RIP Vic Ziegel

Good-bye to one of my favorites from my formative sports-reading and sportswriting years, Vic Ziegel of the New York Daily News.

“The Long Island Press no longer exists. (So what else is new?) When I was still in college, I showed up at the Press several nights a week – eight splendid bucks a night – to take high school basketball results over the phone and write a few paragraphs of roundup, nothing too fancy.

“There were about a half-dozen of us living in this fast lane. One night, much like all the other nights, the scores starting running together. And to keep awake, and because I’m a cunning, vicious SOB, I urged my fellow eight-buckers to repeat the same phrase in the lead of our basketball roundups. The next day, on the high school page of the Long Island Press, in a half-dozen league stories, and another on non-conference games, it was reported that Chuck Lastname or Danny Lastname or Gerry Lastname led his team to victory by ‘performing yeoman work under the boards.’

“Seven times, yeoman work under the boards. And I was back the next night, accepting congratulations, another eight bucks heading my way. What did I learn? That you can get away with a few things in this world. That nobody cares what kind of work you do if you work cheap. That if I ever fell off a roof and landed on my head I could still edit stories about high school sports for the Long Island Press. That people would laugh when I repeated the story.

“Very seductive, the sound of laughter. And so I discovered, in my yeoman period, that if I wanted to continue hearing the pleasing sound of laughter, I could keep writing sports. At least until I discovered what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Nothing seems to have changed. I can still be found in the sports section, still trying to earn a smile. Makes me think, nights in Pittsburgh, Louisville, the Iona-Siena game, that maybe I did fall off that roof.”

—Introduction to Ziegel’s Sunday Punch: Strawberries, Raspberries, Steinbrenners and Tysons – A Famed Sports Columnist Takes His Best Shot at Sports’ Big Shots, 1991

(h/t to evesmag.com; I have this book buried somewhere in my attic, and damned it I can’t find it, though I can recall the “yeoman work under the boards” line as if I read it yesterday. I never had the gumption to try that prank when I was writing high school wrap-ups. Thanks to evesmag for saving the story online.

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Houston (Astros), we have a problem

Unfortunately, that problem for the Tri-City ValleyCats may be Houston itself.

(And we interrupt the regular programming of baseball-related Mets posts for this post about the New York-Penn League team nearest my home.)

The ValleyCats have had three winning season in their eight full years in the New York-Penn League, all them as a Houston Astros affiliate. They haven’t finished above .500 since 2006, the last time they made the league playoffs. They’re off to a rough start this season, posting a 9-13 record so far, including a three-game streak to end June where they failed to score a run.

Yes, I realize this is a developmental league we’re talking about, short-season at that. It is at about the fifth level down from The Show.

Still, none of that has hurt at the gate for the ball team in Troy, N.Y. Judging by the team’s attendance figures, losing hasn’t created cobwebs at the turnstiles. Tri-City, established in 2002, has broken its own attendance record in each of the last six years, and is currently ranked in the top half of the league in terms of average attendance.

I remember covering the Hudson Valley Renegades as a full-time sportswriter more than a decade ago, and that team drew fewer average fans to their playoff games than to their regular-season games. The reason, at least in my mind? The playoffs occurred after Labor Day, when the kids were back in school and the fickle local fans were no longer looking for summer entertainment (summer having unofficially ended by then). I’m certain that would be the same case in any New York-Penn League town.

Which leads me this next point: The ValleyCats’ on-field woes hasn’t — in the least — hurt the off-field product of entertainment for the fans. The Tri-City fan presentation is top-notch. In fact, it is a shame they’re not drawing more — we went to two Sunday twilight games in the first two weeks of the season, and the stands were half-filled, at best. The Tri-City package hits just the right mix of fan and kid-friendly fun, without being overbearing (meanwhile, I felt Hudson Valley was a little bit too much, at least the last time I went several years ago to the NY-Penn League team in Fishkill. Any team that promotes the marriage of two of its four (count ’em, four) mascots is a bit much, no?)

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Better than perfect

In the midst of occasional blogging here on generational issues, I’ve been sort-of moonlighting with some baseball blogging. Here’s my shameless plug take on Wednesday’s would-be perfect game by Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga:

Better than perfect

The actions of Armando Galarraga, of umpire Jim Joyce, of manager Jim Leyland, even of baserunner Jason Donald have provided us with sorely needed examples of grace and class in these insolent times. That’s what they gave us rather than a perfect game. That’s what we need as a society right now. That’s better than perfect.

Or read the full post here:…

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The neighborhood in the Citi

NY Times photoBeyond the obvious reasons of the on-field product producing soul-crushing five-game losing streaks, three-strikeout performances by their franchise third baseman, and expensive tickets made more expensive by surcharges and fees, I wonder if the problem of declining attendance at Citi Field is ingrained in some sort of original sin that was masked by lovable Shea Stadium, but has been laid bare by the not-quite-yet-beloved new Mets park.

Shea was indeed lovable, in some ways in spite of itself. Author and professor Dana Brand wrote a book that fondly remembered The Last Days of Shea. But as most Mets fans would admit, and as even Dr. Brand put it: “The line you often hear from Mets fans is ‘It’s a dump, but it’s our dump.'” It’s one of the many things I genuinely love about Mets fans over Yankee fans. Mets fans lost their oft-derided stadium (even oft-derided among themselves), and they still mourn it. It was built on land that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s forsaken Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby. Yankee fans, meanwhile, lost a palace with an unmatched history of championships (albeit one with a ’70s disco make-over) and replaced it with a gray gaudy mall — and Yankee fans hardly shed a tear for the old place (except when bidding up pieces of it at Steiner’s Sports). There’s no similar poetry devoted to the final days of old Yankee Stadium, not in the same vein as in the book by Brand, who obviously speaks for a lot of Mets fans. It’s like the Yankees brass (with the help of The City) plowed over a community park to drop an exclusive baseball version of the Palisades Center into the South Bronx, and Yankee fans loved them for it, even if that mall hardly loves them back.

That said, could the Mets’ attendance problem lie in the real estate agent’s refrain of Location, Location, Location?

Michael Shapiro touched on Flushing in the epilogue of his 2003 book about the last days of the Dodgers era in Brooklyn, The Last Good Season. Shapiro’s book was cited recently in a New York Times-led discussion about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in response to a question about Moses and the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn.

Shapiro writes:

“There is talk about tearing the place (Shea) down and building a replacement in the parking lot. The new park would be called Jackie Robinson Stadium. It would, if it is ever built, have a retractable roof but otherwise look like a replica of Ebbets Field.”

OK, so prescience isn’t perfect for authors — A roof? Um, no (thank God). And Jackie Robinson got the rotunda, but not the naming rights to the entire place. But Shapiro was close enough (the book was published three years before they broke ground on the new field). He continues:

“The stadium, however, would sit at the confluence of highways, not city streets, which runs contrary to the idea of what Ebbets Field represented. It is an idea that other planners have incorporated in the new parks in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and other cities that had built and then torn down parks like Shea. It is the reason Chicagoans fill Wrigley Field even when the Cubs are dreadful. Ebbets Field was a city ballpark, a ballpark to which people could walk. They could pass it on their way to work, and hear the noise from inside when they were heading someplace else. It sat in the middle of a place where many people lived.”

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Bring back Wright’s big helmet

David Wright took a lot of grief last year after he came back from a beaning wearing a newly designed, though unfortunately odd-looking, helmet for a game or two. The helmet offered additional skull protection, but the ribbing Wright took, even from his teammates, helped lead him to return to his “regular” helmet.

Unfortunately, he did not return to his regular batting prowess, a trend that’s continued this season as he’s amassed an astounding 55 strikeouts in 40 games, nearly a quarter of a season.

I don’t care how ridiculous it looks: David Wright should bring back the “Great Gazoo” helmet. What looks more ridiculous, that helmet or three strikeouts including one in the top of the ninth inning with one out and the go-ahead run on third — and then throwing a weak grounder away to allow the winning run to score?

Wright is a head case right now, and looks lost and perhaps more than a little scared at the plate. Maybe a little protection for his noggin, and more importantly the confidence that could bring, may help him. What could hurt at this point?

I’ll give you a personal example. When I played adult hockey, wearing all my gear, I felt a lot more confident, even with slapshots flying off my pads blocking shots from the point (or accidentally blocking shots from my own teammates while camped out in the slot — I didn’t say I was very good at hockey), than I do playing infield at softball, wearing nothing for protection but an undersized glove and a cap to keep the sun out of my eyes.

The secret is out among the league’s pitchers, especially righties, in facing Wright — throw something inside and high early in the count, watch Wright flinch and get uncomfortable, and then strike him out on nearly anything else you want to offer him.

Wright needs some confidence at the plate, confidence that can come with a little added protection above his shoulders. His needling teammates should STFU about how silly the helmet may look, and the Mets pitchers should drill any opponent who ridicules their teammate for wearing the helmet.

At this point, again, what could it hurt?

Either that, or he ought to read my toddler son’s favorite sports book — Leonard Kessler’s classic Here Comes the Strikeout.

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Originally published May 18, 2010, 10:53 p.m., at my occasional baseball blog, Clutch Bingles.


Indiana Jones and the Temple of Mets

Meet your Action Hero Mets.

In The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, Buster Olney wrote of David Cone: “His games often played out like action movies, with Cone in the starring role, scraping through one crisis or another, improvising and usually succeeding.”

So it has been with the Mets for two exciting weeks.

One fun, if nail-biting, aspect about this two-week stretch of winning for the Mets has been their propensity to court danger and then, like Indy himself, just scrape out of the way of the giant rolling boulder, the Flying Wing propeller, or the 2-out 4-run rally by the opposing team.

The Mets might not have been taking the beatings that Bruce Willis’ character did in the Die Hard movies, but like the erstwhile Detective McClane, they keep slipping out of tricky situations by the skin of their teeth (or, as the case was in some of those Die Hard flicks, the skin of their skin, but I digress).

It happened last night, with wall-banging catches by Jeff Francoeur and Jason Bay saving the day for Jonathan Niese in the second inning. Niese escaped that inning and went on to pitch brilliantly until leaving after 7 innings.

It happened Sunday, when Mike Pelfrey received a timely double-play in the third and the Mets received an even timlier downpour to take a rain-shortened victory over the Braves.

And it happened at seemingly various times with K-Rod, who, apart from his 5-out save last week against the Cubs, has not seemed to have full control of his stuff, but has nevertheless managed to escape some precarious 9th innings (if not a game-re-tying 19th inning).

Through it all, the Mets have won 11 of 13, including telling Tony LaRussa (way more smarmy than Hans Gruber) “Yippee Ki-Yay” and winning that 20-inning affair in St. Louis that still managed to drag less (and seemed to last shorter) than last summer’s 20-years-in-the-making but ultimately disappointing entry in the Indiana Jones franchise.

Sure, the heroes have had some help. Like any good action flick, the foes have bumbled just enough (excepting for exceptional thief Hans Gruber) to let the meddling kids, er, heroes eke through.

Like Indy climbing to the top of a dangling chopped-in-half rope bridge, or Det. McClane tying a fire hose around his waist to escape the exploding 40th floor, the Mets have been the ones standing on top when the final credits roll.

Cue the Raiders March.

Originally published May 1, 2010, 1:10 a.m. at my occasional baseball blog, Clutch Bingles.