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Jewish World Review Aug. 13, 1999/ 1 Elul, 5759


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Home Front -- IT’S JUST BEFORE 5 A.M. last Tuesday, and an unshaven white geezer ambles, not stumbles, into Morgans Deli on Hudson St. in Tribeca, with a crooked grin on his face. Mentioning to no one in particular that it’s now dark at this hour in August, he whispers to a customer: “You know, this just hasn’t been my day.”

That got my attention, and the cashier’s, and then the fellow said, “I’ve got a brand new halogen lamp here, just 10 bucks. Any takers?” No one bites. It wasn’t “brand new,” and what the heck would you do with a battered lamp at that hour in the morning? The sales pitch continued, finally subsided, and then he got down to business. “I’m so darn broke. Can I have a cup of water?” he said to my friend behind the counter.

I wanted to spare the cashier the embarrassment of his having to turn the semi-bum down—it’s a strict policy, even when the store isn’t crowded, not to dole out freebies—so I gave the guy a buck and directed him to the bottled water section.

Whether he pocketed that dollar and scraped up some change to buy a can of Bud, I don’t know: I wasn’t going to stick around for the final act.

“Just hasn’t been my day,” I said to the concierge Boris when I got back to my apartment building, telling him the story. We both shook our heads. Even though Boris is Russian, he understood when I said that perhaps this gent was the product of a dysfunctional family, maybe a mother and grandmother squabbling in his presence when he was four years old. Calling all representatives of the Green Party: have I got a candidate for you! •

NYPress controller Paul Abrams and I took an arduous trip out to Long Island City last Thursday morning, a jaunt to retrieve some old baseball cards I needed for the trip to Bermuda, where my boys and their two cousins, Quinn and Rhys, will divvy them up. We have a bunch of stuff in storage at the Moishe’s vast facility, items Mrs. M didn’t need for the new apartment but couldn’t bear to part with. Like a set of Alice in Wonderland furniture Junior and MUGGER III used for a few years, old baby clothes, lamps, a crib; all expendable if you ask me, but I didn’t carry the little nippers inside my belly for nine months each.

On the other hand, there’s my own important loot stashed away: oh, some 1500 record albums, boxes of books, three trunks of memorabilia from my days in Baltimore, most of it City Paper-related, old paintings Mrs. M did in college and on Ludlow St. years ago, a suitcase of ancient Amex and Visa receipts that, God willing, I’ll never have to produce for an IRS audit. Also, several containers of family pictures that are priceless.

Paul had been in Cannes and Nice at the end of July, so we had plenty of business to chat about while he negotiated the unbelievably heavy traffic for a summer day in New York. I guess the 59th St. Bridge was groovy 32 years ago, but it’s awful now: it took us forever to get across the ugly structure, stopping and starting, as huge trucks took advantage of all the smaller cars trying to reach their destination. It’s always amazing when you’re stopped on a bridge, or in a tunnel, and you see all these damn union workers lazing around, drinking coffee, hauling the occasional cable or hose from one spot to another, and mostly doing a whole lot of nothing.

Once we got off the bridge it was hard to decipher the directions from the Moishe’s secretary, and so we got a little tour of Long Island City, tooling around on 31st St., 31st Pl., 48th Ave., getting well-acquainted with haunts like Hunter’s Points Golden Fountain diner, the Y&K bodega, a place that had the best-looking watermelons I’ve seen all summer and this monster Culligan truck that we sat next to for 10 minutes while waiting for a brassy traffic cop to let us through a construction site on the road. I told Paul she’d make a great sales rep at the paper; this was one mean-looking mama. At one point we found ourselves heading back to Manhattan on the bridge, until Paul pretended he was in The French Connection and pulled off a smooth 180-degree bat-turn back to Queens.

We finally arrived at Moishe’s, and man, do they run a smooth operation.

Once I paid an errant bill for the last month’s storage fee, we were treated like American royalty and escorted by an amiable young hippie up to the third floor and our two lockers. Good thing I wasn’t wearing a suit that day: finding the damn baseball cards was a chore I wasn’t ready for. Opening boxes, moving furniture off to the side, breaking the locks on trunks—this was a true pain in the behind. And of course I got sidetracked, looking at long-forgotten correspondence and 45s from the mid-60s. One ancient photo I retrieved was especially dear to me: it’s a snap of my dad when he was just eight years old, standing next to his grumpy father in Beverly, MA, in the year of 1924. It’s the only picture I have of Dad as a youth: when he was in college at the University of New Hampshire his parents’ house burned down and they lost everything of value, which wasn’t much, since it was the Great Depression and my grandfather, a jeweler by trade, was out of work. But all the family photos, save the one reproduced on this page, bit the dust. There’s also a terrific shot of my parents right before one of my brothers’ wedding in Huntington, at Old First Church, back in ’67, and a formal family portrait that was painstakingly done, as I recall, in 1960.

I also retrieved some of that memorabilia from Baltimore. One summer day in ’78 there was a sausage-eating contest sponsored by Polock Johnny’s, a local fast-food chain, and our photographer Jennifer Bishop captured both the winner, a huge fellow from East Baltimore, and the runner-up, who promptly barfed seconds after she finished her work. I liked Polock Johnny’s; of course it depended on which outlet you patronized. There was a franchise on The Block that served up sausages with the works—the only way to eat one of those suckers—that always left me with a queasy stomach. On the other hand, my friend Mark Hertsgaard’s dad opened a branch on Greenmount Ave., just a block from my ratty apartment, and I ate there three nights a week without any ill gastro effects. Maybe it was because I always stopped in at Godfrey’s Steer & Beer after my Polock Johnny sausage, and had a pitcher or two of National Premium, which undoubtedly killed any pigmeat germs.

Another set of photos came from our ’87 “Best of Baltimore” party, a rustic bash atop Federal Hill in South Baltimore. The occasion was doubly celebratory for Al From Baltimore and me: the day before we’d sold the paper to the Scranton Times. Just months later, after traveling in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manila, Berlin, London, Athens, Rome and Milan, I moved to New York and laid the groundwork for NYPress.

But inspecting those baseball cards was, in the slang of my youth, a trip, man. My oldest brother, a Cleveland Indians fan back when that was a lonely passion, began collecting in the late 1940s; I finished about 20 years later. So we’ve got thousands of the cards—Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield would weep at the sight of Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo and Willie Mays—spanning two decades of change in the sport. Visages of players from the Washington Senators, St. Louis Browns and Philadelphia Athletics are included. And there’s Hank Aaron as a Milwaukee Brave; Casey Stengel in his Mets uniform; a few utility men from the Pittsburgh Pirates; and more damn Yankees than you could shake a Darth Maul action figure at.

Here’s the inside scoop on the back of Topps card #258 from ’54; it’s a mini-history of one James “Junior” Gilliam, Brooklyn Dodger: “With just 2 seasons of Organized Baseball under his belt, Jim captured the 2nd Base spot in the Dodger infield. A switch hitter who plays the outfield as well as the infield, ‘Junior’ was the All-Star 2nd Baseman and the Most Valuable Player in the International League in ’52. With the Royals in ’51, he hit .287, batted in 73 Runs and scored 117 times.” Also included was an easy “Dugout Quiz” question: “What player is referred to as ‘The Barber’?” As Pete Hamill would tell Hillary Clinton, none other than Sal Maglie, of the New York Giants.

Personally, my epiphany came when I saw all the Dick Stuart cards. Stu—or, as nasty sportswriters called him, “Dr. Strangeglove”—was my first baseball hero, mostly because he hit something like seven homers in a three-day period when I was visiting Boston in ’63. He was a hell of a slugger, but struck out a ton and couldn’t field at all; now he’s a forgotten first baseman who doesn’t even merit an asterisk in a left-wing baseball book by the likes of Ken Burns. I’ve got Stu as a Pirate, with the Bosox, and finally as a Philadelphia Phillie. My mom, bless her soul, didn’t share my enthusiasm for Mr. Stuart. Seems that one year I wrote him a fan letter, c/o of Fenway Park, and the schlub never responded. Mom was mad: how could an athlete (especially one who probably didn’t get much mail) be so insensitive as to snub her baby boy? She urged me to ditch the lug and find another player who wasn’t so mean. “C’mon Roovy [her nickname for preteen MUGGER], find another Boston star who’s worth your trouble.”

Eventually, as Stuart slid deeper into mediocrity and then retired to open a bar or car dealership (or whatever pre-millionaire baseball players did when their legs were shot), I latched onto Yaz and Jim Lonborg of the “Impossible Dream” ’67 Red Sox, and then Freddy Lynn, Jim Rice and Luis Tiant. Later it was Roger Clemens (but never the choke-artist Wade Boggs), and currently, of course, along with Junior, I favor Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra. I’ve long stopped collecting baseball cards, although the boys have a notebook full of current players, but at 44 I’m still a fan, even if I don’t consider these guys heroes, as I did Dick Stuart in the early 60s.

George Will wrote a fine summary about the dispute between the Major League Umpires Association and Major League Baseball in last Thursday’s Boston Globe, although his description of Baseball America as the “bible of the church of baseball” was pretty sickening. Obviously, the umpires are men out of time: their salaries are nowhere near the level of the pampered prima donnas who verbally abuse them; the instant replays on tv point out their frequent errors in judgment; and the days of the hilarious mock-arguments that Orioles manager Earl Weaver was probably the last to master are long gone. The umps are bitter, lazy, unappreciated and out of luck. Frankly, given my opinion of unions in general, I say stop griping and find another job. There are plenty of young men who’d like to replace them and certainly will. Umpires are just one more casualty of the evolving game; I don’t think anyone will miss the current crop. And with the replacements, maybe the games will be shorter, a bonus to anyone who remembers the standard two-hour contest.

I can’t stand it when The New York Times editorializes about baseball. The short blurbs are so laborious and studded with cliches that they must be the reward for some hack in the overstaffed news department who was reamed out one day for a trivial infraction, like forgetting chief Howell Raines’ lunchtime Diet Coke. So on August 6, Times readers, always the victims of internecine squabbles at the paper, are punished with this statement of the obvious: “Rather quietly, it seems, Major League Baseball has worked its way through two-thirds of the regular season and is now entering that part of the year when each game seems to count for a bit more than it did in the spring.” No kidding. It’s only been that way since Adolph Ochs bought the Times in 1896.

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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