God bless America

I keep thinking about the two jackasses who show up at virtually every Yankees’ home game, at least the ones televised  from The Bronx.

They bring a big American flag with them to every game. And in the seventh inning, when the Stadium’s PA system plays a snippet of Kate Smith’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s superficial and stupid “God Bless America,” the YES Network camera zooms in on these two as they smugly belt out the lyrics, hold up the flag — and occasionally look around to see if everyone else is watching.

Never mind that the song sucks. Never mind that Woody Guthrie heard it, also thought it sucked, and wrote “This Land Is Your Land” — which should be our National Anthem — in response. Perhaps more important are the misguided patriotism and jingoism that have overtaken baseball and other sports.

“God Bless America” was added to the seventh inning stretch after 9/11. OK. But now it’s nearly two decades later.

Perhaps most disturbing: People stand up, hold their caps to their hearts, bow their heads and sing along — none of which is called for or required. And I guarantee you that many of those people think “God Bless America” is the OTHER National Anthem or might even be THE National Anthem.

As for “The Star-Spangled Banner” itself, the tune has been played at baseball games for 80 years — but as a part of the tradition of the American Pastime. It’s not required. And it’s a song that glorifies war. If they play it before each game, fine — but bear in mind that it didn’t even become our National Anthem until the 1930s.

And “God Bless America” does not require holding your cap to your heart. Me, not only do I refuse to doff my cap, but if the two yahoos who bring a big flag to every game ever said anything about it, I’d tell them to kiss my red, white and blue you-know what.






Do good things come to those who wait?

To get an answer to that question, I guess readers of these essays will have to wait and see.  Come to think of it, so will I.

November was frantic and December was chaotic and January so far has been…What’s a good word?….Ominous? Apocalyptic? Nostradamussy? Did I just invent a new word? The economy collapsing all around us…layoffs and a just-announced one-week furlough without pay at my own job…probably a big friggin’ meteor heading toward us from behind the blinding sun…wars and rumors of war…icebergs melting…Old Faithful no longer so faithful…publishing world still hasn’t recognized its obligation to publish “Half  Moon” and “Gloryville” and “The Dogs of Arroyo” by Nicholas DiGiovanni… it’s like Dylan sang back in the 1990s because he knew this was all gonna come down like a hard rain a-faillin’…ain’t no use jivin’…ain’t no use jokin’…everything is broken.

So that may explain why, much to my surprise and chagrin, I’ve paid only about a half-dozen visits to my very own World of Wonders in the last two months. But now that’s going to change.

Spring training’s right around the corner, maybe the meteor will miss us, Obama’s about to become president, and Dylan’s still touring, and things just have to get better, right? So here’s some of what I’m going to write about and I hope you’ll want to read about in coming days:

Poets Joe Weil,  Maria Gillan and Rita Dove. Dylan expert Michael Gray. My latest quests for arts-colony invitations and arts-foundation money (and why is it that I just now realized the similarity between “arts colony” and “ant colony).  Ray Bradbury. Niagara Falls. The future of newspapers. Puerto Rico. Louise Gluck and her recent great poem in the New Yorker. Extremely cold weather. New Year’s Eve in Vermont and a January 1st visit to the Weston Priory. A commentary on Thomas Merton’s relationship with his lady friend. More about my much-missed friend Robert Lax. More reasons why I want someone to offer me a job in Vermont. An account of a dinner conversation in which I explained to my wife why I didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton. Musings (I’m being inspired by the Muse) on the nature and meaning of true friendship. A long overdue report on a bunch of fine writers I got to meet at the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival this past October. Some (I hope) catholic commentary about the Catholic Worker movement. Some talk about books I’ve read recently. Some thoughts on recent and upcoming books by writer pals Steven Hart. Christian Bauman and Bathsheba Monk. Further explanation of why I’d like to live forever, even if that meant outliving all of my friends and family. Thoughts on whether I really do remember being in my mother’s womb. Thoughts on whether my late father and other dead people I once loved really do speak to me in my dreams. And, most important, of all,  my thoughts on the Yankees’ acquisition of CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett.

And much, much more! So stay tuned!

There used to be a ballpark…

Some sports channel was playing the sappy Sinatra rendition of “There Used To Be A Ballpark”  by Joe Raposo (which I’m assuming was actually about Ebbets Field) last night over a montage of photos and videos of historic scenes at Yankee stadium — Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Thurman, the Mick…so many great Yankees, making one more trip around and along the freshly chalked basepaths of memory and time.  Silly song, but the title will soon also apply to the soon-to-be-no-more Yankee Stadium.

I was at the big ballpark in the Bronx last week, less than a week before the final game. We sat just a few rows behind the Yankees dugout, midway between home plate and first base. During a rain delay, I peered out from under a plastic tarp and watched the ghosts as they slid into bases, made sure they touched the plate when they scored, leaped into the stands in pursuit of fly balls, tossed their masks, threw high and tight, signaled to the bullpen, lost the ball in the lights, smacked Ballantine Blasts into the upper deck and tipped their hats to the crowd.

Growing up in Yonkers, just north of the Bronx, I’d take a bus to the Woodlawn subway station, catch the 4 train to 161st Street and sit in the upper deck — when I was a boy, the games were rarely sold out, and it was possible to go up to the ticket window just before the game and get at a seat in the third tier of the grandstands or in the bleachers, the only seats I could afford.

These photos were taken before my time, but they do show the Stadium the way I remember it from early boyhood, before it was closed for two years and renovated in the mid-1970s:



My father was a Yankees fan — he had to be, as a second-generation son of Italian immigrants growing up in the New York City area in the 1940s and early 1950s in the era of Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. And while my father and I fought and differed and argued and never really reached a meeting of the minds before he died — we always agreed that the New York Yankees were our team.

One time I went with my father to the Stadium. He’d somehow gotten tickets to a preseason meet-the-players open house. And I think I remember actually seeing that famous sign in the runway between the clubhouse and the dugout, the one with the quote from Joe DiMaggio: “I want to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee.”

So about ten years or so ago I managed to get hold of a baseball signed by DiMaggio. I gave it to my father as a Christmas gift. Before he died, my ailing father clearly stated that he wanted his grandson — my son Matt — to have the Joe DiMaggio ball. Why? Well, my father doted on his first grandson. And my father also knew this story.

It was Opening Day of 1996 and it was snowing. Little Matthew was 7 years old. He and I sat behind home plate, just under the overhang, wind and snow blowing directly in from centerfield. We were bundled up but still freezing. I don’t remember now who the Yankees played on that Opening Day and I don’t remember if they won or lost the game, that first game of their first World Championship year under new manager Joe Torre and with their hotshot rookie shortstop Derek Jeter.

What I do remember is saying this to my son:

You’re going to remember this because it’s your first baseball game, and it’s Opening Day, and it’s your first trip to Yankee Stadium, and you’re here with me in the middle of snowstorm. But most of all I think you’re going to remember that man standing out on the mound about to throw out the first pitch? You know who that is? That’s Joe DiMaggio!

More than ten years later, my son still has that ball signed by DiMaggio and still remembers that Opening Day and that conversation, and that’s one reason why I got teary eyed when Bernie Williams finally returned to the Stadium for last night’s final game; when Derek Jeter gave a surprisingly eloquent and apparently off-the-cuff speech to the fans after the game, then led his teammates on a farewell lap around the field, and when PA announcer Bob Shepard’s rumbling “Ladies and gentlemen….” echoed around the grand old ballpark one last time.

Pride of the Yankees

My father was the son of Italian immigrants who moved to the Bronx and then to Yonkers, where my father was born. These circumstances made it inevitable that my father’s baseball hero would be the great Joe DiMaggio, center fielder for the New York Yankees. I inherited this allegiance through a combination of genetics and socialization. DiMaggio retired and was replaced by the great Mickey Mantle. I have very vague memories of Mantle in his prime and mostly remember the prematurely aging and nearly crippled slugger toward the end of his career, which coincided with the beginning of an era in which the once invincible Yankees collapsed — to put it as politely as possible, they sucked, really sucked, when I was in my late preteens and early teens and used to journey from Yonkers to the Bronx to sit in the upper deck of the Stadium and cheer on an awful team that featured the likes of Horace Clarke and Mike Kekich and Rich McKinney and….

But then the team began to show signs of rebirth thanks to the classy and talented sinkerballing pitcher Mel Stottlemyre, and the quietly effective left-fielder Roy White, the flamboyant reliever Sparky Lyle, the tough and feisty catcher Thurman Munson…and the heir apparent in center field, the “next Mickey Mantle”

Bobby Murcer
Bobby Murcer

who was Oklahoma-born and bred just like the Mick — Bobby Murcer, my favorite Yankee from that era, who died July 12 from a malignant brain tumor. Murcer, 62 when he died Saturday, was among the best ballplayers of his era –a Gold Glove winner and a five-time All Star. He went on to a stellar career as one of the best TV announcers the Yanks ever had.

When I was about 12 my father took me to a preseason open house at the Stadium — I got Bobby Murcer’s autograph on a poster, and I still have that autograph. Funny thing, though: I have absolutely no memory of actually meeting Murcer, although I’m sure I must have, however briefly.

What I do remember is Murcer’s dignity and Hollywood-like heroics in the game the Yankees played after the funeral of his best friend Munson, killed in a plane crash in 1979. And I was actually sitting in the upper deck for a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians in which Murcer hit four consecutive home runs over the course of the two games — and, as I recall, nearly hit a fifth-straight homer, sending the Cleveland Indians’ outfielder back to the wall of the short porch in right.

The night before Bobby Murcer died, I went to a minor-league baseball game, which might start some people spewing some of that feel-good Americana pseudo-poetic nonsense spread by the likes of Bart Giamatti and in movies like “Field of Dreams” and “The Natural”and the PBS TV series by Ken Burns…the notion that baseball is a comforting game because the goal of the game is to make it home safely. Well, OK, it’s harmless, but that pop psychology interpretation of baseball is not the baseball I know.

Nevertheless…I do hope and pray that the Yankee hero of my childhood, a good ballplayer and a good man named Bobby Murcer, is now safe at home.