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One Man's Guide to Coping With A World Temporarily Without Sports

The sun was shining yesterday, Tuesday afternoon March 24 2020. I went outside cautiously to pick up prescription nasal sprays and shop for some more groceries.  

I kept a six-foot distance waiting on line to get in, which was impossible to maintain once you did make it to the shelves in a narrow-aisled store.  

 
The sunny day and the promise of increasing light brought me back to my younger days in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Listening on the radio to the sound of baseballs crackling on bats, and being entranced by the background sound of humming crowds as the teams played their last games in warm weather and worked their way up by train to opening day in the big cities around April 15th.  

 
I thought back to my interview with Robin Roberts during my first visit to spring training in 1979, the year I got serious about writing about baseball. The next spring my first book "The Imperfect Diamond: The Story of Baseball's Reserve and The Men Who Fought to Change It" came out, a collaboration with Tony Lupien, the former Red Sox first baseman and Dartmouth College coach.

 

Roberts, the future Hall of Fame pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies, was in his last years of coaching at the University of South Florida in Tampa.  Along with future Hall of Fame pitcher and future U.S. Senator Jim Bunning, Roberts had been instrumental in bringing Marvin Miller into baseball to revitalize the Players Association.   

 
On this day about 41 years ago, Roberts remembered wistfully how each team used to play their regulars for five innings in smaller cities as they moved North. He sensed that already, the intimate connections of players to fans was disappearing, but it was still a poignant memory. 

 
Now we are bereft of baseball until late spring, at the earliest, because of the novel coronavirus that, as I post, could erupt even more in New York City and its environs.  Nobody knows when it will be safe to go out in groups and congregate again at ballparks and in arenas. My guess is late June at the earliest but it's just a hope. 

 
It's not that there isn't baseball news. The Mets learned yesterday that pitcher Noah Syndergaard needs Tommy John surgery and likely will be out until the middle of next season. 


I don't consider myself a pundit or a baseball seer and I'm not a doctor or athletic trainer. But I just KNEW that it was inevitable that Noah would break down.  He bragged about wanting to throw 100 mph and more almost every pitch.  

 
I also just KNEW that the ballyhooed Dylan Bundy would break down early in his Orioles career. Because he too crowed about his vigorous weight program.  Bundy has a chance to show he has become a pitcher with his new team, the Angels.  One wonders if Noah will learn anything during his enforced idleness.

 

Here's a shout-out to the documentary and great game-rebroadcast programming on MLBTV.  Check out "Joy in Wrigleyville," narrated by actor John Cusack who played Buck Weaver, the man with guilty knowledge of the fix who didn't participate in it, in John Sayles's memorable film "Eight Men Out,".  

 
It's a heartwarming film focused primarily on many lifelong Cubs fans who found joy at last when the Cubs won the 2016 World Series over the Cleveland Indians, breaking their 108-year-long drought. 

 

Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins rock band is one of the frequent talking heads. Most memorable for me were a husband-wife firefighter couple from North Carolina that drove fo Game 7 at Cleveland's Progressive Field.

 

Also very moving were two fans who came to the Series with their children. 

One of them said that every parent wants their child to fulfill its dreams.

And it is just as wonderful to watch their parents' dream fulfilled.  Even if most didn't live to see the glorious triumph that eliminated the 108 years of frustration. 

 
Another fine MLB documentary focused on pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych who rocketed on the scene in 1976 to become the darling of Detroit Tiger fans and most baseball fans all over the country. Interviews with Mark's widow and daughter and teammates Rusty Staub and Mark's personal catcher Bruce Kimm added immeasurably to the production.

 

It was followed by a rebroadcast of the ABC Monday Night Baseball game in which Fidrych threw a complete game victory over the Yankees before a packed Tiger Stadium crowd.  Was nice to hear the sounds of a broadcast team that wasn't together very long on national TV - Bob Prince, Al Michaels, and Warner Wolf.

 
Don't forget TCM shows "Pride of the Yankees" after 1015p on Sunday night March 29 and airs some classic baseball films from dawn to dusk on Tuesday March 31.

 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!

I heard last night a tremendously informative interview with Max Brooks on Terry Gross's long-running NPR interview show "Fresh Air."  He is an incredibly knowledgeable young family man of 47, the author of both non-fiction books about civil defense and zombie fiction books including the best-selling "World War Z" from 2006. 

 

Brooks said, "Fear can be conquered but anxiety must be endured."  He advised that we all practice "fact hygiene," i.e. don't fall for conspiracy theories or pass along dubious information. 

 

Without getting snarky about it, he suggested that the President must be fact checked after all his statements.  Max Brooks is a fully credentialed defense analyst who is part of research teams at both West Point and Naval Academy institutes. 

 
Check out a 43-second PSA (Public Servic Announcer) Max put out on the internet about the importance of social distance in these nervous times.  He created the clip with his father Mel Brooks, now 93, in the background.  How Max's mother the late Anne Bancroft would be proud of her son.

 
Here are a couple more cultural notes.  I watched on Amazon Prime Mariette Heller's "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," a drama about Pittsburgh's beloved the late Mr. (Fred) Rogers, the children's TV star. 

 

Heller and her staff, including her brother Nate who wrote much of the music, had the full cooperation of the Rogers Foundation including access to his closet and his famous sweater and sneakers.  I haven't seen the 2018 Rogers documentary, but "Neighborhood" is a truly deep dive into a man who truly believed that "everything mentionable is manageable." 

 
The cast is superb with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers (Hanks sadly is now in quarantine with his wife Rita Wilson in Australia, who also carries the coronavirus) and Maryann Plunkett as Mrs. Rogers.  

 

In a key role Matthew Rhys plays the journalist who is interviewing Rogers for a magazine story; Susan Watson as Rhys's wife; Chris Cooper as the overbearing father of Rhys' character (based on the Esquire magainze writer Tom Junod), and the glamorous Christine Lahti in a brief but important role as Rhys's demanding editor. 

 
Mariette Heller is only 41 and I loved her prior film, "Will You Ever Forgive Me?" about the literary forger Lee Israel starring Melissa McCarthy who got a deserved Oscar nomination for making a not very pleasant woman very human and relatable. (We all owe a debt to Melissa for her hilarious takedown of press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live early in the Trump years.)

 
I love so-called classical music and there is a marvelous moment in "Neighborhood" where Mr. and Mrs. Rogers are playing a duo-piano version of a gorgeous piece by Robert Schumann, "Pictures From The East," op. 66.  

 
Talking about special moments, I was listening yesterday to WQXR, NYC's only classical music station, and I heard a stunning vocal piece, "In My Father's Garden," by Alma Mahler. It was written before Alma Schindler at age 22 married the great German composer Gustav Mahler who was 41.

 

In a terrible commentary on the age of patriarchy, he forbade her from writing any more music while married to him. What marvelous new tones and sounds she would have created if he had been more tolerant. 

 

She did live a half century after Gustav died in 1911 but none of her later music had the deep creative vein of her earlier work.  (She did become the subject of Tom Lehrer's classic ditty about her marriages to other German notables, writer Franz Werfel and architect Walter Gropius.)

 
Well, that's all for now.  Back to you next month hoping we see some light at the end of the tunnel of the enforced and necessary hiatus on sports.  In the meantime, now more than ever, always remember: Take it easy but take it.   

 

 

 

 

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Lucking Out in Arizona + Farewells to Joe Delucca and Kelly Rodman

Here is my first blog post since the cancellation of the rest of spring training and MLB's decision to delay the opening of the regular season until no earlier than April 9. 

 

As someone who grew to love baseball when opening day was around April 15, this decision is welcome. Here's hoping for a return to a 154 game season or less. 

Of course, we don't know when the season will really start. It could be very late.  

 

I feel heartsick for the college seniors who will not play any college baseball this spring.  Omaha will host no College World Series in mid-June. (Most likely, MLB's amateur free agent draft, which would have been held for the first time in Omaha on the eve of the CWS, will now be back in MLBTV studios in Secaucus, NJ, in the NY metro area.


I also feel the pain of all the college basketball seniors, men and women, whose careers have ended abruptly.  A shout-out to Wisconsin's only senior, swingman Brevin Pritzl whose sharp-shooting and clutch rebounding meant so much to the Badgers' eght-game winning streak that propelled them to their unexpected Big Ten title. 

 
We will survive this current scare just like we survived the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, the polio scare of the early 1950s, and the divisiveness over the Vietnam War.  

 

If there is a blessing in disguise during all this unease, I hope we can regain the sense once again of what a real "nation" is - populated by people who may not agree on everything but who share an acceptance of basic decencies and belief in "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."


So here folks is the blog I nearly finished before all the shutdowns began. 

 

My annual trip to Phoenix for the 28th annual NINE baseball magazine conference 

was blessed with perfect weather in the first week of March. Temps in low 80s, sunny but breezy and comfortable even if a tad chilly at night and early morning.  

 

As always, the DoubleTree Hilton on the Tempe-Phoenix border on S. Priest Rd. provided a comfortable setting. The conference attended by nearly 100 scholars/writers/teachers/informed fans was very stimulating. 

 
Too many highlights to list them all but here are a few.  

As keynoter and opening night panelist, Ron Rapoport, veteran sportswriter now based in LA after many years as Chicago Sun-Times columnist, talked movingly about his Ernie Banks biography LET'S PLAY TWO, now in paperback from Hachette Books.  

 
It is not only a wonderful baseball book that will enthrall if bring back painful memories for Cubs fans who watched their chronic losing franchise let their 1969 lead slip away to the onrushing Mets. 

 
It is also a profound look at an essentially lonely man who was at his best, as Rapoport says, "being Ernie Banks," a person whose bubbling personality on the surface masked a crippling depression. 

 

Like any good biography, the book is peopled with incisive portraits of people who intersected with the Hall of Famer. Among them the innovative but baseball-blind Cubs owner Phil Wrigley, belittling manager Leo Durocher, and admiring teammates like Billy Williams who was as happy in his family life as Banks was unhappy. 

 
Another revelation at the NINE conference came in the screening of Larry Foley's documentary, "The First Boys of Spring." It is about Hot Springs, Arkansas where starting in 1886 the first spring training was held.  

 

Foley, a film professor at the University of Arkansas, has unearthed footage of Babe Ruth, working off his wintertime paunch, and Rogers Hornsby delivering hitting instruction to students at Ray Doan's baseball school that operated from the mid-1930s until shortly after World War II. 

 
"The First Boys of Spring" also features interviews with baseball historians Charles Alexander and Marty Appel.  The latter was appropriately filmed at Foley's bar a block south of the Empire State Building. (But I doubt Larry is related to the late NY Daily News sportswriter Red Foley for whom the tavern is named.) 

 

NINE offers the chance for authors to deliver brief papers about their books.  Mithcell Nathanson, previously a biographer of Richie/Dick Allen who did not consent to be interviewed, delivered a brisk talk about the late Jim Bouton, who did cooperate on Mitchell's upcoming biography from University of Nebraska Press.  

 

Anne Raugh Keene's discussion of her book "THE CLOUDBUSTER NINE: The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team That Helped Win World War II" also whetted the appetite. It will be out in paperback on April 21.

 

In the kind of find that historians dream about, Anne discovered after her father's death a trunk with clippings and photos about his time as a batboy for that navy team preparing for combat in the Pacific. Jim Raugh Jr. was inspired to become a great college pitcher at UNC-Chapel Hill and later a minor leaguer who never quite made the show. 

 

The NINE conference always features two afternoons of "field research," which of course means seeing Cactus League games.   The idea was insisted upon by conference founder the late Bill Kirwin, a social work professor at the University of Edmonton in Alberta who was an all-around athlete who played hardball until his early 60s. 

 
The first game we saw was especially sharp for so early in spring training as the visiting Dodgers flashed a lot of leather at the home team Oakland Athletics at Ho-Ho-Kam Stadium in Mesa, the former home of the Cubs. 

 

Yet another Santana in pro ball, Cristian Santana, whose number #94 likely indicates he will be back in the minors for the Dodgers, made three outstanding plays in a row at third base. He is only 23 but the native of San Cristobal in the Domincan Republic is entering his seventh year as a pro.   


Our second game was at the joint Diamondbacks-Rockies facility, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in the outer reaches of Scottsdale. What the game lacked in artistry was made up for by the welcoming aspects of the park, its fine concessions, and the excellent design that offered  both sunshine and shade, the latter very welcomed by this aging fan. 

 

For information on next year's NINE conference (and yes, despite the anxiety of the moment, there wil be a next year), contact david.pegram@paradisevalley.edu 

 
I must now conclude this post with some sad notes.

Near the end of February, Joe Delucca, longtime baseball scout and high school coach and teacher in the western area of Long Island's Suffolk County, died at the age of 91.

 

The funeral was held at the ornate red brick St. Joseph's Cathedral just opposite Babylon High School and the baseball field named in Delucca's honor. 

His daughter Joyce captured the essence of her father's life-affirming nature. 

 

A veteran of the Korean War, Joe Delucca had a love of all kinds of popular music.  He liked the Creedence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin.  One day he whispered to his daughter, "Have you heard the Grateful Dead?"  

 
A year ago, Delucca's scouting mentor and best friend Tom "T-Bone" Giordano passed away at the age of 93. T-Bone had been scouting director for both the Orioles and Indians with Joe as his right hand man.  It was Joe who did the leg work to get Manny Ramirez to sign his first Cleveland contract.  

 

The presiding priest at Joe's funeral must have known this connection because he told a joke about two lovers of baseball who made a pact that when one died the other would let the survivor know if there were baseball in heaven. 

 

So not long after one dies, the curtains start shaking in the other's bedroom and a voice is heard bringing good news and bad news.  The good news? There is baseball in heaven and whatta team - Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Robin Roberts, Don Larsen just signed on.

 
So what's the bad news?  "I'm sorry but you're starting next week."       

 
Joe Delucca lived a long fruitful life. It was achingly tragic to learn that early this month Yankee scout Kelly Rodman left us before her 45th birthday, losing her battle to ovarian cancer.  Her friends, many young athletes, and the scouting community came out in force to remember her on Monday March 9th at the Bailey Funeral Home in Wallingford, Connecticut. 

 
Kelly exuded a love of life and love of baseball in every pore.  She was a star softball player in high school and at Eastern Connecticut State University. She then played hardball in New England, other areas of the U.S. and internationally until she found her niche in scouting.

 
She graduated from MLB's now-unfortunately-defunct scouting school in 2013, and had been a full time area scout for the Yankees since 2017.

 

Yankee scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and northeastern scouting supervisor Matt Hyde spoke movingly about how Kelly accepted without complaint the incessant travel and the hard work of evaluation that comes with the territory of the job.  She only regretted that she couldn't fulfill the terms of her contract, Oppenheimer said.

 

I have a vivid memory from a couple of winters ago of Kelly working with joy and energy at a Baseball Miracles clinic in Newburgh New York. Her ablity to connect with baseball people of any age or nationality or gender will be sorely missed. (There are only two other women scouts in MLB at the present time.)

  

She asked that contributions in her memory to the organization that brings equipment and instruction to under-served communities all over the world.  The address is www.baseballmiracles.org 

 
That's all for now.  I'll be back soon with more thoughts on coping with baseball without actual games for a while.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it!  

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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