Every right-thinking Met fan misses Shea Stadium. Not a lot of good has happened to this franchise in the five years (five years!) since old Shea closed, and the old dump looks rosier with every passing year. For Sports on Earth, I dug into the history of Shea's construction, when New York City sold itself out to build a space age stadium that would be obsolete within a decade—signs of a city suffering stadium fever, a malady that continues to afflict the nation more each year.
I like living near BAM. On Sunday afternoon walks, I sometimes pass the Opera House or Harvey Theater when the stage doors are open, giving me a peek backstage during load-in or load-out. I relish any glimpse behind the curtain, at the great wide spaces that remind me of a bare factory floor, a theatrical Vehicle Assembly Building where absolutely anything can be created. Seen from Hanson Place, the backstage of the Opera House is cavernous, and to watch a few dozen stagehands hustle crate after crate off of two or three or four semi-trailers is to be awed by the work that goes into filling that stage. "We've got a budget," says BAM, "and we're going to use it."
There's great promise in a load-in. Watching load-out can be bittersweet, or just plain heartbreaking, as with the day I saw Santo Loquasto's beautiful scenery for The Master Builder tossed into a dumpster on Ashland, the steeple that figures in the play's climax poking out of a pile of garbage. But that's theater. When a run is finished, it's over—the scenery discarded or repurposed, the space adapted for some other story. It's a cycle of renewal, and even when it's bittersweet, it is a happy thing.
This is different from some of the other bits of entertainment with which I fill my days. When I passed BAM yesterday, I was on my way home from the last Mets game of the season, wallowing in the particular anguish that comes with the close of the regular season. Baseball is a simple pleasure, endlessly available from April through October, but like all seasonal joys, we lose it suddenly and violently. The last day of the regular season is painful in the way that summer's last beach day, trip to the park, or icy mint julep can be. They are simple pleasures, but the close of the season is a reminder that one day we will get our last sunburn, fly our last kite, and watch our last ballgame. Remembering that is no fun at all.
Theater is not a simple pleasure. It is maddening, overpriced, doomed and pretentious. But it also offers something rare—that sense of panic that comes when a good play is ending, as we try to keep our eyes wide open, to take in as much of the scene as possible, knowing that we will never be able to see it again. (I plan to die the same way.) That straining desperation is a form of the sublime, and the sublime is nothing to sneeze at.
On a sunny afternoon a few weeks ago, I passed the Opera House and saw a truck full of what appeared to be pink Lincoln Logs. "Ooh," I thought. "That must be for Anna Nicole ." I'd been waiting for the well-reviewed British opera to land in New York for over a year, and the sight of all that pink, sturdy-looking wood took my anticipation up another notch. "What could it be?" I wondered. "Does it all fit together to make a pink, uncomfortably ribbed sofa?" (That this was my best guess shows that I don't have much of a nose for set design.)
When the curtain rose on the performance of Anna I saw, it turned out that the Lincoln Logs formed the backdrop—a kind of pink log cabin wall meant to establish Anna's humble origins. And though the opera disappointed me bitterly—in the way that simpler pleasures never can—I'm glad I got to experience those months of anticipation, and the thrill I felt at seeing the set stacked up outside. I didn't know what it was, but I knew those logs were the raw ingredients for something magical. That's a cool thing to feel sure of, even when you turn out wrong.
Yesterday, as I tried to hold on to the fading flavor of another season of meaningless baseball, I saw Anna being dismantled. What had come in with such promise was being taken away in disappointment. The logs had reverted to logs. After just a handful of performances, the show was over, and there could be no promise of rebirth. The Opera House stage will be filled again, but the City Opera is likely on its way out. That it died a shell of itself—staging an abbreviated season of half-baked British opera, begging on Kickstarter and performing far from its original home—does not make this collapse any more sad.
I was musing on the metaphorical death of summer, of baseball, of the pathetic Mets and their pathetic 2013, when I passed a real death on Hanson Place, and saw the body being dragged to the curb.
The blog has been characteristically quiet the last few weeks, and not because I got married a second time. I've been keeping my head down, trying to finish rewrites on the three plays I mostly-wrote this year so that I can start work on something new. I'll update you on those plays when the rewrites are finished. Not too long on them now, hopefully.
Theatrically, I had a bit of good news: a one act of mine will be in the Bad Theater Festival on November 2nd. It's tentatively called "S For Slaughter," but we're thinking about changing the name, since the play has nothing to do with slaughter at all, but does have a teeny bit to do with St. Louis Cardinals great Enos Slaughter. It's misleading, I know.
What's that, you say? You'd like to read more about baseball? Well let me indulge you, with this nifty bit of "writing" that I did for our good friends The Classical.
You're right, Marge. Just like the time I could have met Mr. T at the mall. The entire day I kept saying, "I'll go a little later. I'll go a little later." And then when I got there, they told me he'd just left. And when I asked the mall guy if he would ever come back again, he said he didn't know.
Homer Simpson never got to meet Mr. T., and I never got to see Kid Harvey pitch. I'd wanted to as early as April, when he embarrassed Stephen Strasburg's Nationals to giddy chants of "Harvey's better!" from a giddy Citi Field assemblage. But April was a long time ago. Watch highlights from that game and you'll see David Wright, Ruben Tejada and Jordany Valdespin—players who have been felled by injuries, managerial impatience, and savage Seligian wrath.
The Mets of April are long gone, and now Matt Harvey has been sent away with them. I could have seen him beat the Nats in April, the White Sox in May, or the befuddled representatives of the American League in July, but I kept saying, I'll go a little later. I'll go a little later. And now, he's not at the ballpark any more. The Mets themselves, depleted and defeated and desultorily playing out the string in Energy Saver Mode, are barely there in general.
This happens ever summer. The first particularly miserable Citi Field day saps my early season enthusiasm, and then the Mets fall apart around the All Star break, and I decide to steer clear of the stadium until the ridiculous, end-of-season ticket incentives kick in. Suddenly it's September, football is here, and I realize I have only a few more weeks to chug as much baseball as possible, a squirrel gorging on nuts when he reads in the paper that winter is coming.
My plan two weeks ago was for a spectacular doubleheader. After months of waiting, I would go meet Mr. T., who was scheduled to pitch an afternoon game against the Phillies on Thursday, August 29. Afterwards, I would take the 7 to the F and ride it all the way to the end of the line, for sunset, surf and the surging Brooklyn Cyclones. I was just about to buy my tickets when a horrible noise—a straining sound, maybe a tearing sound—resounded through Metslandia. Matt Harvey had (partially) torn his UCL. It was just a little rip, but UCLs are like condoms—any sort of tear is some sort of catastrophe.
There's much more. Read on, and learn of the briny delights of Coney Island! Read, I tell you. Read!
Continuing my tradition of breaking news, last week I covered the shocking development that it is no fun to be cold at a baseball game. Seriously, though, it was goddamned freezing:
How cold was the stadium on Sunday? The weatherman says 54 degrees with winds gusting as high as 44 miles-per-hour. To get a sense of how that felt, try this: encase your genitals in ice, dangle them in front of a battery of leafblowers, and see if you feel like watching Lucas Duda stumble after fly balls.
Despite the gale, the upper deck was crowded, because the Mets had spent the week giving away tickets on Twitter. No strings attached—follow @Mets on Twitter, get a ticket to watch the actual Mets play the Marlins. The unpaid crowd got its money's worth. Dressed for a sunny spring day, they found instead that they had joined the Shackleton expedition. Children shivered through plastic hats full of ice cream. Whirlwinds of garbage swirled ghostly across the infield. Pigeons fought to stay aloft. It was baseball in April, and that is what it’s like.
Check it out if you want to shiver a little. Amazingly, as cold as that game was—and it really was awful, the coldest I've ever been at a sporting event—the Mets are currently a bit chillier. They nearly got snowed out in Minneapolis last week, and are now in Colorado, a famously warm place. Last night they got snowed out, today they might get snowed out, and if they are able to play at all, it could get down to as little as 9°. Jeepers!
I fried my brain this month watching international baseball. I found myself cheering for men in a hideous USA jersey, only slightly wishing that American national teams would go back to the way they dressed in the '50s, and leave navy blue to rot. When the US got eliminated, I cheered for anybody else I could find. (And loudly—on Sunday night, I found myself yelling at Japanese men on my TV, "Come on! String a few hits together!" then muttering my traditional, affectionate, "fucking bastards." When I love a sports team, that's how I show I care. When I love a person, I'm much nicer.) So, as I do, I wrote about it—once again, for The Classical.
Before the rest of the people—who and how many remain unclear—who cared about Team USA learned it, every Mets fan knew it couldn't last. David Wright was on the big stage again, for the first time since Adam Wainwright's curveball to Carlos Beltran began its fateful, unhittable break in 2006, and he was playing like an Avenger. Square-jawed, muscle-bound, tongue stuck out like bush league bowler, Wright kept coming to bat in high-pressure situations, and kept delivering—none more fantastically than the grand slam that sent the United States into the second round. Articles were referring to Wright, the Mets' captain, as Captain America. Mets fans knew what was coming next.
For a long, happy moment, it seemed the last star of Flushing was about to do the impossible: get American fans interested in baseball's would-be World Cup. But because every superhero needs a weakness, Wright was playing hurt. For the entirety of the Classic, he had been nursing a rib injury: a lingering soreness that pained him not in play, but while he was sleeping and "just lounging around." When Wright was recalled to Camp Wilpon in Port St. Lucie on Friday of last week, the Mets medical staff—doubtless through a state-of-the-art application of leeches and a scientific bleeding regimen—decided that Wright should be encased in bubble wrap until after the start of the regular season. Wright's back has been an ongoing concern ever since he and Ike Davis ran into each other in 2011—an all time Metsian play—and Captain Flushing must not get hurt again. Mets fans always think the end is near. This time it happened to be true.
Have no fear, the rest of it isn't about the Mets. And unlike the article I posted below, which the Internet hated, people seemed to like this one. Good thing. It was hard, and I didn't get paid. Don't tell anybody—I'll watch baseball for free.
It should be no surprise to you, gentle readers, that I do not spend all of my time thinking about theater. I'd lose my mind. As a respite from the art form, I have a variety of hobbies, including mocking Smash, complaining about my cats, and thinking much too hard about baseball. Because I'm a weirdo, I don't mind watching sports on DVR, which means that during the baseball season, I will usually record the night's Mets game to watch the next day, while I'm working. Baseball season doesn't start until April, but this week I discovered an altogether weirder version of America's pastime, the World Baseball Classic, and wrote an essay on it for smartypants sports blog The Classical.
Spring Training is a tease. Baseball addicts survive winter's frosty void on a thin diet of trade rumors, "classic rebroadcasts," and Wikipedia biographies of old-timey players with funny names. (I see you, Ugly Dickshot.) The day pitchers and catchers report, we think, will mean the end of torment, as the most powerful opioid in sports begins to drip again. Invariably, we soon remember that spring baseball is like drinking salt water—it amplifies your thirst, and doesn't taste right, besides.
Parched, bored and desperate for competitive baseball—where players clap when they win and pout when they lose, and where we aren't forced to watch back-up catchers run slo-mo sprints in the outfield during games—I turned to something I had previously been happy to ignore: the World Baseball Classic. Baseball's would-be World Cup, the Classic is an international tournament in a sport that has no true infrastructure for international play. It has only happened twice before, in 2006 and 2009, and both times I dismissed it as a meaningless contest, played by nobodies (or bored somebodies) and watched by no one. Who needs a World Baseball Classic when you've got a World Series?
Well, as it turns out, I do. The World Baseball Classic is flawed, goofy, slipshod, and everything the World Series is not. It's also pretty great.
There's much more where that came from. Read on, and be amazed!
As the baseball season wears on, hopefully I'll continue covering the sport for The Classical and whoever else will take me. Not only will it transform baseball tickets into a tax write-off, it will keep me from having to subject you to topics like my abiding love for Mike Baxter.
Awake at five o'clock this morning and unable to fall back asleep, I found that thinking about the play I'm working on provided more stress than it was worth. To help ease my way into drowsiness, I turned my mind to placid, tedious baseball. Emerald grass. The sweet crack of the bat. Other cliches.
But sleep did not come, because I made the mistake of thinking about the Mets. I won't bother you with the details, but let's just say that they are in deep shit. Because they can't afford to field a competitive team, the owners should be forced to sell the franchise. But Fred and Jeff Wilpon are best budsies with commissioner Bud Selig, and will never be forced to let their baby go. Oh well.
This is not great stuff to sing oneself to sleep with, so I turned my thoughts to the past. There is no finer bit of classic Mets lore than Jimmy Breslin's Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?, a slim, brutally funny look at the Mets' spectacularly bad inaugural season. The team was much worse than it is now, but the future was much, much brighter.
Continuing my thoughts from yesterday's post about the forthcoming Yankee stage play, I typed up one of my favorite passages from the book, when Breslin relates the most spectacular thing he ever saw Babe Ruth do. Read it. Breslin's just like me, but he's a better reporter. Also a better writer. And he's tougher. And he knows more dangerous people. Also he's not actually a baseball fan—he just happens to write about it brilliantly. Basically, we're the same guy.
In fact, in eighteen years of being able to look at things and remember what I have seen, the only sports legend I ever saw who completely lived up to advance billing was Babe Ruth.
It was a hot summer afternoon, and the Babe, sweat dripping from his jowls and his shirt stuck to him, came off the eighteenth green at the old Bayside Golf Club in the borough of Queens and stormed into the huge barroom of the club.
"Gimme one of them heavens to Betsy drinks you always make for me," the Babe said in his gravelly voice.
The bartender put a couple of fistfuls of ice chunks into a big, thick mixing glass and then proceeded to make a Tom Collins that had so much gin in it that the other people at the bar started to laugh. He served the drink to the Babe just as it was made, right in the mixing glass.
Ruth said something about how heavens to Betsy hot he was, and then he picked up the glass and opened his mouth, and there went everything. In one shot he swallowed the drink, the orange slice and the rest of the garbage, and the ice chunks too. He stopped for nothing. There is not a single man I have ever seen in a saloon who does not bring his teeth together a little bit and stop those ice chunks from going in. A man has to have a pipe the size of a trombone to take ice in one shot. But I saw Ruth do it, and whenever somebody tells me about how the Babe used to drink and eat when he was playing ball, I believe every word of it.
Otherwise, most legends should be regarded with suspicion.
See, that's how you open a fucking play.
Because the happiest kind of Mets fan is a rabid Mets fan, part of me welcomed the news, announced a few months ago, that the Yankees are coming to Broadway. When a fan's team is failing—and the Mets look to fail for the conceivable future—the only solace is sports hate, and there is no fatter target than the Bronx Bombers. I thought that Yankee narcissism was maxed out in 2010, but a Broadway play, produced by the same team responsible for Lombardi, promised to take tone-deaf hagiography to the next level.
But what would it be about? Would it give Act I to Murderer's Row, Act II to Mickey and Maris, and Act III to Big Stein and the Core Four? Would it focus on an imagined father-son-duo, who learn to love each other by rooting for the easiest-to-root-for team in sports? Or would they take the Moneyball route, let Bill James write the libretto, and treat the audience to three hours of songs about the poetry of UZR, BABIP, and 162WL%?
New details emerged today about the play that is tentatively titled The Yankees. Well, they sort of did. The off Broadway Primary Stages announced their 2013-14 lineup today, and The Yankees is batting second. But beyond that, we learned little. To wit:
The Yankees tells the generational story of a most extraordinary baseball family, and the game itself. Follow the revered New York Yankees Yogi Berra as he struggles to keep the focus on the team, transgressing the tricky world of dreams, celebrity, and the ever-changing landscape of this beloved American pastime.
A few things are clear. Mentioning this "most extraordinary baseball family" in the first sentence suggests that this play will paint the Steinbrenners in as affectionate a light as the United Scenic Artists can provide. The story will be pegged to Yogi Berra—as good a choice as any, due to his quotable charm and stubborn refusal to die.
(As an aside, let me present my favorite Yogi Berra story, from a Joe Posnanski profile from a year or two ago:
Or the time in Boston that it was so hot that Berra decided to get thrown out of the game. The umpire that day was Cal Hubbard, a former football player who did not listen to much talk before throwing players out of games. Berra figured it would be easy. So he made a few cracks. Hubbard didn't say a thing. Then, Berra started openly arguing about balls and strikes. Again, Hubbard didn't say a thing. Finally, Berra turned and tried to show up Hubbard, the surest way to get thrown out of the game. Hubbard calmly said, "Berra, if I have to be out here in this heat, so do you."
But that one paragraph description raises questions. If the story is pegged to Yogi, does that mean we skip Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio? What does a "generational" story mean, exactly? Generations of Steinbrenners? Generations of Berras? Generations of Yankee fans throwing beer at generations of Sox fans?
As a Met fan, I'll hatefully feast on whatever they put forth. As a theater-type, I'm less gleeful. On the one hand, I'm all for theater companies producing work not targeted at typical theatergoing audiences. It's a fabulous way to make money and introduce new people to the art form, and both of those are nifty things to do. In a way, this kind of fawning sports dramatization is in the tradition of movies like Knute Rockne: All American and Pride of the Yankees.
(Fun fact: when shooting Pride of the Yankees, Gary Cooper could not, no matter how hard he tried, bat left handed. Rather than force the star to be uncomfortable, the director got him a uniform with a backwards 4 on it, and had him run up the third baseline when he hit the ball. They reversed the image in editing, and everybody was happy.)
But there's something about a project like this that smells like a rat. Will it be cynical? Will it be lazy? Well, it depends on how tough the creators are on the Yankee legend. My dream Yankees would be nothing but the franchise's dark side. Here are a few moments that I would pay Broadway prices to see on stage:
1925. After half a decade of blistering play, Babe Ruth barely made it out of spring training. Severe gastric distress tormented him for the entire train ride back from Florida, forcing him to have intestinal surgery just after the season began. Ruth claimed he upset his stomach by eating "too many hotdogs," but it's long been an open secret that the "stomachache" came from some combination of boozing, whoring and overeating.
Mickey's Outstanding Experience. In 1972, the Yankees sent form letters to ex-players, asking them to relate an "outstanding experience" from their time at the Stadium. Mickey Mantle replied, "I got a blow-job under the right field Bleachers, by the Yankee Bull pen." As the invaluable Letters of Note relates, his recollection got filthier from there. And by filthy, I mean filthy, so the delicate among you should cover their eyes.
It was about the third or fourth inning. I had a pulled groin and couldn't fuck at the time. She was a very nice girl and asked me what to do with the cum after I came in her mouth. I said don't ask me, I'm no cock-sucker.
Signed: Mickey Mantle, The All-American Boy
The Wife-Swap. 1973's Spring Training opened just as cheerily as 1925's, when pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich announced that, as was the style at the time, they had decided to trade wives. It's a well-known, rather sad story, which Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have talked about turning into a film. Based on the superb '70s hair that distinguished Argo, I imagine Affleck would do a knock-up job.
The 1980s. If postseason success were chest hair, the Yankees would look like Austin Powers. But despite their tradition of smothering success, there are a few bald patches. They never played in the World Series until 1920, when they picked up Babe Ruth, and the decade between Mantle and Jackson was a dry one. But there was no more impotent stretch than the '80s, when the Yankees were, briefly, the second-best team in New York. Also, this happened. I doubt the slow roller towards first will get much stagetime.
Howie Spira. New York sports were more fun when George Steinbrenner threw his weight around. In 1990, he was banned from day-to-day management of the team for paying gambler Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, a big-name player who Stein felt was underperforming. The magnificent pettiness of that action, which saw him kept away from the team for three years, is the kind of savory delight that could keep The Yankees from giving audiences a toothache.
Despite their squeaky-clean, sideburns-free image, the Yanks have their dark places. (Particularly the spot under the right field bleachers.) The irony of a show like The Yankees, or whatever it ends up being called, is that is the dark side that makes a character, or a team, palatable. A whitewashed stage show may sell tickets for a few months, but will only be as memorable as Babe Ruth's 1925.