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Celebrating The Centennial of Roger Angell + Thoughts on Sports During The Pandemic

In this time of great loss - the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the first day of the Jewish New Year was the latest cruel blow - I am glad we could celebrate Roger Angell's 100th birthday on Saturday September 19. 

 

Starting with a spring training piece from the Mets' debut season of 1962, Angell's essays for  "The New Yorker" magazine have been required and delightful reading for any thoughtful baseball fan. In recent years he has written on newyorker.com 

 

I have fond memories of his appearance on my WBAI sports radio show "Seventh Inning Stretch" during the 1980s. He did some readings for a fund-raising drive (we didn't raise much money but to hear EB White's stepson read his elegant prose was memorable.)

 

I treasure the autographed copy of his anthology "Five Seasons".  He thanked me for "your baseball writing and your baseball passion," the underlining making me especially proud.

 

Angell spoke for all of us unrepentant fans in "Agincourt and After," a "Five Seasons" essay   about the 1975 Red Sox-Reds World Series.  He knew well the "amused superiority and the icy scorn" of non-fans who considered rooting for a "commercially exploitative" sports team "foolish and childish . . . patently insignificant."

 

What these people forgot about ardent fans, Angell wrote, was "the caring deeply and passionately, really caring."

 

Thinking back at Carlton Fisk's memorable extra-inning home run in Game 6 1975, when his hand gestures seemingly willed the ball fair, Angell extolled "Naivete - the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball."

 

Angell's gift has been to connect with players in the same human way.  "They were dying to talk if they trusted you," he told Chris Haft of mlb.com.

 

I recall a piece in which the almost-patrician-looking Fisk opened up with critiques of his fellow catchers.  It prompted Angell to write that catchers carp about each other just like writers.  

 

So all hail to Roger Angell as he enters his 101st year and deserving of all the plaudits that have come his way, including his 2014 election into a honored place at the Cooperstown Hall of Fame plus the warm birthday encomiums this week from fellow Hall of Fame writer Peter Gammons and the Wall Street Journal's Jason Gay.  

 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

This strange baseball season ends a week from tomorrow (Sunday September 27). 16 of the 30 teams will be eligible for a post-season scheduled to end before the end of October.  The league divisional, championship, and World Series will be held in "bubbles" in Southern California and Texas. 

 

So far the "bubbles" have worked without much new infection for hockey and basketball.

I guess I'm glad that the games are going on even without fans.  I'm a rooter at heart and I miss my college basketball and football teams at Columbia and Wisconsin, and especially Columbia baseball.

 

In a complex world, I've had to deal for almost 30 years with no baseball at Wisconsin, the only Big Ten (or to be exact Big 14) school without baseball.  Football returns at end of October to the Big Ten, a reversal of earlier decision to postpone until the spring.  

 

"Political pressure, money, and threatened lawsuits" had nothing to do with the decision, said Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro.  If you believe this, I have a Brooklyn bridge - choice of three - to sell you. 

Don't want to end on a sarcastic note.  So here's to sustained good health and good spirits to face what a headmaster friend of mine has aptly defined as our "volatile and ambiguous future."   

 

Always remember: Take it easy but take it!

 

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Remembering Tom Seaver (1945-2020)

There is too much cruel coincidence happening in the world these days. On August 28 Jackie Robinson Day turns out to be the day that actor Chadwick Boseman, 43, who played Robinson in the movie "42," died after a long secret battle with colon cancer.  (To keep his memory vividly alive, check out the YouTube video of Boseman's 2018 Howard University commencement speech). 

 

Then, a few days later on Wednesday Sept 2, moments after sitting in on a fascinating Zoom New York Giants Preservation Society interview with Fresno-based baseball writer Dan Taylor, word comes that Fresno native Tom Seaver, 75, had died after a long illness. 

 
It was in Fresno where Seaver grew up. After a nondescript high school baseball career, he enlisted in a six-month program in the Marines where he grew into his powerful body.

 

He enrolled at Fresno City College where his coach Len Bourdet, a veteran of Iwo Jima and still alive at 94, exclaimed, "He went in as a boy and came back as a man." Another Marine, Seaver's first Mets manager Gil Hodges, loomed as another great influence on him. 

 

(Many thanks to Dan Taylor for these insights - his book on the late great baseball scout George Genovese "A Scout's Report" is required reading for anyone who wants to understand baseball.) 

 
I didn't live in New York when Seaver rocketed to fame as the Mets' 24-year-old 25-game winner for the world champion 1969 Mets. But who didn't know about "Tom Terrific"? He was a crossover star writ large.  Even my mother and most non-baseball-loving mothers knew about Seaver.  

 
So I was thrilled in 1983 to get the assignment of working with him on the instructional book "The Art of Pitching".  I appreciate that Tyler Kepner quoted from it in his warm appreciation in the Sept 4 print NY Times (still available on nytimes.com)

 

1983 was the year Seaver came back to the Mets from the Cincinnati Reds where he had been traded in 1977.  Free agency had arrived in baseball after the 1976 season, and Met management didn't want to re-sign Seaver because . . . well, poor decisions by Mets management haven't changed much over the years. 

 
At 38, Seaver knew he was in the latter stages of his career but he still exuded professional pride and cared deeply about playing the game the right way. I also learned quickly that he could also be a world-class needler.  

 
The best example happened on a freezing late April night at Shea Stadium. Seaver was pitching in shirt sleeves - if his uni top were a buttoned variety (and not a grotesque polyester pullover), the top button would have been opened, his longtime homage to Willie Mays. 

 
In the stands behind home plate, yours truly was dressed for the Arctic - heavy winter coat, thick scarf, and knitted cap pulled down over most of my face. 

 
Seaver wound up throwing a three-hit shutout and I congratulated him after the game.  "I saw you," he said. "You looked like Nanook of Israel." Nanook was my nickname from then on.

 
I have another fond early memory from working on the book in spring training.  He rented a lovely beach house on the ocean near St. Petersburg. One afternoon he took me on a drive to a building I must see near Clearwater Beach. "It may be the largest structure in the world," he said.  

 
I was indeed impressed because it was two blocks long and two blocks wide.  Finding out the location of that house has become a kind of Rosebud sled for me.  If anyone knows, please use the contact form on this website. (And BTW I'm interested in who Sweet-Lou is who entered a wonderful comment on my last blog.)

 

Like most baseball fans, I was shocked when the Mets didn't protect him in the professional free agent compensation draft in the winter of 1983. There again Mets management shooting  itself in the leg.  

 
So Seaver wound up with the White Sox where he pitched creditably in 1984 and 1985. Which leads me to my last memorable experience with #41. 

 
I covered Phil Rizzuto Day in August 1985 for WBAI Radio at Yankee Stadium. It turned out to be Tom Seaver's 300th MLB victory - he earned it on his first try, another sign of his greatness under pressure.  

 
After the game I talked briefly to Tom's father, Charles Seaver, a great golfer in his day who also played football and basketball at Stanford. I saw first-hand that the athletic genes and love of competition ran deeply in the Seaver family.  

 
So did the love of art and architecture. Seaver's late brother, also named Charles, was a sculptor. And Tom often went to museums on the road, occasionally corralling a teammate or two to join him.  

 
I just read a wonderful reminiscence on line from a neighbor near the winery in Calistoga where he spent his happiest years after baseball as the proprietor of GTS Vineyards.  To his friends in northern California, he was simply "Tom who used to play baseball."  

 
I am glad that his suffering is over but he will certainly be missed. George Thomas Seaver will certainly not be forgotten. Though he took great pride in these numbers, he was far more than 311-205 .winning percentage .603, and remarkable walk-strikeout ratio 1390-3640.  

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