Guestwords: Players in Angel Cities

By Dan Marsh

    The capitalist Walter O’Malley hijacked the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. This was a stake in many hearts.

    It took a while, but William Shea with the blessing of Robert Moses moved New York and brought the Metropolitans to Queens.

    My aunt fell in love with baseball again.

    This happened a long time ago. In 1962 the New York Mets started their baseball schedule miserably and got worse. They are the first and only major league baseball team to lose 120 games out of 162 in a campaign. This is hard to imagine now in an America that tolerates if not welcomes government spying on its own citizens. Texts between ex-teammates could be data-mined. Phone calls to former coaches tapped. There could be in-game tweets between friends on opposing teams.

    Back in 1962, only information on the next pitch, visually stolen by a runner leading off of second base or a clever coach on the dugout bench, was acceptable to the American crowd. The sign on the fence near first base was not an advertisement for an erectile-dysfunction drug; it was a warning: No Fraternizing. Casey Stengel was the manager in the Mets’ dugout then. A lot of fans and out-of-town sportswriters thought Stengel was a clown.

    Stengel had been discharged by the New York Yankees two years earlier after the mighty Bronx Bombers lost the seventh game of the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Bill Mazeroski’s dagger home run. Stengel felt that there was another reason for his dismissal: He had just turned 70. “I’ll never make that mistake again,” he said.

    Bill Irwin is a clown. David Shiner is a clown. They recently had a show on Broadway called “Old Hats.” My wife and daughter caught the show and told my aunt, who lives in an assisted-living facility, and me all about it. Irwin and Shiner are at the top of their games. I think Stengel was still at the top, too, and was an old hat, when he had to go looking for new employers.

    Irwin, dressed in baggy pants not unlike Honus Wagner’s baseball knickers, finds a way to shrink into them, until he almost disappears under a spotlight, stage front. But he doesn’t and Stengel didn’t vanish either. “There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them,” Stengel said. So there he was in 1962 in the old Polo Grounds in Harlem, across the river from Yankee Stadium, managing the newly minted Mets.

    When he surveyed that Mets squad, he famously said, “Can’t anybody play this here game?” (This question was straightened out into “Can’t anybody here play this game?” Which is grammatical, but not Stengelese.) He also then offered the most cogent statement about baseball pitching that has ever been uttered. He told one of his two pitchers named Miller — he didn’t try to tell them apart — “Throw the ball as close to the plate and as far from the bat as possible.”

    Some years before, in Los Angeles, there was a grand civic plan to raze a neighborhood of the working poor and build affordable housing. These homes would be surrounded by parkland, with shops, schools, and playgrounds. It looked so good on paper. The uprooted homeowners were to get first crack at the new residences.

    But then, a planner of the project, Frank Wilkinson, was accused by conservative politicos and real estate players of the city of being a communist. These wheeler-dealers saw no need of such housing on a very valuable cleared site. The F.B.I., spying on Wilkinson, compiled a dossier of more than 100,000 pages. He refused to answer questions of McCarthyites in Congress related to his political past. He was summarily fired and then sent to jail.

    The Angelenos of Chavez Ravine were bought out for a song under the city’s claim of eminent domain. (Although a few resisted accepting the unfair payment, right until city bulldozers crashed down their kitchens.) Their whole neighborhood, perhaps ramshackle, perhaps to these Angelenos a heaven on earth, was now gone.

    The affordable housing never got built.

    In New York, O’Malley had met with Moses with a plan to build a new stadium for his Dodgers over the Atlantic Avenue rail yards in Brooklyn. He wanted Moses to seize the property for his use. Moses suggested Flushing Meadows in Queens. O’Malley balked. Moses said that if O’Malley wanted the Atlantic Avenue site so badly, he should buy it with his own money.

    Moses didn’t always succeed, but he never lost an argument. He was the master planner of the Triborough and Verrazano Narrows Bridges, of the Northern and Southern State Parkways, of the Cross Bronx Expressway, of Jones Beach, Lincoln Center, and much more. With the destruction-construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway another neighborhood died. Moses said, “I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelettes without breaking eggs.”

    The now homeless land in Los Angeles was worth fortunes. So after turning down other sites that the city of Los Angeles had offered him, O’Malley, knowing that the local politicians desperately wanted a major league baseball team, was permitted to buy what had once been the barrio Chavez Ravine for another kind of song. He believed a law of Moses: “Once you sink that first stake, they’ll never make you pull it up.” Here he built Dodger Stadium. As Stengel used to say, “You could look it up.”

    Mark Jaster is another clown. He performs with Happenstance Theater in Maryland. My wife and I have seen him in several shows, the latest of which is called “Vanitas.” In the performance he says something brilliant: “A clown nose is the smallest mask in the world.”

    Moses often quoted by heart Shakespeare to governors and mayors. “And those that are fools, let them use their talents.”

    My aunt lives near Albany. She watches all the Mets’ games on TV. The Mets are the only major league team, I think, that was looted by the swindler Bernard Madoff. But boy did he fleece them. Right down to their sanitary socks. Their ownership is writing checks in the millions of dollars in deferred payments to former players who did not serve the team well; apparently not enough cash remains in the coffers for top current talent.

    Therefore this season the Mets are a failure, what my daughter calls an epic failure. My aunt endures loss after loss. She knows her baseball: “The bullpen stinks,” she says.

    Today the Mets are playing the Washington Nationals. (I work near the District of Columbia and a co-worker is a Nationals fan.) I say to my friend, “Do a favor for my aunt and root for the Mets today.”

    My friend says, “What if the Nationals lose the pennant by one game?” He is right to worry; the talented men at the pinnacle of the sport are separated sometimes by only luck.

    “Do the right thing,” I say. “Okay,” he replies. “One game only.”

    It’s hot near Washington this afternoon and getting hotter, but there’s light rain starting and a heavy downpour predicted. I’m pushing the lawnmower while a touted young man for the Mets fires his first pitch.

    It’s a perfect strike: near plate, far from bat. But oh. Oh. Oh. I have a glass of water in hand now. I’m inside the house and on the TV the Mets are behind by 13 runs. They lose in a landslide. You could look it up.

    After this baseball touch-bottom ends, I check my e-mail. Another friend has sent this quote from the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, former commissioner of baseball and president of Yale: “Baseball breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.” I find a poem for hardball hard times in a file:

The Physics of Baseball

The shortstop, Quantum,
Though he is all
the ball passes right through him.
There it is
near the base
of the curving wall
that defines his space from ours.
Three men pursue it,
but then the white ball morphs
into the black hole through which our hopes
will disappear on the day summer truly ends, again.

    My aunt has fallen, in the sense of having fallen down. Her doctor thinks she has broken a rib. This makes it hard for her to laugh. When I call her to tell her what I have just written, she says: “All Brooklyn hated O’Malley. I had to go to confession in the middle of the week. I remember Casey Stengel called the fellows who couldn’t field their position ‘plumbers,’ not clowns; but please mention to your friend not to root for the Mets anymore.”

    “The clowns you’re talking about, and you, aren’t bringing good luck to me now.”

    That hurts so much I have to take off my mask to breathe. And then it starts to rain like hell.

    Dan Marsh is a native Long Islander and regular “Guestwords” contributor. He writes from Garrett Park, Md.