Monthly Archives: August 2009

Why I love the Open (and a few final Teddy thoughts)

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I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a lot of great sporting events in my life. The NCAA Tournament, big NFL games, college football bowls, the Daytona 500, and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta (I was there the night of the bomb in the park, but thankfully nowhere near the explosion).

But without a doubt the best sporting event I’ve ever been to is the U.S. Open. There is so much to love about the Open, especially if you go on one of the first few days.

For starters, you get to see world-class tennis up close, and by up close, I mean, literally, five feet away. When I was younger my uncle would take us to the Open every year on one of the opening days, and I was always amazed that you could see a Top 10 player out on Court 16 or something, and be close enough to pat him on the back.

The Open is best seen not from the ginormous Arthur Ashe Stadium (which is just way too big for a tennis stadium, but that’s another argument), but by perusing the outer courts.  You can spend hours watching future stars grind out wins, and see the agony of defeat from right up close. You just can’t do that anywhere else in sports.

Then there’s the Open atmosphere. It can be cold and antiseptic on Ashe, but on the new version of Louis Armstrong Stadium and on the Grandstand, the crowd can really get into the match. You’re sitting with real tennis fans there, not the corporate shills who the USTA has sold all the good seats on Ashe too (you know, the people who are constantly on their cell phones and couldn’t tell Andy Roddick from Andy Griffith.)

The food is awesome at the Open as well, though it’s wildly, wildly overpriced. Bring your own if you can, because you’ll pay an arm and a leg, and a kidney, for lunch.

The memories I have of the Open are some of the most cherished of my life; two that leap out of my cerebellum immediately are the day my Mom and I saw Chris Evert’s last-ever Open match, a quarterfinal loss to Zina Garrison in 1989, and a marvelous full day in 2005 I spent with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, over Labor Day weekend.

By that point she’d been hearing me wax poetic about the Open for 1 1/2 years, so for my birthday that year she got me the fantastic present of two Open tickets, and basically said “Here, show me the Open.”

And so I did. We got all kinds of lucky that day; we saw Martina Navratilova, maybe the greatest women’s player ever, in a doubles match on the Grandstand. We saw Lleyton Hewitt win on Ashe, and sat next to a bunch of drunk Australians (are there any other kind? I kid, I love the Aussies) who were chanting the whole match.

But the absolute greatest moment? Sneaking over to Armstrong late in the day and happening upon a third-round match between Paradorn Srichaphan and Davide Sanguinetti. Never heard of them? That’s OK, 95 percent of the people in the crowd that day hadn’t either (though everyone got a kick out of the “Srichi-fans” rooting for the Thai guy and making all kinds of noise.)

We got to the court late in the fourth set, and saw one of the glorious U.S. Open epics. We were in the corner of the court and way high up, but we still were going nuts on every point. The noise was remarkable, the quality of play intense: Sanguinetti ended up winning 7-6 in the fifth set tiebreak, and the crowd rose as one for a standing O at the end of the match.

My arms were tingling, and as I looked over, I felt like my wife’s were, too. She finally understood what I’d been talking about all these years.

Anyway, it all kicks off today once again. I’ll be glued to the set as always; there’s nothing like the Open. I’ve been away from New York for four years now, and I never miss it more than in these two weeks.

If you get a chance, I did this piece for the News-Journal on Rafael Nadal’s chances, as well as some thoughts on the Open in general.

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Saw a lot of Ted Kennedy eulogies over the weekend, but didn’t see the entire service. I have to echo what so many have already said, and that is that Orrin Hatch gave one of the most beautiful eulogies I’ve ever heard. Hatch and Kennedy were very good friends despite having no political common ground.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth your time.

Two other quick thoughts on Kennedy:

1. Do you think we’ll ever, in our lifetime, see another family produce three U.S. senators, including one president? I have to think that kind of thing is impossible nowadays, because the sins of one will be used to slime the others.

2. I thought all the discussion about Kennedy’s career in the Senate was wonderful, but I didn’t hear enough about all the tragedy he overcame. To me, that’s what made him such a compelling figure.

Anyway, here’s the Hatch tribute. Well done, Orrin.

Jimmy Connors, a player who was hard to love

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So this blog will be pretty heavily tennis-based for the next two weeks, I’m thinking, because my favorite American sporting event (besides the NCAA Tournament) gets going with the U.S. Open in Queens. I’ll do a whole post later tonight/tomorrow morning on why I love the Open. For now, a few hundred words on a great champion:

I got to interview Jimmy Connors on a phone conference call this week for my newspaper; this is what he had to say about the upcoming U.S. Open, and a few other topics.

I was never a big Jimmy Connors fan growing up. My first love was John McEnroe, who captivated me with his attitude and his beautiful artistry on the court. Then, as I grew older I fell for Boris Becker, not because we had so much in common (He: a big tall blond German dude; Me: a small dark-haired Jewish kid), but because I loved his attitude on the court, his diving for everything, and the power with which he played.

Then I got enamored with Jim Courier, and Stefan Edberg, and, well, Jimbo never really did it for me. I remember being excited one day while I was volunteering at the Hamlet tennis tournament in Commack one year (we had a small pro event for several years in my little town), when word spread among us that McEnroe and Connors were about to warm up together on the main court.

We rushed over, and for 15 minutes one summer day, I was 10 feet from two of the greatest players in history. That was a pretty awesome moment.

But really, Connors to me was always too standoffish to root for. He was just as poor a sport as McEnroe, but didn’t seem to have the flair or charisma I was looking for. He was a great champion, but didn’t seem as beloved by the public as the others.

Then, of course, came the 1991 U.S. Open, and if you’re any kind of a sports fan you remember what happened. In the December of his career, Connors put together a miraculous run, winning five matches to get to the semifinals, and along the way played one of the greatest points in the history of the sport (seriously, check this point out, it was phenomenal).

All of a sudden, Connors was beloved, maybe truly for the first time, by American tennis fans. He’s had a quiet retirement, mostly, but came back into the spotlight when he coached Andy Roddick last year, with mixed results.

It doesn’t speak all that well of Jimmy that Roddick has done much better under new coach Larry Stefanki, but to his credit, Connors doesn’t speak ill of Roddick or Stefanki.

Anyway, talking to Connors this week got me thinking about his legacy, and how, maybe, I didn’t appreciate him as much I should’ve.

And because any time I can link to a story by one of the greatest sportswriters who ever lived, I will, here’s the best Jimmy Connors story ever written, a profile by the legendary Frank Deford from Sports Illustrated, from 1978.

Enjoy.

P.S. Speaking of Sports Illustrated, this cracked me up: I just renewed my subscription a few weeks ago; I’ve been a subscriber since 1984, when my Grandpa Don got me it for Hanukkah when I was 9. It’s still my dream (though it’s fading with each passing year) to work for them one day.

Anyway, so I get a postcard from them in the mail yesterday:

Dear Michael Lewis:

We appreciate your prompt payment for you (that was their typo) Sports Illustrated Magazine subscription. However, our records indicate that you overpaid and are due a balance of $0.01.

We will extend your subscription for 1 additional issues, or if you would prefer a refund check for the balance, please contact our customer service dept.

Seriously? They’re going to send me a check  for a penny if I want them to. Isn’t that just a colossal waste? I’m half thinking of calling and saying “I want my refund!” just to see what a check for a penny looks like.

The world’s sleaziest profession (not what you’re thinking)

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OK, a brief Saturday rant:

I am so sick and tired of sports agents not named Jerry Maguire. I’m sick of their faux-righteous indignation, and their ridiculous quotes about “just trying to get a fair deal” and all that crap.

I’m not even talking about Scott Boras here, though I believe there is an 8th circle of hell reserved for him.

I’m talking about men like Alvin Keels, who I’ve only learned about through watching the great HBO series “Hard Knocks” (which, I’m sad to say, has not been as good as usual this year.

I know the Bengals aren’t the most exciting team, but I feel like the producers have focused too much on the star players and coaches, and too little on what I love “Hard Knocks” for: the battles between guys just trying to make the roster. Those are the stories that are really fascinating.)

If you’ve never heard of Keels, no matter. He’s the agent for Andre Smith, the Bengals’ first-round draft pick out of Alabama this year. He’s the No. 6 pick overall, and he’s apparently a terrific offensive line prospect who can really help the woeful Bengals this year.

Smith is still sitting at home, unsigned, while camp winds to an end, and the regular season is set to begin in two weeks.

Why? Well, because Smith (and Keels) want more money. According to reports, the Bengals (who are, traditionally, tighter with their wallets than Al Bundy ever was) have offered a very fair deal, in line with what the picks ahead of Keels are getting.

Smith will be rich if he accepts the Bengals deal; obscenely rich. And he’s proven exactly nothing in the NFL so far (and from what I’ve read, he’s a bit of  head case, too), so you would think he’d be quite eager to get his butt into camp and show what he can do.

That’s where Keels comes in. I have no doubt he’s telling Smith to just wait, hang on, we can get more money from the Bengals. That’s what agents do. To hell with proving yourself, to hell with having a productive rookie year (which, given the complexities of offensive line play, will now be next to impossible for Smith); it’s about the money!

In the last episode of “Hard Knocks,” which got me fired up to write this, there’s a scene where a nattily-attired Keels has just come from a negotiating session with the Bengals.

After five hours, apparently, little progress has been made.

“We have some challenges ahead,” Keels said. “Andre really wants to get back on the field; he really wants me to come in and get a deal done. But at the same time, he understands it’s a business, so therefore he’s waiting patiently.”

What crap, Alvin.

You know you’re filling this kid Smith’s head with all kinds of figures he’ll never get from Cincy. Of course, if he really wanted to be in camp, he’d tell you to just sign a deal so he can play. But these are young, impressionable 21-year-olds who are trusting you, and right now, you’re ensuring he’ll waste his rookie year in the NFL.

I hate it, hate it, hate it. But this is what agents do; they play with kids lives while trying to squeeze every single penny from teams. I’m not defending the NFL teams completely, but come on, you’re a rookie! Get into camp and show what you can do!

Smart agents should do what’s best for their clients. Sleazy clients seem to only be looking to make headlines and do what’s best for themselves.

Which category is Alvin Keels in?

UPDATE: See, Alvin was listening to me instead of those chipmunks he’s always hanging around with (ba-da-bum). Andre Smith signed with the Bengals on Sunday for four years and 21 million, guaranteed, that could escalate into six years, 42 million.

Now just idiot prima donna Michael Crabtree of the 49ers is unsigned.

Now, for a palatte-cleanser:

When reporters helped change the world

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So two things combined this week to inspire me to write this post:

1. Like every other newspaper  journalist I know, I’ve been getting sick and tired of everyone telling us how irrelevant we’re becoming.

We’ve got blogs now, and Twitter, and the Internet, and who has time to wait for a newspaper anyway? goes the cry from the masses. Combine that with the hemorrhaging circulation and advertising being in the toilet, it seems everywhere you look, newspapers are gasping for their last breath.

And,

2. Today, August 28, is the 46th anniversary of the greatest speech of the 20th century, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” oration in Washington, D.C.

So given those two things, I wanted to write about an amazing book I read last year called “The Race Beat.” It’s by two legendary journalists, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, and it tells the previously untold story of the courageous journalists, black and white, who helped force the civil rights movement forward into the American consciousness.

By no means does this exhaustive but entertaining book give the journalists all the credit for the movement, but it absolutely does a service to the brave reporters who were on the front lines.

Reporters who had a conscience, yes, about the unconscionable treatment of blacks in the South, but also reporters who knew a good story and knew enough to follow it all the way through.

Typical of them was John Chancellor of NBC, who, the authors write “when faced with a flying wedge of white toughs coming at him” as he talked to a black woman after the Emmett Till lynching trial, pointed his microphone out and yelled “I don’t care what you’re going to do to me, but the whole world is going to know it.”

These reporters were on the front lines right alongside men like Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis, getting their heads bashed in and hosed down with water just like the rest.

Seriously, without reporters like Claude Sitton of the New York Times (who I had never heard of before this book was published, and now I count as a journalistic hero) and Simeon Booker of Jet Magazine, so much of the awful degradation and punishment of African-Americans might’ve stayed under the radar.

And the photographers of the era were equally important; Charles Moore of Life magazine shot some of the most iconic images that were then splashed across America’s coffee tables.

But by constantly confronting the Bull Connors and George Wallaces, and holding a mirror up to their racism, the reporters in the civil rights movement did my whole profession proud.

Of course, not everyone was on board; newspapers like the Birmingham News and others were still trapped in a time warp, refusing to acknowledge the changes going on.

But a small trickle of brave editors like Harry Ashmore at the Little Rock Gazette begat brave editors, and more and more media finally began to cover the civil rights movement, so that brutal attacks on innocent protesters, like the people crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama in 1965, would be seen and shoved down the throats of Northerners, forcing them to take notice and demand action just as their Southern brothers were doing.

Truly, this book should be essential reading for journalism students, or any students of American history. If you’re a writer like me, turning its pages will once again make you feel proud to be a part of this profession.

Even if you’re not a journalist, I urge you to check out this beautifully-written tale of courageous people , black and white, who by their words and pictures helped change the world for the better.

And now, just because it can never be heard enough …

R.I.P., Teddy Kennedy, last of the great liberals

 

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Whatever else you see or read today or in the next few days about the late Edward Kennedy, let me assure you of this:

The man did not get cheated by life. He lived four or five lifetimes in his 77 years: a young kid just hoping to carry the mantle of his slain brothers; a senator who many thought was a lightweight but grew into a powerful advocate, an incredibly wealthy man who cared deeply about people who had so little money.

He was also shamed and disgraced after being responsible for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick in 1969, pathetically leaving the scene of the crime, then not reporting it for hours while Kopechne drowned; and finally, after the drinking and carousing and womanizing was finished, he became a fantastic and distinguished voice of experience in the Senate, raging against big-company greed and fighting so hard for things like aid to the poor, civil rights, and immigration.

Really, the guy lived enough for three or four movies about him.

One of the things I said in a post last month about Kennedy is that he was such a tragically flawed hero, and was such a lightning rod, that most people either loved him or hated him.  I mean really, have you ever met anyone with no opinion on Teddy?

Just as so many of us on the left were thrilled he was championing causes few believed him, he was mocked viciously on the right, for his excessive alcohol intake (a woman in my office has a bumper sticker that reads: “I’d still rather go hunting with Dick Cheney than drinking with Ted Kennedy.”)

Much like with Bill Clinton, I think that if Teddy could’ve eliminated some of the more noxious elements of his personal life, he could’ve accomplished so much more.

As much as he did accomplish (helping pass the Voting Rights Act, helping found OHSA, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, getting the minimum wage raised, starting the wildly successful SCHIP program for kids’ health), I feel that he could’ve had an even bigger impact, perhaps as President, if his wildly reckless behavior had been curtailed before the 1990s.

There are some people that I’ve read today who think Kennedy’s death from a brain tumor will spur change and action on the health-care debate, that now there will be some kind of symbolic unity and America will finally get a strong universal health-care plan.

Yeah, I’m not seeing that; Republicans and special interests are too dug in and this goes way beyond Teddy Kennedy’s legacy. 

What I keep thinking about today is, who’s going to fill his shoes? I don’t mean, literally, who’ll take his Senate seat.

I’m talking about, who’ll be the charismatic liberal voice in the Senate? We lost the great Paul Wellstone in a plane crash in 2002, and now Kennedy has died.

There are other liberal Senators fighting for our causes, men like Russ Feingold and Dick Durbin, but they lack the national profile and, quite frankly, the charisma of other past standout Senators.

I just fear that with Barack Obama turning out to be more of a centrist than I hoped, that with Kennedy’s death the era of the mad as hell, fire-breathing liberal championing those who don’t have anyone else to champion them is officially dead, too.

Who will speak for those without a voice? Who will argue on behalf of the single mother working two jobs and still being unable to pay the mortgage, or the minimum-wage-earning man trying to earn a living and break a cycle of abject poverty in his life, or in his surroundings? Hardly anybody speaks for those people now above a whisper, and now poor people lost one of the few megaphones they had left.

I thought John Edwards could be that voice once, but, well, we know what happened to him.

I think historians decades from now will see Kennedy in a mostly positive light; the alcohol and indiscretions will be glossed over, and his legacy will be that of the only Kennedy brother who lived a long life, and packed as much into it as it could.

Adam Clymer maybe summed up Kennedy best in his 1999 biography:

“The deaths and tragedies around him would have led others to withdraw. He never quits, but sails against the wind.”

Farewell, Senator Kennedy. You lived one hell of a life.

And say hi to Jack and Bobby for us, too.

 

 

Oh, how we love our new Wii game

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Move over, chocolate chip cookies.

Stand aside, sunsets over the Grand Canyon.

I’ve got a whole new love in my life, and baby, it’s a beauty.

For my birthday last week, my wonderful in-laws and my equally-terrific wife got me two new games for the Nintendo Wii: One, the Wii Grand Slam Tennis, I’ve been pining for for several months, and so far it’s pretty awesome.

It’ll be even more awesome when I figure out how to play well on the damn thing; you’ve got all kinds of shot control, but the movement side to side and up to the net is really difficult. Alas, I will master it.

But no, the true apple of my eye is the other game I received, and my friends, at the risk of sounding like Vince from Slap Chop, I cannot recommend this product highly enough.

Basically, you are taken to an island and you compete in 12 different sports, sports that you have never seen before in a video game. There’s wakeboarding, where you’re behind a boat and you’ve got to twist the remote side to side, catch a wave, and do crazy flips in the air (I rule at this game).

There’s skydiving, where you link up with people on your way to the ground from 20,000 feet and have to hold the position for a few seconds (this game, I’m not so good at).

But the best, best, best game is the sword-fighting duel challenge, which is exactly what it sounds like. You and a competitor are all dressed up in fighting gear, and stand across from each other in dueling positions. Then, when the horn sounds, you attack each other immediately, trying to land blows and shove the other person off the cliff, and plummeting down 50 feet into the water below.

It’s kind of like the joust competition on the old “American Gladiators” (which was just the most awesome Saturday morning show ever, and probably worthy of its own post at some point. Here’s an awesome video of kick-ass MMA fighter Gina Carano in a montage of her best moments on the show. But I digress.)

Anyway, as great as the joust competition is, and it takes a lot of skill, the wacky Nintendo people came up with something even more bizarre.

It’s called the “Speed Slice” challenge, and this is how it works: You and your opponent (in my case, my wife) stand their with your swords, and wait as a scary-looking man holds various objects.

Then scary looking man throws them in the air. You wait for the objects to land, and for a split second an arrow appears telling you which direction to slice. The first person to slice correctly gets a point, and first to 10 points wins.

I should point out that the objects include a pencil, a block of ice, and a watermelon. It’s insanely funny.

God, how I would’ve loved to be in that production meeting in Japan when they came up with this:

Employee 1: OK, so we’ve got this great sword-fighting game, where people can joust with each other and pretend to inflict violence.

Employee 2: Yeah, but that’s not enough. We need MORE!

Employee 1: OK, how about this: We give the two people swords, and then we have that dude from our Wii boxing game throw stuff at them, and they’ve got to cut it up really fast.

Employee 2: Brilliant. What should we have our guy throw?

Employee 1: How about, I don’t know, watermelon. And blocks of ice. And, and …

Employee 2: Roman candles!

Employee 1: Yes, Roman candles! Of course. We’ve got a winner on our hands!

Employee 2: Great. Let’s go eat lunch, and hey, do we have any more of those drugs around?

If you’re curious, here’s a demo.

So yeah, we played Wii Sports Resort a lot over the weekend. There’s also basketball, a frisbee game where you throw the frisbee and your little dog partner runs and catches it, and a very cool cycling game.

Bravo, Wii people. Bravo.

P.S. OK, since you’ve hung around this far, two entertaining if old YouTubes to give you a smile:

First, since the Vince from Slap Chop reference got me thinking about it, here’s three minutes of pure genius:

And then, because you know you love it, and because it’s one of my favorite movie montages EVER …

Daniel La Russo will live forever.

The Growing Pains of Mark Sanchez, and Holder disappoints

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Here’s just one tiny slice of what it’s like as a New York Jets fan:

This year’s Quarterback of the Future, a.k.a. the next Joe Namath, threw an interception return for a touchdown on his first pass. And frankly, I wasn’t even remotely surprised.

On his next throw, Mark Sanchez hit Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis right in the chest. Lewis dropped it.

About what I expected.

Earlier tonight, while I watched the Jets’ new hope show he’s, um, a rookie, I tried to remember all the young quarterbacks I’ve been excited about as a Jets fan for the last 29 years (I don’t count my first 5 years of life; no football memories back there).

There was Ken O’Brien, who, while very accurate, got sacked more often than Scott Bakula at the beginning of “Necessary Roughness,” (an underrated movie, in my opinion. I tried to link to a clip from the film here but not one single clip was on YouTube. A disgrace, people of this world, an outright disgrace! Anyway…)

There was the legendary Browning Nagle, who was going to be so awesome after a great 1991 preseason (then they went 4-12). Who could forget the magnificent Glenn Foley era, or the one that followed a few years later, the Glory that was Ray Lucas?

You get the point. All those guys after O’Brien stunk more than four-day-old garbage. And each time, like Charlie Brown running at Lucy, I get my hopes up.

So, I’m trying to be cautiously optimistic about this new kid, Sanchez. He’s saying all the right things, he’s respectful, seems to have a great attitude … but they all do at the beginning.

I thought after his first two atrocious throws, it would get better for No. 6. But then he botched a handoff exchange, totally mis-timed a pass to Jerricho Cotchery, and looked poor for most of the first half.

But God bless our new coach, Rex Ryan, who was going to leave Sanchez in there until something good happened. And it did; thanks to Leon Washington’s brilliance (a guy who I’ve been crowing about since he was a rookie, and yet they never give him the ball enough) and a great throw, Sanchez tossed a TD pass late in the half.

The kid ended up 3-for-8 with one pick; fortunately for him, Kellen Clemens stinks. I’m officially off the Clemens bandwagon; I’ve had more excuses for this guy than a kid with a late school project, but he’s just not that good. He’s making rookie mistakes in his FOURTH year.

So I guess Sanchez should be the starter; I mean, the Ravens are one of the best defenses in football, so it’s not that embarrassing that the kid stunk. I initially hoped Clemens would win the job and give Sanchez a chance to sit and watch for a while, but Kellen has shown me bubkes (it’s Yiddish, look it up. This blog is going multi-lingual!)

Other quick Jets-related thoughts after I just watched three quarters of preseason football (you could say I’m a little obsessed):

— I feel very good about Gang Green’s running game. Leon was terrific tonight, and Thomas Jones had some nice burst up the middle. Having Alan Faneca and Nick Mangold back was very nice to see.

— I’m loving what Rex Ryan is doing with the defense; these guys blitz and bring pressure from everywhere. I thought the first team D did a real good job, with the exception of the secondary, where Dwight Lowery continued to show why he belongs as a backup.

— Very worried about the receivers; I’m just not seeing any separation or play-making ability from anyone. I really don’t want them to bring in ultimate head case Brandon Marshall, but they need somebody who can make a play.

I think deep in his heart Ryan wants Sanchez to be the starting QB, but I think he should wait until after the Giants game this Saturday to decide. Neither guy earned the job tonight.

OK, repeating to myself: It’s only preseason, it’s only preseason (though I have to say I’m enjoying the new “MNF” booth; Jon Gruden is bringing something to the table, and he and Jaworski seem to have good chemistry).

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Eric Holder, I had high hopes for you.

Finally, finally, you decide to appoint a prosecutor to look into all the torture of the alleged terrorists the Bush/Cheney gang rounded up. Finally, you had decided to you simply couldn’t look the other way, and that justice needed to be done as the previous administration picked up the Constitution and spit on it.

And yet, there are conditions. Always with my wimpy Democrats, there are conditions and caveats. As the outstanding Salon writer Glenn Greenwald points out here, Holder is just dipping a toe in. He’s basically saying that he’s just going after the guys who did more torture than sadists like Cheney and John Yoo approved, because Cheney and Yoo made the laws at the time (Seriously, it is frightening to know how much power John Yoo had in the last administration. Frightening).

Instead of vowing to go after anyone and everyone who authorized or encouraged torture performed by lower-level CIA or FBI employees, Holder barely dipped a toe in the water.

Watch this video again, and let it sink in: The United States of America tortured people. And once again, just like at Abu Gharaib, it looks like the low-level interrogators will be the only ones to suffer the consequences.

Maybe Holder will go further. For right now, he’s taken the first step. So I’m at least a little happy about that.

Federer and “Mad Men:” A beautiful Sunday

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Sunday has always, always, always been my favorite day of the week.

No question about it, Sunday rules. From the Sunday New York Times, which I’ve been reading since, I don’t know, ever, to NFL games, sleeping late, and just the whole relaxed vibe of the day, I am totally, madly, deeply a Sunday fan.

This particular Sunday was pretty darn good: Roger Federer and Don Draper made up my the bookends of my day.

First, Mr. Federer. He had a sensational weekend, dispatching Andy Murray, who’s owned Fed lately, in the semifinals Saturday of the Cincinnati hardcourt event (I’m sorry, but I refuse to write out “Western and Southern Financial Group” as the name of the tournament.).

Then on Sunday, Federer barely perspired in slamming Novak Djokovic, 6-1, in the first set, and winning a close 7-5 second set.

Federer was at another level; I once made the comment that, like in “Spinal Tap,” he can raise his game to 11, while everyone else was stuck at 10.

I actually think the win over Murray was more impressive than beating Djokovic, although both opponents have owned Federer of late. Murray came in absolutely rolling, moving past Rafael Nadal (more on him in a minute) to reach No. 2 in the world, and hardcourt is his best surface.

But while Fed may not be the same guy who dominated so easily a few years ago, he’s not the “bum” who struggled to reach the finals of tournaments earlier this year.

He played beautifully against Murray, attacking the Scot’s second serve, powering forehand winners, and just moving about the court like a butterfly on a spring day (sorry to get all poetic on you).

He was perfect from the baseline in both matches; Sunday you could tell Djokovic (who had a fine week himself) had no answer for Federer.

How do you beat Fed when he’s playing like this?

An imagined conversation between player and coach:

Player: So, um, Roger’s serving 120 miles per hour out wide. How do I deal with that?

Coach: I dunno.

Player: His forehand crosscourt is killing me.

Coach: Yeah, try to stay away from that.

Player: His backhand down the line is eating me up.

Coach: Yeah, stay away from that, too

Player: You want me to stay away from his forehand AND his backhand?

Coach: Yep. OK, I’m going to get lunch. Good luck kid.

It’s truly been an amazing turnaround for Federer this year; if you told me in February, after once again losing to Rafa in a Grand Slam final (for the 3rd time in the last four Slams), that Fed would win the French, win Wimbledon, and be a bigger favorite than Tyson over Buster Douglas going into the Open, even I, a huge Fed fan, would’ve laughed.

But man, who’s going to beat him in Flushing Meadows? I see No. 16 coming right around the bend, as the No. 7 train pulls into Queens.

**Now, about Nadal … Here’s the thing about most tennis fans: We can’t bring ourselves to root against either Federer or Nadal. There are no villains here; both guys are likable, incredibly talented, decent champions that a lot of us want them both to do well.

But after watching Rafa in a few matches since his comeback, I’m worried about the Spanish lefty. He’s moving OK, the knees don’t seem to be bothering him, but he’s just missing … something (I’m using italics too much in this post, I’m noticing. Got to cut that out. Wait, was that out loud?).

Take Saturday night, in his semi against Djokovic. Rafa was getting pushed around the court, playing way too much defense. Novak was dictating everything, and Nadal was scrambling just to stay in points. I know it’s his least favorite surface, and he appeared to have his stomach taped (which baffled the ESPN announcers, and me as well), but I don’t think Rafa’s close to 100 percent yet.

Maybe it’s mental, and he’s worried about re-injuring himself. Whatever it is, I don’t like our chances of a Nadal-Federer final, or even semi-final, at the Open.

**One more tennis thought: ESPN, you’re killing me with these tape delays, especially on matches in America, where’s there’s no time difference issue! I avoided the result of Nadal-Djokovic for a few hours Saturday night, and then watched it on ESPN. But first ESPN shows 10-15 minutes of filler, then toward the end of the second set, I KNEW Nadal wasn’t coming back, because ESPN’s programming window was about to close. It didn’t help, at 5-4 Djokovic, when they ran a crawl saying the stupid “NASCAR Now” show was going to be on at 12:09. Gee, anyone think Nadal was making a comeback at that point?

Tape delays take all the surprise away. And I do love surprises.

madmen1

***OK, on to “Mad Men.” Big fan of the show, have been since the wife and I started watching it three years ago. I will say, though, that I think the amount of hype the show has gotten has been a little ridiculous. I mean, I understand pop culture arbiters fall in love with a show, and the media elite write and talk about it endlessly, but I don’t ever recall so many writers trying to seem “hip” by writing about “Mad Men.” It’s a really good show.

But let’s not put it in there with “Hill Street Blues” and “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos,” yet, OK?

Anyway, after two episodes this season, my reaction is: Eh. Not thrilled with the way it’s started (SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you haven’t seen Sunday’s episode. Thank you. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.)

I feel like the whole British ownership storyline is forced; I don’t really care about it, and I don’t think the writers have done a great job explaining how this will work. I also feel like they’re pushing some of the best supporting characters, like Joan and Ken, out of the way.

But there’s some good stuff brewing, it looks like. They’re finally developing Peggy’s character more; I feel like they’ve never given her enough to do, or shown us more of who she really is.

The writing is still excellent, and every scene the wonderful John Slattery is in makes me smile (Seriously, who’s been in more great stuff than this guy in the last 10 years? He was in “Ed,” which was criminally unloved, he had a nice guest role on “Desperate Housewives” for a while, and now he’s fantastic in every scene he’s in on “Mad Men.” Love this guy.)

I like where they’re going with Betty’s father, and they may even be setting us up for a discussion of Sal’s homosexuality, which ought to be wildly interesting.

If they would just have more bad things happen to Pete, I’d be happy. Man I hate that guy. Can’t he fall down a well or something?

Anyway, step it up, “Mad Men.” You’re better than what you’ve shown so far this year.

A man called Bolt

bolt

Lots of things have happened in this sporting summer. Roger Federer won Wimbledon, which thrilled me. The Yankees pulled away in the American League East. Also good.

But I think the greatest phenomenon of the last few months is a 23-year-old Jamaican guy who right now is miles beyond everyone else in his sport.

We’ve become so immune to numbers in athletics. Some guy hits 65 home runs, and we yawn. A running back rushes for 200 yards and four touchdowns. Meh. A basketball player scores 50 points in a game? Pretty good, but … next.

What Usain Bolt is doing right now at the World Championships of track and field in Berlin is a rare and beautiful thing. Every generation, we get an athlete who takes his sport to the next level. Babe Ruth did it in the 1920s.

Muhammad Ali had the 1960s and ’70s. Jack Nicklaus was right there with him in his sport. Some kid from North Carolina named Michael Jordan brought his game into another stratosphere in the 1980s and ’90s, while Michael Phelps brought those in the water up on his shoulders into a glorious place.

What Bolt is doing, in smashing his own world records in the 100 and 200 meter dashes, is something remarkable. He’s destroying the idea that track records are broken in increments, hundredths of a second at a time.

He beat his own 100-meter record by .11, then broke his 200-meter by the same mark. Do you know how ridiculous that is? It’s like a halfback running for 350 yards in a game, or a baseball player hitting 81 home runs in a season.

It’s laughable, how much of a mockery Bolt is making the competition. Poor Tyson Gay ran the 100 this week faster than any American ever had, posting a 9.71. And he wasn’t even close to winning, as Bolt’s 9.58 blew him away.

His margin of victory – 0.62sec – in the 200 is greater than the sum total of winning margins of the five previous winners of the world 200 title.

As many have said this week, Bolt is simply redefining what the human body can do. Consider:

— His 19.19 in the 200, when broken down by 100-meter increments, were a 9.58 and a 9.61. So he equaled his own world record, and then missed it on the second 100 by .03 seconds. Nobody ever runs the second 200 that fast.

— We’ve always been told sprinters have to short and stride quickly. Bolt is 6-foot-5 and takes long strides. When he runs, he’s like a gazelle, attacking the pavement and the air around him like it owes him money.

— He can still get better. In both the Beijing Olympics and in the 200 this week, Bolt slowed a little in the last five meters. He can go faster. He can run a 19.05 200, and maybe a unbelievable 9.4 in the 100.

Listen to veteran track and field people talk about Bolt, and it’s like they used to talk about M.J. when he first started with the Bulls.

TV announcer Ato Boldon just keeps screaming “Oh my God!” when talking about Bolt. Michael Johnson, never known for humility, can’t get over how “ridiculous” Bolt is.

Is the kid a little cocky? Absolutely.  He says things like “I’m on my way to becoming a legend,” and talks about being up for knightood.

But wouldn’t you be a little in love with yourself if you broke the a world record in the last FIVE major meets you’ve competed at?

Now … the big elephant in the room here is this: Is he clean? So far, he’s tested positive for nothing more than excitement. Track and field has been plagued with so many superstars who flash on the scene, then are disgraced by drug testing results.

Ben Johnson. Marion Jones. Justin Gatlin. Just to name a few.

I don’t know if Bolt is clean or dirty. I pray that he’s doing all this legitimately, because it’s such a good story. But a fellow scribe of mine, Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle, wrote a great piece saying that Bolt is providing so much joy, we shouldn’t race to assume he’s guilty.

“You can’t rob me of my joy,” Solomon writes. “He is the most amazing, entertaining athlete on the planet.”

I couldn’t agree more. If it turns out he’s cheating, well, I’ll be sad because he’s such a remarkable runner.

For now, I’m just going to enjoy this Jamaican kid lift everyone higher, higher and higher.

The man who inspired me to be a writer

MLEWIS

Teachers never die. They live in your memory forever. They were there when you arrived, they were there when you left. Like fixtures.

Once in a while they taught you something. But not that often. And, you never really knew them, any more than they knew you. Still, for a while, you believed in them. And, if you were lucky, maybe there was one who believed in you.

— Opening lines from “The Wonder Years,” Episode 43, entitled “Goodbye.”

Picture it. Commack High School, Commack, N.Y. Fall of 1990.

A 15-year-old kid with big glasses and goofy smile walks in to 10th grade English class pretty unsure of himself. The boy still dreams of being a professional tennis player, the idea not quite dawning on him that the list of 5-foot-5 Jewish men who have won Wimbledon is a woefully short one.

The boy has always liked English class, and always loved words. Taught himself how to read through Matt Christopher books and by checking the sports scores in the pages of Newsday.

Writing was fun and easy, but nothing more interesting than that.

Then, on a fall day at the start of sophomore year, the kid walks into the classroom and meets William Gehrhardt. A teacher so full of energy and enthusiasm that he positively bounces around the room, and every time he knocks into something or someone, inspiration and hope begin to grow in the kid.

The teacher has big glasses and his tie is always a little askew, and he’s always, always, smiling.

Mr. Gehrhardt is just one of those infectious people who is impossible to dislike; he tells jokes about Hamlet and makes fun of his own shortcomings, and he somehow finds a way to make every single kid in the class feel like he’s the one today’s lesson is for.

Soon, the 15-year-old boy is excited about English class. The essays and reports are eagerly approached, and even though the kid’s handwriting is just this side of illegible, Mr. Gehrhardt is constantly praising, encouraging, cajoling.

You’re really good at this, Mr. Gehrhardt tells the boy. Keep at it. It could be something you could do as a career.

The kid is baffled. Writing? As a career? Seriously?

Still, it sinks in.

The boy thinks about it and toward the end of the year, he joins the high school newspaper. Soon, he’s writing stories for fun and thinking of new ways to impress Mr. Gehrhardt. Finally, after years of struggling with math and popularity and self-image issues, here was something he was good at.

Something he could do as well as anyone.

The school year ends in June, 1991. Mr. Gehrhardt moves on to another group of kids that fall, inspiring and joking with some other students who maybe don’t realize how incredibly fortunate they are to have this man enter their life.

The kid? Well, he kept writing, for the high school paper, then his college one, then at three newspapers and a magazine so far in a career that has brought him so many exciting experiences.

***************************************************************************************************

The words of a teacher are so incredibly important. You never know what will light a spark, or what words will sink into a kid’s soul. I still remember an insulting comment once said to me by an elementary school teacher.

I also still remember the glowing grin and perspiration-soaked brow of Mr. Gehrhardt, and how his small kindnesses had an impact on my life that’s measurable only by a Richter scale.

I ended up writing several college application essays about him, and I’ve told countless people how instrumental he was in my finding a career as a wordsmith.

But for the past few years, something has gnawed at the pit of my stomach: I’d never really told my favorite teacher how much he’d affected my life.

I resolved to call him or write a letter, but days turned into weeks, and weeks became months, and months begat years, and I never got around to putting my thoughts onto paper.

Finally, in February I decided I needed to do this. I called my old high school and they told me Mr. Gehrhardt had retired, and they couldn’t give me his address. But a nice secretary said if I wrote him a letter and sent it to her at the school, she’d make sure she forwarded it to him.

And so I sat down and opened a vein.

I told him a lot of what I’ve said here. I was reminded of the great quotation that “a hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, or the kind of car I drove … but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”

I mailed the letter. I didn’t expect a reply. I just felt that, wherever he was, Mr. Gehrhardt might like to know the impact he had on one kid who never forgot him.

Well … I’m telling you all this now because Wednesday, after a long day at work, I came home and there was an envelope sitting on the counter.

It was a letter from Mr. Gehrhardt.

His emotion spilled off the page like milk from an overturned carton.

First he apologized for taking so long to write back. Then he thanked me profusely, and mentioned that after retiring from Commack he moved to Pennsylvania, and was now teaching at a small college there.

He also said he and his wife cried over my letter, and I nearly dropped the piece of paper when he said he was going to preserve the note so that a future grandchild might “one day read it and think well of me.”

It’s one of the greatest pieces of correspondence I’ve ever received, and it made me feel so good. I’ve re-read the letter about 10 times, and each time I feel so thankful that I had a teacher move me like Mr. Gehrhardt did.

The bond between teacher and student is so precious, and 19 years after I first met him, I cherish Mr. Gehrhardt as much as ever.

If you’ve had a similar experience with a marvelous teacher, it’s never too late to let them know how you feel.

 

P.S. That quote at the top? That’s from my favorite episode of “The Wonder Years.”. It’s the one  when Kevin’s math teacher, Mr. Collins, prepares him for the big mid-term, only to disappear right before the test.  If you know “The Wonder Years,” you know what happens next.

The ending, with Linda Ronstadt singing “Goodbye My Friend?”

Makes me tear up every time.