Results tagged ‘ Hartford Courant ’

Politics does not belong in 9/11

For Bobby Valentine to politicize Sept.11, 2001 is amazingly in awful taste. The greatest single tragedy in the history of New York City should not be something that somehow got thrown into the Yankees-Mets rivalry.

Valentine’s comments on WFAN Radio Wednesday, the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, had absolutely no basis in fact. His suggestion that the Yankees were derelict in devoting time and funds to the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the destruction of the Twin Towers was astoundingly off-base.

I covered that story on a daily basis during that time when I was the national baseball columnist for the Hartford Courant and was well aware of what representatives of both clubs did to show their support of the recovery efforts. There is no question that Valentine, then the manager of the Mets, flung himself into those efforts.

The parking lot at Shea Stadium was set up as a supply station immediately after the attacks because the Mets were out of town. Valentine and many Mets players, including current Yankees broadcaster Al Leiter, spent hours of their own time loading and unloading supplies from and on to trucks. And it was Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez who came up with the idea of wearing hats bearing logos of the New York Police Department, Fire Department and Emergency Services.

I was also at Shea the night baseball was first played after the attacks and watched one of the most moving ceremonies before the Mets and the Braves took the field after embracing each other in the center of the diamond. Mike Piazza’s game-winning home run off Atlanta reliever Steve Karsay became one of the game’s most significant moments.

That said, the Yankees certainly did their part as well. I remember Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Roger Clemens, Chuck Knoblauch, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, Jorge Posada and other players visiting firehouses and hospitals all over the city. The Yankees also had an emotional ceremony prior to the first game at Yankee Stadium after the attacks.

Somehow Valentine missed all that. Here is what he said on the radio Wednesday:

“Let it be said that during the time from 9/11 to 9/21, the Yankees were AWOL. You couldn’t find a Yankee on the streets of New York City. You couldn’t find a Yankee down at Ground Zero, talking to the guys who were working 24/7. Many of them didn’t live here, and so it wasn’t their fault. And many of them did not partake in all that, so there was some of that jealousy going around. Like, ‘Why are we so tired? Why are we wasted? Why have we been to the funerals and the firehouses, and the Yankees are getting all the credit for bringing baseball back?’ And I said, ‘This isn’t about credit, guys. This is about doing the right thing.’ ”

How hypocritical. As the Yankees proceeded past the end of the regular season into postseason play all the way to the World Series, they brought attention to New York’s recovery while the Mets’ season was over. We all remember the lump we had in our throats when President Bush threw that strike of a ceremonial first pitch at the Stadium. But it was not about the Yankees any more than it was about the Mets. It was about people of all stripes working together to bind the city’s and the nation’s wounds.

“Bobby Valentine should know better than to point fingers on a day like today,” Yankees president Randy Levine said. “[Sept. 11] is a day of reflection and prayer. The Yankees, as has been well documented, visited Ground Zero, the Armory, the Javits Center, St. Vincent’s Hospital and many other places during that time. We continue to honor the 9/11 victims and responders. On this day, he would have been better to have kept his thoughts to himself rather than seeking credit, which is very sad to me.”

Bob Feller, American legend

There is a great void in baseball now that Bob Feller has left us. He was a Hall of Famer more than half of his life, a distinction for which he took great pride. Somehow, Induction Weekend in Cooperstown will never be the same.

Feller, fallen by leukemia at the age of 92, represented the epitome of the American Dream, the Iowa farm boy who made it to the big leagues before he graduated from high school and became one of the icons of an era depicted so memorably in Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation.”

Of all his accomplishments – and there were many – Feller was most proud of the four years he served in the United States Navy as a gunner on the U.S. Alabama during World War II. It cost him four precious seasons at the height of his pitching career, but he never regretted a single day he devoted to his country.

I remember his appearance at the 1986 New York Baseball Writers Dinner when he did me a huge favor. That year, Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly and Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden were co-winners of our Sid Mercer Award for the player of the year. The original plan was to have Stan Musial present the award to Mattingly and Feller to Gooden.

The day of the dinner, Musial’s plane was re-routed to Albany due to fog in New York that forced the three metro airports to close for several hours. I offered Stan a private car to come down to Manhattan, but he declined. “I don’t know how old you are, Jack, but I’m 65, and three hours in a car is not something I’m comfortable with anymore,” The Man said.

I thanked him and told him he should just go back home. Less than an hour later, I found out that Gooden couldn’t come, either. Just a couple of hours before the dinner, I had lost two marquee attractions. Mattingly and Feller had come to New York the night before, so I knew we still had them. The idea now was to ask “Rapid Robert” to present the award to “Donnie Baseball.”

Prompt as usual, Feller was the first to arrive in the dais room an hour before the dinner. I explained my dilemma and asked him if he would give the award to Mattingly.

“I’d be honored to,” he said. “Just do me two favors. One, write down some of Donnie’s statistics; I know he had a helluva year, but I don’t know the exact numbers. Two, make sure in your introduction of me that you mention my four years’ service in the Navy in World War II. Nothing I have done in my life is more important than that.”

My father and uncle were at a table up front with Anne, Feller’s wife, and got pretty friendly during the dinner. The last award presentation was Mattingly’s, and I introduced Bob with emphasis on his war record. At that point, Anne leaned over to my father and uncle and said, “He made that poor boy say that.”

Several years later, I did a piece in the Hartford Courant on Feller in connection with the Hall of Fame honoring World War II veterans. He had just come home from a tour of Okinawa where he had served in the war. I figured he was suffering from jet lag and suggested we do the interview when he was more rested.

“Come on, O’Connell, let’s do it now; I’ll have plenty of time to rest when my eyes close for good,” he said and spent the next 90 minutes detailing every step of his tour of duty in the Pacific.

Feller was proudest of the fact that he was the first major league player to enter the armed services after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese fleet. Another Hall of Famer, Hank Greenberg, also lay claim to being the first, but Feller said, “I checked it out; I beat Hank by about half an hour.”

Here’s the rub. At the time of Bob’s enlistment, his father had terminal cancer. As the sole support of his family, Bob Feller could have been excused from serving in the war, but he felt it was his duty. Think for a minute what his career statistics would have looked like had Feller not joined the Navy and played in those four seasons from 1942 through ’45.

Considering the shape of many of the war-depleted lineups in the early 1940s, Feller might have had seasons of 30-plus victories. Heck, he might have even challenged Jack Chesbro’s 1904 record of 41 victories. Since Feller had pitched in 44 games in 1941, it is conceivable that a 41-win season might not be out of the question. I have a feeling, however, that Feller would have never been able to live with the asterisk that might have been attached to all those victories against hollow lineups.

He had a tremendous career anyway with three no-hitters, including the only Opening Day no-no in 1940, and 12 one-hitters and a ring from the 1948 World Series, still the most recent championship by the Indians. He remains the greatest player in the history of that franchise, which was a charter member of the American League in 1901.

When he and Jackie Robinson were elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962, they were the first to do so in their first year on the ballot since the original class of 1936: Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.

No one wore his Hall of Fame stature more gallantly. Here are some thoughts on Feller from his Hall teammates:

Bobby Doerr: “Bob was just a regular, solid person. He was the same guy, all the time. He gave his opinions and he said what he thought. He didn’t hedge around anything. He was one of the top pitchers I saw in my time. He was timed at 100 miles per hour, and he had a real good curve ball. You had to always be alert with him. He was a real competitor.”

Gaylord Perry: “I really enjoyed Bob’s company, and hearing his stories about history – from baseball to war and everything else, from out of the cornfields to the major leagues. He did so much for baseball and had so many great stories, particularly about barnstorming and his memories of players like Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige. I was very fond of Bob. I traveled to his Museum in Van Meter to support his Museum. I consider Bob a great American.”

Cal Ripken Jr.: “The passing of Bob Feller is a great loss for the game of baseball. Clearly Bob was one of the greatest pitchers in history, and anyone who knew him understood that he was one of the game’s great personalities as well. That said, baseball didn’t define Bob. His service to our country is something that he was very proud of and something we are all grateful for. Bob lived an incredible life, and he will be missed.”

Nolan Ryan: “I am deeply sorry to hear of the passing of Bob Feller. He was baseball’s top power pitcher of the 1940s and 1950s and was a source of inspiration for all Americans for his service during World War II. He was a true Hall of Famer.”

Dennis Eckersley: “Bob was truly a great American and a great ambassador for the game of baseball.”

Hall of Fame board chairman Jane Forbes Clark: “We are all saddened to hear of the passing of Bob Feller. He represented the National Baseball Hall of Fame longer than any individual in history, as 2011 would have been his 50th year as a Hall of Fame member. No one loved coming back to Cooperstown more than Bob, which he and Anne did often. Bob was a wonderful ambassador for the Hall of Fame, always willing to help the Museum. Watching him pitch just shy of his 91st birthday at the Hall of Fame Classic in Cooperstown will be a memory that we will always treasure. He will always be missed.”

Hall president Jeff Idelson: “The Baseball Hall of Fame has lost an American original – there will never be anyone quite like Bob Feller ever again. He was truly larger than life – baseball’s John Wayne – coming out of the Iowa cornfields to the major leagues at age 17 and then dominating for two decades. Bob loved being a member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame, but he was most proud of his service as a highly decorated soldier in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. He reached the pinnacle of individual achievement in 1962, earning enshrinement in Cooperstown, spending more than half his life as a Hall of Fame member.&nbs
p; He probably flew more miles, signed more autographs, met more people and visited more places than anyone, a testament to his ceaseless zest for life, baseball and country. Cooperstown will never be the same without Rapid Robert.”

That’s for sure.

Memories of Giants in the World Series

The last time the Giants were in the World Series was in 2002. I covered that Series as the national baseball writer for the Hartford Courant newspaper and suffered one of my biggest disappointments.

It had nothing to do with the Giants losing. Baseball writers learn early on in their careers that the only thing worth rooting for is your story. Because of deadlines, writers work on their copy throughout the game. At times a certain storyline appears that you pursue and hope doesn’t get ruined by a turn of events.

The Giants had a 3-2 lead in games over the Angels heading into Game 6 at Anaheim. In the fifth inning, Shawon Dunston hit a two-run home run that broke a scoreless game. Two innings later, the Giants’ lead was up to 5-0 as they were on the verge of winning their first World Series since 1954 when they still played in New York at the Polo Grounds.

I thought back to that Series and knew the hero was a part-time outfielder named Dusty Rhodes, who came off the bench to get some huge hits for the Giants in their sweep of the Indians. Rhodes was 4-for-6 in that Series with two home runs and seven RBI.

Dunston, who had been a regular shortstop during his prime, was a bench player on those 2002 Giants. He was the designated hitter batting ninth in Game 6. A thought came to me, and I quickly typed out this lede:

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Move over, Dusty Rhodes, and make room for Shawon Dunston.

Just then, my pal Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register came over to me to chat about something. He looked at the sentence on my laptop screen and said, “Hey, that’s pretty good. I hope it holds up.”

The words were barely out of his mouth when Scott Spiezio belted a three-run home run to get the Angels to 5-3. The lede is still good, I told myself. An inning later, Darin Erstad homered and Troy Glaus doubled in two runs. There went my lede, and there went the Giants. The Angels won that game and the next one, too.

My other two experiences with the Giants in the World Series were in 1989 and 1962. In ’89, while typing early notes prior to Game 3 at Candlestick Park, the building started shaking. I saw the guys in the front row, all Bay Area writers, bolt for the exits. “This might be the big one,” one of them said.

It was big all right, an earthquake that registered 6.9 and shut down the World Series for 10 days. The people in San Francisco and Oakland were remarkable in the aftermath over the next two weeks as the area recovered not only from the quake but also the fires it caused in both cities, including the Presidio district where Yankees Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio was among those whose home was severely damaged.

On a more light-hearted note, there was 1962, the only year I ever played hooky from school – and I did it twice. The first time was in February to see the ticker-tape parade for John Glenn, the astronaut who had orbited Earth three times. The second time was Oct. 8, a Monday for Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium between the Yankees and the Giants, Whitey Ford versus Juan Marichal.

A friend of mine had gotten tickets from a business associate of his father. I had never been to a World Series game, but I knew my parents would not let me out of school for something like that. I was going to a Catholic high school in Nassau County, Long Island. We didn’t wear uniforms, but we had to wear jackets, ties and leather shoes. I left the house that way but instead of taking the bus to school I walked to the nearest LIRR station and took the train to Penn Station and the subway to the Bronx.

It was worth it. The Stadium was all dressed up with the red, white and blue bunting I had never before seen in color and on the field were Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, the central figures although neither one had a big Series. Marichal had to leave the game early because of an injury. The score was 2-2 in the seventh when Giants second baseman Chuck Hiller homered with the bases loaded. I didn’t find out until reading the paper the next day that it was the first grand slam hit by a National League player in World Series history.

It felt neat to have witnessed some history, but for most of my life I had to keep that day a secret. In fact, it was only a year ago that I finally told my mother and father what I had done. My father, who had been a Giants fan before switching to the Mets in the 1960s, said, “I wish I could have gone with you.”

Memories of the Boss and the Voice

The media were all over the place at Yankee Stadium Friday night trying to get all the reaction they could about the passing of principal owner George Steinbrenner. The reality of the situation is that most of the players in uniform these days didn’t really know him. He has been out of the public eye largely for quite a few years now. Those who did have relationships with the Boss – Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and manager Joe Girardi, especially – gave their opinions during the All-Star Game break at Anaheim.

It is about an hour and a half before the tribute planned at Yankee Stadium for Steinbrenner and Bob Sheppard, the legendary public address announcer, is to start. I decided rather than waste my time talking to people who have no personal history with either man; I’ll share some thoughts with you about both.

I’ll start with Sheppard because this is easy. The most accurate description I heard of him the other day came from Gene Monahan, the Yankees’ trainer who has been a part of the organization for 37 years. Geno called Bob “the most polite man I have ever met in baseball.”

Perfect. It was my privilege on many occasions to sit at Bob’s table in the Stadium dining room and talk about topics ranging from baseball to literature. One night, the discussion centered on Joe DiMaggio and the fact that he was the subject of so many song lyrics, such as the 1940s hit, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” and Paul Simon’s 1968 opus, “Mrs. Robinson.”

I mentioned the lyric Oscar Hammerstein II wrote in the song about the character Bloody Mary in “South Pacific,” one of the great shows in his long collaboration with Richard Rodgers.

Bloody Mary is the girl I love;
Her skin’s as tender as DiMaggio’s glove

I was surprised when Bob said he had not heard of that. He was practically an encyclopedia of theatrical language, so I figured he would know anything from such a classic. I let it pass. A few days later, Bob came up to me in the press box and said, “You know, I played my recording of ‘South Pacific’ last night and listened very closely to the song, ‘Bloody Mary.’ My God, I thought, Jack was right. I’ll have to let him know.’ And so I am. For the life of me, I cannot understand how I listened to that song over the years and never picked up the reference to DiMaggio.”

We were pals from then on. For years, the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America tried to get Sheppard to be a subject of our annual roasts in what is known as the Pre Dinner Dinner, an informal affair that is held about 10 days before the annual New York Baseball Writers’ Dinner. Bob attended other of our events, especially the Indoor Outing, a dance that he and wife Mary were our version of Vernon and Irene Castle.

He would never agree to being roasted, however. “I am flattered,” he told me, “but let me ask you this, Jack? Could my daughter attend this?”

Well, he had me there. Language at a roast can get pretty blue. One of Bob’s daughters is a Roman Catholic nun. I never bothered him about it again. Instead, we pushed to honor him at the big dinner one year with the William J. Slocum Long and Meritorious Award, and the standing ovation he received was one of the longest ever accorded an honoree.

Now on to the Boss; let me get it right out front that covering a team that was owned by George Steinbrenner was not as easy assignment for a beat writer because he was a beat all to himself. With other teams, owners are seldom seen and rarely heard. There have been exceptions, of course, such as Charlie Finley and Ted Turner. But they did not run the New York Yankees. The combination of Steinbrenner and the Yankees was a daily double of absolutely epic proportions.

Back in the day before mobile phone, texting, twittering and the like, contact with George was through regular phone lines. So on those days you needed to get him, you have to call his secretary, leave your number and wait for him to return the call. That meant you were a prisoner in your hotel room and couldn’t go anywhere for fear you’d miss his call, which he didn’t always make, anyway.

That reminds me of the line former publicist Harvey Greene had about George and the telephone. Harvey said that in his job there were only two reasons he got a phone call after midnight – it was either a death in the family or Mr. Steinbrenner trying to reach him. “It got to the point,” Harvey said, “that I started rooting for a death in the family.”

The weird thing about some phone conversations with George is that he never wanted to discuss what you wanted to talk about. “No, I’m not interested in that, but here’s something you should write instead,” he would say. He would be adamant about it, as if he were my sports editor.

His opening line to me was always the same, “O’Connell, this is George, you know, my mother was Irish.” He only told me this about 380 times. Then he’d follow that with, “How’s the elevator running?”

The elevator situation at old Yankee Stadium was basically my introduction to the Steinbrenner world. I had been covering the Mets for four years at the Bergen Record in New Jersey when I was asked to switch to the Yankees after the All-Star break in 1983. Our Yankees writer, Filip Bondy, had just gone to the Daily News. With the Mets out of contention, I was moved to the Yankees, who were challenging the Orioles for the American League East.

With the Mets, I never had to call Nelson Doubleday or Fred Wilpon. With the Yankees, if they lost three or four games in a row, reporters had to call Steinbrenner. I covered a Detroit Tigers team in 1975 that lost 19 games in a row at one point and not once did I pick up the phone and dial John Fetzer’s number.

One of the problems I was confronted with at Yankee Stadium was that there was not an express elevator run from the press box to the clubhouse after games, which was the case at nearly every other ballpark in the major leagues, including Shea Stadium. There was no stairwell to use, either, so writers had to wait while on deadline or head down the ramps where they were forced to wade through clusters of fans exiting the Stadium.

As a chapter officer in the BBWAA, the more I looked into what could be done about this the more frustrated I got. Everybody passed the buck. But I was now around the Yankees long enough to realize there could be one possible solution, so I got hold of some BBWAA stationery and wrote a detailed letter to Steinbrenner because I had become convinced that he was the only guy who could get anything done around here.

It was probably the line about the Yankees not doing something that the Mets did regularly that shot him into action. By the next homestand, by order of the owner there were two express runs of the elevator for the press immediately after games. If you didn’t make it, that was too bad. It was good enough for me.

My other favorite George story revolves around the 1984 Winter Meetings in Houston. My paper had been late in applying for credentials. I was unable to get a room in the headquarters hotel and was booked in another hotel a few blocks away. On the flight out of Newark I happened to be on the same plane as Bill “Killer” Kane, the Yankees’ travel director who I got to know in my brief time with the team.

Killer said he had a car and would drive me into town. On the way, he told me to come with him and he’d set me up with a room at the regular hotel. Get this. The room turned out to be Steinbrenner’s suite.

“George doesn’t like to come to these things for more than a day,” Killer told me. “He won’t be here until Monday. By then, a room will open for you, and we’ll move you. In the meantime, enjoy, but don’t touch anything!”

This was on a Saturday, which went well. There was a huge, covered fruit basket and a magnum of champagne on a table. They were tempting, but I left them alone. Come Sunday morning, everything changed. The phone rang
early. It was Killer.

“Jackie, you gotta vacate that room,” he said. “Just pack up and get out in the hallway. George changed his plans. He’s on his way here. He just called me from the limo.”

Fortunately, the ride from the Houston airport to downtown is nearly an hour, which gave me time to pack up and get out of there. But to where? I envisioned having to sleep in the lobby until Monday. Somehow, Killer found me a room and met me in the hallway with a key for a room down the hall. I reached the room just moments before the elevator (another elevator yet) door opened and Steinbrenner stormed out heading for the suite.

Later in the day, I asked Killer how everything went. “Not bad,” he said. “George just doesn’t know why he keeps getting phone messages for Jack O’Connell.”

That was a private story between Killer and me before he allowed me to tell it at a roast we had for George at the Stadium in the late 1990s, and nobody laughed heartier at the tale than the Boss himself.

When I came off the beat to become the national baseball columnist at the Hartford Courant in 2000, George called to congratulate me for what he knew was a promotion. I was stunned. I was nowhere near as close to him as some of the other writers.

“I wish you luck, but I’ll miss you,” George told me. “There are too many new faces in the press box. I kind of hate to see an old one go; stay in touch.”

I have to admit that in recent years I have missed George, but in all honesty I do not miss covering the Yankees when he was around. Believe me when I say I am sure he understands.