Friday, August 31, 2018

Happy 73rd, Van Morrison!

It's late, and given the time difference between here and Ireland (if that's where he's been celebrating his birthday) this may be a belated wish. Still, I think he'll forgive me, if I express another debt of gratitude for all that his music has done for me since that afternoon in Cambridge, Massachusetts in early September of 1967, when, while savoring my first roast beef with Russian dressing on a bulkie roll (a Boston specialty which I, a newly expat Floridian, had never tried before), I heard "Brown Eyed Girl" on the jukebox.

I've been noting his birthday here for some years, and have always featured clips of him singing his own songs. This year, I'm breaking with that tradition:

Yes, at 72 he had the confidence to cover a Sam Cooke classic, and to do it well.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was the greatest American composer, conductor, and musician of the second half of the twentieth century. The centenary of his birth was on Saturday.

Below is a clip of "Wrong Note Rag" from Wonderful Town (1953), a tribute to my adopted city, music by Bernstein with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It features a duet between Audra McDonald and Kim Criswell, backed by European Voices with Simon Halsey as Chorus Master, and the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

Photo: By Unknown photographer (eBay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Mets make it above the Times fold, twice!

For years I've been annoyed (not paranoid, but real annoyed, to quote the late Mickey Fletcher) by the Gray Lady's sports scribes' unconcealed belief that the Bronx Bullies rightfully rule the Tri-State Area, and that the Mets, successors to my first love in baseball, the Brooklyn Dodgers, are mere interlopers, worthy only of scorn and relegated to the bottom of the page, "below the fold."

In truth (a notion that still holds water, I hope) the Yanks have won more games, and more rings, than have the Mets in the 56 years that the Mets have existed. Still, the Mets can claim two spectacular World Series victories. The first was in 1969, when they emerged from six years of expansion team hopelessness to amaze (the sobriquet "Amazins" was given by their manager, Casey Stengel, during their maiden, 1962, season for their sometimes mystifying ineptitude) the baseball world with a march to the pennant over the division rival Cubs (featuring the black cat game), and the Braves, followed by a Series victory over the favored Orioles. That victory was credited by some with saving the mayoralty of John Lindsay.

The second came in 1986, when a team that had steadily improved from their 1981 season low point of 41-62 to win 108 regular season games prevailed over a strong NLCS challenge from the Astros, whose pitcher, Mike Scott, was known for his deadly split-finger fastball. Scott was on the mound against the Mets for the opening game on a Wednesday afternoon, so I asked Terri, my secretary, to cover for me while I played hooky to watch the game at the Lion's Head. There were a few stalwarts at the bar, including Frank McCourt, who became a baseball fan that afternoon. When I arrived, I think around the fourth inning, the game was still scoreless and Scott was on the mound. Everyone was quiet. Scott finished the inning and Mets ace Dwight Gooden took the mound. Gooden kept the Houston bats silent, and as Scott retook the mound I decided to check in with the office on the Head's pay phone (remember those?). Terri told me that Bruce, the General Counsel of our company's parent company, had left a message for me to call. As the bar was still quiet, I asked her to patch me through to Bruce. As I was answering his question, a Mets batter ripped a single off Scott, and the bar erupted in cheers. "Are you in the building?" Bruce asked sharply. "No," I replied flatly. I was able to finish answering his earlier question to his satisfaction, so we ended our conversation. The Mets went on to lose that game 1-0, but won their series with the Astros 4-2, which advanced them to the World Series for the third time in their then relatively short history.

The 1986 World Series pitted the Mets against the Yanks' archrivals, the Boston Red Sox, who, after five games had a 3-2 Series lead. Game six was do-or-die for the Mets, and I was watching it at home, alone. The game went into extra innings, and in the top of the eleventh the Sox scored twice. The Mets scored once in the bottom, but there were two outs and I figured the Sox had it in the bag. I decided to go to a bar a few blocks away where I knew my friend Bill, a bank employee known as "Bill the Singer" because he was part of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, would be. Bill was a Springfield, Massachusetts native and, ipso facto, a Red Sox fan, and I thought to congratulate him. Walking to the bar, I heard a commotion coming from a second floor apartment. I later learned that this was when the Sox closer, Bob Stanley, had allowed the tying run to score on a wild pitch. When I got to the bar, I saw lots of people jumping up and down, cheering, and clapping, while Bill stood stock still, his face ashen. "What happened?" I asked him, and he gestured at the TV screen just as it showed a replay of Mookie Wilson's grounder skittering between the legs of Sox first baseman Bill Buckner. This error, which would cloud Buckner's otherwise exemplary career. allowed in the winning run and forced game seven, which the Mets won.

I wish I could forget the Mets' next Series, in 2000, which was a dream setup for them: a "Subway Series" against the Yankees. At last, a chance to erase the second place stigma. It wasn't to be. The Yanks made fairly short work of it, winning four games to one. Game two will always be remembered for the broken bat incident, in which the Mets' Mike Piazza broke his bat fouling a pitch from the Sox pitcher Roger Clemens. The barrel of the bat flew toward Clemens, who grabbed it and flung it toward the first base line, where it almost hit Piazza:

The Mets began this season looking like a reincarnation of the 1986 team. Through most of April, they had the best record in the Majors. Around the end of that month, a reporter suggested that they only needed to play .500 ball for the rest of the season to have a record that would qualify for the post-season. Come May, though, they underwent a Kafkaesque metamorphosis into a simulacrum of the hapless 1962 Mets, who were chronicled masterfully by the late Jimmy Breslin in Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? June was particularly grim, with the Mets posting a 5-21 record and sending them to the bottom of the NL East standings. Injuries, as usual, played a role. Why do the Mets seem unusually injury-prone? I don't know, but I speculated here.

Come July and continuing through this month, though, things began to turn around for the Mets. Friday's Times had a teaser on the top of the Business/Sports section: "Mets on the Upswing?" The story on page 9, by Jay Schreiber, had the headline, "Surprise! The Mets Might Actually Be Getting Better", but by today in the on-line edition it had been changed to "The Mets Are Back to .500 (Just Throw Out the First Half of the Season)". Trust the Times to edit away anything that sounds too enthusiastic about the Mets. In his piece, Schreiber notes some encouraging news, including some good performances by young players and outstanding pitching by Jacob deGrom, despite a 3-1 loss to the Giants in Thursday's game. Wonder of wonders, the story began above the fold. To be fair, the Yanks hadn't played on Thursday, and there was no news about them, nor an exciting shuffleboard tournament, to force the Mets story down.

On Friday the Mets began a three game series at home against the Nationals, pre-season favorites to win the division, with a 3-0 victory. The Times didn't cover the game, but picked up the A.P. story. Once again it was above the fold, though it was squeezed to the right by a longer piece, by the Times' Billy Witz, about the Yanks' come from behind 7-5 win over the struggling Orioles. Saturday brought another Mets win over the Nats, which featured a strong performance by starter Zach Wheeler and put them two games over .500 for the season's second half. Did this keep them above the fold? No. The Times again ran the A.P. piece on the Mets, and buried it under Witz's account of the Yanks' sweeping a doubleheader from the Orioles.

Today the Mets reverted to disastrous form and lost to the Nats 15-0. At least they managed to avoid any serious injuries. Meanwhile, the Yanks completed their sweep of the Orioles with a 5-3 victory. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the Times. 

Tomorrow the Mets begin a three game series against the Cubs in Chicago, where they will face Daniel Murphy, who was traded by the Nats a few days ago. We'll get to see if the curse of the ex-Met continues to be effective.