a little more than $50,000 a year, sometimes charging fees for long investigations and sometimes working on spec at famous sites like Fort Sumter and the Burt-Stark Mansion in Abbeville, S.C. — often called the birthplace and the deathbed of the Confederacy, and the home of Twisted Dixie. No matter the job, they always work at night because, they say, that’s when ghosts tend to whisper.
He spent his life pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Now he wanted me to know the real deal.
Here is PJ at his best. This essay about his father first ran in the November/December issue of AARP in 2006 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.
Dad’s Last Visit
By Pat Jordan
My father died in the spring of 2005, a year and a half after my mother died, and a week after he visited my wife and me in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 95. She was 97.
My niece was with my father when he died in a hospital room in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She told me at his funeral that he had awakened from a coma and began shouting for me, “Patty! I have to call Patty!” Then he died.
My father’s visit was my brother George’s idea. “To connect with Dad one last time,” he said. Actually, he’s my half brother. We have the same mother but different fathers. His father left him and our mother a few years after my brother was born. Then my father married our mother and raised my brother as his natural son, although he never adopted him legally. I came along 14 years later.
I went to the airport early to meet Dad. My brother told me to get him a wheelchair. I said, “He’s too vigorous for that. It’ll embarrass him.” He said, “No, he likes the attention.” I pushed the wheelchair to the gate and asked one of the exiting passengers if he remembered an old man on the flight.
“He’s bald, with a white mustache,” I said. The man said, “You’re the writer! He talked my ear off about you the entire flight.” I said, “That’s him.”
Finally Dad came hobbling out of the jetway, clutching a small bag in one hand and, in the other, a paperback book. I hadn’t seen him since my mother’s funeral. He looked the same, only more halt. He wore a navy blazer, rep tie, and gray slacks. His con. “I always dressed Ivy League,” he once said.
“The suckers bought it.”
“Curly!” I said. He looked up with his opaque, gray-blue eyes. We kissed on the lips as did all the men in our Italian family. “I got you a wheelchair, Pop. But you won’t need, will you?”
“I’d like it,” he said in a weak voice. I settled him in the wheelchair and began pushing him through the crowded airport. He arranged the paperback book on his lap so that its cover showed. Kafka’s Metamorphosis. People smiled down at him, and then up at me, the dutiful son, also an old man with his white beard.
I leaned over him and said, “How does it feel to be 95, Pop?”
“Not like I felt at 80.”
We stood outside in the hot sunshine and disorienting traffic. “Wanna wait here while I bring the car around?” I said.
“No, I can walk.”
A sheriff’s deputy stopped traffic so Dad and I could cross the street to the parking garage. It was dark and cool in the garage. I sat him down on a bench near the elevator. “I’ll get the car,” I said.
As I walked toward the car, I called Susan. “How is he?” she said.
“The same,” I said. “Only older.”
When we got home Susan greeted Dad at the front door with a kiss. “Wait here, Dad,” she said. “I’ll put the dogs in the backyard.”
“That’s all right,” he said. “I want to see the orphan.” He meant Matthew, our mutt, the one we’d rescued. Our other five dogs were thoroughbred Shiba Inus we’d bought. Matthew was always deliriously happy. Our Shibas were aloof. They thought we were lucky to have them.
Dad had never met Matthew, but he identified with him from the first moment we got him. “An orphan, like me,” Dad said. Dad never knew his mother or his father. His mother was a 16-year-old girl from Italy who gave him up to an orphanage the moment he was born to her in a strange land. Dad lived in the orphanage for 15 years, then he got a job sweeping out a pool hall. He slept on the green felt tables. Over the years he became a great pool shooter for money, and then an expert with dice and cards, and every form of gambling. That’s how he made his living. His secret, he said, was that he always looked for the edge. Marked cards, shaved dice, and an affected intellectualism that was a masquerade. He would hustle the Palm Beach swells for inside information at their private club box at Hialeah Park racetrack during the Flamingo Stakes, flaunting a Jay Gatsby-esque manner of speaking and a superficial knowledge of the Greek philosophers, without any notion of what they meant, except to use them in his con to separate the “suckers” from their money. But he gave his money away, to his cronies, his wife, his sons. It was the con he loved.
Shortly before I was born, Dad went to a judge to get his name legally changed from Pasquale Giordano to Pat Jordan so I would be born “an American.” The judge said, “That’ll be $17.” Dad said, “I don’t have the money.” The judge felt sorry for this poor Italian, with his lowered eyes and deferential slouch, so he changed my father’s name for nothing. What the judge would never know was that my father had over a thousand dollars in his pocket in that courtroom. Dad’s con gave him his sense of worth as a human being. Every time he conned the “suckers” out of money, or love, or intimacy, it was proof in his mind’s eye that he was someone special, smarter, better. Dad’s con was the most important thing in his life.
Matthew was a con, too, but in a more elemental way. He ran out of the North Carolina woods one night and up onto the porch of our cabin with his two brothers. They were straggly, starving, flea- and tick-infested mountain puppies no more than 12 weeks old. We fed them all. Matthew’s two brothers wolfed down the food and ran back into the woods. Matthew stayed. He tried to climb into our laps. He licked our hands. He lay on the deck on his back with his legs spread, his pink belly and tiny balls exposed. So, we adopted him. Our Shibas resented him at first, this interloper, until he conned them, too, and they accepted him into the pack.
Susan opened the front door wide and Dad stepped inside. Our dogs came running. Our Shibas sniffed at Dad’s shoes and pants and then lost interest. Matthew leaped up on Dad with his paws, whimpering and wagging his tail, as if he had been waiting for Dad all his life. Dad giggled. “See!” he said. “My fellow orphan loves me.” I didn’t tell Dad that Matthew loved everyone; that was his con.
We got Dad seated at the dining room table. Matthew stood up on his hind legs and draped his front paws over Dad’s knees. He stared up at Dad with his huge brown eyes filled with such love that Dad was almost moved to tears. “He loves me,” he said, and petted Matthew’s floppy ears. I made Dad a drink, a Tanqueray martini. “You remembered, son,” he said. He sipped his drink. Matthew lay at his feet. Dad smiled down on him. “He won’t leave me.” Susan brought a tray of cheese and crackers. Matthew perked up. Dad took a bite of cheese and crackers, and a crumb fell to the floor. Matthew licked it up.
We put Dad’s bag in the guest room. Susan set the table for dinner. I heated up the sausage and peppers. I had cooked in the morning, and served it to Dad with hot garlic bread and a glass of red wine. Dad ate methodically, silently, and when he finished, he said, “I’m tired. I think I’ll go to sleep.” He went into the guest room as Susan cleared the table.
“So far, so good,” she said.
“So far,” I said.
Susan went to sleep in the bedroom with the dogs. I lay down on the sofa in the Florida room where I could see into the house in case Dad woke and didn’t know where he was. I watched TV late into the night, glancing toward the guest room, until I fell asleep.
Ah, now Grantland has something here that really smokes. They are running a “Director’s Cut” series reprinting old pieces of sports writing. First up, is Tony Kornheiser’s profile of Nolan Ryan from the debut issue of Inside Sports. Kornheiser was a wonderful long-form writer, first at Newsday, then the New York Times, where he covered basketball and wrote, “That Damned Yankees,” which stands as one the finest stories on George Steinbrenner.
For the first year-and-a-half of its run, Inside Sports was terrific. It was run by John Walsh. Tom Boswell was their baseball guy, Pete Axthelm contributed a column. Diane K. Shah was there. Gary Smith got his start as a magazine writer there and once wrote a wonderful basketball story called “Tinkerbell and Sweet Lou.” Kornheiser did several bonus pieces, including a classic one on Joe Nameth, and the great Pete Dexter also did takeouts for them–on Jim Brown, Randy White, Daryl Dawkins, and the Tooz. Len Shapiro wrote about Bill James, John Schulian about Mark Aguirre and Gary Fencik, George Kimball on George Brett, and Dick Young wrote a fine piece on Duke Snider. Oh, yeah, Leonard Gardner, who wrote perhaps the finest boxing novel of them all, covered Duran Leonard.
Pat Jordan wrote the most celebrated story in the magazine’s history, a profile of Steve and Cyndi Garvey. The Garvey’s sued Inside Sports’ parent company (The Washington Post) and the ordeal put Jordan’s career on hold for more than a year (though he wrote two more pieces for them: a spring training story on the Yankees, and a profile of Steve Dalkowski). The suit, however, kept the magazine going longer than expected, according to Jay Lovinger, one of its editors. The case was eventually settled, the Garveys got divorced, and the Post sold the magazine. It was never the same.
I’m looking forward to this series. It’s a real mitzvah when you consider that the majority of the greatest sports writing is not available on-line.