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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Of trotters, artichokes and publicists

“You have to look at it this way. In 1959, the Giants and Dodgers were gone to California. There were no Jets, no Titans. The hockey and basketball seasons were much shorter. Most people thought the thoroughbred season in Saratoga was only for the rich. There were dog days then.”

—Joe Goldstein to George Vecsey,
Vecsey’s NY Times column, July 22, 1988

Roosevelt Raceway was a shopping mall and Yonkers Raceway was more noted for holding a flea market in its parking lot in my youth. So though the Golden Age of harness racing has long gone, it is with saddness that we read the news of Joe Goldstein’s passing last week. The New York sports publicist was 81.

According to his obits, Goldstein promoted Madison Square Garden basketball and the New York City Marathon, among many other events and sports. But he was most noted for promoting harness racing, including touting a totter that came from France in 1959 that loved artichokes — he took out newspaper ads urging fans to send them to the track. The presumably satiated horse won in front of nearly 46,000 people.

Of course, it’s a changed world now. Publicity might have always been about spin, but being “on message” is different now, and while the good thing is that coverage is more critical and questioning, the bad thing is our sense of fun is gone, or at least replaced with a sense of snark. That’s not always a horrible thing, and God knows my cynicism sits with me at my desk next to my bitter cup of coffee. But there are no bloggers or commenters on, if you will, “the artichoke beat”  at The Big Lead or Deadspin — as with Joe Hirsch, neither blog noted Goldstein’s passing, nor why would they? Following the Ponies, either at the flat track or at the trotters, ain’t a sport built for this generation the way it once was.

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Track: dark

Joe Hirsch, dean of turf writers and the last icon of a dying breed of sportswriter, died earlier this month.

Hirsch covered The Ponies for more than 50 years before retiring in 2003. It’s unlikely any racing writer will ever again achieve the stature he did. The falling amount of writers covering horse racing has outpaced even the decline of professional sportswriters (and the decline of sportswriting in general).

Hirsch had the respect of the industry, the fans, and other sportswriters, at least those from my generation and older. Sadly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sports fan younger than 30 who knew who knew who he was. In the world of writing and reading about sports, the DNR order is in for newspapers (and the big-city columnists who write for them) — the blogs have inherited their earth.

He was a link who could remember the days of Toots Shor’s — when sportswriters and athletes converged in a nostalgic heyday devoid of the flaccid, pedestrian sameness of today’s hangouts but by the mid-1960s had become somewhat fossilized in a rapidly changing city — through the evolving culture of free agency, superstars, and drugs of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, and on to the ongoing drama of the last 20 years of sports as the land of the modern sheltered, pampered, and inaccessible athlete. He might not have been the most critical writer, but his life and career bridged those eras to the dying days of print.

Hirsch quit writing before the sports blogs got big — in fact, two of the biggest, The Big Lead and Deadspin, failed to note his passing. As may well be appropriate — at least in the world of reading about sports (i.e., apart from watching sycophantic television coverage on ESPN and the networks), the blogs have largely supplanted the columnists for fans under 30 (and probably under 40).

Hirsch’s life story was also notable for having palled around and roomed in New York with Joe Namath. Mark Kriegel, in his biography of Namath, recalls the pair’s first meeting, when the young quarterback was still at Alabama:

Hirsch knew horses, not college football players. The bartender had to point out Joe. They had a drink, then Hirsch lent him a sports jacket and took him to a first-class dinner. “I suppose you’re majoring in basket-weaving,” he said.

“Nah, that class was all filled up,” the kid replied. “But I found an even easier one — journalism.”

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The Sport of CEOs

Well, I guess it turned out that Triumph the Insult Comic Dog had as good a chance of winning the Belmont as Big Brown.

Don’t weep for Big Brown and his owners, though. They’ll make a killing in stud fees. And that’s the problem — horses are bred and trained for their retirement years (after age 3), rather than for winning. Sure, they need to win the big races to command big stud fees, but the syndicates and conglomerates that own the Sport of Kings these days proudly operate like owners of mutual funds. That attitude, protecting your investment (protecting your brand, as the business-types say) has infected the entire sport for too long. It’s not about winning. It’s all about the money. That’s why we’re likely to never see a Triple Crown winner again.


Betting Big Brown and Bathrooms at Belmont

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this important post about Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. For what seems to be like the 10th time this decade, a horse enters the race having won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in the last few weeks and has a real shot at winning the elusive Triple Crown. No horse has done that since Affirmed in 1978.

As a track veteran — I remember selling back some freshman textbooks in my second weekend of my first year of college to scrap up $50 to go to Belmont, but they were math textbooks, and I wasn’t getting no “A” in calculus as an English major, anyways — I want to share the advice that has given me, like, three winning days in 17 years of track visits.

I was part of a group of friends camped out at the top of the stretch in 2004, a perfect spot among a record 120,139 gamblers in Elmont to watch Birdstone overtake Smarty Jones down the stretch and spoil the most recent Triple Crown bid. I had money on the Philadelphia favorite Smarty, but I also had maybe $10 on Birdstone to win, and wound up heading back to Mrs. Icepick in Midtown with a waking hangover and a couple of hundred in “blood money” at something like 36-1 odds, as I recall. (Digression No. 1: It’s hazy how much I won, and I can’t believe I went home with $360, so maybe it was a $5 win ticket and I won $180, but it was still a decent haul. Karma still has me paying for that, because I haven’t had a winning day at the track since, though I won again with Birdstone in the Travers later that year, though not enough at 9-2 odds to make up for the rest of that Saturday in Saratoga. But I digress.)

If you’re determined to beat the crowds, if not the house, on Saturday, here’s some free tips:

  1. Plan your bathroom breaks and your visits to the teller windows. The lines for both grow increasingly longer as the day drags on. I wouldn’t attempt to visit either within three races of the Stakes race.
  2. Don’t wear open-toe shoes if you plan to use the restrooms, especially if you’re a woman and, in desperation, need to use the men’s room. Trust me on this one. And don’t go passing out in the restrooms, either. Bad scene. Think sloshed, both the patrons and the viscous layer on the floor.
  3. If you’re bleeding and in need of first aid, the nurses station is top-notch, though it’s in a subterranean alcove underneath the huge grandstand, near the jockey room. They’re awfully nice down there. Trust me on this one, too.
    (Digression No. 2: On my way back after visiting said nurses station in 2004, President Reagan’s death was announced over the loudspeakers. Strange coincidence that such an icon of my ’80s youth died while I was stumbling through the hallowed halls of Belmont. But I digress.)
  4. Don’t even attempt to drive there, unless you plan on arriving around 6 a.m. There was a special Belmont/drunk train from Penn Station the last time I went. Plan accordingly. It took us quite a while to get out of the track at the end of the day, as I remember, too.
  5. I have only one bit gambling advice: bet on overwhelming favorite Big Brown to place, not win. Modern horses are bred to stud these days, not for the grueling and increasing distances of the Triple Crown, especially the 1½ miles of the Belmont Stakes. There’s no reason to think any differently this year. Remember, it’s only happened 11 times in 88 years (of course, with my luck and reverse psychology, I just handed the Triple Crown to Big Brown). Many of today’s sportswriters can still remember three horses pulling off the feat in the ’70s, so it’s no wonder they can be a bit nostalgic.
  6. Anyway, with 10 horses in the field and Big Brown at 2-5 odds and on the inside post, you’re not making shit picking him to win, or with him on top of any exotics. So wheel him in the No. 2 slot with an exacta for $2, which will cost you $18, and enjoy the show. You still won’t make much money, but you’re a lock (in my book) for cashing a winner. And who doesn’t love a winner?