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Gordie and Ali

Two sports legends died last week.  Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, and The Greatest, Muhammad Ali.  The loss of these men reminded me that it’s been many years since I’ve been passionate about a sporting event.  The modern business of professional sports has, for me, lessened the excitement of following groups of men who were heroes to so many of us.  I can no longer kneel in front of a television set, my fists balled as I begged an unknown power for a hit in the bottom of the ninth, or a goal with less than a minute remaining.  So much has changed.

Just last week, while I was perusing the sports pages, I noticed a story about how Carlos Beltran at age 39 is carrying the Yankees.  Most of the other players are not hitting, but Beltran seems to be having a career year.  Will he continue to hit well enough as the season progresses?  Maybe, but rather than concentrating on how this might help the Yankees rise out of the doldrums and maybe make a run for another playoff spot, the story’s spin was “which contender will he be traded to so that he can have a shot at a world series ring before he retires?”  Business as usual these days.

I remember watching Gordie Howe and Muhammad Ali, two of the best at what they did.  I remember wishing I could someday meet them.  I never thought about getting an autograph, I just wanted to meet them, to say hello.  I was in Montclair New Jersey one Friday evening a few years ago.  We had just finished dinner with friends in a local restaurant and were walking back to the car.  We passed a different restaurant with floor to ceiling windows and I did a double take.  Yogi Berra was sitting at a table with his wife and another couple. I was in awe right there on the sidewalk in Montclair.  The sports legend that I had most wanted to meet, to just say hello to and shake his hand, and he was sitting there behind a window just five feet away.  Images flashed across my mind.  Number eight with his back to home plate looking up at Bill Mazerowski’s home run ball in Pittsburgh.  His jumping up and down, arguing with the umpire about the safe call just after Jackie Robinson slid into home plate.  Running toward the mound and jumping into Don Larsen’s arms after Dale Mitchel struck out to end the perfect game.  I wanted a tiny share of all of that.  I wanted to shake his hand.  But I couldn’t bring myself to bother him while he was at dinner, and I couldn’t bring myself to ambush him as he left the restaurant. I walked away.

I think back to the differences of my youth.  In the 1960s, I watched the Yankees go from best to worst, and I watched the Mets as they went from worst to best.  But despite the outcomes, there was a much greater sense of loyalty. both in the players and in the organizations themselves.  Yes, baseball was a business — of a different kind then — but at the very least you could root for a group of players you knew, not just a uniform.  Last week Beltran had 11 RBIs and 3 home runs.  He was cheered.  If he’s traded to Boston and he comes back to Yankee Stadium will he be cheered then as the balls fly off of his bat?  We know the answer.  We’re cheering for the uniform.

I grew up in tumultuous times.  (An argument can possibly be made that those times were certainly less turbulent than now, but that argument is for another day)  I saw the cold war, the Berlin wall, the Cuban missile crisis, and, of course, Viet Nam.  I traveled from Staten Island to high school in Brooklyn, I was sometimes lucky enough to pick up a Daily News or New York Post that a commuter had left behind as I left the 6:30 ferry boat in Manhattan.  I ran to the subway with that treasure tucked under my arm, my school bag in one hand and a token in the other.  Despite the powerful headlines of the day, the moment I sat on the train I turned the paper over and opened it from the back, the sports pages.  Back then, sports was everything.

I had a job in Manhattan after school.  I clearly remember the day in October of 1969 as I came out of the subway near Broad Street.  There was a television set in a window, maybe a bank’s window.  It was so crowded on the sidewalk that I could barely see Cleon Jones squeeze the lazy high fly to left field.  The next moment — pandemonium!  Someone popped open a bottle of champaign and sprayed the jubilant crowd.  Strangers hugged each other and I went off to work with a huge smile and the faint sour odor of champaign on my shirt.  The Mets had won the World Series. Seven years earlier it had been great fun to laugh along as they lost 120 games, their roster included Marvelous Marv Thronberry, Choo Choo Coleman, Wilmer Vinegar Bend Mizell.  There were two Bob Millers, both pitchers, and of course, the link to the 1969 team, Ed Kranepool.

I met Ed Kranepool not long after the 1969 World Series.  He spoke at a sports night at our local church. He was a kind, friendly man.  He even let me wear his world series ring for a moment.   I don’t remember the substance of the conversation, it was mostly small talk and it didn’t last long as he had to go on stage in a few moments.  I wasn’t really in awe, but I had a tremendous respect for him during our short talk.  He spoke to me as if he were just someone I knew peripherally in the neighborhood, not a star, not a hero.  And I was just a kid, but he spoke to me.  It was a good experience.

Ed Kranepool retired about ten years later after the 1979 season.  He spent his entire career with the Mets.  It’s unlikely that we will see many more players that will have that allegiance to a team or a team that will have that allegiance to a player.  But it’s not only the loyalty that’s missing, but the approachability.  A friend once told me that in the mid sixties, Tom Seaver lived on his block and would occasionally stop to chat as he walked by.  Bobby Thompson used to take the Staten Island Ferry and the subway to the Polo Grounds.  I once called out “Hi, Major,” to Ralph Houk as he entered Yankee Stadium.  He turned toward me and smiled as he saluted. Today’s players are so inaccessible that I don’t even know what many of them look like any more.  So much has changed.