Friday, July 29, 2011

An Afternoon with Yogi

He walks more gingerly than he used to, and he talks more softly than he once did. But his smile, his sense of humor, and his easygoing manner are all still there, as they’ve been for the 65 years that he’s been in the public eye.

I got the chance to meet Yogi Berra yesterday, thanks to the generosity of a friend and colleague. My friend Hedy invited me to the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University to watch the 86-year-old Yankee legend respond to interviews from high school students, as part of a sports broadcasting camp. The camp, which Hedy helps coordinate, is run by her brother, David Siroty, as well as sports journalists Bruce Beck, Ian Eagle, Dave Popkin and Mike Quick. It’s an extraordinarily impressive camp, as evidenced by the quality of the students’ work and the dedication of the experienced teachers.

So as a guest of the camp, I sat in the auditorium of Yogi’s museum and watched him sit down in a white folding chair, a Yankees cap atop his head and a Yankees jacket over his polo shirt. He held his cane in his hands and listened closely to every student’s question.

It was fascinating to watch Yogi handle the questions. Sometimes, he’d give a direct answer, such as when one student asked, “Yogi, was Jackie Robinson safe or – ” “Out!” the former catcher barked before that question could even be completed. Robinson’s famous steal of home during Game One of the 1955 World Series between the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers still stokes the competitive fire within Berra. Another student asked, “Yogi, what did you tell Derek Jeter after his 3,000th hit?” Yogi: “I told him it was about time.”

Most of Yogi’s answers, though, were not as direct. More often than not, Yogi took the student’s question as more of an invitation to tell a story. Somewhere in that story was an answer to the question. But in essence, the question was more of an opportunity for Yogi to reminisce. For instance, after sharing his humorous compliment to Jeter about that 3,000th hit, Yogi then started telling the students that he’s also joked with Jeter in the past about swinging at (and missing) high fastballs: “I asked him, ‘Why did you swing at those high ones?’ ” Yogi recalled. “[Jeter] said, ‘Well, you swung at them.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I hit them.’ ” When asked about his batting style, Yogi didn’t speak about his three MVP awards or his 358 home runs. Instead, he brought us back to 1950, and told us that he’d come to bat 597 times that year and struck out only 12 times. He said he retired in 1965 after just nine at-bats because he struck out three times in one game. That’s how he knew it was time. “I retired that day,” he said.

When asked about his best and worst moments with George Steinbrenner, Yogi smiled, sighed, and brought his listeners back to the early 1980s. He told stories about young players whom the late Yankees owner traded away (such as outfielder Willie McGee) or threatened to demote (such as Dave Righetti). Yogi eventually got around to sharing his good moments with Steinbrenner, but only after telling us that Willie McGee (who retired when these students were toddlers) was a great talent, and that he was traded to the Cardinals for a pitcher named Bob Sykes. McGee smacked more than 2,000 hits in his career, while Sykes never pitched a game for New York. Yogi remembers that.

It’s the details like this – McGee for Sykes – that always amaze me when I’m listening to one of my elders talk. For years, the vivid storyteller in my life was my grandfather, Warren Mueller. Many of my grandfather’s stories were about baseball, too, as he played professionally in the Boston Braves’ minor-league system during the 1940s, then played semipro ball for years afterward. My brother and I would ask my grandfather so many questions about his playing days, and he’d remember the details of a game in 1944 better than he could recall what he’d eaten for breakfast that day. He always seemed grateful that his grandchildren wanted to know so much about his life, and he never stopped telling us stories. He told us about the tryout he had with the Brooklyn Dodgers at age 18, about the games he pitched with the Hartford Senators in 1944 and ’45, about the exhibition game in which he pitched against Joe DiMaggio in ‘46, and about the flourishing semipro baseball scene on Staten Island in the 1940s (done in by television, he’d always say). Just two days before he died, my grandfather told me for the first time that he’d pitched against Jimmie Foxx.

Warren Mueller has been gone for almost five years. My brother and I miss his voice, his laugh, and the stories he told. I didn’t know what to expect from yesterday’s visit to hear Yogi Berra – I’m not really big on star-gazing, and I had plenty of interviews with famous people during my work as a journalist. But what I ended up hearing from Yogi was some of my grandfather’s voice inside of his. Sure, the details were different, and they involved the most famous team in the history of American sport. But the rhythm and the purpose for these stories were the same.

All the campers and teachers took pictures with Yogi afterward, and David got me in for a photo as well. My photo looks silly, as I’m not posing and smiling for the camera. Instead, I’m standing there talking with Yogi. I shook his hand, introduced myself, and blurted out a few sentences about how much I appreciated the job he had done managing the 1984 Yankees. That team was out of contention early and brought up their best prospects in the summer for a long audition. I was 13, and at the apex of my childhood fascination with baseball. “You let the kids play,” I told Yogi, “just like the Mets have to do this year.” He smiled back, and said something that I couldn’t hear amid the din of the auditorium.

It may seem strange that I botched a photo with Yogi Berra. But I think I know what was going on there. I wasn’t really trying to talk with Yogi in that moment. I think I was just trying to get in a few more words with my grandfather.

Yogi, I’m sure, understood. When one student asked him how he felt about being honored at Yogi Berra Day more than 10 years ago, the man in the Yankees cap started to choke up as he remembered the day. “I’m getting emotional right now,” he said.

Mortality is more real and lasting than any home run or tag at the plate. That’s why we tell stories, and that’s why we listen.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Play Ball, Baby Doll

There have been a lot of baby dolls roaming around the house this July. While my girls have spent part of their summer dancing through the sprinkler, riding the ocean waves and swimming with friends at the pool, another part of their summer has been spent changing diapers and pushing carriages. One plays with an American Girl doll, while the other has a life-size infant doll, with frighteningly real facial features.

Daddy’s not much for dolls. I watch them, and feign interest when they tell me how “Amanda needed a nap,” or “Abby wants to go for a walk around the house,” but really I don’t like baby dolls much. Every parent has a terrifying fear of the child walking up to them at age 16 with the words, “I’m pregnant.” So the sight of my daughters practicing parenting is not exactly a dream scenario.

Of course, girls aren’t the only ones interested in pint-sized versions of themselves. From Muppet Babies to Cabbage Patch Kids, boys and girls alike have been drawn to reenact their own childhoods by caring for and watching fictional babies. As I sat in a bookstore the other day, I even came across a new comic book titled “Hulk-Sized Mini-Hulks.” I was stunned – at the content, the repetitive nature of the title and the spot-on proper use of hyphens. The comic book involved the exploits of three toddler Hulks – one green, one blue, one red. Every story was one page long, and every tale was easy for kids to follow. Hulk-Sized Mini-Hulks. At a store near you.

So maybe I was just one of those kids who never felt the need to tickle little Elmo or cuddle a baby doll. But I can recall a thing or two about using toys to while away a summer’s day. In the case of my brother and me, the object of our focus was Star Wars figures. The original three Star Wars films were a mutual passion of ours, not to mention most of the boys in America, during the late 1970s and early ’80s. Sometimes, Eric and I would re-create Star Wars scenes or craft new ones of our own.

But during the summer, with baseball fresh on our minds, we’d put these figures to work playing ball. With the legs of one of the figures, we’d draw the shape of a baseball diamond on the brown shag carpet in our living room. Then we’d divide the Star Wars figures into two teams, and we’d sit the figures down in the nine positions found on a baseball diamond. Eric would then grab one of the cannonballs that came with the Ewok figures from Return of the Jedi, and we’d use that as a baseball. One of us would toss the cannonball toward home plate, and the other would sit behind the plate holding a Star Wars figure’s head. As the pitch came in, we’d whip the legs of the batting figure forward, and the cannonball would fly.

What next, you might ask? Well, if the cannonball struck one of the position players, it was recorded as an out. If it landed untouched, it was a base hit or, in the case of a ball that fell beyond the outfield wall, a home run. My mother shook her head at this sight, and walked away. But we plowed on, and even kept statistics. Somehow, a little Ewok named Wicket W. Warrick led the league in home runs. He was a tiny, bear-like thing, and I think Eric liked him so much that he tried harder to hit home runs with Wicket at the plate. The toothy Gamorrean guards (protectors of Jabba the Hut) were a close second in the home-run race. Their girth played a role in their ability to launch one out of the “park,” not unlike Greg “Bull” Luzinski, who was finishing his career with the White Sox at that time.

That was a long time ago. I don’t play Star Wars baseball anymore. As I watch two little ones scamper about the house, I have yet to see them hold any home-run derbies with Amanda and Abby. They’ve been a lot more low-key than Eric and I were in our day. But hey, if Daddy ever feels the urge, he could try and draw up a diamond on the Pottery Barn carpet. We could roll up one of the doll’s socks for a ball, and make a little bat out of cardboard. The girls could even learn scorekeeping while we play.

But then, when the bases are loaded and Daddy’s really getting into this, someone’s going to need a diaper change. And off the girls will go, into their creative and nurturing worlds. I’ll clean up the mess, then vacuum the carpet so my wife doesn’t see any evidence when she gets home.

And I’ll go back to age 40, with just a little more affection in my heart for Amanda and Abby. Hey, the kid could hit; I’ll give her that.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Who's Your Daddy? He's a Jock Again

It’s been 22 years since I last wore a jock strap. It was the summer of 1989, and I was playing American Legion baseball with my cousin and a number of other young men at ballfields throughout Staten Island. I was getting ready for college, where I would leave the pitching mound for the sports desk of my school’s newspaper. Before long, I was covering sports on a daily basis.

Twelve years ago, I left daily newspaper work for public-school teaching. At this point, I was no longer interviewing athletes and other individuals during the summer months. Instead, July and August became a time for rest, rejuvenation and reading. Certain summers have also offered time for those medical visits that were put off during the school months. This has been one such summer.

But this year, I didn’t have just any old medical procedure. No, this year was special. This was the summer in which Daddy ensured that he could not become anyone else’s daddy. This was the week that saw a husband trudge through the front door, asking his wife for a pillow and an ice pack. This was the year that found a 40-year-old man wearing a jock strap for the first time since Rick Astley was churning out pop hits and Michael Keaton was Batman.

I haven’t needed the cup, mind you; just the strap, to help ease my way back into manhood. I am learning, as I begin my fifth decade, that there are certain medical procedures that help foster the increased humility that seems to come with age. There are parts of the body that, when prodded, do not leave me feeling like the king of the world, or even of my zip code. This trend, I’m sure, will only increase in scope as the years roll along.

For those of you who would like a little more color to the description, I will give you just this: When the Novocaine wears off a few hours after you leave the urologist, it feels as if you’ve awakened five days after being beaten below the belt with a baseball bat. You never felt the intense pain; just the heavy, please-get-me-some-Tylenol-right-now ache. It subsides, a little each day. But walking is hard. For someone who prefers running four miles to lying in a hammock, it’s probably harder on my state of mind than anything else.

But as I fight the stir-craziness, I’m forced to sit down, relax, and do the things that an on-the-move, to-do-list guy often doesn’t allow himself to do. I have sat down and made playlists for my iPod. I’ve read the newspaper. I’ve watched A League of Their Own with my girls in the backyard, at dusk, while eating ice cream. I’ve read with my girls, and watched them perform G-rated Katy Perry dance routines. I’ve sat down with my wife and planned our summer trips.

It’s not easy being laid up, but there are much more difficult things in life than this. Perhaps the hardest part of all was figuring out how to explain to a 9-year-old why this procedure was even necessary for Daddy. She was too old to just gloss over it, but too young to know everything. So after a brief, scientific discussion about the birds and the bees, she nodded, telling us that all those nature shows we’ve been making her watch make so much more sense now.

So if we got through that dicey discussion, surely I can make it out of this jock strap. It will take some time, I’m sure. But hey, maybe once it’s over I can find myself a men’s baseball or softball league. I’ve got a head start on the equipment already. And you know, as a pitcher, I can even handle it if an opposing team starts to heckle me.

The most creative way to get at a pitcher is to do to him what Yankee fans notoriously did to future Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez in his later years. “Who’s your daddy?” the Yankee faithful shouted to Martinez, ever since the day he lost to the Yankees in September 2004 and told reporters, “I tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy.” New Yorkers jumped all over this, and Pedro smiled all the while as 50,000-plus asked him this rhetorical question every time he entered Yankee Stadium.

I was born the same year as Pedro. Beyond that small similarity, our baseball skills have nothing in common. He is a legendary hurler; I am a teacher and writer. But I do think I can handle the heckling just as well as he could.

“Who’s your daddy?” you ask? Most definitely not me. I’ve got the scars to prove it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Derek Le Grand

Just about everything that needed to be written about Derek Jeter has already been typed and submitted in these past 48 hours or so. The most highly anticipated 3,000th hit in baseball history has come and gone, and the world is still turning. Jeter achieved his milestone in glorious fashion yesterday – that much we know. Jeter did it with class and humility – we know that, too. The kid caught Jeter’s home run ball and gave it back for free – that we also know.

We know a lot about Derek Jeter – in some media outlets, we’ve learned much more about him than we have about the current budget negotiations or the fighting in Libya. But this is the Yankees, after all. And so, in the spirit of Jetermania, this writer has just one more story to add to the shortstop’s big day.

So I had just finished a jog in the park yesterday afternoon, and I hopped into my car. It was just before two, and as I drove toward the park’s exit I turned on the radio. I remembered that the Yankees game had started at 1:00, so I was about to switch over to it. But as I reached for the radio, the FM station I had on was playing its best mix of the ‘80s, ‘90s and today, and on came Duran Duran’s “Rio.” As I passed playgrounds and barbecues in the park, I thought to myself, “I haven’t heard that song in awhile.” So I left the station alone, and enjoyed the tune.

As Simon Le Bon finished crooning and the synthesizers faded out, a disc jockey popped on the air and announced, “Congratulations to Derek Jeter, who has just joined the 3,000-hit club.” My jaw dropped, and I quickly turned on the game. But by this time, the celebration had ended, and Curtis Granderson was up at bat. The first Yankee ever to notch 3,000 hits with New York had achieved history, and I had missed it for a 1983 pop song.

Now since that moment, I have seen extensive video footage of Jeter’s home run for hit No. 3,000. I’ve seen video of his other four hits yesterday, I’ve seen interviews with Jeter and other Yankee players, I’ve heard and seen the kid who caught the ball, and I’ve even witnessed inexplicable coverage of baseball players’ tweets regarding the Jeter hit. But all of this was, of course, after the fact. In the live moment, when the excitement of sport is at its highest, I chose Simon Le Bon over Derek Le Grand.

I could try and stretch for some symbolism here, but that would be a lame attempt at making the pieces fit. I could try and tell you that Duran Duran makes perfect sense, since Jeter got to 3,000 hits by being Hungry Like the Wolf every game. I could tell you that he made it to 3,000 by attacking every at bat with A View to a Kill. I could say his success was all caused by The Reflex he exhibited when pitches came his way. Or I could tell you that the Yankees players mobbed him at home plate like a bunch of Wild Boys.

But really, that’s all too cheap and cheesy. I’m above that.

There is one thing I will say, though, about my radio selection yesterday afternoon. Baseball games and pop songs may sit in different places on the radio dial, but in the end, both are really designed for the same purpose – to make us feel like a kid again. So no, I was not listening to John Sterling as he called Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit. But I was listening to a song that brought me back to being 12 years old again. And really, can it get much better than that? Why does Derek Jeter play baseball, after all, other than to feel like a kid himself? And why do we watch him, other than to feel the same?

Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand / Just like that river twisting through a dusty land / And when she shines she really shows you all she can / Oh Rio, Rio dance across the Rio Grande

The 3-2 from Price: Swung on and hit in the air to deep left / That ball is high, it is far, it is gone! He’s homered! / Derek Jeter homers to tie the game, and there it is – hit number 3,000 / Is that dramatic? Is that ultra-dramatic? What a way to achieve the milestone of 3,000

Different verses, different stations. But whichever we choose, it’s all about feeling young again. And it’s worth doing, at least another 3,000 times.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Summer in Slo-Mo

A blissful breeze whispered off the water in Cape May, N.J., as I sat among a group of thirteen glowstick-toting celebrants. We sat in beach chairs and on blankets in the cool sand, waiting for the sun to set and the fireworks to begin. Someone handed me a piece of blue-and-red plastic that lit up if you pressed a button. I pressed it; the red, star-shaped top glowed like a lighthouse in Vegas. Behind me, friends were munching on Muddy Buddies. To my left, kids were gobbling up chocolate-chip cookies. All around us, a buzz of children’s voices filled the air.

The promise of summer peaks on July 4th, in a way that feels both exhilarating and far too fleeting. Summer itself comes and goes as quickly as a firefly’s flicker, with a sweet taste that lasts about as long as a soft-serve vanilla cone with sprinkles. We await those fireworks with joy and anticipation – and then they’re gone, and it’s already July 5th.

If only we could find a way to stall time, and turn our summers into more of a meandering brook than a roaring river. A few weeks ago, I introduced my girls to the Back to the Future movies. They were captivated by the adventures of Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown, even in the less-than-spectacular sequels. It’s been more than 25 years since Marty and Doc first flew that DeLorean, but to my wife and me, the story was just as captivating as ever.

Maybe that’s because as we grow older, we long to control time much more than we ever did as a youngster. Does another Fourth of July really have to fly by so fast? Is it almost time for baseball’s All-Star Game already? Do I really see back-to-school specials in the Sunday circulars?

Slowing down the pace of summer is, of course, impossible – it’s like trying to catch a kite after you’ve let it go into the heavens. It sails away from you, and all you can do is watch, reflect, and savor the memory.

But wait a minute … does it always have to be this way? I mean, what if the kite, say, gets caught somewhere – on a roof, maybe – and then you retrieve it? Can’t that happen? Isn’t that something straight out of Doc Brown’s playbook?

As Sunday afternoon breezed into Sunday evening, we stood on the beach with our dear friends the Fergusons. My friend Brent decided that the wind had picked up just enough, and out came his kites. You should know right off that flying kites is not just a way for Brent to relive his childhood. While this 40-year-old man does have the curiosity of Doc Brown, Brent also has a Carpe Diem approach to life that leaves more than enough room for experiencing the momentary beauty of a kite in flight.

So he started with an Omega kite, which took to the air quickly and somehow ended up in my hands. While Brent got the kids started with a box kite and an owl kite, I kept letting more string out, as this multi-colored kite turned into a small speck in the summer sky. The seagulls flew far beneath it, and the wind kept it strong and secure in the air. It seemed, to my eyes, a half a mile away.

Brent watched, captivated, and encouraged me to let the string out completely. I did, and it was at this moment that we learned something new – the string was not attached to the handle. Goodbye, kite. We all shouted in surprise, then watched helplessly as the Omega soared northward into the blue sky. Brent’s first kite, gone forever.

Another beachgoer walked over to us, having witnessed the whole thing. As he spoke with Brent, he pointed at the kite. “You know,” he said, pointing upward, “it’s taking on air again.” And so it was. The kite string was caught, somewhere. It was no longer flying away. Brent went down to the street, to try and find the string. No luck.

As he walked the streets of Cape May in search of an elusive sliver of string, I took the box kite and started letting the string out on this one. After some conversation and planning, we decided that I would walk toward the Omega kite and try to get it twisted around the box kite. Then I’d try and pull them both back home.

Now I have never been to Afghanistan, and I’ve never seen kite fighting in person. But after two years of teaching Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, I must have learned something about handling a kite. Because as soon as I approached the Omega kite with my box kite, they danced around each other, and the Omega wrapped itself around the box kite’s string. Some 20 minutes later, I stood on a sand dune with both kites dropping into Brent’s outstretched hands. Thirty minutes after that, we finished tracking the string, which had caught itself on the roofs of five different houses. That kite was caught, all right. Had we not tried to save it, the kite would still be flying, five days later.

In all, it was only an hour of joyful salvation in the sun. But in retrospect, maybe it was a little more than that. Maybe for that hour, Brent and Warren really did turn into Doc and Marty – and instead of Plutonium, all they needed was string and wind. With that kite, you could say that Brent and I slowed summer down just a bit, and made the fleeting moment last longer than it should have.

A little more than 24 hours later, we were all at the beach together, watching the fireworks sparkle. As the pyrotechnics brought summer to its paramount moment of promise, we both thought of the colors we’d seen sparkle in the air the day before. We thought of that hour when the river became a brook, and a freed kite chose not to glide away. It was a bit like a firefly that glowed all night, or a vanilla cone that never reached bottom. It was summer in slo-mo – about as hard to find as a DeLorean on the streets.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Red, White & Rainbow

It’s been a good week for rainbows. As we strolled along the extraordinary High Line on the west side of Manhattan last Tuesday, my wife and I happened upon a collection of helium-filled structures called Rainbow City. The striped, balloon-like objects in this temporary park on 30th Street are made of different colors and shapes, and can be pushed around and jumped into all day long. The following day, my friend Jeremy and I encountered a rainbow of neon lights while attending a Brooklyn Cyclones minor-league baseball game on Coney Island. While watching the Cyclones players pitch and throw and field, we enjoyed the vibrant colors of the Wonder Wheel, Luna Park and the Cyclone roller coaster beyond the ballpark.

Throughout New York City this past week, from Chelsea to Coney Island, rainbows have been all the rage. It’s not every day that you get to see and feel civil rights history in your midst. While many states struggle to find their conscience on the issue of gay marriage, New York State’s governor and legislature chose on June 24th to offer every New Yorker the right to marry, no matter what their sexual orientation. As we strolled along the High Line and saw couples of the same sex walking together, Amy and I felt inspired to know that they could – if they so choose – join us in an institution that they have every right to try.

Tonight, at around nine o’clock, millions of Americans will gather at shorelines, in parks and on beaches. They’ll look up and see a rainbow of colors lighting up the summer sky. They’ll sing songs about America, they’ll toss around a baseball and they’ll eat a few hot dogs. On this day in which we celebrate the independence of our country, I’m especially proud of the state I have called home for most of my life. Come on come through, New York, New York. In the spirit of red, white and rainbow, I can only hope that others are right behind you.