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"AMAZING DISGRACE" AND AMAZING GRACE: THOUGHTS FROM A NEW YORK WEEKEND

I am not the biggest fan of inter-league play because it unbalances the intra-league schedule to a ridiculous level. For instance, how can you still call it an American LEAGUE when the longtime rival Cleveland Indians play the Yankees in New York in early April and don’t return again, and the Cubs have to wait until early September to visit their once-arch-rival Mets. The other serious imbalance is the unequal transcontinental schedule. The Red Sox have already finishing traveling to the West Coast while the Yankees still have three trips to make.

Saying all this, there is no doubt that inter-league play is a big hit at the box office and in the TV ratings and is here to stay. And Friday night at new Yankee Stadium there was an ending to the first Mets-Yankees game of the season that provided as infamous a moment as you will ever see. AMAZING DISGRACE read the Daily News’s frontpage headline on Saturday and with good reason . With two out and two on in the bottom of the 9th inning and the Mets holding a one-run lead, second baseman Luis Castillo dropped a routine pop-up off the bat of Alex Rodriguez and the tying and winning runs scored in a Yankee 9-8 victory. Props should be given Mark Teixeira for running all out from first base and scoring when Castillo compounded his gaffe by throwing to second base instead of home where a good throw might have nabbed Teixeira.

To his credit Castillo faced the media with evident remorse after the game and also before Saturday’s day game. In another example of my “Youneverknow” theory in baseball the Mets won easily Saturday, 6-2, behind Fernando Nieve making his first major league start in three years. Yesterday’s rubber match thus became important and the Mets resorted to their recent bumbling as ace starter Johan Santana gave up 9 runs in an embarrassing 15-0 loss.

The Mets are missing key starters in shortstop Jose Reyes and first baseman Carlos Delgado but the secret to any winning organization is the bench or what Earl Weaver called “deep depth” and the Mets are sorely lacking in that area. Eyes should soon turn probingly upon general manager Omar Minaya for explanations on how the situation became so dire and the farm system so barren. “Better trade someone a year too early instead of a year too late” was one of Branch Rickey’s great adages in the heyday of the reserve system when trades were more common. Even in today’s heavily free agent atmosphere, it is still good advice about the dangers of giving aging infielders like Luis Castillo four-year contracts.

SWITCHING GEARS
I devoted most of my Sunday to the other great cultural love of my life, live jazz. I heard some wonderful music in Harlem at two venues that many interested lovers of the art who cannot afford the high-priced clubs should know about.

First I went up to 555 Edgecombe Avenue to pianist Marjorie Eliot’s regular 4-6p Sunday afternoon jazz salon, a program she has been running for 17 years. She always begins her sessions of parlor jazz with a spiritual and yesterday she movingly played the classic “Amazing Grace,” the song that had such an important role in the British fight against the slave trade more than 200 years ago.

Located on Sugar Hill in west Harlem overlooking what used to be the New York Giants’ home baseball field the Polo Grounds, 555 Edgecombe is a historic building where such great African-American cultural royalty as Duke Ellington, fellow jazz bandleader Andy Kirk, Joe Louis and Paul Robeson once lived. Marjorie’s regular tenor saxophonist the French-Algerian native Sedric Choukroun was in fine form yesterday playing such classic jazz standards as “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You” and “Body and Soul.” Bassist Andy McCloud performed an absorbing acapella rendition of “For All We Know” ("We may never meet again")

In the evening I moved down to the very comfortable American Legion space at 248 West 132 between 7th and 8th Avenues (aka Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Blvds.) Starting a little after 7pm the veteran B3 Hammond organ master Seleno Clarke led a band featuring Australian-born guitarist J. T. Campbell and the burning tenor saxopohonist Jerry Weldon and alto man David Lee Jones. A jam session was still going strong as I left around 10:30.

Copious soul food is available for $10 a plate along with some of the lowest priced drinks in town. There is no cover charge at either Marjorie Eliot’s salon or at the American Legion venue but the hat is passed, an always sobering realization that playing our country’s greatest original music is not the easiest way to make a living. Yet there’s nothing like hearing it in the heart of Harlem where the music flowered throughout the first half of the 20th century and a community which hopefully is today becoming integrated in the fullest sense of the word.

LOW’NFISH ‘N CHIPS:
**Norman Thomas High School star hurler Mariel Checo, who last Tuesday pitched his Tigers to the New York City baseball championship, was drafted in the 41st round by the Yankees. Checo also has the option to attend a junior college in New Mexico.

**George Washington H. S.’s Alibay Barkley, a 6’ 4” 255 first baseman, was the California Angels’ 50th round pick in the draft and the last player picked in the country. The husky New Yorker wore the same number 6 as Phillies slugger Ryan Howard but to my eyes needs a lot of work on his conditioning and his too heavily fly ball-oriented stroke.

**Another interesting Angels’ selection was Assad Ali, the adopted son of Muhammad Ali, in the 40th round. Growing up in Michigan, Assad is a catcher who carries 225 pounds on a 5’ 10” frame.

**Erratum: I misspelled in a recent post the lovely city park in Oneonta where Damaschke Field, the jewel of a minor league stadium, is located. It is correctly spelled Neawha Park.

Oneonta’s New York-Penn League home season begins this Friday June 19. As is the custom the Staten Island Yankees open at the Brooklyn Cyclones June 19 and the following night Brooklyn visits Staten Island. Nobody thought 30 years ago that minor league baseball would thrive again but thanks in part to the 50-day major league baseball strike in 1981, the minors are thriving again. Youneverknow, youneverknow!

More on baseball with a little smattering of jazz tomorrow. Ciao for now!
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