Thursday, October 25, 2012

Remembering My COOP

For some reason unbeknownst to me, I remember this particular date in history. Thirty-seven years ago on October 25, 1975—a Saturday (so easily verified in this Information Age of ours)—I took the COOP exam. A familiar ritual for boys and girls in their final year in Catholic grammar school, the acronym is short for "Cooperative Admissions Examination Program." Actually, it should have been called the CAEP exam. For me, it all went down at St. Nicholas of Tolentine High School in the Fordham area of the Bronx, a few miles to the south of where I called home and attended school.

“Tolentine,” as it was popularly known, was one of the four high schools I requested the COOP results be forwarded to for either "admission" or "rejection"—a requirement, I think. There was, too, an “on waiting list” potential third response from the selected schools. Happily, I was offered admission to all four of my high school choices, although I had no intention of ever attending Tolentine or "the Mount," Mt. St. Michael. The reasons why we chose the high schools we did back then were typically multi-layered and ran the gamut from affordability to location; family tradition to gender exclusivity; "I wanna go where my friends are going" to "I have no choice because it's the only school I made." And, once upon a time, kids were actually rejected and placed on schools’ waiting lists. You know, when these institutions of fine learning were not hard up for business like so many of them are today. Baby boomers outnumbered the available desks in the 1960s and 1970s.

In fact, St. Nicholas of Tolentine High School closed its doors for good in 1991, the victim of declining enrollment in a demographically changing neighborhood that couldn’t afford the ever-rising tuition costs. It should be noted that after completing the arduous COOP exam, a handful of my grammar school buddies and I set out for home, but not before patronizing a local Kentucky Fried Chicken joint on Fordham Road. Last time I checked the place was still in business, although it called itself KFC now and its simple 1975 menu—regular or extra crispy—was a relic of the past. As I recall, one of my meatier mates from St. John’s grammar school in the Bronx's Kingsbridge neighborhood, ordered a three-piece dinner that day and somebody—not me—made the obligatory fat joke. Kids. By today’s yardstick, I suspect this thirteen-year-old would be considered svelte, and three pieces of chicken, a tiny cup of phony-tasting, dehydrated, instant mashed potatoes (which I always liked), and a small lukewarm piece of frozen corn on the cob would hardly qualify as a pig-out. After lunch—with our educational mission accomplished and appetites satisfied—we walked the few miles home without incident. We could have hopped on the Number 20 bus, but we were an adventuresome and energetic lot in those days.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

How I Became a Made Man in the Bronx

The most corporate franchise in sports history isn’t going to the World Series this year. Hooray! Yes, I’m happy about that. Not quite ecstatic, like I would have been a quarter of a century ago, but more than mildly pleased. Why? To borrow a phrase from Facebook, “It’s complicated.” After all, Major League Baseball has become downright sacrilege to me, and I make every effort not to follow, or lose any sleep over, the antics of multi-millionaire muscle heads and crybabies (see my previous blog and others for more on that). But perhaps Charles Bukowski (Henry Chinaski as played by Mickey Rourke in Barfly) was on to something when he said, “Hatred, it’s the only thing that lasts.” Because, I still hate the Yankees. I don’t follow the game anymore, or have any vested interest in the cross-town rivalry like I did once upon a time. Still, I root against the whole pinstriped lot of them by osmosis. And I don’t burn sassafras root at Derek Jeter’s altar, either.

My father was the quintessential Yankee fan from way back until, almost literally, the day he died. The very first baseball games I attended were in the late-1960s alongside him—in the actual “House that Ruth Built” with the wooden seats and concrete poles that made unobstructed views of the game well nigh impossible. I seem to recall going to a “bat day” promotion against the Seattle Pilots. That had to be 1969 then—the expansion team’s only year in existence and chronicled in Jim Bouton’s then-controversial tell-all memoir Ball Four, one of my all-time favorite sports books. So, I was a not-as-yet seven-year-old boy when I received my “Jake Gibbs” inscribed bat on the way into the stadium—a quality piece of lumber. We used "bat day" bats with bona fide “hardballs”in the old neighborhood and they were up to the task.

Something, though, tells me that particular game against the Pilots got rained out, but we at least got to keep the bat. I believe, too, there was some bat mischief that "bat day" as well. Handing out thousands of rock-solid wooden bats to folks in the Bronx entering a crowded stadium was asking for trouble, I suppose, particularly when one added an extended rain delay and free-flowing beer to the soupy mix. I was on hand for yet another “bat day” a year or two later, when I took home a “Gene Michael” Louisville Slugger. This was the game that a serious mustard-packet splatter on the back of the seat in front of me held me spellbound for nine innings. Anyway, I was groomed to be a Yankee fan—why would I be anything else?

So, I can't really explain what happened. The 1969 “Miracle Mets,” maybe? Rebelling against an authority figure in the family and daring to be different? Tough to say. If I was rebelling, I was quasi-unaware I was doing it. Sure, I wholeheartedly embraced the Mets in 1970. My father even brought me a home the 1970 Mets’ yearbook—from Yankee Stadium no less. I’d like to think I was merely a wide-eyed seven-year-old boy switching on the black-and-white television at home and watching my favorite team—the Mets televised three-quarters of their games; the Yankees only a quarter back then. Still, I didn’t feel I had to root against the Yankees after declaring myself a Met fan—not in the least.

Very quickly, though, it became evident to little me that I couldn’t like the Mets—love them in fact—and still wish that other New York team well. I thus became a made man at the age of nine or ten. My chop-busting father and the majority of my peers in the old Bronx neighborhood I called home, who rooted for those damn Yankees, considered Met fans—and particularly “Mr. Met”—persona non grata. There was no two-timing permitted on this playing field—no mealy-mouthed bipartisan stuff. It was one or the other. You're either with us or against us. Against then. At the tender age of nine or ten, I became a full-fledged Yankee hater. I had no choice. Perhaps there’s a lesson here, I don’t know. I’ll leave that sort of thing to the New Age folks. But I can honestly say that for me: Hatred, it's is the only thing that lasts—at least so far as the Yankees are concerned. Ah, yes, made to hate on the streets of the Bronx a long time ago.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Look Who's Number One

I know where I was and what I was doing on this day thirty-nine years ago. It, too, was a Monday and a holiday. As per family tradition, my mother hosted a birthday party for my younger brother on that crisp autumn Columbus Day. Various friends from the neighborhood were invited over to our house to sing “Happy Birthday” and eat Duncan Hines chocolate box cake, ice cream, and assorted munchies. And, last but not least, no kid party of ours was complete without fun games like “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” and “Dunking for Apples”—McIntosh Red from Sloan’s supermarket down the street.

But it also was a very special day for New York Met fans of all ages. Back in October 1973—a month shy of my eleventh birthday—I proudly wore the nickname of “Mr. Met.” On my block, I was a rare fan of the team from Queens. After all, I called home the Bronx, where that American League franchise played in a big stadium several miles to the south. My unbending fealty to their cross-town rivals set me apart.

Shortened to just “Met” in most instances, my nickname has endured. Over the last four decades, a handful of folks—who misheard “Met” in the ether—have called me “Matt.” But, sadly, my allegiance to the team has not endured. Once upon a time my Met fanaticism was whole and pure—loyal through good times and bad for a quarter of a century. Society, the world, and Major League Baseball, though, gradually changed—for the worst in many instances—as did my interest in what once was a wonderful game. Big money, multi-media hot air, and snowballing technologies have dramatically altered the playing field. The game’s unique and special ambiance has taken a colossal hit—fatal from my perspective. An average game takes close to three hours now, and a half hour longer than that during the post season. Between excessive commercials and on-the-field dilly-dallying, the games just never end. I won’t bother mentioning the pampered millionaires who play the game today, steroids, over-expansion, interleague play, uneven and unfair scheduling, and ticket prices beyond the pale of decency. Player loyalty? Fuggedaboutit. This used to be the little guy’s game.

And so I return to that Columbus Day birthday party from yesteryear, which found my New York Mets playing Cincinnati’s heavily favored "Big Red Machine" that same afternoon in a play-off game. Yes, we called them the “play-offs” then—not the “LCS.” It was televised on both WOR, Channel Nine—the Mets’ local station—and nationally on NBC. Imagine that. Naturally, I remained loyal to the play-by-play of the home team’s dulcet announcers: Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner, and Bob Murphy. And on this festive fall day, Jerry Koosman pitched a complete game and Rusty Staub hit two home runs in a 9-2 rout. The Mets went on to beat the Reds in a best of five series with a team ERA of 1.33. The staff also completed three of the five games played. Imagine that.

Only a week earlier, the Mets clinched the Eastern Division title with a win against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Realizing that many of her students were more interested in watching the game than having her read aloud from The Big Wave, sixth-grade Language Arts teacher Sister Joanne wheeled in a big black-and-white television set, resting atop a tall stand, and plugged it into the non-educational, commercial TV slot on the wall. Fortunately, it wasn’t a year earlier when I had old and crabby Sister Camillus for the same subject. She wouldn’t have been so obliging, I suspect.

On August, 31, 1973, the Mets sported a 62-71 record. Manager and guru Yogi Berra told skeptical reporters around that time, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” After a year of debilitating injuries to so many team regulars, good health had returned for the month of September. Admittedly, it helped that the Eastern Division of the National League was pretty lame that year, but Yogi was nonetheless prescient. On the last weekend of the season, five of the six teams had a mathematical chance of winning the division. The Mets actually assumed first place with a 76-76 record on September 21st. After they beat the Pirates 10-2 that night, I'll never forget a WOR-TV post-game camera shot of Shea Stadium’s "state-of-the-art" electronic scoreboard. It read “Look Who’s Number One,” with the division’s standings listed below it. That old scoreboard often looked like contemporary Facebook posts from iPhones—error laden, incoherent, and unintentionally hilarious—but this particular message was absolutely correct in letter and number.

When one combines my almost-eleven-year-old enthusiasm and wide-eyed innocence with my favorite team going from last place to first place during the first few weeks of September, it’s little wonder that one of the most exciting sentences I’ve ever laid eyes on was: “Look Who’s Number One.” Perhaps I’ll encounter another such sentence in the future—with such heft—but that’s highly unlikely.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)