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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.

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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

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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.

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•••

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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?”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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)?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.’ ”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. ■

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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. 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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).”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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“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

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

Yankee Ball At Its Best

Contesting the Fix of Time and Space

In Los Angeles, movie stars gather at Chavez Ra­vine and click their smiles across acres of major-league turf. Dodger Stadium, host to this flash of white and green, also offers the common grace of traditional baseball drama.

Fronting for anything is a tough act in southern California; a World Series that starts here must follow legends that open with cavalry traveling by illusion and arriving by limousine.

“Nothing,” responds a friend, “has ever been real here.”

To the manner born, this year’s Dodger team approached the Series warmed by the shine of Hollywood gospel. First-base coach Jim Gilliam died two days before the opener, and, in its grief, Los Angeles gave his name as a spirit of temporary visitation, offering these October Games to his memory.

But sport is of this world and speaks primarily to moving flesh. Baseball is for the living. Music should be played for de­parting souls, tears shed, and poetry spoken. Dedicating ballgames to the dead asks too much of too few. October ball simply fea­tures world-class human muscle contesting the fix of time and space.

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Here was a championship for the latter day: New York and Los Angeles, High John the Conqueror meeting Aimee Semple McPherson. Because there are few vibrations that can embrace both coasts; Laid Back and Uptight, Beauty and the Beast of Cities, or Sun Beyond Cement. An abstract, up-tempo rivalry. Strained relations between Coney Is­land and the San Andreas Fault… the Apple and L.A.

Somewhere below tons of news copy and miles of instant replay, Captain Davey Lopes of the Dodgers stepped up to the plate. Maybe this exceptional sorrow is always in his eyes. Tonight, however, he’s made it clear he wants to live higher and stronger for the friend and mentor he affectionately called the Devil… Jim Gilliam, who replaced immortal Jackie Robinson at second base in old Ebbetts Field.

Lopes, star-looking but unemployed by lo­cal movie moguls, a man with the most heroic moustache in the game, bops two hom­ers into a night of sad remembrance.

He leads his team and wins. Cheers thun­der for the Yankee loss. In America, people sometimes hope New York will die before the close of the century. And so the spectre of another Yankee Frankenstein rising from the ash of urban blight is enough to turn stom­achs from Shawnee Mission to Walla Walla. Citizens who have sent such men as Proxmire and Brooke to the Senate can hardly be ex­pected to welcome news of a Yankee Five-Year Plan for kicking ass.

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On those first warm nights in Los Angeles, Davey Lopes played out the craze of affec­tion, and with a deeply bruised soul. Some­thing grand was necessary, something wholly honorable, to the extent the cameras would allow. To leave Jim Gilliam nothing but ashes might exact this quotation from Ameri­can playwright Bill Gunn: So far you’re just one of the play people. Don’t try and get real tonight…

Before the teams left Los Angeles, earlier than the superb moment when young Welch, a Dodger who can throw fire, brought death on Reggie Jackson with a second-game fast­ball in the top of the ninth, the word was Glove: Graig Nettles. Like a doughboy aris­tocrat near the Marne River shouting, They Shall Not Pass, Yank third-baseman Nettles got down. His body in full extension toward the foul line, he actually reached, in one in­stance, part of the way into left field to snatch a ball back from its flight, a play memorable enough to join, for sheer brilliance, George Foster’s flawless peg to home plate in the 1975 World Series against the Red Sox in Boston, when Foster cut down Denny Doyle trying to score the winning run. Few throws from the outfield have created more excite­ment.

In the second of the Games at Dodger Sta­dium, Nettles clearly established that he had taken away a vital portion of the field for the right-handed pull hitter, which was to say most of the Los Angeles team. He speared line drives, gobbled up screamers headed for the left-field corner and extra bases, and double-played the Dodgers into bad health.

A cold sweat seemed to settle early in L.A.’s dugout. Of course, there was the rea­sonable assumption that Nettles might not continue to matter that much. The Yankees, demanding more allegiance from an overworked miracle, fell two games down to the West Coast. With blessings from Big Dodger in the sky, Tom Lasorda, manager and loyal subject for all seasons, flew his team east for the march on Yankee Stadium.

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Bronx Bomber pursuit of a second con­secutive world championship had already gone through waters where sharks were counted as victims. And for one whole por­tion of a fractured season, Bob Lemon was called to turn plowshares back into swords.

As mentor to some incorrigible athletic no­bility, Lemon wisely chose to play himself in the new adventure… he was what he is — a quiet, knowledgeable figure from the scram­bled world of out-of-work baseball managers loafing for one more shot.

There were many arias being sung in the emotionally volatile Yankee clubhouse. Bob Lemon came, shrugged away these improvi­sational shuffles, and played through.

Bob Lemon decided from the beginning to make a most important contribution to a troubled team by simply acting his age. Billy Martin, in contrast, had never understood that a man can’t be young in the company of the young unless he’s actually young himself.

Lemon is not, and knows it. He has been in this game for more years than any of his players have been alive. Calm, alert, he has the reflexes of a wise, aging Good Time Char­lie playing poker and the Blues while learn­ing from both that winning is about being able to lose, too, but mainly about showing up in either case.

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Managing the Yankees has long been a job men would willingly die to have. To succeed in the Bronx ball yard is perceived as The Max… but ask Yogi… interview Bill Virdon.

Lemon stroked the man called Jackson into sitting down from right field to be the designated hitter. Grumbling, threatening again to quit, Reggie became the most magnificent DH October had ever seen.

In Mickey Rivers, America has a man who certifies the premise: There are answers in the universe we simply shouldn’t question. He is part Charlie Chaplin and part Charlie Parker, a mix of energy and relaxation that quickens the senses. In the third Game of the Series — Dodgers vs. Ron Guidry — Rivers hunches at the plate like a question mark, then sacrifices, a maneuver that brings to baseball its one truly beatific symbol.

This bunt by Rivers is moving well when Los Angeles catcher Steve Yeager grabs it, cocks his arm to throw, then, mysteriously hesitates — pausing in his night’s occupation to create still another cryptic Series footnote — while Mickey beats it out.

Why? cry the West Coast fans.

And they are premature in rolling their eyes toward heaven. The real nightmare is still forming up ahead. And since when have there been explanations?

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Bill Russell may or may not know of Jelly Roll Morton, the American musician and oc­casional genius who died, chrism trickling down his chest, in a certainty he’d been cursed by demons punishing him for an offense committed in another life.… What does it matter? When you’re done you’re done. Wild pitches? Missing the cutoff man? (Steve Garvey, it is reported, throws a base­ball with considerable reluctance, and he’s the interior cutoff man for Los Angeles. If he doesn’t make the good toss, those clouds per­ceived by pessimists, floating over the Ra­vine… are real.)

Russell shakes. Ron Cey backs away from grounders like some timid mailman from a macho German shepherd.

New York was once home to a popular evangelist named George Baker. More widely known as Father Divine, be was a solid base­ball fan during New York’s glory days of the 1930s and ’40s. One of Baker/Divine’s ritual extravagances involved staring with eyes ablaze at a congregation of his advocates and demanding:

DO YOU SEE THE MYSTERY!!!

It wasn’t so much a question as it became an order. Divine must have adored the Yankees because they were winners, as he was, and overcame parades of obstacles on the way to achieving dreams. Some said George Bak­er could see things others cannot — how to be­come Father Divine, for example.

The dream established in the Yankee col­lective, though clouded periodically with misleading clues, was a simple term of victo­ry. They chose to win. And, with a masterful use of their late schedule, the Yanks tracked down the front-running Red Sox, beat them four straight in their own yard at Fenway, then refused to panic when they (the Yanks) were stomped on the final day of the season by the dismal Cleveland Indians. Like a gifted horseplayer who does not lose when it is absolutely necessary for him to win, the Yan­kees played their greatest ball when nothing else would do (witness Lou Piniella’s bare-hand pickup of a ball about to pass him in the sun of right field in Boston; it was, to that point, the defensive magic of the year).

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As the Yankee victories clustered in The City, an impressive illustration emerged, and it should always remain in the mind’s eye. If pitching is the game’s heart, and homers ­under-pressure form its guts, then baseball’s character is determined in the deathless rou­tine of fielding plays. The Series is always tense, and for so many reasons. Seldom is there much margin for error. The Dodgers lived in that margin.

Shortstop Bill Russell had double-play balls crawling along his arms like runaway cottonmouth snakes. When the truth was apparent, of the trouble the Dodgers were in, they reacted like men who’ve seen the lights all vanish on the freeway, leaving them to grope their way to hopelessness and back. In the grip of Divine’s resolute mystery, Los Angeles went stumbling after an answer — a haven, perhaps — where baseball would again encourage the logic of sweat and righteous living, the honest work of true believers.

The Yankees believe in nothing. Yet it was not Chris Chambliss or Jim Spencer waving So Long to ground balls trotting near first base, bidding them godspeed into right field… that was Steve Garvey, impotent at the plate, tight out on the diamond. Ron Cey seemed at a point ready, at least, to quit. And Davey Lopes, as well, began conceding base hits as they left Yankee bats, in a sort of laissez-faire assumption that diving after baseballs is a way of paying them too much homage.

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But Graig Nettles was diving. And Brian Doyle. Bucky Dent achieved nirvana by sec­ond base. Lou (as in Boo) went crashing into walls like a man who was anxious but unwel­come at some exclusive, catered affair. Thur­man Munson, with his throwing arm hanging like a canned ham, rose up to throw on run­ners he had no business throwing out, and said later it was:

Because I wanted to…

The Bombers played sonatas on the Yan­kee Stadium grass.

The Dodgers needn’t be perceived, inci­dentally, as recruits who disgraced their uniforms but only as men who failed. They may, in fact, be fortunate, living in a country where millions never complete the tasks assigned them, drifting instead between medi­ocrity and indifference, all the days of their time.

Pitcher Don Sutton of the Dodgers, who would lose the final, devastating ballgame at Los Angeles, brought a measure of reflection to the work when he told a reporter that he felt no exceptional pressure on him as he went out to face the Yankees.

“Try feeding six kids in America on a small paycheck,” said Sutton. “That’s pressure.”

Ball, said a one-time city mystic, is just ball, that’s all. But ABC, then NBC, and all the TV news departments in between have reminded us again just how easily the nation­al trigger can be pulled with jingles and the­matics, morose vulgarity and aging boyish charm. The World Series has always been sold without apology. If you don’t like the product, you can always turn it off. But how many of us have never been drawn back into those golden afternoons when we could shag fly balls three hours at a clip and swing evenly at curves for another two?

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The memory clings to closets and attics all over this country, where dry leather presses, glove against abandoned spikes, and Louis­ville Sluggers lean quietly against the back walls, having seen no combat in a decade.

Sportscasters know how to remind if not inspire us; they are ghost vocalists through the walls of the night to tell us the game should never be confined to the simpler forms of personal recollection when there’s a fortune to be made.

The stars can be paid and their legends re­plenished beyond the century if everyone re­members the rules. Nobody gets hurt if we all embrace the concept of regulation. As in: Rule 7.09 (f), the Official Baseball Rules, which states in part that any player just put out (Reggie Jackson) then impeding any fol­lowing play on another runner shall cause that subsequent runner (Lou Piniella) to be declared out for the interference of his teammate (Reggie Jackson, one more time).

And Munson does not score in the crucial fourth game, when the Yankees win in the bottom of the ninth on Piniella’s clutch sin­gle. The larger rule, of course, is that the forces will always let the drama flow the way it wants to go. Piniella went to right field on young Welch, the Billy Budd of the Series, and the Mojo went along for the ride.

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When they tied it, the Yankees had, in fact, won the Series. Visions of the Juggernaut lunged through Beverly Hills, where bets on the Games had been made with those chumps in the New York offices.…

How? wept the movie stars, canceling Game 7 box seats. When it ended, the rough­cut shows, the Dodger left-fielder, Dusty Baker, was daring Brian (Who?) Doyle to hit a ball over his head. When it came to performing their respective jobs of that moment, Doyle did, Dusty didn’t. And, at Yankee Stadium, young Welch threw a blazing fastball sailing over his catcher’s head… shortly after the rain delay… and a swirl of dust rose in a shadowy column around second base. Later, the winning run would score from there.

What remains to be remembered is not just Reggie’s agonized reaction to striking out with two men on, two out in an electrifying ballgame, but instead Reggie’s talk with Lou Piniella later, in the fourth game. Jackson could have said, simply, The time is here.

And Lou clotheslined a single to win, 4-3. Before that, the Yankees had trailed, 3-0.

The World Series also details how difficult baseball is to play, and how dangerous, or at least how passionately disposed to reveal itself in the deepest heat.

The Dodgers were simply not up to it this time. But, nonetheless, back in Los Angeles, the stars were smiling for the team’s return. Glitter fades, though, when an infielder reputedly as quick as Bill Russell is nailed stealing second base by a catcher who can scarcely lift his throwing arm.

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Then, it’s time to be scared.

In the sixth game it seemed obvious from the outset that the Dodgers couldn’t take care. Even Lopes’s homering immediately off Catfish Hunter didn’t carry with it the sound of supremacy in full gallop. Though they went ahead 2-0, it was the Dodgers who were always behind. Until, finally, the freeway was jammed with disappointment riding away early, leaving tears along the dash­boards.

(The boxer Jack Jefferson, in Howard Sackler’s play and film The Great White Hope, demands of a humble group of Ne­groes outside a prizefight arena, just what difference it will make in their lives if he, Jefferson, wins the crown, the heavyweight championship of the world…)

Pride, fading slowly to dust, is all the poor seem to get. Those shimmering lights at the banquet, we are told, will not gleam into the bleachers.

The commons need to hear tickertape fall­ing on a ball team in precisely the same way they needed to hear the contents of Caesar’s will. Huge Rich Gossage was sending flame at the Dodger bats when all of it ended. He was cheered on lower Broadway, riding the slowest Manhattan flatbed. Catfish was in a distant stream, rod and line for his glove. Nettles remained in Los Angeles; it’s his home. Roy White, too. And the mysterious flight of Mickey Rivers was clearly into Flori­da. The wind scattered like the players.

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Someone watching the final outs by Sony, aware of the tension simply draining away, said: It’s back to the old days, the clock just turned around, back to my father’s mouth being tight with anger for days because the Dodgers never seemed to beat the Yanks.

Of course, they were Brooklyn then, a uni­verse away from Hollywood, and of course the moods in the nation were vastly different. When Johnny Podres threw to Elston How­ard, who grounded to Pee Wee Reese, whose peg to Gil Hodges beat Howard by several steps, 1955 Brooklyn swept into space and history, in a time recalled today in city folk­lore. Yet, in those days, there wasn’t Don Sutton either, leaving however small a re­minder that ball, after all, is just ball, saying it aloud so that 500 years from now some an­cient-history buff will know that our pressure was in the coal mines, and in the guns that stacked up in our streets. The pressure is on us all to say why we have no answers. Ball is aspirin, too. And none of us should ever be allowed to forget we soothe ourselves at the expense of duties too staggering for calculation. We owe the world something, if for no other reason than we have so much. If we owe ourselves anything, let it be the making of some literate equation out of why the Yan­kees total payroll might feed hunger in the states of Mississippi and Idaho, for instance. So that once some moral sense can be made of the entries in the record book which may suggest, by that time, Reggie’s ability, before taxes, to purchase the school system in Coral Gables for a small down payment in cash.

Maybe, at last, the real part is in the eyes of Davey Lopes. In one of the sports maga­zines he can be seen looking toward a place on the playing field that has anchored Lasor­da’s fury. But Lopes is looking deeper, way past the grass and the sculptured ground of Yankee Stadium, beyond the umpire’s myopic call on Jackson’s interference. In Lopes there is the grimmest observation, and his eyes are the message:

We are not going to win…

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After that proud start before the folk in the neighborhood, the Dodgers were blitzed in four. And, along the way to losing their World Series, the Los Angeles players left behind them 140 regular-season fielding er­rors. They’d won the pennant, curiously enough, when Phillies’ centerfielder Gary Maddox, steady as they come, dropped a soft line drive in his own park that eventually lead to the Dodgers’ winning run.

The players come home to score. They skip parades and wait for the money to be di­vided. In Boston, in Philly, out in Kansas City, too, their losses are slowly wearing off. They all looked into the fire (the same four teams made the playoffs again this year, not the greatest index around for the current state of the Bigs), but couldn’t hang on.

And again, except for the Yankees and New York, there seems to have been nothing seen…

The cost of bearing witness would seem to be connected to the pain described by poet Melvin Van Peebles in regard to those who have to: Trick by the pound to buy that ounce.…

Maybe more. Once, the power of the Yan­kees eased sores in New York’s condition. But not anymore. The city streets are more and more filled with the lost. Below the lights of the Yankee party, the fun for victors, New York has become the Dodgers on the other side of all the ditties and singsong where the city is a loved one serenaded by disorder.

When the rookie Jim Beattie had struck Los Angeles dumb in the fifth game, a crowd of several thousand pedestrians went up the long hill away from the Yankee Stadium, above the Harlem River, bordering the site where the Polo Grounds used to stand.

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Uptown.

A Blood, young and savaged by wine, called out in a voice like a tuba from his perch by the side of the street:

Yo, how’d they do?

And several folks in a row answered, as of­ten as he asked: The Yanks won, man, they’ re gonna do it!

Wine offered a smile without teeth, scars on his face, and said:

Made you happy, hunh? Made you happy?

And then his tuba laughter thundered back down across the bridge to McCombs’ Dam Park, right by the Stadium, across the Latin Quarter established there on the hand­ball courts, and just went rattling, it would seem, right on up to the Concourse. Toward a city gritting its teeth…

Maybe, that is, it echoed that far…

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES Lives NYC ARCHIVES

How Jim Bouton Lost His Fastball and Found Inner Peace

At nine on a damp Wednesday morning I ride the empty subway to Shea Stadium to watch Jim Bouton throw his improved knuckleball. A couple of you may not know that Jim Bouton is adorable and beloved and presents the sports news on CBS at 11 every weeknight with a winning blend of ragged directness, muscular intelligence, moral fervor, political conviction, maverick independence, and waggishness. My friend Martin says that Jim Bouton is endearing and seems to take chances. My cousin Jonathan says Bouton is refreshing, a jock who realizes there’s more to life than the stupid game of his choice. My friend Rhoda says that Bouton’s politics are good and he has a neck as big as her thigh. At a party a married couple say to me in unison: “Oh, Jim Bouton.” What’s his appeal? My analyst says: “He’s a regular person.” On television Jim appears to be wearing hairspray, but he may be doing that to make an ironic comment on our society.

In 1963 and 1964, his peak, Bouton pitched 41 winning games for the Yankees, twice in the World Series. When he retired five years ago he had just finished losing two games for the Oklahoma City farm club of the Houston Astros. His book Ball Four was out then, generating controversy, seeming to betray the trust of certain teammates, causing the baseball commissioner to hop back and forth from one foot to the other with rage, getting good reviews, and selling well. Bouton was 31 and a marginal player, quitting to enter what he called “the communications field.”

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At Shea Stadium a thin man loudly promises to introduce me and unlocks the waiting-room door. I share the room with some amenities, luxuriant plastic philodendrons in a wall planter, and assorted chairs. Bouton when he arrives his blue CBS baseball uniform looks rather slight and very tidy, like a well turned out child. We walk through the locker room, where several half-dressed men croak out obligatory challenging laughs. “Our ultimate fantasy,” Bouton says to me, looking cheerful and mannerly. “A girl in the locker room, with the linament and everything.”

In the dugout Bouton says he got through every spring by telling in himself that someday he’d be back in baseball. In Canada during vacation he felt his knuckleball in his fingertips. In August he played in Oregon — with the Portland Mavericks, “a sort of dirty dozen” — and did okay. Today he’ll pretend to show his colleagues his pitch while playing a mock game and making a little film piece, basically about himself, for his spot at eleven. Many may know — because Bouton has often mentioned — that he learned the knuckleball from instructions on a cereal box when he was 10. He’d like to try to go back to baseball — not for 10 years, maybe for a year or two even if in the minor leagues — “to satisfy the things I want to satisfy inside myself.” He made a few calls around for the spring, to the Yankees, the Mets, and the Phillies, none of whom had called back yet.

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Shea Stadium circles around and above us, broad and empty, the rows of seats banked up in sections of pale color, then the panel of blinding lights, then the gray sky. Various CBS softball players and a couple of former big-league players in uniforms start throwing balls around. “Keep em up, Jim, I haven’t got my cup,” says the umpire, looking enormously pleased. “Cup is your, the inset that you wear in your supporter,” Bouton says to me, rapping himself in the groin. “Got a cup?” a man calls over the field. “Got a saucer?” A woman sits in the dugout and slings her arm around former big-leaguer Duke Carmel’s beefy shoulders and fingers the back of his haircut. “We treat nice girls nice,” says Duke Carmel. Bouton sits on the bench and pulls down his pants to palpate his pulled muscle. Duke Carmel pats Ron Swoboda’s velour behind. From the dugout the men are small on the field but their faces are clear. This must be it, the baseball world, the famous cool sweet simplicity out here, the ball thudding with a light sound into the mitts, the grass, the space, the wide sky, the rough genial heartbreaking camaraderie, the men like boys. The planes arcing overhead are deafening. Jim Bouton looks around with a look of sweet distracted happiness. “These guys just wanted to come out to Shea and horse around,” he says. “Did you guys order a crowd? Hey, Ron, is there a plaque in the turf in right center field commemorating your World Series catch? Recessed in the grass? Hey, Ron, when was that catch? I mean the time of day and all that?”

Bouton gives me his wedding ring to hold, inscribed: The Greatest Thing… Love 12/12/62. He tells me about growing up. So small in the fifth grade he had his own little white uniform. Everybody else wore gray. He thought he was going to be a midget, he looked like the batboy. He wasn’t like those guys like Tom Seaver, who grew up as stars, who knew they were going to be good, they just didn’t know how good. Big strong kids. They didn’t know whether to be good big-leaguers, or great big-leaguers, or great minor-leaguers. For Bouton all that was beyond dreams, and when he made the team it was a wonder. A wonderland. His first day with the Yankees he put on his Yankees uniform and came out and sat there in the dugout for two hours all alone, smiling at the pigeons.

Bouton looks dreamily out over the field at Ron Swoboda. “I had a lotta traumatic experiences in high school,” he offers, watching Swoboda. He was a three-sport star in Ridgewood, New Jersey, “about to realize my high school greatness,” when his father was transferred and he found himself the south side of Chicago full of big, black, mature kids: “Everybody was big, The whole school. They called me warmup Bouton. They’d bring in the left fielder to pitch, the right fielder, the catcher, somebody would come outta the stands and pitch, and I would warm up. I was Warmup Bouton. The most miserable year of my life.

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“I thought I couldn’t do anything. In the summer all the kids played ball and I worked at the A&P. In the back, stamping prices on cans of peas.” He pumps his fist up and down from the elbow, stamping cans in the air, bitterly grinning. “Two for 35 on the baby food. I was really down.”

Bouton pitches until he gets three pictures of Swoboda striking out, and Swoboda interviews Bouton on the field. I throw the ball with three fingers, Bouton tells him, because I was 10 when I learned it off the back of a cereal box.

Jim Bouton and I walk to his car, a little Renault. He strolls around to my side to open the door. “This is a funny car,” he says, “You have to unlock it from this side. I’m not being polite.”

***

At CBS Ron Swoboda and Jim Bouton lean in their chairs in a little darkened interior room to screen today’s film. On the wall, a bleached color picture of Swoboda repeatedly swinging, sometimes hitting, whirling, bulging, incredible. Fuck and shit, Swoboda and Bouton yell, fucking camera didn’t follow the ball! They sound outraged and look cheerful, staring and side by side. Below the picture of Swoboda steadily swinging, a television set is on with the sound off, so that as Swoboda whirls, pale and powerful, Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra in a high headdress slumps in her massive throne, small and willful and defeated, in black and white. Turns her eyes down. Takes the delicate slowly slithering asp in her hands and places it on her white breast almost with a look of welcome. Her handmaidens, broken with grief, rest their bent curly heads on her knee. The gates shudder with the battering ram of Cleopatra’s enemies. Shit and fuck, shitfuck, fuckshit, Bouton and Swoboda shout to the moving picture, as Claudette expires: “Overexposed! Overexposed!”

***

Bouton in his office gives an interview. “Tennis players!” he yells into the phone. “The lineman makes a bad call, they go into the locker room in a huff! They grew up on country clubs! They grew up on canapés, these guys! Hors d’oeuvres! They’re really not real athletes! I mean, be honest, you take the starting lineup of the Cincinnati Reds, or any basketball team, Dave DeBusschere and those guys, if all those guys spent the same amount of time on the tennis court do you really think that those big-time tennis players would’ve winded up being the best tennis players? Right. They wouldn’t be. They’d be home in tears. It’s Ping-Pong! It’s just big Ping-Pong outdoors…

“No. Nobody disparages hockey players. Not even Sumo wrestlers. (Hehheh) There’re a lot of things to admire about a hockey player, they earn their pay… Jesus, I dunno, these sound like essay questions. I dunno what Shakespeare would say about hockey.”

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***

Bouton is at the rodeo rehearsal at Madison Square Garden filming himself riding a Brahma bull. He says he loves the way people respect you when you try to do what they do. With these great cowboys, he loves the look they get in their eyes, their accents, the way they giggle and poke each other. While he’s doing it, he says they welcome him. He feels like a cowboy himself.

Inside the Garden the arena floor has been taken down to dirt, and three little buffalo loiter in a corner while a small orchestra thumps out “Careless Love.” Bouton has been lowered onto the back of the bull, let out of the gate, and smashed onto the ground within three seconds. He sits in the locker room with his wife, Bobbie, and his three kids and their two little friends, on a bench next to the hanging rows of brilliant scarlet and green satin shirts of the cowboys, looking pale and fragile and happy. He is waiting for somebody to tell him where they keep the soap and towels. He keeps telling everybody what one cowboy said about the mud on his Western shirt: “Whah, Jayim, that thair’s clean boolshit, that ain even hit th’ ground yayet.”

In the car four kids and I crush together hotly in the back. Bouton’s daughter Laurie rides backward in the front seat gazing in my face. Michael, who is 11, comments on the scene: “Those two old men turned their heads when that lady walked by. And wasn’t even too pretty either. Hey, topless! My kind of show!” Michael tells me about his father, for my article: “He was born in St. Barnabas, was it? St. Bernard. He grew up dreaming to be a baseball player. He got his dream and he couldn’t believe it. And now he can’t believe it either: He can’t pitch anymore. He’s trying to get back. That’s the story of his life.”

At Roosevelt Hospital Bouton is wincing, smiling, and moving carefully. Emergency rooms, he says, remind him of a Nichols and May routine. “Age?” a man says through a glass partition. “36, going on 12,” says Bouton, leaning on the man’s windowsill, full of grace under pressure.

Jim Bouton is at a nice low level of celebrity where people don’t rip off his arms and legs but where he is recognized often enough so that he moves freely around a friendly city. He very much enjoys being recognized. Outside CBS, a short round black man in a flowered shirt blocks our path. He looks up into Bouton’s face with a tender glance. “The baseball man?” he says. “You that — baseball man?” He shakes Bouton’s hand. He walks along next to us, leaning in and reaching across Bouton to hold his hand. He hugs Bouton, wrapping his arms about his body with gentle confidence and lowering his head to lean it against Bouton’s chest as we walk along. Bouton waggles his fingers and protests in murmurs as he and his fan and lover dance together down the sidewalk, but his fan never understands that Bouton’s chest hurts, and he relaxes his embrace only after he conveys to Bouton that he loves him.

Jim Bouton takes a shower. He carries his shoes and hairdryer and I carry some clothes on hangers to help him because some cartilage has pulled away from some bone in his chest. We find a dressing room for “As the World Turns,” with a fuzzy orange carpet, a round sink, a black leather couch, and bed. I take off Jim Bouton’s tooled leather pointy-toed cowboy boots he got at the rodeo last year. I unwrap his wide Ace bandage, rolling around and around his chest, bumping his helping fingers, dropping the little silver clips on the rug. I feel warm and protective and safe and nervous. He needs me, but not much. He is hurt, but only slightly. A direct, decent, vigorous man, vulnerable yet comfortable in the world. A devoted outsider like me. Jumpy with chutzpah. Also once a short boy. They always had a touching quality and terrific intensity and drive, and humor, and a soupcon of totally understandable ruthlessness. When grown they recall their childhoods. I never met a formerly short man I didn’t like. He pads to the bathroom, grimacing and limping almost imperceptibly in a delicately understated and aesthetically pleasing way, as I reach a pitch of quiet sexual agitation. I have been reassured by meeting his calm wife, his friend for half his life. She ignored me. I have been cheered by meeting his children, spirited, brace, truth telling, sloppily dressed, unrepressed. I felt legit. I yearned to be part of that family, back there in the steamy car, riding, Jim Bouton my patient father and husband and lover. “I’ll meet you after,” I say, glancing around as if deranged. Bouton grunts. “Up to you,” he says from the bathroom. “I could change in here.”

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Bouton often says that he enjoys things. I enjoy signing autographs, he says. Being well-known. I enjoy crude jokes, locker room humor: Somebody calling somebody a dildo, stuff like that. About beaver-shooting, going up on a roof and spying on women, or the tape recorder under the bed: It’s a traveling world, Bouton says, the world of the salesman, of the Shriners on convention in Des Moines. It’s the world of any man when he’s out of town and with his peer group. Not a male thing, a group thing. I admit that was part of the attraction for me. I admit I miss that. It was humorous. I would never by myself go up on the roof of a hotel, I’d feel — weird; none of us got sexually excited by anything we saw, it was just — the funny bizarre nature of it, our being in a group and all of us doing it together. I could go back to it, very definitely.

I enjoy trying to do the things that other people can do, Bouton says. Bullfighting, oh, Christ, was that exciting. I was so frightened I could hardly operate. That’s what makes it interesting, to see if you fear is so great that you can’t function.

I enjoy cutting film, he says, I enjoy the pure abstract concentration of ball playing, the making the mind blank, the instinctive movement. Enjoyed acting. Enjoyed being a delegate at the 1972 convention, it was an intense emotional experience and I felt like I was part of something important. Caucusing. Making deals. Smoke-filled rooms. Some radicals.

I enjoy being the underdog, Bouton says. You have to’ve been the underdog and prevailed to know how satisfying that can be.

Overall, of course, what Bouton enjoys is the company of other men. He has always thought about Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner and all those people: “Your Show of Shows!” Those funny funny men! God, he would’ve loved to be a part of that group.

Women’s liberation, Bouton thinks, will mean women being able to get that same incomparable group experience for themselves. Germaine Greer already told me my book treated women as sex objects, he says to me. I told Germaine Greer that women use men sexually as much as men do women, one-to-one. On the road, we were the ones who wanted the meaningful relationships! The girls were coming up to our rooms and comparing our performances and grading us against hockey players and basketball players and keeping diaries — we were being used! But women should be able to travel in groups and horse around together too. I’d love to see that. Once they can talk openly about sex with their girlfriends, the next logical step is comparing notes, and the next logical step is to — I would wish that for them.

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Over and over Bouton has love being a brave amateur learning from pros. It makes for great funny dialogue, he says, looking incredibly pleased: “Naaow, dohn grab the hohwns, naaow, Jayim.” In fact Bouton even loved the way his wonderful father used to intercede for him with his mother. Loved being on the same basketball team with his brothers. Loved setting up bowling pins with his brother 20 years ago, throwing in a pin to give some lady a strike, speeding up incredible goddamned dragging slow ladies night.

You insist on being a maverick, I say, but to me you look exactly like one of the boys.

They wouldn’t say I’m one of the boys,” he says. “I was always — I was a Communist! The only reason I’m one of the boys now is that I was successful: instead of being weird, you become ‘eccentric.’ I’ve felt comfortable even though I didn’t fit in, just being around, just being part of the scene, even though they didn’t accept me totally. I don’t need to be accepted totally. I’ve always liked them more than they liked me.”

Categories
From The Archives

Our Man in Havana: Face-to-Face with Fidel Castro

“Everyone who comes to Cuba has been brainwashed. Skillful prop­aganda has told them Havana is a haven of heaven.” That’s Steve Ryan talking; see his indispensable “Havana: Sucker Trap of the Caribbean,” published for your edification in the February 1957 issue of Exposed magazine (the one with Diana Dors on the cover). “Forget the Maine” is Ryan’s message. Remember the dirt, the beggars, the shoeshine urchins, the porno postcard vendors, “the thin, rag­ged women carrying babies too hungry to cry,” the guy who makes his living exhibiting a be­draggled, cawing perico trained to fire a cap gun, the hordes of hookers who can barely wait for nightfall so they can “flow over the city like a tidal wave in search of americanos.”

What’s the story? “When Ba­tista took over in 1952,” Ryan explains, “he sat on an empty wallet.” The ousted Carlos Prio “had scattered eight million in bribes during his term and Batista was stuck with the tab. The only hope for solvency was to find an angel. Ninety miles away sat the United States . . . fat, pompous, sex happy — ­and loaded.” Hey meester, you want muchachas, gambling, 24-hour crap games, a daiquiri at Señor Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar, a night at Tropicana el cabaret más fabuloso del mundo, plus live sex show in a three-peso hotel room? You name it, you got it. “This is Cuba,” warns the implacable Steve Ryan. “Geared to Ameri­can tastes . . . with moral stan­dards so low you’d need a sub­marine to reach them.”

Well, a lot of things have changed since 1957, but Havana remains a cornucopia of ’50s imagery. It’s actually in fashion! Even modest bungalows out in the suburbs sport curlicue grill­work and harlequin mosaics, jazzily tapered columns brandishing kidney-shaped sun roofs. Half the cars on the road are Eisenhower-era De Sotos and Buicks, patched and repatched and painted tropical colors: mint green, dusty pink, hot canary, blaz­ing turquoise. Driving west along the sea­wall on the Malecón freeway you see the terraced towers of palatial hotels, blind­ingly white against the diaphanous De­cember sky. Vegas strip garish, Miami Beach deluxe, they rose even as Fidel and his bearded ones, los barbudos, were making revolution in the Sierra. There’s the Capri with its rooftop swimming pool and Salón Rojo nightclub, the Riviera (built, they say, by Meyer Lansky) with its free-form fountain sculpture and an­cillary, blue-domed something or other, once a mambotorium inaugurated by Miss Ginger Rogers. Amazingly, the Hil­ton logo is still decipherable on the glass doors of the renamed Habana Libre. Of course, the former casino is now the Salón de Solidaridad, and there’s the inevi­table Vietnamita exposition downstairs by the dollar shop, where you can buy a handstitched leather platter bearing the likeness of Che Guevara for only $140.

The French have moved over to the Libre, but all the rest of us foreigners, here for 10 days for the fifth Havana Film Festival, are holed up at the Hotel Nacional, around the corner from Casa Czechoslovakia, a block and a half from the spot where Sergio Corrieri picked up Daisy Granados in Memories of Under­development, not far from the concrete umbrella of the people’s Coppelia Ice ­Cream Center (more flavors than Baskin-­Robbins). Built in 1927, the Nacional is a stately dowager with a flaming past. It was here that the officers of the old re­gime resisted the first coup staged by then-sergeant Fulgencio Batista. In 1957, Steve Ryan called the hotel “a pile of money sitting on a rock overlooking the Malecón” with a “controlled gaming room” as “hallowed as a church.” When the Nicaraguan revolutionary priest Er­nesto Cardenal stayed here 13 years later, he noted with pleasure that “young pro­letarians” — white and black — were chat­ting in the lobby “with the confidence once possessed by millionaires.” Now the place is full of Aeroflot personnel — beefy pilots and no-nonsense stewies taking their r&r . . . only 90 miles away! The flotskis even have their own lounge up on the fifth floor, complete with fridge, TV, blackboard, and bound copies of Pravda.

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Outside the Nacional, brazen young swindlers in Bruce Lee T-shirts offer to sell you pesos at twice, three times, four times — the record is seven times — the of­ficial rate of exchange. But if you’ve read your Steve Ryan, you know that “gam­bling in Cuba is about as safe as stepping in front of the Super Chief.” Every day there’s a new story making the rounds about some gringo shmegegge exchanging his dollars for a worthless mess of Batista money, Mexican pesos, or just a fat wad of paper sandwiched between two legiti­mate bills. Although trafficking in pesos begins at the Miami Airport — one couple on the tour swears that some Hare Krish­nas tried to make a deal — you can’t walk out of the hotel without being ap­proached. These kids are persistent, too. The most entertaining way to handle it is to adopt the self-righteous persona of an American Communist. Some guy offers you five to one and, in your sternest pidgin Spanish, you say Pero compañero, esto es contra la ley — But comrade, that is against the law. When he doubles over with laughter, you make your escape.

The truth is, there’s not so much to do here with pesos anyway. (“This is a city that is bound to please a monk, a medita­tor, anyone who in the capitalist world has decided to withdraw from the world,” Ernesto Cardenal noted. “Here there is no bourgeois joy, but here there is true joy.”) Havana’s hot, dusty neighborhoods are dotted with curiosidad shops that wouldn’t seem out of place on Canal Street, selling miscellaneous pieces of hardware, old radio tubes, and second-­hand camera parts (as the ancient autos attest, the Cubans are masters of recy­cling). But most stores open late, close early, and don’t stock much besides cot­ton shirts, cheap toys, translations of The Godfather frugally designed to save pa­per, and jars of preserved Bulgarian figs.

One day there’s a book fair, and some­one unearths a 1936 American tourist-guide called Cuban Tapestry. We consult it like the I Ching and learn that “Cuba, is foreign. Havana is foreign. No amount of contact with big Tío Sam, across the Florida Strait, will ever make the island capital an American city. The Cuban likes his huge good-natured ‘uncle,’ for alone among Latin Americans he senses no covetousness in our attitude towards him. He believes the United States his awkward, bungling, but sincere cham­pion. . . . ”

 

Freedom in Cuba can be defined as freedom from the United States. Cuba is not simply the first Latin American nation to successfully defy big Tío Sam, it has openly opposed U.S. policies for the last 25 years. And, although the forced reorientation of the Cuban economy is a shock from which the island has yet to recover fully, it is certainly arguable that the U.S. trade embargo has helped Fidel Castro more than it has hurt him. The lack of consumer goods is a sign of revo­lutionary virtue. The American threat encourages national unity, permits total mobilization, and fosters a heady sense of geopolitical adventure.

Before the revolution, Cuba enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes in the tropical world. But this apparent prosperity was founded upon 25 per cent unemployment, landless peasantry, insti­tutionalized political corruption, a con­tinual oscillation between dictatorship and democracy, utter dependence on for­eign capital, and the vagaries of the American market. Only two years before Cuban Tapestry was published, the American greenback was the lone paper currency used in Cuba. Until the Tri­umph of the Revolution, the U.S. ambas­sador was the island’s second most pow­erful man (at least), and the U.S. safely regarded Cuba as its most reliable ally. The Cuban economy was actually a sub­set of the American one. Cuba sold the U.S. sugar and bought virtually every­thing else — from nuts and bolts to TV sets and automobiles — at the company store. Americans owned Cuba’s major banks and biggest factories as well as 90 per cent of the island’s utilities. The U.S. exerted greater influence here than in any Latin American country, with the possible exception of Panama.

Now handmade signs on every block routinely excoriate yanqui asesinos, and — our naval base at Guantánamo aside­ — the official U.S. presence is reduced to the so-called “Interest Section,” located on the ground floor of the former Ameri­can embassy, an incongruously large glass building on the Malecón. Opposite the entrance is a lurid neon sign with a rifle­-toting Cubano giving the raspberry to a frothing Tío Sam. Every time the Inter­est Section gringos walk out their front door they get zapped in the face with the same pink, yellow, and orange blinking message: Señores Imperialistas, No Les Tenemos Absolutamente Ningun Miedo! We’re not scared of you! (Not exactly so: many Cubans are convinced that if Rea­gan is reelected, he will certainly invade them. “We expect another Vietnam,” one official told me. “We have the whole is­land prepared.”)

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To get inside the Interest Section­ — which I did, accompanying a friend who had her passport stolen in an after-hours dive called El Gato Tuerto, the One-­Eyed Cat — you have to first convey your business to the bored Cuban soldiers posted around the building, then con­vince the teenage American marine man­ning the reception area that you’re ko­sher (impossible, actually; the fact that you’re in Cuba automatically means you’re not). While he deliberates, you practice your upside-down reading by noting the handy Spanish phrases taped to his desk: What is your name? What do you want? Please go away! Once inside, you find an ostentatiously over-air-conditioned waiting room decorated with framed travel posters of San Francisco and Aspen, and furnished with a plastic Christmas tree and an expensive load of useless, pseudo-oak cabinets. Not since the Miami airport have you seen such waste. The inner courtyard can barely contain the satellite dish (major league, albeit not as huge as the one the Cubans use to monitor American TV). Some nest of spies: the single secretary turns out to be an employee of the Cuban govern­ment. Next to her desk she keeps an in­stitutional-size can of Tang. A week in Havana and this seems exotic.

After 24 years of embargo, modern Americana is so rare in Cuba that you’re jolted when you see a Viceroy baseball cap, a bootleg Michael Jackson tape, or a cup fashioned out of a Coca-Cola can. Only the most obscure Disney char­acters — individual dwarfs out of Snow White, the rabbit from Alice in Wonder­land — are to be found on walls and store­fronts. The almost complete eradication of Mickey Mouse is no less striking than the absence of Jesus Christ. As you walk around Havana, gawking at the home­made signs of a fanged Tío Sam devour­ing Grenada — Abajo el lmperialismo Yanqui! — that embellish each block’s Committee for the Defense of the Revo­lution bulletin board, people will inquire whether you’re Argentine or German or, most often, Russian. When you tell them that you’re a norteamericano, they’re taken aback or amused, occasionally nos­talgic, but never, in my experience, hostile.

It’s astounding how many Cubans seem to have lived on East 103rd Street between 1947 and 1949. There’s still an emotional bond; we do, after all, share the same national sport. Once upon a time, Cuba had the Havana Sugar Kings — baseball club of Sandy Amoros, Vic Davalillo, Tony Taylor, Leo Cardenas, Bert Campaneris, Tony Perez, Camilio Pascual, Elio Chacon — International League farm team for the Cincinnati Reds. In 1958, the Sugar Kings were mired in last place and all but bankrupt. After the Triumph of the Revolution, Fi­del offered to bail the team out. “The Sugar Kings are part of the Cuban peo­ple,” he is reported to have said. “It is important for us to have a connection with Triple-A baseball.” The 1959 season was a tumultuous one and, as fate would have it, July 25 turned to July 26 with the Sugar Kings and the Rochester Red Wings tied 4-4 in the bottom of the 11th. The patriotic Cubans began celebrating their revolution’s name day. A party erupted, out came the congas, but when Red Wing third-base coach Frank Verdi was grazed by a spent bullet, the game was called on account of gunfire in the stands.

There was a lot of angry talk then of yanking professional baseball out of Cuba — the details can be found in How­ard Senzel’s Baseball and the Cold War — but the red-hot Sugar Kings went on to win the International League champion­ship and then the Junior World Series. This was the time of miracles — when the last could be first, and the revolution opened Cuba’s beaches, nightclubs, and parks to all. By the 1960 season, however, relations between revolutionary Cuba and the Republican mainland had grown perilously frayed. On July 6 — shortly af­ter the American-owned oil refineries re­fused to process the Russian crude that Fidel bartered for the sugar the U.S. wouldn’t buy — Secretary of State Chris­tian Herter summoned baseball commis­sioner Ford Frick to Washington. Three days later, some evil alchemy transformed the Havana Sugar Kings into the Jersey City Jerseys. Severed from Triple­-A, Fidel howled with rage. It was one more act of treachery and aggression against the Cuban people: “Violating all codes of sportsmanship, they now take away our franchise!”

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So much for socialist baseball in the capitalist world. Nine years ago there was talk of a U.S.-Cuban series, but that got scotched by Henry Kissinger on account of the situation in Angola. Meanwhile, Cuban amateur teams have continued to dominate international play. Thus it’s with keen anticipation that we socialist baseball fans take a powder from the fes­tival for a Sunday doubleheader at Latinoamerica Stadium. Free admission and open seating notwithstanding, the ballpark is emptier than Shea on a week-day in August. You just march down to the first-base line and help yourself to a box. Does this indifferent turnout indi­cate a lack of interest in two mediocre clubs — the Havana Metropolitanos and the Guantánamo Guantánamos, respec­tively 14th and 12th in the 18-team league? Yet, it is only December; the sea­son is young. The first game is a classic, with los Metropolitanos beating los Guantanamos 3-2, when R. Lopez lofts a J. Matos fast ball over the left-field wall for a jonrón in the bottom of the 10th. (Guantánamo retaliates in the nightcap by peppering hapless R. Arocha for jit after jit to build a 7-0 lead by the middle of the third.)

Contrary to Senzel’s memories of the Sugar Kings (“a slick and speedy ball club and so colorful,” “they used to bunt a lot, hit and run a lot, try to steal home, and execute other daring feats”), the games are low-keyed to the point of som­nolence. The fans are almost all men, many seem to be pensioners basking in the sun. Our entrance causes a mild stir, and – qué coincidencia! — here’s one of the festival guides remarkably unsur­prised to see us. “Sit anywhere,” he in­vites us. “How about here?” It is interest­ing to note that while the Cubans employ cheap and durable aluminum bats (illegal in the major leagues), they have — despite the embargo — adopted the designated hitter, el bateador designado.

There’s no cerveza to be had; instead, vendors sell hits of sweet black coffee in the sort of tiny paper cups mental hospi­tals use to dispense Thorazine. Could that be why, despite some atrocious calls – including a foul ball down the third-base line that goes for a two-run Guantánamo double — there are neither rhubarbs on the field nor razzing from the stands? Or does the crystal light of the four o’clock sky have everyone daz­zled? Far from shooting off machine­-guns, the fans are so well socialized they scoop up the foul balls that are hit their way and toss them back onto the field.

In Revolutionary Cuba, not just sporting events but health care, public tele­phones, and burials are free. Day care, too, for the children of working mothers. Education is universal and compulsory. Cuba-watchers say the rural areas have been developed at the expense of the cit­ies, and Havana is still doing penance for its sinful past. The capital is shabby but clean, delapidated yet orderly. You can drive your rented Russian compact total­ly off the map, out to where the pave­ment ends by the cement factory in the deepest estuary of Havana Bay, and the hovels you find are only hovels — small, run-down stucco houses that appear to be electrified. They’re not tin shacks stacked up on cardboard boxes fronting on a raw sewage canal. Even in this alley of poverty, the kids look healthy and well-fed, playing baseball in the street and wondering what in the world you’re doing there. If this were Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro, you might fear for your life. But Havana isn’t Port-au-Prince, let alone New York. You can strolt for miles at midnight through the central city, the dark streets illuminated only by the blue glow of TV sets, and never experience the slightest anxiety. Mugging Russians, we joke, must be a capital offense.

Just as Soviet communism will always suffer from the reality of the Russian winter, so Cuban communism will always benefit from the island’s eternal summer. Often, as you walk, you get a whiff of salsa and catch a glimpse of some steamy living room, crowded with dancers. Every open window yields some fantastic ar­rangements of plastic flowers, porcelain animals, crumbling plaster, and icons of Che. Revolutionary martyr, advocate of the New Socialist Man, Che is a far more popular household deity than Fidel; his resemblance to JC can’t be denied. Bus drivers keep his image on their decal­ decorated dashboards, next to pictures of their novias, commemorative pennants, and plastic kittens with bobbing heads.

There’s an orange neon portrait of Fidel on the Malecón advising that La Revolu­ción can never be crushed, but his most widely distributed image is that of public servant supreme — a silk-screened poster of the leader dressed in fatigues, a rifle slung over his shoulder and the ambigu­ous command Ordene! Order Me!

The Catholic Church seems to have been driven totally underground — or else to Miami — but there are vest-pocket shrines to José Martí in every neighbor­hood, and many Cuban documentaries attest to a burning religious fervor. Such films are no more objective than a Pepsi­Cola spot and no less revealing for their blatant artifice. Che hoy y siempre (Che Today and Always) is the latest in a se­ries of graphically innovative shorts by the Chilean exile Pedro Chaskel. They’re formal variations on a sacred theme, not unlike medieval altarpieces. Miguel Tor­res’s Condenadme, no importa (Con­demn Me, It Does Not Matter), taking its title from Fidel’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech, is another kind of holy relic. Its incredibly well-faked “documentary” footage purports to record the failed Moncada raid of July 26, 1953, Fidel’s trial and subsequent imprisonment. The filmmaker has already made one previous pseudo-documentary, Crónica de una in­famia, concerning a 1949 incident in which a drunken U.S. marine desecrated a statue of José Martí with his yanqui urine. He plans another such “recon­struction of a history that has no docu­ments” to celebrate the January 1959 Triumph of the Revolution.

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Luis Felipe Bernaza’s Aquí y en cual­quier parte (Here and in Whatever Place) is a “love song” to “the new heroes of the Revolution,” the young Cuban sol­diers in Angola. Lyrical shots of combat training are mixed with choreographed guerrilla rituals and the vocal accompani­ment of some dulcet compañera. Along with Israel, Cuba must be one of the most highly mobilized societies on earth. Militia manuals are available in all book­stores. The ministries, politburo, and central committee are dominated by mili­tary men. The army has a film studio as well, and produced Belkis Vega’s España en el corazón (Spain in the Heart), a history of the Cuban international bri­gade during the Spanish Civil War. Not surprisingly, the film eschews nostalgia and stresses historical continuity (although it fails to note that revolutionary Cuba developed close economic ties with Franco’s Spain). Of course, most of Cu­ba’s Spanish Civil War vets were also veterans of the pre-1959 Cuban CP, an outfit which had opposed Fidel Castro until six months before the Triumph of the Revolution. Perhaps that’s why it’s Raúl — always a Communist — Castro and not brother Fidel who hands out the medals at the vets’ reunion. As for those Cubans who fought in the Abraham Lin­coln Brigade, they aren’t mentioned at all.

Che hoy y siempre was greeted with warm applause, Condenadme, no importa got a standing ovation, Aquí y en cualquier parte rocked the house with rhythmic clapping. But the documentary hit of the festival was Estela Bravo’s Los Marielitos — a film shot by a North American crew and edited in Havana — in which 11 Cubans who left the island dur­ing the mass exodus of 1980 compare their old lives with what they found in America (visualized mainly as Florida concentration camps and Lower East Side squalor). The subjects, naturally, are doozies. “In Cuba, I couldn’t drink. In Cuba there is no freedom,” one rumdum hiccups. Another rationalizes his flight as a perverse act-of loyalty to Fidel. Every­one has a lot to complain about, from shitty health care to the American habit of smoking marijuana in the street. For the finale, the filmmakers produce a suc­cessful engineer who stands outside his Miami ranch house and admits that he’s miserable.

Los Marielitos was telecast during the festival and Cubans often asked about it with pity and wonder. “Is it true that there are people sleeping in the streets of New York? And that you can get killed for· money at 10 o’clock in the evening? Are rents really so high and for apart­ments such as those? Why are blacks not permitted in the same hospitals as whites? Are there that many people who have no jobs?”

Twenty-five years ago, less than three months after los barbudos entered Ha­vana, the revolutionary Cuban regime en­acted its first cultural reform, creating the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficas, ICAIC. Headed by Fidel’s old college buddy, Alfredo (no relation to Che) Guevara, ICAIC appro­priated cinemas and studios, taking charge of all Cuban film activity. Official mythology has it that, although Cuba has always been a movie-mad island, there was no Cuban cinema before the revolu­tion — only ersatz Mexican musicals, bad­ly made copies of Hollywood detective films, bogus Argentine melodramas, and sleazy pornography. Within 10 years, ICAIC films were famous all over the world.

First there was Santiago Alvarez — the director of the “Latin American News­reel” series, producing one noticiero per week, a filmmaker who pulled together a Che Guevara obit less than 48 hours after the news of his death, and who once said, “Give me two photographs, a movieola, and some music, and I’ll make you a film” — the greatest revolutionary docu­mentary-maker since Dziga Vertov. Then came Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, mixing Antonioni alienation with revolutionary pachanga, even as Julio Garcia Espinosa’s The Ad­ventures of Juan Quin Quin and Manuel Octavio Gómez’s The First Charge of the Machete conjoined formal innovation and revolutionary politics with a fervor unseen since the Soviet school of the ’20s. And after the epic Lucía won a gold med­al at the 1969 Moscow Film Festival, 26-year-old Humberto Solás was hailed as the new Eisenstein. (A recent poll of Cu­ban audiences listed Potemklin, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Gold Rush, and Modern Times as the five most significant films of all time. Lucía, finishing 15th, was the highest ranked Cuban work.)

The late ’60s were the halcyon days of the New Cuban Cinema, but Fidel’s 1968 endorsement of the Warsaw Pact inva­sion of Czechoslovakia, the 1970 failure of the 10 million-ton sugar harvest, and the following year’s First National Con­gress on Education and Culture­ — brought the directors down to earth. Doc­umentaries were privileged over fiction films. There was a campaign against “for­eign tendencies,” “elitism,” and homo­sexuals in cultural affairs. ICAIC contin­ued to be run by the filmmakers them­selves, but formal experimentation de­clined. Since then, although Cuban movie attendance has continued to rise and the Cuban film industry currently spends far more per feature than any other in Latin America, only two movies ( the late Sara Gómez’s One Way or Another and Pastor Vega’s Portrait of Teresa) have made much impact on the international scene. But who knows what goes on in the heart of Havana? This is an anniversary year and all the heavies — Tomás Gutierrez Alea, Humberto Solás, Santiago Alvarez, Pastor Vega, Manuel Octavio Gomez­ — are scheduled to premiere new films.

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Immediate disappointment: Vega’s La Habanera — said to concern the love life of a Cuban shrink — is not yet completed, while Alvarez’s Refugees from the Cave of the Dead — his first fiction film, a doc­udrama of the Moncada raid — is so uni­versally regarded as disastrous that, al­though Santiago is a member of the central committee, the film isn’t even available to be screened in the festival market. Attention shifts to the premiere of Humberto Solás’s Amada, and with good reason. Two years ago, Solás’s mega-peso adaptation of the 19th cen­tury Cuban classic Cecilia Valdés con­sumed the lion’s share of ICAIC’s re­sources. Unveiled at Cannes, the film sank like a stone, then bombed with the home audience as well. Perhaps not coin­cidentally, ICAIC chief Alfredo Guevara was relieved of his post, shipped off to Switzerland as the new ambassador to UNESCO, and replaced at ICAIC by Ju­lio Garcia Espinosa, author of the famous manifesto “For an Imperfect Cinema.”

Understandably defensive, Solás seems to have taken the most militant (that is to say, anti-European) aesthetic stance of all the directors who contributed state­ments to the current issue of Cine Cu­bano. His position makes sense once you see that his film totally contradicts it. Solás may be skating on thin ice: Amada turns out to be an elegantly mannered, Viscontian period piece detailing an un­consummated adulterous affair between two members of the fin-de-siecle Havana bourgeoisie. A vehicle really for the su­perb Eslinda Núñez (the domestic in Memories of Underdevelopment and the second “Lucia”), Amada was not gener­ously received by the Cuban audience. In his post-screening remarks, Solás stressed his competence (pointing out that while Cecilia took 15 months to shoot, econom­ical Amada was completed in a mere eight weeks) while gamely insisting on the film’s political content — the frustrat­ed love is “a reflection of the crisis in the fight for independence.”

Nearly half of ICAIC’s new documen­taries are films with musical subjects, a bid, some think, to produce more foreign exchange. “Just as Hollywood directors must make the obligatory western,” Julio García Espinosa has suggested, “Cuban filmmakers should be required to make a musical.” Espinosa himself started a mu­sical around 1978. Titled Son o no son (a pun on the name of a Cuban musical mode and Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”), the film was evidently structured as a series of rehearsals for a musical revue at the Tropicana that never quite jells. Son o no son remains incomplete, however, and so the first director to accept the challenge is Manuel Octavio Gómez. Like Espinosa, Gómez has a long interest in popular culture as a vanguard form, and his Patakín — which takes its title from an African word for fable, its discreet crane shots and Jerome Robbins choreog­raphy from the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, its strident colors and slangy, innuendo-ridden dialogue from Cuba’s 19th century Teatro Bufo — transposes two figures out of Yoruba mythology to contemporary Cuba. Shangó, the thunder god, is here an irresistible lumpen lay­about — when he shows up in his neigh­borhood, even octogenarians begin to rumba — while his nemesis, Ogun, is a staid model worker who drives the trac­tor on a collective farm.

With musical numbers more bossa nova than salsa, Patakín establishes a certain amiable innocence, abetted by a Tashlinesque sense of humor and some beach scenes that would hardly seem out of place in How To Stuff a Wild Bikini. The film pokes mild fun at the bureau­cracy and frequently waxes reflexive. (“Aren’t you paying attention to the pic­ture?” characters ask each other when the plot grows convoluted.) But in addi­tion to reclaiming a genre for Cuban film­makers, Patakín makes a political point, being the most candid study of machismo of the several the festival offers. Al­though the virtuous Ogun defeats Shangó in a climactic boxing match — the finale has showgirls storming the ring with bal­loons and confetti for a mass cha-cha­-cha — Shangó’s appeal is never denied. “All men want to be Shangó,” Ogun’s lady friend tells him. “Not even you want to be Ogun.”

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Although the Cuban audience appears to adore Patakín, it’s predictable that not all Oguns will find it so amusing. Indeed, it is the only Cuban premiere to get an afternoon rather than an evening slot. There is a streak of proletarian puri­tanism in the Cuban Revolution, and sure enough, Patakín is panned in the second-string CP daily, Juventud Re­belde (Rebel Youth). The music and dance are “inorganically inserted into the plot,” the movie is filled with “forced jokes” and “stereotypical behavior.” Ma­king “insufficient use of expressive modes of cinema,” it is an altogether dis­appointing effort from a director of Gó­mez’s stature. That the critic takes Patakín to task on formal grounds — rather than engaging its ideological line — only underscores the movie’s political content. But you can’t truly appreciate Patakín until you’ve seen Tropicana.

Tropicana! El cabaret más fabuloso del mundo, located in an outdoor jungle garden! It’s part of every package tour, and it’s best seen with a group of Ameri­can leftists. Imagine las contradicciones! Sexist? Of course — y un poco racist tam­bién. Tropicana! Formerly run by yanqui gangsters using George Raft as their front; the One and Only Tropicana is not simply el paraíso de las estrellas — the paradise of the stars — it’s the Pasty World of Atlantis, the story of Cuba in song and dance con mucho más razzma­tazz, it’s el teatro del embarrassment revolucionario!

Feathered chandeliers floating over­head, showgirls in top hats and sequined bikinis strut down the aisles dodging the frozen-faced waitresses with nimble pre­cision while flashing practiced smiles at bewildered Vietnamitas. The chanteuse on stage threatens to teach us how to love. The espactáculo begins. Omigod, is that capering bellhop actually wearing black face? Compañera, pass the rum. Is this number really a Yoruba ceremony celebrating the end of slavery — boys in silver lame pants and Day-Glo doo-rags? Did the Taino Indians truly sing like Yma Sumac and cavort about like the June Taylor Dancers? And dig that wild and crazy Czechoslovakian at the next table. Will he make like Desi and call on Babaloo? Oh no! It’s caballero y dama time. Lace mantillas, fluttering fans, lot­sa “mi corazón,” castanets. Más rum par favor.

Tropicana! At once ridiculous and im­pressive, ultimately infectious. During the revolution, the July 26 movement planted bombs here. Now they treat the place like a national museum. (Ask a Cu­ban Communist what he thinks. Watch him laugh and tell you that when he was a juventud rebelde he saw Liberace make his grand entrance here riding on an elefante. Yes, and he was playing the pi­ano.) With a maximum of mucho mass flouncing, the whole chorus appears in pink Flash Gordon jumpsuits singing “Never Again.” The show’s not over yet, folks: it’s time for La Habana Conga! A multicolored waterfall is descending in the background. The palm trees are scin­tillating with red, blue, and silver lights. Dry-ice geysers are shooting up at our feet. Everyone is singing Yo soy Tropi­cana! (“What’s this about orange juice?” a drunken gringo wants to know.)

The performers tell us they are a col­lective. They thank some visiting Ruma­nians, the Central American boxing champs, a Yugoslav trade delegation. They offer a fraternal hand to the Soviet people. You offer a fraternal hand to the nearest living creature and go off to dance La Habana Conga yourself.

Compared to Patakín, the new Gutiérrez Alea, Hasta Cierto Punto (To a Cer­tain Point ), is fairly predictable stuff. Al­though beautifully paced and edited, it’s a small film that, as Alea himself ob­serves, owes quite a bit in its mixture of drama and verité to Sara Gómez’s One Way or Another. A married, middle-aged dramatist, working on a script about the problems of women in the labor force, gets involved with a young compañera who works in the port, raising a number of not too startling questions about the relations between the sexes (as well as the classes ). Still, it was satisfying to see the film win the grand prize. Everyone was relieved that one of the hometown boys had come through.

Few things are duller than film festival award ceremonies. The halls where they’re held are often embarrassingly empty. The Cubans solve this problem by making invitations to a reception hosted by Fidel Castro contingent on attending the ceremonies — which are worse than most, since every ovation is a standing one of militant solidaridad. Afterwards, there’s a long wait over at the Palace of the Revolution, but finally the doors open, you’re on line, and there he is­ — large and graying with an unhealthy­-looking ruddy complexion and deep wrin­kles around his uncannily glowing eyes — ­el último diablo, the Cuban of Cubans in a spiffy olive green dress uniform. A quick hypnotized handshake and on to the best spread we’ve seen: lobster, shrimp, skewered chunks of barbecued chicken and pork, mounds of spicy corn­meal casserole, broiled red snapper, huge breads baked in the shapes of alligators. (“Now I know why they wouldn’t let us bring cameras,” someone cracks.)

Everybody is busy gorging themselves, washing the food down with 30-year-old rum — smooth as satin and straight to the cerebral cortex — when it suddenly be­comes apparent that . . . He’s in the room! It’s Fidelmania! Forget Pete See­ger, the evening’s other celeb and possi­bly the only man in Havana wearing a flannel shirt, Fidel is instantly besieged by a frantic mob of filmmakers desper­ately flacking their films. “Hey, Fidel! Did you see my movie? I’ll get you a special screening, man!” Methodically making his way around the room, Fidel seems to have come alive working the crowd. Only five minutes before, people were criticizing the Cubans for using actresses to hand out the awards — so tacky, so macho. Now, it’s as if Robert Redford had turned up at your neighborhood Pathmark. Reserved Brits clutch souve­nir swizzle sticks and swear to treasure them forever. Seasoned feminists tremble like schoolgirls, stuff napkins in their mouths, and shriek, “He touched me!” Canny pol that he is, Fidel does have an eye for the ladies — patting their heads, kissing their cheeks, whispering in their ears.

Functioning on automatic pilot, I’ve blundered into excellent field position just as Fidel comes around the bend. He spots the attractive compañera next to me, and as he rushes over to shake her hand for the third time, she tells him, “This guy has a question for you.”

“Right,” I say. “It’s about beisbol.

Beisbol. The entourage stops dead. Suddenly it’s me and Fidel and the trans­lator and the bodyguards and the compa­ñera in the bizarrely world-historic eye of the storm. “Yes,” I say. “I want to know why Cuban baseball uses the designated hitter.”

The translator translates. Fidel consid­ers the question and begins framing his reply. It’s like a major policy statement. “The designated hitter,” he says through the translator, “is part of the official in­ternational rules of baseball. As a mem­ber of the international community, Cuba, of course, must adhere to these rules . . . ”

“Wait a minute,” I hear myself say. This must be the 30-year-old rum talk­ing. “The designated hitter isn’t part of the official rules of baseball. Only one of the major leagues even uses it — the American League. Why should Cuba copy the American League?”

All around us Cubans are beginning to laugh. Did the yanqui catch Fidel? Clear­ly, the ball is still in my court, but I don’t know what to say next. Pitcher is Fidel’s position. Should I ask him how he likes giving up his turn at bat? (Ordene!) Or would that seem unduly provocative? Should I inquire how this specialization fits in with his conception of the New Socialist Man? Too theoretical. Cau­tiously, I decide to venture an opinion. “Speaking for myself, I think the desig­nated hitter ruins the strategy of the game.”

But now Fidel has formulated a line. Quickly he begins speaking through the interpreter. “That is regressive,” he maintains, cocking his head earnestly. “We must not be afraid to change the existing rules. The rules of all games must be called into question.” Now Fidel is beginning to cook: “For example,” he says, “I think we should make new rules for basketball. I propose we have three kinds of basketball. One for people who are under five feet tall. Another for peo­ple who are five and a half feet tall. And a third for people who are over six feet tall.” Fidel is watching me intently. “And that way,” he concludes, “the Vietnamese will be able to win a basketball game!”

The Vietnamese! What is this, 1968? The Vietnamese won their basketball game 10 years ago! I jumped all over Fi­del’s first pitch, but this curve ball has me baffled. The Cubans laugh. I laugh. Fidel grins: He pumps my hand vigorous­ly and the cult of personality moves on. I’m immediately surrounded by a mini­cult of Brits and Americans. What did he say? What did you say? What is a desig­nated hitter, anyway? Some guy actually wants to set up an interview. Mañana for that, compañero.

Mañana, I’m on the plane wishing I’d spent more time at the beach and still wondering what that riff meant. In bring­ing up baseball was I reminding Fidel of Cuba’s cultural links to the United States? And in invoking Vietnam was he alluding to the limitations of U.S. power? The Cuban identification with Vietnam is total. Was Fidel suggesting we judge Cuba on its own terms? And is that a novelty Americans can’t bear? ■

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES

Clemente to Marden to Kiefer: It’s the All-Eighties Art-Stars

Clemente to Marden to Kiefer

Art lovers in New York and baseball fans everywhere get weird in October. For the former, it is the season of undulled appetite, when an unleashed flood of new objects and images temporarily scintillates with interest and promise. For the latter, it is the ferociously accelerating climax to long languorous months of foreplay. What, then, of those of us for whom both art and baseball are chronic passions? Pity us! Each addiction being, in its own way, total, we are besides ourselves.

A tendency is noted around dinner tables to discuss the aesthetics of baseball at very great length, as the sane and the innocent tiptoe from the room.

Another tendency suggests itself as a heretofore neglected possibility: view the world of October art through the lambent October mists of baseball. A method for such madness happens to be ready-made in a brilliant little book of several years back by poet Charles North, Lineups (reprinted in his Leap Year, Kulchur Foundation, 1978). North proved by example that any quantitative category of qualitatively diverse units — movies, colors, dis­eases, etc. — can be subjected to the subtle yet ineluctable analysis of talent and temperament that determines a baseball player’s optimum position in the field and place in the batting order. For instance:
San Francisco ss
Munich cf
Paris lf
Rome c
Madrid 3b
London rf
Athens 1b
Istanbul 2b
New York p

Isn’t that great? My only trouble with this lineup is North’s National League purism, which deprives him of the delicious wild card of the designated hitter. (Havana, batting seventh.)

So. With collaboration from art journal­ist and hardball fancier Gerald Marzorati, I recently set about compiling a roster of present art stars according to the Northian Paradigm. Carried away, I have embellished it with analytic descriptions in that important American folk-poetic form, the scouting report. Marzorati and I set certain rules — that all named artists should be roughly of baseball-playing age, that all should be coming off hot seasons, etc. — and broke them repeatedly. For the relative absence of abstract painters, per­formance artists, realists, sculptors, and women I have no defense. For the presence of Europeans, presumably good only for belaboring balls with their feet, I have no explanation. This is just the way, in the frenzy of free association, it turned out.

Please note that a batting order is not an order of preference. Actually, if you can’t interpret one, don’t guess; ask a friend who can. With that, the lineup:

Francesco Clemente, shortstop: smooth, great range and hands, great off-balance arm…switch hitter, weak bat but outstanding on-base knack, good eye, will bunt for hit…threat to steal.

Cindy Sherman, third base: middling range but super quickness, Gold Glove, hasn’t missed a ball hit her way in two seasons…disciplined hitter, pulls inside pitch for distance…selfless player, cinch to sac bunt or hit behind runner.

David Salle, center field: uncanny range and glove, fluid speed, [Roberto] Clemente type, makes it look easy…line­-drive hitter all fields, league-leader doubles and triples, rally-maker…temperamental, injury prone.

Anselm Kiefer, first base: two-ton Teuton, just adequate at position, can be bunted on…fearsome slugger, aggressive, bad-ball hitter, can take anything down­town…slow but intimidating on bases, catcher advised not to block plate.

Julian Schnabel, right field: Reggie Jackson clone…erratic glove, grandstand catches may follow initial misjudgment, arm strong but wild…picture swing, strikeouts and homers in bunches, scary in clutch…Mr. October.

Ken Price, designated hitter: pure hitter, great bat control, strokes the ball, consistent .300…no threat on bases.

Brice Marden, second base: keystone pro, range limited but good jump, unreal pivot…tough out, sometime power…knows the game, team captain.

Susan Rothenberg, left field: me­dium glove, unstylish but determined, body-blocks short hop…strict pull hitter, streak power…consistent effort, home­town favorite.

Joel Shapiro, catcher: solid, smart, calls a good game, good arm but release has lost snap…contact hitter, rarely strikes out, longball infrequent…slow but wily on bases.

And on the mound:

Frank Stella, starting pitcher: ageless vet, owns the ball…heat diminished but sneaky with awesome pitch assortment, super control, mixes speeds, throws changeup for strike…competitor, will brushback.

Ed Ruscha, short relief: submarine delivery…indifferent heat but slider and screwball sparkle, keeps everything low.

Jonathan Borofsky, long relief: ev­ery kind of slow, junk exclusively…jughandle curve, great knuckler, confusing windup…control doubtful.

Keith Haring, pinch runner: rabbit speed, incautious but known to outrun pickoff, first to third on anything.

So there’s the team a formidable one (with a payroll to match ). Will I stop here? Would you?

General Managers: Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns.

Manager: Leo Castelli

Coaching Staff: Louise Bourgeois, Ellsworth Kelly, Malcolm Morley, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol.

Scouts: Betsy Baker, Mary Boone, Paula Cooper, Holly Solomon.

Batboy: Scott Burton.

Trainer: Chris Burden.

Ground Crew: Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer.

Statistician: Lawrence Alloway.

Umpiring Crew: Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp, Craig Owens, Ben­jamin H. D. Buchloh. (Krauss Crimp Owens Buchloh — they even sound like umpires.) Rulebook deconstructionists, they tend to award first base on foul balls and to throw everybody out of the game.

National Anthem: Laurie Anderson.

Bird Mascot: Rene Ricard.

Howard Cosell: Hilton Kramer.

And so on. (Additions and alternatives invited.)

Some might object to the above on the grounds that art is not a game. But then neither is baseball.

It occurs to me that two years ago most of my lineup would have been different. The next two years undoubtedly will make another wholesale revision. At any given moment, certain individuals seem invested with the drama of urgent issues, tastes, and yearnings, but of course it’s not all their doing. These individuals slip into and then out of focus as cultural attention shifts between near and far, surface and depth, center and periphery. Energy and quality do count, but always in context. A home run is just a lost ball if no one who cares is watching. Knowledge of art pre­pares you for what you feel on seeing a genuinely new work: that you have been waiting and waiting for only this thing. The meaning of ritual events is, being al­ways the same, to hone the edge of the unique present, the instant that will never repeat and never be forgotten.

Think of the way baseball balances its star system with long, long rhythms of life and time. Each season begins in careless spring and ends in darkening autumn, and baseball’s present is absolutely continuous with the ever-renewed memory of stars and seasons gone before any of us were born. Each baseball star’s career mounts through classical stages, from rough youth to honored old age (usually before 40) — a standard trajectory indelibly imbued with the individual’s legend. In the beginning is the end, and vice versa. It’s something fans savor in October.

Art is crueler. At least in modern times, the rhythms are short and broken. The unflagging, continually compelling career is a rarity. There is no rulebook. Art’s very premises can seem to change overnight. (They don’t, really, but the shape of art’s continuity is so vast and dim that it is apprehended only in the best moments of the best minds.) “Stardom ” is chancy in the long as well as the short run: it can be conferred or snatched away posthumously. The culture’s uses for art alter constantly. Treasures become white elephants, and the other way around, in a twinkling. Great art returns, but in ways and for reasons that would amaze its makers.

Isn’t there a softening poignance in all this contingency? Such vicious tem­porality — the still-operating syndrome of 15-minute fame — may represent some harsh, necessary wisdom of democracy, as I’m sure Tocqueville (that smart aleck ) once said somewhere. We’ll permit all sorts of people to dominate, if only for the fun of knocking them down. This is so much part of us that complaining about it is probably a waste of breath. On to Halloween.

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Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Bob Dylan, Tangled Up in Baseball

In 1961, just as Bob Dylan was cutting his teeth in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, another young man from Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, was taking New York City by storm: Roger Maris. In the last chapter of his pseudo-memoir Chronicles: Volume One, the then-21-year-old folk singer describes meeting with music publisher Lee Levy, who asks him if he’s written any songs about baseball players.

“I didn’t follow baseball that much but I did know that Roger Maris who was with the Yankees was in the process of breaking Babe Ruth’s home-run record and that meant something,” writes Dylan. “Maris was from Hibbing, Minnesota, of all places. Of course, I never heard of him there, nobody did. I was hearing a lot about him now, though, and so was the rest of the land. On some level I guess I took pride in being from the same town.”

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Dylan’s connection to the national pastime surfaced throughout his career, which may explain the below story from the April 13, 1993, issue of the Voice, in which John Lammers and Hart Seely celebrated opening day by previewing every major-league team through the prism of Dylan songs (Yankees: “Howe is in the basement, mixing up the medicine. George is on the pavement, thinking ’bout the government. Boggs in the trench coat, bat out, paid off, says he’s got a bad back, wants to get it laid off. Look out kids, it’s something you did. God knows when, but it’s C’lumbus again.”)

This week marks the release of the fourteenth installment of Dylan’s Bootleg Series, More Blood, More Trackswhich offers fans a deep dive into the sessions for 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. That same year, Dylan rekindled his connection with the Bronx Bombers by penning “Catfish,” an ode to Catfish Hunter, which name-checks Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson.

2004 saw Dylan and Willie Nelson touring minor-league ballparks around the country, kicking things off in Cooperstown, New York; it was a tour the pair repeated with John Mellencamp in 2009. By that point, Dylan had made his fandom explicit when he dedicated an episode of his Theme Time Radio Hour to the national pastime in 2006.

Later that year, Jonathan Lethem asked Dylan about baseball in a Rolling Stone profile. In particular, Lethem wanted to know what team was the singer’s favorite. Dylan responded:

“The problem with baseball teams is all the players get traded, and what your favorite team used to be — a couple of guys you really lifted on the team, they’re not on the team now — and you can’t possibly make that team your favorite team. It’s like your favorite uniform. I mean…yeah…I like Detroit. Though I like Ozzie [Guillen] as a manager. And I don’t know how anybody can’t like Derek [Jeter]. I’d rather have him on my team than anybody.”

If only Lammers and Seely had been writing a few years later, we might have gotten “Jeter and the Monkeyman.”

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The Bob Dylan Baseball Abstract

By John Lammers & Hart Seely

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

  1. Yankees: Howe is in the base­ment, mixing up the medicine. George is on the pavement, thinking ’bout the government. Boggs in the trench coat, bat out, paid off, says he’s got a bad back, wants to get it laid off. Look out kids, it’s something you did. God knows hen, but it’s C’lumbus again.
  2. Milwaukee: They pitch just like a Wegman, yes they do. They get rich, just like a Wegman, yes they do. And they twitch just like a Wegman, but they hit just like a B. J. Surh’f.
  3. Baltimore: lt’s a Har’ld, it’s a Har’ld, it’s a Har’ld, it’s a Har’ld — it’s a Har’ld Baines a­gonna fall.
  4. Toronto: Well, if you’re trave­lin’ in the north country fair, where the winds hit heavy on Pat Borders’s ‘hind. Remember Steib to bne who lives there. He once threw a n’hitter for nine.
  5. Boston: It ain’t Vaughn, babe, Mo Mo, Mo, it ain’t Vaughn, babe. It ain’t Vaughn you’re look­in’ for, babe.
  6. Cleveland: They long to pitch you in the morning light. They long to pitch you in the night. Stay, Nagy, stay — stay while the game is still ahead.
  7. Detroit: Knock knock knockin’ on Cleveland’s door. Knock knock knqckin’ on Cleve­land’s door.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST

  1. Texas: “Velocity,” I spoke the word as if a wedding vow. Ah, but Ryan was so much older then. . He’s younger than that now.
  2. Kansas City: Because some­thing is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Cone?
  3. Oakland: Y’see Canseco on the street, you always act sur­prised. You say, “How are you?” “Good luck,” but you don’t mean it. When you know as well as me, you’d rather see him paralyzed. Why don’t you just come out once and scream it?
  4. Minnesota: Winfield, put your gloves in the-ground. You can’t use them anymore.
  5. Chicago: Take me on a trip upon Bo’s magic swirlin’ hip, his swiftness has been stripped, a vic­tim of a clip, his feet too slow to step, waitin’ only for his shoe deals to be wanderin’.
  6. Seattle: Heading out to the west coast, Lord knows they paid some dues, getting through, tan­gled up in Lou.
  7. California: And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn. “Come in,” he said, “I’ll give you, Gruber for a song.”

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

  1. Montreal: You don’t need a Wetteland to know which way the wind blows.
  2. Mets: Once upon a time you played so fine, you threw away Dykstra before his prime, didn’t you? People’d say, “Beware Cone, he’s bound to roam,” you thought they were all kiddin’ you. You used to laugh about, the Strawber­ry that was headin’ out. Now you don’t talk so loud. Now you don’t seem so proud. About having to shop Coleman for your next deal.
  3. St. Louis: “No reason to get excited,” the Mets they blindly spoke. “There are many here among us who feel Gregg Jefferies’s but a joke.”
  4. Pittsburgh: It ain’t no use to sit and ponder Bonds babe, it don’t matter anyhow. An’ it ain’t no use to sit and ponder Drabek, if you don’t know by now.
  5. Philadelphia: Well Daulton and Dykstra should have some fun. Just keep them off Highway 61!
  6. Florida: I see coming every reject from the rest to the South­east. Any day now, any day now, they shall be released.
  7. Chicago: The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast. A slow one now will never be fast. As the present now is just as the past, the order they’re never evadin’. And the last one now will always be last, for the Cubs, they aren’l a­changin’.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

  1. Atlanta: Well they’ll stone ya and say Maddux is the end. They’ll stone you and then Smoltz will come again. They’ll stone you with Tom Glavine in your car. They’ll stone· you with Av’ry on his guitar. .Yes but you should not feel so all alone. Everybody just gets stoned.
  2. Cincinnati: It’s a shame the way she made them scrub the floor. But they ain’t gonna work on Margie’s farm no more.
  3. Houston: You can pitch Dra­bek with all that you can afford. You can pitch Swindell and put goose eggs on the board. Well, you may pitch the devil or you may pitch the Lord. But you’re gonna have to bat somebody.
  4. San Diego: Come all without, come all within. You’ll. not see nothing like the mighty Gwynn.
  5. San Francisco: Here is the story of the Magowan, the man St. Petersburg came to pan, for what he never done, who sits in the owner’s box but one … day he could’ve been the Tamp’ian of the world . .
  6. Los Angeles: Yonder stands Martinez with his gun. Crying like a fire in the sun. Look out the Braves are comin’ through. And it’s all over now, Dodger blue.
  7. Colorado: An’ the silent bats will shatter. From the scores be­tween the lines. For they’re one too many castoffs. And a thou­sand runs behind.

Categories
FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Hold the Peanuts, Pass the Grasshoppers: What to Eat at the Ballpark This Summer

The only thing more American than baseball is disgusting novelty foods, and the only thing more American than disgusting novelty foods is the disgusting novelty foods served at baseball games. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, verbatim, I’m in no way paraphrasing here, in the Declaration of Independence, grilling dogs and burgers in your backyard is entry-level dining patriotism. Nothing tastes better than when it’s at risk of dripping all over the unfortunate stranger in the seat in front of yours, ideally accompanied by a vendor-thrown beer that flew precariously close to your skull.

The inaugural, sold-out MLB FoodFest, held April 21–22 in Manhattan, invited ticket holders ($25, or $40 with beer) to sample thirty hyper-indulgent regional delicacies, one from each ballpark — or, as the official site ominously warned, “at least as much as you can try in two hours.” Naturally, I took that as a challenge: to lasso these strands of American culinary DNA and braid them into one ungodly, belly-busting chimera. I arrived at the large midtown event space on Fifth Avenue that hosted FoodFest with nothing short of a mouth-based road trip across the country in mind. It was Friday, April 20 — a preview night for members of the media and VIPs — and it occurred to me too late to do anything about it that the 4/20 timing may have been an implicit suggestion that I should have gotten stoned before this.

MLB Foodfest in New York City.

Hot dogs, peanuts, and popcorn were standard ballpark fare for most of the twentieth century, but things started to get weird (in the very best, greasiest, and nacho cheesiest sense of the word weird) in the Nineties. Per The Joy of Ballpark Food: From Hot Dogs to Haute Cuisine author Bennett Jacobstein, MLB’s food revolution was in part precipitated by the construction of twelve new stadiums with specially designed concessions spaces. 1970 American League MVP Boog Powell opened Boog’s BBQ with Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992, launching a ballpark barbecue trend. And following the MLB player strike in 1994 — game attendance dropped 20 percent the following year — exciting food was another tactic for clubs to lure back prodigal fans.

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And MLB FoodFest, to be sure, was all about the excitement; the more Instagrammable the dish, the better. “On top of the eats, we’ll also be keeping your IG feed fed,” the FoodFest site promised. (Disclosure: In a previous lifetime, this reporter was employed as a blogger by Major League Baseball, with her primary beat being goofy mascot bloopers.) These aren’t your father’s Dodger Dogs. Instead, this was baseball’s answer to the Museum of Ice Cream, a social-media playground impeccably designed with irresistible photo opportunities and thoughtful, quirky details, like the unique custom paper printed with the team logo that each dish was served in. In the lobby beckoned a ball pit constructed to resemble a classic red-and-white-striped popcorn box. “Shoes off, pockets empty,” a staff member advised a young man, before instructing him to dive backward into the yellow plastic “kernels.” Upstairs, two chalkboards invited passersby to record their answers to the question: “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” (Last I saw, the tallies on the “no” side were winning by a factor of two.) This space was styled as the “Museum of Modern Dog,” where pop-art representations of the humble frankfurter included what appeared to be a gold Jeff Koons–inspired balloon weiner and an enormous hot dog seesaw.

Past that, in the main event hall, each team had its own designated booth serving a favorite dish from its stadium, in a portion roughly half the size of the real-life version. Several bars offered a wide selection of beers, as well as wine, bourbon, and prosecco garnished with bright-blue cotton candy that promptly dissolved, rendering the drink both a) a delightful shade of aquamarine and b) nauseating. In one corner, lined with artificial turf, a DJ in a classic Astros jersey spun Drake on a turntable below a neon sign reading “World Series Chomp-ions.” In another, a security guard stood watch beside the roped-off, largely ignored Commissioner’s Trophy.

It’s slightly surreal to experience anything in the near-exclusive company of people who are being paid to document it, but at an event like this one, engineered in a laboratory for optimal social-media results, maybe it wasn’t so far from the organic, civilian reality. There were cameras everywhere, both professional TV rigs and plucky iPhones, and I was surrounded by people who could earnestly give their job title as “influencer” recording their real-time culinary commentary. I watched one team of co-workers fan out and gather all thirty dishes like participants in the world’s easiest scavenger hunt, assembling them on one tabletop, only to allow the food to languish, untouched and unloved, for the rest of the evening. I would never.

The selection

Let’s begin, like evolution, in the sea. The New England Lobster Rolls (Boston Red Sox, duh) were served on hunks of bread that had been neither buttered nor grilled, which everyone knows is actually the best part of eating a lobster roll. (OK, maybe second best.) Nevertheless, it feels rude to look a gift lobster in the mouth. The San Francisco Giants’ Crazy Crab Sandwich was quite good, with a smear of garlic butter that leveled it up above the Nats’ Crab Grilled Cheese. The Chesapeake Waffle Fries (courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles, unsurprisingly) was served with a solid crab dip and a welcomely aggressive dusting of Old Bay, but the titular fries were mush.

Then there were the nachos. Were there ever nachos: The Seaside Market’s Tri-Tip Nachos (San Diego Padres), Jerk Chicken Nachos (Toronto Blue Jays), and the refreshingly dill-forward Chicken Shawarma Nachos (Detroit Tigers) — basically a salad with bad-boy nacho aspirations, if we’re being honest with ourselves. The best-tasting, if worst-named, was the Royals’ Brisket-AchoAt night’s end, meat plaque having fully encrusted my cerebrum, I scrawled in all caps in my notebook: “NACHOS ARE A WASTE OF TIME.” Having fully digested FoodFest, both emotionally and literally, I no longer stand by this sentiment, but you get the point. It was rough out there.

Detroit Tigers Chicken Shawarma Nachos

I was of course nosy to figure out exactly who the VIPs in attendance were, and early on, I saw a man carrying a gold championship belt from booth to booth. I gave up my covert Google investigation (“wrestling guy with reddish beard???”) once I realized up close that the belt was emblazoned with the word Nathan’s. It was Joey Chestnut, the competitive eater ranked first in the world (and who just won the 2018 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, for an eleventh time), just as I am a world-ranked idiot.

I give the Yankees’ Adobo Baostuffed with chicken and crumbled chicharrones, an A for concept, but the steamed white bun itself was on the dry side. The Angels’ Japanese-inspired Pork Katsu certainly stood out among the masses (not unlikthe team’s rookie phenom Shohei Ohtani, the 23-year-old ex–Nippon Professional Baseball star who threw six perfect innings in his home debut this April), but the curry lacked flavor, and because I didn’t initially realize that plastic utensils were available, I attempted to eat the rice with my hands, which was less than ideal.

Pittsburgh Pirates Pulled Pork Pierogie Hoagie

By this point, I’d done the math — with two hours to eat thirty plates, you’d need to be putting away one every four minutes to finish in time. At 7:37, I consulted my master list of dishes: I’d checked off ten of thirty. I was on pace, in terms of time, but it was already clear that belly volume would be at a premium. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Pulled Pork Pierogi Hoagie was good, though I ended up scavenging just the top-notch pierogi tucked inside and chowing down on that. Served on a skewer like a corn dog, the Bacon-Wrapped Plantain (Miami Marlins) was delicious, largely thanks to a generous helping of guava marmalade. The Dodgers’ Cheeto-Lote (as in elote) was a true junk-food innovation, a corn cob smothered in chipotle mayo, cheese, and most importantly, a vivid dusting of crushed (brand-name!) Flamin’ Hot Cheetos that I had no doubt could be seen from space. It was both disgusting and a surprisingly effective balance of sweet corn, hyper-intense salt, and chemical spice. But again, disgusting, even though I would like to eat one now, if only so that my teeth can regain their distinctive, faint-orange Cheeto-Lote cast.

Behind me, I heard a woman ask, “Can I put you on my Instagram?” I turned around to see that she was speaking to Kardashian hanger-on Jonathan Cheban, who recently “collaborated” on 24K gold chicken wings with an East Village restaurant and boasts 2.7 million followers on his “Foodgōd” Instagram. (There he would post a photo of himself cavorting in the popcorn pit, tagged #sponsored.) Later, I was genuinely starstruck by the sight of Yankees legend Mariano Rivera, shirt tucked into his dad jeans, holding — what else? — nachos.

Seattle Mariners Toasted Grasshoppers

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the ingredients at FoodFest, as well as the obvious effort and care that went into the production of the full tasting menu. But some teams brought their imaginative A game more than others, giving life to Frankenfoods that any mad scientist would be proud to nosh on. The Houston Astros’ Chicken Waffle Conefilled with honey mustard and mashed potatoes and topped with a handful of popcorn chicken — I ate it like a regular ice cream cone; I have no idea if I was supposed to eat it like a regular ice cream cone — was cute, and tasted better than it should have, even if it falls into the savory-sweet uncanny valley. I could not say the same for the Texas Rangers’ oozy-glazed Chicken and Donut Slider, which harbored an unaccountably, upsettingly tart layer of buffalo ranch sauce. But no dish got more attention, and rightly so, than the Mariners’ Toasted Grasshoppers: three bugs, dwarfed by an accompanying lime wedge. The grasshoppers were fried to a brown crisp but were otherwise perfectly intact, their limbs extended and their tiny black eyes staring into space, or maybe at Jonathan Cheban. The mouthfeel was pleasantly crunchy, but the chile heat was a little overpowering — is it strange to say I wish they tasted a little more insect-y?

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After trying sixteen out of thirty dishes, I took a lap around the venue to give my increasingly beleaguered vital organs a break, and also, primarily, to hunt for more famous people. I did see a woman I think I might have gone to high school with, which I recognize is probably less interesting to you than Mariano Rivera, but was nevertheless jolting.

While some teams hit it out of the park (I’m so sorry), others made only a minimal effort, like a fifth-grader transparently ad-libbing through a book report on a novel that he did not bother to open, much less read. The Phillies’ Bull’s BBQ Slider (four-time All-Star Greg “The Bull” Luzinski now operates Bull’s BBQ at Citizens Bank Park) was a generic pulled pork slider with coleslaw. See also: The Rockies’ forgettable Helton Burger & Fries, named after longtime first baseman Todd Helton. If this were the NFL, you might say they were just here so they didn’t get fined.

The scene

That’s not to say that “basic” necessarily meant “bad.” The Mets’ NY Deli Pastrami Sandwich (exactly which New York deli, though, goes suspiciously unspecified), at least, had the benefit of being regionally appropriate, though I wish they’d opted for a meaner mustard. Cheddar Beer Bratwurst (Milwaukee Brewers) distinguished itself with sweet onion jam and a pretzel bun. The Cubs’ Chicago Dog was a fairly standard dog loaded with more pickles, peppers, and mustard than actual meat on a poppy seed bun — it was good, if not exactly life-changing. But the Nathan’s Famous All-Natural Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dog (St. Louis Cardinals) proved to be a mouthful, in more ways than one. To me, this was the platonic ideal of a hot dog, with a drizzle of mayo, a hidden layer of baked beans, fried onion, diced tomato, and a thin slice of pickle. That said, since when does Missouri get first dibs on Brooklyn’s foremost purveyor of delicious meat tubes?

My favorite dishes fell somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between boring and truly unhinged. The Twins’ Kurd-Marczuk, named for Minneapolis deli Kramarczuk’s, was a visibly greasy pile of deep-fried cheese curds and sliced bratwurst soaking in brown gravy. I loved it, taking several more bites than is advisable, given how much more I had yet to eat. Easy to miss, buried alive as it was under a pile of uninteresting fries, the Monte Khrush Davis Cristo (Oakland A’s) was a teensy, delectable Monte Cristo served on mini Belgian waffles with strawberry preserves. We might see its namesake, slugger Khris “Krush” Davis, compete in the 2018 Home Run Derby; the Monte Cristo would surely clean up in the sandwich version thereof. The Tampa Bay Rays’ Reuben Cuban Sandwich was exactly what it sounds like, combining pulled pork, corned beef, kraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing into one multicultural dish. It was extremely good, and not just because its name rhymes. Under normal circumstances, I would have shoved at least one more of these sandwiches into my face, but that night, I had to move on.

I took on the Indians’ Flamethrower — pulled pork, bacon jam, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (yes, again) — around 8:30, and I enjoyed it (especially the bacon jam) far more than I should have this late in the game, considering I was about a hundred more stomach-churning calories away from hijacking the hot dog seesaw as my personal bilevel nap gurney. I was by then painfully aware that everywhere I looked, everyone was chewing, and I wished I knew how to make them stop. Pig Pickin’ (Atlanta Braves) was a taco bowl stuffed like yin and yang with the metaphysical duality that is macaroni & cheese and pulled pork. (If you’re playing along at home, five of thirty FoodFest dishes featured pulled pork. Pulled pork is the new Cracker Jack, although I don’t recommend looking for a prize hidden inside.) It also came with fried pork rinds, because of course it did. This dish would be intimidating under normal circumstances, but having done battle with more than two dozen of its brothers and sisters, I entered a BBQ sauce–flavored fugue state upon taking one bite and lost the next five minutes. I’d call this my seventh-inning stretch, but I would have preferred to seventh-inning lie down on the ground.

The White Sox’s South Side Horseshoe — an Italian sausage patty atop a round of garlic Texas toast, doused in cheese sauce (and a nod to the horseshoe, a messy open-faced sandwich of central Illinois tradition) — was quite tasty. That said, compared to the neatly sliced, evenly distributed scallions garnishing some of FoodFest’s surprisingly fussy ballpark dishes, this thing was downright goofy, with a lone waffle fry jammed into the thick yellow paste like an elementary school craft gone awry. Besides not being a particularly creative concept, the Cincinnati Reds’ Fry Box — which was…a box of fries, with bacon, cheese, gravy, and scallions — did not age well in the time it spent waiting for me on the counter, fat glistening in the bright lights. The gravy coagulated into an off-white solid beneath the exterior potato crust. I would not say I loved it. (Where is Skyline Chili when I need it the most?)

Arizona Diamondbacks Churro Dog

I saved the sole sweet entry for last (technically, I did see someone piping soft-serve ice cream directly into mini baseball helmets, but as that particular dessert is unaffiliated with any specific team, I granted my stomach a well-deserved and very necessary exemption). The D-Backs’ Churro Dog was made to order: a (room-temperature, sadly) churro nestled inside a donut and slated with Froyo, chocolate sauce, caramel, and whipped cream. It was a mess, as was I. But I was just happy to finally be eating something cold and sweet, without the slightest suggestion of pulled pork or nachos.

I finished my quest just a minute or two before 9 p.m. and headed home, leaving behind a woman in a “Highway 420” shirt, who probably has a million YouTube subscribers, singing a list of foods she ate to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” into a camera.

A few weeks ago, I watched the Yankees beat the Rays at home in the Bronx. Even after my #FoodFest #foodgod journey through the vanguard of ballpark food innovation, I couldn’t resist ordering my long-standing favorite: regular old sausage and peppers. Deeply generic, yes, but also deeply delicious.