Categories
From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Looking Back at 1994 – “A Great Year for Fisticuffs” in the NHL

Editor’s note, May 25, 2021: With the latest round of vicious cheap shots from Capitals goon Tom Wilson, we thought we’d flip through the Voice archives to see how we reported on NHL fisticuffs of yore. For those who want a better grasp of the history of blood on the ice, we bring you an occasional feature that ran in Jockbeat back in the day:

 

Categories
ANALYSIS 2021 From The Archives JOCKBEAT 2021 JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES News 2021 SPRING PRINT EDITION 2021 Uncategorized

Hello? It’s the Future Calling. Yeah, the Jets Still Suck at Drafting.

The New York Jets are just weeks away from an April 29th NFL draft that will surely alter the course of the franchise’s history for years to come. They’re going to get it wrong.

Trust me, I’ve already seen the draft and the ensuing season. But I came back to 2021 in order to drop some wisdom on eager Jets fans who just can’t wait to see who Gang Green selects. The same fans who are mired in a decade in which their team has finished with a winning record just twice (2010 and 2015; 70–106 overall), who haven’t seen their squad in a Super Bowl since 1968, and who have witnessed drafting ineptitude that transcends regimes since the 1980s.

Misplaced as it is, I’ve got to admire your faith.

Right now you’re probably yelling, “Who’d the Jets take with the second overall pick?!” Oh, and you want to know if he’s the future, right?

There’s that faith again.

Of course, considering my omnipotence, I could answer all of your questions about the upcoming season. But first, I’ll divulge a more vital piece of information: It doesn’t matter who the New York Jets select in the draft. It has rarely ever mattered, in fact.

Simply put, the Jets do not draft well. Their history is plagued with first-round busts and missed opportunities to draft better players. Jets fans know it. Most of them admit it. The rest have no doubt buried the knowledge deep in their subconscious in order to continue their fandom after more than a half-century of misery.

A lot of that heartache can be attributed to New York’s inability to find elite long-term options through the draft, especially at the quarterback position. You have to go back a couple decades to find the last QB who started for the Jets for more than five seasons: Chad Pennington. The 18th overall pick in 2000, Pennington showed flashes of promise as a starter from 2002 to 2007. However, 2008 saw the Jets cut the oft-injured quarterback in favor of veteran Brett Favre. Later that year, a once-hopeful campaign would be stomped out in the final game of the season by the Miami Dolphins. Miami’s quarterback was Chad Pennington.

The next—and last—period of “stability” at the position came in 2009, when the Jets drafted Mark Sanchez fifth overall. Though mostly powered by their defense, New York made it to two straight AFC Championship games (2009 and 2010) with Sanchez under center, losing both. Sanchez spent four seasons with the Jets, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns and becoming best known by NFL fans for his part in the notorious “Butt Fumble,” in 2012.

New York’s inability to find a quarterback through the draft doesn’t begin or end with the 2000s, though. Who could forget the 1983 draft, where college star Dan Marino miraculously fell to the Jets at 24th overall? Well, they opted for quarterback Ken O’Brien instead, who had a few decent seasons with the team during his nine-year run. Marino went to Miami three picks later and is considered one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to grace the sport.

Still excited for the draft? How about their most recent investment? 2018 saw the Jets take Sam Darnold with the third overall pick. Four selections later, the Buffalo Bills pounced on Josh Allen. Allen is now a top-five QB in the NFL. Darnold was just recently traded to the Carolina Panthers as New York is poised to take another swing at drafting a quarterback.

[related_posts post_id_1=”731855″ /]

But this time around, it’ll work, right? Don’t bet on it, because the horrors range beyond the QB position. In 1995, New York took tight end Kyle Brady ninth overall despite an apparent lack of need at the position. Three picks later, defensive lineman Warren Sapp went to Tampa Bay. Brady played four uninspiring years for the Jets. Sapp became a Hall of Famer.

Since 2010, the Jets have used first- and second-round selections on the likes of Kyle Wilson, Quinton Coples, Dee Milliner, Calvin Pryor, Stephen Hill, Jace Amaro, Devin Smith, Geno Smith, and Christian Hackenberg. Only one of them spent more than four years with New York. Most were purged from the NFL shortly after leaving the team. The Darnold deal marked something of a milestone for the Jets: of their ten first-round selections from 2010 to 2018, none remain on the roster.

I mean, even in the rare instances where they get it right, they get it wrong! Look at the 1985 draft, for example. The Jets took wide receiver Al Toon. Great player, right? Now he’s in the Jets’ Ring of Honor. Six picks later, the San Francisco 49’ers selected wide receiver Jerry Rice. Rice more than tripled Toon’s career output, got into the real Hall of Fame, and is considered the best player at his position ever.

Other times, New York drafts well but just gets rid of the player. Exceptionally talented picks like safety Jamal Adams and defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson were both traded before their rookie contracts were up. Even sophomore standout Quinnen Williams was mentioned in trade rumors in 2020. It’s a vicious cycle!

I could dig into the 2003 draft, where New York passed on 17 future Pro Bowlers in the first two rounds, or the 2005 draft, when they selected a kicker with their first pick, but I won’t. Most of the picks are terrible. The good ones are either traded or overshadowed by better selections.

But every team makes these kinds of mistakes . . . right? You keep telling yourself that. In 2000 Tom Brady was picked in the sixth round by the Patriots, 199th overall. And yep, that was the year the Jets used their third pick—after they chose defensive ends Shaun Ellis and John Abraham 12th and 13th overall—to scoop up Pennington. They passed a total of seven times on the man who would dominate their division for the next 19 years. Oops.

So, no, I won’t reveal who the Jets take with the second overall pick in 2021, because while the names and positions may change, the results rarely do. It will not work out.

You don’t need to be from the future to know that.  ❖

 

From the Village Voice 2021 Spring print edition

 

2021 Village Voice jockbeat article about how poorly the Jets do at drafting

Categories
From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES

There’s Only One Diego Maradona

Meet Mr. June! It is Maradona, or, as he is more affectionately known by his millions of fans the world over, “The Divine Diego.” What a hunk! He is 25. Diego comes from Argentina, the country he will be playing for in the World Cup this month. But he plays professional soccer for a club in Naples, Italy. There he is called “The God of Napoli!” They even name their children after him! They buy Maradona wigs, and pizzas too. He loves the people, and they love him! Maradona earns $2 million a year, but it does not go to his head. He signs many autographs. “I came from a poor background,” he says, “so I understand how important soccer is to people.” As you can see from the photographs, Diego leads a very exciting life. In his spare time, Maradona is the UNICEF ambassador for the children of the world. That is just another reason why Armonda Diego Maradona is our Mr. June. Divine!

—  Tom Kertes, Mexico, 1986 

GENOA, 1990 — The Mondiale, a frus­tratingly ambivalent experience, sweeps you up in a corporate-fu­eled dolce vita, then wears you out in a morass of anticlimax and overkill. It leaves you lost on nar­row streets asking for directions to the stadium: the locals always as­sure you it’s straight ahead, can’t miss it, but inevitably it’s five ki­lometers off to the right, on the other side of a highway. In Nap­les’s enormous Stadio San Paolo, hundreds of Romanian fans sing­ing songs of the December revolu­tion wave their blue, yellow, and red tricolor; each flag has a big hole cut out of its middle, a re­minder that back home the fight for democracy is perhaps being lost. The national anthem is played. and the woman sitting next to me is on the verge of tears. “This is an important game for Romania,” I say to her in French after a decent interval, “for many reasons, no?” She looks at me enigmatically and says nothing. “Important,” I try again, this time with an emphasis just short of el­bowing her in the ribs, “because of the events in Bucharest — the miners, the government, the dem­onstrations … ” She half-nods noncommittally. I see from her la­pel pin that she works for Roma­nian state radio.

You get pumped for epiphany but end up with exactly what you would’ve expected in the first place. This is what happened to the United States national team. Prior to the selection’s departure for Italy nobody gave them a prayer, but in the last few days before their opening match the phrase “Miracle on Ice” began to appear in newspaper stories, and sportswriters, particularly those who know little about soccer, wondered how the young Ameri­cans might manage to steal a win or a couple of ties and sneak through to the second round. In the end, of course, the U.S. wound up finishing slightly ahead of just one of the other 23 teams, the all-amateur United Arab Emirates, and that’s exactly what everyone expected. Nevertheless, many American reporters who’d come to Italy felt betrayed. So last week at Florence’s Stadia Comun­ale, when the first U.S. players slouched into the interview room after losing their final match to Austria, the reporters asked them the inevitable “How do you feel’?” — a pointed question, since the Yanks had lost, 2-1.

[related_posts post_id_1=”597309″ /]

“We’re disappointed,” said de­fender John Boyle, offering the scribes just the note of contrition they were looking for. “We came to Italy with hopes of moving into the second round, but the loss to Czechoslovakia [a 5-1 debacle] surprised us. There wasn’t much we could do after that.” Jimmy Banks, another backliner, whose game-long battle with rugged Aus­trian attacker Andreas Ogris helped to make the match the roughest of the tournament’s opening round, apologized for al­lowing Ogris to score. So did Des­mond Armstrong, another culpa­ble defender on the play. The room was redolent with shame, hand-wringing, wincing accounts of shattered hopes, and then the reporters asked Tab Ramos for his assessment. “If anything,” said Ramos, “we learned that our soc­cer is closer to the rest of the world than most people thought.”

This was the truest response; for the Americans in this World Cup, God lived in the details. Like in the two goals they scored: Paul Caligiuri’s magnificent solo effort in which he ran past three Czechoslovaks to plant the ball in the net, and Bruce Murray’s op­portunistic garbage goal made possible by Ramos and Peter Ver­mes’s deft give-and-go against the Austrians. Armstrong’s little epiphany game against the Ital­ians, when, “I was able to mark one of the best forwards in the world [Gianluca Vialli], and he only got past me once. There are people back home aching to say they started in the World Cup in Rome against Italy, but only 11 of us did it, and I’m really proud that I’m one of them.”

The American team will get an­other chance in the Mondiale in four years, when the United States plays host to the world’s hugest, most terrifying sporting event. There is a great deal of pressure on the Americans to field a team worthy of the honor, but that’ll be a difficult feat as long as the coun­try remains without a viable pro­fessional league — or, as U.S. Soc­cer Federation president Werner Fricker claims, until the sport in America sheds its “suburban, up­per-middle-class” image and be­comes popular among “poor kids, who know what it means to strug­gle.” Right now, at any rate, the nation’s hopes lie in its players who are good enough to play in European leagues. Caligiuri, per­haps the U.S.A.’s steadiest player, is about to sign on with one of four fair-to-middling first division teams in the Italian League, the world’s best. Twenty-year-old goalkeeper Tony Meola, who per­formed bravely under siege but not as brilliantly as most observ­ers in the U.S. and Italy had pre­dicted, is also about to sign with a midlevel first division Italian club. Ramos, sometimes brilliant as a playmaker, sometimes guilty of tactically unsound individual­ism, is trying to work out a deal with Roda in the Dutch first divi­sion (a stumbling block is the $750,000 transfer fee the U.S. Soccer Federation is demanding  from Roda). And John Harkes, the the American revelation of the tournament for his fire and dogged pursuit of the ball, is negotiating with top teams in Austria  and Belgium. Five other players are talking to European clubs, but right now Caligiuri, Meola, Ramos, and Harkes are the nucleus of the ’94 World Cup team — and of the future of American soccer. “Some kid somewhere in the States is dreaming of playing top flight soccer in the U.S.,” as Caligiuri told a reporter from Rome’s Il Messagero, “and maybe some day that kid will realize his dream. I’d like to think that I will be one of the pioneers.”

It would be nice to end there, with the minor epiphany, but unfortunately the U.S. was one of only three small footballing countries that failed to impress (South Korea and the Emirates were the others). Costa Rica, for example, beat Scotland and Sweden and, most impressively of all, lost 1-0 to joyous and mighty Brazil. With the president and Nobel Peace laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez cheering them on, the Ticos rode the heroic goalkeeping of Luis Cabelo Conejo into the second round, where they finally fell to the Mondiale’s other beacon of civility, Czechoslovakia. Such was Costa Rica’s anonymity that Bob Hughes, soccer columnist for London’s Sunday Times and the International Herald-Tribune, praised the mettle of “this island team.”

On the other side of football’s third world, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions are now the darlings of the planet. Led by 38-year-old supersub Roger Milla, the Africans humbled defending champion Argentina and flashy Romania before beating the zany Colombians in two overtimes. I might mention here that there is only one city in all of Italy that does not seem to care about the World Cup: inward-looking, medieval Siena, which is preoccupied with the horse race qua internal warfare that is the Palio; no Italian flags in that city, just the banners of Siena’s 17 neighborhoods. Yet, at 7:40 last Saturday, moments after Milla had sealed a victory for the Indomitable Lions, a lone African holding a Cameroon flag strolled into the central square. With each café he passed, the Siennese applauded politely, a delicate rippling sound that wound slowly around the stately piazza.

[related_posts post_id_1=”18376″ /]

The Mondiale revolves around a different kind of world power, the Italians, the Germans, the Dutch — and also the Argentinians and Brazilians, whose encounter in Turin last Sunday marked the first emotional climax of the Mondiale. Thousands of Brazilian fans, some in carnaval fright wigs, some in drag, all in their national team’s yellow jersey, samba’d into the cavernous Stadio Delle Alpi to bury the archrival Argentinians and especially Diego Armando Maradona, the hated, fading prima donna who nonetheless is still the best player the world. Just one minute into the game Brazil established the tempo when Careca (Maradona’s teammate on Napoli, the Italian club champion) ran 50 yards through two Argentine defenders; his shot was just pushed wide of Sergio Goycoechea, the keeper. So it went for the next 70 minutes: Valdo, Alem, Branco, Dunga, Muller, a host of single-named Brazilian footballists, dazzling the crowd with im­possible individual maneuvers and visionary passes, strangling the Argentinian attack, shackling Maradona — but not scoring. The little Argentinian guy sitting next to me is emitting small, choked sounds. “Fifteen times Brazil could’ve scored,” he blurted. ”We are doomed.” Then, with 10 min­utes to go, the stocky Maradona makes one good play, feeding young blond beauty Claudio Can­iggia in the penalty area; Caniggia fakes Taffarel to the ground and … goooalllll! The little Ar­gentinian guy next to me is leap­ing up and down; on the field, Caniggia is mobbed. Maradona lies flat on his back in the corner, alone, his arms raised to heaven. The samba drums in the stands fall silent, the green and yellow flags droop. The game resumes: the Brazilian players are now in disarray, shouting at each other. They almost surrender another goal, but regroup for one last try, and behind me a woman is pray­ing in Portuguese. In the 88th minute Muller gets the ball all alone in front of the net — shoots it wide. The game end, Brazil’s eliminated. The stadium empties out, except for a few knots of leaping, singing, Argenti­na fans, the smiling golden sun on their light blue flags bouncing up and down joyously. Here and there a few Brazilians sit, in shock, staring out at the disas­trously empty field. Afterward Maradona appears before the press for the first time in weeks and is asked what he did on the winning pass. “I prayed to the Lord,” he replies. The defending champ is still alive.

That night in Turin the Argen­tines and Brazilians sat together in bars to watch West Germany trounce the disappointing Dutch in Milan. Then at the Turin sta­tion everyone — South Americans, Italians, Irish, Africans — piled onto the midnight train to Genoa for the next day’s Eire-Romania match (won by Ireland on penalty kicks, 5-4). Four young Napoli fans festooned in a crazy-quilt mixture of Brazil and Argentina garb serenaded the sleeper cars, singing “Un Maradona, c’è solo un Maradona” to the tune of “Guan­tanamera”; “One Maradona, there’s only one Maradona.” The train finally started to pull out. “Ar-gen-tina, Ar-gen-tina,” a couple of young men two windows down chanted to a fat man, dressed in Brazilian yellow and holding a Forza Italia flag, stand­ing near the end of the pier. “Ca-mer-un, (Ca-me-run.” chanted the fat man in response. Everybody cheered, and then the train pulled away into the night, on to the next game at the world championships of football. ❖

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES

Abstract Baseball

Earl Weaver was the perfect baseball manager. A bantam without the athleticism to make it in the Show, he had a numbers runner’s smarts that made his Orioles perennial contenders. His pre-computer-age secret was a collection of 3×5 cards on which he plotted the stats of all his batters against opposing pitchers, and vice versa. Weaver had excellent instincts, and knew that in baseball (which, after all, employs managers not coaches) numbers and bodies both count.

Bodies also count a lot in fine art, but sport has rarely been depicted in that particular field. For every Greco-Roman discus thrower or Bel­lows boxing canvas, there are thousands of ren­derings of Christ. Contemporary art gives us Kiki Smith’s defecating figures and Sensation’s “Dead Dad”; sports, meanwhile, have been left largely to flaccid hacks like LeRoy Neiman.

Since the early ’90s, however, artist Janet Cohen has been getting at baseball’s bottom line in a series of evocative conceptual drawings. In her most recent show, at the Clementine Gallery (through May 13, 526 West 26th Street), her works appear to be little more than patches of stray marks. But take a closer look, and even a casual fan soon realizes that the blur of black scratches are actually handwritten baseball no­tations: S’s, B’s, and K’s. These are mixed with similar notations in red. The blacks and reds are densely layered and sometimes obscure each other as they clot into four hazy groups that roughly define the corners of a rectangle. The artist has printed at the bottom “Minnesota at New York 5.17.98 New York Wins 4-0.”

Huh? So? The second drawing is similar, though more spare, entitled “Montreal at New York 7.18.99 Yankees Win 6-0.” More drawings follow, providing an increasingly complete pic­ture of the two games. The red and black nota­tions become more explicit, revealing additional information: players’ names, numbers of hits, errors. By the seventh variation, what die-hard Yankee fans have known all along is explicated in a caption: These are abstractions of David Wells’s and David Cone’s perfect games.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713648″ /]

But Cohen goes beyond mere scorekeep­ing, charting where each pitch crosses the plane of the strike zone. Black for the home pitcher, red for the visitor, each pitch is consecutively numbered and annotated. The result­ing drawings become anti-targets, a record of pitchers striving to avoid the bull’s-eye that any major leaguer could park in the bleachers. One could spend an “unmanageable amount of time” (as broadcaster Michael Kay might gripe after a typical three-and-a-half-hour Yankee game) finding nuances and subtleties that, like the game itself, leave both a solid record and an evanescent aura.

For instance, the drawings inform us that both games were perfect. Yet we can tell which pitcher is the slob — individual black B’s drift haphazardly from the mass in Wells’s triumph. Meanwhile, dapper Cone keeps his pitches tight and economical, with even the farthest off the plate enticing a batter to K.

In separate, inning-by-inning drawings of Cone’s game, a sense of the ever more exacting groove he is working emerges: His black marks are terse and spare, even as the red plottings of the Montreal pitcher Javier Vasquez hemorrhage on the page of the second inning, when the Yanks hammered him for five runs. By the sixth inning Cone needs only five pitches, while a valiant Vasquez struggles to contain the earlier damage, needing only nine of his own to shut out the side. A minor red flurry in the eighth chases Vasquez, and the ninth drawing is monochromatic, black graphite inexorably counting off Cone’s final 11 pitches.

These drawings are absent a climactic roar, but they are rich with reflection, with the ob­scuring drizzle of April, the muggy haze of Au­gust, and the crisp clarity of October. So perhaps in Janet Cohen, baseball, which is ultimately unquantifiable (no matter how hard Bill James tries), has found its perfect artist.

2000 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about Janet Cohen's conceptual drawings about David Cone and David Wells perfect games for the Yankees

Categories
From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES

Rumble in the Jungle: The Triumph of Bad and Cool

Watching the Fight in Harlem

” ‘Cos black is so bad
And white is so sad.
Ah said it
Ah meant it
Ah really re-pra-sent it.”
— Street jive heard in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Black boys are bad. They are bad and they are cool. They are so bad that sometimes they do indescribable things. White boys are not bad and they are not cool. But sometimes they like to think they are. When white boys want to play bad they walk through Central Park at midnight and then write about it. That is not bad and anyone who makes a living that way should be paid in Puerto Rican furniture.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717739″ /]

Last week Muhammad Ali did a few things to show that he was the baddest and the coolest. He beat that chump of a champ George Foreman in eight rounds; he became the only authentic, living hero on the face of this planet, and then he proved himself to be the only viable personality left over from the ’60s. It was just glorious. Allah now has oil and a world boxing champion. Could any god ask for more?

I saw Muhammad Ali do those things at the Victoria Theatre in Harlem on Wednesday night. So did a number of other people, most of them men who bore the marks of former bad boys. In any case, they spoke that way. They used the word nigger very loosely and they made it sound worthwhile and respectable. They also used the word faggot a lot which they did not make sound worthwhile and respectable. In these circles, I discovered, faggot has replaced the word mo’fucker.

It was a very un-slick audience. No one looked as if they had gotten dressed up for the event. The closest thing to being glamorous anyone came was one man who walked around with an orange-coloured Panasonic cassette player. Lots of people carried brown paper bags which held bottles of stuff. Yes, it was a low-tone crowd, but a very bad low-tone crowd.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722046″ /]

Most people were for Ali. You could tell because no one bought the Foreman posters. That wasn’t a good sign for Foreman. A bad man ought to have the bad people behind him. Well, Foreman might be bad, but he wasn’t the baddest. People were going crazy in the aisles telling each other how Ali would do it, in what time, in what style. It wasn’t entertainment, it wasn’t politics, it was going to be vindication. Ali became a redeemer of sorts.

There were lots of guards in the theatre and they all wore dark glasses. It made them look very ominous but they were really quite nice. They saved choice seats for themselves. I sat next to one named Michael Finch. There were some things he wanted me to know.

“Muhammad represents all black manhood. He’s got the pride of his people. He fought against America for himself and for his people. Aside from all that, I just dig his poetics. But I tell you he gonna give that Foreman what’s his. He gonna open his eyes, then he gonna close them, then he gonna put a tin cup in his hand and put him on a street corner where he belong.”

Then. “What would happen if the picture won’t come on? I tell you if that picture don’t come on you’ll see hell up in Harlem. Hell. I’d throw off this stuff and pretend I’m one of you all.”

Michael Finch had an opinion on everything. When the image of David Frost, who acted as one of the hosts, first appeared on the screen, he said, “What’s that faggot doing up there? He don’t belong in no fight. He should be home with his wife drinking coffee and dipping doughnuts.”

He called Joe Frazier a faggot and a turkey. He called George Foreman a faggot and a monster. He called everyone he didn’t like a faggot. When he saw Muhammad Ali in a pre-fight interview, he said, “He’s a terrible nigger, man. I tell you that nigger is bad.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”722322″ /]

I learned a number of things that evening.

1. Muhammad is the cool way of referring to Muhammad Ali.

2. When a black person uses the word nigger it can be a positive thing or a negative thing. It all depends on a number of complicated variables. White people in general, however, are not allowed to let the word even cross their minds. Michael Finch said that nigger is a bad word and white people just don’t measure up as far as badness is concerned.

3. The announcer said that other people had said it (and I think he meant the fight) couldn’t happen in the deepest part of Africa, but here it is. This was followed by random film clips of downtown Zaire. Well, it is happening in the deepest part of Africa. Downtown Zaire has wonderful, big skyscrapers. It looked just tremendous. The World Trade Center may be hideous in Manhattan but it would look just fabulous in Zaire. Skyscrapers, like polyester, may be the birthright of Third World consumers.

4. Zaire has an authenticity program that promotes and encourages native customs that Europeans used to consider vulgar and primitive. Before the fight the close-circuit as well as the actual audience were entertained by Zairians performing their own various tribal folk dances. It was very elaborate and suggestive and you saw that the Soul Train Dancers didn’t invent the Funky anything. Perhaps it goes to prove that this particular racial group is just all round rhythmic. Michael Finch said he liked the way those people get down. In any case the fact that authenticity programs and skyscrapers can exist side by side and find appreciation under the same national umbrella is somehow remarkable.

5. The Zaire River used to be called the Congo River. I don’t know why they changed it. Congo seems like such a nice name for a river.

6. President Mobotu, the President of Zaire, is very stylish and very handsome. He wears a leopard skin pillbox very well.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717668″ /]

Around 10 o’clock Muhammad Ali entered the ring. The audience in the the theatre rose to its feet and cheered. Actually, they said, “Ali bomaye.” [“Ali, kill him.”] The tribal spirit is very contagious. He looked like a movie star, the way he strode into the ring. His face looked smooth as a peach, his hair was nicely done — no split ends. Then he took off his robe and flexed the muscles in his arms. Gosh! He has the best pair of collar bones you have ever seen on any screen. Muhammad Ali before the fight looked so precious. Muhammad Ali after the fight was a little rough in spots. He clowned a little and led the audience in the Ali bomaye chant. It was quite heroic. I thought he was just wonderful, he said he was just wonderful, the audience in the theatre told his video image he was just wonderful.

Five minutes or so later George Foreman entered the ring. The audience booed at him. He didn’t have the grace of Ali at all. And besides he had lots of split ends. He just doesn’t have the face of a hero. In a pre-fight interview, Ali said that the way he psyched himself up for this fight with Foreman was to watch lots of old horror movies like “The Horrors of Count Dracula” and “The Return of the Werewolf.” Well, it is true that Foreman looks like a big black mound of brute force which is not the sort of thing you want to meet alone in a deserted alley. Foreman fell into the un-appealing low-tone category. Ali was high tone all the way and you can’t get any badder than that.

At the end of it all Foreman the chump was beaten by Ali the Champ. That was bad enough. But really the baddest thing in that whole fight was Ali leading the crowd in the Ali bomaye chant somewhere between the 4th and 5th round of the fight. Now that is so bad and so cool. It took the concept of bad and cool further than you ever dreamed it could go.

Foreman is now so ashamed of himself that he goes around telling people that Ali is a credit to his family, race and boxing. Maybe. But Ali says he is a credit to Allah. I believe him. It is the year of Allah and all you foolish people who think someone else is coming, good luck. But just remember, I told you first: When he comes he’ll be riding a camel, not carrying a cross. ❖

Categories
From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Only the Knicks Can Make Us Respectable Now

Voice Sports

After years of false pregnancies, the New York sporting crowd may at last father a legitimate champion. For a long time now, our sporting offspring have been a disappointment to us — indeed, some have proved themselves ungrateful bastards.

The Dodgers deserted to the square, sunny clime of Southern California, and the Giants dropped out in San Francisco. The Yankees raise as much passion as Nixon’s cabinet, and the football Giants under Allie Sherman, the gridiron’s Robert McNamara, still talk but do not wage the best warfare in town. The Jets’ championship was a surprise, even a shock — a sleazy one-night stand, conceived in Miami, produced the AFL bastard we consistently and disdainfully ignored but are belatedly trying to adopt since he turned out to be a bouncing beauty. So it is now up to the Knicks to restore our respectability.

At the first home playoff game against the Baltimore Bullets on Saturday afternoon in the pastel reaches of Madison Square Garden, the capacity crowd was asked to stand in silent tribute to General Eisenhower. But Knick fans, held back for too many noiseless years, could contain themselves for only a 12-second “minute of silence,” after which they erupted into hysterical cheers at the introduction of the players, frenetic screaming for the tap-off, shrieking boos at every foul call, and wild, minute-long standing ovations for the easiest lay-ups.

After a mediocre first quarter (Willis Reed didn’t grab his first rebound until several minutes into the second period), the Knicks began to pull slowly away at a steady AT&T pace of about a point a quarter. Then they surged and opened up the margin of victory by defensively incorporating a “West Side Story” choreography of rumbling body contact and ball stealing. Changing tempo of offense, they employed the classical dancer’s agility which seems to have become the province of professional basketball, with leaps and pirouettes and floating, graceful, astronautic, in-flight twists and counter-twists that would have brought a thin smile to the lips of Nijinsky himself.

[related_posts post_id_1=”723888″ /]

The difference between the two teams was apparent: the Bullets favor a monarchy (Earl “the Pearl” Monroe) while the Knicks opt for cohesive democracy. Monroe’s problem is that he seems to think he is the heir apparent to Oscar Robertson. A little humility on Monroe’s part might prove invaluable to his team. While there is no denying his many talents (a keen eye, an aggressive playing style, dribbling as if his hands were made of alum), Monroe’s deficiency is that, unlike Robertson, he doesn’t know when he is dealing a cold hand. The Monroe doctrine is a simple one: when Earl has the ball, Earl shoots; or, as they used to say in the schoolyards, “He’d throw his mother at the basket if she bounced.”

A look at the composite box score for the four-game Bullet series highlights some imitation pearl in Earl. He and Knick center Willis Reed were high scorers for the series, each netting 113 points. It took Monroe 114 attempts from the floor to score 44 field goals, while Reed hit on 45 of 88 attempts, giving Monroe a field goal percentage of 38 against Reed’s 51.

But perhaps a match-up between a guard and a center is unfair, so one should look at the performance of Monroe’s counterpart for the Knicks, Walt Frazier. Over the four-game series, Frazier scored 82 points, 32 for 57 from the floor or about 52 per cent, cleared 27 rebounds and was credited with an astonishing 51 assists. (Kevin Loughery of the Bullets was runner-up in this department at a distant 21.) Monroe got 21 rebounds and 16 assists. So it might be fair to suggest that if anyone is going to fill the circle of the “Big O” as the complete ballplayer, it will be New York’s own Walt Frazier.

The fourth and final game on Wednesday night was the best sporting event that has taken place in New York in memory, both because of the Knicks’ fans and nature of the sport itself. Basketball still is the most democratic of all sports — it belongs to the streets and the poor. To be good at it, one doesn’t need the array of equipment and structures that are so necessary to baseball and football. The only essentials are a hoop, a ball, a pair of sneakers, and another kid who can go “one on one” with you.

And it was these kids that made the evening so beautiful. There were Jewish kids from the yeshivas and Erasmus Hall, the reedy blacks with jaunty skies topping their natural hair styles from Boys High, and the Irish from the Rockaways, the white canvas of their faces speckled with freckles and pugnacious noses that hint of tough substance, if not respectability. Their young voices were devoid of the boredom one encounters at so many New York sporting events. They not only lustily booed the enemy Bullets but also the electronic scoreboard when it mistakenly tabulated a point in Baltimore’s favor.

But for the first three minutes and 55 seconds, they had little to cheer about. The Knicks were tight and ineffective. Frazier, their great field tactician, was inexplicably rattled, throwing bad passes and handling the ball like a novice. But then it happened. Reed scored and was fouled in the process, and the Knicks registered their first points. The kids exploded. And from then on, the whole story was Reed.

[related_posts post_id_1=”723853″ /]

Indeed, it was like a morality play. The great black giant battling a coordinated army of five. He rebounded with awesome strength, spread his 6’10” bulk defensively across the key like a radar system, and scored from everywhere on the floor with unstoppable accuracy. At the end of the half, is was the Lilliputians 51, Gulliver 50.

The hip kids in the balconies were confident their giant was going to get help sooner or later, and the night would be theirs. In the second half, help came. Dick Barnett, whose jump shot is as convoluted and as tortured as a Faulkner sentence, started to hit from his favorite spot on the side. Dave DeBusschere, the best swap this city’s made since we bilked the Indians, began clearing the boards and sinking driving lay-ups on sheer strength, if not finesse. Bill Bradley, a boarding house gentleman to the end, waited his turn and politely handled what was left. And Frazier, whose shooting remained off, found his court magic and wove a gossamer web of passes.

With 9:20 left in the final quarter, the kids shouted their disrespect for solemn burials, vibrating the Garden rafters with shouts of “We’re Number-one.” But the “extras” that occurred in the closing seconds were what really made the evening beautiful.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721971″ /]

With 14 seconds left on the clock, the Knicks were leading 113–108. A win to be sure, but not enough to cover the favored Knicks’ 6½-point spread for the bettors, though hope was still high in the hustler’s hearts, since the Knicks had two foul shots coming. And who was to shoot for their money but Bill Bradley, via Princeton and Oxford, with his Republican belief in modest superiority and his corporate conviction of the ungentle­ manliness of heroism. As the ball twice whispered through the net, the cigar butt chompers and beer drinkers applauded the humanization of Bill Bradley.

As the final buzzer sounded, there was Frazier, their court magician, rightfully dribbling out the clock, And there was Reed himself with 43 points, outplaying Wes Unseld, who had been named the league’s MVP over Reed. And there was the Garden announcer asking for a nice hand for the Bullets, the same Bullets who might have cost the Knicks second place by playing their subs against the Philadelphia 76ers. The kids responded with a lovely “fuck you and your parlor manners,” booing the Bullets off the court.

But the biggest “extra” was seeing the kids from Flatbush, Bed-Stuy, and Rockaway, filing out of the good seats they were able to obtain only by standing on lines for nine hours on those fine legs they developed playing “one on one” on concrete courts, and for the first time in memory beating out the businessmen with their varicose veins for a top ticket in New York. That was the best of all. ❖

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Mark “Gator” Rogowski: Free Fallin’

How Skateboard King Mark “Gator” Anthony Was Born Again As a Rapist and Murderer

While he awaited trial, Mark “Gator” Anthony’s cell in the San Diego County jail lay at the foot of a hill in Vista, California. At the very top of that hill, four-and-a-half miles up from the jail, was the rundown skateboard park where Gator had his last ride, MacGill’s Skatepark. There, a handful of teenagers skated the ramps, rolling in and out, doing flips, handstands, board slides, ollies … and every once in a while, some daring kid would attempt a “lean 360.” It’s a notoriously difficult move, in which the skater tries to get enough momentum and height to fly vertically out of the bowl with his body almost perpendicular to the ground, spin around once completely, and then land where he’d taken off, inside the bowl, but this time rolling backward toward the bottom.

That move was called the “Gait-air,” named for its originator, the man who sat in the jail at the bottom of the hill. For years Gator was skateboarding’s biggest star. When he first started skating, 15 years ago, his moves were so creative, so aggressive, so — there’s no other word for it — radical, that he was able to turn pro at the tender age of 14. By the time he was 17, he was making $100,000 a year.

To skateboarders everywhere, he was a hero. He boasted of being a roving ambassador, telling skating magazines how he was going to turn the whole non-skating world on to the sport. He and his beautiful live-in girlfriend, Brandi McClain, were the skateboarding couple: they starred in skating videos together, they worked as models together, they even appeared together in a Tom Petty video. Gator gave tips to beginners in Sports Illustrated for Kids. There was a Gator clothing line, Gator skate boards, Gator videos. “I had it all,” he says today, sitting in his prison cell. “I had different cars, a big house on an estate, even girls — I had the prettiest, most popular, hah, most voluptuous, most unscrupulous girls. I say that I ‘had a girl.’ I once considered girls a possession. That’s crazy.”

Crazy or sick. Because despite all he had, on March 20, 1991, Gator beat twenty-one-year-old Jessica Bergsten over the head with a steering-wheel lock called the Club and raped her for nearly three hours. Then he strangled her in a surfboard bag and buried her naked in the desert 100 miles away.

There were no witnesses, no one heard her screams, and the murder weapon was never found. Yet something drove Gator to confess his crime.

This is the story of the rise and fall of Mark “Gator” Anthony.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727600″ /]

STOKED

Skateboarding, like other California phenomena such as surfing and savings-and-loan scams, had a tremendous surge in popularity in the 1980s. Skateboard parks were erected across the planet. Skateboard manufacturers became multimillion-dollar companies branching out into clothing, sneakers, even movies. Crude videos were slapped together featuring the latest moves by top skaters, and they sold by the thousands. The National Skateboarding Association was sponsoring contests all over North America, Europe, and Japan, and first-prize money reached $5,000 to $7,000 per event.

All this was fueled by a handful of San Diego County teenagers who had become the sport’s superstars, and Gator was one of them. Born Mark Anthony Rogowski in Brooklyn, he moved with his mother and older brother to San Diego at age three, following his parents’ divorce. They ended up in Escondido, a sun baked, middle-class suburb in northern San Diego County. Classic Reagan country, with surfers, malls, churches, and loads of disaffected middle-class youth, it was there that Gator, at age 7, discovered skating.

“I grew up without a father from day one,” Gator told Thrasher magazine interviewer M.Fo in 1987, “and my brother kinda filled that gap. He was a bitchin’ influence on me. He made me a good baseball player and an athlete in general. What was cool was that he was stoked that I was skating, too. Skating was somewhat deviant.”

By 1977, Gator, 10, was skating regularly, but because he didn’t have as much money as his friends he didn’t quite fit in. “I was a social outcast back then,” he told Thrasher. “My fellow skater friends were all hyped on the surf thing — who had what board, the newest O.P.’s, and who had a Hang Ten shirt. Then there I was, running around in Toughskins, y’know … They were all wrapped up in the fashion and those types of superficial interests, they ended up fading out and I fucking lasted.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”696422″ /]

Gator got his chops down at a local skatepark’s half-pipes, moguls, and pool in the shape of a bra dubbed “the 42D Bowl.” And he found a new set of skating friends. “These guys were so into it, having such a good time, sweatin’ and laughin’ and crackin’ jokes and just snakin’ each other. It was a full soul session, everybody was just shralpin’ it up. When they went into the bowl, their expressions changed to a ‘going into battle’ expression, going for it, no holds barred. When they popped out of the bowl, they’d get a smile on their faces and yelp and chime. It was hot.”

An obvious talent, young Gator was picked up by the skatepark team and began winning local contests. Bigger sponsors followed, and in 1982 he won the Canadian Amateur Skateboarding Championships in Vancouver, his first major title. With his green eyes and dark, lean good looks, charming personality, and aggressively physical skating style, he rose to the top rank of the sport.

Tony Hawk and Christian Hosoi rounded out the triumvirate of 1980’s skating superstars. “That was a great time for us,” says Hawk, who has been called the Wayne Gretzky of skating. “We were making a ton of money, we flew all over the world, there were skating groupies at every stop. It was pretty cool to see a bunch of guys from San Diego County at the center of this huge thing. No doubt, we were stoked.”

The primary vehicle for the wealth of pro skaters was skateboard sales, and Gator was one of the hottest tickets in that market too. A Gator skate “deck” — the board (decorated with his nickname rendered in an op art vortex or pastel quasi-African design), sans wheels and suspension system — would sell for up to $50, of which Gator would receive $2. At their peak, monthly sales of the Gator board reached seven thousand, earning him an easy $14,000. But the cash didn’t end there; he also had his contest winnings and lent his name to a slew of products made by Vision Sport, a skateboard merchandising company. There were Gator shirts, berets, hip packs, videos, stickers, posters — it seemed kids couldn’t get enough of him.

“Gator, Gator, Gator … every issue of Thrasher had Gator doing something,” says Perry Gladstone, who owns FL (formerly Fishlips), a skateboarding company near San Diego. “He was always a part of everything. There were Gator stories, Gator spreads, full-page Gator ads — he was a hero to us. We’d read about their parties, the girls … you’ve gotta understand, top skaters were like rock stars, traveling all over the world, living the life … and Gator was the wildest of them all.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721955″ /]

Wild for sure, as Gator himself indicated in the ’87 Thrasher interview, when he talked about the rush he got from riding walls at 90 degrees, and “on the left side of the picture there’s a bum with a bottle or a junkie with a needle hangin’ out of his arm,” and on the right side there’s a skater “sweatin’ it out and cussin’ at the wall and — Bam! — fucking forging reality, pushing his body up the wall.” One of the benefits of this, said Gator, was that “it’s a real productive way of venting some way harsh aggressions. Instead of breaking a bottle and slashing some body’s face, you’re throwing yourself at a wall with sweat dripping in your eyes.”

Gator boasted to friends that while touring the South he would walk into liquor stores and 7-Elevens stark naked, rob them, then get drunk in the cornfields while police helicopters searched for him overhead.

On another of those wild tour dates, in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1987, Gator, then 21, met two beautiful 17-year old blondes from rich families, Jessica Bergsten and Brandi McClain. Brandi and Gator partied that entire weekend, which wasn’t unusual considering the groupies who awaited him in every town. But Brandi was different. Soon he was flying her to San Diego to visit him, and a few months later, she left Tucson for good and moved in with Gator.

He had bought a ranch in the mountains near Tony Hawk’s new ranch, which he’d equipped with a whole series of wooden skating ramps. But Brandi became bored with the ranch and few months later Gator sold it. They moved to a condominium in the upscale beachside community of Carlsbad, one block away from the ocean.

Gator and Brandi were inseparable. They caroused all night in Carlsbad bars, made the scene at all the San Diego parties. They were the hottest couple on the beach. “We would get high every night,” says Brandi. “We wouldn’t do coke every night, but we’d do bong hits, we’d go to the Sand Bar at the end of his street, and get fucked up. Then we’d hang out in his Jacuzzi, get drunk off our asses, and go in and have wild sex all night.”

Gator spared no expense on Brandi. So that she could join him at competitions, “he flew her to Brazil and Europe,” says Gator’s brother Matt Rogowski. “He bought her two cars. She was a gold digger, but when they were together, they were absolutely in love and you could see it.” The couple did modeling jobs together. Brandi appeared in Gator’s videos, and when he appeared in Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” video, she was in it too.

If he was a celebrity in southern California, in Carlsbad, the unofficial skateboarding capital of the world, he was a megastar. Surfboard shops would just give him all the equipment h wanted, skaters would ask for his autograph or Gator stickers t put on their boards. Despite his ardor for Brandi, when he was alone he’d walk up to beautiful women on the beach, say, “Hi I’m Gator,” and instantly have their undivided attention. With his looks, youth, and arrogance born of money and fame, in the holy land of skateboarding, Gator was his own god.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722865″ /]

BLIND DUDE

But while Gator was getting fat and happy cashing in on his skateboarding fame, by the late eighties a new, hipper type of skateboarding was challenging the dominance of his genre. It was called street skating, where skaters opted for urban obstacles like curbs, garbage cans, and stairways over the traditional skate board parks. Street skaters wore their pants around the knees, eschewed protective pads and helmets and counted on frequent run-ins with the police. Characterized by the sound of boards smacking against the pavement, it was louder, more dangerous, decidedly anti-establishment and, therefore, more appealing to the kids. Vertical ramp skating techniques, of which Gator was the master, were rapidly becoming obsolete. Vision, the company that sponsored Gator and dozens of other top skaters, was about to file Chapter 11.

“He was really worried about becoming a dinosaur,” says Perry Gladstone, to whom Gator confided. “This was an entirely new type of skating. It was rad, more amped, and all the kids wanted to be a part of it. But except for Tony Hawk, none of the old pros could really skate both vert and street, and Gator was stressed out about it.” Gator himself once told M.Fo just how stressed out he would get if he had to quit skating. “I’d probably have some suicidal tendencies. I’d feel low, cheap. I’d feel like nothing. I couldn’t exist … no way, I’d kill myself. Lose my spirit, I’d float away and my carcass would get buried.”

Gator was still trying to milk vert skating for all he could. He talked to his family about marrying Brandi and settling down. Then, in October 1989, after a competition in West Germany, the party animal in Gator reared up and bit him. In typical Gator fashion, he spent the night getting sloshed, wandering from party to party. The accident that ensued is a skateboarding legend — a drunken Gator, partying with a bunch of other skaters, leapt out of a second-story window, convinced that he could fly.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703″ /]

Although Gator himself doesn’t remember what happened, some of his friends say that he was actually trying to sneak back into his hotel after hours by crawling up a terrace. Whatever the cause, the result nearly killed him. He landed on a wrought-iron fence, impaling his neck, face, and thumb. He survived and was patched up in Germany, but upon returning home he spent months in San Diego with plastic surgeons trying to save his modeling career.

The Gator who emerged from the San Diego hospital shocked his friends and admirers. He looked the same, but he sounded completely different. “Jesus Christ spoke to me through that accident,” said Gator. “I was a blind dude, but now I can see.” Gator had been born again.

Augie Constantino takes the credit for Gator’s metamorphosis. A skateboarder and former professional surfer who lived just two blocks from Gator and Brandi, Constantino had suffered an accident similar to Gator’s four years earlier. “I was in Hawaii out drinking with some other pro surfers,” says Constantino. “After leaving the party, me and a friend of mine were playing chicken when he hit me head on, doing 45 miles per hour. I guess I lost.” The quadriceps in his right leg were severed, ending his pro surfing career. But Constantino decided that it was a message from God, and that he should devote his life to Christ.

Thus was born the man known as “the skateboard minister.” In his stonewashed jeans, cowboy boots, and bolero jacket, he stands out from his fellow Calvary Chapel parishioners. He’s built like a fireplug, wears a goatee, and has one eye slightly askew — a result of his accident. “I met Mark just before he left for Germany,” says Constantino from the office he keeps in the back of the church. He’s vague about his official role at the church, where, he says, he is “a lay minister” who runs a youth hotline, but he adds that officially he is a church custodian.

“I introduced Mark to a personal God, a God the father,” says Constantino. “Mark never had a father to speak of. I showed Christ to him and as the Bible says, He’s our own true father. So of course that appealed to Mark.” It was around this time that Gator started calling himself Mark Anthony instead of Mark Anthony Rogowski, because, as he later said, “I didn’t want to be associated with my father at all.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”713510″ /]

When Gator’s wounds healed, he joined Constantino. He started covering his boards with religious symbols and preaching to skaters, surfers, and anyone else who would listen about his “secret friend,” Jesus. Witt Rowlett, owner of Witt’s Carlsbad Pipelines, the premier surf shop in Carlsbad, says that everyone was amazed. “I believe in the Lord, don’t get me wrong,” says Rowlett. “But Mark was just fanatic. Everything he said was ‘Jesus this, the Bible that.’ He was way into it.”

Others, however, dismissed it as typical behavior from Gator. “Yeah, he was fanatic, but that’s just it, he was fanatic about everything,” says Gladstone. “That was just Gator.”

But Brandi would have none of it. Gator dragged her along to Calvary Chapel a few times, but she wasn’t ready for the party to end. “We literally had sex five times a day, we were so in love,” says Brandi. “Then he met Augie and started saying, ‘We can’t have sex anymore unless we get married.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve been going out for four years, having mad sex for four years, and we can’t have sex anymore? I can’t deal with this. Later.’ ”

Brandi moved in with her mother and stepfather, who had recently moved to San Diego.

“Mark was devastated,” says Constantino. “I think that it upset him even more than his accident in Germany. Look, here’s an exact explanation of what happened to her.” He reaches for his “sword” — a well-thumbed, red Bible on his bookshelf.

“First Peter, Chapter 4, Verse 3. ‘Then, you lived in license and debauchery, drunkenness, revelry, and tippling, and the forbidden worship of idols. Now, when you no longer plunge with them into all this reckless dissipation, they cannot understand it.’ ” He shuts the Bible with a thump. “There. You see? Brandi just didn’t get it. Mark had found a new life in Christ.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”727312″ /]

THE DESERT

Despite his newfound devotion to Jesus, Gator’s response to Brandi’s leaving was decidedly un-Christian, particularly after she started seeing one of the guys she surfed with. Gator started calling her mother’s house, leaving messages on the answering machine. “Mark was crazy,” says Brandi. “He was calling me up leaving all these freaky messages. He’d growl. ‘You bitch! You cunt! You’re gonna fry in hell from your toes!’ Weird shit like that.”

One night, Brandi came home to find that someone had broken into her house through her window, taking everything that Gator had ever given her. Brandi and the police suspected Gator.

“He took it all back, including the car,” says Terry Jensen, an investigator from the San Diego County district attorney’s office, to whom Brandi later recounted the story. “It’s kind of like a typical young teenage stunt. That’s what you do when you’re 15, 16 years old and you lose your first girlfriend. You want all your money back, every necklace, every ring. You know, ‘Give me my high school jacket and my class ring because we’re not going steady anymore.’ Well, that’s what he did.”

Brandi still hoped they might reconcile. On one such attempt, she invited Gator to take her out to dinner. But they started arguing as soon as they pulled out of her parents’ driveway. “He was still so mad about the guy I was seeing,” says Brandi. “He’s the one that told me to go out and find one of my surfer friends to party with. So I did! I found this hot little blond surfer guy, 6-1.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721440” /]

“And Mark was furious. He was driving out in the middle of this nowhere road out where my parents live when he turned to me with this really scary, serious look in his eye. His voice got all deep and, you know, he sounded like the devil. He says, ‘You know what? I should take you out to the desert right now. I should drive you out right in the middle of the night and beat the shit out of you and leave you there. And I would get away with it, because everybody would know that you deserved it.’

“I started crying and begging him to take me home right now. I’m like, ‘My mother knows where I am.’ And he took me back.”

Brandi was scared enough to flee to New York, not telling anyone but her family where she was going. She didn’t even tell her best friend Jessica in Tucson about the incident, so when Jessica showed up in San Diego a few weeks later, she called Gator asking him to show her the sights.

“Everything that I hated about Brandi, I hated about Jessica,” Gator would later tell the police. “She was of the same mold that Brandi was made of.” He told the police that he blamed Jessica for his breakup. Jessica, of course, had no idea about any of this.

Like Brandi, Jessica was tall, blond, and beautiful, and her friends remember her as tough, savvy, and adventurous. “She was an incredibly intelligent, free-spirited girl,” recalls Brandi. “She wanted to have fun and nothing else mattered. We would go to Mexico together, and she would, say, get so drunk that she would leave me there. If I couldn’t get into bars — because we were under age and had fake IDs — she would leave me outside for three hours waiting while she drank.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717604” /]

“But we were best friends. We were very much alive. It was, like, quick, we’re going to have the very best lives, and we’re going to have them now.”

On Wednesday, March 20, Jessica and Gator had lunch at an Italian restaurant in La Jolla, then returned to his condo with some movies and a few bottles of wine. As she was getting ready to leave, Gator went to his car, ostensibly to see if his driver’s license was there.

Waiting in his living room, Jessica looked at the picture on his mantel, where Gator proudly displayed his favorite picture — a shot of him skydiving, facing the camera, screaming at the top of his lungs while plummeting to earth. As she stared at the picture, Gator snuck up behind her, hitting her two or three times in the head and face with the metal steering-wheel lock. She fell to the floor, blood gushing from her head, so much so that it soaked right through the carpet. He handcuffed her and carried her upstairs to his bedroom. There, he shackled her onto the bed, cut her clothes off with scissors, and raped her for two or three hours.

Jessica, still conscious, begged him to stop, occasionally screaming. In an attempt to shut her up, he pulled a surfboard bag from his closet and stuffed her inside it. She screamed that she couldn’t breathe. He clasped his hands around her neck and strangled her.

Gator flipped over his mattress to hide the blood that was there, then put Jessica’s body, her cut-up clothing, the bag, the handcuffs, and the Club in the trunk of his car. He drove for two hours into the desert, pulled off the highway at a desolate place called Shell Canyon, and buried her naked body in a shallow grave. As he drove back to Carlsbad, he tossed her bloodstained clothes, his sheets, and the club out the window. On his way back to the condo, he rented a carpet steamer, and cleaned out every spot of blood he could from the rug. When police came to question him about her disappearance a couple of weeks later, there was no evidence to be found.

[related_posts post_id_1=”593404″ /]

THE POSTER AT 7-ELEVEN

Jessica’s father, Stephen Bergsten, a Tucson lawyer, had enough to worry about without his daughter disappearing. One of his clients was under investigation by an Arizona drug task force, while rumors were rife that he himself was being investigated for money laundering. But when his daughter stopped calling soon after leaving for southern California, the panicked father, unsatisfied by efforts of the San Diego police, flew to San Diego to find her himself.

He plastered the entire county with posters that read MISSING PERSON with a picture of a grinning Jessica, her vital statistics (5-8, 115 pounds, blond hair, blue eyes, fair complexion), and the telephone numbers for the San Diego police department. He talked to her friends, he even met with Gator to ask about her whereabouts. Gator shook his hand and told him, No, he didn’t know where Jessica was. Bergsten’s efforts were to no avail. There were no other witnesses to her disappearance. Two months went by without any leads.

But one of the posters stayed plastered up next to a phone booth at a 7-Eleven two blocks from Gator’s condo. Next to the beach, with a pizza shop next door, the convenience store is a favorite hangout for young Carlsbad surfers and skateboarders. It was also a favorite place for Constantino and Gator to preach their message of Christianity to young kids hanging out. For Constantino, he was terrific bait for young skaters willing to listen to just about anything to meet Gator.

“One night at the 7-Eleven,” remembers Constantino, “Gator and I were witnessing and I saw this young girl with what they call a miniskirt — I call them towels. I said to her, ‘Go and put some clothes on and when you come back, I’d like to talk to you about Christ.’ And she said, ‘I’ve got nothing to worry about, I’ve got no problems.’ I pointed to the poster. ‘What about that girl?’ I said. ‘She had nothing to worry about. But where is she now? She could have been involved in drugs, pornography. Maybe she’s dead.’ The girl just ignored us and jumped into a car. But I got a strange reaction out of Mark. He was just kind of blank, silent.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725481″ /]

Seeing the picture of Jessica, and seeing it in the presence of Constantino, was too much for Gator. One night, after a Bible study at Constantino’s house, Gator returned to the house with tears streaming down his face. “I was getting ready for bed when I answered the door,” recalls Constantino. “He was crying and said he was Judas Iscariot. We both sat and cried. We prayed for about an hour, asking God what we should do. About a week later he came to me and said, ‘Remember that girl in the poster? She was the one I killed!'”

Constantino remembers what he told Gator as he drove him to the police department in the early morning of May 5. “I said to him, ‘Mark, you don’t need a lawyer. You don’t need innocent until-proven-guilty. What do you need a lawyer for, if you answer to a higher power? If a person is accountable to God, then he’s accountable to society — the Bible says that.”

Constantino scoffs at the idea that perhaps his legal advice wasn’t the best. Nor does he think it was unethical for him, as a minister, to turn in someone confessing to him. “Mark didn’t come to me as a minister, he came to me as a friend. Anyway, I’m not an ordained minister. He knew exactly what was going to happen.”

The police were astonished that someone was turning himself in for a murder that they didn’t even know had happened. Jessica’s body had been found in the desert by some campers on April 10, but the body was so badly decomposed that it could not be identified. The next morning Gator led detectives to where he’d buried the body. Uncuffed, standing under the hot desert sun, Gator watched as they dug around for more evidence, photographed the site, and talked to the local police.

When the police announced Gator’s confession, the press jumped all over it. It was the lead story in the local papers, local television ran nightly updates as the case unfolded, and on national TV, Hard Copy did a “dramatic reenactment” of the rape, murder, and subsequent confession. The initial reaction of the skateboarding world’s street wing was best expressed by Koby Newell, a 15-year-old who skated with Anthony at Carlsbad. “He was getting old,” Newell told the San Diego Union, “but he was keeping up with the moves.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”723458″ /]

Skating’s more established wing reacted with a bit more shock. Perry Gladstone had just signed Gator to endorse a new line of skateboards for Fishlips, which ironically featured a takeoff on the 7-Eleven logo. “I came home the night he confessed to find 87 messages on my answering machine. They were all reporters wanting me to talk about Gator. My wife and I were with him two or three days every week for months setting this deal up. He was such a great guy, I just couldn’t believe it.”

The violent, anti-authority image of skateboarding — symbolized in Thrasher magazine’s old motto “Skate or Die” — combined with the sex and bondage aspects of the murder, fed the press’s sensationalist treatment of the story. One of the many videos Gator did with Brandi was called Psycho Skate, which fed the frenzy even more. Skateboarders felt that the coverage was turning into an indictment of their sport, not just Gator. “It’s likely the skateboarding world will be placed under a microscope in the media,” warned Thrasher. “Let’s just hope that we can all remain strong.”

He became a cause célèbre in San Diego County. Kids decorated their jeans jackets with the phrase Free Mark Anthony. But there were also bumper stickers that read Skateboarding Is Not a Crime — Murder Is. Mark Anthony Should Die. Skateboarders who talked to the press about it were ostracized. “It was a terrible event for skateboarding,” says Gladstone. “Skating’s no more inherently violent than heavy metal is inherently satanic. But people in the media tried to make it seem as if skating is a threat to the youth of America. I think you’ll find that most skaters won’t even talk about Gator.”

The police continued to compile evidence in case Gator decided to plead not guilty to a murder charge. They found the bloodstains under Gator’s carpet, and a carpet-cleaner receipt (Gator’s accountant had instructed him to save all his receipts). Gator was charged with “special circumstances,” committing a murder during rape, which under California law can warrant the death penalty or life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

Unable to get a lawyer, he was appointed a public defender, self-described “glory seeker” John Jimenez, a short, stocky former PTA president who drives a Harley-Davidson. After taking the case, Jimenez immediately challenged the validity of the confession, saying that Gator’s minister had no right to turn him in. Jimenez appealed the rape charge, insisting that the decomposed body could show no signs of forcible rape. Although he never denied that Gator had killed Jessica, he suggested that it was her own fault. He told a reporter that Jessica was a “slut,” claiming to have a long list of people with whom she’d had sadomasochistic sex, including the entire University of Arizona basketball team and a handful of pros — their names, however, were off the record. “Hey,” says Jimenez, “it’s like Sam Kinison said, some girls just turn Mr. Hand into Mr. Fist.”

At the time these remarks were made, the San Diego Metropolitan Homicide Task Force was investigating the murders of forty-four women whose bodies had been dumped in isolated places around the county since 1985.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725839″ /]

THAT FILTH

Eventually, when the higher court refused to toss out the rape charge, on Jimenez’s advice Gator pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and rape, thus avoiding the death penalty or life without chance of parole. At the January 1992 hearing in which he entered his plea, Gator submitted a remarkable four-page written statement that hinted at the struggle going on in his mind before his crime, during its commission, and afterward. In the statement he admitted that although his original confession “was directed by the Lord,” in the subsequent eight months he had been “tempted to dodge responsibility, deceiving myself as well as others.” But now, at last, “I’ve been led to a full, true repentance, having nothing to hide. Thank God.”

Finally able to express “my regret and my sorrow over our loss of Jessica,” Gator tried to explain why he’d done what he did. “Two months prior to the incident,” he wrote, “I found myself in the midst of some surprisingly strange and almost uncontrollable feelings. All at once the plague of vile visions and wicked imaginations and the daily battle to suppress them was overwhelming. It’s no exaggeration to say I became completely enslaved to these devious mental images and inescapable thoughts …

“Essentially, I became a victim first, because I turned my back on God in several ways, thinking I could get through it on my own power.”

Slave, victim, but still expressing regret and “without deferring the blame for my actions,” Gator targeted three things that influenced his state of mind:

“Firstly, sex outside of marriage, i.e. promiscuity, premarital sex and cohabitation, the disease of jealousy, and the unhealthy obsession that so often attaches to these.

“Secondly, pornography and its addictive character. Ranging from risqué public advertising, all the way to hardcore S&M, this dehumanizing of women and men and its dulling of the senses occurs at all levels. Porn is a consuming beast …

“Thirdly, closing the ears and heart to God’s counsel, including partial or non-repentance and disobeying and ignoring the Bible … So people, we must realize, without reduction, the gripping strength and deceptive subtlety of sin! What will it take for us to examine ourselves and listen? The tragedy of an innocent young woman’s death? The fall of your favorite celebrity? O.K., perhaps the imprisonment of your best friend or relative?…

“I know the Lord forgave me 2000 years ago on the cross at Calvary. And although I attempt to forgive myself daily,” wrote Gator, the struggle over his ultimate culpability still raging in his head, “I haven’t quite been able and may never be able to do so.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”719986″ /]

Gator’s sentencing took place on March 6. It was quite a spectacle for a suburban courtroom. Five uniformed bailiffs used a hand-held metal detector to screen each observer. They had received information that Stephen Bergsten, who would attend the hearing with his wife, Kay, was going to try to harm Gator. Eight months earlier Bergsten had been indicted, along with 44 others, as part of a nationwide drug ring. With his property in two states seized by the government and his daughter brutally murdered, there was speculation that he had nothing left to lose by killing Gator.

With the bailiffs standing between Bergsten and Gator, the skater offered a solemn apology to Jessica’s family, asking them to forgive him. “God has changed me, and it was no typical jailhouse conversion,” pleaded Gator. “I sincerely hope that they can accept my apology for my carelessness.”

“Carelessness?” Bergsten shouted. “He is a child-murderer and child-rapist. He is evil incarnate.” Gator, along with many others in the courtroom, cried as Bergsten continued in an angry 20-minute monologue. “Cowards die a thousand times and he will die a thousand deaths,” Bergsten shouted, his voice breaking. “He raped her and raped her and raped her and then thought, ‘Let’s kill her.’ We couldn’t say goodbye to Jessica because that filth left her with nothing but a piece of skin, left her for the coyotes and the goddamned birds to eat her.” He glared directly at Gator and said in a firm voice. “I told you — and you remember, Rogowski — what would happen if anyone hurt my daughter. He says he’s undergone a religious conversion. Judge, you must have heard that same story 100 times. If he underwent a religious conversion, it was to evil, degradation, filth, and satanism.”

Shortly thereafter, Superior Court judge Thomas J. Whelan sentenced Gator to consecutive terms of six years for forcible rape and twenty-five years to life for first-degree murder. Gator will not be eligible for parole until 2010 at the earliest.

Jimenez says that Gator “took some shit” when he was first put in the San Diego County jail. But one night soon after he was incarcerated, inmates crowded around a television to hear Gator’s story on Hard Copy. “After that,” says Jimenez, “I guess they thought he was a heavy dude, because the rest of the population has kept their distance ever since.”

Gator is trying to surround himself with other born-again Christians in jail. He is appealing his sentence, and has been placed in a medical facility (for manic depression).

Augie Constantino is continuing his studies to be a minister, while cleaning up the Calvary Chapel. He still preaches to surfers and skaters in the San Diego area working with a group called Skaters for Christ.

Stephen Bergsten’s money-laundering charges were dismissed two months ago in Tucson.

Brandi lives in a penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side, working as a flower arranger.

Jessica’s remains were buried in a family plot in Georgia.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726212″ /]

MY SUBMISSION TO HER WILES

Those who visit Gator in prison are struck at first by how truly repentant he seems, sitting in his cell in a loose-fitting navy-blue jumpsuit with SD JAIL stamped on the back, his once wild long hair now shorn and carefully combed, as he talks about his fall from grace.

“I had been exposed to pornography since I was a little boy, three years old,” he says. “In what form? In the form of sex, actual sex with people. I’m not going to say who, but with people in my childhood. First let me say that it wasn’t only incest. I don’t want to mention family members, of course, because I want to protect them. But let me put more emphasis on the fact that it was babysitters and older neighborhood kids.”

Has it occurred to him that if he was the victim of sexual crime as a child, he might have a propensity to carry out such crimes as an adult? “If you believe that it was a revenge killing and that it was prompted by Brandi, I would say yes,” he replies, and suddenly you’re listening to a dramatically different Gator than the one at whose sentencing a Catholic priest testified, “Never before have I encountered a person so clearly open about his responsibility.” You’re listening to a man skating away from the idea that the murder was really his fault.

“I did lay upon her with a steering lock at one point, but that was part of the S&M,” he says. “The fact is that it wasn’t rape. It was more like an involuntary manslaughter. If it weren’t for my submission to her wiles and the temptation of having such sex with her … ”

[related_posts post_id_1=”719427″ /]

Gator takes a deep breath, sighs, then continues. “I don’t want to defame Jessica at all. I’m very, very sorry about what happened to her. I just want to make it known that I was led into a sexual situation that I didn’t want to have anything to do with.

“I wouldn’t have submitted if I didn’t have some weakness, some background desire. You can go down the street to Coronet bookstore in Oceanside and buy a vast array of S&M bondage magazines, pictorials, descriptive pictorials, paperbacks that are step by step about how to lynch somebody sexually. It’s pretty sick. I got a lot of ideas.

“That night, I didn’t realize what kind of a purring feline she was. It’s really hard for me to say these things about Jessica, we lost her and I don’t feel good about that. I just want to make it known that I was led into a sexual situation that I didn’t want to have anything to do with. I was scared I’d be discovered with this wayward woman.

“There were a lot of kids in my neighborhood, my protégés in skateboarding who would have Bible studies with me. I was being an example to these impressionable kids. For them to see me with this woman and all that had been going on — the wine bottles, the cigarettes upstairs — it would have been devastating. In my attempt to quiet her, in her intoxicated and belligerent state, I had put my hand over her mouth to quiet her for a second so I could hear the voices and the footsteps coming up my walkway. She must have suffocated or had a seizure or a stroke or something. The next thing I knew, I look down and she’s not breathing and not moving.”

Mark “Gator” Anthony, who has finally broken up and out of the half-pipe of his guilt, will be forty-three years old before he is eligible for parole. He says he doesn’t think he’ll ever ride a skateboard again, but hopes that someday he’ll be free so he can learn to fly a kite. ❖

Categories
From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Paranoid Style in Yankee Baseball

It is about 10 o’clock in the morning, the Florida sun is already heating up, and I am standing outside a closed gate at the New York Yankees’ Fort Lauderdale training camp. I give the security man my name and tell him I have an appointment with the Yankees’ PR director, Ken Nigro. The guard does not move. It is clear to him that I’m trying to pull some kind of fast one. I reach into my pocket to produce the working-press card is­sued by the New York City Police Department. My picture is on it. In color.

The guard reaches two fingers through the fence for the card. He looks several times at it, several times at me, but he does not open the gate. Neither does he return the card. Carrying it with him, he walks the 15 yards to the press trailer. A moment or two later, he emerges, opens the gate just barely wide enough to admit me, and hands back the card. “They’re expecting you,” he says. He sounds disap­pointed.

Waiting inside the trailer, already typed out on the reception desk, is the little pink pass that will admit me to the field, clubhouse, press box, etc. for the duration of spring training. Nigro is there too. Tall, whippet-thin, and with a haircut that could pass for punk if it wasn’t vaguely military, he takes two rapid steps backward as I enter his office. Eventually he recovers and shakes my hand almost as though he didn’t believe it carried a com­municable disease. We talk politely for a minute or two, and I ask him for a media guide. Though these pocket-sized fact books were once, years ago, more-or-less internal documents distributed only to the media and other baseball clubs, most teams now print them up by the tens of thousands and sell them as souvenirs. The Yankees’ costs five bucks at the Stadium, six by mail. Nigro hesitates, finally unclasps a trunk near the door, and removes one. “You’re very lucky,” he says, “we have only a few left.”

I thank him, consider offering to shake his hand again but decide I don’t want to unnerve him, and start to leave the office. “One thing,” he says, “just a word to the wise.”

“Yes?”

“You’re interested in Billy Martin, right?”

“Yes.”

“I wouldn’t ask him any questions if I were you. He can be, er, difficult.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722081″ /]

•••

It is a truism of administrative theory that the speed of change in any organiza­tion is inversely related to its complexity. When Jimmy Carter wanted to send peanuts to market, they went; when he tried to counter Pentagon procedures, nothing happened. Major league baseball clubs — front offices, farm teams, scouts, players, coaches, agents, broadcast subsidiaries, union reps — are relatively complex entities; though the advent of free agency made it possible to work signif­icant year-to-year changes in the players’ roster, organizational character yielded only grudgingly. Even in the darkest days of the Horace Clarke era, the Yankees’ off-field personality was as patrician and imperial as it had been in their days of greatness. The imperialism remains to some degree (in most spring training camps, security consists of a retiree tilted back in a folding chair), but the essential hallmark of the Yankees has changed in the decade since George Steinbrenner purchased the club in 1973. By now, at every level in the organization — from the guard at the gate to the principal owner in his private box —the Yankees are marked by a broad streak of paranoia.

Before getting into definitions, I should point out that it is not necessarily a bad thing for an organization to exhibit symptoms of paranoia. Within the United States government, for instance, there are several thriving bureaucracies that are supposed to be obsessed with the notion that someone — the Russians, the Cubans, the Yippies — is out to get us. That is their job, and as long as some countervailing force keeps their twitching fingers off the launch button, it may even be a useful one. Paranoia becomes dangerous or self­-defeating only when when it achieves the kind of dominance it has with the Yankees.

Clinically, paranoia can be defined as a malfunction marked by systematized delusions of grandeur (“I am the pope”) or of persecution (“The media are out to get me”). Authorities generally recognize that, except in a schizophrenic state, the disorder can coexist with an otherwise intact mental and psychological condi­tion. Paranoia can involve hallucinations (“See that short man in the lavender suit over there? He’s one of them”), but as a garden variety neurosis, it involves prob­lems interpreting reality, not perceiving it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703″ /]

Thus, on the afternoon of March 25, when the Yankees were trailing the Expos 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth, approx­imately 7000 observers were in general agreement that Roy Smalley’s leadoff line drive to right field was perhaps trapped, rather than caught, by the Montreal out­fielder. The umpire thought not, however, and as Smalley chugged into second with an apparent double, he signaled that the ball bad been caught. George Steinbren­ner, standing surrounded by reporters in an area along the rightfield line near the Yankee club house, disagreed. “Schmuck,” he shouted (registering un­happiness, disappointment, and grief). Then, as reporters dutifully transcribed his words, he continued, “This happens every spring. The damn National League umps are all homers. [NL president Chub] Feeney tells them to give close calls to the National League teams” (thereby registering paranoid belief in a conspiracy).

Steinbrenner’s charge, being news, was duly reported, and as might be expected, caused some raised eyebrows in the com­missioner’s office. Steinbrenner re­sponded neither with a denial nor an apology, but by promptly banning all re­porters from the area in which he’d been standing (thereby positing Conspiracy B). The ban, creating the George Steinbren­ner memorial zone of silence, was enforced by two uniformed Fort Lauderdale police. Throughout the game, though Steinbrenner never deigned to enter the quarantined area himself, he periodically craned forward from the owner’s box to make sure it was clear of reporters.

There are a couple of points to be made here. First, paranoia is an organizing principle, imposing order (the umps are out to get me) on chance (working with only a three-man crew, they blew the call). To invent, and reinvent on the spot, an explanation for every event which leaves one never at fault, always a victim, is hard work and demands a creative intelligence. It is, for instance, just barely imaginable that Feeney told his umps to be biased­ — though it is hardly likely he would think this the ideal way to get them ready for the National League season.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714267″ /]

Second, the existence of real power makes it considerably easier to sustain one’s paranoid delusions. First, Stein­brenner indicted the reporters as co-con­spirators in the attempt to embarrass him, and then, by banning them from the area in which they’d been watching late innings ever since the Yankees moved to Lauderdale in 1962, he proved they were part of it (see Richard Nixon, Daniel Ells­berg, and “national security”). Otherwise, he’d have let them stay there, right? He’s a rational guy.

When things aren’t going as he de­mands, Steinbrenner vents his feelings of betrayal by scattershot attacks, often vil­lifying the players’ he’s spent millions on. His impulsive decision to trade away Bobby Murcer after a pop up was an early example; last year’s repeated remarks that Winfield wasn’t a superstar like Reg­gie indicates he hasn’t changed much. In­deed, during 1982’s rotating circus of managers and pitching coaches, the Yankee clubhouse was often as sullen and suspicious as the principal owner himself. Long before they became a fifth-place team, the Yankees had started acting like one.

This spring — only partly, I think, because it was spring — the team seemed more relaxed, A slumping Cerone could work on his stance with Pinella, and Murcer could terrify a hungover player with the spurious news that he’d be dh’ing during the afternoon’s game. Winfield seemed particularly at ease and secure in his role as the team’s acknowledged leader. “A lot of it,” he said, “is that Billy protects us from George. Not in any direct sense, maybe — though I think he’ll do that too, if he has too — but that he acts as a lightening rod.” Winfield broke off to guffaw as another player, reacting to the deaths in the Lippizanner stables, shouted across the room to the trainer’s office, “Hey, Gene. If that stuff kills horses, how come it only makes Willie’s lip sore?” then continued: “This year when George wants to scream at someone, he’ll scream at Billy and just let us play baseball.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725815″ /]

Billy Martin, the likely target for Steinbrenner’s predictable rages, has been a favorite victim of authority for much of his life; after the famous Copacabana incident in 1957, you can bet it wasn’t Ford or Mantle the Yankees traded. Now nearing the age of 55, he has all Steinbrenner’s intelligence and eye for conspiracy, but only he (occasionally) be­lieves he has Steinbrenner’s power. Mar­tin is often fond of pointing out to his players and to reporters that he’s both “a man and a manager.” As a man, he man­ifests all the characteristics of negative paranoia — every fight he ever got into was the other guy’s fault; every baseball job he’s ever lost was because people poisoned the owner against him — but as a manager, he makes the paranoid mindset work for him.

The concept of “positive paranoia” was first discussed by Andrew Weil in his 1974 book, The Natural Mind. Weil argued that paranoia, usually treated as a unitary phenomenon, actually had two parts — first, the imposition or discovery of a pattern in random events, and sec­ond, the interpretation of that pattern as hostile. Citing work done at San Fran­cisco’s Mt. Zion Hospital during the Haight-Ashbury heyday, Weil noted the existence of a significant number of peo­ple who exhibited the typical paranoid’s obsessive drive to explain every single blot in even the most complex Rorshach test, but who appeared to believe, quite hap­pily, “that the universe is a conspiracy organized for their own benefit.” In sports, such a tendency is called “a win­ning attitude.”

To watch a Billy Martin training camp is to discover the positive side of paranoia at work. To the occasional observer, base­ball often appears a collection of random events — hit a round, spinning ball with a round bat and who knows where the damn thing will go? — but winning teams win precisely because they can impose a pat­tern on that randomness. Offensively, they hit behind the runner or execute the squeeze; defensively, the best teams have a coordinated, routine response for vir­tually every situation. There is no predict­ing, for instance, the precise way a bunt attempting to move a runner from first to second will roll, but the defensive re­sponse — the first and third basemen charging, the second baseman covering first, the shortstop covering second, the left fielder breaking toward third — is de­signed to incorporate the random roll of the ball into a pattern determined by the team in the field.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722985″ /]

To create such patterns — to imagine and neutralize virtually anything an of­fensive team can do — is to exercise posi­tive paranoia, and Martin’s teams prac­tice these routines endlessly and inven­tively: runners on first and third, no out, and the batter pops a foul near the stands behind first base. What is the play?

The intuitive play, of course, is for the first or second baseman, whichever catches the ball, to heave it home and prevent a run from scoring. The problem is that a throw from short right field to home may he wasted if the runner on third is only bluffing, and will allow any­one but Rusty Staub to tag up and go from first to second, putting two runners in scoring position and eliminating the prospect of a routine double play. Most clubs defense the pop foul, then, by having the pitcher run to a spot on the direct line between where the foul is caught and home plate and act as cutoff man. Martin, instead, has the pitcher break directly for first base, and drills his fielders to fire the ball directly to the inside corner of the base. This pins the runner on first, ob­viously, but it eliminates the prospect of a direct throw home. Does it work?

Coach Don Zimmer is positioned near the boxes behind first, tossing pops into the air and letting either Don Baylor or Willie Randolph call for the ball. As he tosses it, Bob Shirley races from the pitcher’s mound to first base. At the precise moment the ball is caught, Jerry Mumphrey, perhaps the fastest Yankee regular, tags up at third and tries to score. Time after time, Shirley’s relay to the catcher nips him. The drill, with different runners, fielders, and pitchers, goes on for almost 20 minutes.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717965″ /]

“You set up the play that way,” says Martin later, “to make their first base coach play defense for you, and you prac­tice it with a fast runner on third to convince everyone it’ll work. If a player not only knows what to do, but believes it’s what he should be doing, he’s gonna do it right 99 times out of a 100. On a play like that, if anyone stops to think — Willie, the pitcher — the runner scores, so you drill and make it as routine as the pitcher covering first on a grounder.”

How often, during the course of a sea­son, does the situation they just practiced come up? “Maybe only three or four times a year,” he says, “but maybe a dozen or so. Maybe three times in one game. But even if it’s only once, you fuckin’ well better be ready for it.”

Martin, pretty much an autodidact since high school, is a Civil War buff, and military thinking is the paradigm of posi­tive paranoia. Conceive a strategy, devise tactics, drill, and execute. And, of course, the enemy is out to get you.

In baseball, the other team is out to win, so field generalship is an appropriate mode. Roy Smalley, nine years in baseball and going through his first full spring with Martin, talked about the system: “There’s more money here, first of all, which means more coaches to work with you, which means more time actually to practice, in­stead of just taking infield or bp. There’s an attention to detail here that I’ve never seen anywhere else, except maybe a little with Gene Mauch.

“But I think Billy’s real genius as a manager is that he knows what to do with a particular team. At Oakland, he had to steal every run he could get, so he in­vented Billy Ball — you guys named it that, he didn’t. But with this lineup, he can afford to wait for the big inning, so he’ll be more conservative, stealing a run only when he has to, or just enough to keep the other guys off balance. I mean, even though we’re loaded with power, he’s made damn sure that everyone knows how to squeeze.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725889″ /]

The threat works for him. Leading the Dodgers 1-0 in the seventh inning of a game at Vero Beach, the Yankees load the bases off Fernando Valenzuela on a single, an error, and a walk. With the bottom three hitters coming up, everyone in the park is thinking Billy Ball, and the cor­ners move onto the grass and toward the foul lines. But Andre Robertson swings away and lines a single to right through the hole where the first baseman might have been. The corners move back as Otis Nixon comes up swinging. He tops a ball toward third, and Valenzuela has to field it, too late for a play. With pitcher Shane Rawley, who may not lift a bat again all year, in the box, the infield moves in again. But even Rawley swings, sending a grounder neatly through the too-wide gap between third and short. By the time the inning is over, the Yankees lead 8-0.

After the game, Martin laughed about the sequence. “That’s what you call Billy Bull, right? If they know you’re capable of executing the squeeze — and if they know you’re willing to do it — they’ve got to defense it. As soon as they do, they give you a bunch of other options.”

Though Martin’s Yankees will often be able to wait for their power to carry them, they will probably not be staid. Through­out the spring, they worked on a com­plicated decoy double steal involving the runner on first apparently slipping as he broke for second, and drawing a throw that would let a runner on third come home. It is perhaps a little too tricky, and after a game against the Expos during which Nettles ran directly into the wait­ing arms of the Montreal catcher, Martin was a little testy. “Nettles worked it right,” he insisted. “Mumphrey just got a little too far off the base.”

But what was supposed to happen?

“Listen, it’s supposed to be a surprise play. How can it be a fuckin’ surprise if you put it in the paper?”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716433″ /]

Martin’s attitude toward the press is complex. He is extremely sensitive to the fact that they can be his allies — tacitly agreeing that certain things are “automatically” off the record — and he cultivates the beat reporters assiduously. As spring training wound down, for instance, every­one was involved in the who’ll-make-the­-team guessing game; Martin leaked the final roster to the regular reporters 24 hours before it was officially released. He was able to do this, of course, partly be­cause be knew them and trusted them enough to know that one of them wouldn’t rush up to Butch Hobson and ask how it felt to be cut while Hobson was still hoping to make the team. In that sense, it’s easy to explain the way Martin works with the regulars, but nothing (except, perhaps, suppressed resentment that he does have to be nice to the major dailies) can quite explain the occasional cruelty he shows to other journalists. An hour or so before a Lauderdale game against the Astros, Martin was sitting in the dugout talking with me and a Newsday reporter, when a puppy-dog of a kid bounced up. “Excuse me, Mr. Martin ” he said, “I’m with the Pace College newspaper, can I ask you a few questions?”

“Sure, sit right down here next to me and ask away.”

The kid got his tape recorder working and began with the obvious roster question: “I’m going to tell all the writers that at the same time,” Martin said. The kid tried to rephrase it, “Didn’t I just tell you I was going to tell all the writers that at the same time?” Flustered, and without the experience to slide to another subject, the kid sort of burbled about how many pitchers the Yankees might carry. Martin looked at him like he was dogshit: “If I answer that, it’ll make three times I’ve told you the same thing. Twice is enough, isn’t it?” His ears red with embarrass­ment, the kid shut off his recorder and got up. “Right, thanks Mr. Martin. Have a good year.” “Sure, same to you …” and as the kid walked away, he continued, “… asshole.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724977″ /]

Logically, Martin was right. A half­-dozen reporters had been working for a month to figure out the answer to those questions, and he was hardly going to stiff them and give it to a kid on a daypass, but the combative, bullying nature of his re­sponse was surely not a matter of logic. When things are not going as he wants­ — when they aren’t fitting the pattern he’s designed — Martin can be weirdly short­-fused.

Still, though I don’t believe that some­one else started every fight he ever got into (and if you believe Martin’s explana­tion that he offered to bet the famous marshmallow salesman $300 to a penny that he could kick the salesman’s ass in order to avoid a fight by making the sales­man leave him alone, I hope the Easter Bunny brought you lots of candy), it’s clear that Martin’s rep has made him something of a target. A Fort Myers cop who was on crowd control duty when Mar­tin arrived for spring’s final game said, “At first I didn’t recognize him. He was wearing a cowboy hat and had an attrac­tive young woman in the car with him, but he made a couple of jokes and seemed in a real good mood. When he got out of the car, he was signing autographs for all the kids and laughing. But out of nowhere, this one guy — a pretty big guy — started shoving him and shouting at him. Martin shoved him back once — not hard, just to get him away — and I had to grab the guy and lead him off.” If the cop hadn’t been there, headlines again.

In general, most of the players ap­preciate Martin’s readiness for at least a metaphorical fight. Bob Shirley, who came to the Yankees as a free agent dur­ing the off-season, may feel differently now that he’s been dropped from the starting rotation after a single bad outing, but in Lauderdale, he was full of praise for Martin. “I’m really looking forward to playing for him. San Diego, and especially Cincinnatti last year, it was almost like nobody cared what happened. You win, you lose, you get a bad call … so what. Billy’s different. He wants to win, he wants you to win, and you know that if anything goes wrong, he’s a hundred per cent on your side. You know the fielders are going to be making the plays, too, because they know how much be wants to win. Everything is going to be different this year.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”79481″ /]

Well, yes and no. There is no question­ing Martin’s will to win — barely able to stand up straight after an attack of food poisoning that struck down 15 Yankees after their New Orleans road trip, Martin managed to lurch up from the trainer’s table and chew out Rudy May for having walked six and hit one batter during less than an inning of a B-squad game — but there are limits to will power. Despite their strong spring, the Yankees starting rotation remains shakey, and Baltimore has to be the division favorite. Belief can carry a galvanized team of college kids through a short tournament, but it’s un­likely to sustain professional athletes over a 162-game season; they know too much.

And like all neuroses, paranoia­ — whether positive or negative — exists be­cause it serves the function of making reality easier for the neurotic to deal with. The intellectual struggle involved in fit­ting external events into a preconceived pattern pays off by providing a coherence that lets the paranoid function with con­sistency — and often with brilliance. Over time, however, not even the most fertile imagination can keep pace with the curve balls life throws; at that point, either the systematization stretches so far that it tips over into a psychotic creation of un­reality or the paranoid is forced to aban­don it, often sinking into deep depression. Given good breaks, Martin may be able to sustain his positive paranoia over an en­tire season, but, it seems inevitably to crumble over time. As Maury Allen wrote in his 1980 bio, Damn Yankee, “The scouting report on Martin said he would have one personality for the first year of his managerial career and another — “ug­lier, meaner, and more sarcastic — later. He would play to the press in his first season, buddy up with the players, drink­ing socially and laughing with them about common enemies, the press and manag­ment, and charm the fans. Things would change later as his own insecurities would surface, his own ego would take hold, his true nature would spring to the fore.”

The difference between the 1981 and ’82 seasons with Oakland provide the most recent demonstration that Allen was right about the superficial pattern, but he’s wrong to suggest that the ugly Martin is “truer to nature” than Billy the Good. The natures are one and the same; it is external events that determine which dominates. All the things which have made Martin the best dugout manager in the game, year in and year out, contribute to his apparently inescapable loss of con­trol. Every game in which Martin and his teams are able to control chance within the boundaries of the playing field leaves him more vulnerable to the breakdown when off-field events remind him how lit­tle control he really has.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721971″ /]

Injuries, throughout his managerial ca­reer, have driven Martin round the bend. Prior to the famous “One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted” remark that led to his first departure from the Yankees in 1978, Martin had been trying to buy time with a jury-rigged team. Three starting pitchers (Hunter, Messersmith, Gullet) and his best long reliever (Tidrow) couldn’t throw. His double-play combina­tion (Dent and Randolph) was out, cen­terfielder Mickey Rivers fractured his hand, and catcher Thurman Munson was so crippled by cysts it pained him even to squat behind the plate. The same ability to see patterns that makes Martin a great manager began to give him the creepy crawlies. The only explanation for all these events was a more sinister kind of pattern. It was Reggie’s fault, or George’s, or even Henry Hecht’s. Or maybe, in an unholy conspiracy, all three of them: “The press made it so much harder for all of us,” Martin has written. “Henry Hecht of the New York Post was the worst, … he’d try to pit player against player, or a player against me, or me against George. He’d do that all the time.” Eventually, preoc­cupied by the plotting he knew was going on in the clubhouse and the front office, Martin lost his grip on what was happen­ing on the ballfield. He begin issuing con­fusing instructions to the bullpen, at one point telling Sparky Lyle just to get up and soft toss and a minute later calling to find out if he was ready to go into the game.

In another setting — one where the owner wasn’t already preoccupied by his belief that the manager, the press, and the players were part of the conspiracy oper­ating against him — it is possible that Martin could survive his various crises. He didn’t make it through Oakland’s sore-armed 1982, it’s true, but one can at least imagine a setting in which he could simply hold on for a while, then gradually recover. That situation does not exist with George Steinbrenner’s Yankees, and for the sake of the players — for Martin’s as well — one wishes Mumphrey, Kemp, Net­tles, Smalley, and Gamble an exceedingly speedy recovery. ♦

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

1983_Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes_Paranoid style of Yankee Baseball

Categories
From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Summer and Fall of Darryl Strawberry

The Straw That Broke

My heroes have always been black men, usually baseball players. Years ago, reading the Joe Black chapter in The Boys of Summer, I got a double shock of recognition. Black, who grew up in the comparatively race-tension-­less Far West, saved pictures of his favorite players in a scrapbook and dreamed of someday playing in the majors. It couldn’t happen, his high school coach told him one day — you’re black. He ran home and flipped open his scrapbook, stunned to realize that all of his heroes were white.

I understood at least part of his reaction. As a kid, I’d collected four scrapbooks of baseball pictures, one for each decade from 1920 to 1959. For my 10th birthday my father gave me a book on the history of baseball, and I still remember the jolt I got when I read that Jackie Robinson was the first black play­er in the major leagues. I raced to my scrapbooks, astonished that I’d not no­ticed before that all my heroes from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s were white, and that, except for Mickey Mantle, and the trag­ic Herb Score, virtually all my favorite ’50s players — Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Don Newcombe, Larry Doby, Monte Irwin, Junior Gilliam, Roy Cam­panella, Elston Howard — were black. Baseball, which had been my introduction to history, drama, and class distinc­tion (people that rooted for the Yankees were different from you and me), also became my introduction to race.

I never realized how many of my boy­hood illusions survived intact into adult­hood until the enduring ones were shat­tered at the Shea Stadium batting cage during the first week of this season. “Do you think,” I asked Darryl Strawberry as he stepped from the cage after hitting three consecutive rainbows into the right-field bullpen, “that this is the year you’ll finally be accepted as a leader?” I don’t think he was being rude, but it was clear as he turned away that he didn’t want to look me in the eye. “I don’t want to be a leader,” he shrugged.

Doesn’t want to be a leader? Isn’t that tantamount to saying he doesn’t want to be a hero? How could any baseball player not want to be a hero? How could any black ballplayer who can accelerate like a Porsche and crack baseballs 450 feet not want to be my hero (even if he is 10 years younger than me)?

[related_posts post_id_1=”722985″ /]

Willie Mays was my hero and New York’s first black sports hero, because he could catch flies he couldn’t see, because he could hit baseballs 450 feet, and because you could watch him do these things without the overriding tension of racial politics. He stayed everyone’s hero because he ran out from under his cap when he stole second base and on days off he played stickball with kids on the streets of Harlem. I realize now that I idolized Mays partly because he offered me a comforting, un­conflicted view of race relations in the U.S. Later, in college, some of my black friends scorned my idolization of Mays, just as they turned their faces in disgust at my blues records; Muhammad Ali and John Coltrane fit in more with their life­style, and in truth, mine too. What I couldn’t explain to them about my love for Mays and baseball was something that I caught a glimpse of when I read the remark by the great German baseball writer, Fred Nietzsche, that “a man’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.”

The play part is as important as the serious part but the play seems to have drained out of Darryl Strawberry. Off the field, his marriage has disintegrated and his relations with teammates, the press, and the fans are worse than at any time since he came out of Los Angeles’s ath­lete factory, Crenshaw High (which also cranked out the NBA’s Marques John­son, the NFL’s Wendell Tyler). At the beginning of the decade, he exploded out of the minor leagues with grace and poise and a heartbreakingly beautiful sweep of a left-handed swing that was both a bless­ing and a curse. The curse part was that it earned him the title of “the next Ted Williams” but his enthusiasm and talent helped him fight off Big Apple pressure the way he learned to fight off southpaw curves off his fists. Strawberry stepped into the lineup at age 21 and hit 26 homers, stole 19 bases, and showed more rookie promise than two-thirds of the men now in baseball’s Hall of Fame. And when he got better, the Mets got better. It was that simple.

But now, seven years later, New York heat seems to have finally overwhelmed Strawberry’s last reserve of Southern California high school cool. His sweetly impassive face registers not so much dis­gust as bewilderment every time his body fails at something that he’s been doing effortlessly for years. A friend of mine who studies Zen insists that Darryl has “grown afraid of the ball — he plays deep in the field because he’s terrified that it’s going to get past him and make him look bad. He swings at it as if the ball was an object that controlled his fate instead of something whose flight he can control.” Strawberry almost admits as much: “I’m letting guys who might not be in the majors next year get ahead in the count and dictate my rhythm at the plate.” It’s as if Robert De Niro suddenly let Steve Guttenberg dictate the pace of a scene.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716433″ /]

Baseball at the major league level is an exquisitely balanced game in which the difference between the winner of the World Series and the worst team in the division might be 15 games out of a sea­son of 162. There are many reasons why the Mets didn’t win 10 or 12 games more and run away with the National League East: the loss of Dwight Gooden and Keith Hernandez for long stretches, the failure of the starting rotation to last beyond the third inning in over a dozen games, the failure of the bullpen to hold the lead in the ninth in 19 games, the inexplicable inability of the once-mighty road warriors to win away from Shea Stadium. All of these reasons are real, and all can be countered and balanced by the injuries and bad luck of the other contenders. The one argument there’s no counter for is Darryl Strawberry. Take all the other factors into account, and the Mets would probably have won if Darryl Strawberry had a normal season. The one inescapable fact is this: for the last sea­son and a half, Darryl Strawberry has been a lousy player and the Mets, in precisely that time, have been a .500 team. The Mets have been in two tough, late-summer pennant races in a row, and Strawberry wasn’t a factor in either.

Something has gone drastically wrong. Strawberry’s Hall of Fame future sudden­ly is in doubt. Almost inexplicably, the Mets’ still-youthful talent corps is fast eroding and the promise of a golden era now seems farther off than it did in 1983. The cold-blooded whiteness of the Mets’ organization seems to have accomplished the astonishing feat of making a team owned by George Steinbrenner appear warm and attractive by comparison. The farm system, built to reflect the corporate mentality of the front office, seems less capable of scouting and accommodating young black and Latin prospects than even the ’50s Yankees: only black super­stars need apply, and there are no more than two openings at any one time.

For that matter, the late-’80s Mets are aggressively unfunky compared to the overachieving pennant winners of ’69 and ’73. The Mets have succeeded in becom­ing a franchise for the suburbs: the demographics of their fans have evolved in the opposite direction from the Yankees and the inner city. Young black fans, like Spike Lee’s Mookie in Do the Right Thing, seem to wear old Brooklyn Dodger caps and shirts not so much out of nos­talgia for a team they never knew but as a reminder of a promise that the city’s cur­rent National League team has reneged on. Black kids I know that wear Mets caps don’t wear them in support of the team so much as in support of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden against the team.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725481″ /]

During the first six years of his major league career, Darryl Strawberry’s “potential” was held in front of his face like a carrot on the end of a Louis­ville Slugger. What most of us failed to realize is that he’d already eaten the car­rot: Strawberry was probably a better ballplayer for the first few years of his career than Duke Snider or Don Mattingly, and the difference between the quality of his play and that of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle over the same period in their careers is probably so small that he could have replaced either without their teams’ suffering (see sidebar, “The Strawberry Statement”).

Before this year, that is. None of the players mentioned ever had a year as poor as Strawberry’s ’89 season until they approached the end of their careers. Ex­actly how bad Strawberry has been this year is difficult to perceive from the stan­dard numbers. As we print this, Straw­berry seems likely to finish with a batting average of about .225, with perhaps 30 home runs and 80 runs batted in. The anemic average isn’t damning in itself, but it’s an indicator of how Strawberry’s batting eye has deteriorated. The Mets are 10th in a 12-team league in on-base average with .309. With a week to go in the season, Darryl Strawberry’s on-base average is .309.

Like Queens, Strawberry’s season looks bad from a distance and worse the closer you look at it. Strawberry’s average on the road is .180, certainly the biggest fac­tor in the Mets’ road record, the league’s third worst. With runners on base, he’s hit just .212. Seventeen of his current total of 29 home runs came with the bases empty. From August 16 to last week when the Mets’ pennant hopes sank precisely as fast as their opponent’s ERAs, he hit a single dinger. Over a stretch of 26 games, with the season on the line, he drove in two whole runs. And of course, that’s just at bat. His 11 stolen bases are a career low and, in the field, he has recorded one throwing assist all season.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725815″ /]

There were the injuries, the back pains, and other aches; Kirk Gibson overcame worse last year to lead the Dodgers to a pennant. There were the much-publicized off-the-field problems; Wade Boggs had some of those and has hit .340 most of the year. The Mets have tried ignoring Strawberry, stroking him, and benching him against tough southpaws. Manager Davey Johnson and batting coach Bill Robinson took turns assuring him that he’d pull out of his crash dive. Johnson pushed him to step forward and take a more active leadership role; Darryl watched strikes whiz by with runners on base, didn’t charge base hits in the field, and always, always missed the cutoff man. Robinson worked with him through extra batting practice, after which he said, “You’d think be couldn’t wait to get at the pitcher that night. Then he’d go out there and wave at curve balls and pop up with the bases loaded and you’d shake your head and say, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ First you get mad at him, but then you realize how much it’s getting to him, so you feel sorry for him.” He had ses­sions with the team psychologist, Dr. Alan Lans, who pronounced him “a fine young man, perhaps a bit confused at this point in time.” No shit, Doc.

The saddest spectacle of all was the sight of Strawberry and Davey Johnson, as decent a man as the brain-bending job of big league manager is likely to see, flailing away at each other. “What’s so sad about it,” says Ron Darling, who sep­arated the two in last week’s now infa­mous clubhouse confrontation, “is that there really isn’t any hostility between them. Darryl knows that Davey has no animosity towards him — Darryl knows he wouldn’t get a better deal with any other manager around today. I’ve never seen two guys in baseball who needed to com­municate more and wanted to but didn’t have the vaguest idea of how to go about it.” For his part, Johnson, a white South­erner, bristles at the suggestion of a racial problem: “I played with Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron. They’re my friends. Do you think that I’ve waited until this point in my life to start being a racist?”

Of course, the problem needn’t be ra­cial at all. New York baseball history shows there is a right way and a wrong way to handle a troubled superstar. The wrong way was Casey Stengel constantly telling a brooding Mickey Mantle, “You can do better.” The right way was Leo Durocher telling a heartsick Willie Mays (zero for his first 24 at-bats), “You’re my centerfielder. We sink or swim together.” Johnson hasn’t taken either tack with Strawberry because, as the manager says, “I try to treat all players like men until they start acting like boys,” and “I try to treat all my players equally.” But treating all men alike is part of the difficulty: only on computers do ballplayers never act like boys.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

Whether or not the Mets should trade Darryl Strawberry was a hotter topic for many New Yorkers this sum­mer than who should be mayor. Yes, said Howard Blatt in the Daily News, he’s turned into Dave Kingman; trade him while you can still get something of value back for him. (Blatt had a point: Straw­berry’s 1989 totals tally in almost exactly with Dave Kingman’s average year.) No way, said Mike Lupica: you don’t give up on a player of Strawberry’s stature after one bad season. Lupica also has a point. What would the Mets possibly get for Strawberry that would justify letting go the man who only a year ago was being hailed as possibly the best player in baseball?

And yet, and yet (do we dare ask it?): what if 1989 represents something more than a slump? How long does a slump go on before you stop calling it a slump? There are three disturbing facts about Strawberry’s dismal streak:

  1. He hasn’t been bad for just a season, he’s been bad for a season and a half. His tailspin began with shocking swiftness after the first half of the ’88 season. From that time till now — a period of 210 games and nearly 750 at-bats — he’s hit nearly 50 points lower than his career batting aver­age and 60 lower than his career on-base average. From 1983 to the 1988 All-Star Game he was stealing bases at a rate of three in four tries; since then, two of three. In sum, this looks more like a season and a half out of Dave Kingman’s scrapbook than out of Strawberry’s.
  2. Strawberry’s collapse has been total. Most great ballplayers have two or three outstanding skills that erode as their careers go by; for instance, a slugger who hits for a high average and who has the speed to cover ground on the field and steal bases will, in his early thirties, usu­ally begin to lose hand-eye coordination resulting in more strikeouts and fewer walks. He’ll be thrown out more often trying to steal until he eventually stops trying. He’ll lose a step in the field, then two, until the fear of having a ball hit over his head forces him to play virtually in the shadow of the outfield wall. In the end, his one remaining talent will be the one that got him noticed in the first place, the one that one prospect in per­haps 500 possesses: the ability to hit 90 mph fastballs into the bleachers. This will be negated as pitchers feed him a steady diet of breaking balls with runners on base — the fastballs and hence the homers only come with the bases empty until it reaches a point where the outs used up outweigh the value of the solo shots. It happened that way to Mantle and Mays, to Schmidt and Bench and Jackson, and now it seems to be happening to Darryl Strawberry. It happened to the others as they approached or passed 35; Strawberry will be 28 next March.
  3. To people that watch him every day, the most obvious decline is in his fielding. Only a couple of short years ago Strawberry was considered one of the finest young outfielders in the league, and many were willing to write off his occasional lapses to youth — most of his injuries (i.e., hurting his thumb on a diving catch) were the result of over-hustle. Tim McCarver sees his current problems as mental, not physical: “Darryl seems to have lost the concentration it takes to position yourself according to the pitcher and hitter. I’d say at least two full games in the Mets’ loss column reflect how poorly Darryl positioned himself against hitters.”

But isn’t the team captain at least par­tially responsible for the positioning of outfielders? “I flash signals, I wave my hands, I yell, I let all the outfielders know what I know,” says Keith Hernandez. Doesn’t Darryl listen? “Been to many Mets games this year?” he shrugs. The Mets fans who rent space along Shea’s right field foul pole think that before the heavy summer rains hit there was a patch of brown turf in right field, 20 to 25 feet from the warning track. They call it “the Strawberry Patch.” It was brown, they explain patiently, because Strawberry never left it. “We’d yell to him, ‘Hey, Da­rryl, it’s fuckin’ Ozzie Smith up there, you can move in a few hundred feet,” says one irate 45-year-old regular. “Da-rul, come out of the Strawberry Patch!’ He’d just stand there, hands on his knees, ignoring us, and Ozzie would slap a single into short right that faded into the foul line for a double. I mean, fuck him, we’re just trying to help him and the team, y’know?” Yeah, we know.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722081″ /]

Everyone, even those teammates most infuriated by his behavior, wants to help Darryl. Talk to a Met with a grudge against Strawberry and once he’s talked himself through his anger, the teammate says something like, “When Darryl’s right, playing with him is as much fun as being back in the Babe Ruth league, with Babe Ruth on your side.” But though several Mets would go on record as calling him the best player in the game (Ojeda: “He’s been the best for the last six or seven years like Mike Schmidt was the best the previous six or seven”), curiously few would take Straw­berry’s part in last season’s MVP debate. “I think the injustice of the MVP thing last year really got to him,” says Dwight Gooden. “I don’t want to take anything  away from Mac [Kevin McReynolds] — he carried us the second half. And I’m not knocking what Kirk Gibson did for the Dodgers. But if you went by the numbers, Darryl should have gotten that award.”

­Gooden’s loyalty to his pal is understandable, but in fact the numbers don’t support his argument. Gibson’s slugging and on-base average were just about the same as Strawberry’s, and he contributed almost the same number of runs to a team that was far more in need of them. Also, he performed well when the team was in the thick of a pennant fight. As McCarver says, “They don’t call it ‘Play­er of the Year,’ they call it ‘Most Valuable Player,’ and that implies a lot of intangi­bles, a lot of leadership qualities. I’m not saying Darryl doesn’t have it in him to do that, but Kirk is the one that showed those qualities with the season on the line.” One Met who asked not to be iden­tified put it another way: “When the bad stretch started last year there was a game where we were down, I think it was 8-0 or 9-0 to the Braves in the first inning, and Darryl loped after a routine fly and tried to one-hand it. He was dogging it. Well, he missed it. Could you imagine Kirk Gibson dogging it like that?”

Okay, I said, realistically, would that have made a difference in the game? “Re­alistically, no. But it’s a question of attitude. If you show the other teams that you’re scrappy and full of fight when you’re down 10-0, they’re going to remember it on some day when they’re only ahead 5-0, and it’s going to undermine their confidence.” Okay, I said, but doesn’t Kirk Gibson ever drop a ball? “Yeah, and when he does he comes up snarling. ‘Blame me,’ he says, and what sportswriter’s going to have the guts to tell him to his face he’s wrong? Get what I mean’!” Okay, I say, but isn’t that ask­ing a player like Gibson to assume a burden above and beyond the call of duty? “Yes.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”638234″ /]

Part of the problem with the MVP vote is that, like everything else these days from mayoral races to film festivals, it’s tinged with racism. Gibson, aggressive and hard-nosed as any player in the game today, is a writers’ favorite; even before the ’88 season was into the stretch writers had declared the MVP award a race between the “gifted” Strawberry and the “hus­tling” Gibson. (That Gibson was himself rather gifted — he was also an All-Ameri­ca football player at Michigan State — ­seemed to have been forgotten.) Strawberry stopped short of accusing the sport­ing press of racism, but the feeling was never far from the surface.

Strawberry brooded over the second­-place finish all winter; Reds outfielder Eric Davis, his boyhood friend and for­mer high school teammate, feels that Strawberry “let the media get to him too much. First he let them create an image of his that was based on what they want­ed him to be, not what he thought he could be. I think after the season he had thought, ‘Well, didn’t I do what you asked? Where’s my reward?’ I think he was bitter ’cause he’d read so much about Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and how every writer expected him to be them all over again. They won MVP awards be­fore they were 28, and he had the kind of season they did and the recognition wasn’t there. I told him, ‘Darryl, your mistake is that you ‘re letting them dictate how you feel about yourself. That’s wrong.’ ”

When I spoke to Strawberry this spring about the MVP award, he didn’t seem so much bitter as resigned: “I think now that the main reason I wanted it so much is not for the award itself but because of what it would have meant. If I’d have reached that level, it’s like a burden would have been lifted off me. Y’know? Nobody could say, ‘Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Hank Aaron all won the MVP, but Darryl Strawberry never did reach their level.’ It was something I could hold in my hand and say, ‘Okay, now I’m there.’ ”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716694″ /]

It was another case of using others as a yardstick that led to the famous “team picture” flare-up this spring when his resentment at being the team’s fifth highest paid player finally spilled out. I asked Keith Hernandez if he had any last words on the incident: “Yeah, I do. I think it’s ridiculous that Darryl should be the fifth highest paid player on this team. I thought so at the time. What I couldn’t get across to Darryl is that he was letting it get to him too much. If he wanted to show the front office something, go out and play harder. You can’t let the media or the front office or the fans affect the way you see yourself. Believe me, if I’ve learned nothing else in this game, I’ve learned that. I think you can trace some of Darryl’s problems right from the time, about midway through the ’88 season, when he started thinking too much about this MVP thing. I mean like, ‘What kind of numbers do I have to put up to be MVP?’ and ‘What do they want in an MVP? Am I really it?’ Shit like that. He took it too seriously and I think it’s af­fected his play.”

Serious. Play. Attitude. Of course, it would have been a nice gesture if some boosters of Strawberry’s early potential had come to his defense and pointed out that perhaps the Mets had something of an attitude problem in their handling of the situation — that if the press and the team expected Strawberry to play like Mays and Mantle and if he finally had the kind of seasons that Mays and Man­tle had that he could finally expect to be the high man on the salary scale as they were on their teams. In response to my query on the subject, Mets GM Frank Cashen would only reply, “No one appre­ciates Darryl’s accomplishments more than we do. But Darryl’s demand for renegotiation was clearly intended to test our resolve — and we responded accord­ingly.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Cashen that what Strawberry might have been testing was the Mets’ good will and their faith in him.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713841″ /]

The sporting press and public maintain a double standard toward highly paid athletes: on the one hand, because they are spoiled and overpaid (and they are, of course), we expect them to be immune to the pressures, frustrations, and irritations that the rest of us are subject to. After all, the only thing they do for their millions is “play” a game. Then, when their performances become too much like “play” and they don’t win often enough to please us, we complain that they’re not “professional” enough (“Their hearts aren’t in it,” scolded Newsday‘s Steve Jacobson after the Mets watched a football game on the clubhouse TV following a recent loss. “They aren’t professional”). “Just us folks” sportswriters suck up to their readers’ prejudices by telling them that athletes “play games for a living” instead of doing “real” work. On Friday, in one of the most extreme exam­ples of the genre, Jimmy Breslin wrote that Strawberry “should be consigned to some of the jobs that the rest of us have had to work at.” Breslin, who tagged Strawberry “a deserter” and “a public loiterer,” summed up this way: “New York is a place where people work hard and … Strawberry is a walking insult to us all.” (Breslin led off by criticizing Strawberry for not taking time off from his job shagging flies to sign an Ordinary Joe’s yearbook; if Breslin had worked a little harder, he’d have discovered that Strawberry is one of the most accommo­dating New York players when it comes to pre- and post-game autographing.)

Maybe the columnists are right, maybe Strawberry is a “tall, spoiled, utterly bor­ing young man” who makes loads of mon­ey “playing a game” instead of toiling under “real” pressures like jobs where you have to tote lunch pails or pound computers. But performing for a living day in and out in front of TV cameras and millions of screaming people and being scrutinized and dissected the next day in print must certainly provide an amaz­ing simulation of what pressure is like. The fans realize this better than the press: the “just us folks” who actually pay to get into baseball games voted Straw­berry onto the All-Star team three years (’85-’87) when polls show the sportswriters would have kept him off.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717965″ /]

The fact is that no matter how little we can empathize with him, the professional athlete carries a burden: we want his play to reflect the seriousness with which we take our dreams. What makes it such a burden is that we care more about those games than we do about curing cancer or improving education — you can’t turn on WFAN without hearing a caller complain how ridiculous an athlete’s salary is com­pared “to what we pay our teachers and cancer researchers,” but of course, if we thought of them as our teachers and researchers, we would pay them more. Sim­ply put, we think of ballplayers on our favorite teams as our possessions. What we pay goes directly from our pocket into theirs (unlike the impersonal way taxes are redistributed). When our players succeed, we’ve made a good financial and emotional investment. When they screw up, however, they’ve let us down, ripped us off. And if our player is black — and most of the money is coming from whites — there is a feeling of ingratitude, robbery, and, yes, betrayal, that simply isn’t there for a white player: the attitude is where would these uneducated black kids be if we hadn’t chosen them to be our heroes?

One reason black athletes are so promi­nent in modern American sports is be­cause whites and blacks need them more — their success somehow assures us that the America we desire is a reality, or at least a possibility, and that if only the same simple rules toward the game and sportsmanship and team loyalty were fol­lowed off the field, then the rewards would be the same. None of us needs to be reminded how silly that is, and none of us wants to believe that what is best about the game can’t be carried over into everyday life.

The burden falls more heavily on the black player than the white, since he has two communities to be a hero for. Proba­bly no one feels that a Strawberry-led Mets charge in the second half of this baseball season would have gone far toward easing racial tension in one of the ugliest summers in New York memory, but the fact is that having Darryl Straw­berry as a hero would have unified this city in a way that even a black mayor could not: politics is almost always a divi­sive game, while team sports unifies cit­ies. Instead, Strawberry and the Mets have pushed our noses more squarely into things as they are: the Mets’ black players are increasingly isolated on a team that is seven-eighths white, that has an all-white power structure, and which, if we can trust demographic studies, is los­ing more of its black fans every year.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713648″ /]

It’s possible that, with the exception of his friend and teammate Dwight Gooden, no baseball player has ever felt the bur­den of fan expectations more than Darryl Strawberry. This isn’t to equate Darryl Strawberry’s problems with those of Jackie Robinson and the pioneer black ballplayers of the late ’40s and early ’50s, but that was a different struggle. Back then, the public prejudice was that the black athlete was inferior; Robinson and Larry Doby and Willie Mays silenced their critics with circus catches and dar­ing steals of home. The problem for mod­em players like Gooden, Strawberry, Ricky Henderson, and Eric Davis is the unstated prejudice that the black athlete is naturally superior, and thus each achievement is judged not in its own right, but as an indicator of how much more he could do — the implication al­ways being that only his attitude holds him back. Pete Rose is not only judged by what he has done, but is allowed to set his own goals. Darryl Strawberry, howev­er, is cursed by forever being judged ac­cording to standards set for him by others.

In our time, no black athlete has han­dled this situation better than Reggie Jackson, who said to the media, in effect, “Fuck you, I’m setting my own agenda­ — I’m great, so now let’s see if you’re capa­ble of appreciating me.” It’s no accident that good teams, in Reggie’s words, “fol­lowed me around.” In addition to bring­ing a great player to every team he was with, Jackson also provided his teams with a built-in lightning rod; all the team’s angers, resentments, and frustra­tions were centered on him, as well as the lion’s share of the blame and credit. He thought it was a fair exchange, and, finally, when they came to see the benefits, most of his teammates felt the same way. Reggie won, he lost, he had fun. We had fun — no one ever called Reggie an underachiever.

Darryl Strawberry is a better ballplayer than Reggie was. He’s the best player the Mets have ever had — the best ballplayer New York has had since Mickey Mantle peaked nearly 30 years ago. The Mets have been baseball’s winningest team since he became a regular. But, like the Mets, he seems to have jumped from a confident future to a disappointing past without ever basking in the present. He’s not having fun, and neither are we.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721971″ /]

Swatting baseballs at Yankee Stadium before a Twins-Yankees game earlier this year, Strawberry’s old sparring mate Wally Backman offered an insight. “Darryl’s one of those who’d be so much better off if he’d quit thinking about him­self in the third person. You know what I mean? When he started saying stuff like, ‘I’ve got to do the kind of things Darryl Strawberry is capable of,’ you said to yourself, ‘Oh, shit, it sounds like he’s been reading about himself in the papers too much.’ I feel sorry for him sometimes. It’s not the kind of problem players like me are faced with that much. But guys like that, they come up so young and read so much about themselves for so long, after awhile they’ve got to wonder who they really are.”

Of all the Mets, Backman has been the most critical of Strawberry, who once threatened to “punch out that little red­neck.” I was curious. Had it ever occurred to him that Strawberry’s lack of leader­ship qualities might have stemmed from a rather unique situation: a young black man asked to lead a lineup of all-white veterans? “You know,” he said, “it didn’t at the time and I guess it should have. I never thought to try and put myself in Darryl’s place and see things his way. I just thought of him as a great player with some attitude problems. You think to yourself, ‘Jeez, I’m no racist,’ and you think you’re free of prejudice in things like baseball, but you get out in the world and find out that things are different than you thought. I mean, hell, my idol was Willie Mays. Know what I mean?” Yeah, I know what you mean. ■

[related_posts post_id_1=”722322″ /]

The Strawberry Statement

How good has Darryl Strawberry been? Two years ago we ran a piece comparing him to the two best ball­players of the 1950s, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays — for good measure we threw in New York’s other great Hall of Fame outfielder from the same decade, Duke Snider. The study showed that, after 500 games, there was little differ­ence in performance: Mays had four more home runs than Strawberry, Man­tle had three more RBIs — but Straw­berry had far more stolen bases.

The hate mail was voluminous: we ”manipulated statistics” or “took facts out of context” or — the most common howl — we “needed to wait a couple more years before the comparison could be valid.” Well, we’ve waited a couple more vears, and after 2900 at bats, here’s how NYC’s Fantastic Four stack up:

Actually, I have manipulated statis­tics a bit: I haven’t included batting average or strikeouts. Mays, Mantle, and Snider all finished their careers near .300 while Strawberry probably won’t hit .275. But batting average is less important now than it was 35 years ago — modern sluggers like Mike Schmidt and Reggie Jackson seldom hit over .290 and no one expected them to. On-base average is a much weightier stat and, thanks to his eye for drawing walks, Strawberry compares well in this with our big three. Strawberry has also struck out more, but, despite the mod­ern sportswriter’s prejudice for the val­ue of “putting the ball in play,” there’s little evidence that strikeouts have any correlation with winning and losing­ again, check out Schmidt and Jackson. (Darryl may have a point when he says, “At least when I strike out I’m not hitting into a double play.”)

At any rate, the evidence on that chart is undeniable: after approximately six big league seasons, Strawberry was a better hitter than Hall of Famer Duke Snider and comparable to, if not the equal of, the great Mays and Mantle. Let’s give the guy the benefit of the doubt: after 2900 at bats, he might have been better. Mays, Mantle, and Snider played half their games in home parks that didn’t hurt their numbers; Shea Stadium is a power pitcher’s park, and judging from the difference in Strawber­ry’s home-road stats over his first six seasons, it seems like Shea cost him over 100 hits and 60 RBIs.

“For six years,” Inside Sports wrote last year, “Mets fans have been waiting for Darryl Strawberry’s train to arrive.” They must have been watching the wrong station: Darryl was on track since his rookie year.

— A.B. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”669095″ /]

A Way Out of the Strawberry Jam

What are we going to do about Dar­ryl Strawberry? If the Mets keep him, they risk another year of the on-field malaise and off-field tur moil that’s plagued the team for the last season and a half. If they trade him, they risk the enduring hatred of Mets fans for exiling perhaps the best ballplayer of the decade.

There’s no easy way out for the Mets, but there’s one other move that could provide a greater payoff than either of those two scenarios: keep Strawberry and deal with the Cincin­nati Reds for Eric Davis. Here are five reasons why:

1. Davis is one of baseball’s best hitters. This year he’s on the verge of finishing at .290 with 35 home runs, 100 RBIs, and 20 stolen bases. His slugging average of .550 is higher than anyone on the Mets except Howard Johnson, and his on-base average of .370 tops all Mets except the punch­less Dave Magadan.

2. He’s a fine centerfielder, and it’s time the Mets cut their losses on Juan Samuel.

3. The Mets need a right-handed hitter with power and speed.

4. He’s black. The Mets desperately need black players to shake up the ethnic mix and to pump up flagging interest among minority fans.

5. He’s Darryl Strawberry’s best friend.

Normally the Reds wouldn’t let a player of Davis’s caliber go for all the money Pete Rose owes his bookies, but in the wake of this year’s collapse they’re likely to consider a deal — espe­cially from a team in another division. It’s no secret Davis wants out, and he’s a free agent after 1990; the floun­dering Reds might swap him while he’s still a bargain for them. For what? Samuel and Ron Darling? Maybe Bob­by Ojeda too? Ojeda and Greg Jeffries? We’d make any of these deals in a New York minute.

Strawberry has hinted that he’d like to wind up with Davis on a southern California team, but the Dodgers, An­gels, and Padres aren’t likely to inflate their payrolls by the amount it would take to get both of them. The Mets, on the other hand, would be able to afford Davis — after cutting some of their ag­ing high-priced vets (dumping Gary Carter alone might pay Davis’s way).

Strawberry would be playing along­side his closest friend, and a player of Davis’s stature — especially a black player — batting in front of or behind Darryl could take the pressure off him in much the same way Roger Maris eased the load for Mickey Mantle in 1960 (historians will recall that the Mick rebounded from his poorest sea­son in 1959 to smack 122 homers over the next three years while Maris hit 133). Davis would be a hot acquisition for any baseball team, but for the Mets the deal might be worth two su­perstars.

— A.B. 

1989_Village Voice article on the_Bitter fall of Darryl Strawberry by Allen Berra

1989_Village Voice article on the_Bitter fall of Darryl Strawberry by Allen Berra

1989_Village Voice article on the_Bitter fall of Darryl Strawberry by Allen Berra

1989_Village Voice article on the_Bitter fall of Darryl Strawberry by Allen Berra

1989_Village Voice article on the_Bitter fall of Darryl Strawberry by Allen Berra

1989_Village Voice article on the_Bitter fall of Darryl Strawberry by Allen Berra

1989_Village Voice article on the_Bitter fall of Darryl Strawberry by Allen Berra

Categories
From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Willie Randolph: The Brownsville Bomber

Summer 1974.
Past the hopscotch question mark and to the left of the skelly court was a pitch­ing rubber drawn in white chalk. During the course of your average Brownsville summer it moved around a bit, but basi­cally it stayed about 70 feet from the concrete barrel that served double duty as funhouse and backstop. All the little kids had been chased away and the stick­ball crew, the black guys from 305 and 315 Livonia Avenue and the Puerto Ri­cans from 360 Dumont, were banging around with sleek brown and orange broom handles and bats autographed by Thurman Munson, Danny Cater, and Horace Clarke, from Yankees Bat Day. Black tape was wrapped around the ends of bats and sticks for a solid grip. We’d spent so many summers on this asphalt stickball field, pounding Pinsy Pinky rubber balls into gloves and playing from noon to dark while ring-a-levio games, baby carriages, little brothers and sisters swirled around. As we’d gotten older, the endless summers of our adolescence had given way to the distractions of teen life; loose joints, part-time jobs, blue-light parties and, on occasion, reading books.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725900″ /]

On this day we were all out there again because Mickey was back home and, well, we all just wanted to be around. Bill Tra­vers in the Daily News always called him Willie Randolph, which confused me be­cause around the Tilden projects he was always Mickey as in Mantle, since he was one of the best hitters on the block. Whatever you called him, Randolph was the only guy on our block, or for that matter in all of Brownsville, that we knew of with a big league baseball con­tract. It meant a lot to me since not only did I live in the same project but was three years behind him at the same high school, and, after a so-so year of JV ball, was trying out for the varsity. Since both our project and high school were named after Samuel J. Tilden, New York State governor and presidential candidate of yesteryear, I thought maybe I’d stumbled upon a good omen.

A stickball game started and somehow I managed to get to pitch to Mickey, er, Willie. It would have been glorious to strike him out, but my hero was the Yan­kees’ underappreciated sinkerballer Mel Stottlemyre — in my mind as good as the Mets’ Seaver and Koosman — so it would have been fine if he merely grounded into an imaginary double play. Oh, well. The Tilden projects were (still are) 16 stories high. Surrounding the roof is a metal rail­ing, and right on top an incinerator. This is important information. In a moment of ill-timed machismo, I reared back and fired a high hard one. Armed with a brown stickball bat and batting instruc­tion from a Pittsburgh Pirate system known for producing hitters, Randolph smacked the pink projectile way up in the air, over the asphalt infield, over the fence that was an automatic double, over the alley that was a triple, and —crash!­ — right up against the fence over the 16th floor of a building whose number time has mercifully obscured. I remember thinking, “I hope he makes it to the ma­jor leagues. At least then I’ll have a good story to tell.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717965″ /]

Summer 1986.
Brownsville is not one of the neighbor­hoods Borough President Howard Gold­en highlights in his rosy reports about Brooklyn’s future. In Brooklyn in the 21st Century, prepared by the Fund for the Borough of Brooklyn with Golden’s cooperation, my childhood home — high­- and low-rise projects, the dying shopping strips of Belmont and Pitkin Avenues, Arab and Korean store owners, hard­working blacks and Hispanics, and more crack salesmen than summer jobs (are crack houses Reagan’s real urban enterprise zones?) — is mentioned just twice. Brownsville is one of those places where “the underclass,” the fashionable term for distancing America from its poor, multiplies and survives.

For Randolph, his friends, and me, too, one of the keys to survival in Brownsville of the ’70s was the number 2 (now 3) elevated IRT subway that runs through Brownsville and past what used to be my window at 315 Livonia Avenue. It was a magic carpet to “the Deuce” (a/k/a 42nd Street) and the movies; to Coney Island (after you switched to the D); and to Shea and Yankee stadiums. Mickey Ran­dolph took the 2 to the Deuce to the 7 — he was a Mets fan. I took the 2 to the 4 — I thought Horace Clarke was a fine second baseman. Time sure does pass.

Earlier this season, I took that ride again, getting on at Rockaway Avenue in Brownsville and taking that long trip from Brooklyn to the Bronx, anxiously anticipating the moment when the 4 train explodes into sunlight and there, white as a little boy’s birthday cake, is Yankee Stadium.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722985″ /]

In my stickball days I’d come down the steps and head left to the bleachers. This evening I hang a right past Babe Ruth Park, the handball courts, the suit-and-tie crowd entering the Stadium Club, right up to the press gate. While working for the Amsterdam News as a college student in the late ’70s, I’d often taken this  journey, and Randolph, traded to the Yankees in 1975, had been good to me, introducing me to a couple of players and basically making an insecure college kid feel alright. Good thing, too, because the Yankee clubhouse was as taut as a newly strung tennis racket. Reggie Jackson was always nasty to me. Thurman Munson was mean. Graig Nettles was a redneck. Billy Martin’s office was the hellhole of an unstable enemy. Except for Oscar Gamble, a funny motormouth who knew his on-base percentage and homer-to-at-­bat ratio from day to day, even the other Yankees were wary of writers they didn’t know and many they did. Later, when Geoffrey Stokes dissected Yankee psy­chology with his Voice piece “The Para­noid Style of Yankee Baseball,” I knew exactly what he meant.

Now things seemed different. Ran­dolph was no longer just a sane soul in a room of gifted egotists, but co-captain of a team with pitchers too young to know what to do or too old to do it well, a rookie manager still to be tested under fire, and some of the greatest players in the game. Captain! Hard to imagine homeboy from Brooklyn — a negro — be­ing captain of America’s Team.

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

Walking into the clubhouse this time I didn’t have to hold my breath for fear that someone would step on my toes. My first impression: Winfield is bigger than any of those aforementioned Yankee stars, yet when he sat watching Carol Jenkins on Live at Five or strutted past the Winfield Foundation letters stapled to the bulletin board, he didn’t dominate the room the way those money players did. I don’t know what the departed Don Baylor meant in the clubhouse, but in comparison to the “good old days,” some­thing was different; whether it meant there was a leadership vacuum or just non-Yankee normal baseball tranquillity, I don’t know.

Randolph sat in the center of the room, watching Live at Five, too, and lacing up his cleats. He recognized me immediate­ly, smiled, and we started talking. Our talk that night and in subsequent conver­sations was defined and divided in two parts: the “Mickey” Randolph story of how a Brooklyn boy grew into a major league ballplayer; and the tale of number 30, Willie Randolph, a man obsessed with consistency, privacy, and pride. So the following is on the order of a double­sided single: “Homeboys on Parade” b/w “Yankee Attitude (Why Willie Randolph Has Outlasted Fred Stanley, Bucky Dent, Andre Robertson, Bobby Meacham, and 24 Other Double Play Partners).”

[related_posts post_id_1=”722081″ /]

S I D E  O N E

Mickey Randolph didn’t hang out, which was unusual for the neighbor­hood’s top athletes, who enjoyed basking in the respect their ability generated. The difference was probably that most of the stars of the ‘Ville played hoops; and like the notorious World B. Free (then Lloyd “All World” Free of Canarsie High) most Brownsville players chanted the mantra “Give up the pill.” While these cats were holding court Randolph was upstairs. “I remember they would call me, ‘Hey, Mickey, come on down, man, we’re playing ring-a-levio,’ or, ‘We’re playin’ manhunt,’ and I’d go, ‘Naw, man, I got to get my rest.’ At that time I didn’t need rest,” he says with a chuckle in the Yankee dugout. “But that’s what I thought I needed to do to be prepared to win the next day. I didn’t know that guys had a beer or two or got drunk or smoked a joint. I actually be­lieved that athletes got their rest at night. I remember my homeboys hanging out on the corner partying, and I was upstairs watching the Mets at 8 o’clock.”

Part of Randolph’s baseball orienta­tion may have resulted from living in 360, which the black guys in 315 and 305 called “the Puerto Rican building.” “His­panic building?” he says with a smile.

“Yeah, the majority of them were. They make them good rice and beans and are a good band of people. I remember even going to Puerto Rico, my first time being out of Brooklyn. I must have been 10 or 11 years old. We had an all-star team within this league and they won a trip to Puerto Rico for a week; we went on a little tour of three cities. I remember sleeping with a net over me. It was so weird. I just wanted to play ball. It could have been with the Russians; I didn’t care who it was with.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725889″ /]

Crucial to Randolph’s development as a young player was his friendship with a gardener at the Tilden projects named Frank Tepedino. His namesake and nephew was a scrubby reserve outfielder with the Yankees from 1969 to 1972 and another nephew, Russell, played second base on the same Tilden JV baseball team I did. “Frank gave me my first break,” Randolph says. “He got tired of chasing us off his grass and everything, so he said, ‘Listen, you guys really want to play ball? Come on down to Five Dia­monds [in Prospect Park] on Saturday and we’ll play.’ ”

Tepedino introduced him to American Legion ball, where he competed against Italians and Jews from outside Brooklyn’s dark neighborhoods, and also to a few tricks of the trade. Man on first. Ball hit up the middle. Randolph fields it and, instead of flipping underhand or turning his body to throw sideways, he flips it backhand, “Frank showed that to me when I was 11 or 12,” he says, grabbing a ball and twisting his wrist to demon­strate. “I remember him very vividly saying, ‘Get close to the base. Get that ball and flip your wrist around and shovel it.’ I would sit in my room and put a pillow on the bed and just take a hardball and for hours just stand there throwing the ball into that pillow.”

Gifted basketball players are scouted in junior high, but relatively little attention is paid to New York City baseball players. For every Randolph, or fellow Brooklynite Julio Cruz (White Sox), or Shawon Dunston (Cubs), a slew of bas­ketball players emerges from the inner city every year. Part of the problem is the lack of fields and the poor quality of those that exist. Willie and I traded stories about the Tilden High School field in East Flatbush; I remember twice getting hit in the throat on bad hops, he got it once in the mouth. Randolph once took his spikes and dug up a rock “as big as a damn basketball” in the shortstop hole. Quality instruction is in short supply as well. Basically, “you just had to get what you could from this guy or that guy, and keep your eyes open for anything else,” says Randolph, who in the off-season does clinics around the metropolitan area.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725481″ /]

Fear keeps many baseball scouts out of Brownsville and neighborhoods like it. “Half of them are afraid they’re gonna get mugged,” he says. “Some scouts came out to see me and stayed in the car.” Still, by his senior year at Tilden, Ran­dolph was all-city at shortstop and enough of a prospect that the Mets, Expos, and Royals all took a look, but the Pirates were the only ones that showed real interest.

In the ’70s the Pirates were one of the most popular teams in black America be­cause they were always ready and willing to sign and play black and Hispanic play­ers. In fact, they are the only major league team in history to put nine black/Hispanic players in the game at one time. However, the open-door racial policies of the Pirates didn’t mean they liked scout­ing in Brooklyn, either. Randolph signed his Pittsburgh Pirate contract in a car outside diamond seven at the Prospect Park Parade Grounds. “It’s the seventh inning of a game and they call me off the field. They say, ‘Listen we got to go back to Pittsburgh. We want you to sign. You got to sign, and gotta sign it now. We ain’t gonna wait.’ I got in the car. On this particular day they did not want to get out of the car. They just wanted to get it done and over with.”

At one point during our dugout talk another reporter, whom I didn’t see, sat down behind me with an open notebook. Randolph had me stop taping and told my fellow scribe quite firmly not to take notes. Willie considered this a private interview. Said reporter remarked that he was after his own “angle” and retreated a few feet. Willie had been comfortable talking about his pre-Yankee days, but his rebuff of the other reporter made me remember that Willie is a New York Yan­kee, not simply some homeboy I grew up with.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716433″ /]

S I D E  T W O  

Sitting in front of Randolph’s locker some weeks later, waiting for him to emerge from the weight room, it struck me that the second baseman is the Yan­kees’ Invisible Man; through tempera­ment and study he has kept his true char­acter obscure on the most reported about sports franchise in America. If Randolph were a b-boy, I’d say he was “fronting.” My man wouldn’t lie to the Daily News, but he’s much too wise to tell folks what he really thinks about his years with the pinstriped crew. Listen to how Randolph schooled the troubled and now departed Bobby Meacham on reporters: “He told me, ‘Just answer what they ask you. Don’t volunteer additional comments.’ ”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when, in contrast to my previous visit, he was initially quite guarded. He asked me very directly what I was trying to “get,” as if he suspected I was out to do a hatch­et job. That homeboy stuff had worn off. Randolph was just pursuing his policy of cautious engagement, quite aware that at Yankee Stadium, giving the wrong quote to the right reporter is like setting fire to your ass. And through 21 managerial changes, four World Series, four All-Star selections, more seasons in pinstripes than any black Yankee except Elston Howard 912) and Roy White (14), this is one Brownsville cat who has kept himself quite chilly.

Ask him about the media and he says, “I’m much more open these days because I’m more mature. I feel like I can con­verse without falling into traps that I might have fell into earlier,” but he makes it clear scribes are not his closest friends. “I got burned sometimes early in my career which probably made me a little tougher. It’s like when you grew up on the block and someone came out of their face wrong, you don’t forget it. You don’t make the same mistakes.”

Privacy, you see, is a big issue with Randolph. You have rarely seen pictures of his wife Gretchen, his high school sweetheart who lived in 305 Livonia, or his three kids. Away from the ballpark, with the exception of the baseball clinics and some charitable appearances, he keeps a low profile, attending Broadway shows (he was one of the few to like Big Deal) and catching some jazz in the Vil­lage. Randolph assiduously avoids the ce­lebrity backstage hustle. “The PR guy is pushing, ‘Come on, let’s get the publicity picture.’ I say, ‘That’s for you. Does the man want to do that? Did he request me to come back here?’ So I just go do my thing, sit back, check it out, slip out the side door, in my car, and I’m gone.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”713648″ /]

Aside from his don’t-crowd-me, I-won’t-crowd-you attitude, another factor in his reticence may be that his current contract ends this season. That will make him a 32-year-old second baseman with three to four quality years ahead of him. From the Yankees’ viewpoint, he may be nearing the end of his value as trade bait. Is the recently acquired (and younger) Wayne Tolleson next season’s second sacker? I hope not. Despite making more errors in the first half of this season than he did all of last, Willie can still pick it, and because of his exceptional batting eye (he’s been in the base-on-balls top five all season), he’s still a good number two hitter even if Lou Piniella doesn’t think so. Randolph would definitely be a valuable commodity in the open market, someone teams like the Orioles and the Padres would covet. Of course Randolph doesn’t want to go. His roots are too deep in this city and his team.

So first we talked with the tape record­er off. I explained what I was looking for and Randolph listened, nodding at me and saying little. And, to my surprise, the Invisible Man began to open up about the Yankees. “People think, ‘Oh, you’re never involved in any controversy.’ That’s not necessarily true. That’s not true at all. I’ve had my spats and squab­bles with ownership. I don’t run to the paper and publicize it like some guys might. I just let it roll off my back. I don’t let it get to the point that it starts eating at me and affects my play.”

In 1982 boss George fined and flogged Randolph for missing an off-day work­out. “I had a prior commitment with the Mental Health Association and I felt I couldn’t cancel. There were over 1000 people there to see me. Kids. There was a little bickering about it in the papers. He was really pissed about it. This was dur­ing the strike year. We weren’t even play­ing ball when I committed to this so, just because we came back to playing ball and he feels we’re playing horseshit, I can’t just disappoint the kids and tell them I can’t come.”

Billy Martin and Dick Howser turned out to be his favorite managers: Billy for his style, and the Kansas City manager (now recovering from brain surgery) for his temperament. “Billy Martin taught me a lot. He was my first manager. He believed in me at a very young age. Not too many rookies play under Billy. He gave me a chance to play and really didn’t mess with my game. I like Billy’s aggressive style. Now, the total contrast was Dick Howser. Dick Howser was a coach before be became a manager, so I had a chance to get to know him before he took the job. He was the kind of guy who wouldn’t say a lot, but he was open for suggestions. If you had any problems you could go and talk to him. He just treated me with a lot of respect and, hey, we won 103 ball games that year (1980), so you can’t argue with that. You don’t win 103 games by sitting on your butt in the manager’s seat.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”669095″ /]

Then he adds with an ironic smile and a laugh, “Managers can’t do it for you, Nelson. You got to go out there yourself. No one’s gonna help you at that plate facing that 90 mph fastball. No one can turn that double play for you.” For him, the difference between competitive ball­-clubs, like the current Yankees, and the championship squads of the late ’70s is not found in batting averages and ERAs. “When you think about those years you remember we had a veteran team with a certain moxie, a certain attitude that I think got us over a lot,” he says with obvious affection. “Today we have a tremendous amount of talent. Man for man, I think we have much more talent than many other teams. But that doesn’t al­ways win you championships. You have to have a certain makeup, a certain arro­gance, a cockiness about yourself; just the way you played the game. Nettles, Reggie, Thurman, Chris [Chambliss], Mickey [Rivers], Goose [Gossage], all those guys — they knew how to win, that’s all.” Which suggests that some of the qualities I found so intimidating at the time were part of what made them so cold-blooded in all those memorable battles with the Red Sox, Royals, and Dodgers. “At times it got to the point that we felt we could turn it on when we had to. It seemed that way anyway. It’s a bad habit to get into but we seemed to be able to do that. It was amazing.”

It was 10 years ago this summer that Randolph, the star of Yankee training camp, won the second base job opposite shortstop Fred “Chicken” Stanley. That same historic season the renovated Yankee Stadium reopened, Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner were the toast (not just the talk) of the town, Thurman Munson was the only straw in the drink, and behind the steady starting pitching of Catfish Hunter, Ed Figueroa, and Don Gullett, the Yankees won the American League East by 10½ over Boston, bring­ing the franchise its first pennant in 12 years. Randolph, Piniella, and Guidry (who that year appeared in only seven major league contests) are the only sur­vivors from that campaign. Piniella, of course, is managing, and as captains, Guidry and Randolph are following in the cleat marks of Babe Ruth, Lou Geh­rig, Munson, and Nettles (also Roger Peckinpaugh and Everett Scott). No one made a big deal about Randolph being the Yankees’ first black captain, and nei­ther does he. What apparently is more significant to him is the time it took for management to acknowledge his leader­ship with the title. My impression is that Randolph wanted to be made captain when Nettles went to San Diego in spring 1984.

[related_posts post_id_1=”79481″ /]

“Nothing. Nothing really,” Randolph answers very softly when asked what difference being co-captain has made. “I feel that for the last five or six years I’ve been a leader in my own way on this club. You know in your own mind, you know from the response from your teammates. No writer or no one else has to tell you, ‘He’s the leader.’ ” He takes on a whin­ing, mocking voice to say, ” ‘Oh, I think I’ve arrived. I think I’m a leader.’ I don’t need that. My relationship with my teammates is what makes me captain, not statistics or longevity. When it happened, it was a highlight for me, but you have to understand it was talked about for awhile. So maybe a little bit of the ooomph kinda went away a little bit. It wasn’t like I just said, ‘Oh, well.’ But I was already comfortable with the way I perceived myself and what I meant to this team when they announced it. I don’t want to play it down, but you have to know the history of the whole thing.”

Roy White, the senior black Yankee when Randolph joined the club, currently hitting coach, backs him up. Standing by the batting cage watching Randolph work on his swing, White recalls that in ’76, “He was a quiet kind of shy young man with a lot of talent you immediately no­ticed,” but that today “Willie is a leader on the club and is a lot more verbal about it than people realize. In the clubhouse, in the dugout, on the bus, he talks to guys, gets on them. He’s very good with the younger players.” Meacham felt that way and, according to Stokes’s book on the 1983 Yankee season, Pinstripe Pandemonium, that was true then with Mea­cham, Andre Robertson, and Brian Dayett. Stokes also remarked “it sometimes seemed as though there were two different Willie Randolphs wearing pinstripes.”

Randolph’s attitude is that of the clas­sic other-borough New Yorker. Where out-of-towners like Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, George Steinbrenner, and Billy Martin came to the Apple to get drunk on the city’s glamour and power, Ran­dolph sips from the cup lightly. A camera ad. A Gillette spot with Steve Garvey and Steve Carlton. Some stuff on WPIX and SportsChannel. That’s all this hometown hero has tasted. He says, “I haven’t really pursued it. I’ve been open for it,” yet Randolph must know that solid second basemen with barely over 30 lifetime homers don’t get Madison Avenue calls unless they chase.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721971″ /]

He hasn’t. He won’t. He’s still got the baseball obsessiveness that kept him up­stairs at night watching the Mets and perfecting his double play toss. The dif­ference, over the long run, between some of the very gifted Puerto Rican players in 360 Dumont and Willie “Mickey” Ran­dolph wasn’t raw talent. There were cats we played with who could put the ball on the roof of the Tilden projects, and field as sweet as Topps bubble gum. What sep­arated Randolph from his local peers is what separates the 1976 Yankees and 1986 Yankees.

“When you walk out in the field you have to really feel like you can win; that you’re the best at what you can do. That’s how I approach my job,” he says near the end of our talk, buttoning up the most famous jersey in professional sports. “It’s all about attitude.” ♦

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George