Sunday, January 30, 2011

Heroes and Villains

When I first began rooting for the Mets in defiant opposition to family tradition and the Bronx’s elite home team, baseball’s history actually mattered. Old-Timers’ Day promotions drew big crowds. The eight-year-old me experienced genuine awe in seeing former greats like Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, and Bob Feller in the flesh. I listened closely when the game's oldsters reminisced about playing alongside and against the likes of Ruth, Williams, and Cobb. By osmosis, I received an education on the old Dodgers-Giants rivalry. I knew the teams' owners—taking the late Horace Greeley’s advice—simultaneously left New York after the 1957 season for the West’s greener pastures. and wondered how this dastardly pair could have anything so awful.

The prevailing sentiment in this neck of the woods considered Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley a bona fide scoundrel, not ever to be forgiven for whisking away Brooklyn’s beloved Bums. Columnist Jack Newfield christened him “one of the three worst villains that ever lived”—the others being Hitler and Stalin. As for Horace Stoneham, the Giants’ owner, any lingering vitriol that existed was tepid by comparison. (And, really, attendance in the antiquated Polo Grounds was 653,923 in 1957, and the city had confiscated an area of its less than ample parking space to put up housing projects.)

I just finished reading Michael D’Antonio’s Forever Blue, a fascinating account of Walter O’Malley, his fabled team, and the rapidly changing times that inspired the controversial move. It could be justly said that the book was sympathetic to O’Malley. He was no Hitler. In fact, when compared to the Boss, George Steinbrenner, in my opinion, he was positively upright, of sound mind, and a paradigm of virtue.

Sure, the Dodgers’ owner was foremost interested in making money—lots of it—and he hungered, too, for accolades regarding his baseball and business acumen. Nevertheless, the more writers and historians unearth, the less cut and dried O’Malley’s purported treachery appears. Despite attendance being down in old Ebbets Field, the Dodgers were still—courtesy of television and radio deals—one of the most profitable franchises in the game (unlike the Giants). O’Malley had also honed in on what today we would call his “brand.” He merchandised Brooklyn Dodgers’ stuff before it was the rage. Yes, he wanted a new ballpark in a better location. The increasingly dilapidated Ebbets Field’s seating capacity was only 32,000, with less than 1,000 available parking spaces. It was not particularly accessible by either automobile or mass transit, and the neighborhood was pretty unsavory and not about to get any better. After the war, Long Island and the New Jersey suburbs were where many Dodger fans and their families relocated. Driving to a game at Ebbets Field with a young family in tow was a major hassle to put it mildly.

So, really, O’Malley had a winning case for a new ballpark and found a Brooklyn location that he coveted. However, he needed the help of city fathers to procure the land—or, more aptly, master builder Robert Moses, who wielded the real power back then (but that’s another story altogether). The Dodgers’ owner was actually going to pay in full the building costs of the new stadium. But Moses had his long-term sights set on a stadium complex in some swampy area in Queens called Flushing Meadows. He didn’t care about the Dodgers, and he didn’t like being told what he had to do.

To make a very long story short, the preponderance of evidence suggests that O’Malley sincerely wanted to remain in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, he pushed the envelope by selling Ebbets Field to a developer, meaning that either he got what he wanted, or would pick up his marbles and move elsewhere. Funny…but there would be no Mets without O’Malley’s move—no miracle in 1969, the only truly documented one of its kind. And nobody can argue that the Los Angeles relocation wasn’t ultra-profitable for the O’Malley family and the Dodgers. But, hey, that proposed stadium project in Queens turned out all right as well. The Mets, born in 1962 via league expansion, established an all-time baseball attendance record in 1970—drawing over 2.7 million fans—in a then state-of-the-art ballpark called Shea Stadium. It seems there was a heaping helping of money to be made in New York, and a heaping helping of money to be made in Los Angeles, too. And one final postscript here: When Shea Stadium’s demolition began in 2008, it was standing almost as long as Ebbets Field, built in 1913, had been when it sadly welcomed the wrecking ball. Time flies when you're having fun, it would seem, and all things come to an end. That’s the long and short of it in baseball and in life.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Strange New World

Some time ago, while Googling my name in concert with a recently published book, I encountered a dreaded citizen review (not the first and, I suspect, not the last). Needless to say, it was not a glowing tribute of my highly touted talents. In fact, I was called many names therein, including an “overly optimistic douchebag” and “asshole.” Now, this particular title of mine importuned its unemployed readership to remain upbeat, not lose hope, and uncover every possible stone in his or her job search. It was not intended to rile the public at large. The book even received a half-page review, and recommendation, from a fellow named Harry Hurt III in the business section of Sunday’s New York Times.

But this is a strange new world that we live in. The virtual equivalent of road rage awaits everybody and anybody who puts himself or herself out there. Indeed, the average Joe and Mary has been empowered as never before—furnished with a venue to express his or her opinion on books, movies, politics, religion, food, and, of course, everything else, including the worth of their fellow human beings.

The woman (least her username suggests the feminine), who tarred and feathered yours truly in a profanity-laced diatribe, decreed at one point that she knew—positively knew—based on the book’s less than somber title, that it would be an awful read and downright offensive to her. But, apparently, she couldn't resist.

Why pray tell? If I have learned anything in life, it’s this: If I absolutely know something is going to be dreadful (a book, movie, etc.), I avoid it like the plague and forage elsewhere for my entertainment and kicks. Ah, but I suspect that the average Joe and Mary Reviewer frequently gets off on being offended, enraged, and on his or her high horse. Unfortunately, in all too many instances, both Joe's and Mary's opining amounts to the virtual equivalent of road rage.

Obviously, I consider myself neither a “douchebag” nor an “asshole.” I would even find fault with the adjective employed in front of the former: “overly optimistic.” But with citizen reviewers poised and ready to pounce, it isn’t just writers, artists, and actors who need fear the verbal guillotine. Merely commenting on an online news article, or in a Facebook thread, is wont to infuriate your opinionated neighbors, who just might call you the worst kinds of names and wish upon you the worst kinds of hardships. Such are the times we live in…we might as well get used to it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Food for Thought

In a recent conversation, I learned an inconsequential piece of trivia. It concerned a deceased woman named Mary, whom I didn’t know very well. It seems that while among the living, Mary loathed eggs, and anything made with them, with a passion. Obviously, this stance of hers covered a heaping helping of culinary ground.

This little filler of old neighborhood lore came my way during a debate on the taste benefits of Italian hot sausages versus Italian sweet sausages. One relative of mine found it inconceivable that another could honestly dislike hot sausages. From her perspective, it was positively odd—perhaps even a critical character defect—not to appreciate something as super-scrumptious as a spicy hot sausage. Oblivious to the bald-faced irony, the relative accuser conceded to not liking sweet sausages at all—only their fiery pork cousins. And may I add this parenthetical aside: It’s more conceivable to me how somebody could find hot sausages objectionable—seeing as they are so spicy hot—while appreciating sweet sausages.

Anyway, there is a moral to this sausage story—a little food for thought that serves up a bit of insight into human nature, and reveals at least a morsel of why we are so messed up as a species. Granted, some of us are more messed up than others. While I consume the incredible, edible egg in many guises, there are some foods that I absolutely say no to—just like the late Mary. In fact, there are a few of them that physically and sometimes emotionally repulse me beyond any logic or reason. One wouldn’t need to waterboard me to break my spirit. Merely placing me in a colossal bowl of coleslaw, or some fancy salad with gelatinous tomatoes and stinky cheese bathed in pungent vinegar, would do the trick and fast turn me into a blithering idiot. I wonder if our CIA operatives have figured this one out. You know: Uncover the very foods (and various other things) that so nauseate their various prey. Traveling down this route, they could torture a whole lot of folks without violating the Geneva Convention.

While growing up, the utter disdain cast my way for not liking things that were so patently yummy for my tummy was at once palpable and predictable. “You don’t know what you’re missing” and "You don't know what's good" were phrases I heard with great regularity. And, of course, I was accused of seeking attention and desiring to be different in these family food wars of ours. I don't know...maybe this was I cannot say why I loathe certain fare with such fervor to this day. I was also told more than a time or two that I would eventually come to my senses as an adult, and rue all the good feed that I passed on as a boy. For the most part, I haven't.

And I’ve long since learned that an awful lot of people don’t like an awful lot of things, including many things I find pleasing to the palate. Go figure. Once upon a time I thought I was all alone in some gastronomic No Man’s Land. Turns out that I’m not so abnormal after all—in this regard at least—just made to feel so because I see a freshly sliced tomato for what it really is.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A New Year...the Same Old Focus

In the fledgling days of 1994, a retail store manager, with whom I worked alongside, crafted a document on his then very primitive computer. It nonetheless impressed one and all with its unusual and competing fonts, bold-lettered headlines, and colorful graphics. Headlined “A New Year, A New Focus,” it was specifically produced for the place's staff, who were asked to pore over its inspirational contents and inhale its lofty objectives like they would fresh roses in springtime.

This manager bloke was a disciple of the relatively new and somewhat chic approach to business management called Coaching and Mentoring. You know: Encourage each member of one’s team to boldly go where no employee has gone before by treating him or her like a bona fide human being—for starters—and offering him or her a lunch table of carrots along the way for innovating, working hard, and keeping eyes peeled to the future. Yada…yada…yada.

The major pothole on this business road to good intentions—for lack of a better description—was that there was no there there. This particular retail bossman affixed special titles to virtually every Tom, Dick, and Harriet, many of whom were minimum wage laborers unloading trucks and stocking shelves. Cashiers, for instance, were christened “front-end supervisors.” I’d wager they would have preferred raises. In fact, at that time, I had never even heard of the title. Of course, nowadays the woods are full of such meaningless labels. At the very least, isn’t everyone employed in Big Box Retail Land an “associate” or better than that?

From my observing eyes, “A New Year, A New Focus” quickly degenerated into an “A New Year, the Same Old Focus.” Why? Because it was a bogus bill of goods. Employees working for peanuts and, at best, cashews aren’t easily won over by extravagant promises of future opportunity and security in places with little evident opportunity and minimal security. And calling a pig a gazelle doesn’t make a pig a gazelle. It just makes the pig clamor for a little more bacon. The 1994 New Year's lesson is eternal.